"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." Trish takes her 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. Trish can't even tell if Elaine's serious. Trish is from our current decade, you can tell by her modern car. Those details matter. Elaine seems not only from the 60s-70s but a timeless fairy bower. Her gaze alone can knock men clear out of their own era.
Then the Ennio Morricone stings come slinking in, slyly, shyly, and this Wicker Mannered Kenneth Anger x Anton La Vey x Pedro Almodovar magickal tale takes slinky wing, held aloft by a lovingly stilted acting style perfectly suited to the sense of ancient ceremonial rite. A beverage of uncharted potency, it's been mulled through a kind of high camp soapy-Sirkianism, so the film itself becomes 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, Merlin watching helpless behind colored glass as Morgana begins her weird belated vengeance against Camelot.
Written and directed (and art directed) by CalArts grad wunderkind Anna Biller in a very visually precise mystic-meets-melodrama manner, LOVE WITCH wallows in its own lopsided consciousness. There is a difference in male and female auteurship and the difference should be celebrated, declares Biller, even unto cutting out your male lover's heart and eating it. Rarely has so cohesive a vision emerged seemingly full-grown from the head of Athena, this true sextuple threat (Biller wrote, produced, directed, did the art design and costumes and composed several of the renaissance songs) has no qualms about using deliberate artifice towards a ritualistic, almost fetishistic end. Thematically, Biller's crafter a fond ode to the early-70s 'suburban housewife joins witch coven' subgenre and the Eurosleaze erotic semi-feminist black widow genre, spinnereted to a 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. Comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between the the power of suggestion / paranoia (as in Polanski) and fantasy (as in Harry Potter, etc.) can't really tell for sure where one ends and the other begins, which is how it should be if you want your movie to resonate with uncanny frisson. And man, Biller's opus doth resonate. As vintage Morricone 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--bringing in a whole other level. A stunning creature whose slow measured speech patterns show she has a grasp of how magic is really hypnotism created via ritual and herbal supplementation, Robinson's imperious heightened theatricality erases the line between a kind of self-conscious performative camp and perhaps merely bad acting. There's not a lot of dividing lines left by the end of THE LOVE WITCH.
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 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). In vision and scope of satisfying both genders' eye-requirements, Biller seems to exert the same kind of creative alchemy that usually takes a couple: Argento and wife Daria Nicolodi in SUSPIRIA; Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani in AMER, Alma Reville and Hitchcock in... everything; Linda Hassani's DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, with its Matthew Bright (FREEWAY) script, probably comes closest (a film that begs rediscovery in the age of the kind of 'Sunday School Instructional Video from Hell' innocence that this new band of female auteurs is wreaking).
Rather than go down a Goodbar rabbit hole of sex and madness, as one might expect--especially if a man was directing--for men are so naive and silly and easily taken aback by a strong girl--there's a vivid sense of Elaine's almost supernatural ability to wreak pastorale renaissance tarot imagery and witchy ritual from nearly every scene she sashays through. Her ability to, in a sense, turn men into sobbing wretches "Just like a woman," Elaine notes of one. "What a pussy." Later, with another, the same weakness: "I should have known; he's a Pisces."
As a Pisces I should resent that. But maybe she's right. 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, especially if you mix in too many toxic herbal psychedelics, like jimson weed, aka datura root.
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 near a Renaissance Faire, and how Elaine's cracked determination to live life as a fairy tale fuels an ambition to seduce 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, and Elaine isn't in the habit of casting lightly.
|Is magic just the adult version of tea sets and stuffed unicorns?|
With THE LOVE WITCH, Biller zaps her mark deep in the soft collective unconscious tissue that binds us along our collective Islets of Langerhans. so deep we're compelled to realize the extent to which even other female auteurs don't always reach. 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 the terrified money men promptly turned the franchise over to male directors, none of whom matched the druggy electric drag of her original. Xan Cassavettes' ever-so-slinky KISS OF THE DAMNED is another where the men are arm candy Renfields in a matriarchal world held together by beauty, wealth, and discretion. 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 retro-analog films by Tarantino, Rodriguez; Russo and Ashby of DANGER 5, etc., but are all susceptible to the male drive to action and violence, the 'drive-in'. 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, they'd underline it as if we should be grossed out, rather than merely add it to the flow, the way Biller does here. Biller slides it right past us.
|JW Waterhouse - "Circe" detail|
|The Rose Bower - Burne-Jones|
I only refer to all that to contrast Biller's style, which exits the bower (and does burlesque rather than stripping) to pursue the backdoor histrionics of 'suburban swinger-turned-to-crime' films by mavericks like Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger, Arthur Marks, and Joe Sarno --male directors who love strong, proud empowered, sexually voracious females who can and do turn any suburban backyard barbecue into a wild orgy of close-ups: batted eyes, licked lips, hemlines and sizzling symbolism. It's to them she looks for a chalk mark arrow forward, then drags the bower behind her to wipe her tracks. Biller's dialogue demonstrates an approach to female romantic obsession seems at first like, as one shocked listener declares, "Stepford wifey," yet this approach--carried to its fullness--garners the participating female immense power over men, even to to the point where her absence can drive him to suicide or heart failure, They die without the love key she used to open them up like a can of metaphysical sardines. Now that they're open, they must either be devoured or left to rot. On a shelf in the cupboard they can wait no more.
Male or female, fans of 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 (see Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition). A staple of the late 60s-early 70s, there were 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.
Elaine's 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.
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, especially as she reaches for a new kind of voice, a true woman's fantasy film.
