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

    Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
    Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality

    (Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody)

Among the oddities that are Roberta Findlay’s bizarrely jewish Golden Age comedies „Fantasex“ is perhaps the most outré offering, for it discards her by then greatly accostumed musical narratives in favor of excess dialogue. Almost moderated by internal readings from Bernard Lipshitz‘ (Findlay regular Jeffrey Hurst in his big starring role) sex driven novels, distant radio chatter, tough guys bigmouthing all over the film („Hey turdface, fuck off!“) it sure comes across as one big joke on the never-ending ramblings of self-congratulatory men. Yeah, it’s a man’s world on display here, one more recluse, shy or insecure natures can only escape from through the mightiest superpower available to the average guy – the boundaries shaking powers inherent in lengthy, unashamed daydreams. Bernard, locked up, in every sense of the word, pen slave to vile publisher Crotchmire (Roger Caine) is such a daydreamer and owing to Findlay’s secretive approach to all her material the film seldom alarms us beforehand when his head is about to breach the cloud ceiling. Even while dwelling in nooks and crannies of his urban nightmare every impulse elicits a dreamlike quality. It’s hard to say whether Bernard is still in the office or imagining things when his boss is having it off with secretary Laverne (Jennifer Jordan): interwoven close ups of his astounded face frozen in expression in an empty cadrage create an echo chamber for the pondering audience, no one reacts to the other party’s presence until connection with the outside world is suddenly re-established again the moment Bernard swings the door open, like an intruder into his still sclerotic portrait.

Space is remarkably relative in „Fantasex“, mental images can seemingly break open even solid structures. The bridging swipes created by rapid camera pans already evident in Findlay’s debut „The Altar of Lust“ return once again, only this time around they’re not serving as an immediate connector between two countries or highly distinct parks and the concrete desert but rather as bizarre intermission covering the mere seconds it takes to transition from counter to office. Nonetheless, in an act of utter mockery, they still revel in the very same green forest hues observable in the far more momentarily film. Little quips like this one or the opening gag of zooming straight into the innermost white emited by a light bulp while the inner monologue boisterously lingers on ejaculation („My whole body shook as I emptied my cargo.“) are indicative of a special brand of humor that favors the visual over jokey, sometimes purposely stale exchanges from a script. The first major sex scene picks up on all this and still manages to transform into yet another transgression. A hodgepodge of erratic voices, natural and forwarded by technological agents alike, pollutes what is likely the ultimate 70’s boys night out, a poker game, while the camera runs circles, frantically revolves around tables, faces, architecture, cuts or pans from visage to visage, sunglasses to sunglasses. Upping the pressure of impression with every further step, the garage soons turns into a place of radiant male dominance similar to that unimaginable for modern lungs conference room scene in Fritz Lang’s German classic „M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder“ (1931) – only with an impervious multitude of voice layers doubling for a cough inducing smoke overlay.

There must be a way to escape this dreariness? There is! This time around it’s everyone else that freezes completely, rendering formerly unmistakable talking heads into these cute little animatronics you sometimes encounter in enchanted forest installations, trapped behind glass they wait to tell their tales in exchange for a coin. Bernard’s buddies find themselves similarly separated from the proceedings at hand, lifeless, like a decor piece they stare on and wait in vain for him, who is now being seduced by an imaginary saloon dancer, to care about some more chatter. Themed use of appropriate ragtime pieces on an invisible tack piano, a rapid dissolve removing the lovebirds from their drab surroundings before a hard cut set to wobbly extraterrestrial sounds leaves the rigid behind – there are no real devices of transation or passage to be found in „Fantasex“, no slow, artificial transformations or dream signifying effects, just hard cuts, seldom swipes between loci. The real and the unreal go hand in hand in Findlay’s film, are merely two sides of life’s weirdness with a noticable difference in chromatic signs. Accordingly, what felt so odd about this film at first is turned on its head now, as Bernard’s dreamscapes begin to unravel themselves and a far away bedroom becomes almost a secluded test chamber, a transparent thesis on the way Findlay lets music act as motor and brain to her films at the very same time. Bernard’s encounter with his bar girl showcases the erection of her cinematic language from the get-go, a reversal of everything that went before it. Just following orders instead of indulging in daring autonomous excursions the camera trails the two bodies as they change positions from a slight, yet always noticeable distance – no cuts for a startingly long time, only a couple of passionate symphonic strings set to lovers moving about. Directress fallen asleep at the wheel, you’re spotted! But all of a sudden deep horns kickstart more intense intercourse as well as directorial motion. Each and every new cut to entangled limps or kissing lips on close up adds a new layer of instrumentation, a piano, a more proper fusion, until it peaks as Bernard finally puts it in. Excitation, tender frenzy, two pleasured faces, hands clinging to the bedframe, the white skin of butt cheeks, all centered around his thrusting penis. The mental, spiritual composition of a sex act and a glimpse at how Findlay scored her films? If there is prime prove to the fact that her creativity far extended beyond „stealing“ (as she bluntly puts it herself) classical pieces from Russian samplers, it is to be found right here.

