Film

The Riot Grrrl Films of Sarah Jacobson

Thanks to a new release from the American Genre Film Archive, an obscure yet ahead of her time feminist auteur is finally getting her due.

From I was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993), dir. Sarah Jacobson (all images courtesy American Genre Film Archive)

Sarah Jacobson is one of the most tragic “What if” stories in American film. A promising director mentored by the legendary George Kuchar, Jacobson had only two major works under her belt when she died of uterine cancer in 2004 at the age of 32. But those two works — I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997) — pack more fury, vulnerability, and authenticity in 122 minutes than most directors do in decades, and are finally widely available for the first time.

Jacobson’s black-and-white short, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is an adrenaline shot of riot grrrl rage. It eschews plot for pure feeling, offering a distinctly feminine language of the forbidden ecstasy found in not shutting up and not backing down. Mary, the teenage anti-heroine played by Kristen Calabrese, is introduced after killing a man; she forcefully applies  lipstick (even though the film is without color, we can just feel that the lipstick must be bright red) while the title credits inform us “Written, Directed, Shot, and Edited by: Sarah Jacobson.” The movie is a masterclass in DIY filmmaking: Jacobson and her cast and crew of volunteers made it with borrowed equipment for just $1,600.

From I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993), dir. Sarah Jacobson

Mary is faced with the kinds of everyday sexism many women can relate to: catcalls, insults, snide remarks, even a lover removing a condom during sex. But instead of brushing it off or ignoring it, Mary reacts with extreme violence. When her brother tells her to shut up and get a husband, she doses his beer with mouse poison (and takes the rest of his six-pack); the sneaky lover who “doesn’t like” condoms is choked to death in an act that looks more satisfying to Mary than the sex ever was. A cat-caller is pushed in front of a bus, and Jacobson’s camera lingers lovingly over the spilled blood and entrails of the aftermath. The film’s unfettered violence make it kin to its B-movie ancestors (the title is a play on a 1957 exploitation film) until the final scene, when Mary vocalizes the pain of abuse without resorting to violence. She realizes that she can use her words more effectively than any weapon; “My story exists whether anyone’s going to listen or not,” she declares, a rallying cry for wounded women everywhere.

Jacobson’s only feature, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, starts with another relatable scene: the camera cross-cuts between softly lit scenes of a couple making love for the first time and Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) with a guy flopped on top of her, sweating and slapping against her until she tells him it’s not working. Losing your virginity is hard work, Jane realizes, and she doesn’t want any part of it. Besides, she has school to worry about, not to mention her constantly fighting parents. Suburban Jane has a job at a cool movie theater in the city that helps her rise above the indignities of everyday teenage life. Jacobson clearly understands the importance of finding your chosen family; movies are Jane’s way of curing heartbreak, ignoring the real world, and making new friends.

From Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997), dir. Sarah Jacobson

As the title suggests, sex is at the center of the film, and is presented naturally and judgement-free: characters talk about losing their virginity at 15, and one of Jane’s coworkers reveals plainly that she was raped for her first time. But it only counts as losing your virginity, she explains to a wide-eyed Jane, if you say yes. What a radical, affirming message for teenagers to see on screen! Jacobson’s treatment of Jane’s conflicted teenage heart and body is warm and forgiving, assuring the audience that mistakes are a part of the process of growing up, too. Gerstein and Calabrese play two sides of the same coin — angry, confused, with something to say and no one to listen. The two women, both with curly hair that takes up the entire screen on close-up, give remarkable, full-bodied performances for Jacobson.

Until recently, unless you were lucky enough to catch a rare theatrical screening, you were virtually unable to see Sarah Jacobson’s life-changing films (must-sees for the teens in your life today). Thankfully, the American Genre Film Archive has restored both films from their original 16mm elements, and will be releasing The Films of Sarah Jacobson on Blu-Ray and DVD next week. This set, along with the work done by friends, family and admirers keeping her memory alive via the annual Sarah Jacobson Film Grant, solidifies Jacobson’s legacy as a top-tier feminist filmmaker, one who left us far too soon.

Starting September 17, The Films of Sarah Jacobson will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The American Genre Film Archive. The two-disc set is currently available for pre-order. 

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