‚The pain of being a woman is too severe!‘ – The films of Roberta Findlay: The Altar of Lust (1971)

    In the dime stores and bus stations
    People talk of situations
    Read books, repeat quotations
    Draw conclusions on the wall.
    Some speak of the future
    My love, she speaks softly
    She knows there’s no success like failure
    And that failure’s no success at all.

    (Bob Dylan – Love Minus Zero)

There is a certain crudeness running rampant in Roberta Findlay’s œuvre, not only connecting her rather diverse body of work between commercial mainstream and commercial offside like a cleverly hidden nervous system would do but also giving birth to an idiosyncratic sophistication uniquely hers. „The Altar of Lust“ is the first – at least according to Findlay herself, who fervently denies all accredited co-directorial duties on some of her former husband Michael’s films – and already one the crowning achievements of this method. So slim on any narrational fat and yet as rich and complete as only a masterfully crafted meal can be.

The story of an at times even simplistic conversation between therapist and patient connecting various remembrences of carnal encounters, more importantly: of female self-discovery told through shifting musical cues, sliding progressions of sexual positions, visual equivalences and juxtapositions, the throning discovery of editorial tardiness. Pleasure is a slooow affair in Findlay’s film – just until it boils over, matching then eclipsing the heartbeat of displeasure; seldom someone got the primitive delights of or their absence in intercourse quite as right as she did. Kickstarting Viveca’s (Erotica Lantern) identity forming process her rape at the hands of a brutish admirer is a not even remotely drastic softcore affair nonetheless exuding a very real sense of despair entirely through the means of the directress‘ techniques, the balancing decision of what to show and what to only grasp. With the subjective camera focussing mostly upon facial expressions shot in a Riefenstahlian fashion from below for Hans or above for Viveca one feels almost directly involved in the proceedings. A garish attack on certainly male dominated audience yet coupled with regular, almost cutesy intercuts of his barely undressed butt sluggishly moving up and down. Aggressors can’t perform after all. Two distinct impressions battling to create a diverse array of emotion, further escalated by Findlay’s own musical compositions accompanying each and every move. More akin to escalating soundscapes than melodic movements this aural assault heightens then all of sudden grinds to a halt the erratic montage, conquering it in the process, precisely dictating the intesity of every single thrust, scream and terrified gaze in an entrancing carrousel of art dictating life in another piece of art.

An opening so unforgettable that it immediately starts to assert control over all further development through tricks of the filmmaking trade, just as Viceva’s tormenters and teachers do it within the narrative thread holding it all together. „I wanted to wipe the slate clean!“, explains Viveca to her therapist and like a terrible memory wiped from conscious perception to the unconscious Findlay’s camera rabidly moves sideways, fast and faster till the lush meadows of Sweden are nothing but a blurry mess of the mind and movement grinds to a halt via an almost unnoticable cut in the urban streets of New York City. Findlay, who went on to edit a fair portion of her own films and a select few for fellow pornographer Cecil Howard, already shows an enviable knack for condensing exclusively sight based narratives in her very first picture. An impression immediately underpinned by the second sex scene revolving around a young Harry Reems hustled from those very same streets in a friendlier park already chafing at the bit. Same playground, same directorial tricks and yet: El concierto de Aranjuez (once again)! Its strings being pulled solely by Rodrigo’s majestic composition the mood couldn’t be more different – with the melancholic guitar interlude slowing down the montage, giving ample room for a second orgasmic peak of lust just in time for the grand finale. Suddenly the now familiar rapid movement dumps us in front of two tongues closely entwined an appartment building; dragged along this time: The very same male. Laid bare by this turn of events is what perhaps constitues one of Findlay’s greatest virtues as a filmmaker: Her unmatched ability to explain the difference between two sexual encounters in the most pragmatic way imaginable.

