Spotlight: Sarah Jacobson
Sarah Jacobson’s bio is a short one. It fits neatly, sadly, into a paragraph. See:
Born in Minneapolis in 1971, Sarah was a precocious teen who decided early to be a filmmaker. By her twenties she had clubbed together with her mum Ruth to form Station Wagon Productions, a one stop DIY outfit dedicated to making, distributing and promoting Sarah’s movies. At the San Francisco Art Institute Sarah made her first short film, the raw and radical I was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) for $1,600, which she self-released. She followed it up with her first and only feature, subversive teen satire Mary Jane is not a Virgin Anymore (1997). A sold-out screening at Sundance Film Festival heralded Jacobson’s arrival, but her bright filmmaking future was not to be. In 2004 she died of uterine cancer aged only 32.
Written like this, Sarah’s story is a simple tragedy of lost potential. Two significant films, a promise unfulfilled, an early death. Yet despite this tiny body of work, she has become a legend of the indie underground. Far more than a paragraph has been written about her. Part of the reason for this lies in the content of those two films - their boldness, outspokenness and sense of style. And part of it lies in Sarah’s skill for opportunism, for capitalising on a moment and making it hers.
Sarah’s self-declared ambition was to make movies about and for young women. Her films encapsulate this, focusing tightly on teenage girls and showing us the world from their singular perspectives. Teenage Serial Killer is a horror satire, described wryly by Sarah as “the story of a 19-year-old girl who has a series of run-ins with various condescending men”. Sick of sexist pigs, Mary (Kristian Calabrese, all sizzle, no fucks), begins calmly murdering men, punishing every micro-aggression – a sexist comment, a catcall, a ‘stealthed’ condom – with brutal murder. Shot on grainy 16mm, its a gleefully grimy watch that draws on B-Movie pastiche to make a righteous point about the shit women and girls deal with every day.
Mary Jane is not a Virgin draws upon a similar sense of feminist outrage, but cleverly contains it within the conventions of a coming of age movie. The opening sequence shows us a fairy-tale fantasy of virginity loss – satin sheets, a tender lover, declarations of love – before cutting to the grim reality of Mary Jane’s actual experience – a painful one-night stand in a graveyard with an insensitive meathead. The story that unfolds is less about Mary Jane’s sexual encounters, and more about her evolving relationships with the friends (and occasional lovers) she works with at a local cinema, a group of misfits on the cusp of adulthood. Familiar themes are elevated by Sarah’s playful energy, rough-and-ready style and unapologetically pro-girl/pro-sex perspective. There are no murders in Mary Jane, but we get some equivalent, if less gory, moments of catharsis; our heroine ends the movie triumphantly humiliating her one-night stand having just been gifted a dildo by her girlfriends.
Both Teenage Serial Killer and Mary Jane could be classified as teen movies. Prominent references in both to Rebel Without a Cause (1955), arguably the originator of Hollywood’s obsession with the teenager, suggest that Sarah was keen to draw out connections to this cinematic lineage. That quintessentially (but not exclusively) American genre underwent a resurgence in the 1990s, as the male gaze-y John Hughes’ dominated 1980s, gave way to new voices, including a wave of female filmmakers.
Amy Heckerling’s seminal Clueless (1995) is a prominent example, a film that embraces the gloss of pop culture but still gives its heroines the chance to be witty and fascinating on their own terms. Less well known but equally brilliant is Leslie Harris’s debut Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992), which combines exuberant hip hop style with a sharp racial commentary, to tell the story of a brilliant black girl’s turbulent growing up in Brooklyn. In 1999, two years after Mary Jane, Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader would channel a similar feminised John Waters aesthetic and sense of kitsch to tell the story of a cheerleader sent to a gay conversion camp. Sarah was operating further away from the mainstream than these examples, but it’s intriguing to see how across the spectrum, from studio to independent to DIY, female filmmakers were becoming fascinated by the challenges and possibilities of capturing the experience of the teenage girl on screen.
