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The Queen of Underground Cinema: Sarah Jacobson and The Mess of Movie-Making

It's very romantic to view the creative process as an inherently transgressive one, and making movies should be, as it's one of the most collaborative modes of making art. However, filmmakers are at the mercy of production companies funding their projects, who in turn inform the market and decide what will sell. People who have no connections within the industry, aren't rich and aren't willing to comply with a company trying to churn out another forgettable money-making sequel/revamp/remake, don't seem to have much of a chance at all.

Nostalgia has been a burden on culture, and maybe it always has been, but particularly recently, we cannot escape it. I'll admit myself it's really hard to not look back at the past and think 'it seemed so much easier to get an interesting and unique film made back then'. The 90s in particular seemed plentiful, with some of my favourite directors like Gregg Araki, Cheryl Dunye and Ngozi Onwurah making formally interesting and politically charged work. 

Sherry B. Ortner wrote in her article titled Against Hollywood: American independent film as a critical cultural movement that the virtue of being independent is being free from a system that is uninterested in engaging with 'the dark realities in contemporary life' and that whilst not all indie filmmakers are angry at Hollywood, they view themselves as making movies from a place of 'passion', not profit. As the world becomes worse financially, with more money going into the hands of conglomerates, achieving the status of indie filmmaker seems more like a dream for rich people than any of us normals. Art cannot be democratised when discussions about class aren't had. It's as simple as that.

As much as I try to not deify people I admire, or reminisce about a time I literally wasn't alive for, the buzz I get when I uncover a film, or series of films, that speak to the present moment in a compelling way, that subvert form and structure, that echo the bubbling anger of Gen X in a way that I hyper-analyse like one might do with a bit of snot in a microscope, is intoxicating.

Sarah Jacobson was not a major success in the way we might think. To my knowledge, she didn't make a lot of money making movies. In fact, she had to crowdsource before that became a commonly used term, making her only feature movie for $50,000. More than this, her work existed to be radical. Following in the footsteps of directors like Susan Seidelman, Jacobson aimed to make movies about women and even created The S.T.I.G.M.A Manifesto where she outlined what should be involved in 'Girlie Movie-Making Action', which included tenets like 'no dissing fat girls' and 'more eating pussy'. All of her films seemed to breathe the idea that women were worth telling stories about and, more importantly, that these stories could be told outside of Hollywood, for a fraction of the price, all whilst retaining the elements that would undoubtedly be removed to not offend the audience.

Her short films, including Sweet Miss: The Disco Years (1988), Road Movie Or What I Learned In A Buick Station Wagon (1991) and I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) are all shot in black and white, a key element to many Gen-X directors' first movies, with the filmmaking chops often being conveyed with slick editing and avant-garde narrative decisions over expensive sets and laborious colour correction during post-production. Like other first movies, they present a distinctive and audacious style, deliberately provocative and experimental as the constraints of a production system had not yet got their hands on them.

Sweet Miss uses a fish-eye lens and incorporates physicality over skill when it comes conveying a story - that of three glitter punks barging into Sweet Miss' house and her struggling to get them out. It's short and harmoniously sweet, communicating an, albeit, minor frustration with modern life - people being in your house when you just want them to leave!

In Road Movie and I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, the anger is more potent and this time, it has a mouth. Both are scrappy and put across a sense of feeling maligned specifically because of the desire to be seen as a person, as a woman, and being chastised for saying this out loud. There is a certain brash candidness that comes with the Riot GRRRL aesthetic that is deliberately jarring and often feels anti-art - telling and not showing but instead of telling, you're screaming in someone's face. The episodic mode of these two movies invites us into the tedium of misogyny, and warns that there is only so far women can be wound up before they burst and do something crazy. And these crazy things could be something as simple as keeping the movie you're making the way it is (a la Road Movie) or, like in Teenage Serial Killer, hunting down and murdering creepy, misogynistic men.

The teenage sex comedy typically ends with a loss of virginity. The adult sex comedy will inevitably reflect on the often outrageously debaucherous actions of the film and conclude that heterosexual monogamy was right for the protagonist after all. There is a constant reiteration of 'normal', despite allowing the audience to dip into more taboo (often kinky) themes without the social repercussions. It's a sub-genre of vicarious pleasure with a heavy emphasis on 'cringe'. The intended outcome is imposing an implicit shame for transgressing the bounds of sexual exploration and gently pushing the audience to view these acts (which are often queer in nature, in all senses of the word) as wrong.

As the title quite brashly states, Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore (1996). And then the story kept going. The film begins with a very disappointing first sexual encounter where it's very clear that our titular protagonist didn't enjoy herself. Rather than taking this as an immovable fact though, Jacobson uses her only feature to demand more from the sex comedy, having Mary Jane explore herself sexually, fully abandoning the notion that when you're a woman, sex is to be endured and that it won't be very good but sometimes it might be. It manages to do this without sacrificing its humanity, using its didacticism to be funny, awkward and even upsetting sometimes. In her own words, Jacobson 'wanted guys to be able to see it from a girl's point of view, [...] understand women and not have to be all embarrassed about [sex]'. 

There is an image of militant feminism as joyless and sexless, without humour, unwilling to compromise. What Sarah Jacobson seems to argue with her work is that women are often pushed into a corner and then demonised for lashing out at mistreatment, and she does this in a way that seeks to reclaim bodily autonomy for her characters, mocking the systems in place that create this kind of rage in the first place. 

One of her last films is the documentary of her 10 year High School Reunion, released in 2003, and once again, its candidness seeks to interrogate and offend its audience's sensibilities. At many moments during the film, I couldn't help but cringe at the way she repeatedly confronted people who bullied and mistreated her as a teenager, only marginally alleviated by how willingly to keep the peace everyone at the reunion seemed to be. She is honest with the fact that she wanted to become famous to make people she went to school with jealous and talks about how she didn't want to end up being a good person if it meant acting like the Christian girls who bullied her. 

Jacobson was well respected amongst her peers for her filmmaking talent as well as her community building, and seemed to walk the walk in a way that many directors don't. Her films contained mess, contained the edges of the world, showed the wrinkles and pores, no matter how grainy they ended up in the final cut. I miss and actively seek out the scrappy artists who no one is paying attention to because I'm also one of those people. Making art is a labour of love very often, but it's still labour and it's often work that people don't want to pay for. The world feels bleak for art, for movies. In my opinion, 2023 was one of the strongest years for film in a long time. And, one where many artists had to strike in order to prove how important they were to the production of this very profitable year. 

My eyes are on filmmakers like Jane Schoenbrun, Alice Maio Mackay, Natalie Jasmine Harris, who are working today and making films that feel deliberately disobedient to the mode we are used to, their movies being spread by word of mouth (via social media) and gaining small pockets of intense praise where they maybe wouldn't have a couple of years ago.

I have hope for movies, for the small artists. How very brave of me.


extra credit:

Plagiarism and You(Tube)

The Future of TV is Bleak

Stolen Sharpie Revolution

Foxfire (1996, directed by Annette Haywood-Carter)

Go Fish (1994, directed by Rose Troche)

Dyketactics (1974, directed by Barbara Hammer)

Born in Flames (1983, directed by Lizzie Borden)