When you ponder the great films of the 1960s, what comes to mind? Maybe Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Blow-Up, 2001? Yes, yes, all very nice.
But when I’m jonesing for something that really exposes the shocking truth about that "turbulent decade," I head straight for anything that’s got "suburb" in the title. Can’t think of any such things? You are not alone, but for shame! anyway. Nothing mixes high camp and dated social relevance quite like the softcore smut of the "Swinging" Sixties, particularly those efforts centering on bored housewives and cheating spouses.
Nearly all the era’s exploitation greats made one, or several: Joe Sarno did the great Sin in the Suburbs, in which tract-house anonymous sex parties (the participants disguised by Druid-style robes) reach moral ground zero when mom discovers dad has inadvertently "had" little Susie! Famed goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis tasted something other than blood with the hilarious Suburban Roulette. Doris Wishman never used the word itself, but such flavorsome titles as My Brother’s Wife and Another Day, Another Man conveyed civilization’s hedonistic collapse well enough.
The heady year of 1968 alone brought ultra-obscurities Suburban Girls Club, Suburban Pagans ("It’s Startlingly Different!") and Make Out: Suburban Style. Clearly, Mrs. Robinson was not the only respectable-seeming freakaholic around.
These films flew under the radar then and aren’t all that easy to find now. (Try Something Weird Video, or S.F.‘s own Le Video.) But they have their fans, official #1 among which is now Anna Biller, who wrote, directed, edited, and did a hell of a set/costume designing job in Viva, a first feature that pays slavish tribute to just this subgenre.
Viva’s cautionary tale is aptly encapsuled by the poster line: "They were housewives seeking kicks, in a world of swingers, orgies, booze and sin that was the Sexual Revolution!" The new TV series Swingtown might provide a more dramatically nuanced view of those times, but Viva is a lot more fun.
Biller herself plays Barbi, whose voluptuous writhings and impeccable housekeeping just don’t seem to attract the attention anymore of hunky husband Rick (Chad Englund). When he takes a rare break from the office, it’s to indulge his manly-man sportsmanship interests—without her.
Fed up, Barbi is encouraged to create a "new, liberated me" by next-door-neighbor Sheila (Bridget Brno), whose own marriage to leering Mark (Jared Sanford) seems to be quite "open" and sexually active. Donning the alias "Viva," our heroine embarks on a series of titillating adventures that include a three-way, a hippie nudist commune, avant-garde artists, and a lesbian model. Naturally they’re all unfulfilling, however, and the sanctity of marriage is safely re-affirmed at last.
Viva demonstrates an obsessive knowledge of particular ’60s/early ’70s aesthetics, from the primitive cheesiness of the aforementioned Suburban cheapies to sexed-up TV liquor and cologne commercials to the Russ Meyer zenith-of-excess in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Her production design, captured by cinematographer C. Thomas Lewis in eye-popping color, suggests she’s been accumulating the most garish lifestyle artifacts of that era her whole life. Even the deliberately stilted pacing slyly parodies vintage grindhouse cinema. (Although at two full hours, Viva’s only major problem is that it overstays its welcome.)
You don’t need to have seen the movies she’s paying cheeky homage to in order to enjoy Viva. But afterward, you’ll probably want to.
Viva opens at the Red Vic Movie House this Friday with a live appearance by star and creator Anna Biller.
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