Thursday 16 March 2017

The films of Anna Biller - Notes from an introduction to The Love Witch screened on 14 March 2017 at East Dulwich Picturehouse

Anna Biller
Tonight’s film The Love Witch was directed by US film maker Anna Biller and I can quite honestly guarantee that you’ll have never have seen anything quite like it. Unless you’ve seen any of Biller’s other films, that is.

Biller was born to a Hawaiian mother, Sumiko, who grew up on a coffee plantation and maintained an air of glamour from an early age, strongly influenced by the films she saw at the local movie house. Sumiko met Anna’s father, Lee Biller, at the University of Hawaii where he was studying art. I wish I could show you photos of the couple – they were an incredible looking pair.

As newly marrieds they lived a life of dreams but the reality was poverty. They moved to Los Angeles where Lee taught art classes and Sumiko worked in a restaurant. She later became earned a living as a ‘hostess’, with clients including Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra. Sumiko was a self-taught fashion designer with an air for the beautiful and strange. Her designs became the toast of Los Angeles and she eventually opened a fashion store in West Hollywood called ‘Inside Sumiko & Ephemera’ – this was 1967, so you can probably imagine the types of clothes on offer. Frequent clients to the Sumiko store included Diana Ross and Raquel Welch.

A lot of what powers Biller’s cinema is informed by this rather bohemian upbringing. As a child she was clearly surrounded by glamour, witnessing a parade of beautiful women using sex appeal to derive power, but in turn they were being ruled by more powerful men who presumably held on to the finances. These experiences arguably shaped the theories of feminism and high style which have dominated her work since her first steps into making movies.

And those steps were over 22 years ago now, lest people think that Biller is new to the game. Her first film was Three Examples of Myself as Queen in 1994, a half hour anthology film described as ‘a colourful musical fantasy inspired by old Hollywood musicals.’ 1998’s The Fairy Ballet was a short film extract from a planned feature length musical film which in the end didn’t get made.

2001 saw two films from Biller. The first, The Hypnotist, was a tribute to old Hollywood Technicolor melodramas in which a weird German doctor uses hypnotism, seduction, and criminality to get the better of a trio of spoiled wealthy siblings. In the same year she also made A Visit from the Incubus, a horror/western/musical. Most of these films were shot on 16mm film (Biller detests video and digital formats) and were written, directed and designed by her – she also wrote the scores, sang and acted in them. A true auteur in every sense of the word, if you enjoy The Love Witch it’s well worth paying a little money to see them on Vimeo.

Biller switched to 35mm for her first feature length movie Viva in 2007. This film, which incidentally features her mother Sumiko (credited as ‘Japanese Mae West’) and includes paintings by her father, is described by Biller on her own website as “a cult freak-out retro 1970's spectacle, about Barbi, a bored housewife who gets sucked into the sexual revolution. She quickly learns a lot more than she wanted to about the different kinds of scenes going on in the wild '70's, including nudist camps, the hippie scene, orgies, bisexuality, sadism, drugs, and bohemia. Viva looks like a lost film from the late '60s, even down to the campy and self-assured performances, the big lighting, the plethora of negligées, and the delirious assortment of Salvation Army ashtrays, lamps, fabrics, and bric-a-brac. Whether you're looking for naked people dancing, alcoholic swingers, stylish sex scenes, a sea of polyester, Hammond organ jams, glitzy show numbers, white horses, blondes in the bathtub, gay hairdressers, or psychedelic animation, Viva has it all!”

Now that’s self –publicity! Although it's interesting that Biller uses the word ‘camp’ in her description, as it’s a word that she now hates (and I should know, I used it in a piece on her and she took great exception to it on Twitter – but that’s another story).

Viva is best described as the bridge between Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 movie about the porn industry, Boogie Nights, and the outrageous Hollywood-for-10-cents short films of George Kuchar like Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) and 1963's Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s extremely detailed, decidedly overlong, but the attention to detail, for which Biller clearly prides herself, is jaw dropping.

So on to The Love Witch, which screens tonight.  It’s the story of Elaine, who has moved to California away from her ex-husband. She’s in town to make a new start and to find a new man. But the way she plans to snare a guy is via witchcraft. I’ll say no more except that things don’t exactly go to plan.

The witchcraft popularity explosion in the 1970s, from which Biller takes her thematic cue in this film, was cinematically handled very differently in the US to here in the UK. The UK has always been determined to see the seedy side of the dark arts in features like Malcolm Leigh’s semi documentary Legend of the Witches, a 1970 film which on release found itself booked in for an extensive run in the private cinemas of Soho, and Derek Ford’s 1971 secretaries–as–witches–on their-lunch-hour expose Secret Rites. I can also remember in the 1970s a magazine called ‘Witchcraft’ monthly that used to languish in the top shelf of my local newsagents.

In the US the concept was handled in a more adult, and certainly more stylish and confident way, and Biller has acknowledged the influence of some of these films on The Love Witch – films like Hollingsworth Morse’s 1972 movie Daughters of Satan and George Romero’s flick Season of the Witch from the same year – not forgetting the long running TV supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows which held America in its rather bonkers thrall between 1966 and 1971, all of which mixed the dark arts with suburban settings; perfect source material for the director’s west coast Wiccan communities, although in interviews she has also acknowledged the influence of European directors like Carl Dreyer, Joseph Losey and Luis Bunuel.

All of Biller’s directorial and style quirks are present and correct in The Love Witch. Again sumptuously shot on 35mm by David Mullen (who had worked with Biller before on The Hypnotist sixteen years earlier), it utilises the Californian locations of Eureka and Pasadena to create a timeless vibe that’s initially comforting but with a level of unease that gradually begins to permeate the movie. A film that Biller also referenced for this creeping of unease was Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film The Stepford Wives

But welcome back from Mars if you haven’t heard just how good this film looks. Though the timescale is not specific, there’s a definite 1970s vibe to the movie, recalling the golden age of US TV movies of the week (although in style it reaches back further to the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchock’s ‘golden age’ movies like Marnie, Vertigo and The Birds).

But as someone who’s seen the film a couple of times already, I’d make a plea on behalf of the director to look beyond the giddy colour schemes, the amazing soft furnishings (most of which Biller made herself, along with the costumes and some of the music) and the overall look of the thing. Because that’s what the director wants you to do, and it’s hard, but there’s some serious stuff going on under the surface here – serious questions about male and female power and sexuality, and the male – and female – gaze.

I’ll let Anna Biller have the last word her art. She writes:

“In my work I try to combine pure cinema with authentic experience… I am trying to do something most unusual: to create “proper” art films masquerading as popular films. So while I am quoting genres, I am using them not as pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.”

Enjoy the film.


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