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Remembering Sarah Jacobson, the badass filmmaker that brought Riot Grrrl sensibility to theaters

Lee Jacobson

Lee Jacobson

The year is 1997. There’s a new teen sex comedy coming to your town. It’s titled Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, and it doesn’t give a shit what you think about it.

Mary Jane is a feminist piss-take on the teen comedies of John Hughes and other filmmakers from the ’80s, replacing the genre’s notorious racism and sexism with punk-rock vibes and sex-positivity. The story follows one woman’s last summer before college working at a Minnesota movie theater with a gaggle of twentysomething misfits and burnouts who quickly become her family.

The film receives a rapturous response at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and its Sundance screening quickly sells out. Admirers include Roger Ebert, who praises its “offhand, unaffected freshness.” Feminist filmmaker Allison Anders calls it “the most independent of all the indies I know,” and Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris says that writer/director/editor/co-producer Sarah Jacobson “has the kind of energy you just [think will] never stop. Her films have that same quality.”

“Everyone talks about living in the post #MeToo era,” says Jacobson’s friend Jake Fogelnest. “Here was a woman who made films in the ’90s; who was screaming about that stuff in her work and in her life before it became a fashion accessory button at a Hollywood awards ceremony.”

At a mere 25 years of age, Edina High graduate Jacobson was kicking ass and taking names. She would go on to create a social network connecting arthouse theaters to indie filmmakers—no easy task in an era before internet chatrooms and online communities had really taken off. Tragically, Mary Jane would be her sole feature film, as she would die seven years later from uterine cancer.

“The statements she made still stand and resonate today,” says novelist and film writer Annie Choi. “I don’t want to say that it hasn’t gotten better for women, but when you watch her work you realize how little some things have changed and how far we have to go. So it’s still this battle cry…. The urgency is still incredibly relevant.”

AGFA

AGFA

In the era of films like Ladybird, Juno, and Booksmart, it’s easy to see how Mary Jane was a trailblazer, laying the groundwork for future female-driven coming-of-age stories. Now, about 15 years later, Jacobson’s films are finding new fans at special screenings across the nation and through her first DVD and Blu-Ray release.

Jacobson was born in New Jersey 1971, but in her teens her family moved to Edina, which she would later refer to as “the snottiest suburb in the Twin Cities area.”

“I was never really pretty; I was never into makeup or fashion; I always felt really alienated,” she told Punk Planet in 1997.

As a Jewish girl from New Jersey, she discovered she didn’t look or act like her new contemporaries. “These were these girls who were really blonde. They were jocks and they got good grades, and I was like, ‘I wanna be friends with these girls. These are the perfect girls.’”

When they did include her, it was “only as a way of trying to get me to convert to Christianity… which freaked me out.” An invitation to Bible camp was her breaking point. “After that I was like, ‘You know, fuck this. I’m not going to sit around and wait for these people to accept me.’”

So she sought out Edina’s outcasts. “To meet a punk rocker and have them tell you about socialism… after going to a little Molly Ringwald high school, meeting people like that was really exciting.”

It didn’t hurt that Jacobson was coming of age at the zenith of the Twin Cities’ music scene, Babes in Toyland and the Replacements being two of her favorites. Much like Mary Jane’s Jane, her crew of friendly burnouts, music heads, and punks were like family to her.

Soon, Jacobson was making zines. A regular at shows, she joined a band and recorded an album. But film, not music, was her true medium of choice.

She loved slashers and movies about punk rock, but she also had a secret love for uncool high school sex comedies like Sixteen Candles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These were some of the most prominent representations of teenage sexuality available to her.

Except Molly Ringwald and the other stars of these flicks rarely had sex.

“[Ringwald’s characters] wanted a boyfriend, and she wanted romance, and it was implied that they would be having sex afterwards,” Jacobson opined in Bitch Magazine in 1997. “But I wanted to see girls having sex from their point of view. You got to see Tom Cruise running around having sex. There’s so much time spent with the geek, and he gets laid... I could give a shit that the geek got laid. I don’t get off on that.”

Then she realized something many young women do.

“Everything you see on TV or in the movies or in media representation, it’s all… women are sexual objects,” she told Bitch.

While still in high school, she came across another source of inspiration: Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.

“I’m going to do this,” she remembered thinking upon seeing it. “This is what I’m going to do.”

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The confluence of punk’s DIY aesthetic and Stranger Than Paradise ’s low-budget cool galvanized Jacobson, who despite her partying and rebelliousness graduated with straight A’s (and five suspensions). That was good enough to get her into Bard College’s film program, so she headed east in the fall of 1989.

