At most of the major international film festivals there are programs of older works exhibited alongside the new releases and premieres that ostensibly drew the crowds in the first place. With no small amount of pleasure, I’ve noticed (anecdotally if not statistically) that Boston-area festivals have begun to follow suit with greater regularity: Last summer’s Boston French Film Festival included Jean-Luc Godard’s early-period film Les Carabiniers (1963); last fall’s Boston Women’s Film Festival included a screening of Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) co-presented by our friends at Strictly Brohibited; this coming weekend sees Tunç Okan’s The Bus (1976) play as part of the Boston Turkish Film Festival at the MFA; and finally this year’s iteration of the Wicked Queer film festival will include four different “WQ Throwback” selections, those being Frank Ripploh’s Taxi Zum Klo (1981), Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989), Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times (1991), and Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader (2000).
But when it comes to this particular side of festival programming, it’s likely that no other local has been as dedicated as the Boston Underground Film Festival, which for the last 10 years has nearly always reserved at least one spot in its relatively-limited lineup for a repertory selection, including standouts like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) back in 2009, and Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1983) just last year. At the 21st annual BUFF, happening as this article is published, a rep pick has once again emerged as an early highlight of the entire program: A program of two works by the American independent filmmaker Sarah Jacobson (1971-2004), her 27-minute short I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and her feature-length teen comedy Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1998), both just restored by the American Genre Film Archive.
Shot in black and white on 16mm, rife with discontinuous edits and dubs, characterized by ostensibly transgressive material including depictions of gore and blasphemy, supported by a near-constant barrage of punk music on the soundtrack, and initially distributed on tape via sales made in-person by the filmmaker herself, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is in many ways a rather typical film of the underground cinema as it existed in the VHS era. It stays with Mary (Kristin Calabrese) as she offs four different stand-ins for objectionable male behavior—first a guy who berates her for her looks, then one who secretly removes his condom while they’re having sex, then one who catcalls her on the street, and finally one who betrays her deepest trust. The emphasis here is not on the “action” of the violence (which is suggested more than seen, within the bounds of the underground tradition), but more on the ostensible fantasies they fulfill for character and viewer alike: When Mary sends the catcaller under a moving truck, it’s not the traffic accident which the filmmaking depicts most clearly, but instead Mary’s response after the fact—she spits in her victim’s face, in a shot that’s seen from the perspective of the corpse, and then she delivers a one-liner as she leaves the scene, at which point we cut to an onlooker, another woman, who excitedly approves of the whole situation, “Cool!”
Serial Killer is best during its occasional moments of seemingly-reckless camera movement, which seem to express something of the DIY ethos that characterized the film’s production and distribution. However a larger amount of its running time is taken up by traditionally-blocked dialogue sequences, a kind of scene that for this writer is not only better suited but also better executed in the film that Serial Killer is paired with at BUFF, Mary Jane. And within the context of that larger program, Serial Killer works as a fairly ideal entrypoint to Mary Jane (at least for minds with auteurist leanings), being that it pretty much clearly states artistic motivations that would stay with Jacobson as she wrote and directed that longer feature—for instance her wish to provide a woman’s perspective on the pre-established iconography of the American cinema, and to perhaps to offer a bit of wish fulfillment for an underserved audience in the process. The closing monologue delivered by Calabrese in Serial Killer (spoken to a man who hits on her immediately after she opens up to him about traumatic abuses she once suffered) relates directly to that mission, almost sounding like a line pulled from one of the many interviews published with Jacobson when her feature began traveling the circuit a few year later:
“No one wants to listen to my story, and then I get this anger that I’m not allowed to express because it’s not right for a woman to have any rage. You can have your fucking James Dean image and be a hero to society, and I have just as much pain, if not more, and no one can even look me in the eye and say ‘I’m sorry’!” -Mary (Calabrese), in I Was a Teenage Serial Killer
“It’s like, look, you’ve got your little thing over here, you’ve got your B-movie aesthetic, and I’ve got my interpretation of it that girls can enjoy, too, so you don’t always have to watch the bimbo get raped or slashed or stalked or whatever.” -Sarah Jacobson, in an interview with the Austin Chronicle, published March 20, 1998
