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A Woman’s Torment: The Films of Roberta Findlay

Pioneering exploitation filmmaker Roberta Findlay was prolific in the male dominated pornographic and horror Grindhouse genres of the 1970s, commanding the shifting roles of cinematographer, actor, director, writer, and distributor on over forty sexploitation and horror films. The anarchic blend of graphic sex and ultraviolence dominating her raw often sadomasochistic material spurred enduring controversies, shocking even the most jaded veterans of the hard core. Film scholars would eventually define her and her late husband and past collaborator Michael Findlay as, “the most notorious filmmakers in the annals of Sexploitation cinema.”

Roberta is without a doubt a renegade in her field, yet quick to reject the label, referring sardonically to fans of her films as people who “have deep psychological problems.” With her distinctly matter of fact Bronx, New York cadence and no nonsense attitude she has been known to say in response to her status as an underground feminist filmmaking icon that her intention throughout her career wasn’t to make a statement, but to make a living. A successful businesswoman who mastered the model of producing content for next to nothing and exploiting a guaranteed rabid fan base she went where the money was, beginning in porn and torture “roughies” and transitioning to horror. Always the pragmatist, when questioned on the nuances between horror and hard core porn filmmaking she responded that it was pretty straight forward. In both genres the goal was the same: to get the money shot. The only difference in execution was the color of the substance yielded.

Being a woman whose business was porn was a role that was an outlier at the time, and the extreme mixture of violence and sex in Roberta’s films encouraged the fetishization of her by predominantly male fans. Unrelenting questions about her predilection for the sick and subversive have dogged her throughout her life, when in truth her personal leanings and background couldn’t be farther from the grizzly brand of sleaze that became her trademark. She wasn’t an experimental taboo breaking, downtown artist bent on pushing political boundaries and toppling gender norms or some kind of sex fiend playing out her fantasies looking to incite controversy. She was, on the contrary, in most senses a straight laced, practical person who found a steady trade and learned to make a living in an era when that wasn’t yet the norm for a young woman. Born in 1948 and raised in a tenement in the Bronx by Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Roberta was trained to play the piano with her parent’s hopes that she would find a career as a pianist. As a lover of the classical and a budding cinephile her tastes ranged from the foreign films of Yasyujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dryer to John Ford and Billy Wilder. Hard working and intelligent, at the age of sixteen Findlay left home to study music in Manhattan, where she worked part time as a classical pianist live scoring silent films. This is where she met and fell in love with Michael Findlay, who introduced her to the world of underground erotic filmmaking.

In 1965 the first film they collaborated on was the low budget black and white “roughie” filled with heroin addiction and rape called Satan’s Bed, which also in a bizarre cross cultural moment marked the acting debut of a young Yoko Ono. Without any formal technical training, Roberta learned by doing, multitasking on low fi sets that called for an all hands on deck approach. By 1970, barely twenty years old, Roberta picked up a camera on the Argentinian set of the infamous horror film The Slaughter, aka Snuff, and shot the film with no prior knowledge of handling a movie camera. From that moment onward she would refer to herself as a “cameraman” and would go on to be the cinematographer on nearly every film she directed and produced, often the only woman on all male crews. Roberta was both the cinematographer and the camera operator, her scrappy devotion to always “getting the shot” was constantly prevalent, Evidenced by her technique of propping her ARRIFLEX 16mm camera on her chest so she could be as mobile as possible when shooting,the motor pressing against her breastbone. The pressure of which would eventually cause a benign cyst to develop on her chest. Through trial and error she was also cutting her own films and was now proficient in every aspect of low budget filmmaking and almost totally self sufficient. After the release of Snuff she broke up with Michael Findlay and struck out on her own as an auteur director, enlisting the composer and engineer Walter Sear as a production collaborator after working for the infamous porn distributors Allen Shackleton and Dave Darby. By the late 1970s, with a system run and dictated by her including trusted collaborators like Sear to complete her team, she was working consistently and successfully at the epicenter of the golden age of both the porn and the slasher film genres.

The British author of feminist fantastical macabre, critic, and essayist, Angela Carter, wrote in regard to the surrealists exploring the transgressive and of the Marquis De Sade as the forefather of that movement, that the intention behind their work was to instigate a “perpetual moral subversion of the existing order.” Carter wrote that the expression of pornographic fiction sprung from the limitations of social repression, and in the American landscape of the 1970s that stance was more prescient than ever. The age old debate surrounding the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic deemed morally reprehensible would reach new heights in this golden age where pornography shifted into the mainstream and exploitation films increasingly pushed the envelope with raw content brimming with extreme violence and torture.

