Viva (2007)

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threehalfstar

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One of the more intimidating aspects of discussing Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch was coming to terms with the fact that most of its reference points as a pastiche were way beyond my grasp, even as someone who regularly watches schlock. The Love Witch mined old modes of horror-themed erotica, pictures like The Velvet Vampire, for its distinct visual palette & absurdist humor, but repurposed the genre for modernized modes of feminist discourse. I loved the results of that experiment, but have to openly admit that my very basic, surface-level knowledge of the genre & era The Love Witch was evoking was puny in comparison to Biller’s encyclopedic command of the subject. It turns out her debut film, Viva, would be even further outside my grasp as a genre film tourist. Paying homage to the softcore smut of the early 1970s that rode in on the success of Deep Throat and the optimistic promises of The Sexual Revolution (the kinds of films you’d hear detailed on the excellent podcast The Rialto Report), Viva is operating on a whole other level of schlock I have little to no experience with. My limited knowledge of smut peddlers like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman don’t equip me with the full vocabulary necessary to discuss the ways Viva acts as a love letter to softcore smut past. The film feels very authoritative on the subject, though, and it achieves such a specific image & tone that I have to again put my trust in the fact that Biller knows exactly what she’s doing.

Viva often looks & feels like an early 70s magazine layout. Its bored housewives, swinger couples, and nudist camp vouyerism all read like a Letter to Penthouse, but its iconography is the stuff of that magazine’s advertisement: Scotch, lingerie, deviled eggs, jellos & dips. Emboldened by a newfound sexual freedom afforded to them by the commercial availability of the birth control pill, the Liberated women of Viva take charge of their sex lives by leaving behind the incessant sexual pressures of husbands, neighbors, and bosses to become high class sex workers & “models.” One friend turns to prostitution as a convenient means of making money and finds immediate fulfillment in a wealthy, older men who showers her with gifts: diamonds, horses, fur coats, etc. The other woman, Viva, has a much narrower path to satisfaction. Instead of money, she seeks a genuine emotional connection with a kind, sensitive man. No matter how many supposedly sensitive artist-types her pimp set her up with, though, the results are always the same. Men throw pouty fits whenever Viva doesn’t give them exactly what they want (casual sex) upfront and instead of waiting to meet her on her own terms, they manipulate, drug, and physically force her into copulation. It’s a fucked up plot for a campy genre throwback, but finding feminist themes in these old modes of schlocky smut seems to be Biller’s forte and the basic story structure of Viva feels true to roughies like Lorna, Another Day Another Man, and, I have to presume, the “mainstream” smut that followed in the 1970s.

If Viva has a central problem, it’s that it’s a little too faithful to the films it pays tribute to. At 120 minutes, with multiple extensive musical numbers, the film can often feel as tedious as its source material for once the initial turn-on wore off. It’s also disappointing that its modern feminist criticism wasn’t as fully pronounced in the dialogue & plotting as it was in its more outrageous follow-up. Biller threatens to steer away from genre traditions with some queer plotlines & rape culture criticism that bubble up naturally in Viva‘s era-evoking plot machinations, but imstead decides to follow the old guard and allow the story to play out exactly as it would have four decades ago. However, even though it feels slightly less brave in its willingness to shake up & modernize the formula, Viva is still an impressive feat for a debut feature. Much like with The Love Witch, Biller exudes auteurist control in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft – not only writing, directing, editing, and handling the set & costume design herself, but in this case also starring in the titular role. There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.

It’s exciting to know that Biller’s best work is likely still ahead of her, but her aesthetic’s beginnings in Viva are worthwhile enough on their own merit that it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t yet fully formed as a filmmaker at the time she made it. If nothing else, the film expresses an incredible knowledge & affection for the past of America’s mainstream erotica. It also helps that Viva can be riotously amusing in stray absurdist moments, never playing like a dry, academic exercise in genre pastiche.