Extending on this filmic foundament, this duality of Viceca’s sexual nativity the remaining two thirds of „The Altar of Lust“ form a sweeping chain of corporeal vignettes grouped by underlying themes when appropriate and categorically interrupted when highly inappropriate by mocking intermissions featuring Dr. Rogers (Fred J. Lincoln). The frigid tone of these segments, their bored faces on therapist and patient alike, that overtly Freudian questioning spliced between scenes of highest indulgence – it is all one big exclamation mark: Psychotherapy, retrospective analysis can neither fully comprehend human attraction nor the heat of the moment. Accordingly the Golden Age’s most sex-positive directress allocates these thoughts to a narrative sideline swept away and contrasted heavily by the flow of her musical medition on the effective power of intercourse. Appointed tidal wave is a later expanded as well as subverted shower scene solely knit around one of the rare examples of what I will now dub „boner buildup“. Likely spurred by the – at least in regards to actual penetration (oral sex is indeed graphically portrayed) – softcore nature of Findlay’s film a soapy encounter between Viveca and Don (Harry Reems) primarily dwells on his member being fondled by her tender hands, until the aphrodisiacal force of rock music turns him equally hard. Thus deemed the center of attention it is neither immediately ready tool like in countless Golden Age or modern films alike nor curiously omitted until it’s time for action – an attest of love or even holistic attraction the pleasure of turning someone on has seldom been captured in the way this scene, one of the most relentlessly affirmative ones in the history of not only pornographic cinema, has it.

And still it is yet another scene soon subverted in the film’s playful association games underlining Viveca’s free spirited trial and error approach to sex. Originally introduced as Dom’s bit on the side in what is propably the culminating point among all sex scenes Marie (Suzy Mann) hastily becomes an obsession for our cheated heroine. Or more perhaps? „I secretly wanted to have sex with that girl.“, confesses Viveca’s assured voice laid over the realization in her eyes when she comes across the infidelity on display. And she does. Invited to participate she fleetingly passes a mirror, halting just a second too long to not give that certain „what’s to become of me“ vibe just before the shifting cadrage exposes both Marie and Viveca’s reflection at the same time. They look remotely similar, enough to create a strange doppelganger effect – the only distinct visualization of self-awareness being formed through our gaze on others. From this moment onwards the lines in Findlay’s film become increasingly blurred, muddying Dr. Rogers‘ as well as our believed grasp of the human condition permanently. Back in New York the camera – as if to bear evidence – slides along the magnificent skyline obscured by a large window pane wet with rain when Viveca doubtingly asks „Doctor, I’m a lesbian – can you cure me?“ to the chords of an elegiac guitar. Is this somber impression, this NY state of mind accounting for Viveca’s confession or the depressing talk? In lack of a proper answer Roberts states, obviously reaching out beyond the fourth wall: „I make no judgments – your mind and conscience will tell you what is right.“ An assertion seemingly mirroring the directress‘ own stance on all issues dished up by her. Fitting in neatly with the West German slew of pseudo-documental report films time-wise „The Altar of Lust“ nonetheless feels like a strong worded rebuttal lacking or even denying all judgmental attitudes expressed in many of the Genre’s better known films.

With these rulings hence out the way surf’s up, the torrent arriving in form of some rapidly joined sex. In Viveca’s memories the formerly subtle guitar piece turns fast-paced, real energetic once her lesbian encounter gets into gear, setting apart what is hard to distinguish on a purely visual level. Most interactions are missionary in nature and displaying a strange coninuity among sexual move sets – thrusting from above, below or behind, always of comparable strength coupled with a rhythm totally disconnected from the musical narrative that is reserved for emotions not base bodily functions. Even in her very first feature the silent correspondence between two all but matching images, their juxtaposition is Roberta Findlay’s game. Applied to the scene in question this can only mean one thing: The world’s upside down! More or less literally – as Viveca is enjoying her first ever 69 – but also in regards to the depictions of (male) domination favored by the camera set ups especially during the opening rape. Now lowered almost closer to eye level the old question of top and bottom turns trivial, chemically linked in an exhibition of hard to differentiate extremities both women are truly more of a singular entity. Blending into each other like the picture sequence of Viveca making out with Marie or Dom in the shower, it’s interchangeable, one a carbon copy of the other – attraction nullifies all auxiliary concerns. And that is more or less the key to the, superficially speaking, contorted mess closing „The Altar of Lust“.