In the 1970s, the often illegal production of pornography thrived in the seductively dangerous intersection between art and crime, positioning the pornographer as the rebel of the moving picture business who shaped the anti establishment ethos of the independent film movement. Like the surrealistic visionary subversion of George Bataille, who was obsessed creatively with horror, graphic sex, torture, and bodily fluids, and who strived with his work “to bring art down to the base level of other phenomena,” the pornographic or exploitation filmmaker could experiment with transgressive ideas shunned by the mainstream. An original cinematic outlaw, by the late 1960s the porn director shared the bill at art house cinemas with French avant-garde filmmakers of the intellectual elite and drew audiences where Jackie O and Truman Capote could be seen mingling with the daily 42nd street purveyors of smut. A rejection of traditional values was in vogue, sexual liberation was in full swing, and the subversive pastime of watching dirty pictures exploded into a cultural phenomena that was both fashionably non conformist and lucrative for the filmmakers who were churning them out.

Meanwhile, within the political landscape of the country a firestorm was erupting between the conflicting factions of the second wave feminist movement. Ideological stances in regards to women’s rights and liberation were pitting against each other, with pornography proving to be at the forefront of the debate. At this point in history the female pornographer was practically non existent, landing Roberta in a unique position that placed her in enemy territory in the eyes of a large portion of female activists and on the defensive. The lore of Findlay’s horror film Snuff, for the purpose of a mass publicity stunt devised by the distributor Allan Shackleton, purported to showcase the real life torture and murder of women on screen which garnered a widespread hysteria and national outcry that has been credited for directly inspiring the founding of the anti pornography crusade coalition, Women Against Pornography, known as WAP. Picketers protested outside of movie theatres screening Snuff and activists found Roberta’s home phone number, pleading with her to join in the protest of her own film. WAP held anti-porn conferences, organized a march in Times Square of over 5,000 people, led bus tours around the seedy denizens of the peep show and dirty movie house lined 42nd street, and lobbied for legislation to ban pornography all together. A leading founder of the movement was a woman named Susan Brownmiller who wrote the seminal book exploring rape culture titled Against Our Will which stated, “Pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access.” Brownmiller argued that the production and viewing of pornography perpetuated a culture of male domination that directly encouraged sexual violence towards women. Prominent feminist writer Robin Morgan stated, “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.”

A moral panic over the dangers of pornography escalated to a fever pitch where the ideologies of the anti-porn feminists and the far religious right began to converge. With the likes of men like Jerry Falwell touting Christian “family values” and feminist leaders citing women’s civil rights and women’s safety, both traditionally opposing sides united in an alliance that despite of their vast disagreements in almost all other arenas came to agreement on the one point-that that porn was a danger to the American people. More sex-positive feminists, liberal thinkers, and radical artists who dealt with sexuality in their work feared that this moral outrage could threaten the infringement of first amendment rights and encourage censorship that would discourage what could be a very healthy and progressive discourse on human sexuality. The cultural critic B. Ruby Rich commented at the time that “pornography is a way to talk about sex. And the discussion that it has precipitated almost as a byproduct of the controversies, is an important one. And that I support.”

In response to all this furor, Roberta has said that all she was trying to do was “make a buck.” It’s important to contextualize Roberta’s confessed aversion to “feminism” in terms of the climate surrounding her in the 1970s and early ’80s that defined what that term meant to her, the implications of which veered away from the sheer fact of fighting for equal rights. The narrow avenues of definitions and codification that directly judged and persecuted her chosen field of work was in direct conflict with her pragmatic personal philosophies and her livelihood. In hindsight what she was able to ultimately communicate through her gender blind approach to being a practitioner in the down and dirty cutthroat film business and in her work, which is still wildly subversive by today’s standards, is something far more nuanced than what the moral  restrictions and doctrines of the woman’s movement at the time allowed. Although weary of touting her political allegiances and adverse to defining herself in terms of her gender, it is undeniable that being a woman by default injected the content of her films with a perspective entirely unique in its genre.

Under the guise of pure smut and safe from the tyranny of Hollywood sensors, she was free to explore uncomfortable truths rooted in the dynamics of male and female sexual relationships and the traditional power dynamics that often revealed an ingrained contempt for women in our society. Like Easter eggs buried within the films unbeknownst to inspecting male viewers, Roberta sprinkled in dialogue referencing abortion, female sexual dissatisfaction, and male hypocrisy, all with her patented irreverent wit. In a particularly ironic gesture, an inside joke for her own pleasure, she directed the porn star John Holmes in one of her films to read from from Samuel Richardson’s epistolary 1740 novel Pamela which is about sexual assault and the lack of female agency in our social structure, a controversial text which has been the subject of debate since its publication and is considered by some to be one of the first books to take a feminist point of view in a novel and viewed by others as a cruel entertainment aimed at the degradation of women.

