“I know you’ll refuse to be held down anymore! Don’t you let nothing, nothing stand in your way! I want y’all to listen, listen. Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” – McFadden & Whitehead
“We’re gonna fuck shit up!” – Sarah Jacobson
Boxes are great for only two things: moving and letting your pets nestle in them when you’re trying to move. The worst thing they are used for is to categorize art. The great Don Van Vliet knew that when he came up with the title Lick My Decals Off, Baby for Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s titular 1970 album. Decals, labels, boxes, categories, whatever you want to call them, they are as healthy for an artist as insurmountable debt, fickle producers/editors/publishers/distributors, and people that ask questions like, “So, when are you gonna get a real job?”
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot after watching, devouring, and re-watching late filmmaker Sarah Jacobson’s debut short film, I Was A Teenage Serial Killer (1993) as well as her sole feature film, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997). Even when Jacobson was still alive, phrases like “Riot Grrl” would be applied to her films and now in the post-Weinstein-trial era, “Me Too,” has been invoked a lot. I get it and while neither are inaccurate, it’s more than a little on the pat side. Even more so, it doesn’t even begin to paint the full picture of her work and these films. That is the ultimate problem with labels is that they are the poorest of painters. The gospel truth is that Jacobson was a firebrand of a creator and even though she left this earthly realm at the way too young age of 32, her wee but mighty body of cinematic work retains a purity of strength and the kind of no bullshit patois that is native to all the greats.
In 1993, Jacobson’s short film, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, was released. I remember first reading about it back in my junior high years in the pages of Film Threat Video, putting it next to the works of filmmakers like Richard Kern, Tommy Turner, and Jorg Buttgereit. (Quick interlude here, as I briefly revel in how amazing Buttgereit is. Der Todesking is sad-eyed perfection.) The film begins with the refrain of “I could just kill a man” in its opening song, sounding like a siren, both of the sonic and supernatural variety. Combined with the grainy black and white, Super 8 film stock, the first impression is that a doomsday riot is about to be ushered in. Righteous anger is both the order of the day and the driving spirit that moves our heroine, Mary (Kristin Calabrese), into becoming a young but prolific serial killer. Her MO? The worst stripe of men: the rapists, the inconsiderate who remove the rubber midway through sex, the misogynists, the mooks, and the overall knuckle draggers who never got the memo that we’re supposed to evolve past the opposable thumbs level of human development.
The premise backed by Jacobson’s gutsy direction is fleshed with black humor that never comes close into veering towards pretension or blind-Valerie-Solanas-esque-hero-worship. Calabrese’s Mary is likable and murdering aside, comes across like a person you could meet at a party that you would end up having a really fun and engaging conversation with. (Just don’t piss her off!) She’s smart and just as important, she’s human. A lesser and more obvious filmmaker with a firm message would make Mary less of a person and more of a meat-vessel for their philosophy. (Yes, exploitation comes in many forms in this life. Ever watch an Oscar-nominated movie?)
The most potent thing in this already powerhouse of a tiny but mighty film is the ending. Mary realizes that the only thing “worse” than killing is telling her story. That’s right. Sharper than a blade, faster than a bullet, and more devastating than bloodshed, is the ferocity of a mind smart enough to outlive and outwit bullshit. This is the kind of inspiration that goes beyond gender, class, or any other label.
Three years later, Jacobson would create her first feature film, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, resulting in a film that is simultaneously different from her debut short but also 100% shining with her personal stamp. This is one of the most real films you will ever see, which is a statement I do not make lightly, especially since out-of-context, it can reek of movie-poster-shilling. But to quote Roddy Frame from an Aztec Camera bootleg I heard years ago, “I wouldn’t fuck Van Halen for money.” and I, dear reader, am no ad-man’s whore. (Ignore the fact that Frame jokingly added, “Well, maybe for a lot of money!” It’s a joke that barely has any place here but was too good not to share.)
Jacobson opens the film with this beautiful pastiche of how deflowering can be portrayed in cinema, complete with soft music, pastel colors, and electric warmth. This abruptly cuts to our titular character, high school senior and budding filmmaker Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein), losing her virginity to a ho-dad named Steve (Shane Kramer) on a dirty blanket in a graveyard. Steve’s the kind of lover whose knowledge of pleasing his sexual partner is about on par with a Kama Sutra manual penned by Bill O’Reilly. In short, ugly, not very good, and something you want to forget as soon as you experience it.
