Unsung Auteurs: Sarah Jacobson

June 7, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Sarah Jacobson, the late feminist voice behind the 1996 indie darling Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore.

“Everyone told me I would never be a filmmaker, and that’s when I decided I would be, and they could go fuck off,” Sarah Jacobson told The AV Club in 1998. “I was too obnoxious, and my first films were really bad. I was a hellraiser from the beginning. I was always asking questions and being really aggressive. And these are the avant-garde people, the non-Hollywood people, and they were just horrified. So I ended up deciding that that’s what I was going to do, because there were all these people telling me I couldn’t. I didn’t see any real reason, you know what I mean? The people they liked, it’s not like they were such geniuses.”

The Unsung Auteurs column is filled with stories promising careers cut short (especially those of female directors), often by studio indifference, lack of backing, major life changes, motherhood, higher priorities, and the safe allure of episodic television. Many featured in the Unsung Auteurs column have just a few films to their credit (see Gillian Robespierre, Sarah Colangelo, Brett Haley, Sarah Gavron and more), but they resound with such a distinct voice and vision that they are clearly the work of a filmmaker with their own thematic concerns and sense of style.

Sarah Jacobson

The story of Sarah Jacobson, however, is a profoundly sad and crushing one. After just one short film and one excellent, promising, personality-filled feature film, Jacobson passed away at the age of just thirty-two from endometrial cancer, robbing the indie film scene of a truly gifted writer/director who had so much more to offer. Her two films bristle and boil with indie spirit and a fiery sense of feminist self-possession. Sarah Jacobson was born in Connecticut in 1971, and attended Bard College before transferring to The San Francisco Art Institute in 1991 to study film. In a perfect piece of serendipity, Jacobson’s principal teacher and mentor at SFAI was legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar, famed for his grungy, lo-fi aesthetic on films like Hold Me While I’m Naked and Anita Needs Me, and also for writing and starring in Curt McDowell’s bizarre epic 1975 porno Thundercrack!.

Under the tutelage of George Kuchar, the enterprising Sarah Jacobson cobbled together $1,600 (no, there are no zeros missing) and wrote and directed the 25-minute, black-and-white short film I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, which Jacobson distributed herself on the indie scene in 1993. Messy, chaotic, angry, and punk-infused, this deranged little film follows Mary (Kristin Calabrese), a young woman who finally snaps and strikes back after enduring a lifetime of mistreatment at the hands of various men. A success at various festivals, I Was A Teenage Serial Killer got Jacobson noticed, and was reviewed in various publications. The esteemed Village Voice called Jacobson’s ragged short “a key film of the 1990s’ angrily subversive underground cinema.”

A scene from Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore.

The relative success of I Was A Teenage Serial Killer got Jacobson enough notice to allow her to scrape together the funds for Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore, which would be filmed over a number of years and finally see release in 1996.  The film follows Jane (Lisa Gerstein), a suburban high school senior who works in a city movie theatre who trades quips with a diverse array of co-workers, and enters into romance with both the nerdy Ryan (Bwana Spoons) and the decidedly cooler Tom (Chris Enright), before tapping into her own feminine power. A gritty, grungy coming-of-age comedy-drama that peals with echoes of past tough-minded female-centred flicks like Times Square and Little Darlings, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore is richly characterised and particularly daring in its depiction of youthful sexuality. In their terrific new book 50 Must-See Films From The World Of Classic Cult And Late-Night Cinema, authors Millie De Chirico and Quatoyiah Murry call Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore a “bold, unapologetic look at the sexual life of a young woman. Its focus on female pleasure and the often disappointing experience of teenage dating is shown with humour and humility. Conversational and buoyant, Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore could easily rub shoulders with the ‘90s music-meets-hangout-style films of Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Gregg Araki.”

Championed by the likes of critic Roger Ebert, Sonic Youth legend Kim Gordon, and fellow Unsung Auteur Allison Anders, Sarah Jacobson followed up Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore with a fistful of music videos, more short films, and written pieces for a variety of publications (including Grand Royal and Miranda July’s Joanie4Jackie) on the aesthetics of indie filmmaking. Jacobson had also written the script for a feature film to be called Sleaze, the story of a fiery all-girl rock band and the profound effect they have on one fan. Jacobson sadly passed away in 2004, leaving behind one raw, honest little gem, and the tragically unfulfilled promise of many, many more. Most fittingly, The Sarah Jacobson Film Grant was set up by Sarah’s longtime friend and collaborator filmmaker Sam Green and annually awards grants to young female and gender-nonconforming directors. “There’s no doubt in the minds of anyone,” wrote The Austin Chronicle, “that she greatly helped stoke the flames of the guerilla and indie filmmaking movement while becoming a voice for grrrl-positive cineastes everywhere.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Anton Corbijn, Gillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda Haines,Leslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.