"Men are very fragile. They get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way." notes our love-junky Wiccan Elaine (Samantha Robinson), voiceovering in her vintage convertible down Highway 101 from San Francisco, flanked by gorgeous redwoods and crashing surf. We see her stubbing out cigarettes in the car ashtray. God, it's been so long since I saw anyone do that. This girl, we realize, has it going on - but what is 'on' and 'it' that she has? Her new apartment is popping with magical candy color, and herb jars aplenty. Interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell) was told to paint it with the "colors from the fourth Tarot deck." They go to the 'Victorian tea room' where men are not allowed, and a lady faire harpist plays. "Giving men sex is a way of unlocking their love potential," counsels Elaine, shortly before eyeballing Trish's husband, Richard (Robert Seeley) with her painted lid magic stare.
Then the Ennio Morricone stings come wandering in, slyly, shyly, and this Wicker Mannered Kenneth Anger x Anton La Vey x Pedro Almodovar with a lovingly stilted acting style perfectly suited to the sense of ancient ceremony, culled through a kind of high camp soapy-Sirkianism to make a distilled beverage of strange potency. In other words, like the mind of a person being forced to watch that Taylor-Burton-Milk Train stoppage terrible hat monstrosity BOOM! while being slowly encased in a psychotropic pancake syrup that hardens to frozen in-the-belly-of-the-dragon amber, you cannot help but succumb to the film's cohesive unified weirdness, its adept deconstruction and Pagan rearrangement of the kind of pre-Quixote romantic blueprint for mythologizing reality girls, smitten with Disney and afternoon soap operas, make in a Brechtian dissolution of cohesive, eerily familiar beauty. Is that even a sentence? As Jimmy Stewart says in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, who's to say what magic is?
What LOVE WITCH is, certainly, us the announcement of a major female filmmaking talent, or at the very least the female Ed Wood we've all been sorely craving. A CalArts grad wunderkind named Anna Biller, like Ed she's a true sextuple threat (she wrote, produced, directed, did the art design and costumes and composed several of the renaissance songs). Thematically, a fond ode to the early-70s 'suburban housewife joins witch coven' micro-genre, WITCH captures just the right kind of highly-stylized qua-feminist fairy tale revision / Satan's School for Gifted Youngsters' annual solstice pageant primitivism to keep it from being either campy or realistic, magic is allowed to be--as in ROSEMARY'S BABY--comfortably ensconced in the middle ground of 'becoming' and 'will' rather than mystical spells and levitation. As Morricone slinks around the piano and patches her remaining disparate pastiche elements into a coherent whole. Biller ointments up and flies herself up as point guard to this whole new flock of filmmakers, I've written lovingly about most of them, who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny vistas, and in some cases--such as hers--even doing some 8th-wave gender re-appropriation.
A definite feminist statement is the WITCH that I now defend. Yet I defy any male not to be turned on by segments of this film and then to realize moments later just how thoroughly they've been tricked, dragged kicking and screaming to an Ikea of fantasy land fairy princesses, unicorns, and tea parties. Brilliant, this fantasia of a small witch-infested Northern California town also includes a burlesque house (1) and of course the ever-popular female obsession: seducing guys who belong to other girls, then losing interest once they've had them under their spell and they start crying and obsessively screaming her name, driving them to suicide or heart failure. When grown-up girls still want to be Maleficent or need to use magic herbs (like the powerful psychoactive jimsonweed AKA Datura root - which makes a rare 'appearance') to seduce their men, then woe to those men, for this herb makes comprehensible the very speech of witches, which as Banquo speaks of in MACBETH, "the insane root that takes the reason prisoner." And indeed, the bail money to get reason back is death.
