Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) & A Quarantine Grab Bag

Welcome to Episode #108 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, James & Brandon catch up with each other on how living in quarantine has been affecting their viewing habits and daily routines over the first couple months of pandemic. They also share their favorite movies they’ve discovered since the stay-at-home orders took effect, starting with the Atomic Age sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Enjoy!

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-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and the Collected Short Films of Sarah Jacobson

We don’t often review short films here, outside occasional film fest coverage on the podcast. That’s not a bias against the format per se, but rather a result of shorts being remarkably difficult to market. I personally love catching a well-curated slate of shorts at a film festival or being surprised by one as a programmed appetizer before a theatrically-screened feature, but outside those contexts it’s not something I actively seek out. After festival circulation, most short films are hung out to dry on their directors’ YouTube or Vimeo pages, largely unwatched by the general public (who somehow have time to binge-watch an entire Netflix dating competition show in three days, but no ten-minute blocks of free time to spare for bite-size cinema). I imagine the fate of most shorts were even worse before the days of the D.I.Y. internet distribution too; without platforms like Vimeo they’d effectively just disappear.

It makes sense, then, that someone who would declare themselves to be “Queen of the Underground Film” in the 1990s would deal mostly in shorts, perhaps the most underground film medium of all. Bay Area D.I.Y. filmmaker Sarah Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature in her (tragically short) lifetime: Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, a no-budget teen melodrama that subversively aimed to provide healthy sex education to unsuspecting 90s punx. The recent AGFA Blu-ray restoration of Mary Jane includes a small collection of shorts from Jacobson’s forgotten catalog in its bonus features, though, loosely sketching out a portrait of a truly independent filmmaker who was never afforded the resources needed to break out of the underground even if she wanted to. As a collection, these assembled works register as lost, no-budget cinema artifacts of the riot grrrl era. Individually, they serve as the diary entries of an underground filmmaker doing her best to create personal art within a system stacked against her.

The most significant short included on the AGFA disc is Jacobson’s landmark, calling-card work I Was a Teenage Serial Killer. An iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is not nearly as accomplished nor as polished as Mary Jane, but it persists as Jacobson’s most recognizable work to this day. Its premise is unapologetically, confrontationally simple. A 19-year-old West Coast punk is sick of men’s rampant sexism, so she murders as many of them as she can. One man drunkenly inundates her with a misogynist rant, so she poisons his beer. Another catcalls her on the street, so she pushes him into oncoming traffic. Another removes his condom during sex without her consent, so she chokes him to death while continuing to ride his body to achieve her own orgasm. As the title suggests by calling back to 1950s B-pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, there’s a playful sense of humor to this misandrist bloodbath. For instance, there’s a sickly-sweet dating montage our protagonist shares with a fellow serial killer while they cutely bond over cannibalism & genital mutilation. There’s also a seething, long-simmering sense of anger behind that playful façade, however, which mostly spills out in a final monologue where the teenage serial killer explains her motives to her last would-be victim. It’s the same anger that fueled most of the zines & records of the riot grrrl movement, a communal feminist frustration that rarely made it to the screen in any genuine form.

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer might very well be the only movie that feels fully, authentically submerged in riot grrrl aesthetics & ideology. Its black & white chocolate syrup gore and its cut & paste block text collages directly echo the visual patina of the Xeroxed zines that sparked the movement and gave it a name. Its misandrist serial killer premise that lashes back at the misogyny of its own punk community plays like a faithful adaptation of the Bikini Kill track “White Boy.” It even has bonafide riot grrrl cred on its soundtrack, which includes contributions from the seminal band Heavens to Betsy (which featured Corin Tucker, later of Sleater-Kinney). It’s not a perfect film, but it is a perfect time capsule of the exact frustrations & aesthetics that fueled the feminist punk movements of its era.

Unfortunately, none of the other shorts included on the AGFA disc are as essential nor as substantial as either Teenage Serial Killer or Mary Jane. The only one that comes close is an early-2000s documentary short about the bungled release of Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains (a movie that was highly influential on 90s feminist punks, thanks to a few scattered cable TV broadcasts). The rest of the shorts are a smattering of scraps: a student film about a road trip, a comedy sketch about disco fever, a home movie about Jacobson bra shopping with her mom, and music videos for 90s bands Man or Astro-Man? & Fluffy. Jacobson’s D.I.Y. filmmaking brand Station Wagon Productions could only do so much on its own volition without major financial support pulling the cart. I’m not sure if the films collected on this AGFA release comprise the entirety of what she managed to complete while alive (her IMDb page only lists Mary Jane, Serial Killer, and the Fabulous Stains doc), but their collective nature as discarded scraps indicate that there can’t be much left out there waiting to be recovered.