Crossing paths for apparently the last time Viveca and Dom meet up in a rather lush appartment to engage in what all withering couples should resort to instead of violent power struggles: A sports competion, some proper humping contest. Quickly repositioned in adjacent rooms she gets it on with her new love Linda (Laura Cannon) while his eyes are set on belly dancer (Arlana Blue) strangely in attendance. Where Marie still throned a tad above Viveca in their encounter a bed does now even out the playfield even more, elevating the horizontal and pushing away the camera just a sliver to enable a lustful gaze at their finally equal lovemaking. Some Morricone-esque horns play up and gradually increase the frequency of cuts connecting both couples, in their pronounced Euro Spy vibe they drench the proceedings in tension fit for a tiptoed, highly deliberate pursuit around pitch black corners. Taking the sex out of Spy films and turning it into a thriller of its own – a bold move and the perfect affirmation that Findlay’s musical prowess can easily achieve a level of genre experimentation normally deemed indicative of far higher budgets. Fingerpicking the pace to the more intimate levels of classical romance movies a Spanish guitar is next and as if spotting the difference in cues the montage dwells in tenderly moving loins intercut. Before long these very loins evolve into full bodies grinding into each other, escalated by the trademark driving bongos so many Findlay scores – whether written by herself or creative collaborators – eagerly rely on. Our miniature spy thriller, it has its own suspense curve including a sudden relapse into loungy oral sex serving as build up for the strong handed jazz drumming that finally drives the continued penetration home in a barrage of unhinged moans.

An interpenetrative exorcism – that’s just what this filmic crescendo amounts to. The cantata seems less refined – to really taste sexual freedom you have to let go completely or to quote Viveca on the culmination of her journey: „I wanted to give not just receive!“, she aspires and lands here: „I had become the antithesis of Hans!“ A Findlay film wouldn’t be a Findlay film lacking a
mischievous twisting of the blade in Flower Power America’s infatuated heart. It’s Dr. Rogers who’s keen on another exorcism when his detached therapy session turns all to human. „Think of me as a man not a doctor!“, he proclaims in all scientific sobriety and the stage is set for a weirdly transgressive doctor-patient act marrying a contemplative rock song along the lines of „Too find a woman and love her“ with his pleas about just wanting to shock her out of her „lesbian tendencies“. Results are mixed though – centered around her totally absent face this becomes neither a depiction of rape nor plain bad sex, just an utterly uncomfortable non-entity. „The Altar of Lust“ ends therefor in a taunt of its inflaming title with the doctor wriggling around aimlessly on top of his case study, who at long last calls out with determination: „Oh, Linda – I love you!“ Session failed? Is psychotherapy a hoax? We’ll never know – flat out denying all established dissolutions of sexual dilemmas or worse Roberta Findlay’s soon to be fifty year old film debut remains remarkably thought provoking and fresh when viewed in light of more recent social debates highlighting increasingly individual perspectives on sex, gender and related topics. A brash grin in your face and a surprising lack of narrative climax for a film filled to the brim with sexual ones.

The Altar of Lust – USA 1971 – 78 minutes – Direction: Roberta Findlay – Production: Roberta Findlay – Screenplay: Roberta Findlay – Cinematography: Roberta Findlay – Editing: Chuck Schwartz – Music: Roberta Findlay (as „Robin Aden“) – Cast: Erotica Lantern, Fred J. Lincoln (as „Tony Vincent“), Suzy Mann (as „Julie Shae“), Harry Reems (as „Stan Freemont“), Arlana Blue (as „Ann Young“) and many more

Dieser Beitrag wurde am Freitag, März 1st, 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.

Eine Antwort zu “‚The pain of being a woman is too severe!‘ – The films of Roberta Findlay: The Altar of Lust (1971)”

  1. Filmforum Bremen » Das Bloggen der Anderen (04-03-19) on März 4th, 2019 at 17:22

    […] sein Text aber wieder auf Englisch ist. Okay, bei einem langen und tiefgehenden Text über ein obskures Werk von Roberta Findlay ziehe ich mich mal darauf zurück, dass immerhin der Blog aus dem deutschsprachigen Lande […]

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