The story of three or so conquests in the disturbed life of a dangerously powerful and intoxicatingly sexy 'love witch' - Elaine lets us know in the opening that she's leaving Frisco "after a nervous breakdown" - which she discusses matter-of-factly in a highly mannered theatrical voiceover with conflicting flashbacks in a way that connects the events to a host of female-driven films from the late 60s-70s, from PLAY IT AS IT LAYS to CIAO! MANHATTAN (1972) and even LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH. Echoes even of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (smoking calmly in the other room while her latest lover screams off camera), MESSIAH OF EVIL (especially when Robinson deepens and draws it her vocals on lines "The day Jerry left me is the day I died" she sounds eerily like Marianna Hill), and of course STEPFORD WIVES (in reverse). Rather than go down a Goodbar rabbit hole of sex and madness, as one might expect--especially if a man was directing-- there's sense of Elaine's almost supernatural ability to wreak pastorales and witchy fantasy from a simple colorful town.. Her ability to, in a sense, turn men into sobbing wretches "Just like a woman," Elaine notes. Then adds "I should have known; he's a Pisces."
As a Pisces I should resent that. But maybe she's right. After all, pre-existing hotness + love magic exerts a powerful toll on its target. If you've ever been seduced and abandoned yourself by a creature so lovely and damaged she hung around just long enough to wreck your home and work you over so well you're instantly addicted to her worse than any heroin and how easily death might result.
Biller's candy-colored solstice of love magick also explores and takes relatively seriously the world of the Wiccans (presumably) and probably explains the way young teens tend to get pretty warped when they happen to live in a town hosting the Renaissance Faire, and how Elaine's cracked determination to live life as a fairy tale seems to create first love so intense it blows men right out of their shoes, without consciously intending any malice. Magic, horses, princes, Tarot cards, strange sex rituals, it's all dangerous stuff, Elaine. It's not what little girls are made of! But hey, what's wrong with living mythically?
|Is magic just the adult version of tea sets and stuffed animals and dogeared Disney disc?|
or "moonbeams and fairy tales / are all she ever thinks about." - Hendrix
Despite the weird disjointedness, rarely has so cohesive a vision emerged seemingly full-grown from the head of Athena so to speak. that Biller seems to exert the same kind of creative alchemy that usually takes a couple, like Argento and wife Daria Nicolodi in SUSPRIA and INFERNO, or Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani in AMER and STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS. In that sense its closest neighbor, as far as giving it a kind of priceless fairy tale moral apple corer, is Linda Hassani's DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, a film that begs rediscovery in the age of the kind of 'school play from Hell' innocence that this new band of female auteurs is wreaking. Written and directed (and art directed) by a single female in a very visually precise Kenneth Anger-level mystic sort of precision; the film itself announces there is a difference in male and female auteurship, and the polarity should be celebrated, even unto cutting out one's lover's heart and eating it. Or just looking at a painting of that action and holding the bloody knife in a rapture fit to unnerve Catherine Deneuve in REPULSION.
Perhaps now, its stilted theatricality and all, we have a female auteur that can truly seduce both genders, can make a mark deep in the soft collective unconscious tissue that binds us along the Isle5w of Langerhans? Sofia Coppola came close a few times and might actually nail it at last with her upcoming remake of THE BEGUILED; Asia Argento was one of the first to try, with SCARLET DIVA in 2000, but you could tell it was a struggle, as if wading through the basement sludge of the male gaze like a harried plumber; Anna Lily Amirpour bit its finger off in the delightful A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT; Helene Cattet did the amazing AMER (2); Catherine Hardwicke did it in the first TWILIGHT, which was so good they promptly turned the franchise over to male directors, none of whom matched the druggy electric drag of Hardwicke's original. Xan Cassavettes did it with the ever-so-slinky KISS OF THE DAMNED. They're all highly recommended as examples of women appropriating the genre in ways parallel to male-driven explorations of similar lines. Bitches may be strong in films by Tarantino, Rodriguez; Russo and Ashby of DANGER 5, etc., but are all susceptible to the male drive to action and violence. None would ever dare to, for example, show their starlet casually noticing a blood spot, inserting a tampon, and then later taking it out and adding it to a bottle of her own urine + a few wild grown herbs and placed on a man's grave, so a "part of her can stay with him forever."
If they did, truly kings of Saturnalia would they be.
