Anna Biller brings free sex back to a sex-free nation

Anna Biller's first feature-length film "Viva," an eerily authentic recreation of early 1970s soft-core sex comedies, opened Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. But Biller has been making highly mannered, beautifully realized short movies for more than ten years. All of them have worked a rich vein of high-to-campy style, meticulous production value, affectionate but not gentle homage, self-aware narcissism, non-political feminism and overheated performances. In the process she's created a body of work that actually deserves that much-abused descriptor "unique" without quite achieving the status of a cult favorite.

Biller's feature debut, which even with cost overruns and a much-delayed four-year production process still ended up costing only $1 million, may change that. Reactions have ranged from enthusiastic raves to bemused pans — and the difference between the two is not always clear. One review in The Times praised "Viva" as a movie that "pops with parodic joy [and] converts an earlier male generation's notion of swinger gratification into the pitfalls for females of the unfulfilled tease" while another disdained its "uneasy balance between camp and spoof." That fits the ambiguity Biller courts in her work.

Biller spoke with Opinion web editor Tim Cavanaugh.

Opinion L.A.: "Viva" and the new TV show "Swingtown" are both positioned as cutting-edge explorations of sexuality, yet both cover material from more than 30 years ago. Why is it necessary to reach back nearly four decades to find that kind of action? What caused artists and audiences to lose interest in sexuality in non-porn movies?

Anna Biller: I think sex in the arts has always been associated with progress on some level, by the lifting of censorship laws and the granting of new freedoms. But this can shift when too much sex is thrown at people with too low an artistic value. This happened during pre-code Hollywood, and again during the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. I think the sexual revolution disgusted many people, and many are still licking their wounds from the excesses of it and trying to live an asexual existence, at least in terms of the media they consume.

The sexual revolution was a special time, when people really did believe in sex as a radical, anti-establishment force. Sex became a political expression, the same as being anti-war or vegetarian. It was a way of rejecting the values of the parents and finding new ways to interact in the world, and many people thought it was a sign of progress and modernity. But sexual predators took advantage of women's sudden openness and lack of cultural protections, and a lot of bad things happened. This is partly what my film "Viva" is about.

The other thing that happened was, as soon as hardcore films hit the market, the softcore producers all wanted to jump on the bandwagon and make only hardcore. They thought softcore was now old-fashioned and no one would go to see it anymore (sort of like when the "talkies" took over from the silent pictures). These films began to cater to a specialty customer, who didn't care about acting, directing, script, sets, costumes, cinematography, who didn't care about anything at all except getting turned on. So the films lost their artistic value, which made them laughable and shameful to the wider public.

Now we still live in the shadow of those times, which is why it's very difficult to make a "sexy" movie without people thinking you're doing something low. Although it's true that many of those sexploitation films were trash, a lot of those films were actually quite beautiful. They were good films and really ground-breaking in terms of how they showed human sexual relations, often with great maturity and insight. Most people who say I'm trying to imitate a "bad genre" haven't actually seen the films. Others, who have seen the films, sometimes complain that my movie isn't "sleazy enough." None of these people understand that I'm actually trying to make a serious film, not a parody or piece of camp. Sexuality is not a joke, the '70s were not a joke. It's that lingering feeling of embarrassment about sex, and the '70s as the time of excess in sex and in visual taste, that makes people shudder to this day. I try to represent all of that excess; it's what makes "Viva" so visceral.

Opinion L.A.: So "Speed Racer" died in a multicolored swirl of hatred; "Viva" has taken some lumps for being too campy; and to this day there are people who don't get the late Russ Meyer. Why are audiences so hung up on naturalism, so eager to accept the most shopworn clichés as long as they're delivered with "realism," and so resistant to any heightened sense of fun? Are you tempted to make a naturalistic picture just to prove that you can make a "regular" movie?

Anna Biller: Oh yes, I think film is always a dialogue between the filmmaker and the public, and I was disappointed that people placed so much emphasis on my design and the fact that my film was stylized. So I am really tempted to try and do naturalism just to be more in synch with the world. I'm not trying to be "weird" on purpose; it's just that I take from the whole history of film when I work, and not just the last thirty years.

I really can't understand this obsession with naturalism as the only virtuous style, especially as it seems that what passes now for realism is often just laziness and lack of vision on the part of writers and directors. Nothing is really natural when you put it to film; everything has a style, and within "naturalism" there are also hundreds of styles. Cassavetes was a great talent, Robert Altman's films are marvelous; but Michael Powell and Jacques Démy were also geniuses.

People now go back to earlier eras and laud actors that they consider were breaking out of the fake acting styles they laugh at today. But the fact is that most actors, the good ones, from the past were very natural, more so than almost any actor today. And there was tremendous skill in recreating a time period, a feeling of character and of experience, that hardly my movie can capture anymore. So why this persistent myth that we've progressed in culture as far as movies go?

The shift from the studio to location was undoubtedly exciting, and I can feel the excitement when I watch those movies. Sets replaced by action. The hero replaced by the anti-hero. But another shift happened, and that's the shift from a female/gay male-centered world of glamour and interiors to a world of masculine austerity and exteriors! So the masculine principle took over in film at about the same time that the male became super-dominant in general during the sexual revolution. That's one thing I like to address in my movies. But next time I want to play more by the masculine rules of style and form, to see what will happen.

