Indie Flicks Part II: Viva

Whether it’s screwball comedy, film noir, giallo, or a spaghetti western, it’s extremely hard to replicate the magical elements of the best films within those genres. Sometimes playing a genre for laughs – noir in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – works (well, kinda) but it’s hard to make that tribute or homage work as well as an original.

Once in a while there’s an exception – Curtis Hanson’s stellar L.A. Confidential (1997) is a really beautiful noir – but going after a specialty genre like seventies sexploitation and erotica is even tougher, because those films rarely had a strong, engaging story and memorable characters to support a feature-length running time.

When Radley Metzger made Therese and Isabelle (1968), or Camille 2000 (1969), they were based on literary works and grounded by strong characters going through desperate stages of their young lives. When he took a poke at Carmen, Baby (1967), the directorial indulgences and his spin on Bizet’s opera were painfully ponderous; the film runs an hour and a half, but feels much longer.

That’s probably why B-level filmmakers knew you had to keep the film moving, and could only spend so much time on dialogue and character bits; the reason sexploitation films – quite a step away from Metzger’s more arty approach – worked is because the pacing was fast, the sleaze was grimier, and any dialogue was provocative or supremely absurd; the filmmakers knew their audience had limited patience between money scenes, and to keep the movies in play, they had to stick with a formula, or invent one that at least followed the rhythmic beats and flashes of tease to ensure most appetites were sated by softcore smut.

Viva (2007), Anna Biller’s take on the two offshoots – sexploitation and Metzger’s artiness – almost works, but she’s also larded the film with her own sense of the absurd, and for the most part she maintains a balance of erotic scenes, a great visual style, and a sense of the ridiculous mostly through sleazy dialogue, porn star hairdos, and a musical number where a jealous sculptor introduces a grotesque plaster ass.

There’s also the much-lauded (and deservedly so) period décor that grabs as many small and large objects, foods, and wardrobe from the seventies and tastefully spreads them through the film. When you see a film like The Burglars / Le Casse (1971) or Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), those films have some of the ugliest furniture, costumes, and hair ever put on film when they were in vogue. Biller seems to have taken a bit of a nod from Metzger’s crafty eye (and maybe Tinto Brass) and applied her own fine sense of colour and composition to give each set very specific design specifications.

(It’s also the ephemeral materials that are frighteningly right. I still have somewhere in a trunk my mom’s hook rugs, crocheted pillows, mountable psychedelic/op-art cloths, and Macrame plant holders with clay and wooden beads. The only thing I couldn’t spot in Viva was Batik, but maybe that was too highbrow and hippy. Hey, this is what happens when you grow up on a street where families did craft sales, Tupperware parties, and BBQs.)

Viva was made for connoisseurs of specific films from specific filmmakers during the sixties and seventies, but rather than ridicule the their work, it kind of celebrates the insanity that makes them so much fun. Novices may find Viva a great big bore, but perhaps Biller’s film might rekindle a deeper interest and examination of a genre that was quite prolific in North America and Europe.

Viva is actually available in an Unrated version from Cult Epics, as well as a Rated version from Anchor Bay, and I’ve done a comparison review between both releases so you know the pros and cons.



Copyright © mondomark