Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Viva (2007)

Directed by Anna Biller
Starring Anna Biller, Bridget Brno, Jared Sanford, Chad England

"I've always wanted to be a prostitute. It sounds so romantic!"

Anna Biller is some sort of magical art-school girl from LA who produces lavish stage musicals and bizarre short films utilizing imagery and fashion from bygone eras. In Viva, she dresses herself and everyone around her up in eye-watering 70's outfits and lets 'em loose in boozy, sex-on-the-patio type situations, just to see what happens. From what I've read, she spent several years shopping at thrift stores and learning macramé to achieve the seamless retro look of Viva, and it shows. Nothing about this film, save for a few too-worn 'vintage' items, suggests it was made two years ago. Therefore, I'm going to pretend it's a lost sexploitation classic from 1972.

As Viva opens, we meet Mark (Biller regular Jared Sanford), the quintessential 70's man. He's boastful, horny, and unattractive. With his lop-sided helmet of hair and yellow slacks, he looks like everyone's pervy uncle. Mark lounges around his pool, chain smoking and fiddling with his new camera. His bosomy blonde wife Sheila (Bridget Brno, Caffeine) comes out to greet him.
"Good morning, lover," she purrs.
"You call this morning?" He says, nonsensically. And then they both laugh like mental patients.
Sheila tosses a few cubes of ice into her glass and Mark splashes in some Dewars. Then she picks up his copy of Playboy.
"Coffee and the paper," she says. "The perfect breakfast!"
And then they both laugh again.

Viva is the sort of film that you will know instantly whether you like or not. The acting is purposefully wooden, a clear homage to Doris Wishman's ineptitude and John Waters' aggro-camp. There is not one naturalistic performance in the entire film, and if Mark's droll laughter puts you off, things will only get worse from there. I can see why Viva is such a polarizing film, but I was riveted by this scene. As a small child growing up in the 70's, this is the kinda crazy bullshit I suspected was going on, but could not prove and would not understand even if I saw it. You can watch Viva and think Biller is putting you on, but she's really not that far off the mark. This is pretty much exactly the way I remember the 1970's.

Sheila settles down by the pool and leafs through the faded magazine (all the vintage books and magazine in Viva really are vintage, which is a distracting detail. They really should look brand new, shouldn't they?), pointing out that her "bustline" is better than any of the girls in the magazine. Mark agrees.
"That's right, honey," he says. "If I can say one thing about you, you've got great tits."
They start discussing the possibility of an impromptu nude shoot right there in their backyard, when their friend and neighbor Barbie (Biller) shows up. They ask her why she's visiting.
"Sheer boredom," she tells them, in a zombie monotone.

Anna Biller's sultry look in Viva appears to be influenced in equal measure by Tura Satana and Divine, but her performance is very much her own creation. She appears to be constantly posing, as if invisible paparazzi are snapping candids of her. At the same time, her flat affect suggests an over-medicated depressive with very little attachment to her own body. Barbie goes through the motions as required by the situation at hand - posing in her bikini with Sheila as Mark snaps pictures, or running around the grabby boss's desk as he chases her - but she always seems faraway, lost in some modestly-dressed Neverland where she's not constantly being pawed and pursued by men because of her soft, feminine figure.

Of course, her choice of clothing might have something to do with the powerful attraction men have for her. Barbie seriously enjoys sheer nighties. She is dressed in a particularly fetching peach-colored number when her leisure-suit n' toupee sporting hubby Rick (the awesomely named Chad England) comes home from a hard day at the office. She explains to him that she's been fired from her secretary job (she didn't let the boss catch her), and would like to become a model. He laughs and makes sweet 70's love to her on the floor. And then they throw a barbeque complete with deviled eggs and a Jello mold.

Rick leaves town on business, and Barbie decides to pursue this modeling lark. Her first stop is the Gladstone modeling agency, where she meets Miss Marker (Veronica Alicino), who looks her over and decides that, with a new hairdo and a makeover, she might be able to get her some work in "Catalogs and...art movies."
Miss Marker sends her to the hairdressers and then suggests the two meet later for a private photo shoot at her house.
"It'll probably go late," Miss Marker purrs, "But you can sleep over my house if you want."

Barbie visits Sherman (Barry Morse), a mincing, glam-rock hairdresser with a makeshift salon in his apartment and a belligerent next-door neighbor, Reeves (Cole Chipman), who comes over to watch him "work". The dandified barber doses their milkshakes, and Reeves attempts to seduce the drugged Barbie, but she passes out. So he just fucks the hairdresser instead. Barbie wakes up the next morning and takes off. Rick's had it with her new adventures in self-empowerment and splits, maybe for good.

