‘The pain of being a woman is too severe!’ – The films of Roberta Findlay: Tenement (1985)




    Iron trees smother the air
    But withering they stand and stare
    Trough eyes that neither know nor care
    Where the grass is gone

    (David McWilliams – Days of Pearly Spencer)


Being close up to your characters’ lifes, social issues tormenting them and your viewers alike, or short life in general has always been deemed a good thing in every respectable critic’s book – but in a dastardly twist “close” can also become “too close for comfort”, which reliably prompts somewhat less enthusiastic responses. Gillo Pontecorvo’s immortal “La battaglia di Algeri” (1966) is such film, gnawing away at the audience’s nervous system with unyielding gusto – “Tenement”, Roberta Findlay’s second mainstream outing following a successful career in pornographic filmmaking an unlikely other. An urban warfare film in the mold of Michael Winner’s “Death Wish 3” (which was released about a month later) in almost all regards except the latter’s famed penchant for sly satire the narrative layout is quickly retold: Soiling an already unsalvageable tenement house even more a group of vile punks is ratted out to the police by an overzealous tenant. But as we are in the Bronx they are of course immediately set free again – now thirsting for bloody revenge. Like countless times before the almost brutish minimalism of Findlay’s filmmaking foundation is just this – the rather plain platform supporting and giving birth to astoundingly sophisticated constructions along the way.

Savouring every last corner of the grime-stained Bronx Findlay’s camera eye is not exactly keen on holding herself at a distance to its broken inhabitants – quite the contrary: Utilizing strikingly low set ups time and time again she finds herself wallowing and bellowing with them, radiating an almost unbearable closeness that suffocates all attempts at rationalisation. With most if not all of “Tenement” being captured via ever-moving steadicam shots and a subjective camera it soon becomes a highly involving affair that deconstructs our relatively safe position as viewer and condems us to a hapless bystander’s perspective – we end up equal parts police officer merely safeguarding an arrest, fellow junkie gazing on our buddies shooting H and people alike as well as frightened tenant relying exlusively on other people’s help. A clever technique undermining some highly unusual implications buried below slathers of blood ‘n’ guts. Not a single American movie from the colorful 80’s has been more upfront about this: The Bronx is a dog eat dog world through and through. Whereas Winner’s victims were broad caricatures of upstanding but forsaken citizens attacked by a bizarre array of grotesque freaks, there is no doubt about the fact that here each and every single person on screen (barring the exclusively white policemen from the opening sequence) could and would be considered a lighter or darker shade of what society generally deems a “low-life” in this climate. Depression seems to be running rampant among many residents of that rundown house – fiends and friends alike are trapped in an existence that encourages living for the day and withering away with each passing hour. Too much on top of each other, without contact to the outside world. There is hardly a difference between Mr. Rojas (Larry Lara) guzzling down galloons of beer and the almost ritual drug trips down in the basement. Urban desperation is everywhere in this pessimistically condensed miniature of America’s society, from the first floor to the last.

Our de facto heroes Mr. Washington (Joe Lynn) – a black electrician and apparently the only tenant in continuous employment – and senior Jewish widow Ruth (Mina Bern) couldn’t be more diverse in motivations and eagerness to assist, but they are both bound to their place by strange self-imposed hierarchy. Wading through a barrage of broken or hardly alive dreams it’s no wonder at all the two people being at least in tender touch with the American dream get singled out by their peers to safe the day. Their introduction did already betray it: “Tenement” is, although likely aimed at predominantly white Grindhouse moviegoers, a film remarkably light on audience appropriate characters. Clearly a continuation of her perspective shifting visual flourishes Findlay brings to the aural table a baffling array of strong and very wisely not overdubbed accents. Carol (Corinne Chateau) is the only exemplary all-American character on display here – she is also a prostitute answering to the whims of her drug addict boyfriend and, in an inversion of commenly held attidues regarding white women, considered to be among the miniature society’s dregs. Slander passes down to her just like it does to the gang inhabiting the lowest architectural point. They are a peculiar bunch: Almost childish in their basement-dwelling rebellion against all things good taste, maybe even later on leading a drug-fuelled assault on their former neighbors. And highly diverse: The penchant for low camera positions turns the normally rather diminutive Paul Calderón into a grueling force of nature, enhancing his marvellous early performance just like the shed blood he proudly carries around on his face. Superelevated to devilish realms by his facepaint glittering in extreme close-ups he becomes some sort of remorseless revenge demon and responsible for nearly all deaths on his group’s final account. Passing on to another world without ever really laying hand on someone some of his croonies hardly seem as bad.

