‘The pain of being a woman is too severe!’ – The films of Roberta Findlay: Snuff (1976)




    When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
    And I stop and I turn and I go for a ride
    And I get to the bottom and I see you again, yeah, yeah

    (The Beatles – Helter Skelter)


Amidst this little series on Roberta Findlay’s cinema “Snuff” is likely the odd man out, first and foremost of course because it is not really part of her filmography as a directress – just like with all other works of her by then husband Michael she fervently denies any directorial influences – but also because it is a quite substantial, yet still only fragmentary tradition of the shelved, (humorously fitting to some central themes) externally mutilated and never resurfaced film (“The Slaughter”) the Findlays set out to shoot in 1971, the year which should later mark the genesis of Roberta’s very own debut. And it is precisely this film – “The Altar of Lust” – that shall explain the presence of “Snuff” in this comprehensive outline of her career via the striking continuity between some of the artistic techniques employed.

For “Snuff” or its “The Slaughter”-portion making up all of the runtime up until the final five and a half minutes revolving around a tacked on snuff shoot is just as much of an oddity in Michael Findlay’s body of work – less because of the duties he performed in Argentina, more because of how its inner workings run. Up to this point his films had dabbled in what could accurately be described as the avant garde. Shot in contrasty black and white and displaying a prominent reliance on bizarre stage acts and the act of peeping they became an otherworldly cabaret of America’s grotesque underbelly – wild, somewhat unfocussed exercises in experimentation akin to certain European new waves and featuring a far more superficially visible artist’s stamp. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Roberta Findlay, like Danièle Huillet or Jerusha Hess, has for many years and in spite of her equally important contributions generally been considered more of an accessory to a male director than an accomplished filmmaker in her own right. Young Roberta Hershkowitz had been a music student before, at the age of just 15 or 16, she turned (apparently autodidactic) lighting technician first then camerawoman too for the ten years older Findlay, whom she would later wed as soon she was legally able to do so. An early and not strictly film-related training, a peccadillo of youth or maybe even a mere footnote in a long career as a successful adult in a different field for some perhaps, that is easily forgotten and yet must have influenced to a great extent what would make her so easily distinguishable from her husband or contemporaries as an artist. Her utterly unique musician’s sensibility, her ability to create a filmic flow, a mimicry of human emotion out of music and music alone. While it was the act of performing live that formed the heart, the never once stuttering motor of fellow musician turned filmmaker Jesús Franco’s cinema so many, many times, it is a much more fundamental, maybe even radical sense of basic trust in the direct, unmediated lyrical translation of feelings into disembodied sonority. And what remains of “The Slaughter” – be it co-directed by her or not – marked the first time this aesthesia came knocking. Aural cues had always been an important part of the Findlays’ vision – as a means of underscoring the uninhibited proceedings on screen though, never as the the primal driving force behind it all. Roberta insists that the musical choices on “Snuff” weren’t hers and still it seems very much like a foreshadowing, a forming process closing in on it’s finale.

Blatantly based on the notorious Tate murders committed by group of Charles Manson’s followers the foundation of “Snuff” revolves around a group a young women indulging in a variety of sometimes more, sometimes less loosely connected criminal acts and generally offensive behaviour under the influence of a not so charismatic cult leader appropriately called Satan (Enrique Larratelli). He rules them with an iron fist and so teaches a valuable lesson immediately past the credits; to Ana (Ana Carro) about the dangers of using all of the drug stash for herself and to us about what subsequently would become Roberta Findlay’s technique. The mutilation of Ana and the violent sexual awakening of Viveca – they’re two sides of the same medallion, with the cutting influenced by beat and the strong emphasis of facial expressions sewn together by a hard montage the former almost seems like the latter’s blueprint. On narrative level it serves almost the same purpose as well – laying the tracks that send a character further down the road in a progression of violence, sex or both. Conveniently the designated target ain’t long in coming: Terry London (Mirtha Massa) is an actress currently residing in our unnamed South American location with her producer and flirting with a young German (Clao Villanueva) curiously sharing his name with famed actor Horst Frank. As trivial as they’ll soon become to the threadbare plot all there is to know about them is still elaborated upon in a remarkably tight sequence that intercuts him speeding towards her in a boat with her jittering around excitedly on a balcony overlooking the sea. Both actions are aimed at us – her smile is just as much ours as the tip of his vehicle – and alternately scored with high voltage rock and melancholic slowhand picking respectively. Saying all there is to say and less with almost nothing but a certain sense of assured easiness – this is what Roberta Findlay’s cinema would become all about.

