Sarah Jacobson: American Genre Film Archive Retrospective at Austin’s Fantastic Fest – Alexandra Heller-Nicholas reports

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For those with an interest not just in 90s Riot Grrrl culture or women’s filmmaking but American independent cinema more broadly, the late Sarah Jacobson should be a familiar name. But the reality that ties the material archive so essentially to popular memory has rendered this — recently, at least– far from the case. Declaring herself as nothing less than “the queen of underground film” and having learnt the craft through revered underground filmmaker George Kuchar, Jacobson’s well-earned legacy as one of the most vital and original filmmakers of the late 20th century had until recently been hidden from the view of those who missed her the first time around and younger cinephiles hungry for a taste of genuine punk- feminist cinema.

That was, at least, until September this year, when Austin’s Fantastic Fest presented an American Genre Film Archive retrospective of her two most major works – the short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and Jacobson’s only feature film, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997) – presented in two brand new 2K preservations. Originally founded in 2006 as a 35mm film print archive for genre and exploitation cinema, the non-profit AFCA focus their attentions on restoring and preserving films that fall outside the parameters of what more conservative (and better funded) archives might consider ‘worthwhile’. AGFA have turned such assumptions on their head, and their restoration work on Jacobson’s film and the practical influence that has in returning her name to contemporary conversations about women’s filmmaking is invaluable.

Playing at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore has all the ingredients of a cult film staple; music by Mudhoney and Babes in Toyland, cameos by underground luminaries such as Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, and a fun, frank and feminist exploration of sexuality and identity. The cut-and-paste zine aesthetic so pervasive to Riot Grrrl’s DIY ideology was here rendered cinematic in a manner both pure and euphoric as Jacobson told the tale of a high school girl who worked part time in a cinema and her journey of sexual discovery. Written and directed by Jacobson and starring Lisa Gerstein in the lead role, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore has an energy and sincerity that so many films before and since have struggled to equal, yet rarely come even close to attaining.

From a 2018 perspective, however, Jacobson’s earlier short film I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is nothing less than electrifying. Lo-fi black and white cinematography and an unapologetic array of exposed rough edges, this barely half-hour long film follows a young woman on a killing spree, her patience for misogyny and the individual men she meets who represent it reduced to zero as she stabs, chokes and bashes her way through the patriarchy. The film’s final few moments when its protagonist explains her motivations strip away any suggestion of a subtext; this film has little patience for such indulgences, the experiences of abuse and harassment that lie at its heart are too real and too pervasive for such frivolities. This is women’s filmmaking at its fiercest.

There’s an inescapable excitement watching I Was a Teenage Serial Killer and its visceral “enough is enough” feminist fantasy, but what is so striking about the film today is how each man she meets, representative as they are of a different sexist attitude or cliché, are still so dominant today. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is, amongst so many other things, a breathtakingly prescient smackdown of the type of rhetoric that would become synonymous with Twitter misogy-troll faildads and dudebros, somehow made 13 years before the platform even emerged.

Passing away from endometrial cancer at the age of 32 in 2004, while projects such as the annual Sarah Jacobson Film Grant have worked tirelessly to continue this extraordinary filmmakers legacy, the AFCA restorations and retrospective could not be more timely. For too long Sarah Jacobson’s work has been hidden away in the shadows from too many; it’s time for a whole new generation to discover the fury, urgency and power of who she was and what she stood for.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).