Anna Biller on Classic Films and Twitter Feminisms

To date, the independent filmmaker Anna Biller has tweeted somewhere in the ...

To date, the independent filmmaker Anna Biller has tweeted somewhere in the ballpark of 27,000 times. If you don’t know the director from her Twitter feed @missannabiller, you may know her meticulously stylized feature films Viva (2007) and The Love Witch (2016). Biller’s Twitter feed is half self-explication and half film studies curriculum, complete with notes on what she’s watching, thoughts on classic film theory, and discussions of feminism, femininity, and misogyny on screen. In a recent week, Biller’s feed included photos of locations she’s scouting, fan art, a Hitchcock quotation, a discussion of the young Ingrid Bergman’s performance in A Woman’s Face (1938), and the observation that “When Buñuel wanted to signify the destruction of the world and the proliferation of vice, he often used rock music on the soundtrack.”

Katherine Fusco recently had the opportunity to ask Biller about her use of the platform.


Katherine Fusco (KF): When did you decide to start using Twitter?


Anna Biller (AB): I started using Twitter to promote my film The Love Witch. I didn’t have a distributor or a sales agent, and I wanted to get the word out about the film, especially through the film stills, which I knew were striking.


KF: Which accounts did you find interesting?


AB: At the beginning, I just started following people who were tweeting about classic movies, 1930s fashion, and movie stars—stuff like that. I found to my delight that there was a thing called “film Twitter,” a loosely connected group of cinephiles who shared my interests. That’s still mostly what I use it for—to share a love of cinema with people.

I follow @tcm, @filmstruck, @selfstyledsiren, @NitrateDiva, @Decervelage, @ClassicalCinema, @DanceronFilm, @HollywoodComet, @MeganMcGurk, @cjubarrington, @MoviesSilently, @Criterion, and many more. I do also follow some feminist accounts, but I don’t really use Twitter for that. But the kind of “film Twitter” I belong to is itself a kind of feminism. Many of the accounts I follow are owned by women with an interest in women’s pictures (a classic film genre), in women’s stories, in female dignity mixed with sexuality, cleverness, and glamour.


KF: I’ve followed the debates you’ve held on topics ranging from Laura Mulvey’s “gaze” essay to Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s stance on gender. Could you say a little about which debates seem to unfold most fruitfully via Twitter?


AB: Debates go well as long as you are careful not to accidentally insult peoples’ taste. I did that a few months ago when I criticized the misogyny of certain tropes in horror films. I didn’t mean to insult the fans of those films, but that’s how the tweet was taken, because it wasn’t worded carefully. It then became a debate not about the male gaze in horror cinema but a bloody fight, in which people were defending their right to watch and enjoy horror films. So that conversation turned out not to be productive. Most people on Twitter who weigh in on feminism—and most people in general—don’t understand feminism, so they think that saying something isn’t feminist means that it isn’t “good.”

I have mostly lost interest in debating feminist topics on Twitter for now because of the venom it provokes. Hopefully I’ll get that interest back at some point, but with all of the misunderstanding and rage out there, it almost doesn’t seem worth it. I’ll do it now more through championing a feminist pre-Code film than through addressing anything current.

Biller’s Twitter is half self-explication and half film studies curriculum.

KF: I think a lot of women who make art or write for a living are interested in Twitter but are afraid to use it because of online harassers.


AB: I have been trolled on Twitter. Usually it’s because I tweeted something that people consider controversial or because my tweet was awkwardly worded or expressed an idea too complex to be conveyed in a single tweet. Most often I get trolled in response to hot-button issues such as feminism or violence against women (in fact, I think, in every case). But a lot of people on Twitter are bored, and they live for the moments when someone seems to “slip up,” and they can skewer that person. Sometimes people barge into my mentions and try to force me to debate issues with them, and if I refuse they say they are “willing to do the work of educating me” (usually on issues that I’m well versed in). MRA [Men’s Rights Activist] men in particular have a tactic of engaging women in conversation only in order to try to argue them into the ground, thinking that women are stupid and can’t win arguments. It’s tempting to engage them in order to eviscerate them with logic, but I’m too busy for all of that high school nonsense so I don’t engage with those people anymore.

I think that the more women who use Twitter and voice their concerns, the easier it will be for others to speak. I say to women, “Don’t let yourself be bullied or harassed off the platform.” If someone asks you a question and the tone seems hostile, ignore it. It’s not your job to engage with anyone who is trying to provoke you.


KF: You haven’t always been happy with the way critics have understood your film influences. Do you see your Twitter use as potentially guiding the way people might view your films?


AB: It’s not that I haven’t been happy with the criticism; people see films through the lens of their own subjective experience and viewership, and they have every right to do so. It’s more that the voices were so one-sided in terms of being written from a male perspective (because most film critics are male). My work is designed to appeal to both men and women, for different reasons, and men reviewing the work seem to mostly miss the female point of view. So I have been trying to add my voice to the discussion to even things out.

