Today marks the start of 2018’s Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US. Fantastic Fest specializes in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action movies, and just generally strange and unusual fare from around the world, and festival organizers are dedicated to championing challenging and though-provoking cinema, celebrating new voices, new stories, and new filmmakers.
This year, those filmmakers include a number of feature films from female directors. Women as leads in filmmaker are often the minority, and in genre film even more so. However, Fantastic Fest’s programming this year promises to showcase a number of both new films from women, as well as a significant indie filmmaker of the 90s and one of my personal favorites: Sarah Jacobson.
Sarah Jacobson is somewhat of a cult icon in indie filmmaking, making films primarily in the early to mid-90s with low budgets but big underground appeal. Her two best known films – I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1998) – were shown in festivals at the time and earned a devoted following, partially because they were standouts in the DIY film community, but also because of Jacobson’s voice and attitude that’s on display.
The very cool American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) here in Austin is responsible for bringing Jacobson’s work to Fantastic Fest this year. I spoke with AGFA’s Alicia Coombs – who, like me, is also a huge fan – about why we love her, why her work is being featured at Fantastic Fest this year, and why she’s still so relevant, both in film and in the larger culture, even now.
TODO AUSTIN: What is it for you about Sarah Jacobson?
ALICIA COOMBS, AGFA: Everything about Sarah Jacobson and her work is exciting and inspiring to me. She knew she wanted to be a filmmaker at age 16, and when she went to Bard College and all the uppity avant-garde people told her she would never be a filmmaker, she said, “Fuck you!” She transferred to San Francisco Institute for the Arts, where under the tutelage of George Kuchar, she had the freedom to make exactly what she wanted, and I WAS A TEENAGE SERIAL KILLER was the major work to come out of that time. It’s not a technical masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s funny and dark and terrifically creative. To see that kind of vision in a 22-year old is amazing.
She and her work are always paired with the words DIY, punk and riot grrrl. She would never have considered herself part of any “scene”, but she was inspired by the tactics of indie/punk record labels and publishers. She handled every aspect of filmmaking from pre- to post-production. She promoted and distributed her work herself with self-made tapes and handmade cover art, with only her mother helping her sell the tapes. She didn’t need or want permission from anyone to do exactly what she wanted with her work, which is so inspiring considering she chose film – the only medium that really needs money and collaboration behind it.
Her feature, MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE came out in 1998, which kind of missed the boat on the indie film boom, where producers were giving those kinds of filmmakers bigger opportunities. Jacobson was not shy about expressing how much she loathed “Indiewood” and how it only paid lip service to “independence” and churned out films that were just quirkier versions of the status quo. I’m pretty sure if a big producer had called with an offer, she would have told them to fuck off. And I love that about her.
The 90s independent films mostly fit into two broad flavors, depending on what influenced the filmmakers more: There’s the French New Wave inspired self-important stuff, and the genre-inspired “Look how clever and edgy I am!” stuff. Both sides come across as being driven by the male ego, and it’s no surprise the best of those filmmakers easily made it into the Hollywood fold. Sarah Jacobson is so against all of it, I don’t see many points of comparison with her contemporaries, except for maybe Gregg Araki. Araki’s work up through NOWHERE has a truly rebellious energy – punk, if you will – that’s overtly queer in the way Jacobson’s work is overtly feminist.
The work itself speaks to me because she’s influenced by some of the same things I love, namely horror and melodrama, and uses those genres to illustrate stories about female anger and frustration – which I’m all too familiar with! I think every maladjusted 14 year-old girl needs to see her films. God, I wish I’d seen her work when I was 14!
TODO: How do you think Jacobson’s films were influenced by feminism?
AC: Both films are about feminist awakening – being a young woman and realizing just how badly guys are treating you, and what a raw deal you’re getting just trying to navigate the world. No one warns you, no one teaches you about the ways you’re going to be disrespected, and when you realize it’s happening, you’re pissed off! I WAS A TEENAGE SERIAL KILLER is a short that handles the rage head-on. Mary handles every instance of disrespect – being spoken down to, catcalled, her pleasure ignored during sex…with murder. It’s purposefully overt and over-the-top, wickedly funny, satirical while also saying, Yeah, I am that fucking angry!
MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE, Jacobson’s only feature, is a subversion of Hollywood’s biggest lie – the teen film. It covers familiar ground for a coming-of-age film – working your first job, figuring out what to do after high school, navigating relationships – but the feminism is in the utterly real way it depicts a teen girl’s sexual life. No other movie, before or since, has been so honest about how much women’s introduction to sex actually sucks. Opening the film with Mary Jane’s disappointing “deflowering” shows it’s not the climax of any grand story, but often a conflicting experience at best, and the beginning of a long period of having to figure out sex and pleasure for yourself.
TODO: How does Jacobson fit into Fantastic Fest and the general theme around the festival this year?
AC: Now that AGFA has three screening slots at Fantastic Fest, we present an array of that year’s preservations. We show a Bleeding Skull collaboration, a Something Weird collaboration, and choose our most exciting and important AGFA restoration – presenting the Sarah Jacobson double feature was the natural choice. We made the deal with Jacobson’s estate in 2017 and received the materials for the restoration in 2018, so we weren’t sitting on the materials and we weren’t going to wait on them, either. Jacobson deserves recognition no matter the cultural climate, but it does feel really good and really important to be making her work visible now. Last year’s controversies around Fantastic Fest really brought to light how the film community has been functioning under a boys’ club mentality that needs to be overthrown. It’s tragic that Sarah Jacobson isn’t alive to see us burn that system to the ground, but she still gets to be part of it.
Sarah Jacobson passed away in 2004 at the age of 32, so most likely her true potential as a filmmaker was never fully realized. However, through the preservation work of AGFA and Fantastic Fest, her work is still reaching new audiences, finding new fans, and her voice continues to be relevant in today’s film community.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore will screen alongside I Was a Teenage Serial Killer as part of Fantastic Fest. More info at fantasticfest.com/.
Ticket info at fantasticfest.com/attend/tickets.
More about the American Genre Film Archive at www.americangenrefilm.com/.