Playthings Playing Things Straight: Close-Up on Anna Biller’s "Viva"

Few films today seem critical in the same way as Anna Biller's first feature, "Viva," a loving resurrection of the sexploitation picture.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Anna Biller's Viva (2007) is showing March 7 - April 6, 2017  in the United Kingdom in the series 7 Women.

“Wait! I’m not through with promoting you yet!”

— Mr. Humphreys, Viva 

“What you’re describing sounds kind of dark.”

—Sheila, Viva 

It’s 1972, the opening voiceover tells us. It’s Los Angeles, too. “And the people, ordinary.” In sunny suburbia—detached homes, long lawns, pools out back—Barbi (Anna Biller) visits her neighbors, Mark (Jared Sanford) and Sheila (Bridget Brno), to express her boredom in light of husband Rick (Chad England) doing a stint of overtime at the office. Mark and Sheila live the life: liquor before noon, dialogue quoting from advertising slogans, sexual innuendos. Mark marvels over his latest purchase, a camera, citing its technical features like a salesman: “ND filters—now that’s a professional camera!” It isn’t long, in the hot midday sun, before Barbi and Sheila are down to their bikinis; Mark giddily takes some pictures—and, when Sheila isn’t looking, a handful of his wife’s pal’s buttocks. 

Few films today seem critical in the same way as Viva. On the one hand, Anna Biller’s first feature, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2007, comes at us as a loving—even painstaking—resurrection of the obsolete sexploitation picture, which enjoyed a great deal of cult prominence in the U.S. between the 1960s and early 1970s. Biller’s film is a beautifully crafted ode, one whose aesthetic pleasures are rooted to its obsessive attention to detail: the sheer saturation of its visual information, from vibrant color schemes to stiff wigs to the overload of props that characterize each scene and composition. 

On the other hand, this is no easy homage, no mere pastiche. As both director and star (and producer, editor, art director, and set and costume designer), Biller positions herself in such a way as to offset a number of coded assumptions about sexploitation as a genre. That this throwback to a largely male-dominated mode of production is authored—in virtually every sense—by a woman re-tunes our reading of the film: the auteur-heroine enacts a fantasy, assuming the onscreen role of the archetypal innocent object—desired, lusted after, seduced. In doing so, Biller plays things straight: in recreating the specific characteristics of sexploitation—the language patterns and acting styles, the stiff line deliveries, the thinly veiled pretexts for soft-core erotica—she is able to make a work that is simultaneously indulgent as a homage and authentic in feel, tone and content.  

As Viva progresses over its two-hour running time, Biller gets to dig into the complex foundations of spectatorial pleasure: “I’ve always wanted to be a prostitute, it sounds so romantic,” Sheila says when her and Barbi encounter a high-end escort business. Beneath their suburban paradise, however, there is rampant misogyny, rape culture (and rape), and the gaze through which women are commonly reduced to just another plaything, an interchangeable part of the domestic décor. In the opening scene, Mark’s laughter is impossibly ecstatic: a play-acted happiness learned through TV commercials and the perpetuated image of an ideal life in postwar America. Much later, Mark’s behavior towards Barbi—inside her own apartment—is openly vile; by the time the film closes on laughter (Barbi’s and Sheila’s), we’ve come to distrust it as an indicator of contentment. Another performance, another charade. 


Biller’s film—studied, intelligent—is an intervention upon the sinister mechanisms through which sex is made to sell. And the intervention is cinephilic: think of the absolute priority given here to the surface of things, to the textural depth of the film’s sets, and to the assortment of objects as standalone features within a lived-in material world. Viva embraces and highlights the indexical qualities of cinephilia: even when it borders on becoming an academic exercise (the outcome of practice-based scholarship), the film prides itself on its own meticulous arrangement. The film is a labor of love that elicits our love for labor: those costumes, the makeup, some really terrible wigs.  

All of this heightens the discomfiting layers unearthed in the film’s plot—the way the hippy counterculture that Barbi encounters at a Health Valley nudist retreat turns out to be just another pretext for getting laid, or in the way one male character tells Barbi that she has a beautiful smile while leering at nothing but her breasts. In an excellent essay on the film, Elena Gorfinkel teases out the ways in which Biller draws upon 1960s print media in order to both deepen and broaden her points. “In studying the lifestyle aesthetics of old Playboy, fashion and interior design books, and housekeeping magazines from the period, Biller keys the viewer in to the false economic plenitude and existentially empty consumption that undergirds suburban life.”

The film opens on Barbi reading Decorating with Crochet—later, The Sensuous Woman—and frontloads a pile-up of brand names: Dewar’s, Bond Street tobacco, English Leather cologne, Crown Royal whiskey. “Biller’s attentiveness to these discourses of conspicuous consumption,” Gorfinkel goes on, “lays bare the ways that economic concerns, and particularly allegorical economies that bind sex to consumption, undergird the narrative logics of sexploitation cinema.” Even the consensual sex here appears to be somehow underwhelming, a disappointment for each participant. 

Beneath beauty, darkness. As a film contingent on both our familiarity with sexploitation and our historical detachment from the discourses it incorporates, Viva is often amusing but—for me—rarely funny. (It very seriously contributes to the genre rather than spoofing it.) Its methods remind me of David Lynch, and what he did with Blue Velvet—and of Patricia Highsmith, whose literature nailed the insidious character of suburban utopianism so wonderfully. Somewhere within the colorful veneer, we have a set of characters trying to consume their way out of loneliness, abandonment, ennui. Life goals for ordinary people: a cabin, a fishing boat, some kind of purpose—anything.

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