‘The pain of being a woman is too severe!’ – The films of Roberta Findlay: Mascara (1983)




    Deep in the heart of a lonely city
    I wandered sad and all alone
    Then in the heart of a lonely city
    I saw the girl that I want for my own

    (John Leyton – Lonely City)


“Mascara”, commonly attributed to fellow pornographer and frequent collaborator Henri Pachard alone, is in fact one of the greatest showcases for proper labor division in the realm of Golden Age pornography. While the sex scene direction was really handled by Pachard, their frame and mood build up is Roberta Findlay’s work through and through. A highly tranquil meditation on urban loneliness narratively condensed into the course of a single weekend at most and utilizing only a chosen few indoor locations as well two characters of real importance it is perhaps the most fragmentarian film of her entire career. Encounter follows encounter set up by the slightest hunches of a connecting plot, everything of real importance is told through the way people fit or rather not fit in rooms, sex scenes, their workplace, in short: everyday life. Without much hesitation the tone is immediately set by the opening sequence. Riding the bright overworld equivalent to the dreary in lighting already underworld metros of Lucio Fulci’s “Lo squartatore di New York” (1982) or “Death Wish” (Michael Winner, 1974), Harriet’s (Lisa De Leeuw) way to work nonetheless follows in the very same menacing tracks. Insecure gazes, unknown faces hiding out behind sunglasses or under hats set to a thick fog of wafting moog sounds, a close up of her uncertain face, multiple shoes urging for passage, her hand clutching the support strap firmly. The movement of a speeding train intercut with a myriad of legs trampling in their tracks, an office building’s revolving door spitting out people by the dozens. New York City’s a singularly uncomfortable place and that’s just a five minute train ride to work worth of impressions. Later on, after one of Harriet’s many unsatisfying meetings, a shortened version of this departure is repeated, now attended by peculiarly bubbling spikes amidst amidst Walter E. Sear’s compositions. Upping the pressure without ever changing the experience – Roberta Findlay’s rapid transit existentialism knows no sleazes and knife wielding rapists, just unbearable isolation.

But first a rapid panning movement up to her floor in the never resting business center followed by a quick cut and and instant change in aural cues familiarizes us with Harriet’s bread-and-butter job without wasting a second on dialogue – less threatening, more elevatoresque sounds reign surpreme. A permanent waiting room soon clad out in boring work stuff and drab phone conversations with mother dearest. There’s obviously something missing in this life – the sparkle of a whirlpool visible through a glass of wine, livening up, carbonating the lonely city dweller’s best friend. Sadly the guys coming with this vin extraordinaire are far less exciting. The first major sex scene, a double encounter in separate rooms featuring Tiffany Clark, Ron Jeremy and Sean Elliot, doesn’t live up to its promise. It’s not their fault though, most characters in “Mascara” are rather agreeable, some even genuinely sweet folk, the performers behind them invested and enthusiastic, Pachard gives his best – but ultimately they are all sabotaged, sold out time and time again by the mise en scène stitching it all together. A pronounced lack of musical support is evident from the get go, they have to push each other through moans and exclamations (“Fuck me!”) instead of being able to rely on an invisible guiding hand. Does the result provide satisfaction? Well, let Harriet answer that question for us. “You positively exploded!”, her partner marvels – she on the other hand can only muster up enough excitement to grimace awkwardly over his shoulder. As divergent as Findlay’s and Pachard’s styles were, their opposing – to say the least – enthusiasm for the naughty bits makes both directorial strengths gel in the most magnificent way imaginable. He heats ’em up, she lets ’em down. Everything’s transistory – meeting, fucking, promising to meet again. “But you don’t have … my phone number.”, frazzles Harriet’s goodbye – too late, it’s back to the old flow again alone.

These first few opening scenes provide the foundations Findlay and Pachard expand upon through a multitude of expressive, almost talking rooms, a reactivated soundtrack predicting every nuance of intercourse, successive slidings into more and more bizarre fetish encounters leaving no place to breathe for the sole regular skirmish in between. Discounting this hinted at exception this all happens in three interior sets of varying importance. First off there is the office building where Harriet never gets it on while pressed into her little work corner, whose paint job, a light beige, was apparently spread out in a freak accident all over desk, lamp, her pullover and even the framed notations on the wall. The Boss (Robert Kerman) on the other hand isn’t quite as averse to putting pleasure before business and promptly invites call girl Lucy (Lee Carroll) into his realm with the light blue curtains and darker shaded floor so charmingly flattering his shirt and vest respectively. Grown together indivisibly with their natural habitat – that’s how everyone seems to live in “Mascara”. Frantically they look for much needed diversion and yet it’s just play acting and no real risk. Sear’s electronic instrument warms up, hints at an approaching storm and retreats, never fully breaking out while they switch their genitals for temporary relief. “Lick your pussy!” – “My pussy? … My pussy!”, tough talking banter, she dons his shirt, milks him with those powerful cuffs around her hands. They might convince themselves, but never us, for we are in the know, clued in by my accoustic clues never strong enough to outright demand a willing suspension of disbelief.

