‘The pain of being a woman is too severe!’ – The films of Roberta Findlay: Psychogeographic coping on Fire Island




    I’ll find a place somewhere in the corner
    I’m gonna waste the rest of my days
    Just watching patiently from the window
    Just waiting, seasons change

    BRIAN ENO – I’ll Come Running

    Just keep on like I do and pay no attention. You’ll find that people always will complain about the atmosphere, either too hot or too cold too bright or too dark, days too short or too long.

    FRANK O’HARA – A True Account of Talking to The Sun on Fire Island


Even a Bronx-born and bred pornographer spends her leisure time in a place that is quiet and cozy. By using her beach house on Fire Island, a barrier island east to the coast of Long Island, NY, as film location, Roberta Findlay might have transformed a secluded holiday resort into something altogether different and tantalizing though: Watching A Woman’s Torment for the first time, it wasn’t the opening shot of Tara Chung building a sandcastle, instantly swept away by the tide, that drew me to Fire Island’s landscape. It’s when Chung seeks for the entrance to a beach house later: She’s standing in front of two windows that are framed by signs, half anchor, half Venus symbol, a psychosexual threshold seductively linked to the remote island setting. There’s no shot of her entering the house, rather a harsh cut to the interior, her face appearing in the room full of awe and anxiety alike, realizing viscerally an intimate pre-linguistic connection to the surroundings she yet has to explore and internalize.

Between 1977 and 1981 Roberta Findlay shot four movies on Fire Island and edited a fifth one, the opaque yet lucidly titled Beach House – a quintet of pictures that moves from the fading innocence of youth to coping with sickness and trauma, using scenery as psychogeographic territory with a fierce and idiosyncratic determination. There’s a palpable sense of longing, an implicit desire for the ambiance and rest of childhood, evoked by the constant, timeless sound of waves that ultimately drowns out every other sound: the score, the music played on a turntable, talking and inner voices, sighing and moaning. Taken as a whole, these movies seem as though they were emotions hardened in amber, visual markers of desires and dreams not to be regained again.

    “She can only make it with dudes that shit on her”

Young people playing baseball on the beach might be the purest insignia of an American vacation, an endless summer spent outdoors. Some working-class types like you and me, they’ve gotten vacation jobs on the island. And afterwards it’ll back to school again, one of them, Tom (Michael Gaunt, looking really youthful for once), says to Holly, a young girl that’s new on the beach. Since very recently she moved in with an older sister and her husband – well, it’s hard for all of them to adjust, the sister determines, especially there’s tangible strain with Holly’s brother-in-law who doesn’t like the prospects of having someone new around who intensifys involuntarily the sexual problems the pair’s been having for some time now. A week-long trip to their house on Fire Island seems like an apt way to ease the tension, “maybe when we get out to the beach, I’ll be more relaxed,” one of them says. It’s really an expectation all three of them have, so probably it’s bound to shipwreck right from the start.

But it shipwrecks in a different way: The new friends Holly makes on the beach are two boys, one girl who fuck with each other at once consensually. When Tom asks Holly to join them, she doesn’t approve. When the boys sense that she’s not attracted to them herself, they engage passionately in juvenile rivalry to seduce her by all means necessary. This new constellation’s bound to tip over, but it doesn’t at first. Then again it probably does, you wouldn’t know by just looking at the scenes, at careless kids being busy doing nothing. There’s no undisguised approach to these images unless you’re that one lucky 16-year-old boy that found a treasure trove of Robert Findlay movies on the laptop of your older cinephilic brother. Everyone else will more likely give in to an arcane torrent of projections and bittersweet itches of nostalgia. At least Holly does, as she’s telling this story, “that old fairytale”, of her first sexual encounter in retrospect to a john on the bed of a motel in New York City. The sandy scenery, the rhythmic shots of sea breezes in From Holly with Love (1978) all might make you forget this frame story of a woman reminiscing about experiences that don’t seem so innocent to her anymore. It’s a story she tells time and time again, clinging to every detail, changing nothing, as she feels no need for variation – the outcome surely always remains the same (Roberta Findlay really is the true master of disillusioned protagonists, a vibrant and deeply sensitive mind more in tune with 19th century education novels than late 20th century culture). The boat in which Holly’s having at last sex for the very first time might be an alternate reality far offshore, but ultimately there’s no shore to return to afterwards.

    “I can feel the ocean, I can feel the tide”

In A Woman’s Torment (1977) the beach is reduced to the dazzling presence of the tides, with the waves appearing and reappearing between longer interior shots in an almost Richard Lester-esque way, serving as visual intruders into a fragile psyche. Once the distraught heroine Tara Chung enters the beach house, the film voluntarily loses, just like her, any perception of an outside world and becomes a purely psychogeographic exploration of space and distance. Suffering from traumatic abuse that gets revealed in the course of the movie only in fragments, Chung tries to shut out the world around her radically, she uses the house as a hermetic and artificial refuge with no reliance on daylight, as she closes all curtains and turns on a set of light bulbs instead. As she is moving up and down the stairs time and time again in a frenzy between rapture and deterioration, every part of the house becomes charged with inferential evocations, mental obstacles and noises that have no real physical origin – like the constant squawking of birds inside her head whispering: „come to us, come to us, come to us.“ Still, it’s probably better to be left to your own devices then having some washed up inhabitants of Fire Island come to you: There’s “Larry The Leech”, a seedy craftsmen, who uses Chung for his fantasy of a little sister he can protect. There’s Fannie Grudkow (Marlene Willoughby in an exuberant performance worthy of Elaine May), an older woman, talking about the energy crisis (we’re all in crisis mode here, Fannie), but ultimately screwing off the bulbs and putting them inside her purse. With the mere existence being penetrated constantly, the thin skin between inward agony and outward disturbance eventually get pierced: Tara Chung gives in to the call of the waves outside her house – lying and rolling on the sand, trying to merge with the water, drowning the noises out and by having sex with the tides finally dissolving into the ocean that absolves her from torment.

