In the early 1950s, television sets started to appear in the living rooms of American homes across the nation, leaving Hollywood in an existential crisis.
Anxious to differentiate themselves from television, the major studios made an effort to boost the credibility and status of their entertainment product by turning to literary works as source material for the screen. The idea of using well-renowned bestsellers to make films was not so much an effort to appeal to the readers of the books, as a marketing ploy by which to persuade the middle class of good taste and prestige by referencing the literary world. Literature, the older and more experienced art form, was decidedly a high-brow culture associated with quality and sophistication; what easier way to cement the status of your star-studded, Academy Award-vying drama than by adding the tagline “based on the work by William Shakespeare”?
Anna Biller’s filmography is a witty and playful challenge to this traditional taste-culture status quo. Working as an independent filmmaker in the art-house genre, Biller makes films adored by cinephiles and critics alike for their beautifully intricate, hand-crafted production design, witty dialogue and thought-provoking ideas about love, gender and sexual politics. In an inadvertent subversion of the Hollywood prestige-agenda, Biller finds inspiration for her art-house films in the cheap and distasteful literary subcultures of Playboy magazines and pulp-fiction. Biller’s films are, however, often mistakenly reduced to sexploitation pastiche; aesthetic echoes of the retro soft-core films that dominated the 1960s. Undoubtedly, the deadpan acting style in Biller’s films imbues the ironic dialogue with a languid tone that recalls the language of soft-core porno from the 60s and 70s; however, the characters in Biller’s films are more than just pawns for visual pleasure and retro-fantasy, and are not in-fact celebrations of films from this era. As she states in an interview with filmmaker magazine discussing her 2007 film Viva, “people thought Viva was an homage, or a pastiche —that’s definitely not true. I was taking more from literary texts than from movies.” Far from the dusty library shelves of prestige literature, Playboy (although it enjoys a rather celebrated reputation) comes from the seedy underworld of gas station convenience stores—sold next to tobacco and artificially flavored sports drinks—something one would expect to find in the leather crevices of the passenger seat of a truck drivers’ sleeper cab or your creepy uncle’s beer-stained sofa. Biller claims that she used the cartoons she found in her father’s hidden magazine stash to write the script and storyboard for Viva, re-contextualising them as a way to explore gender polarity, sexual politics and the gap between reality and fantasy: “I tore these cartoons out of Playboy, and that’s how I made my narrative: just, people saying these lines from cartoons and ads, stitched together into a narrative […] we’re looking at the sexual revolution through Playboy, and we’re looking at a world that doesn’t exist, that never existed in the first place. Advertising as a part of sexual culture—books, magazines, movies and TV, the way a “playboy” lifestyle was sold to men, when in fact it never really existed in life.” (Filmmaker Magazine).
Far from the dusty library shelves of prestige literature, Playboy (although it enjoys a rather celebrated reputation) comes from the seedy underworld of gas station convenience stores—sold next to tobacco and artificially flavored sports drinks—something one would expect to find in the leather crevices of the passenger seat of a truck drivers’ sleeper cab or your creepy uncle’s beer-stained sofa.
Horror and romantic pulp-fiction from the early 20th century—their sensationalist cover art and women-in-peril narratives—are also self-proclaimed source materials for Biller’s work, as particularly evidenced by the influences of gothic and camp aesthetics in the set and costume design of her latest production, The Love Witch (2016). Pulp-fiction—so-called because of the cheap wood-pulp the paperbacks were printed on—was a famously mass-market, low-brow, exploitation form of literature that grew out the “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century. These usually genre-conforming horror, detective-noir or romance narratives were explicitly marketed toward young men between the 1920-40s as easily digestible and inexpensive, sensationalist entertainment. Scantily-clad women screaming in horror as monsters tear off their see-through blouses often adorned the covers as pulp publishers rushed in a “race to the bottom to get buyers attention” (New Yorker).
In The Love Witch, Elaine is the lonely and love-sick new witch in town, whose attempts to win the affections of the dumb and drooling men in her neighborhood quickly escalate from harmless seduction to madness, sickness, and eventually death. Elaine is convinced that she knows what men want (sex) and that she can use it to manipulate them into giving her what she wants (love). As she explains to her friend Trish, affection from men has to be carefully negotiated, and sexual submission is an effective strategy: “according to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.” Elaine, with her glossy red nails, turquoise eyeshadow and dark, curling hair extensions, is a layered and conflicted performance of femininity and fantasy, not dissimilar from the femme fatale of pulp-noir: she is the powerful monstrous feminine (witch), the female fantasy (beauty), and the ultimate male fantasy (sex) all in one—a concoction also reminiscent of the generic pulp-novel cover-art formula of monster, woman and sex. Although Elaine is of course misguided in her attempts at winning true love (“you sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy” Trish responds in horror to Elaine’s romantic tactics) her monstrosity is to be expected when we consider the tragedy and trauma of her experience as woman in a world so saturated with male-oriented fantasy. Thus, Elaine ironically embodies a nuanced, profound, and even tragic character precisely because she is constructed from the cheap and distasteful depictions of “ideal womanhood” found in low-brow pulp literature.
Biller’s aesthetic and conceptual references to pulp and playboy are a formal tool for, not only re-contextualising the representations of women in cheap, sensationalist and often exploitative narratives into empathetic characters, but also to explore a polarized gender dynamic, and the dangerous implications of the fantasies perpetuated by pop culture and mass media. Elaine—a candy-apple dipped in poison—embodies an alluring, yet toxic expression of the traumatic consequences inflicted by a society that, reckless with its imaginative powers, perpetually neglects to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch was released in 2016. To read more about her films, visit her website.