In my my opinion Findlay’s 1977 hard core slasher film A Woman’s Torment, which she has described as her homage to Polanski’s Repulsion, is the purest example of a work of this brand of personal expression throbbing with an anarchic and darkly funny perspective within the trappings of a sex film. The message of the film is summed up succinctly in its title, the Torment of the female experience illustrated in radically violent extremes.

The film pokes fun at bourgeois upper middle class life in the ’70s with biting satire, while remaining a hardcore sex-filled blood-drenched melodrama centered around the mental anguish of a traumatized woman. The plot unfolds around Dr. Otis Vorel and his wife Estelle, a young Manhattan society woman who is debating on whether or not to institutionalize her increasing mentally unravelling sister Karen (played by the porn star Crystal Sync), who they are taking care of. While Estelle and Otis discuss this predicament, Karen is eavesdropping from the shadows of her bedroom, packing a suitcase in preparation for her escape. Fearing the impending threat of institutionalization, she steals away to an abandoned beach house on Fire Island, a refuge that quickly turns into a nightmare as her inner demons manifest into murderous acts of violence upon innocent passersby and those involved in sexual intercourse with her.

The opening scene of a married couple having sex sets a unique tone of humor flecked with social commentary so particular to Roberta’s sensibilities. As the sex between the couple progresses the woman senses that the man is close to ejaculation and pleads for him to hold off so she can “cum too.” Grunting and thrusting while ignoring her request, he ejaculates in a sweaty burst on her stomach as she begins to cry. When the man turns to her asking “what the hell is wrong?” and “wasn’t that good for you, honey?” She sputters through her tears, “what we did was not love making, just someone masturbating inside of me,” and that no, she wasn’t satisfied. The scene is played for laughs. This sort of socially critical dialogue commenting on gender roles in bed spoken from a female perspective was completely unprecedented in pornographic film at the time.

It’s also vital to point out that the sex throughout the film is deeply unappealing in its execution, with a lack of of the traditional sensual music, soft lighting, or camera tricks to evoke a seductive pleasure in either the performers or the audience. If the current wave of female directed and produced porn can be characterized as embracing sex positivity, then what Roberta was offering in the reverse is a bizarre brand of sex negativity in the sense that what she is projecting is an unpleasant and unadorned view of sexual intercourse akin to anatomical realism that is markedly unsexy and seemingly purposefully sickening. Roberta has expressed her disdain and even hatred for shooting the sex scenes in her films and was much more interested in creating “beautiful frames” throughout other scenes. This revulsion is apparent especially during scenes of sexual penetration, where she utilizes such extreme and unrelenting close ups at times that the fleshy abstractions on the screen mixed with a total lack of glamour in the shooting style transport the viewer to an introspective state very much divorced from the sexually titillating realm of desire and lust. In A Woman’s Torment this unpleasant sexual atmosphere charged with the tone of social satire soon devolves into a nihilistic psycho sexual horror show even more shocking than her other unorthodox approaches to dirty filmmaking.

When we first see the emotionally disturbed Karen on the beach in Fire Island, she is playing in the surf and singing to herself like a wounded child. She twitches and slinks wide eyed, like a trapped animal, around the Fire Island beach house in a towel wincing and contorting her features as searing sounds penetrate through her mind and dissociated words whisper from her lips. This is a woman suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress who is on the verge and in the midst of a psychological breakdown. When a local handyman stops by and discovers Karen, his attempts at friendliness are met with deep suspicion and terror and she is so triggered by his presence that she is temporarily rendered mute. She then leads him to sit on the floor by the fireplace and she disrobes, inviting him to touch her naked body. He shoves his hands inside of her, penetrating her violently with his fingers for what seems to be an eternity. Once she reaches what appears to be an orgasm she pulls a sheet up over her body in protest. A distraught Karen eventually submits to intercourse while her panic and agony are evident. At this point the camera work becomes frenetic, the fractured chaos of it’s movements mirroring Karen’s mental state. As the man ejaculates onto her stomach she pulls a large kitchen knife from the floor beside her and brutally stabs him to death, the mixture of blood and seamen gleaming on their entwined flesh.