-Brandon Ledet

The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960)

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Sometimes a movie is only useful in illuminating what makes its better version so successful. Last December, I was so floored by the unexpected greatness of The Vampire and the Ballerina that I immediately sought out another title in its general vicinity in a desperate search for a similar gem. Both The Playgirls and the Vampire & The Vampire and the Ballerina are 1960 Italian horror erotica about a group of oversexed professional dancers being terrorized by vampires in an isolated, crypt-like castle. Only one of those films is at all entertaining or artfully constructed, though. The Playgirls and the Vampire is the exact kind of deflated trash I expected to watch when I was surprised by the startlingly artful The Vampire and the Ballerina. It’s a thoughtlessly tossed-off cheapie with all the naked skin & bloodshed of its superior contemporary, but none of the eroticism or sense of style.

I had high hopes for The Playgirls and the Vampire after its opening shot: a long, quiet pan over a drastically lit crypt that ends when a hand moved the lid to a coffin from within. This is more or less when the film’s interest in thoughtful cinematography ends. A bus load of exotic dancers are derailed on the way to their performance due to a storm. The master of the castle where they take refuge shows a peculiarly intense interest in one of the girls, who looks suspiciously like a painting of an ancient woman on one of the walls. Long vampire cliché short, this girl is converted into his vampire queen and her fellow dancers are hunted individually over the film’s short, slight runtime. Nothing in the plot matters nearly as much as finding excuses to show skin. Girls sleep corseted, there’s some leering shots of their stocking-clad gams, and when the playgirl vampire appears in the dark to drain her former manager’s blood there’s a brief glimpse of her bare breasts (which I guess was risque in 1960, even for European genre cinema). In that last scene, the vampire playgirl is lit interestingly to initially obscure her naked body and the film concludes with an amazing practical effect where the castle’s master ages Dorian Gray-style over an animated series of mat paintings. Everything else is forgettably bland, though, even when the girls are stripping to dance for the camera, and those two moments would be better served as .gifs than as parts of the larger, less interesting whole.

I wanted to find some kind of camp value in The Playgirls and the Vampire, but the film was stingy even with that potential mode of entertainment. I guess I was amused by the way the goofball manager’s English dub included such classic Italian phrases as “Wassa matter?” & “Wassa matter you?” and the way the dancers roamed the castle chasing kittens or unlocking secret doors by suggestively stroking axe handles could be occasionally amusing, but those moments weren’t nearly enough to turn me around on the film’s overall limp sense of style, humor, and sexuality. The only real value I found in The Playgirls and the Vampire was personal validation that The Vampire and the Ballerina really was that good and I wasn’t exaggerating its accomplishments. If anyone ever questions my love for that movie I now have a perfect point of contrast to show them how the exact same formula could be executed disastrously wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

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I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet

Erotica (1961)

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twohalfstar

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After the somewhat labored narratives of his first two nudie cutie films, The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve & The Handyman, Russ Meyer stripped away a few layers of narrative pretense for his third feature, Erotica. A series of ostensibly erotic vignettes, Erotica is little more than a loosely connected series of in-motion pin-up shoots strung together to reach a feature length (barely more than an hour, all things told). After the mundane & oddly nudity-light slightness of Eve & The Handyman, however, Erotica‘s loose anthology of naked girls & disorienting narration set-ups feel like a godsend. Just as the narrator of Mr. Teas hilariously droned on about such non sequiturs as the absurdities of modern life & the history of bathing while the screen was filled with the film’s true main attraction (bare breasts), Erotica‘s vignettes are each nudity-filled exercises in dissonance, establishing a strange contrast between the images on display & the completely besides the point narration (provided by Jack Moran, who would later write one of Meyer’s undeniable classics, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) that compliment them.

The wraparound

The segment that binds this loose anthology is a self-reflective piece about the production of nudie cuties in general. In Erotica‘s opening minutes Moran rambles on about how a film evolves from an idea to an outline to a treatment to a shooting script until, eventually, “projectors explode their images across the movie screens of America.” Posing the nudie cutie to follow as a series of “intimate, moving portraits of women […] made by adults, for adults”, Erotica bends over backwards to remind you that it is but a simple, entertaining diversion that amounts to “one hour, a very small segment of the day”. In other words, don’t get your hopes up for anything too significant.