I Was a Teenage Serial Killer does vaguely gesture toward certain tendencies of the crime films of the ’80s and ’90s (even anticipating certain techniques used in Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers), but with Mary Jane, Jacobson even more thoroughly offers her “interpretation” of a subgenre, in this case the teen-romance-movie. This connection is something that she made explicit in another 1998 interview, with Keith Phipps of the Onion/AV Club, where she confided, “I secretly love Molly Ringwald movies, but I also kind of hate them, too. I kind of wanted to make one where Molly gets to have sex.” That’s pretty much exactly where Mary Jane starts, first with a fantasy sequence that seems to lampoon ’70s pornography (another fantasy sequence later cites Ringwald directly), then with a hard cut to a slightly more realist scene where Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) is having noticeably unpleasant sex in a cemetery (the film is set in Minneapolis, where Jacobson grew up, although it was actually shot in San Francisco). From there Jacobson’s script features Mary in dialogue sequences where her friends and co-workers (at a repertory film theater) tell her about their own first-time experiences; that cycle of scenes is followed by a set of different conversations where she gets character-specific explainers on subjects including masturbation and communicating during sex; all leading to the second half of the film where Mary Jane puts her newfound knowledge into relatively-successful practice, such as in a pleasantly chatty sex scene with local hunk Tom (Chris Enright). That sequence is replete with examples of what is now more broadly known as ‘affirmative consent,’ one of many small behavioral details within Mary Jane that suggest it was on some level ahead of its time, or more specifically, that suggest it would have been much better suited for release in 2019, and into a media climate that places an undeniable primacy on artworks that depict positive or ethical behavior, as opposed to its having being released into the world of 1998, where it indeed failed to even obtain home video distribution.
On that note, following its first screenings at festivals in 1996 and 1997, Jacobson ended up touring Mary Jane herself, traveling from town-to-town with the print at her side and selling $15 VHS tapes of Serial Killer in theater lobbies afterwards. But don’t necessarily read that as a choice made due to personal beliefs—a 1998 feature published by the San Francisco Chronicle suggests Jacobson didn’t reject the establishment so much as she found herself unfairly left out. For instance in response to the fact that Mary Jane wasn’t picked up by a distributor at Sundance ‘97, she’s quoted as saying “it pissed me off… These Hollywood people, these investment bankers said girls don’t go to movies unless their boyfriends take them. And that’s a load of crap. So I am here to prove them wrong.” The release strategy she devised to do so, described in the same feature, is one of unending labor, with Jacobson left to fill all the jobs that even a very small distributor would’ve spread across a sizeable team of employees: “She’s on the telephone for hours each day, schmoozing small theater owners across the country. She sends them a tape of her film and badgers them for a commitment to screen the movie. That’s when she’s not sending out hundreds of mailers, contacting the media and stapling neighborhoods with posters.”
As a result, Jacobson’s films were pretty much outside general circulation after that self-operated Mary Jane tour, aside from occasional repertory showings including some memorial screenings following her death in 2004. That’s not to say the films were unavailable—16mm prints were and still are listed for rent via Canyon Cinema, and VHS-sourced bootlegs were at some point uploaded online—but they were seen rarely, to say the least. For awhile it’s even possible that Jacobson was best known for her fandom towards another film, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1982), which she regularly wrote about (she published criticism rather prolifically), even campaigning for a rerelease (semi-early in the DVD era) and co-directing a short-form tribute film, The Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie (2000), which first aired on the IFC program Split Screen (1997-2001). Which is all to say that I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore—in a sense not unlike the once-buried Fabulous Stains—are just two more examples of how film history is mostly if not entirely written by the distributors. And while one shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking “film history as written by curators or archives” is an alternative without its own flaws, it’s nonetheless heartening to see Jacobson’s films rescued from oblivion by those very institutions, given these works are so clearly worth the effort. Perhaps that’s just because the continued existence of a worthy cultural object which once sat precariously on the edge of being is for me a victory held with at least a little sentimentality. But for proof of the legitimacy of that precariousness, by the way, one need only try and look to Jacobson’s personal website from her touring days, often cited by writers of the time as being central to her artistic practice, which you’ll find is now offline and inaccessible.