After this encounter Karen lays down in the shower and begins to masturbate in a visible state of desperation and torment. In pained contortions she slaps, prods, and rubs her body aggressively as the hot water lashes her. The scene is prolonged past the standard threshold typical of erotic films into the realm of “real time,” and with the unrelenting gaze of the camera focused on Karen’s naked body enduring self inflicted painful stimulation with extreme close ups of her fingers roughly prodding and penetrating her vagina throughout, a myriad of feelings are invoked for the viewer that transcend that of  sexual arousal and move through states of revulsion, empathy, disgust, and sadness. demystifying and deconstructing the sex act itself from its traditional role as a tool to turn us on, to something far more personally revealing and physiologically investigatory for an audience.

Karen continues to writhe in the water, touching herself aggressively, then unleashes an agonizing scream. An image of a menacing man with a stocking over his head wielding a kitchen knife bursts into the shower and the horror of the hallucination sends her reeling. It is at this moment that we can infer the nature of the trauma from Karen’s past that has driven her to such a state of destabilization and that a history of male sexual violence is evident.

If the commonly known definition of pornography is “content created to sexually arouse its audience,” then what Findlay is offering up is an entirely different sort of beast. A Woman’s Torment instead offers a highly transgressive form of artistic expression that cleverly transcends the trappings of its genre altogether and by a modern audience is more akin to a cinematic movement like New French Extremity as opposed to the pornographic, where the focus in the narrative was conventionally the pleasure achieved by the male characters. The audience is immersed in Karen’s experience, which we are forced to live through the pain of with her, as opposed to just witnessing her objectification or torture.

The 1970s produced a slew of horrific rape revenge films, most famously Last House On The left and I Spit On Your Grave, where the heroine of the story is brutalized and degraded on screen to such an extreme so as to make her sadistic revenge upon her aggressors that much more rewarding. There is usually a specific act of brutality that provokes the acts of violent vengeance from the female victim, framing the narrative arc of the story. We are voyeurs to the woman’s violent degradation and to the exploitation of the actress, so that we can fully revel in her retribution in the final act. This retribution exonerates the audience from revelling in her torture in the first place and creates a tidy socially acceptable sadomasochistic exchange between the filmmaker and audience. One distinction that sets Findlay’s approach apart in A Woman’s Torment is that Karen is in a state of emotional distress and exhibiting signs of trauma when when we are first introduced to her, the cause of this state of disturbance a mystery. The echoes of trauma and symptoms of PTSD are overwhelmingly evident from the get go but not associated with a specific transgression against the character that we are able to identify or a perpetrator that we are able to hold accountable. By dissociating the viewer from a specific act of transgression we project onto Karen something far more universal than one incident or a single woman’s experience, elevating the character to a symbol that personifies the essence of female suffering and daily torment, as the title of the film insinuates. The audience is not offered a catharsis from this torment and are themselves immersed up in the state of suffering and rage dictated by Karen’s destructive behavior.

The trespasses against Karen in her past, even before we witness the disturbing encounter with the handyman, that have manifested into her current state of trauma are ambiguous and left to the imagination allowing our interpretation of her duress and torment to represent a collective experience that surpasses the state of being and reality of one woman alone, and transcends to a representation of a shared experience of abuse and transgression. Similarly Marleen Gorris’s 1982 Dutch film A Question Of Silence explores the effects of repression and female transgression and tackles this concept of the collective female experience represented with an act of violence. The film’s story revolves around a group of women in a department store, all strangers to each other, who witness a male store owner chastising a woman for shoplifting, then suddenly, without verbally communicating and in tandem, attack and brutally murder him without any apparent motive. Gorris is suggesting in her crime allegory and social satire that the repressions, compromises, indignities, and micro aggressions present in the daily life of all women is motive enough to provoke the unpremeditated murder of any arbitrary man that might trigger them. B. Ruby Rich in her book of critical essays, Chick Flicks, dedicates a chapter to discussing A Question of Silence and how the film explores the idea that the sheer power of the female life force is so strong that when it is repressed within debilitating social structures, and then at one point, in a rebellion, unleashed from those oppressive binds it is a force that can erupt in anarchy. The oppressed will take their revenge in explosive ways if they are pushed to the brink, and it is through extreme primal violence that Karen expresses and viciously acts out the collective frustrations and rages inherent to the female experience of a people relegated to the passive object of desire, the target of sexually violent predators, and oppressive male dominant energy. With each wild slash of Karen’s bloodied knife, Findlay transforms this metaphor into the palpably visceral.

B. Ruby Rich also writes in her piece Feminism and Sexuality in the 80s that “for women there is an inextricable link between sex and danger and to deny that connection is to deny the reality of the female experience.” It is a fact that encountering unwanted sexual male aggression begins in youth for many young girls and continues in different forms throughout their lives. Experiencing these threats of danger are psychic, psychical, and unrelenting, shaping one’s development as a sexual being, and weaving the fabric of one’s fears and desires. Karen’s behavior in nature is both vulnerable and vicious and the revulsion she exhibits while engaged in a spectrum of sexual acts is a feeling all too familiar to a female viewer, characterized here with an essence that a male director might be incapable of cultivating on such a visceral level.