Harriet however does buy into Lucy’s skills, a lifestyle promising raptures of her hidden desires and before long arrives in the other’s appartment. There an intricate array of offset design elements unravels a crowning achievement of interior design. Lucy’s strikingly white robe and walls emit a radiant glow, a woodcut, a couch, a tabletop all of the same earthy-brown separated by large sections of paint and set up at differing height – color grades and shades. To each their own domain – beige, blue, white. When Harriet disrobes her grey mantle she fits right in by power of her ivory shirt. Exactly like a costumer the two ladies share to start their friendship and working relationship likewise. Stripped to the core there are the same needs behind each and every one of us, this seems to suggest. Let’s try again: Some sort of distant engine sounds – remotely resembling a plane turbine or helicopter blades – set in as they begin to fool around, flutter about incapable of a true kickstart, then briefly intensify, decrease or abort alongside louder and softer moans. He gets off, sure, but that’s about all there is to it.

The film’s heartpiece twists these themes even further: Out in nightlife together Lucy detects her friend at the counter, queued between a bunch of other solitary souls. Not one of their multilayered outfits is alike, a selection of different peepz to get to know. Still, erected like a veritable wall, arms as close to the body as humanly possible they sit in silence to the very first sounds immediately recognizable as commercial music. Stemming from a jukebox this is seemingly not enough to stir anyone’s blood though. Luckily both women spot two handsome guys at a table and the powers inherent in composing can work their wonders after all. Adding a second, not film inherent layer of funky, bass driven rock over the original soundscape Findlay does what she does best: Employing music as a catalyst for human interaction of the vertical as well as horizontal kind. The more powerful the track grows, the merrier their flirting, the faster the cuts between the not yet biting men and Harriet trying to get their attention. “Smile at them!”, Lucy recommends and over the course of some more driven editing their struggles are finally rewarded. On the prowl – the thrill of the hunt condensed into a selection of wandering eyes and blustering sounds. But as we all know, overexcitement seldom lasts, disappointment is bound to take over sooner or later. Sooner. Back at home this external drive is immediately lamed by moderately heated discussions filling in for melodies, the same old environment so far removed from the egalitarian bars. To comb-over the quickly waning lust the ever reliable moog wallows in an emulation of romantic strings while clothes are discarded. As functional touches gradually become a make out session a low key bongo beat is added to the mix and grows more distinct with each interaction. Until it abruptly stops for the second guy, whose face is longing somewhat anxiously for his turn with Harriet, and comes in again as number one really starts pounding away.

There couldn’t be more conclusive evidence – Walter E. Sear’s vanguard score is the most expressive actor and a ridiculously attentive director morphed into one non-physical corpus, controls every single nuance of the picture and diverts attention where necessary. It only ever grows in volume, the frequency of drawn out, screeching or borderline atonal highlights, never in speed. Accordingly the montage sticks close, avoids galloping on its own entirely. Findlay cultivates an exceptional slow burn approach to a threadbare plot hardly justifying such tardiness, her normally agile camera solely switches distances for the most part, lingers on instead of partying and still captures sides currently turned away in detail via carefully placed mirrors. From end to end “Mascara” has a disconcerting tinge to it. No discernible difference is buried between the circumambient fetishistic acts and this try at vanilla. Directorial movement is lacking the passion their smiles try to convey. At times this feels closer to the utterly depressing world of avantgarde color dramatist Roger Watkins rather than Findlay’s as well as Pachard’s remaining œuvres. Cold blue dwells as monochromatic coating over the nightly bedroom when the girl’s dissensions descend into a straight dispute escalated by staggering synth waves – the most gloomy girl sleepover in cinema history.