Opinion L.A.: You've spoken out somewhat about the gender politics of the film festival circuit. It seems like you could make a movie about a bunch of South Philly hoodlums beating and shooting people and stand a good chance of getting it called a serious art-house picture. But if you make a movie about a woman exploring the varieties of romantic experience, the haters will call it fluff. Why are male pathologies valued so much more highly than female sensibilities?

Anna Biller: I think I just addressed this a bit. The critics have somehow glommed on to a male sensibility as being superior. This happened sometime in the 1960s and it's still going. (I think it happened maybe even earlier, with the great Italian post-war films, actually). You had all these really ground-breaking directors doing really male-centered work that everyone adored, like Antonioni or Godard, and there was a kind of stylistic and existential nihilism that became associated with greater honesty and artistic innovation. I like these films too, and I agree with the assessment of their importance in culture and to audiences, but I think it's a bit extreme to have that type of film be the only thing people are allowed to do and be taken seriously.

So, movies about women and their lives started to become sort of second-rate, like bad Hollywood melodramas or soaps, stuff that any hack could make. What's weird though is that all of these years later people still have those emotional reactions to an environment that no longer exists. I remember people griping and moaning about the overwrought 1950s Technicolor melodramas that were oppressing them, when I was in school. And I was thinking, I'm not oppressed by that, I'm oppressed by all of these bratty auteurs thinking they're geniuses just because they shot something without a script!

Opinion L.A.: Cinematographers all over the land conspire to put too little light on their subjects, and thus it has been decades since we've seen a movie with the bright, spare, clean, classic-color images you achieved in Viva and in your short films. Even a successful director like Todd Haynes, making a picture ("Far From Heaven") that was consciously designed to reproduce that exact look, failed to stop the cinematographers in their unhallowed work of light-sucking, art-murdering destruction. Steven Spielberg himself has complained in an interview that he can't get his DPs to give him enough light. So how did you, with no budget and no clout, make the magic happen?

Anna Biller: I'm very persistent. I was originally a visual artist, a painter, so I try to make my films look as fresh as paint. You need quite a bit of light to make colors pop. When I went to CalArts we had access to these giant sound stages with free big, old-fashioned tungsten lights, and nobody was interested in them! I thought, this is my chance! So I checked out the studios and the lights as much as possible, and shot on film. I made many mistakes at first, with letting DPs run things against my better judgment, then I stopped allowing that and got really tough. So mostly I've had a lot of experience, starting with Super 8mm, then on to 16mm and then 35mm. I've always done it wrong before doing it right, but I will never again trust a DP to light it the way he wants, because what I'm doing is so against how they've been trained. I fired two DPs on "Viva" before calling a guy I used to work with in school, and he was very easy to work with.

But also, if you want that Technicolor look a lot of it is art direction. They used tons of color on their sets in those old movies. They were very controlled and designed, and they didn't allow too many colors so that the frame wouldn't get cluttered. Basically, with the old black and white films they painted with light, and with the color films they painted with color. Eisenstein talks about this, about how you can't let color into a film unless you make the color a character in the movie. That's the way I've always worked with color. Color has such strong symbolic properties, and is a powerful tool for creating mood and feeling.

Other than that, we just lit the sets (and exteriors) with hard white light (no gels), and overexposed a stop. I promised my DP I'd print it down, but actually in post I printed it up! This really made the colors pop. Everyone complained, especially the color timer. But audiences find it gorgeous. But even if you want a moodier quality, it's good to overexpose and print down, as that makes your color deeply saturated rather than just grayed down as they get when you have less light. Soft light also grays colors down.

Opinion L.A.: You've done a supernatural western, a drawing-room thriller, a seventies sex romp and an experimental musical. What genre's next? I see science fiction in your future: Can't you make the umpteenth visit-to-the-planet-ruled-by-women plot but finally make it right?

Anna Biller: I'm actually making a witchcraft movie next, but unfortunately there's no consistent "witch" genre. The directors who have been interesting me most lately are the more naturalistic yet transcendental directors, whose films feel magical even when the settings are banal: Joseph Losey, Bresson, Pasolini, Bergman, Dreyer. All of these directors make films that have a touch of the magical, no matter what the subject. But of course I'm going to mix it up too, adding influences from American melodramas (the more emotional the better), and also a bit of sleaze films, as I want to do a really seedy burlesque scene, one of my fantasies for awhile. And I'm going to mix up the time periods as well, going from the '70s to medieval times, in dream sequences — get it really witchy.

I also want to be sure to include a rear-projection motorboat scene, a man in a gorilla suit, and a very exciting scene with lovers on horseback, very British-feeling. There's a hyper-masculine, hyper-handsome cop in it, who is the perfect man and every women's dream but lacks empathy because of this (one of my recurring themes). There are also male victims of the witch, who are less desirable as partners but more easily manipulated.

I'll get to the Sci-Fi women's movie someday!