While porn traditionally acted as a form of escapism, a refuge for men striving to enter an erotic fantasy space where submission from a women was guaranteed, facing resistance or rejection was non-existent, and a harsher reality was kept safely at bay, the brutality and psychological realism of A Woman’s Torment abruptly shuts off that safety valve, forcing to the surface ugly and uncomfortable truths one might prefer not to be confronted within their sexual entertainment. The erotic male dream of domination and infinite uncensored pleasure promised by the living dream state of pornography is warped into an experience akin to irreverent radically nihilistic art in the vein of Virginie Despentes’ work such as Baise Moi, where the man is forced to live out the nightmare endangerment and physical threat. No one gets off easy in A Woman’s Torment, including Karen, who after a spree of multiple murders against a slew of men and women alike, takes her own life in the tradition of female heroines of literature and history who are punished for their transgressions by a repressive patriarchal society. Like a murderous, exhausted Ophelia or the Madame Bovary of exploitation horror, at the closing of the film Karen wanders into a watery grave in the ocean’s abyss.

Thanks to the film preservation and home entertainment company Vinegar Syndrome, helmed by vintage film pornography restorer, programmer and head of acquisitions Joe Rubin, A Woman’s Torment can now be witnessed by contemporary audiences with the recent releases of a new fully, restored from the original 35mm print, 2K Blu-Ray of the film. Included in the special features along with commentary by Findlay is the Q&A from the recent screening of A Woman’s Torment at the Quad Cinema as part of their Erotic City series exploring films from the porno chic period that reigned in New York’s underground starting in the early ’60s. The past five years or so, possibly ignited by the In The Flesh series at Anthology Film Archives, has seen a renaissance in the appreciation of erotic films in the world of film criticism and restoration and a massive movement dedicated to the production of female produced pornographers made by women, for women. To look back on the seminal pornographic films directed by women like Roberta is to contextualize the genesis and evolution of a cinematic movement that continues to shape our expressions of sexuality, not just in our art but in our daily lives. In 1989, Linda Williams argued in her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Invisible that porn must be studied to advance both film history and theory and feminist discourse on sexuality and representation, and it is evident today how necessary and empowering that discourse truly was, as it opened up so many avenues towards the ethical and safe practice of creating films to sexually empower and give pleasure to adult performers and viewers alike.

Roberta Findlay’s tenacity is something to marvel at, especially when viewed through a contemporary lens. The glass ceilings she shattered time and again is evidence of a renegade spirit way ahead of her time. It’s important to note that it was common practice in the ’70s and ’80s for horror directors to hone their craft in pornography before moving on to more mainstream genre fair as filmmakers such as Wes Craven and William Lustig have admitted to, while not being subjected to the same level of scrutiny and judgment that a female movie maker like Roberta was plagued by. In the past few years not only the adult entertainment world, but the horror genre has also seen more and more films directed by women that use the medium to express the darker annals of the female experience with a surplus of graphic gore, wit, and wisdom that rivals their male counterparts. To pay respect to women like Roberta who paved the way for the brilliant future of female horror auteurs is an acknowledgment that is way past due.

About Rémy Bennett

Rémy Bennett is a filmmaker, writer, and curator living in New York City. She earned her BA in acting and drama studies from The Central School of Speech and Drama in London and studied film at SVA in New York. Her feature film debut Buttercup Bill was shown at Raindance, The New Orleans Film Festival, and The Marfa Film Festival and she recently completed a documentary series called Under Her Skin profiling female artists for the all female led Brooklyn based media company The Front. Her short film Eat Me and installation about a female serial killer/web cam girl exhibited at The SPRING/BREAK art fair was voted as one of the top 10 shows to see at Armory Week in 2016 by W Magazine and Gothamist, along with the group show GLORY HOLY that she curated along with her sister. Bennett has contributed as an artist and writer to PLAYBOY, 1985ARTISTS, VICE, and BUST MAGAZINE. She most recently programmed a film series at The Roxy Hotel Cinema called GRIT & GORE: NYC HORROR which featured screenings of films by and in person discussions with Larry Fessenden, William Lustig, Frank Henenlotter, and Roberta Findlay. Bennett will be lecturing in April at The Miskatonic Institute of horror studies teaching a class called LA DESPAIR: CHASING DEATH WITH JOHN GILMORE focused on the dark underbelly of retro hollywood and the work of the late crime writer John Gilmore.

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