Speaking of saying less: Said threadbare plot starts showing increased signs of defibration from now on with the remainder of “Snuff” becoming one of the purest meditations on the associative powers of music, who, as to prove a point in a kind of sophisticated meta shtick, get called upon straight away by the filmmaking duo to guide us through a more and more incoherent collage that nonetheless incessantly ups the pace right until it impacts at top speed into the wall dastardly errected by epilogue-director Simon Nuchtern. The possibility of “The Slaughter” being a far more concluded affair will of course always remain – even tough chances of a proper retrieval are likely slim – but the open-ended, playful approach forced upon the material by external means represents an absorbing alternative. One reveling in its little vignettes setting up a solution that will never arrive and thous leaving ample space for truly resourceful solutions to some technical difficulties harboring the potential of destroying just about every single movie besides this one. Make no mistake – the post-dub presumably prepared by the Findlays back in 1971 (Roberta herself provides superior voice work for the sadly least used of the female protagonists while Michael delivers his own lines in small detective role) is several notches below the ones gracing some later efforts. Stilted it strolls all over the place – hitting histrionic and utterly lifeless notes all the same, sometimes none. It is here where the idiosyncratic use of music steps in again to save the day, making the dub rise over his heavily compromised origins. With sublime consistency it alerts us beforehand about the slightest emotional impulses the characters are suppossed to share with each other. When words fail a Spanish guitar (later on a mainstay of Roberta’s early features) can always do the magic and makes Horst and Terry care for one another.

Every once in a while the script loses its influence on the way scenes play out altogether. Sprinkled between frantic bongo drums and copious inserts of eye smolderingly vibrant carnival footage producer Max’ last conversation with his star is, perhaps wisely, drowned out by the fabricated surroundings, whose gradual montage-powered escalation creates an unreal illusion almost rivaling the artificial carnival of life from Veit Harlan’s unhinged opus “Opfergang” (1944) and fittingly culminates in murder. Another standout scene, a – when bowing to conventional views on filmic story telling – somewhat lengthy discussion between Satan and Horst’s arms dealer father turns into a careful recreation of silent movie dialogue conventions via quick, extremely close zooms right in the current speaker’s face. A strange accentuation technique even-handedly diverting attention to their exalted body antics, the fairly overenthusiastic acting on screen and in this case exceptionally lifeless dialogue spoken over it. Whipping this methodical deconstruction of a dialogue or sight based narratives up to eleven the jarring way the Findlays stage violence is thous, in every single of the select spikes, a culmination. Angelica’s (Margarita Amuchástegui) final initiation into the circle comes in form of a sex scene uncomfortably transcending the lines separting the consensual and non-consensual. Soaked entirely in a deep monochromatic blue it plays out like an outlandish stage play channeling the spirit of Michael Findlay’s mid-sixties work for one last time. Energetic rock music is allowed to finally kick in when Satan, placed upright on a large wooden catwalk approaches his underling in all his divine splendour and dissolves into the act itself – completely excised from the frame after his stroll transforms the man into a subjective tracking shot he is curiously missing amongst the fast moving images of pleasured faces and self-caressing hands focussed on his bodyless performance. In a way he becomes music personified, not unlike the way “Tenement” (1985) should treat Enrique Sandino’s ethereal, borderline Pierre Bricean gang leader near fifteen years later.

