L.A. artist/filmmaker Anna Biller gets Viva right - and wrong - down to the last detail
I pity any unsuspecting moviegoer who walks into a cineplex screening of Anna Biller’s Viva not knowing what absolutely must be known about it: This is supposed to be art, not a regular movie. An important distinction, indeed, considering that the artistically impressive film is also one of the worst movies you’ll ever see.
Viva is the mother of all vanity projects by Biller, a Los Angeles artist who has previously made short films, written plays and musicals, and whose blog bills her as a "writer, director, producer, designer, composer, performer, choreographer and editor." Biller’s first feature film is a full-colour, full-screen, two-hour, pitch-perfect homage to 1970s sexploitation films, written, directed, edited, produced by and starring Biller, who made the film over a couple of years’ worth of weekends.
The duality of Biller’s film suffuses every one of her outrageously over-the-top scenes, in which each detail, from her lipstick to the drapes, hits its mark with utter perfection. Viva, which is described in publicity materials as a tribute to the genre of exploitation films of the Playboy era, such as Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Suburban Roulette and Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000, is quite the artistic tour-de-force: Biller herself decorated some 30-odd sets and amalgamated as many costumes for her dozens of actors, and of course dressed herself to the nines, because, in truly self-reflexive artist style, she stars in every single scene.
The tradition of contemporary artists co-opting cinematic genres for subversive artworks is firmly established (Cindy Sherman, anyone?) but Viva goes one better: This is a homage that is more real than the real-life genre it is supposed to be imitating. Biller gets her sets right down to the garters and pineapple-ham canapés, not to mention the sleazy, nauseating sex scenes at a suburban swingers’ pool, at an orgy, in a nudist colony, at a gay hairdressers’ salon, and anywhere else you might expect to find our swollen-lipped, blowsy ’70s ingénue.
However, there is a quality besides period perfection that haunts the film as well, and that is unwatchability. For every iota of success Biller has as a postmodern commentator-cum-imitator of her chosen genre, there is the fact that the film, as an entertainment product, contains all the undesirable qualities of its genre: horrendous acting, grating voices, unlikely scenarios, horrible mise-en-scene, stomach-turning sleazyness, gratuitous full-frontal nudity with a truly ’70s variety of body-grooming habits, and so forth. Truly a trip back to a swinging-er era, for those of us who desperately want one, as well as those of us who are glad we missed it the first time around.