The Tiffany Minx (1981), apparently and gloriously so, is a variation on A Woman’s Torment. The underlying theme of trauma caused by physical abuse , mentally internalized and displaced, connects with the inner logic of daydreams: Fire Island serves as a sensory trigger for a maritime pipe dream with a self-proclaimed “stud for hire”, that is heavily soaked in nautical language and sailor’s yarn, encrypted sextalk that in the end returns to the very source of psychological distress. Also, the film serves as an afterthought to another movie by Findlay that immerses itself with the structure and pitfalls of fantasy.

    “I have a house near the water, it’s quiet. And secluded.”

If you’re diagnosed with an undisclosed terminal illness and your doctor appears to be a grey-haired and -bearded Jack Teague, resembling the shabby yet beautiful travelling circus version of a Greek god, you better listen to his advice of adapting to “a completely quiet existence”. “As long as you don’t excite yourself, there will be no pain”, he tells Alma (Georgina Spelvin) at the beginning of Mystique (1979). But as long as there’s no excitement there is really nothing at all: A lonely woman with no friends and family, Alma’s withdrawal to her house on the beach only reinforces and deepens her all-encompassing sense of isolation. Just for once there is a placid and detailed affection in the way Robert Findlay captures the interiors of the rooms she used as a background many times in her movies: a picture of a ballerina hanging on the wall, a record player, a table decorated like a chessboard, printed pictures Alma shot in her past profession as a photographer – the images bathe in evocative minutiae of all the things Alma surrounds herself with in order to get through the day.

They won’t suffice. Slowly Alma drifts into daydreams that fuse memories with projections: She envisions a sexual encounter with her doctor, giving her overbearing instructions (“respond to my thrust”) that only satisfy his own needs. Losing herself in fantasies that draw heavily on bourgeois culture, like antique statues and an 18th century violin concert of sorts, she succumbs each time to the will and imagination of others, each new fantasy becoming sexually and verbally more aggressive: “Grab your ass, do it, do it for me; now show me your breasts, do it, do it now; now rub them, rub them for me.”

Until Cosima (Samantha Fox in a red cloak) appears, an overt erotic supplement to Alma’s Thanatos (after all the script is by one fine auteur named Roger Watkins, obsessed with Wagnerian undercurrents and sexual death dances). The mutual affection the two women develop for each other at first is captured within the mise-en-scene with an overwhelming use of space and sensitivity to movement – Cosima’s seductive, arousing role being counterbalanced from different angles by Alma’s receptive waiting. In a particularly immersive scene Cosima is walking up the stairs with her arms wide open, ready to embrace everything that’s behind the camera she walks toward. The moment she nearly touches the camera, Roberta Findlay cuts to a close-up of Alma’s vagina, ready to receive. A later sequence serves as a visual antithesis of sorts, revealing the mysterious red-cloaked woman as another figure from Alma’s imagination who develops a desire of her own. This time Alma walks slowly down the stairs towards Cosima who is having sex with a yet unknown man and suddenly looks at Alma with a contemptuous glance and hurtful grin. It’s a stare that reaches far beyond the realms of the image it is looking at and cuts through the narrowmindedness of self-serving and salvation-hungry fantasies at large.

    “We fuck and suck until we can’t get up”

There is a rarely seen addendum to these movies, more often than not wrongly dismissed as a minor work consisting of recycled one-reels from other films by Findlay. In fact, Beach House (1980) is a bleak and disillusioned swan song to the Golden Age of the 70s and one of Roberta Findlay’s most outspoken personal works. Except for some stock night shots of the beach, Fire Island as a scenery becomes a state of mind and reference point for days gone by. A circle of women gets together to tell stories of their first, most intense or worst sexual encounters which turn into tales of rape, physical violence and abuse. Scenes, out- and extended takes from earlier movies are reshuffled and recontextualized – there is a congenial intertextuality at work here, as different roles played by the same actors are interwoven. Especially two men, Harry and Sam, each woman meets on various occasions are treated as illustrative material for abusive sexual behavior. The uneasiness felt in scenes taken out of their initial context is amplified by a voice over, usually drowning out the original audio track. “I hated his ugly cock moving up and down”, comments one of the women, “He just kept jabbing away, pushing his fat cock up into her”, complements another. Even when two of the women finally and against better judgement give in to Harry’s “monster cock”, the lyrics of the soft soul song that is playing over the scene tell another story: „Love gone bad, and I am sad“ – the lovelorn words become a barely audible comment on untrustworthy images.

“Where promises are made, and lovers come together” was the ironical ad slogan for Beach House at the time of its release – after half a decade of shoots on Fire Island this movie buried every dream and fantasy that the island’s light-soaked and breezy atmosphere originally evoked. When I look at the images of waves at night in Beach House again, I don’t think, they were really shot at night. It’s celluloid that obscured itself.

Dieser Beitrag wurde am Dienstag, Juli 30th, 2019 in den Kategorien Blog, English, Essays, Filmschaffende, Filmtheorie, 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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