Bright Lights Film Journal

“Myself as Queen”: A Profile and Interview with Anna Biller

“My interest in creating visual worlds is what led me to both painting and film.”

In the final segment of her first short film, Three Examples of Myself as Queen (1994), a triptych exploring regal female power, actress/writer/director/production designer/editor Anna Biller plays Poinsettia, a groovy ’60s teenager. After being saved by a blandly attractive prince from a skeezy rock band’s gang-bang, she transforms into a white-dressed immortal princess able to turn men into dogs. Seeing Biller enact this seemingly innocent wish-fulfillment fantasy makes for a gay ole time, but Examples creates a palpable sense of unease. As colorful as the sets are, the static shot compositions are undeniably claustrophobic; it’s as if we’re being locked in these basement-cardboard cut-outs with an ensemble of actors who have been trapped down there for far too long. Try not to giggle at the start of the final shot, as Queen Poinsettia recedes from camera toward her castle in the California hills. But then try not to squirm as the static shot continues for far too long, long after the majestic harpsichord on the soundtrack has tinkled out. It’s time for the movie to end, but its refusal to do so evokes the uncomfortable sensation of having been privileged to a deeply rooted fantasy whose slightly sinister, sad undercurrents have only just became apparent. Despite its images of sublimely ridiculous role-playing, and the indulgent narcissism inherent from the sheer fact that she’s in charge of almost every aspect of production, Three Examples, like the rest of Biller’s work, is hardly a complacent consumptive fantasy.

Anna Biller’s four short films and first feature use the worlds of well-worn movie genres such as the Western (A Visit from the Incubus) and the ’40s Freud-obsessed melodrama (The Hypnotist) as templates to engage with issues of sexuality and role-playing. In every film except The Hypnotist, she plays the central protagonist, an innocent activated by a sense of sexual discovery. A lifelong Californian educated at UCLA and CalArts, Biller’s visual arts background is apparent in her fetishistic production design and sensitivity to medium specificity. Her first feature, Viva (2007), set in a 1972 California of that era’s sexploitation films, is spot-on in its period color palette of aqua-blue bathroom tile and saturated red dresses. It’s not just the production design but also the use of antiquated production equipment that testify to Biller’s affection for the total artificiality of old Hollywood, and give her work a unique feel: the film was largely shot on studio sets with overhead lighting, while the audio was also captured on analog recorders via boom-mics.

While the hermetic studio sets of her work may recall classical Hollywood (Marlene Dietrich’s saloon in Rancho Notorious springs to mind during Incubus), but a good deal of her films’ humor comes through the precisely synthetic dialogue. In Viva, Biller plays Barbi, a married California housewife re-christened as “Viva” once she and her gleefully superficial neighbor Sheila (Brigitte Brno) join the sexual revolution. As Barbi explains to her husband, “I like to work. Also, if I work, you might not also have to work so much.” The flat repetition of ridiculously simple words seems both a symptom and a cause for her character’s transparent logic. Biller is a mannerist: as in early cinema, character is defined by repetition and gesture. At a backyard party, Viva/Barbi cocks her head and raises her eyebrow to every beat of the fabulous back-story she tells of being born in Italy, orphaned in an accident, and raised in a convent.

It would be easy to mistake the distanced deliberateness of Biller’s acting for irony, but in fact what’s so fascinating is how her body of work reproduces the same kind of Studio-System fatalism that manifests itself when looking at the careers of Golden Age Hollywood icons. Many of the same actors, including Biller’s collaborator Jared Sanford, who co-produced and starred in Viva, reappear from film to film. Watching her work chronologically from 1994 to 2007 is a peculiar experience. One can recognize the actors aging, and if one of the sentimental pleasures of watching aging studio-era actors comes from the recognition of their own mortality (like watching a double feature of Stagecoach and True Grit), then Biller’s ensemble seem one step closer to the dreams of stardom that is an aspect of all her work. Enthralled by Hollywood glamour, her films evoke how a performer’s own aging becomes a sub-narrative throughout their films.

Inspired more by Playboy magazines and ’70s advertisements than actual sexploitation films, Viva doesn’t try to slavishly imitate the editing and visual style of the more famous films in that genre. It lacks the oneiric verite-style camera work of Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), and the plan américain sloppiness of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Suburban Roulette (1968). Instead, it’s Camille 2000 (Radley Metzger, 1969) that Viva seems both to pay homage to (with its use of that pounding two-note theme in Eyes Wide Shut), and share in its more theoretical concerns.

A soft-core melodrama adapted from a Dumas novel, as well as a permanent part of The Museum of Modern Art’s film collection, Camille 2000 understands that its glittery surfaces and Mediterranean locales are far more sexy that the lovemaking of its Italian jetsetter and doomed party girl. Metzger demonstrates just how unstable and deceptive the whole concept of a POV sequence truly is. At a party early in the film, actor Nino Castelnuovo ogles a succession of female guests descending a staircase, while his best friend describes each one. The friend’s voice-over continues over a series of close-ups of the girls, who, from an earlier eyeline match, appear to be walking toward the two men. “Well, Ms. Mulvey, my gaze will not be denied,” I think rather arrogantly as I equate what I’m looking at with what the two men are. But in the sequence’s final close-up, Metzger disrupts the scene’s continuity: after the last girl clears frame, the two men emerge from beyond her. The film betrays any kind of allegiance to perspective — it’s ravenous, and it will cut and look at anything it damn well pleases.