Obviously dissatisfied with her existence as well, Lucy stays at home, while Harriet embarks on a final adventure now wearing the turquois dress to her partner in crime’s bathrobe in a complete lifestyle takeover. In typically discouraging fashion this grand finale breaks all barriers of the absurd. Accompanying rather wimpy suitor Mr. Jones (Bobby Astyr) to a three-way appointment with his wife (Mistress Candice) she comes face to face with a woman who pushes both around her pitch black infused lair with sharp words and even sharper piano playing. Musical instruments as tools of intimidation in place of incitement, a new notion in Findlay’s body of work and like a comparable scene in “Fantasex” (1976) carried out without the slightest barrier lifting the proceedings on a more abstract plane. The piano players in both films become the directresses of their own scenes, their music is organic, a direct in-film translation of the methods Findlay employs to guide action. But where shy stenographer Jane encouraged herself and equally timid lover Bernard through gentle touches, Mrs. Jones slams one last exclamatory note whenever she senses the slightest signs of disobedience. Shots over the commanding couples’ seated shoulders showing an even smaller Harriet on her knees and volatile synth slaloms round out the experience. As a whole “Mascara” is perhaps and even more so than the teenage angst fueled “From Holly with Love” (1978) the film most indicative of Roberta Findlay’s stance towards sex on film, the one on whose set she actually got someone else to to direct the dirty deeds for her. Therefore a deeply personal work, despite or rather because of being partially flavored and perfected by the hands of another filmmaker.

Hindsight is always easier than foresight and so Harriet’s nightly drive homewards revels in prostration. An embracing saxophone and tender piano touches try to console her while oddly muted neon signs flicker unfocussed behind the limo window next to her apathetic profile. Subjective camera takes add fleeting vistas of cars and people strolling aimlessly around before they’re overtaken, vanishing into thin air. The big pelt now covering the borrowed dress, the nervously nestling hands – they tell it all during the conclusive walk to Lucy’s place. Taken at surface level her story might flaunt a strong resemblence to Luis Buñuel’s canon classic “Belle de jour” (1967) or, staying in genre, “‘V’: The Hot One” (Gary Graver, 1978), but that’s were it ends too, as it very much a subversion. Never, not even for the first time does Harriet’s excursion into prositution grant her any deeper fulfillment. When talking about Roberta Findlay’s films, quite a few voices have actually accussed her of handing out retrograde erections to her viewers, of denying the sexual gratification the raincoaters eagerly awaited in their seats. And while some of her early work – especially “The Altar of Lust” (1971) or “Angel Number 9” – comes across as quite sex-positive, this allegation does undoubtedly contain a grain of truth when applied to the film at hand. Mind you, not because the people involved are not beautiful, the glimpse on their bodies is not affectionate, but because Roberta Findlay understood and shared what few want to hear. Sex cannot adequately fill the bullion coin sized hole in your heart. “Mascara” is further proof that pornographic cinema can develop compelling narratives out of sex scenes alone, even if they themselves are not compelling in the generally expected sense of the word.

Sometimes watching can encompass a learning effect, teach you to differentiate between the many incarnations of sex good and bad – just like it does for Harriet, who can’t find her friend anymore and instead spies on another couple getting it on in the familiar appartment. Touching is what they do, not just rubbing up and down with your hands. A vibrant pop ballad sans vocals inspires the only really passionate horizontal scene in 83 minutes and ressurects the many stilistic devices responsible for immersion in Findlay’s arsenal. Picking up on the musical rhythm the cutting turns faster, hands scratching backs, hips thrusting energetically, still faster, happy faces, her legs wrapped around his waist – a surprised Harriet in the door frame. Memories of words exchanged pop into her head. “You’ve seen too many movies, baby!” – Lucy was wrong, one can never see enough movies, for they can split your world view clean open. Bookends. A train ride. Harriet’s hand is clutching the support strap once more. Then she’s hears a acquainted voice and turns. Left by accelerating train is Lucy, exhausted, suitcase in hand. Momentarily, only for a split second the frame freezes. Close up of Harriet’s surprised smile, another one of her hand leaving its confines, then permanently freezing in an open space as the credits begin to roll. Happiness is having someone actually remember your name, your face, your workday habits … you, isn’t it?


Mascara – USA 1983 – 83 minutes – Direction: Roberta Findlay, Henri Pachard – Production: Roberta Findlay – Screenplay: Henri Pachard – Cinematography: Roberta Findlay – Editing: Harley Mansfield – Music: Walter E. Sear (as “Walter Dear”) – Cast: Lisa De Leeuw, Lee Carroll (as “Lee Carol”), Lisa Cintrice (as “Cintrice”), Tiffany Clark, Robert Kerman (as “R. Bolla”) and many more


Dieser Beitrag wurde am Dienstag, Juli 23rd, 2019 in den Kategorien Ältere Texte, André Malberg, Blog, Blogautoren, English, Essays, Filmbesprechungen, Filmschaffende, Midnight Confessions, other languages veröffentlicht. Sie können alle Kommentare zu diesem Beitrag über den RSS 2.0 Feed verfolgen. Sie können diesen Beitrag kommentieren, oder einen Trackback von ihrer eigenen Seite setzen.

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