Leaving out the all too nasty bits might have been a simple monetary necessity (for “The Slaughter” was shot on a meager 30.000$ budget [cp. Joan Hawkins, “Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde”, p. 136]), but is still transformed in an effective device of audience manipulation here. It is readily apparent in the two scenes now – in light of the non-resolved Tate murders imitation closing the arc and abruptly blending into Nuchtern’s footage – serving as the film’s real climax. First up is a small town robbery turned shootout, spurred not as much by the puny .38 colts involved but the accompanying drumming supersizing their impact. Louder and louder it wails while the clerk is helplessly staring in our direction, finally becoming unbearable the moment the first shots ring out. Aural assault foreshadowing the opening rape of “The Altar of Lust”; accordingly it’s not the sight of bloody entry and exit wounds drawn out by slow motion that sticks around. The increased heart trouble upkeeping with the beats experienced by the old store keeper, a young girl desperately pressing her ears shut, trying to drown out all sound while her mother is shot dead in the street by bullets ringing like drum breaks – this is what it’s all about. An effective exercise in New Hollywood bloodshed this scene conceives film, or specifically its creative means as weapon of its very own, a loaded gun aimed at the audience. The old man, the little girl so strikingly resembling her male counterpart in Douglas Sirk’s classic “The Tarnished Angels” (1958) – trapped in the most magical of a funfair’s attractions, the merry-go-round, he helplessly has to watch on in horror while his father perishes in a plane crash. We are neither the satanists and killers nor the glamorous actresses and producers – we are them: Bystanders, knocked down a peg by the centrifugal force of life’s ever-spinning sex and violence carousel. The rapist hugging Angelica’s abused younger self in the following flashback brings it full circle: Slowly the handheld camera toddles up to him, prepares to fondle him in her stead until the screen turns black, then via a brutal, inseperable cut and zoom mixture this motion is quickly reserved, the gaze revealed courtesy of her kid brother, who is condemned to stare from a distance. Just like we are.

Viewing the wide array of movies that followed in the wake of a creative forming process, the relationship with a very much likeminded soulmate, with eyes and mind wide open sooner or later leads to one crucial observation: Roberta Findlay’s cinema is an interactive playfield. Her camera lense, the delicate nudging of her sound scapes – they’re our guides in intricate constructions never giving up their secrets thoughtlessly for some easy appreciation by critics. The constant focus on bare flesh ‘n’ guts aimed at her and her former husband alike, after all these years it still obstructs the fact that their undeniable disturbing qualities have a lot more to do with the machinations of cinema itself rather than the generously spilled contents of a ketchup bottle. Added on Allan Shackleton’s insistence the infamous snuff sequence delivers plenty of this and yet fails in being an even half as effective presentation mustered alongside the remnants of the Findlays’ South America adventure. Bundling their finest qualities as individual filmmakers “Snuff” is still a thrilling picture, a to be treasured memento of what was likely their shared masterpiece. A stream of consciousness tour de force unlike anything else – if William Faulkner had written a deranged low-rent version of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le mépris” (1963) married to “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles, it would most certainly have looked like this.


Snuff – Argentina, Canada, USA 1976 – 80 minutes – Direction: Michael Findlay (“The Slaughter”), Simon Nuchtern – Production: Jack Bravman (“The Slaughter”), Allan Shackleton – Screenplay: Michael Findlay (“The Slaughter”) – Cinematography: Roberta Findlay (“The Slaughter”), ? – Editing: ? – Music: Rick Howard – Cast: Margarita Amuchástegui, Liliana Fernández Blanco, Enrique Larratelli, Ana Carro, Clao Villanueva and many more


Dieser Beitrag wurde am Mittwoch, März 27th, 2019 in den Kategorien André Malberg, Blog, Blogautoren, English, Essays, Filmbesprechungen, Filmschaffende, 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.

Kommentar hinzufügen