Thanks to this pair of preservations (from defect-ridden materials which don’t exactly detract from the films’ larger formal strategies), we can today see the later film for the highly-mannered aesthetic object it really is, without having to question what’s intended and what’s just a byproduct of the bootleg. Historically most writing about Mary Jane (and Serial Killer) has justifiably focused on the work’s perspective regarding gender roles, but this has inadvertently led to a situation where very few have even described how Jacobson’s film actually looks, which for this writer is something like a strange amalgamation of multitudinous differing visual languages including those established in videos by George Kuchar (a mentor) and movies by John Hughes, all resulting in something that feels like an after-school special produced on a skate-tape’s budget. Following the style established in the dialogue-based sequences of Serial Killer, Mary Jane maintains a relatively traditional sense of composition throughout in terms of both form and narrative, but Jacobson’s execution of these compositions turns them, and the film itself, inside out—in the manner of an empty pocket: The necessarily-threadbare aesthetic found in all of her work (across even student films and music videos) is most distinct in this feature, with relatively typical imagery like “teens sitting on the counter and talking at work” made extremely odd and entrancing by the textural qualities of the filmmaker’s bargain-basement craftsmanship1, like the way she frames close-ups against blank or black walls to save on unnecessary settings, or the way her film’s light sources seem to illuminate only about two-thirds of most long shots, therefore allowing the loose ends and incomplete corners of the locations to fade into agreeable darkness by leaving diagonal streaks of indiscernible space above and below the more standard centers of her setups. Artificiality is heightened, then, never hidden, a choice reflected by the script itself, which eventually leans into the sort of melodramatic twists favored by the teen-oriented films and television of the ’80s and ’90s—as if to reclaim the commercial coming-of-age narrative with all its agreed-upon parts intact, not quite subverted, just rewritten in a different idiom.
Dealing as it does with slackers, “skaters”, workplace-misbehavior, kids in bands, kids who drink too much, kids who smoke too much, and kids who desperately want for anything to do besides the aforementioned, had this film been released soon after its premiere it likely would’ve been processed by audiences and critics alike as one of a cycle of movies that worked towards a ‘90s-oriented rewrite of the teen-comedy format for the sake of the then-thriving U.S. independent cinema market, a reading that would’ve placed it alongside films like Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), Clerks.2 (1995), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Girls Town (1996), and Whatever (1998). By touring and exhibiting Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore in the present day, the AGFA and BUFF not only place Mary Jane in conversation with the cinema of the current moment (which joins it during this and various other recent festivals), but they also work toward correcting an oversight of the past—they place Jacobson’s film into a long-overdue conversation with the films that might’ve been its peers.
1While speaking of Mary Jane’s production values, I’d be remiss not to also mention its quite-exceptional closing credits sequence, with cut-out letters arranged ‘zine-style, likely a nod to Jacobson’s work contributing to many such publications.
2Though Jacobson’s strategies for composition and blocking are quite often televisual, when seen together her collected works do reveal at least a couple of striking formal trademarks. One of those recurring techniques is that she often frames characters so that they’re speaking directly into the camera frame, and these shots are usually edited back-to-back-to-back so that we experience a barrage of comments all at once. For example there are numerous instances of this technique in Mary Jane, including some where Jacobson depicts a rush of inane complaints delivered by patrons at the repertory movie theatre where her characters work. Multiple critics have suggested these sequences might have been a response or reference to similar ones in Clerks., but in fact one can find Jacobson using that specific technique in one of her earliest student films, Road Movie, or What I Learned in a Buick Station Wagon (1991).
THE BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2019 RUNS 3.20-24 WITH SCREENINGS AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE AND HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. THE FULL SCHEDULE, AS WELL AS TICKETS FOR INDIVIDUAL SCREENINGS, CAN BE FOUND AT BOSTONUNDERGROUND.ORG.
MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE AND I WAS A TEENAGE SERIAL KILLER PLAYED AT THE HFA AS PART OF BUFF ON SAT 3.23 AT NOON. BOTH FILMS ALSO CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON FANDOR.COM, WHICH DOES REQUIRE A SUBSCRIPTION.
THE 18TH ANNUAL BOSTON TURKISH FILM FESTIVAL TAKES PLACE AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS 3.21-4.7. THE BUS SCREENS ON FRI 3.22 AT 5PM. THE FULL SCHEDULE AND OTHER INFORMATION CAN BE FOUND AT BOSTONTURKISHFILMFESTIVAL.ORG.
THE 2019 ITERATION OF WICKED QUEER, THE BOSTON LGBT FILM FESTIVAL RUNS 3.28-4.7. THE FULL SCHEDULE AND OTHER INFORMATION CAN BE FOUND AT WICKEDQUEER.ORG.