More than most of the aforementioned female-directed retro-genre films, LOVE WITCH succeeds at this ideal, mixing intentional story book artifice--lots of 'talent show from 'Summerisle' light/dark macabre counter-Christian pageantry--with genuinely erotic content in ways we don't really see in modern film (she cites Demy's Donkey Skin as a huge influence); the closest we get is perhaps Bergman, via Shakespeare (Hamlet's "the play's the thing"), wherein the double negative, if you will, of a play-within-a-play seems to help induce a mimetic erotic magic that's distinctly feminine (Mother Night) in its timeless (or lunar cycle-based) parallel to the 'normal world' of linearity and men (Sarastro). Biller grasps the deep magic at work in narrative immersion and in the way mythologizing through performance helps uncork one's inner power.
That power, of course, is too much for a shaky patriarchy to handle. Becoming a man's every wish and surprising him with allure beyond what he can stand leaves him a sobbing wreck, and leaves the love witch alone 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 Elaine's amazing psychedelic seductions is the opening swath of DUNWICH HORROR with smoov Dean Stockwell using that weird crystal to hypnotize Sandra Dee. Or even the way Mae West brings home "That Dallas Man" in I'M NO ANGEL (1933). The other extreme, of course, is more prevalent, the disappointed vision of loveliness, stranded in her narcissistic cocoon, unwilling to admit its stifling her. For just as man is empty thunder without a woman, so woman is the fairy bower, the sticky web, the windless rain.
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 took it for a spin in BY THE SEA, which some people (whose judgment I revere), love but I, maybe 'cuz I'm a man, 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 me for not somehow not volunteering to pay for everything. The story of a couple dissolving and clearly trying to save their relationship by renting out apparently an entire corner of the Riviera, one realizes Brad and Angelina are not doing well as a couple. Outside in the open air bar, 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. Fight Club, Brad! Fight Cluuubbb (Imagine me saying this as i sink below the amber waves). (3)
THE LOVE WITCH on the other hand is the ocean itself, or at least has its own lunar tidal pull. It's alive and snaking ever-forward; 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. Most importantly, it floats a tossed bouquet--a floating iron glove cast in velvet--- to future female filmmakers. Biller's film is the feminine mystical 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. 'This is what turns me on," Biller announces, "and I don't care if it seems immature and I should have grown out of it by now--ponies, princesses, and love-love-love," whatever, I'm proud to share it." Of course it would still be the empty bower and just a fantasy, if Biller wasn't wise to herself, and to the limits of the bower's protection. LOVE WITCH is that tea party bower magic disturbed by 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 as a child or mounted by the hairy coven leader during her coven initiation, we're forced--especially as male spectators--to contemplate just how thorny female sexuality really is. We're put into a position we're totally not comfortable with, and it's about time we were; the idea that a woman might masturbate thinking about us--not as how we imagine ourselves, all soap opera handsome (like the men she dates)--but hairy and hobgoblin-esque (like the men in her cult). We recoil from our own toad-ish aspects, the bloated troll underbelly of our princely visage, but for Elaine (and, by extension, Biller), the repellant frog kiss that prefigures the marriage to the handsome prince is swirled into the erotic potion that gets her off, in a sense, to a far greater proportion than the prince himself. This aspect of female sexuality has been explored only by wild-eyed surrealists like Bunuel. Most men dare not go near it and so often it tumbles off the path and into the thorny issues that bog down films (and even some of my other posts).
|Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin|
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 unique vision, her ability to use what we tend to pigeonhole as camp as the palette for a unique spin on a unique genre from a unique time and place. 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 psychotro-poetic equivalent, to a guy like me, of being able to float on a giant amniotic breast cloud into the dissolving rays of a birth-reversing sun. When you trust the girl driving you don't automatically wince when she pumps the brakes, and if she almost hits another car - well she meant to fucking hit it -- the other driver was just too fast.
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 with my first case of the DTs! Shhhh. I'll tell you, and bury it safely on the bottom of a non-related post. Actually, it's related as I had my own anima-projection/ fantasy girl come along when I was twitching in the ER. 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 wheeling around a kind of podium pushcart with the glow of a computer screen hovering over it in the dark of the early AM (not that there were windows) 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 Librium in a tiny paper cup.
I could never find the one or the other once they left my little screened off bed, and I often grabbed a hold of my wheeled IV drip (they make great combo canes/walkers, like Merlin's staff) and went strolling down the hall, to the quiet amazement and feigned disinterest of the zillions of other people floating around. All zonked and lost and powerless, forced to wait for every visit, screams and moans of the damned meant little to the super busy staff. I knew I was amongst experts, and would not hasten the next Libirum one iota. But, at last, 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.
Now I'm back home but 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, or remember me, let me just say in case they do: ladies, collectively in my fever brain you have cohered into my Lady of the Lake. Hail and blessings be, oh shimmering Benzo-flection, my Lost Lenore, reflection of the kind nepenthe I know I can never drink again. When next will we three meet --thy cart and thee and my poor polluted streams? (4)
(my previous sobriety date - 11/17/98; my current 02/15/17)
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 Hell- 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 hot 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. The main thing from my alcohol withdrawal (which is why I had to go to the ER, I was too fucked up to get more alcohol to stop my horrible withdrawal / DTs. was lying in bed in delusional misery remembering lines from HIGH SOCIETY, which I'd been watching over and over in my drunken excess-tasy - Sinatra bluring "she got pinched in the ASS--ter Bar" (From his duet with Bing, "Yes Indeedy") over and over like a broken record, for hour after hour)
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)
Desperation and Divinity (Help us, Mae!) BL 09