I have also never seen so many reviews for a film in which the criticisms were so much about my intentions, which people mostly got wrong, i.e., “She intended to make a bad film. Why would anyone want to do that?” (I was trying to make a good film). Or, “She is making fun of old movies.” (I’m not.) And then later, after I objected to people saying that I was only doing parody: “Why does Biller say she’s not doing satire when she obviously is?” (I never said I wasn’t doing satire; I said I wasn’t making parodies of old movies.) But I’ve noticed that after tweeting about my ideas for some time now, the persistent misconception of me as a sexploitation director is starting to recede, and I’m starting to be seen more as a classic movie fan who borrows from old Hollywood.

KF: Why do you think critics misunderstand your references or film historical lineage?


AB: Some of it is lack of familiarity with the films that I watch and have been influenced by. If the only Technicolor movie someone has ever seen is Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, then they might say, “She’s obviously copying Russ Meyer.” Or if nudity is the defining factor for them, they might say, “She’s doing sexploitation.” Some of it is a persistent belief that women can’t create meaning, but can only copy what men have created. Some of it is that when people encounter an unfamiliar or outdated style, the style eclipses everything else for them, and all they experience is “a one-line joke” about the style. I do play with texts, genres, and visual styles, something feminists have been doing for at least 100 years. You have to present the stereotypes in order to deconstruct them. It seems so obvious that that’s what I’m doing in my work, but it’s so often misunderstood. Perhaps it’s also because men enjoy my work, and thinking about it with a feminist perspective ruins it for them. Feminism is, after all, a boner killer.


KF: I know you’ve come across the Lili Loofbourow essay on the “male glance” that swiftly and dismissively engages work by women artists. How well does this characterize reactions to your work?


AB: Oh yes, I loved that essay, and I do follow Lili. That essay is very accurate in the way it describes male dismissiveness of female work and of females in general. It’s very accurate to my own experience as well. Women who are not ambitious and who don’t threaten male supremacy have no idea how ugly it can get if you try to take just one tiny corner of the world for yourself. Sometimes men will express rage even when I am discussing my own work, since they want to know more than me about everything, including what I myself have created.

I always think about the story Lili Loofbourow tells in that article about how a female professor won a prize and the male professors saw her acceptance speech as a gaffe instead of as a masterful performance. I can’t help but see their reaction as partly a passive-aggressive attempt to diminish her accomplishment because she won the prize and not one of them. Negative bias in viewing women is a big problem, not just in life but in movie roles. I’ve had so many confusing conversations within the industry about this. Female executives are more interested in women’s stories than male executives but often can’t imagine themselves or other women as powerful in movie roles. When I suggested a plot point in which the female protagonist becomes president of the United States to a female executive, she said that it was not “realistic,” which was funny because it was right after Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote.

One example of negative male bias is a review I read on the site Letterboxd about the film Rashomon. The film details four different accounts of the same event, each from the perspective of a different participant. But the reviewer said that in each story the woman seems to be at fault, even in her own story. The reviewer (a film critic) was upset because the film seemed to take the point of view of the rapist and to blame the woman for her own rape. But that was one story out of four, and he could not see that the film in no way privileged the rapist’s story over the others. That’s a prime example of women always being wrong and of their words not being taken seriously, even in a fictional account carefully crafted to give each story equal credibility.

You have to present the stereotypes in order to deconstruct them.

KF: Do you see Twitter as a potential tool for addressing this dismissive “glance”?


AB: Yes, in the sense that any public forum is a chance to address any issue, but I haven’t found a feminist community on Twitter like I’ve found a film community. That may be due to the different kinds of feminism and how they don’t agree on many basic things.


KF: As you work on the Bluebeard film, are there parts of your process you want to share with your followers?


AB: I like to share images or ideas that I find exciting and that I think will stimulate others, but I don’t like to give too much away. I will share snippets of things I’m reading or images I’m amassing, but I try not to share so many details that people will think they’ve seen the movie before it comes out! So if someone asks me directly if I’ve found my locations, where I’m shooting, who I’m casting, who is producing, et cetera, of course I can’t answer any of that.


KF: Lastly, do you expect that the reception of the new film will be different due to the way you’re educating people on Twitter?


AB: Yes, I do. One thing I’ve worked hard at is trying to give people a sense of my interest in classic cinema, so that they have references outside of 1970s exploitation. After tweeting for a year or two about classic movies, I glanced at a review site and noticed that some of the reviews were mentioning pre-Code or noir references in my films, which had never happened before. So I think—or hope—that people are starting to look at my work in a different context and to see more clearly what my ideas and influences are.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch (2016). IMDB