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Director Spotlight: Sarah Jacobson

Often referred to as the “queen of underground cinema,” Sarah Jacobson was a pioneer for women in film. With her ultra-low-budget shorts and feminist sentiments, Jacobson’s films are even more relevant today. Her unique style utilizes grunge and punk aesthetics of the mid to early 90s, often fashioning time capsules of rebellion.


Making a Name – Road Movie (Or – What I Learned in a Buick Station Wagon) (1991)

Frequently overlooked because she was a young female filmmaker, one of the only ways Jacobson could advertise her work was through shameless self-promotion. She and her mother, a producer for many of her flicks, traveled around the country via station wagon to distribute the films and promote them at various festivals, hence the name “Station Wagon Productions” (Savlov 2004).


Those experiences spawned Jacobson’s first film under her production company, and second film ever, called Road Movie (Or- What I learned in a Buick Station Wagon) (1991). It follows a young female filmmaker (likely a self-insert character) who takes a road trip from Minnesota to New York City to escape the criticism of her teachers and peers. Most of the short is filmed in her Buick Station Wagon with out-the-window shots. The film is less about the destination and more about reflecting on why she left in the first place. It also features punk and grunge music from various underground bands of the time, contributing to the unique aesthetic of Jacobson’s films.


Development – I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993)

Sarah Jacobson studied film at the San Francisco Art Institute. At nineteen years old, she began collaborating with her professor George Kuchar, a fellow underground filmmaker, to make I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, which premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1993. It was Jacobson’s first major short film and followed a 19-year-old girl who grows sick of sexist men and decides to murder them. For a “zero budget” short film, it’s impressive the detail that went into each scene. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer was released through her own production company, Station Wagon Productions (Hernandez 2004).


Style – Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997):

Jacobson focused on a grungy, gritty aesthetic, primarily featuring similarly edgy female characters. Her films explored subjects that were considered taboo in the ’90s, such as sexuality, abortion, and gender identity (American Genre Film Archive). Her first and only feature-length film, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997), premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996, Sundance, and South by Southwest in 1997.

Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) is a suburban teenager who works at a movie theater in the inner city. The opening scenes show Mary Jane losing her virginity to Steve, the local sleazeball. The scene is incredibly uncomfortable as it is juxtaposed with a picturesque sex scene of two Hollywood actors.


However, that was not the only “risque” part of the film: Mary Jane’s co-worker is an openly bisexual woman, and her teenage friend gets pregnant and considers getting an abortion. The film received mixed reviews – some saw it as refreshing and sex-positive, while others felt it was far too open and preachy.


Jacobson’s Legacy

Unfortunately, Sarah Jacobson passed away in 2004 from endometrial cancer. She was an inspirational figure for women in the film industry, and her legacy continues to live on today. Her films beg the question of whether she could have been the next prominent female director or if she would've always remained under the radar. She paved the way for filmmakers like Josephine Decker and Eliza Hittman, whether they know it or not.


Due to her being the "queen of underground cinema," Jacobson’s films are somewhat hard to find. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, and I Was a Teenage Serial Killer are available on Tubi and YouTube. Road Movie and her first short, Sweet Miss: The Disco Years, are also available on YouTube.


Notes:

American Genre Film Archive. (n.d.). The films of Sarah Jacobson. American Genre Film Archive. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://www.americangenrefilm.com/home-videos/the-films-of-sarah-jacobson/


Hernandez, E. (2004, February 18). Remembering DIY queen Sarah Jacobson, 1971-2004. IndieWire. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://www.indiewire.com/2004/02/remembering-diy-queen-sarah-jacobson-1971-2004-79130/


Savlov, M. (2004, February 27). In Memoriam: Sarah Jacobson. Sarah Jacobson - Screens - The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved July 6, 2022, from https://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2004-02-27/198969/


-Sophie

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