PCMS: Elena Gorfinkel

May Philadelphia Cinema and Media Seminar

Elena Gorfinkel, Bryn Mawr College
"'Dated Sexuality:' Anna Biller’s VIVA (2006) and the Retrospective Life
of Sixties Sexploitation Cinema"

Friday, 9 May 2008

American sexploitation cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s has gained a second life in the past two decades through a boom in video and DVD distribution and re-release, and consequently a new, generationally distinct audience, who plumb the depths of the films for their political and aesthetic transgressions. This presentation proposes that what appeals to cult audiences in the present about the “impoverished” tableaus of sexploitation films, a genre that unfurls melodramatic male fantasies about women’s erotic agency in the 1960s, is precisely the shunted melancholia of obsolescence. This is an obsolescence that inheres not only in the strivings of the films’ politically retrograde plots, but also in their erotic content, in the material evidence of their mise-en-scène, and in the extra-textual residues of their embattled mode of production.

Sexploitation films maintain a hold on contemporary viewers precisely through the films’ constriction by history, by their seeming containment within their own historical moment and inability to transcend it - as if “time capsules” without a destination. An exemplar of the penchant for “dated sexuality,” filmmaker Anna Biller re-stages the pro-filmic universe of the sexploitation oeuvre in her film VIVA (2006). A Far from Heaven of sorts for the sexploitation cineaste, VIVA’s narrative of two women’s “entrance” into the sexual revolution and its meticulous reconstruction of the genre evokes both Radley Metzger’s lush soft-core films as well as the commodified landscape of the late 60s and early 70s, embodying itself as a time capsule constructed in retrospect. Biller’s vintage mise-en-scène exhibits a collector sensibility that indulges in a productive form of historical fetishism. In “the big lighting, the plethora of negligées, and the delirious assortment of Salvation Army ashtrays, lamps, fabrics, and bric-a-brac,” the film stages the archive of the 1960s and early 1970s as a diorama or an art installation, a space which Biller (as central character Barbi/Viva) enters and inhabits. VIVA, in its indulgence in the artifacts, shoddy conventions and “outdated” precepts of the genre, encourages a historiographic reconsideration of the sexploitation form, particularly in how it speaks to the spectatorial experiences of women, the “undesignated” audience of the genre, as well as to public memories of the sexual revolution. Professor Gorfinkel argues that Biller’s relay of her own spectatorship of the sexploitation genre represents a way of imagining female spectatorship as a form of cinephile wandering through the historical frame – and through a cathexis on the world of forgotten bodies and discarded objects, both material and cinematic.

Respondent: Patricia White, Swarthmore College

Temple University Center City Campus (TUCC) Room 420


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