And coincidentally it’s his inside perspective that is notably left out by the subjective camera strolls some even less crucial characters get to take part in. Whether tormenting his fellow gangmembers or carving up a blind man’s dog – never watching always watched is he. Chula (Karen Russell) though is their “ho”, as the men bluntly put it and Findlay’s glanzes on or emanating from her suggest a somewhat different being. Twice she is brutally assaulted by the unbridled males all around – her disgusted look at a dead rat impaled for her consumption is mirroring ours, the camera wildy, borderline compassionately fighting alongside her on the floor when she is force-fed a bowl of dog food. Devoid of further narrative seperation from the brutes surrounding her she stills seem more sympathetic, almost ripe for reformation one could say. But Findlay is not your everyday feminist filmmaker nor remotely interested in a special treatment – in her world a strong woman is not necessarily a good natured woman too, or one buying into promises of “a better life”. A saving grace like this impossible. In the end she goes down fighting and in-fighting like all the others do and remains a more intricate female character for precisely this reason. By contrast gang leader Chaco (Enrique Sandino) is less of a character and much more of an imposing physique, an empty shell to be filled at our own discretion but also the perfect embodiment of the film’s decidedly physical rather than intellectual ways.

First and foremost the driving force behind all of Findlay’s work – the musical compositions setting every character, every interaction and all nuances thereof dead in their tracks before any conscious decisions can emerge – seems to play exclusively for him this time. Contrasting heavily with his more communicative underlings the laconic manner in which he demands all attention on but also off the screen develops out of a unique musical flow only he’s tuned in to. Thus more of Winnetou’s crack craving brother in spirit at first he slowly dissipates into a screaming, violent mess with every cycle of the wild beating bongos and flaming guitars laid over the proceedings. Until Chaco finally ends up in a very much Argentoan dance of death amidst billions of raindrops; coated in monochromatic color excesses he swings a switchblade at his victim, guided by musical cues alone. As if he were James Dean trying to impress a horde of youngsters. A strange climax for a strange movie that couples driving rock music with nigh on classical dance routines. Here, in the pronounced and drawn out antics of the villains or – the complete, almost cutish opposite of Chaco’s dangerous pirouettes – when the camera, still in Chula’s introspect and so dancing in her as much as us our shoes at the same time, graciously spins around the bodies of two slain man while she carefully paints their faces with lipstick – paints them like Findlay paints the floor with one fakely colored blood tide gushing out after another. Reduced to its core the gritty “Tenement”, which is to this day promoted with expactable varities of “the only movie ever rated X for violence alone”, is a highly artifical film reveling in visual compositions that delight or disturb but always assault the senses … and in a precise glimse at America’s bleeding heart. Visble for only a few select seconds it encompasses one of the decade’s great underrated moments of visual grandezza and sublime thought stitched together, a perfect addendum to the defining image of Apollo Creed lying slain in the ring. Serenely rummaging through every single appartment, even appropriating the slightly superior lifes of their victims in the process Chaco suddenly comes face to face with Martin Luther King. Just for short moment the shot combining his and our vision via a friendly gaze over his shoulder lingers tentatively on a framed photography – then he smashes it with his pistol. Even he, the hero of a politically awakened generation, is so far removed twenty years later that he hardly has any relevant words in store for a lost generation.

Amidst the glorious bloodshed of comparable urban warfare films Roberta Findlays take on them appears scaringly somber at times. Like an irredeemably depressed last work, closely resembling what a prelude to suicide might look like in a severe case of directorial world-weariness. And yet it is only another creative high point in an unusual filmography, the legacy of the toughest woman to ever take a seat in the director’s chair.


Tenement – USA 1985 – 94 minutes – Direction: Roberta Findlay – Production: Walter E. Sear – Screenplay: Joel Bender, Rick Marx – Cinematography: Roberta Findlay – Editing: Walter E. Sear – Music: William Fischer, Walter E. Sear, Alex Futter, Michael Litovsky – Cast: Joe Lynn, Mina Bern, Gy Mirano, Larry Lara, Karen Russell and many more


Dieser Beitrag wurde am Samstag, Februar 9th, 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.

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