Next thing we know, Bernard’s on the toilet beating his meat – in the flat he shares with his mother. There is an especially steep slope between our dreams and reality in Findlay’s work, sometimes – like in „Lurkers“ (1988) – it serves to keep the full extent of the latter’s harshness at bay, here it is played and greatly timed for comedic effect. True to her self-deprecating nature never in a venomous intonation – even in this precarious situation Bernard remains nothing but a relatable weirdo. And who says you can’t drive yourself into a frenzy alone? Hardly noticable piano notes gently back up one of his prosaic monologues until the drive of his hands and imagination escalates alongside a full-blown orchestra. Fantasies are delicate little plants though and so a harsh knock at the door halts all motion, musical and masturbatory. An insisting close up seems to suggest the irritated mother has picked up on something special. More than an unexplained primal force the use of music in „Fantasex“ is akin to a special mindset the character’s and viewer’s can slip themselves into, a spirit they can channel, one taking control and gradually improving the powers inherent in imagination. A potent catalyst for your wellbeing – the „healing“ effect generally attributed to music by psychological studies plays a prominent role in many of Findlay’s films. And even in her most pessimistic moment as filmmaker and human being, the utterly bleak and unapologetic „A Woman’s Torment“ (1977), the lonely voice of the New York Philharmonic’s first violinist still carries a certain warmth unheard of in the more tangible parts of the picture. We might be dead now, inside and out – but we still had music.

It’s a constant back and forth between two separate entities, schizophrenic in a rare positive reinterpretation of the word. „I’m gonna shoot all over your pretty little face!“, exclaims Bernard’s laddish dream identity to the girl kneeling in front the bowl before a falling tennis racquet hits him on the head, jerks him out of it in the same frame and another cut removes his non-existant object of desire. Highly artificial in nature almost every scene, even the non-sexual ones like the already mentioned poker game or Hurst giving his best Tommy Udo impression while pushing his nagging, wheelchair-bound mommy down a flight of stairs, veers straight into the territory of other genres‘ offerings. From the mundanest of everyday proceedings right to a panopticon of cinema impressions past and present. „Fantasex“ is a prime example for Findlay’s immersive grip on her viewers, superelevated by agile camerawork, the propelling rhythm of music and montage objects, extremities as well as people can morph into just about anything – not exlusively in the characters‘ reveries mind you, but also in our perception of their adventures. Well aware of these false correlations we still find ourselves going along when Momma Lipshitz (Lyndee Mitchell) telephone conversation goes wild to an exciting cha-cha-cha that turns what may or may not be her son’s real way to work into a wild ride. A young woman hops on his bicycle, which immediately transforms – that bookish momma’s boy with the children’s lunchbox, he’s a string vest clad biker on a not so hot whip empowererd by copied in motorcycle sounds now. Wildly the camera spins around, sideways, up and down, the world on its head, shaking, trembling, imitating some particularly ecstatic drums sticks in mid-air to the sound of the feverish rock they produce. Sex in another bed-sized dreamscape kickstarts through carried over engine sounds, using her legs as makeshift accelerators Bernard, still wearing his helmet for protection, is in unimpaired charge of charge of space and time while now leading guitars encourage him to test their limits. Daydreaming is a beautiful, an emancipative act in Findlay’s world – do what you’d never do, freed of life’s constraints. Be it a close up on Hurst’s fancy schnauz or the swastika flag serving as sheets – these images harbor no hidden meanings, no agenda, they’re assorted stolen goods from contemporary advertising and rocker flicks. Everything goes where no one can be hurt.