Likewise, in a much quieter, more surreal way, Viva is as much an act of film criticism as it is a cultural statement. Some of the film’s most important narrative expositions and transitions occur by the pool, as well-utilized site of leisure and desire. In the film’s early BBQ scene, decorated by excessive bowls of snack food, Barbi and Sheila’s husbands stand inside the living room bar and look out to the women by the pool, in a different space that has not been connected through any previous establishing shot. After Barbi/Viva has retreated to suburbia following a depraved orgy, the film inverts the earlier shot-sequence: Biller now looks at the men, her cocked eyebrow and cigarette-in-hand suggesting contempt. The cliché of film theory is that the act of looking is often correlated to having power; being looked at is a sign of powerlessness. But this doesn’t apply to the film’s narrative. Barbi has not returned from her sexual escapades empowered — she’s shimmied down a rabbit hole of various subcultures — nudist hippies, mod artists, and has found them all hypocritical – and been spit back out, her husband coincidentally returning home after a short separation after she was essentially raped. The sexual revolution was never meant for women — and despite the film’s unexpected arrangements of the common shot/counter-shot, the world of sexploitation is inherently rigged against any kind of empowerment for “Barbi/Viva.”

Like all of Biller’s work, Viva is ultimately more than a little melancholy. Barbi/Viva is a blank surface, sometimes even icier than Catherine Deneuve’s bored-housewife turned prostitute in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour. Because Bunuel shows us her masochistic fantasies —shit shoveled on her, being whipped by her husband — the glimpse into her inner life, while still based in the codes of oppressive relationships, makes the film’s ending a kind of freeing release. Viva/Barbi is an innocent with no interiority. And that’s what makes the ending heartbreaking. As Barbi tells Sheila about her misadventures the morning after the orgy, it comes as a shock when Sheila, the presumed slut, laughs that she never actually slept with anyone during their dalliance with prostitution; no, she’s pregnant and reunited with her husband. Barbi, so clueless about sex, turns out to be the one who really got it on. But, at the risk of verging into autobiography, isn’t this the kind of irony that usually reveals itself at hung-over, brunch debriefings the morning after heavy debauchery? The too-bright synthetic studio sun makes the scene even more painful, and all the more poignant. Afterwards, Barbi and Sheila audition for a musical with an autobiographical song-and-dance about their sordid exploits. What could be a hopeful ending for both is even sadder, with the creepy claps of an imaginary audience suggesting that traumatic sexual experiences can only be discussed again once one is willing to exploit them.

Yet despite Viva’s bleak (but never less than fabulous) ending, her work as a whole remains ambivalent about the power of fantasy. A Visit from the Incubus (2001) ends with a musical number that is a more affirmative version of Viva’s closing number. Biller’s funniest, most fully realized short finds hope, and the potential for freedom, in the use of performance and fantasy to cope with sexual trauma, and, possibly, as substitutes for sexual fulfillment. In Incubus, a western whose 90-degree turn from horror to musical is strangely logical, Biller plays Lucy, a woman who is ravaged night after night by a demon (Jared Sanford). At first, it’s not clear if the incubus is real or a dream, but after Lucy wakes up to the creature’s semen stain on her nightgown, Biller smiles, confidently looks at herself in the mirror, and a fade-out later confidently starts work as a saloon singer. But the incubus follows her there, determined to be the better performer. He’s booed off-stage, and Biller mounts a full musical number extolling the virtues of fame. Biller/Lucy reclaims someone (or something’s) sexual attraction to her, and uses it as an ego booster that allows her to become a minor star. Maybe it’s hooray for Hollywood after all, as Biller sings, “You can have millions, you can have billions, but without your fans you’re all washed up.””

Interview with Anna Biller

In November 2009, Block Cinema in Evanston, Illinois hosted Anna Biller for a complete two-day retrospective of her work. The program also included two short films by her former teachers, artists Morgan Fisher and Paul McCarthy, as well as Cool It Carol! (1970), a British film about a young couple struggling in London, that inspired Viva. The following is an email interview with Biller, conducted in August 2009.

You have a bachelor of arts from UCLA and an MFA in Film and Visual Art from Cal Arts. How has your training in visual art influenced your films? I know you’ve done plays before [Biller’s short Fairy Ballet was staged as The White Cat in Los Angeles], but do you continue to make art in other mediums besides film?

My interest in creating visual worlds is what led me to both painting and film. While I’m not painting for its own sake anymore, I’m constantly drawing, painting, designing, sewing, making props and crafts, and doing graphic design for my films. The biggest influence my art training had on me was that it taught me to think critically about art production: why I do it, who it’s for, and how it fits into a cultural history of art production.

Could you talk a little bit about the inception of your first film, Three Examples of Myself as Queen?