There, she was faced with elitism and stuffy intellectualism in the theoretically focused film department. It was against that environment she made her first short film: “Road Movie, or: What I Learned in a Buick Station Wagon.” “Road Movie” was about a female film student who takes a road trip after debuting a short film to her snooty classmates. It’s a rush of images and sounds with light cultural commentary and slapstick humor.

Like her protagonist, Jacobson “just had to get away” from Bard. She made a fateful transfer to the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied under experimental film icon George Kuchar. Kuchar and his twin brother, Mike, had shot and distributed their surreal genre comedies independently since the late 1960s. Their films’ frank homosexuality and violent, offbeat humor made them a mainstay in independent film circles.

Kuchar taught his students to shoot like he did: Move fast, travel light, have fun, and use what you have. It was music to Jacobson’s ears.

Next was her first “actual” film, “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer,” a movie Jacobson would put together with no budget.

“Serial Killer” tells the story of a young woman who, after her mother’s death, starts fighting toxic masculinity through murder. She pushes a catcaller in front of a bus. She beats a guy to death with a dustbuster. It’s all played for laughs.

“Serial Killer” ends with a tonal shift from searing anger to earnestness, a move that would typify her later work. In the final scene, the teenage killer breaks down, telling a drug dealer on the street about how she was sexually abused as a child. Instead of reacting to that information, he hits on her.

“No one wants to listen to my story!” she yells, almost slitting his throat with a broken bottle before smashing it to the ground. Then, she turns directly to the camera: “My story exists whether anyone listens to me or not. I’m gonna tell them anyway.” She turns and walks away as credits roll over the raw power chords of “My Secret,” a song about killing a child abuser by Heavens to Betsy, Corin Tucker’s pre-Sleater-Kinney project.

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“When ‘Serial Killer’ came out, it resonated with a lot of women,” says Choi. “It fed into their anger, legitimized their feelings. It gave a voice to something that had been intensifying for a long time.”

Jacobson’s classmates and subsequent audiences loved it, groaning at gory close-ups and chuckling at the audacious one-liners. “Serial Killer” went on to be named one of Film Comment’s Top 25 Short Films of All Time.

Off the back of that success, Jacobson and her mother, Ruth Ellen, started Station Wagon Productions and, in 1994, began working on Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore.

The plot was based on an autobiographical novel she wrote in high school about working at the Uptown Theatre with a group of twentysomething burnouts who formed powerful friendships. To the story she added bits about losing her virginity and learning how to masturbate.

Over the next three years, she would work on the script, film, rig lighting, and edit with what she described as the “bare minimum of what you need to make a movie.” That bare minimum: one 16mm camera, one tape recorder, one microphone, four lights, $6,000, and one bra. When the bra gave out halfway through production, she made a short documentary about buying her first fitted bra.

Although Mary Jane is set in Minneapolis, it was shot in San Francisco. Station Wagon Productions’ office was in Skid Row, where she recalled being spit on by “street people” on her walks home. The production ran out of money twice, but Jacobson’s aggressive networking and touring paid off. The movie was saved by cash infusions from fans like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Tamra Davis, the indie-turned-mainstream director of Billy Madison. Eventually, Jacobson’s mother moved to San Francisco to help her complete the film.

Jacobson understood that she only had one shot at a debut movie, and she wanted to make it count. “Film is so hard that it’s not really worth it unless you’re showing something that hasn’t really been said before,” she told Bitch. “Every girl wishes that they had an older girl who would tell them what’s up with sex… I wanted to make a movie where the girl learns to have control over her own sex life.”

Mary Jane begins with a clichéd sex scene: a gauzy lens, sub-Cinemax sex, the participants not really touching, swaddled in sheets. Then there’s a jump cut to something a bit more realistic: an uncomfortable, brief, socks-on session featuring missionary on a picnic blanket in a graveyard.

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In the male-centric films Mary Jane comments on, deflowering is the narrative engine, the plot’s resolution. In Mary Jane, the heroine’s first time is a call to action.

Jane drives in from the suburbs to work at the Victoria Theater, a stand-in for the Uptown. She’s the youngest employee, and by far the least cynical. She soon forms a family with her co-workers, which include bisexual punk rocker Ericka and her gay manager, Ray, who takes her to her valedictorian dinner as her father.

Over the summer, she develops romantic relationships with a dreamy guy named Tom and sensitive, affable weirdo Ryan. Both are good guys who respect Jane’s boundaries, emotions, and agency.

Then there’s Matt, the staff’s mercurial druggie, who antagonizes Jane, physically bullying her and denigrating her class status and Jewish heritage. Over the course of the film, Jane ceases to allow herself to be Matt’s victim.