Even more so than the all-female lepidopterist un-fantasia of Peter Strickland's DUKE OF BURGUNDY, an example of 'faerie bower cinema,' wherein chthonic overgrowth ensnares all chances for narrative phallic linearity, leading to a kind of feminine revere/stasis, mirroring the way sexual desire can hold a person almost in a state of paralysis, tapping into the state of powerless awe we as tiny children felt towards mom and her visiting lady friends, when we had them all to ourselves--and compared to us they were as giants--lavishing us with attention and expecting no corresponding action (we don't need to do anything sitting there in the dark -- Garbo's giant face loves us no matter what). We get some of that at burlesque clubs (where the male acts are all symbolically neutered - baggy pants comics or androgynes like Joel Grey in CABARET - thus posing no threat to our seat of pre-Oedipal spectral omnipotence). While when brought into actual play, sadomasochism and/or stripping often becomes merely tawdry.
Male or female, fans of revival DVD labels like Synapse, Mondo Macabro, and Blue Underground know well the genre Biller is exploring. In particular, the post-Ira Levin (STEPFORD WIVES, ROSEMARY'S BABY) female empowerment through cult ritual magic sub-genre of the late 60s-early 70s feminist horror boom (see Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition). A huge staple of the late 60s-early 70s, ranging from American 'woman's lib'-meets-cult magic tracts like Romero's 1972 SEASON OF THE WITCH, 1976's THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, and to French fairy bowers like DONT DELIVER US FROM EVIL and THE GIRL SLAVES OF MORGANA LE FAY (1971), LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL, and of course the works of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Biller evokes them all while never losing her own voice, one so strong I trusted it wasn't 'abdicating power' when the older coven male shows up like a leering dirty old Pan.
The best feature of the film may be Samantha Robinson as Elaine. Not a strong actress but a stunning creature whose slow measured speech patterns shows she has a grasp of how magic is really hypnotism through ritual and herbal supplementation. Her quest for love is like some dreamy but misguided fantasy yet it's way more appealing than similar attempts, many of which I covered in my recent piece 13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime. Her imperious heightened theatricality erases the line between a kind of self-conscious performative camp and perhaps merely bad acting. Either way, the power of artifice in female seduction is performative and hypnotic. One thinks of that preachy final monologue of Bill Holden's in NETWORK, that whole "this is real life, Diane, you can't change the channel." It's as if her magic works too well, the men aren't used to being so completely seduced and they fall to pieces when she loses interest. Sometimes they die from drinking her jimsonweed-spiked flask; or commit suicide or die of a broken heart when--she having satisfied all their deepest desires and literally blown their minds--loses interest as they get all possessive and clingy and needy and crying. "What a pussy! What a little baby!" goes her voiceover after her first conquest in her new town, a naturalist teacher named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) at the local university, starts bawling and screaming needily for her.
His breakdown is a high point of the film, acting-wise, as he gives it his all, with this great kind of teary agonized flush "I have never felt real love like this before! Elaine, I'm scared!!" he shouts. The sheer magnitude of his lovelorn heartbreak threatens to disrupt Elaine's candy-colored sandman 'magical thinking.' So she has to go smoke in the other room.
|Anna Biller - thou art a badass|
Sexploitation films were based on real things, like sexuality between men and women. I would never be interested in critiquing them wholesale, because I don't find them stupid or inferior (you might). They are more for me like fascinating fragments of culture, all the more alluring because of their low status in today's culture.
So again, you are making many assumptions. Those assumptions come from our need today to look back on history and laugh at it. They also come from a discomfort with the exploitation form because of guilt at male enjoyment of it. I am not critiquing those films, but I am critiquing cultural stereotypes. There is a big difference.
The intention with VIVA was to make my own version of those films, to rewrite history as it were and place myself and my voice (as a female and an individual) within it. So in that sense it's pure fetishism, and comes much more from the place the original films came from (the desire to make a sexy film using fantasy and displacement). The confusion about my intentions may come from the fact that we have not seen many sexual fantasy films made by women, except by female directors who are working in entirely more "serious" forms.Damn right, sister! Dig the way she defends her choices and calls Mr. Coffee semi-out on an ideological gender-based point, but does so sans knee-jerk third-wave malice? Her pride in wanting to make a "sexy film using fantasy and displacement" is a truly honorable ideal. Her response is free of browbeating. Such a combination is rare as buried treasure.