It’s undeniably sad that Jacobson wasn’t afforded more opportunities to break through with completed, long-form projects while she was alive & working (you can hear her frustration with being broke in the bra-shopping short, where she relies on her mother’s pity to get by), but that doesn’t mean her career wasn’t an overall success. Managing to fire off two subculture-defining works within one lifetime is more than most filmmakers on any financial level can hope for. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer managed to fully, authentically encapsulate the moods & aesthetics of riot grrrl punk within the span of a short, which is no small feat for a cinematic medium no audience seems to want. Her claim for the crown as the Queen of the Underground Film is questionable, but her impact of her short reign remains undeniable.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997)

The self-anointed “Queen of the Underground Film,” Sarah Jacobson almost exclusively worked in the most underground film medium of all: the short. Most significantly, her landmark short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer proved to be an iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, persisting as her most recognizable work. Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature film in her (tragically short) lifetime, though: a sex-positive teen punk melodrama titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore. Her one feature-length film is a no-budget coming-of-age cautionary tale that subverts the Conservative 1950s road-to-ruin teen pic by transforming it into genuinely healthy sex education for 90s punx. On its surface, it doesn’t commit as wholeheartedly to the cut-and-paste feminist zine culture aesthetic of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, but thematically it really digs into the unchecked misogyny of teen counterculture movements in a way that few movies do. Beyond that accomplishment, Mary Jane works wonderfully just as an adorably low-rent hangout film; it’s one of the very best slice-of-life dispatches from the go-nowhere Slacker era.

Jacobson wastes no time explaining why teen punks need a proper sex education in the first place. The movie opens with a parody of the old-fashioned romantic Hollywood depiction of what Losing It is supposed to look like, then cuts harshly to our teen protagonist, Jane (Lisa Gerstein), suffering a much more realistic and horrific version of the act in a harshly lit cemetery. From his terminally cheesy pick-up line “Let me show you how special sex can be” to his laughably boneheaded question “Did you cum yet?” while they’re having the most uncomfortable looking sex imaginable, it’s immediately clear that Jane’s idiotic date isn’t just an insensitive brute; he also has no clue what he’s doing and is too arrogant to pretend otherwise. After this atrocious initiation to the world of casual sex, Jane has to learn on her own that sex actually can be pleasurable & fun with the right partner (especially herself), a trial & error education she navigates mostly for the audience’s benefit. Jacobson walks us through this distinctly teenage ritual by aping & parodying the road-to-ruin teen pictures of the 1950s that tackled this same topic from a moralistic, sex-shaming POV (mostly as an excuse to indulge in the exact prurient imagery they were supposedly condemning). It’s a fun storytelling device, but also a purposeful one.

Given the wide range of social topics that Jacobson tackles here—masturbation, bisexuality, teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, divorce, etc.—it would be easy for Mary Jane to slip into a didactic After School Special tone, but it sidesteps that pitfall entirely. Some of that avoidance is a result of its direct acknowledgement of the moralistic road-to-ruin teen genre it’s subverting, but mostly the movie is just enjoyable as a snapshot of a specific time in youth counterculture aesthetics. Jane is a suburban girl with a job at an inner-city movie theater, where she works alongside obnoxious-drunk punks specifically archetypal of their era. 90s teenage regalia like unironic fedoras, white-kid dreadlocks, camo cargo shorts, and studded leather jackets are just as much a fabric of the setting as the era’s punk ideologies like straight-edge, riot grrrl, and zine culture. As the teenage delinquents party in the dingy cinema lobby, occasionally taking tickets & scooping popcorn for impatient customers, films like Hardcore & Last Tango in Paris spew unhealthy sex lessons from the other room, poisoning their minds in real time. Jacobson is visibly proactive in undoing the awful sexual misconceptions that have permeated these kids’ misogynist punk community, but she also clearly loves the little dolts as recognizable personalities from an evergreen social scene – the teenage dirtbags that they are.

It probably does require a certain fondness & familiarity with punk culture to fully appreciate this film’s D.I.Y. charms, where a boom mic shadow or broad pantomime performance of teenage drunkenness are always threatening to creep in from the edge of the frame. That’s a totally acceptable price of admission, though, since Jacobson was directly appealing to that specific subculture (which she appears to have been a member of herself) in order to mend the harm their grotesque sexual misbehavior was causing. It’s frustrating how often the politics of youth counterculture movements like hippies, punks, and—most recently—”The Dirtbag Left” don’t interrogate the active harm of the sex & gender politics they perpetuate from the Patriarchal institutions they’re supposedly rebelling against. It sucks that Sarah Jacobson wasn’t able to pull together enough resources to deliver more feature films in her lifetime, but it’s rad af that the one time she was able to do so, she used the opportunity to sexually re-educate the punks of her era. They clearly needed that course-correction, even if they could be charming in other ways.

-Brandon Ledet