“Naked Innocence”

Perhaps the least disorienting of the film’s five segments, “Naked Innocence” makes the brave decision to actually match the off-screen narration to the action on display. A woman explains that she was, more or less, just too damned horny & tired of being stared at by strange men on city streets so she retreated to the woods to calm down. Stripping nude & enjoying an impromptu tanning session & nude dip in a stream, our narrator starts to muse about how even Nature is trying to seduce her. She describes the Sun as a “hot, burning eye probing my bareness” & the feeling of water on skin like “many hands moving against you.” Originally escaping city life to avoid the oppressive male gaze, she discovers that even in Nature she is not safe from salacious oggling. If nothing else, this is a much stranger idea than anything you’d encounter in Mr. Teas or The Handyman, but at the same time all three properties really don’t amount to much more than a reason to gawk at naked women, the very thing this character is trying to escape.

“Beauties, Bubbles”

The second vignette keeps the first’s weirdness improbably rolling with an even stranger idea. Upping the on-screen nudity from not one, but three beauties, “Beauties, Bubbles” depicts a trio of nude models bathing each other in a swimming pool in what, without the narration, could’ve just have easily been titled “Boobs, Boobies”. As with the first segment, it’s the narration that makes the accompanying images so odd. As the girls bathe each other using swimming pools, trash cans, and army helmets full of soapy water (sometimes in the pastel voids that populate Meyer’s other nudie cuties), an offscreen East Coast plumber poses the segment as a PSA to help promote the act of daily bathing in hopes of boosting work for plumbers in general. There’s a goofy dissonance between the plummer’s nonsensical words & the pin-ups in motion imagery at here that’s enjoyably disorienting . . . when it’s not testing your patience.

“The Bare & The Bear”

Speaking of testing your patience, the exact same format from the plummer’s segment is repeated in “The Bare & The Bear”. There’s only one mild variation: instead of promoting bathing, this segment is promoting the sales of bearskins by, how else, showing a nude model wearing nothing but a bearskin intercut with images of real life bears. It’s a very strange sensation to flip back & forth from monstrous bears to a woman rolling around in the nude, especially once the narrator goes off on tangents about “beatniks & coffee drinkin’,” but back to back with the plumber segment the weight of the film’s mercifully short runtime becomes a little laborious.

“Nudists on the High Seas!”

Continuing the diminishing returns of the film’s segments, a narrator drones on about “damsel deckhands” & the history of women being excluded from sailing as the titular “Nudists on the High Seas” sun their nude selves of the deck of a sailboat. It’s nothing much to speak of.

“The Nymphs”

Seemingly becoming bored with itself, Erotica completely devolves here. The narration erratically switches from rambling about subjects as varied as botanical gardens, the sex life of the amoeba, and proper card-playing etiquette, the movie just completely falls apart & loses faith in itself in an irreverent & self-referential way as the models combine previous segments’ affinity for bathing & sunbathing into a single incomprehensible vignette.

“Bikini Busters!”

Falling apart even further, Erotica concludes with a chaotic segment about the history of the bikini. In the only segment to approach the purple prose absurdity of the “Naked Innocence” opener, “Bikini Busters!” features this insane thought: “This is a bathing suit. And this is a girl. Separately these are both in a sense aesthetic, appealing, but together a certain chemistry takes place & the living compliments the inanimate.” “Bikini Busters!” is deliciously empty work that features not only Meyer’s affinity for visually comparing a well-built woman to a well-built steel structure, but it also calls back to both the half-hearted disgust with the male gaze of the first segment (this time featuring the only on-screen men of the film, all ogglers) & the self-referential musings about the nature of the nudie cutie in the wraparound segment, making direct nods to the two Meyer pictures that precede Erotica by displaying their advertisements poolside. “Bikini Busters!” follows the history of the bathing suit from the time the biblical Eve first covered herself with a leaf through a possible future of space-age pasties, a very silly & improbable endeavour that I doubt was well-researched.

By the time an over-excited Russ Meyer (presumably playing himself) falls into a swimming pool trying to film the nude models on display & breaks his (amusingly fake-looking) camera at the end of “Bikini Busters!” Erotica reveals itself as what it truly is: a light romp without too much of anything on its mind outside of bare breasts & cheap jokes. It’s neither the height nor the depth of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, but it is occasionally amusing in its narrative dissonance & surprising attacks on the male gaze in its opening & closing segments (considering that the film itself is an act of leering). However, you could easily cut out at least three of the film’s six segments & retain its full range of amusement, which isn’t exactly high praise for an anthology film that barely lasts an hour from front to end.

-Brandon Ledet