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Mitchell Lichtenstein on “Teeth”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, John Hensley and Jess Weixler in “Teeth”; below, Mitchell Lichtenstein on set, Roadside Attractions, 2008]

Indie film journalists can be just as lazy as mainstream consumer reporters, as evidenced by some of the reductive shorthand overheard at festivals in recent years to describe more provocative fare: “Have you seen the Ellen Page torture movie yet?” “How awful was that Dakota Fanning rape movie?” “That Romanian abortion movie just won Cannes.” If anyone’s particularly tired of this, it has to be Mitchell Lichtenstein — a Spirit Award-nominated actor who’s worked with Robert Altman, Louis Malle and Ang Lee (and who is the son of Pop Art icon Roy!) — whose disturbing directorial debut “Teeth” has been simply known as “the vagina dentata movie” since its Sundance ’07 premiere. Up-and-comer Jess Weixler stars as prudish high school student Dawn, whose advocacy in a local abstinence group makes psychological sense as she comes to fully realize that, unlike herself, not all girls are born with vicious teeth under their chastity belts. It’s a comic-horror coming-of-age riff on a mythic story that’s been passed down from several ancient cultures, but it’s most decidedly not for the squeamish; while pretty much every male character deserves their onscreen punishment for their misogynistic misdeeds, what winds up in the mouth of a snarling dog alone will turn faces as white as a new set of veneers. I spoke with Lichtenstein about the film and his intentions in addressing real world issues, as some of the best genre films do.

During the writing process, did you set any goals for yourself in how best to craft a story around the idea of vaginal chompers?

I wanted to both use and expose this myth. I knew about it from years ago, but when I began to research it, I saw how, in many ancient cultures, it was pretty pervasive. Then I thought the best horror movies deal with a deep-seated primal fear, and this is pretty primal. [laughs] I also knew that in the end, I didn’t want to perpetuate the gynophobia, so I’d turn it on its [ear]. The myth always has the hero conquering the woman, and destroying the teeth. I knew the woman would always be the hero and should never be conquered. I see her as a superhero with this power in the same way that Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

To me, the film seems thematically bifurcated by Dawn’s sexual awakening, when she realizes she can control her abnormality as a weapon against predators. Up until that point, I had been expecting a social satire on sexual politics, but everything suddenly shifts into a straight revenge fantasy. Were you concerned that this might be too tonally jarring for audiences or distributors?

Well, that’s the thing. I luckily wasn’t obligated to channel it into one particular genre. I think most movies are obligated at some point or another to do that, and I was really just trying to tell the story in the way that made the most sense. There is a time when it clicks into this other genre, because that’s what her character arc really calls for there. I knew that the concept alone might be a hard sell, but beyond that, taking from different genres would be another hurdle. If it works, then hopefully audiences will appreciate that it doesn’t follow exactly the same course as other movies.

Expectations should be subverted, I agree. But I’m thinking about the film’s early statements on modern puritanical behavior, such as the state-enforced sticker covering up a diagram of female genitalia in Dawn’s sex ed textbook. These fall away when she comes to terms with her “gift,” after which she abandons her sexual ideals entirely. She’s suddenly the empowered vigilante in Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” but with a killer libido instead of a gun. Isn’t that almost a bait and switch?

I don’t know. None of that came up for me, so it wasn’t really an issue. I see the sticker — which did happen in at least one school, where the female anatomy was covered but not the male — in a way, that attitude created the vagina dentata, that attitude of whether it’s maintaining mystery about women or subjugation. That’s the same kind of fear that would come up with such a myth. So I think they are very connected that then results in what you see in the end. I just never really looked at the script from the outside and said “There should be more of this or that.” I think it’s clear that my intentions are not misogynistic.

So any real-life correlations were more for passing reference than anything you wanted to proactively address about sexual politics or the culture wars?

Well, only to reference them to the degree that they are addressed. It’s not a treatise or anything. I think since you notice that [the textbook censorship] has happened, a lot of people wonder, “Well, is that a real thing?” Then you find out, yeah, at least for a time it was a real thing, and what does that mean? It’s just something in passing, but there is a connection between that and this ridiculous invention that presumably men invented about women’s anatomy.

In all the talk of abstinence in the film, it felt to me that you were tiptoeing around religion. Was this intentional?

Abstinence is usually God or Jesus-related, but I didn’t want to [come off] like I was Christian-bashing. I thought it was enough without, and you don’t really need God in there to discuss this whole abstinence thing — I didn’t want to add that to the pile; it’s not my current concern. I have nothing against people choosing abstinence, and my only gripe with the abstinence groups is that often information is withheld. It leads to limiting sex education and pretending condoms don’t work. I think kids need to be completely informed about everything, make their decision about it, and have support groups if that’s what they’re doing, [as long as no one] twists scientific evidence. I think all the studies done in those groups show that they don’t delay sexual activity except maybe for a few months, and then when kids do ultimately fall off the wagon, they’re less informed, less likely to use birth control, and more likely to get pregnant. It doesn’t actually appear to work.

Has the film had different reactions from men and women?

There are often guys who storm out at some point in the movie, which I usually find satisfying. We were at a film festival recently, and I came back for the last 15 minutes. After the dog incident, these two guys stood up and walked out, saying, “Thanks for that.” It was really funny that they would last that long, and then five minutes before the end, that was the last straw and they couldn’t take it anymore. Men react differently to certain parts of the movie more viscerally than women do, and I’ve heard about men who were disturbed about just how into the movie their girlfriends were. [laughs]

“Teeth” opens in limited release January 18th.

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