LOVE WITCH should satisfy VIVA critics as it's clearly a kind CITIZEN 9 FROM OUTER KANE breakthrough, its playful 'talent show from Summers' Isle' light/dark macabre counter-Christian pageantry mixes with genuinely erotic content in ways we don't really see in modern film; the closest we get is perhaps Shakespeare with his habit of fractal-dialing little bands of intentionally amateur-like players and diegetic songs deep within the main narrative. Shakespeare recognizes feminine erotic magic as a timeless (or lunar cycle-based) parallel to the 'normal world' of linearity and men. Biller enhances that, exploring the way becoming a man's every wish and surprising him with allure beyond what he can stand leaves him a sobbing wreck, and might leave her in the other room smoking a cigarette, listening to his anguished infantile castrated bathtub sobs with the dispassion of Camille Keaton rocking in her chair downstairs (5). The closest I can imagine to one of her amazing psychedelic seductions is the opening swath of DUNWICH HORROR with smoov Dean Stockwell using that weird Corman prop from THE TERROR and TOMB OF LIGEA to hypnotize Sandra Dee.
This kind of fairy bower end of the line "woman in her fancy hats broods and pontificates along the rocky coast" kind of jazz is harder to do right than it looks. For example, Angelina Jolie tried this same direction and wound up with last year's BY THE SEA, which some people (whose judgment I revere), love but I, and many others, felt suffocated by as if being dragged to some expensive boutique by a petit-bourgeois girlfriend and made to stand there for hours trying not to seem bored while she fussed over designer clothes and scowled at us for not somehow anticipating what she wanted us to want to ask her to do. Presumably we're copping decor ideas and make-up tips, studying how to sulk stylishly; meanwhile Brad makes friends with old locals and picturesquely has a beer while the old men tells a story and the vibe is like if an Eric Rohmer moral tale was bronzed, thrown in the sea, and told to swim. It can't, Brad. Stop pretending to care. You're better than that. (3)
THE LOVE WITCH on the other hand, Brad, is the ocean itself, or at least its own lunar tidal pull. It might dilly-over the edge with little moments that evoke Ed Wood and/or Tommy Wiseau in their amateurish strangeness, but baby does it ever float. It floats a tossed bouquet--a floating iron glove cast in velvet--- to future female filmmakers. This film is the feminine mystique equivalent of finally blowing a hole through the concrete defensive ring around Normandy, to seize princess super power without necessarily being a bitch about it. To say 'this is what turns me on, and I don't care if it seems immature and I should have grown out of it by now--and I'm proud to share it" --rather than "here, I know this what turns you on, and you're disgusting. But I'll do it, so you know how disgusting you are." In disrupting her own weird mix of girly tea set and unicorn grade school fantasy and magic with the unquiet attic, the 'first Mrs. Rochester'-esque Wide Sargasso Sea madwoman who comes rolling down the stairs and under the locked door like little Rosita's blood in THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) at the most inopportune times. As she masturbates to memories of being shamed by her father or mounted by the hair coven leader we're forced--especially as male spectators--to contemplate just how thorny female sexuality really is.
Such a brave combination--the fantasy and the damage done--easily outmaneuvers both the high and low brow camps she slinks betwixt, leaving both sides with a new light to follow, an example of how to exploit not just the genre or sex or one's own unique erotic taste but one's own archetypal root cellar, but also how not to stay down there so long you get sick from breathing the mold. Finally, in all the best traditions of the period/genre she's exploring, we're unsure whether the 'magic' being performed is merely ceremonial posturing meant to focus the will or if it evokes genuine spirit power, and it never really even seems to come up as an issue.
We're also never sure just what we feel about these couple of disreputable hairy male characters who seem to have inserted themselves, but for once, a rarity, we trust Biller to know the answer and never falter. There's no way she's feeling the need to insert some kind of hairy warlock named Gahan (Jared Sanford) at the head of the coven out of some nod to some deep-seated animus patriarch sub-conditioning (6); naturally it's because he's a mentor/executive producer and thus it's a role that fits his role within the film (and her memories of being with him on the dais are folded into her thorny masturbation memory channel). That we can trust Anna Biller implicitly by then to not 'cop out' and turn the car over to him and/or some other man, or get all heavy-handed 'killing is wrong' blah blah I found a boyfriend who loves me for me, or something, is, so to speak, testament to her commitment to her high camp witchy style. That its full naive amateur candy-coated grace stays true to itself all the way through makes me want to dance around the summer solstice fire. Being able to trust a female auteur with the car keys --so to speak--is the psychotropoetic equivalent, to a guy like me, of being able to float on a giant amniotic breast cloud into the dissolving rays of of a birth-reversing sun. You don't have to wince when she pumps the brakes, and if she almost hits another car - well she meant to fucking hit it and just missed. Knowing this, the rest is rearview.
