The Screen Cracked: Sarah Jacobson’s Hyperrealism and Reformation of Underground Cinema.
Jacobson’s legacy as the Queen of Underground Cinema becomes laminated, with a social realism that has a perdurable cultural resonation: pre-Generation Y, to the present.
Jacobson’s works construct different angles of the same portrait: transgressive fantasy and brutal realism. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer documents a day in the life of a young woman named Mary, who snaps into a serial-killing frenzy, targeting the men who objectify, rape and abuse her. On her depraved, yet strangely progressive mission she falls for fellow man-killer, Henry. Henry inspires hope in Mary when he reveals that his motivations lie in his hatred for the characteristics of heterosexual men, from the negative traits he, simultaneously, perceives in himself. Mary’s romantic fantasy is shattered when Henry’s deviance extend to violent desires towards women, re-invoking Mary’s justified cynicism in the male awakening and social change. The film ends with a faint optimism, as Mary proclaims that strength arises from voices of the marginalised that won’t be silenced, as she retires from her serial-killing career.
The opening sequence in Jacobson’s short establishes an aesthetic link to the Riot Grrrl movement: with the soundtrack jumping through a punk cover of Cypress Hill’s gangsta rap to Charles Manson’s eerie country jam, in what looks like a Bikini Kill music video - through the background of audio clips from a news broadcast announcing protests from women across the country against congress. Jacobson amplifies the grunge era with the imagery syncing in a frantic haze with each musical genre shift, forming an anti-surrealist distortion - as the spectator visually chases the scenery, setting the pace for documentary-esque mania. The biting and timeless themes of female struggle in Jacobson’s short’s refusal to leave any time to recover as the canvas is swept away in a tornado of transitions. But with Jacobson’s jarring stops in-between to highlight each wave of the feminist tsunami, it’s impossible not to digest and dissect the message.
While Jacobson’s short seems stylistically geared to the Punk Cinema elements of the underground movement - with it evolving, at a primary glance, almost like a music video. But, as the film takes its anarchic structure, the layers begin to unfold and reveal the pioneers of the underground revolution. Jacobson encapsulates Jack Smith’s compositions of radiant disorder. Much like Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Jacobson’s mise-en-scene merges together like smoke, through movement and transition, like a charcoal painting, wiped away with the changing vistas. Throughout Jacobson’s frenzied debut, there are consistent riffs within the chaos, similar to Maya Deren’s direction in Meshes of the Afternoon, where rhythm asserts the tone and intent, within erratic avant-garde nonconformity.
Unlike Smith and Deren, Jacobson reforms the underground scene with a thematic connection to hyperrealism, propelling Jacobson from the surrealistic roots of the original movement to an auteur in her own right. Where Smith and Deren resounded the socio-political through unconscious, surrealistic cinema, Jacobson rectifies political realities in plain sight. What makes Jacobson’s I Was a Teenage Serial Killer groundbreaking is that it combines a whirlpool of artistic movements in its development: from the Riot Grrrl movement in music, to the elements of In Yer Face Theatre. It’s impossible to determine what Jacobson’s predominant influences were: whether it was the music of cultural rebellion, the leaders of underground and avant-garde cinema, or the plays of Sarah Kane. But, what can be deduced is that Jacobson’s eyes to the socio-political climate of the time played a significant role, making Jacobson an artist and an activist in an inspiring balance.
Drifting from the transgressive fantasy of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore breaks through the screen with unequivocal sonority. The plot revolves around social outcast Mary Jane, who struggles to feel at home in the straight-laced suburbs, but fails to blend in with her slacker work colleagues, at her job in the movie theatre, downtown. To wash her conservative roots away, Mary Jane agrees to lose her virginity to the insensitive and emotionally stunted Steve. With her experience being cosmically disappointing, she soon realises that sex is far from the romantic illusions painted on the movie screen. While coming to terms with her melancholic epiphany, she begins to finally bond with her co-workers, when they connect through their shared horrors of their first times.
Jacobson’s avant-garde masterpiece Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore explores the continual displacement of women during the ever-changing definitions of the sexual revolution, but it also combines sincerity to the issues of growing up, puberty, friendships, and sexuality, formulating an intoxicating blend of undying cultural strains. Where I Was a Teenage Serial Killer began - through artistic connections to the underground movement, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore established a pronounced thematic connection to trends in ‘90s cinema. Through a format that functions through genuity, rather than marketable appearance. The gritty setting of Jacobson’s feature debut encapsulates the existential dissonance of the ‘90s, mirroring the techniques of Stiller in his ‘94 feature; but without the gloss of America’s romanticised nihilism, reality really does bite. Unlike I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Jacobson pulls the script into the focal point, differing from typical ‘90s angst-flicks, with a script that is written through natural speech and colloquial language. It establishes that Underground Cinema does not need ostentatious appeal to reel the spectator into the discussion, through Jacobson’s predominant connection to realism in her themes and dialogue.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore betrays the criteria of Underground Cinema in some respects. While Jacobson’s direction has the allure of urban entrancement - it drives through a linear narrative tunnel, with themes that reach unambiguous affirmations. Where traditional Underground Cinema evolved through an interpretative infrastructure, Jacobson’s reformation of the original model reflects the changing attitudes of Generation Y. And just like the youth of the ‘90s, Jacobson refuses to suffer the injustices imposed by the patriarchy. Where Smith’s Flaming Creatures provoked controversy in the semiotics, Jacobson’s New Underground Cinema does not submit to subtlety, instead it lays a foundation of relatability - with no holds barred narration. The film strives through unfeigned authenticity of the cultural issues that fall under the radar. While Jacobson’s works align in socio-political focus, they starkly drift in their executions. What stylistic applications, however, can be applied to Jacobson’s auteurship as a whole, is that the characters dominate the lens, with society residing in the background. Allowing Jacobson’s world of cinema to transcend eras, from the first-wave, to the fourth-wave of feminism.
Jacobson’s auteurship, through I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore combines the grime of ‘90s projection, with a profound sense of inclusion that provides the alienation of youth with a sense of unity. Where Underground Cinema’s roots prided itself in its obscurity, Jacobson’s transgressions transformed Underground Cinema into a loudness, with the means to deafen its oppressors.
‘Steph’s Words on Cinema’ is a newsletter which focuses on reviewing independent, experimental and art-house films. It is free so please do subscribe and share. I also write for Take One Cinema, Eye For Film and my twitter handle is @stephpbrown_