Mary Jane’s journey into sex leads to us meeting the tight core of people that work with her at a hip movie theater where the staff includes local musicians, burgeoning drunks, hip nerds, and at the center, our likable heroine who is innately smart, a little naive, beautiful but awkward, and intellectually curious. I was never this cool as a teenager, admittedly, but Mary Jane is helluva lot more realistic than the swaths of “teen” films that littered the 1980s and 1990s. (More than one article about Jacobson and this particular title have noted that she was influenced by the work of directors like John Hughes—undoubtedly by what not to do as a storyteller.) The cherry on top is that Mary Jane is never given some idiotic makeover where the naturally pretty girl is given some clothes from The Gap and contact lenses, resulting with everyone acting like she’s suddenly the second coming of Cheryl Tiegs.
One of the sweet beauties of this film is the fact that we get a peek into the various characters confiding to Mary Jane about their first time. These are stories that cross genders and orientations, but the unifying field is that everyone’s entrance into the world of sex is typically less fireworks and more like “…is that it?” That’s right. We’re looking at a movie with a universal heart here and for many of us, a universal truth. Losing your virginity is something that always plays better in your mind than it does in reality.
Coming of age stories are far from new, but so many of the films in the 1980s and 90s that dealt with the topic tended to be written more from a revisionist teen fantasy perspective from the writer, than anything resembling an ion of truth or real life. (Both 1987’s Wish You Were Here and Boaz Davidson’s Lemon Popsicle (1978) and its US remake, The Last American Virgin (1982) are some strong punch exceptions.) Frat guys and nerds who got to bag the cheerleader were not the ones writing the scripts. And you know what? Fantasy is fine but it’s also refreshing and infinitely more compelling when the messy truth of growing up comes out. In Mary Jane, instead of cardboard cutout characters, we get a high school girl who is a misfit that never gets the conventional makeover, a likable nerd who would rather stay friends with our heroine because women do get “friend zoned” too, a drunken misogynist with a good hidden heart, a badass punk rock girl who ends up falling for someone unexpected, etc. Jacobson’s cast is warm, distinctive, and vivid, bringing great life to her sharp writing.
The 1990s was a decade where it felt, briefly, that independent cinema could become big enough to become a viable rival to the Hollywood studio system. Obviously, this did not quite pan out. To quote the Fallen Angels, we had a dream but the dream died, because independent films, as in truly DIY to the bone, would get overshadowed by “indie” cinema and corporate constructs like the Sundance Film Festival. The cold truth is that any movie getting released by entities like Miramax are not independent. Former Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s path of rape and abuse transgressed not only literally but metaphorically too, with the company swiffering their bits all over indie cinema. They did release some genuinely great films too, but if you’re getting that kind of distribution and money, you are now a white collar filmmaker. I’m a firm believer in hating the game not the player, so there are directors that fit that descriptor who bring something great to the table. The goal, as naive as it was, was for their blue collar counterparts to have the same chance of success and exposure. As for Sundance, the fact that 1994’s slacker-shit-fest, Reality Bites, debuted at that festival is all you need to know. When your indie festival is showing a film from Universal starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller, then you have fully gotten on your knees and orally serviced the devil.
Did independent cinema truly die? Of course not. It’s like when critics opine over how punk is dead or this or that is dead. It makes great click bait but the reality is that there was and always will be individuals who make their own art, damn the torpedoes and all. The DIY spirit is a strong one, because it takes guts, heart, and balls to create when you have little-to-no money, zero “big” connections, no major distribution or any distribution, or any shards of fame. (What a heinous word that is…like throwing glitter on Tupperware.) No ulterior motives and no nonsense, just pure expression. Does this mean every indie, no budget film is brilliant? Hell no. Badness is a quotient that truly knows no bigotry and does not discriminate purely because of budget. All the money or none of the money, what matters at the end of the day is the filmmaking itself.
Looking at these films by Sarah Jacobson brings so much of this to mind because why was she not given more of a chance? She died young, which didn’t help, but there were seven years between Mary Jane and her death in 2004. Thanks to AGFA (American Genre Film Archive), we have a collection of these two films, as well as some of Jacobson’s other shorts and music video work. The woman was far from idle in her post-Mary Jane years, staying involved with production work and writing. It’s a heartbreak that we were robbed of this artist and it is an equal heartbreak that she is not a bigger name. The former is unchangeable, but hopefully this release will help solve the latter.
At the end of the day, what is the most important way to label art? Does it move you? Done. Sarah Jacobson was a great filmmaker whose impact, vision, and heart-like-thunder reverberates to this day and moment.
Labels are for the weak but heart is for the worthy. Lick my decals off, baby indeed.