Speaking of which, maybe you saw on FB: I happen to have been in the hospital most of last weekend (my first case of the DTs! I remember my answers to their admittance form questions: When did you last have a drink? / Me: Purple. / them: what did you drink? / Two. / Xo you know where you are right now? / Me: Exploding.) And had my fantasy girl come along when I was twitching in the ER over the weekend. I hadn't been to a hospital in over 16 years, so was amazed that this hot knowing sexy Asian-Jewish nurse in sexy blue scrubs (she looked more than a little like Robinson in this film actually) wheeling around a kind of podium pushcart with the glow of a computer screen hovering over it like a kind of floating alien saucer. With this device she floated amongst us agonized, zonked sinners like an absolving angel. In my case, shooting a dose of Ativan into my IV tube or passing out first three, then two, then one Librium. In each case what once was /screaming / now lies silent and / almost sleeping.
I've always had a thing for nurses - not the sexy nurse look like on Halloween, but the modern pale blue or green scrubs version with the white lab coat hanging open, and maybe a stethoscope around their neck, way sexier than any lace choker. that look like doctors and maybe are - there's a fine array between nurse and doctor now - fairly groovy. I could never find the one or the other once they left my little and I often looked to the quiet amazement and feigned disinterest of the zillions of other people floating around. All zonked and lost and powerless, forced to wait by the end I was as passive as a child, just venturing into the hall, holding onto my IV Drip pole like un upside down and squashed Poseidon's trident x a stand-up-crutch, I knew true surrender - beyond shame. Just getting out of bed was enough of a challenge, getting up to go to the bathroom right next door was as laborious and involved in my delirium as scaling Wudan mountain God I miss those lovely shimmering goddesses and their glowing late night floating UFO pill dispensary stations. Since I'm reasonably sure they'll never read this, collectively in my fever brain you have cohered, my Lady of the Lake. Hail and blessings be oh shimmering benzo-flection; when next will we three meet (thy cart and thee and my poor polluted streams? When the floor waxer hums anew shall Circe surely summon. (4)
1. Burlesque has become the go-to for female performance art and cultural/body/image reappropriation - in xase you didn't know - Most larger cities have at least one tucked-away venue, even if it just hosts a show once every week, like at some cabaret-style club.
2. She did it with boyfriend Burno Forzani- but her presence is more keenly felt as its a woman story
3. I didn't actually get more than 1/4 the way into BY THE SEA, and felt the same way about LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, a film I can only see in one 10 minute dose every three years. Maybe when it's all finally seen, I can forget.
4. My initial hour or whatever in the waiting area of ER was a century of Nell- watching the faces cohere in Pollock-level drop deep through the pattern left by the hot floor waxer that had just been by --leaving too much damp heat emanating upwards. And feeling the emanating waves of slow opiate (or crack) withdrawal emanating from this junkie chick and her sketchy arm support. Now I know what Hell smells like. Shipmates, the smell of floor wax has burned deep into the soft spots of my soul, leaving permanent stains that alternate between a ghostly image of Veronica Lake, and one of Fred Allen and Portland, talking to a ribbon of electric razors.
5. See: I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE
6. My seeing red over random insertions of some kind of overriding pimp to devouring females is well-documented, it was a huge turn-off in both VAMPIRE LOVERS and UNDER THE SKIN, among others. It seems to be this fear so deep-seated within the masculine psyche evokes a knee-jerk response for the intermediary (see my 2009 anti-salute to them: "Pimps: the Devil's Subjects")
Sever me Member: EX-MACHINA, THE CREEPING FLESH
Why don't we just Go Ask Alice?
Alice 2.2 - The Looking Glass Dolls
The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer: SZAMANKA
A Star-Spangled Salute to America's most Acidemic-Cinematic Women (7/4/10)