Part of the reason why Sarah’s films caused a stir at the time, and why they are remembered today, is because they captured a cultural moment. In the early 1990s, the Riot Grrrl movement was emerging from the Pacific Northwest, calling out misogyny, sexism and bro-culture and inciting “girl-led” revolution. Bikini Kill, formed in 1990, released their first album in 1993 and were already a central focus of a scene. Energetic, resourceful and outspokenly feminist, the Riot Grrrl movement was built by young women for young women. The Riot Grrrls self-released and self-promoted, forming their own networks and hand making their own zines, posters and merch. In a 1997 IndieWire article, Sarah spoke extensively about how the music scene influenced her approach:
I get my main inspiration from punk rock bands and scummy zine editors. Living at the copy shop, putting up flyers, selling T-shirts and tapes to pay for expenses, sleeping on floors of friends of a friend, working hard to promote my film ‘cuz if I don’t, no one will.
Sarah used DIY to produce her films and to generate audiences. When promoting Mary Jane, Sarah and her mum ran a tireless campaign from their home office to build buzz, including “I am not a virgin” stickers, hand-made posters and a guerrilla internet marketing campaign. The work paid off. The premiere of Mary Jane, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival was attended by a packed audience that included Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. The film got into Sundance and screened to a sold out crowd. When it failed to get the distribution deal Sarah wanted, mother and daughter took Mary Jane on the road themselves. Like many of the Riot Grrrls, Sarah also used the method to amplify her sister artists. At Sundance in 1997 she spoke excitedly about being screened alongside other female directors like the Sichel Sisters, Jill Sprecher, Julie Davis and Hannah Weyer.
By the mid-90s Riot Grrl was fizzling out, co-opted by big business into the watered down, shameless-capitalist Girl Power epitomised by the Spice Girls. Interestingly, Sarah herself was outspoken about the film equivalent of this – the commodification of an indie cinema aesthetic. As she wrote in 1997:
Lately in the mainstream media there has been lots of excitement over ‘indie’ films. But that excitement has turned into Indiewood with its own set of bullshit rules and limits. Not only do those pressures inhibit creativity, it’s not what I want as a filmmaker.
We first watched Sarah’s films having just finished Before Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus’s absorbing portrait of the countercultural writer and superstar. Kathy was a couple of generations older than Sarah, but I was struck by the parallels between their lives and work. Kathy didn’t become prominent until her 30s and has a large body of work, but she was also a self made legend, who built her reputation through DIY self-publishing, and who also died early (of cancer, aged 50 in 1997). Kathy was a precursor of (and inspiration to) the Riot Grrrl moment. Both women created work that was brash, outspoken and radical, that revelled in the potential of female sexuality and that drew upon trash culture and the underground avant-garde. Both Kathy and Sarah were also by all accounts charismatic individuals and consummate self-promoters. That’s not a negative. There’s something liberating and rebellious about women who build their own legends.
Sarah is often talked about as a great “What if?” of American indie cinema. There’s some truth in this, undeniably. But it’s important to acknowledge too that, for female filmmakers, it doesn’t necessarily take an early death to place you into the “should’ve-would’ve-could’ve” category. Despite a Sundance debut alongside Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Leslie Harris has struggled to find the financing to make a follow up feature, and Just Another Girl was for a long time almost impossible to watch (it has recently thankfully become available to stream). I’m a Cheerleader has become a cult queer classic, and Jamie Babbit has since forged a successful TV directing career, but her feature film output has been limited. Even Amy Heckerling has struggled to follow up the success of Clueless, describing periods spent in “director’s jail” and her difficulties getting new film projects off the ground. None of the women Sarah was excited to screen alongside at Sundance, have been able so far to build much of a body of work and their films are often not easily accessible.
For all we might not want to think of Jacobson as a great talent who was cut short in her prime, the truth is that there are many ways the career of a female filmmaker can become a Missed opportunity. As with all of these women, the best we can do is to seek out and appreciate the films they have made and to try to create the conditions that mean more talented women don’t find their careers cut off in their prime. This is what Sarah’s family and friends have done. In 2004 they established the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant which awards a grant every year to a female-identifying filmmaker who embodies Sarah’s key values. Hopefully a solid step towards a future where we don’t find ourselves constantly saying “what if?”
“Remembering DIY Queen Sarah Jacobson, 1971-2004”, Eugene Hernandez, Indiewire.
“Riot Grrrl Pioneers Bikini Kill: We’re Back, It’s Intense”, Kate Ewens, The Guardian.
“Riot Grrl: 10 of the Best”, Kate Hutchinson, The Guardian.
Chris Kraus. Before Kathy Acker.
“How Amy Heckerling Got Out of Director Jail by Making the Films She Wanted to Make”, Kate Erbland, Indie Wire.