Being her most unhinged, least connected filmic experimentation „Fantasex“ at times emits an almost European avantgarde feel, a notion very much at odds with the strong preference for classical Golden Age of Hollywood narrative cinema normally observable as a lingering undercurrent amidst her idiosyncratic mise-en-scène. It is perhaps her career’s lone out and out art film. While at least partially attributable to far easier to spot art pornographer Cecil Howard’s (under his real name Howard Winters) involvement in writing, this is still the result of Findlay coming up with flawless execution devices rivaling the finest – 1982’s „Scoundrels“ – of his own tries at unabashedly expressionist filmmaking. The still running motor stuttering out over the last drops of cum, a swift pan into framed emptyness – leaving this visions comes as intuitive as entering them and what caused their end is always sensible: Masturbation is the drive, the manual operation mode of desire’s ceaseless image production – the more you indulge, the better you get. „Fantasex“ with its array of little detached porn loops is as much a film on sex as it is one on sex on film – screens of the mental and tangible variety, they are one. Accordingly the interwoven complexity of stimuli involved increases with every passing encounter. Another office encounter, this time around channeling the spirit of a veritable Shaun Costello roughie – a knife ripping clothes, the blade in relation to Jennifer Jordan’s face and vice versa, single deliberate acts letting the music pop out even more in what seems like a scoring in progress. Connected to a single occurence and not a general feel each new sound becomes a tightly bound upper or downer of sexual aggression, in contrast to the earlier saloon intermezzo it is not pleasure measured by a perpetual increase in sonority. Lacking any outward indicators of the pressure cooking up in Bernard’s balls, one has to rely on a horn section intensifying the blowjob’s squelching noises. Like a similarly executed scene in „Angel Number 9“ – Darby Lloyd Rains fireplace fondlings with Jamie Gillis – a miniature spy thriller is potentially the closest you can get to paraphrasing it. Intense crescendos let the soundscape positively explode, until … well, you guessed it. A dastardly twist on the shock values upping the ante in roughie porn for sure.

But mankind cannot live on sexual gratification alone and thus Findlay turns the final reel into a proper romantic comedy, furnished with all the gushing phantasmal grandezza befitting a hopelessly romantic pessimist like her. Walled in in their thoughts Bernard and editor Jane (Terri Hall) bump into each other while sauntering about, their courses obviously predetermined by a long shot. „Would you share my lunch with me?“, she asks coyly and the camera leaves the quickly deserted frame by a punctual pan into heavens above. Hallelujah! Where does it take us? Right into the most trenchant fornication Findlay ever captured on film, encounters so unrestrained their artificiality is – in contrast to Bernard’s solitary efforts at ejaculation – clearly discernible from the get go. The final trifecta of „Fantasex“ are three carefully interwoven, contrasting to a maximum degree sex scenes that serve as a full, all on its own climax to the developing love story and set viewer expectations on the wrong track. First up is a black and white scene closely resembling the silent film interlude from Radley Metzger’s equally splashy „Naked Came the Stranger“ (1975). Jane is seated at a piano while her lover’s tongue glides over her nipples in time with the delicate touches‘ reverberation. Resuming her activity while sucking him off she sets the tone while an associative montage gradually puts them in more and more awkward positions on and around the instrument. Here it is – the perpetuum mobile of Findlay’s unique cinematic style, the circle of life, plowing and playing, the meta-loophole. Music is not a self-contained overlay anymore but an organic part of the picture, cuts, camerawork, it’s all comparatively slow now, further pushes are not needed anymore, outdistanced by Jane’s mouth right until she ends up like something out of „Les yeux sans visage“ with semen on the porcelain features. Expressionism galore – finally tired of all that talk, talk, talk a flood of disparate images breaks its way through workaway interruptions, reduces an threeway argument between Jane, Bernard and Mr. Crotchmire to quick motion frames first, distorted mumblings second and complete switch to an otherworldy circus plane third with every further verbal escalation. Fleeing life’s annoyances in three easy to repeat steps.

    Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955)

Bernard as a „Lola Montès“-esque master of ceremonies channeling his inner perverted Peter Ustinov to direct some carnal shenanigans, an extended operatic dance to fragments of differing accentuation – a barrel organ, old recordings, the crowd’s uproar and at times unintelligible announcements – now clad in amyriad of eye-popping red and blue colour mixes, the exuberant counterpart to Ophüls‘ gloomy classic. A contemporary update on similar overpowering tactics first employed in 1971’s „The Slaughter“ (apparently only ever released about one and a half years before „Fantasex“ in form of its previously discussed „Snuff“-edit) and its hypnotic, drawn-out South American carnival sequence cobbled together with copious doses of documentary footage as well as invigorating samba. Stripped to the core „Fantasex“ is precisely this: Roberta doing a Michael Findlay cabaret film and immediately outclassing her former husband. There’s more to her slice of the American dreamer’s underbelly than witty satirical stage acts – here laid bare by the consistent down and sideways pans out of the vignettes – still she never veers into the out and proud political porno filmmaking her later partner in crime Walter E. Sear enjoyed – most notably in the long attributed to her „Liquid A$$ets“ (1982). A veiled humanity, the humility and tender gaze of a woman too shy and recluse too judge neither her performers‘ bodies nor the eccentricities of her characters (but not the cruelty inherent in some). Jeffrey Hurst is just about the sexiest man alive – whether he plays a timid, geeky writer or hunky cook highly partial to glazings of all kinds (in „‚Sweet Punkin‘ I Love You“ [1976]). If he comes across as mildly to deeply unpleasant – like in „A Woman’s Torment“ (1977) or „The Tiffany Minx“ (1981) – it is grounded in personality traits inherent in his characters, not the way Findlay’s camera eye puts complete trust in his body and acting ability alike, elevates his more wacko turns to the level of adorable cinema outcasts.

That’s what Jane and Bernard are and nowhere is it more apparent than in the overdue consumption of their shared fondness. Finally leaving their drab workplace Jane is already wearing a bridal veil in the elevator while Rodrigo’s slowly swelling „Concierto de Aranjuez“ (an obvious favorite heard in quite a few of Findlay’s 1970’s films) and a timebridging cut shoot the metal capsule straight into their final destination. There’s something irritating about the artifical cloth only backdrops surrounding their marriage sheets, the deliberate mishmash of bodies, faces, genitals entwined, the insistence to dwell on the guitar interlude of Rodrigo’s composition for most of the time. Are these their real personas or are we witnessing the ultimate descent into innermost fantasies, a locked-in state of now collective daydreaming? It’s hard to tell, a niggling question, the unshakeable unsureness about everything dominate what is tender, though ultimately heartgripping and bittersweet sex. Until suddenly Aranjuez erupts in all its force – a bitter conclusion? A joyfilled celebration, an overwriting of reality? I don’t know, but what I do know is: It’s always a variation, a different stage of the same piece mirroring the state of of affairs – whatever that is, should or could be.

But in the end it’s just an understated joke, a humoristic rearrangement of things past and present, like the subversive peaks, the unhappy happy endings employed by the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmakers Findlay admires so fervently. A final fantastic journey of people mousy beyound redemption. The first half’s ineffective loquacity is back for good. Recitals of imaginary lover’s oaths over silent images – about to depart they face each other for the last time (today?). „Goodnight, Bernard.“, a struggle for words offers an eloquent testimony, then: „… no, goodnight, Jane.“ Again they abandon their frame, this time around in separate directions. No pan. The End. Once again cinema’s queen of fabrications, of filmic lies pulled the rug from under our feet. That’s no reason for outrage though – sometimes real life could never match the intensity of our wildest dreams anyway.

Fantasex – USA 1976 – 79 minutes – Direction: Roberta Findlay (as „Robert Norman“) – Production: Bud Green – Screenplay: Roberta Findlay (as „Robert Norman“), Howard „Cecil Howard“ Winters – Cinematography: Roberta Findlay – Editing: Roberta Findlay – Music: Walter E. Sear, ? – Cast: Jeffrey Hurst, Terri Hall, Jennifer Jordan, Roger Caine (as „Michael Jeffries“), Lyndee Mitchell and many more

Dieser Beitrag wurde am Dienstag, Juli 16th, 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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