“I wanted guys to be able to see it from a girl’s point of view and kind of understand women and not have to be all embarrassed about it,” she told the Austin Chronicle in 1998 about her hopes for male audiences.

But boiling Mary Jane down to a raunchy coming-of-age story would sell it short. It also documents the height of the Riot Grrl movement, the decline of West Coast hardcore, and the beginnings of emo. The soundtrack features Mudhoney, Superchunk, Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Babes in Toyland. Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra cameos as a concerned moviegoer, and AFI’s Davey Havok plays one of Ericka’s groupies. (AFI also lent three songs to the soundtrack.)

The Twin Cities loom large in the film. Jane sleeps beneath one of Daniel Corrigan’s iconic Replacements photos. One character wears a T-shirt from a Jim Dine exhibition at the Walker. The co-workers see Mudhoney at Nye’s. Characters race motorcycles down Lyndale Avenue and road-trip to Madison.

After a grueling three-and-a-half-year production, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore debuted at the 1997 Chicago Underground Film Festival. Jacobson was just shy of her 26th birthday.

The film received positive blurbs from Ed Halter and Roger Ebert, and Mary Jane went on to a sold-out screening at Sundance.

But unlike other Sundance success stories, Mary Jane didn’t land a distribution deal. In later interviews, Jacobson speculated that “girl films” flummoxed Hollywood.

Undeterred, Jacobson hopped in her trusty Buick station wagon and went on tour, screening a 16mm print of “Serial Killer” and Mary Jane three weeks out of each month all over the world from 1997 to 2000. She arranged her own press and screenings, while her mom kept track of her tour schedule back in San Francisco.

During this time, she gave effusive interviews in local papers, where she insisted that they include her address so readers could send away for a VHS of her movies (just $2!).

On the road, folks who might have never seen her films otherwise were showing up to screenings. “The biggest thing people say to me is, ‘I wish I had seen this when I was 16,’” she told Bitch magazine.

Through her travels and screenings, Jacobson created a network for independent cinemas and video stores all over America. “The independent distribution system used to be a safety net for small filmmakers. Now the corporations—like Disney’s Miramax—are taking over the safety net. So we need to build another one,” she said in a 1998 Star Tribune interview.

All the while, Jacobson wrote for Indiewire.com. There, she coined the term “Indiewood” to describe Harvey Weinstein’s high-production, high budget “indie” films, like Pulp Fiction and Mallrats. She also wrote a travelogue/criticism column, called “Underground,” for Punk Planet.

Eventually, touring became lonely and unprofitable. After three years, Jacobson moved to New York City, where she worked in television for VH1 and Oprah’s burgeoning Oxygen Network. She also taught filmmaking courses at community colleges.

She continued to work in film, producing music videos for Fluffy and Man or Astro-Man?, and produced a documentary on the making of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, a girl rock dramedy directed by Lou Adler of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, written by Slap Shot’s Nancy Dowd. Her documentary, as well as an oral history she wrote on the film for the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royale magazine, got the ball rolling on Rhino reissuing Stains on DVD in 2008.

“Sarah Jacobson is the reason you can see The Fabulous Stains at the push of a button today,” says friend Fogelnest.

During this time, Jacobson continued writing draft after draft of her follow-up feature, a tale about a punk-rock girl group inspired by Fabulous Stains. Her career was again on the upswing.

But Jacobson was also dealing with a nagging, mystery ailment. She was losing weight and needed a cane to help her walk.

To generate buzz for her second film, she organized a retrospective of her work in New York. But as that event was coming together, she received a cancer diagnosis. Things took a rapid turn, and the February 2004 screening became a posthumous one. Jacobson had died in New York City at 32 years old.

But the energy Jacobson put out into the world, through her work and through her promotion of others, wasn’t so easily stopped. “She rallied the Riot Grrrl movement,” Choi explains. “So in those circles, her films continued to get passed around and discussed—even after she passed away.”

After her death, her friends and family founded the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant, which has awarded funds annually to a female-identifying independent filmmaker for the last 15 years. In 2012, Turner Classic Movies played Mary Jane as part of its Underground series—just how Jacobson had seen Fabulous Stains decades earlier. In 2016, the American Genre Film Archive, the curatorial branch of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, restored her films for a new theatrical release. A blu-ray featuring “Serial Killer” and Mary Jane, and loaded with her shorts, was released this past September.

Jacobson was taken from us before her ideas and concerns were mainstreamed, before the internet fully became a useful distribution tool for independent filmmakers. We can only imagine where she would be in 2019 with the surge against institutionalized Hollywood sexism and abuse.

The work we have, however, remains prescient, and now it’s more accessible than ever for a new generation of teenagers.