Viva (2007) is really an amalgam of elements from serious and campy late sixties/early seventies erotica and sexploitation films, filtered and edited through the mind of indie filmmaker Anna Biller.
In the brief making-of featurette included on both Anchor Bay and Cult Epics DVDs (more on each release shortly) Biller confesses she spent two years sourcing and gathering a huge collection of vintage materials - furniture, clothes, props, and party recipes – that don’t necessarily make the film an authentic period film, but a faithful cinematic reproduction of the images in magazines and films that sold a fantasy world of an idyllic sexual paradise.
Biller’s cinematic creation is a dreamland of repressed housewives, swinging husbands, bisexual tryouts, and the kind of jealousies that inevitably set up naïve characters for serious confrontations with the residual inhibitions they’ve been sheltering until being forced into a corner.
That world really existed in two places in feature films: the lewd and sleazy sexploitation films best-known from the Something Weird VHS and DVD catalogue, and filmmakers like Radley Metzger who genuinely tried to craft erotic narratives with more literary or operatic characters.
Viva isn’t a satire or comedy, but a celebration of the kind of sleazy and erotic films no one makes anymore because that combination of titillation and absurdity also mandates a lot of political incorrectness. Biller solves that problem by having husband Rick (Chad England) behave like a Playboy/porn mag caricature sprung to life, with the bad hair, the terrible posing, and a complete lack of sincerity, whereas wife Barbi is enough of a dimwit that she willingly listens to anything Rick or best friends Mark (Jared Sanford, who also co-produced) and Sheila (Bridget Brno) say.
That slide into lewdness preps her for exploring the life of an exotic model with Sheila, and it’s as a call girl that Barbi dons the name Viva. Barbi figures the whole spanking and sleeping and touching thing is fine, because her Madame is really just helping her find the right mate, now that Rick has left Barbi for the Colorado ski slopes in search of some sweater girl bunnies. Any cash is a bonus, since Barbi also lost her job after refusing her boss’ groping hands.
It’s only when she meets a sleazy hairdresser and a producer of an all-nude musical that Barbi’s holdout becomes a danger; when an obsessive photographer/sculptor can longer spank his monkey solo, he sets up an orgy and gets the girl of his dreams drugged up, and goes to town while she has (literally) animated psychedelic visions.
Eventually Barbi finds a balanced life, where she can indulge in some risqué behaviour, and still have a relationship with Rick and best pals Sheila and Mark, as well as enjoy performing in public by co-starring in an all- clothed musical (since an over-saturation of nudity has made the birthday suit kind of passé).
Biller’s strengths as a filmmaker lie in the fine details: the saturated Eastman Color photography, the periodic jump cuts, raiding vintage erotica soundtracks and the KPM music library, and crafting a story that uses similar sleaze archetypes and portions of standard genre storylines. As an actress, her performance feels more contrived that Bridget Brno, who wiggles into her character with great glee and energy, and avoids the sometimes monotone vocal timber and expression of perpetual befuddlement that Biller sticks with for most of the film.
Sanford’s take on Mark is grating, but you have to appreciate his near-perfect creation of a bad B-movie actor having fun ogling boobs and egging on women to drop their tops; Mark is lower middle-class, wannabe chic, and probably symbolic of what was Playboy’s largest (but least-publicized) reader demographic before Hustler and Penthouse came along. He’s what a men’s leisure magazine deplored but couldn’t ignore because he lapped up every bit of advice on stereos, canapés, and funky new cocktail.
All of the men have porn star hair (wigs or coiffed hair), the sets are identical to the poolside exteriors and cheap studio interiors of films like Hideout in the Sun (1960), and the clothing and set décor is meticulously colour coordinated.
Biller’s raiding of vintage music also pays off with Alan Hawkshaw’s funky organ music (“Delivery Date,” “Move with the Times,” and “ Beat me ‘Til I’m Blue”), snippets from Francis Lai (The Bobo), as well as snips from Piero Piccioni’s own delicious eros canon (Camille 2000, Il Medico della Mutua / Be Sick… It’s Free, and C’era Una Volta… / More Than a Miracle); one can get a composer to write in the style of the masters, but seriously, when the film’s scenes drag, all it takes is some vintage music to get the momentum up again, and it’s really startling how well Biller’s film matches the music so well.