I had picked up a Super 8mm camera at a garage sale and started making Super 8mm films as a hobby in New York. When I started art school at CalArts I realized that there was much more interest in those odd little films than in my other artwork, so I pursued that and learned to work in 16mm, joining the film school and creating 3 Examples of Myself as Queen during the course of my study there.

You act, write, direct, production design, etc., in your films, and yet all of these films seem to be very much a communal effort; Jared Sanford has had a major role in all of your work, and many of the same crew and actors turn up from film to film. How would you describe your directing style and how you collaborate with your crew? I also found it really interesting that in a DVD extra on Viva, you mentioned you rarely work with a first art director.

Jared was involved when I first started making Super 8mm films, and I’ve created several roles with him in mind. He’s such a versatile and charismatic actor with a very strong inner fantasy life that reads clearly on his face. I usually cast according to a quality I see in the actor, then try to bring that out. I rehearse a lot with the actors before shooting so that they are comfortable with the character and dialogue. Then I let them free on the set to play. I don’t think that my directing style is especially communal, but I do like to work with friends. I love working with ADs when they are good, but it’s hard to find one that’s sensitive to the needs of actors and the calm environment they require. I play it by ear with actors and crews, doing whatever it takes to get the performances and shots I need.

The Hypnotist is the only film in the short DVD collection that you didn’t write or star in, and whether it’s this or the 1940s Hollywood melodrama it recreates, it seems to be a bit more tongue-in-cheek than your other work. How would you say your and Sanford’s tastes compliment and contrast each other? Was it an easier film to make because you weren’t in front of the camera, or were there different challenges?

I think that Jared’s script was more ironic and character-driven than my scripts, so that’s the difference you perceive. The Hypnotist was very much Jared’s vision originally, but by the time I put my style all over it, of course it became a hybrid of both of our tastes. That movie was fun for me to design and direct because I love the 1930s so much. That’s one thing Jared and I have in common, our love of classic movies. Of course it’s MUCH easier to direct without acting.

Unlike in Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, where we see Severin’s inner sexual fantasies, we never explicitly see Viva/Barbi’s dreams in Viva. Yet her best friend, Sheila, has this really wonderful musical number about her desire for a white horse, which may or may not be a peek into her fantasy life. Was there any reason for this choice?

Actually, the song that Viva sings in the orgy is a parallel to Sheila’s song about the horse, and Viva’s animated dream afterwards is an explicit look into her fantasy life. I wanted the difference between the two women to be clear: Sheila, who is emotionally intact, dreams about material possessions, and Viva/Barbi, who is unfulfilled, dreams about sex. Viva’s orgy song is about the desire to be taken sexually by a man. When she actually does have sex soon afterwards, we see what’s in her head as an animated dream/nightmare in which apples devour one another, but then the colors melt and turn into spinning flowers that burst apart during her orgasm. Viva’s orgasm is also the climax of the film and what she has been striving for — pure sexual abandon, to experience what the sexual revolution has promised. But she is scared of the wildness of the sex, and she realizes that her pleasure is fleeting and anarchic, and can’t be sustained within polite culture.

Besides Rick [her husband], Agnes [an African American] seems to be the one character that Viva really desires. Race seems to be something that would be made exotic in a sexploitation film, yet neither your Asian heritage nor Agnes’ racial identity are explicitly commented on by the other characters. This inevitably adds another political dimension to the film. Were you seeking to comment on race and its portrayal in ’70s sexploitation films?

What’s important to realize is that I’m using the sexploitation “template” or style to make an original film, so there is nothing in the content that specifically is a comment on those films themselves; any commentary is instead about the sexual revolution in America, and about gender roles and relationships. That said, Barbi is a “white” character; that’s why no one comments on her race. (In the film she explains that she is “from Italy,” and most film-goers accept this as an explanation for her exotic looks). In doing white drag, I was actually trying to naturalize race instead of fetishize it the way it’s fetishized in most films. Barbi doesn’t look as if she “belongs” in suburbia, and so when she leaves it and goes from a world of square straight white people to a world of gays, bisexuals, people of color, etc., there is almost a sense of relief. Her desire for Agnes, a beautiful African American woman, is partly a desire for a world outside of the one she has known, a world where the white suburbanites are not the ruling class. So desire is displaced away from Sheila, who would normally be the undisputed star of a sexy movie as an iconic blonde, onto the black woman, Agnes, and the mixed-race woman, Barbi, not in order to disparage Sheila in any way but in order to provide other options for what beauty can mean. I think for some viewers that’s startling and can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on what their feelings about race are.

Could you talk about your next project? Has Viva opened any doors in terms of financing and other resources?

My next film, The Love Witch, is about a beautiful witch who loves men to death. It was partly inspired by pulp novel cover art and pulp films from the ’60s, partly by Italian sex comic books and horror films, and partly from books about witchcraft. But mostly it’s a film about LOVE. It’s a sequel to Viva in a way. But whereas Viva was about a woman struggling to find desire in a world where men only want to devour her sexually, The Love Witch is about men struggling to find comfort in a world where women only want to devour them with LOVE. I have a bit of financing for it so far but I’m looking for more, and also to attach a name actor or two. Viva has definitely helped in this respect.