A Night of Etheria: Mara Tasker Makes Grindhouse her Bitch with Sheila Scorned
It struts, it winks, it seduces… then it kicks ass!
In my last piece on Etheria, I explored Amber Benson’s darkly delightful Shevenge, which was, in short, about each woman exploring their own revenge fantasy. Sheila Scorned is like an extended, detailed, step-by-step study on revenge fantasies. Mara Tasker certainly has a few things she wants to say about the “inherent status of victimhood” unique to women the world over and about that there male gaze… and it amounts to a stiletto boot in the face.
There’s definitely an “Oh, yeah?” thrown right at that gaze and that status, which was Tasker’s intent. “For me this film was born out of frustration at sort of the status of women in the world…
I was reading a lot about the different forms of systemic subjugation that were hitting women in different parts of the world and I was tired of the status, the inherent sort of status of victimhood that I think a lot of women end up internalizing just based on the way that we live, even in western civilization. So I basically just wanted to kind of create a character who was basically very righteously female and in your face and knew that she was female and knew that she could use sexuality for power and sort of put it in front of you because you’re asking for it anyway.”
Tasker funded her film through Seed and Spark and gained a lot of inspiration in how to get that frustration across from exploitation films. “I love Ms. 45. That’s a grindhouse. I think it’s a really interesting film and I think it’s a really fun watch, though it’s brutal, of course.” Most of Grindhouse is and the genre has its own set of tropes, specifically the woman being sexually brutalized as a catalyst for her rampage. It’s a frustrating, but overused trope Tasker wanted to subvert. “Before the female character could go and become a strong character, she was usually a victim of sexual harassment and I wanted to tell a story where that was not the backstory because the only way to empower female characters is not through sexual oppression and so I wanted to basically say ‘fuck this paradigm. It’s not okay with me,’ and Sheila’s not a victim before she can be empowered.”
“ We don’t need to be brutalized to be empowered. It doesn’t have to be part of it.”
“With an exotic dancer as the protagonist,” we wanted to know, “was it ever difficult to present in walking the line between empowerment and exploitation?”
“Yes. Absolutely. That was a really thin line to walk and it still is. What’s interesting is, even after we filmed that, Laine (Rettmer, who plays the titular character) and I did a lot of work on kind of where that dance could be empowering.” They talked to exotic dancers and researched how to walk that line and Tasker felt she’d found a balance. “I would show the raw footage to our male editors and see them sort of react indifferently to it so the main thing for me was just projecting a female gaze in watching Laine dance and watching that my camera angles were empowering for her and that the editing style of the film was empowering to her character and keeping all of it in control of our female gaze together and making sure that that didn’t slip.”
I saw what she meant after watching. During the scenes in the club, the camera is mostly on Sheila’s face, making the audience wonder what she’s thinking more so than just being presented with how she’s moving. The vast majority of strip club scenes in films, even ones where the exotic dancer in question is an actual character rather than a gyrating prop in the background, her face is always second to her body. Even the sequences in Sheila that are more sexualized have a direct purpose and a sense of the character’s grip on the situation and her control over how she’s presented. “I think now,” Mara says, “when male audience members watch it, it’s not a film that totally gives itself over to them. I think she still has a lot of power.”
Laine Rettmer’s work earned her Best Actress at The Los Angeles International Underground Film Festival. I can see why. She owns every moment and controls every scene she’s in. The film itself has a bit of a seedy, grainy atmosphere at times, almost like something set in the late seventies/early eighties. There was definitely a good deal of violence, but with enough winks and a few extremely clever edits the audience roared over (which I won’t explain here. You’d have to see to understand) to lighten things up. It’s definitely one to watch out for if it comes to a festival near you or if it gets a DVD release.
Then again, maybe it will end up as a short attached to its very own feature. Tasker is working on a feature version. “It’s a little bit less brutal. It’s kind of more inspired by Walter White in Breaking Bad (“I’M IN,” I mentally squeal) and it takes place in New Mexico and the kind of salty, gritty underworld that she’s a part of. She’s more like a crime boss than anything else.” I actually can’t think of any shows or movies with a woman crime boss. “What’s amazing is that they really exist in the world,” Mara informs me.
Maybe now they’ll exist on our screens!