ANNA BILLER: LIFE OF A STAR

Did you go to school for filmmaking and theater?
Yes, I studied theater in high school and college, but my major at UCLA was art, and later I did my graduate work at CalArts in art and film.

I read somewhere that you had problems at CalArts with people accepting the films you were making. What was happening there?
CalArts is a heavy theory school. What I had a hard time doing was convincing people that my fantasy-oriented work, which seemed frivolous on the surface, was actually serious feminist work. It’s not as if I was some kind of con artist, trying to make claims for my work that weren’t there. What I actually did is I made a film based on feminist texts I had read, attempting to answer the need for a women’s cinema of visual pleasure. I admit it was weird, because I came in with my own kind of film and my own version of feminist theory, and no one had ever seen anything like it before, and I was asking people to just accept it on the strength of its own merits. Some people got it right away and were very supportive and even zealous, but there were others who mistrusted it and even tried to get it blocked from bring screened. There was no indifference, just these two camps. And this kind of excited me, because it was such a strong response. Because I would see all of these loser rich kids gliding by doing hardly any work and being championed by the faculty, and I’d think, this is real. This is a real, emotional response.

How are the reactions to your films now?
Pretty much exactly the same. There are the die-hard fans and there are the skeptics. But I continue to be inspired by the skeptics, because they teach me so much about the assumptions people make about things, and about the deep emotional baggage that people bring to films. And this makes me feel sort of impish. After “Three Examples”, the skeptics came mostly in the form of derisive techies making fun of my production values, which by the way were intentionally a little raw and handmade-looking. So in response to them I made Incubus, which was slavishly careful about lighting and realism in the sets, and now those same skeptics go “harumph, it looks great, but that’s all it has going for it, it’s not a real story.” And then I get these people who think that just because I play a Victorian heroine it means I’m prim and proper and naïve. So I think., “hey, I’ll make a conventional narrative full of sex and nudity, and then see what people say!” Because essentially my ideas are going to be the same, no matter what shape they take. And so I let peoples’ opinions actually shape my work. I always listen to people, because I don’t like to work in a vacuum- it’s not just about me, it’s about how my work relates to culture. That’s really what interests me.

A Visit from the Incubus deals with a woman being ravaged in her sleep by a demon. Is this a personal fantasy of yours? Do you see Freddy Krueger as a sex symbol?
First of all, the incubus is not a fantasy, but literally a nightmare. The word for nightmare in Latin is in fact incubo. After this, the comparison to any other nightmare and horror figures, up to and including Freddy Krueger, ends. The most important distinction between the incubus and other horror figures is that the incubus is a SEXUAL demon, not a violent demon. And I think this is a very crucial distinction, especially if you’re going to bring up fantasy. Because I don’t think it’s anyone’s fantasy to be brutalized and slashed by a horrible monster.

As for my reason for making an incubus film, I’ve had incubus dreams all my life. They were usually not sexual, but were all about being pressed down or suffocated by a heavy animal or person. This is actually one of the main characteristics of the nightmare, or literally “the mare of the night,” that it lays upon the victim and squashes the air out of it so it can’t breathe. If you look into dream analysis, having a nightmare of this sort means that the dreamer feels powerless, and unable to move or accomplish things in life. When I thought about it, it seemed like an incredibly powerful metaphor for how women feel in culture. You’re constantly being kind of undermined and everything social is extremely difficult and stressful. And your efforts to do things are often met with laughter or forceful denial. You feel like you’re constantly rolling down a hill being pushed by the snout of a fierce animal, and you get more and more exhausted every time you try to get up and climb the hill again.

The other reason the incubus is so interesting to me is because of its sexual element. It’s like those old fairy tales like Bluebeard or Beauty and the Beast, which were about teaching young girls about the fearfulness of husbands. In the same way, the incubus is about a young, inexperienced girl’s fear of sex and sexuality, but also about her curiosity of it. The young girl has desires she can’t understand and doesn’t even want to know about, along with wonder about sex and her own body and the body of the other. She unconsciously may want to be possessed by a handsome stranger, at the same time feeling revulsion about everything male and sexual.

It’s important to note that when Lucy and Madeleine, the two girls in my film, talk about the incubus with a mixture of revulsion and excitement, that this represents the ambivalence of the young girls regarding sex, and not a desire to be raped by anyone. They live in a repressed culture, where sex can’t be talked about openly and where desires of lonely girls are met only through dreams. In my story, what happens is that the girl Lucy is a prime victim of the Incubus because she is sexually unfulfilled, but she hates the incubus and is a helpless victim of his attacks, not a willing participant. It’s true that the incubus was her first lover and after his visit she was “feelin’ like a woman,” but she uses this experience as a way of strengthening herself. She now understands her sexuality and her power as a woman, and goes out and wields it on a group of cowboys, enchanting them, getting lots of healthy attention, raising her self-esteem, and becoming financially independent.

So, I’m using the incubus to show the world through the eyes of a woman, sort of like in the movie “The Fly” where you see the world through the fly’s eyes as dozens of images swarming around with the fly’s many eyes. And on top of this it’s not even the real world you see with this new vision, but the world of narrative cinema.

More incubus and beyond in part four of ANNA BILLER: LIFE OF A STAR>>>




Posted on June 11, 2004 in Interviews by
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