The '70s is the decade that keeps on giving. Its continued appeal, confirmed most recently by Viva, Anna Biller's amusing flip of the skirt to period sexploitation movies, is that it lends itself to a singular combination of nostalgia and condescension. We look back fondly on the '70s as a more innocent time than today, Watergate notwithstanding, but man oh man, what a compendium of fashion and decorating disasters.
Biller, who wrote, directed and edited Viva and designed the costumes and the sets, also stars as Barbi, a dim, busty housewife who lives in suburban L.A. with blow-dried mannequin Rick (Chad England, looking a lot like early-period Peter Graves). They are stuck in some weird time warp, abiding by gender roles left over from the '50s and only vaguely aware that the times are a-changin'. They read Playboy and presumably they're familiar with the pill, but they aren't exactly hip to its social repercussions.
Barbi's buxom pal Sheila (Bridget Brno) is quite a bit more provocative, no doubt because she's married to sex maniac Mark (the lasciviously ludicrous Jared Sanford). When Barbi and Sheila split from their hubbies (for some contrived reasons that escape me now) they cluelessly embark on a wacky tour of L.A.'s sexual cornucopia.
Viva makes the most of a couple of swell set pieces, notably a visit to a nudist camp complete with a musical number. (The credits list one Jenny Hedley as "nudist tambourinist," a welcome addition to anyone's resume.) Curiously, though, for all the nudity on display the movie contains precious little sex. There's a sweetness (and a nuttiness) to Biller's re-imagining of the pre-AIDS '70s that is unquestionably endearing, yet also willfully shallow.
It would be a mistake to take this parody's sexual politics too seriously, not least because it's awfully hard to decipher them. Barbi (who adopts the nom de guerre Viva at the beginning of her adventures) isn't naïve so much as stupid. She isn't a liberated woman, or even a libertine, but an obscure object of desire whose only power is to say no. Indeed, she and Sheila take their husbands back near the end of the movie (although a hint of independence is tacked on).
Basically, you're better off forgetting about Shampoo, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Boogie Nights and every other movie that dealt with sex in the '70s. Just enjoy Viva as a lark, a joke and an homage to the kind of skin-baring that was titillating and shocking back in the day, and barely warrants a yawn now.
Viva does do a terrific job of capturing the look, sound and vibe of both the '70s and the decade's movies. From Mark's red leisure suit to the macramé plant holder hanging in some love pad, from the deviled eggs and lime Jell-o mold adorning a BBQ buffet to the Paco Rabanne that serves as a plot point, Biller displays a solid eye for detail and a genuine affection for the tackier aspects of American popular culture.
Cheesiness, in fact, is the prevailing theme of Viva. The problem is that we're sometimes unsure if that's the desired effect or a consequence of limited talent. As an example, almost all of the male actors playing lecherous studs seem to be gay. It's a pretty good joke, if that's the intent, but it undercuts the digs Biller takes at heterosexually omnivorous Angelenos.
The film could do with more snap, and two hours is a long time to sustain a parody. Yet Biller's outstanding achievement -- the costumes and sets notwithstanding -- is that somehow Viva manages to avoid the narcissistic air of a vanity project, even when its creator/star is decked out and carried out like Cleopatra at the climactic (pun intended) orgy scene. That's no small feat, especially when you consider that the stupendously talented writer-director-star Orson Welles tripped over his own ego once or twice.
Viva runs Friday, July 11 through Tuesday, July 15 at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. Anna Biller will be present after the Friday and Saturday evening shows. For showtimes, visit the Red Vic website.