Mark has also left Sheila, so she calls up Barbie and tells her to put on something sexy. She has a plan to capitalize on their newfound freedom, although she hasn't worked out the kinks yet. They dress up in see-through outfits and head into the city.
"Isn't this exciting?" Sheila asks. "Two girls in the big city without husbands!"
"Yes," Barbie agrees, but what should we do?"
"I don't know," Sheila shrugs. "Let's go stand over there and think about it."
And that's exactly what they do.
While the two women in their racy outfits stand in a doorway and ponder their next move, Mrs James (Carole Balkan), a madam from the local brothel, spies them from her binoculars
She trots over to them and compliments them on their sexy outfits.
"We want to have adventure," Sheila explains.

Mrs. James convinces them to try the exotic world of escort services, promising them they don't have to have sex with the men if they don't want to. Their first client is middle-aged doctor with a spanking fetish. They gently swat him and giggle. Afterward, he hands them a pile of cash. Things are going well.

Sheila changes her name to Candy. Then she dreams about purple horses and sings in the bathtub while chugging scotch. Barbie, now calling herself Viva, takes a gig at a nudist colony. Annie McAuley, from classic 80's Canuck teensploitation flicks Recruits and Loose Screws, is lounging in a hot tub when she gets there, and informs her that she'll have to get naked if she plans on sticking around. She refuses, but there's so many naked people already in the frame that it hardly matters. It is also remarkable how 70's people look when they're naked and either sitting in hot tubs or playing acoustic guitars.

By the way, there's an all-nude acoustic folk-rock interlude at this point. How could there not be, really?

Barbie bones the folk singer, Elmer (Paolo Davanzo), but the next morning, she finds herself unsatisfied.
"I thought I would hate myself for this," Barbie tells her hippy lover. "But I don't. I hate you."

Mrs James sends her out again, this time to see an edgy pop-art mogul with a British accent named Clyde (Marcus DeAnda). Despite finding him unattractive and off-putting, Viva moves into his space-age bachelor pad. Clyde introduces her to his way-out friends, including a Mr. Furley-esque grandpa named Arthur (John Klemantaski), who asks her to audition for his all-nude musical, and a foxy black chick named Agnes (Robbin Ryan), who she has a romantic fling with. Barbie's new life is going pretty well, until Arthur barges in one day and rapes her. Imagine being raped by Don Knotts?

Meanwhile, Mark has moved into a new, shag-lined luxury condo complete with nude women who show up to borrow liquor.
Staring straight at the camera with a bubbly naked redhead (Andrea Lain) on his lap, Mark sums up the 70's:
"There has never been a better time to be a man," he says. "The willing women, the dandy clothes, the frills, the big rings and jewelry, the open shirts, the sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savor this time, for it will soon be gone, never to return."

I very nearly wept.

Despite the fact that she's been enjoying his hospitality and wealth, Barbie/Viva has yet to consummate her relationship with Clyde.
Frustrated, he visits Mrs. James who, after all, set Barbie up with him the first place.
"She wants to be my friend," he scoffs. "Honestly, who wants to be friends with a girl?"
Mrs. James gives him a pill that will put Barbie into a "trance state". I'm not sure how that helps, but Ok.

Clyde throws a sex party straight out of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Barbie wears an Egyptian goddess outfit.
"Wow, you turn me on," random mustache dude tells her.
"Turn you on?" Viva mocks, puffing on her cigarette. "I turn all men on."
Viva performs an ear-battering musical number while people fuck on the floor all around her but nearly passes out from Clyde's weird pill. Mark recognizes his old neighbor and rushes to help (the only moment in the entire film, by the way, where a character shows any compassion whatsoever), but Clyde shoos him away, whisking Viva away to his bedroom. She starts hallucinating in cartoons while Clyde ravishes her supple body.

Things are sorta getting out of hand for our drowsy heroine. Will she continue down this dark path of cheap sex and designer drugs, or will she remember who she really is and rush back home to Rick? And where the fuck is Rick, anyway?

These questions and a fistful of others you haven't even thought of yet all get answered in the thrilling and sugar-sweet climax of Viva.

At two-plus hours (in the unrated Cult Epics DVD, at any rate), Viva is a commitment, on many levels. It definitely rides the thin line between eye-rolling performance art and dead-on kitsch, and is probably a tough watch for anyone not accustomed to soul-draining 60's and 70's sexploiters from the bottom of Doris Wishman and Harry Novak's trash barrels. But for freaks like you and I, it's pure z-movie delirium, a dizzy Nyquil cocktail of loony fashions, wall-to-wall nudity, and painful musical interludes. I could watch it everyday. Especially if I had a white shag rug to lounge on, and an endless supply of Dewars and Kents to keep me company.

Boners will most definitely be popped. And they'll be 1972 boners, which are the best kind.

Availability: Viva is available on DVD.

Clip: Viva trailer!

Link: Anna Biller's Website

- Ken McIntyre

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