Viva sounds like a perfect ride, and maybe for ardent sexploitation fans, Viva will click and come off as a masterpiece.
Biller’s mostly managed to pull off a tough balancing act by including elements from sleaze classics as well as Metzger’s more artistic creations, particularly Camille 2000 (1968), from which she patterned the orgy after that film’s S&M orgy where characters dance in various weird outfits, are led around on leashes, and have sex behind jail cell bars. Biller also has Sheila eventually become a variation of actress Silvana Venturelli, the pneumatic blonde who also wore a netted top over her bombastic chest in Metzger’s film.
In spite of its loving detail, though, it’s also flawed in its length; the pacing of many scenes often drags because Biller indulges is performance and actor reaction far longer than veteran sexploitation directors would’ve done in their 70-90 minute cheapies like The Sexploiters (1965).
Moreover, Biller’s original Unrated Version runs two hours and includes two music numbers and additional scenes somewhat toed to the finale where Barbi and Sheila participate in a sequined song & stroll, patterned after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Biller wrote five original songs, including Sheila’s ode to a horse (archived in a deleted scenes gallery in the Anchor Bay Rated version, but included in Cult Epic’s Unrated version), the finale, and Barbi’s Carmen Miranda dance at the orgy.
Anchor Bay [AB] assembles four deleted scenes in a separate gallery, of which three (including a stroll through a nudist beach) contain full pickles and/or beavers. The omission of these scenes sort of explains the occasional fadeouts that seem forced and not part of Biller’s editing style.
Cult Epics [CE] integrates all of the AB scenes in an Unrated version, and contains three additional scenes not present on the AB disc at all:
--- after Sheila and Barbi wade into the pool, there’s a poolside scene where Barbi is denigrated by Mark and Sheila for being so prudish. A second scene follows where Barbi takes off her top again and slides on one of Sheila’s dresses.
--- the third scene is a segment from Barbi’s visit to a booking agency. In the AB cut, the scene flows from the interview to Barbi and the agent moving to the reception area, where she makes advances after commenting on Barbi’s bone structure. In the CE disc, there’s a middle scene where the agent is annoyed by a racket from a nearby office, gets up, opens an adjacent door, and tells a colleague to ease up on the beaver trimming of a client because her giggles are too intrusive.
The other deleted scenes in the AB gallery include the aforementioned nudist colony (which really drags on for an eternity), and scenes where Mark decides to try out for a musical number. Mark’s scenes are useless, except for the fact they have him meet the musical’s producer, who invites him to the orgy where he sees Barbi as Viva perform a dance number.
Regardless of whether it’s the AB (pickles and beaver-free) or CE version (all fuzz and wieners in frank glory), Viva is really made for a niche market, but Biller’s devotion of the sexploitation genre will certainly have some checking out seminal works as well as the workmanlike fodder cranked out by David Friedman, or the T&A silliness from Crown International, for that matter.
Both DVD labels offer the same film experience – one just has more music and full frontal nudity – but the AB transfer offers a sharper image. That clarity is really noticeable in the stills montage, where set and behind the scenes stills are incredibly sharp.
Also different is the flat mono mix that gives the AB cut a more vintage feel, whereas the CD mix has been (slightly) spatially enhanced; in both versions, though, the jazz end credit music is in true stereo, as though Biller wanted to return us back to the present with a more contemporary instrumental jazz piece instead of a vintage cue.
Note: the AB sleeve doesn’t state the Deleted Scenes Gallery that’s on the disc, but in its place it lists a non-existent director’s commentary, only the behind-the-scenes video diary (identical on both DVD releases) contains Biller’s narration.
The extras, including a making-of/behind-the-scenes diary are fine, but what’s missing is Biller giving us some background info on herself, influential films, and more on the making of Viva instead of a rather monotone narration in the short video diary that focuses on what it’s like to act and director in a film.
The filmmaker has made a handful of shorts that showcase her huge interest in specific Technicolor and Eastman Color film photography, musicals, and eros, although these films are so far available from the filmmaker’s website.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan