Saturday Night Spotlight #24: Roberta Findlay

In earlier posts I took a look at the careers of Doris Wishman, Stephanie Rothman and Jackie Kong, women who incorporated sexuality and horror into their films during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. One of their contemporaries was Roberta Findlay, who worked not only as a director but also in the capacities of actress, camera operator, cinematographer, composer, editor, lighting technician, producer, screenwriter and sound crew. Findlay began her career photographing and co-directing films with her husband, Michael Findlay, including such titles as Take Me Naked (1966), The Touch of Her Flesh (1967) and The Ultimate Degenerate (1969). After splitting from her husband both professionally and personally, Roberta Findlay embarked on a truly independent career, taking on all of the previously listed technical roles in a filmography built on graphic sex and bloody violence. Although she stopped working a quarter-century ago, the “Queen of Snuff” responds to interviews every so often, like in this New York Press write-up from 2005. Her low-budget oeuvre may be considered the trashiest of the trashy, but the films are as identifiable as New York products as the repertoires of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Angel on Fire (aka Angel Number 9) (1974) – Billed as “the first erotically explicit film ever made by a woman” (which was not actually true since Findlay had been directing adult films for years), this pornographic film has the more markedly cinematic touches of Findlay’s accomplished cinematography. Findlay also wrote, edited and produced the film. It is a gender-bending tale of a male chauvinist who impregnates his girlfriend (played by Judy Craven, seen above); shortly afterward, our protagonist is killed by a van and he is subsequently reincarnated as a beautiful blonde woman who must navigate a new life and sexual experiences. If “feminist porn” can exist with these representations of the female body (and seen through Findlay’s “female gaze,” as opposed to the viewpoints of male directors), then perhaps this narrative of shifting identities is a prime example.

The Oracle (1985) – A young woman (played by Caroline Capers Powers) moves into an apartment and her body is soon possessed by the ghost of the previous occupant, who was murdered. Sounding like a reversed-sex version of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant – although it is possibly more inspired by what Findlay has described as the only good horror movie she knows, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – Findlay’s film was also photographed and edited by her. The Oracle may be “jam-packed with bad performances, goofy attempts at spook horror, lousy gore effects and a lethargic pace,” as described in a DVD Drive-In review, but it’s also probably a lot of fun.

Blood Sisters (1987) – This gory horror-thriller is an oversexed haunted-house story in which young women have to spend the night in a former brothel in order to earn entry into a sorority. Findlay directed, wrote, photographed and co-edited (with Walter E. Sear) the film, which was also released under the title Slash.

Lurkers (1988) – Another New York horror story involving a woman and spiritual possession, here the leading lady (Christine Moore, who also starred in Findlay’s Prime Evil the same year) is visited by the specter of her murdered mother, as well as by zombified individuals called “lurkers.” As in Blood Sisters, Findlay photographed Lurkers and co-edited it with Walter E. Sear. One IMDb reviewer describes the movie as “without doubt, the worst film ever made,” but another reviewer considers it a “nicely quirky fright flick,” so there may be some merit after all.

King of Sports: Three Minutes with Harvey Keitel

Taxi Driver is one of those movies that always needs to be seen with an audience. Whether in a movie theater or in a classroom, the only true way for the film to be experienced, as far as I’m concerned, is surrounded by lots of other people who feel as uncomfortable as you do. When Harvey Keitel shows up, which is fairly late in the film, his appearance (not just the acting but also his outfit and his physique) is such a sudden and exciting moment, a three-minute scene with exactly the right combination of sleaze and goofiness. I still remember how fantastic it was to see the film for the first time, a hot Friday night at the Museum of the Moving Image a few summers ago, asking myself “Who played the pimp, Sport? I’ve got to see more movies with him!” as the end credits rolled. The scene retains its impact now, even after multiple viewings. Every Brighton Beach-inflected line of dialogue – “I once had a horse…” “It’s entrapment already!” “You a funny guy… but looks aren’t everything” – is gold coming from Keitel. His look is note-perfect too. And is that his real hair? What a pro.

Saturday Night Spotlight #23: Nell Shipman

One of the pioneering women of both Canadian film history and world cinema, Nell Shipman (1892-1970) wore many hats in her career: actress, screenwriter, director, producer and even an editor. All melodramas with action-driven plots set in the great outdoors, her features and shorts were always co-directed by Bert Van Tuyle, whom she married in the 1920s. Together they founded a film company, Nell Shipman Productions Inc., in 1920. Before and after being a filmmaker Shipman had an active career as a writer, publishing many novels, short stories and plays and co-writing a screen story, “Eyes of the Eagle,” that was adapted into a Myrna Loy-Cary Grant vehicle, Wings in the Dark (1935). Shipman’s autobiography, The Silent Screen & My Talking Heart, was published in 1987 and another collection, Letters from God’s Country – Nell Shipman: Selected Correspondence & Writings, 1912-1970, was published in 2003. The same year that the letters were published, Kay Armatage’s biography of Shipman, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, was also released. More information on Nell Shipman’s papers, which now belong to the Boise State University Library in Idaho, can be found here.

Something New (1920) – Shipman and Van Tuyle not only co-direct but also co-star in this feature film, an adventure story that runs about 57 minutes in its current restored version. A Western tale of a heroine kidnapped by Mexican bandits, it remains one of Shipman’s best-remembered movies. (It has been released on DVD along with another Shipman-starring feature, the 1919 film Back to God’s Country, which was notorious for showing its leading lady doing full-frontal nudity, prompting the question “Is the Nude Rude?”) The husband and wife team also wrote the screenplay and Shipman produced the film. Cinematography was done by Joseph Walker, who would go on to have a very distinguished career photographing such classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (You can watch Something New in its entirety here.)

The Grub Stake: A Tale of the Klondike (1923) – Shipman wrote the story for this Alaska-set Western, again photographed by Joseph Walker and co-produced by Nell Shipman with her first husband, Ernest Shipman (they were married from 1910 to 1920). The film is a full-length feature lasting about 100 minutes, an impressive running time for the silent era – pre-Greed, anyway. (You can watch the entire film here.)

Trail of the North Wind (1924) – Shipman wrote the scenario for this short film that shows her battling snowy terrain; she also produced the film and possibly (though it’s not confirmed by records) co-edited it too. (You can watch a six-minute clip here.)

White Water (1926) – Although only Bert Van Tuyle received onscreen credit for directing this short film, which runs about 27 minutes, Shipman received billing for her roles as lead actress, screenwriter and co-producer (with Walter Greene). The race to save someone caught in a dangerous river current gives Shipman the chance to show off her canoeing skills as she rushes to the rescue, even swimming against the strong tide when the boat turns over. (You can watch the film here.)

Patricia Morison Turns 100

Actress and singer Patricia Morison, who had roles in 1940s movies including the John Garfield-Maureen O’Hara film noir The Fallen Sparrow (1943), the religious drama The Song of Bernadette (1943), the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romance Without Love (1945) and the Sherlock Holmes mystery Dressed to Kill (1946), as well as appearing on Broadway in Kiss Me, Kate (1948) and The King and I (1954), celebrates her 100th birthday today. Morison’s most recent film appearance was in Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992).

Morison was recently interviewed by the Los Angeles Times on the upcoming event of her centennial and, amidst anecdotes of bygone days in Hollywood, had this to say: “I have been so fortunate in my life.”

Indelible Film Images: Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984) – dir. Wim Wenders

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Aurore Clément, Bernhard Wicki, Socorro Valdez, Tom Farrell, John Lurie, Sally Norvell

Cinematography: Robby Müller

Saturday Night Spotlight #22: Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand (1892 or 1895-1930) is best remembered as a popular comedienne of the silent screen, but in 1914 and 1915 she directed a number of comedic shorts as well, some of them being the earliest examples of Charlie Chaplin in his “Tramp” character. Normand’s directorial efforts are also overshadowed by the scandals in her life, most notably the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 (Normand was interrogated since she knew him well), the fatal shooting of millionaire Courtland S. Dines by Normand’s chauffeur in 1924, and finally Normand’s death from tuberculosis in 1930 after years of struggling with alcoholism. Although Normand did not direct any feature films, she was an important contributor to early silent film comedy both behind and in front of the camera. I was disappointed to find that her work was not mentioned in a book I recently started reading, Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood by Hilary A. Hallett, so this post should serve as a good reminder of – or introduction to – Normand’s place in film history.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) – Here we have the first ever instance of Chaplin’s Tramp, co-starring with Normand in a story written by Chaplin and Henry Lehrman (who also has a small role in the film) about misadventures in a hotel. Some actors who were well-known in both the silent and sound eras appear in the film: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport (wife of actor Harry Davenport and mother of actress/producer/director Dorothy Davenport) and Al St. John. (You can watch the film here.)

Caught in a Cabaret (1914) – Another short starring both Normand and Chaplin, who collaborated on the screen story, even more character actors are present here: Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Durfee (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s wife at the time), Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann (the boxer in City Lights), Al St. John, Mack Swain (the other prospector in The Gold Rush) and Josef Swickard. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914) – Written and directed by Normand, this short about the romantic entanglements between a woman, her boss, the boss’s son (to whom Normand is engaged, unbeknownst to the father) and the boss’s daughter (whom Normand mistakes for a rival sweetheart) was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2009. There’s a great point-of-view shot when Normand watches the pair through a keyhole, demonstrated by the shape of the frame (as seen above). The short also involves a bit of gender-bending when Normand, spying on the brother and sister, disguises herself as a man and pretends to be the family chauffeur. You might recognize Charley Chase, another famous comedian, playing a friend of the boss’s son, as well as Al St. John as Normand’s brother. (You can see the film here.)

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915) – Co-directed by Normand and her frequent onscreen partner, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the short serves as both a fun outing for them and also a documentary-like snapshot of a historical moment. A sad footnote: one of the sites seen in the film, the St. Francis Hotel, was the location where Arbuckle’s career would be destroyed when Virginia Rappe met her end there in 1921. (You can see the film here.)

…As It Is in Heaven

The face of Solveig Dommartin. It filled the screen at the Museum of Modern Art in last night’s showing of Wings of Desire (1987), a film that means many things to many people, perhaps especially as a collection of unforgettable images made immortal in celluloid. Dommartin’s beauty is the essence of why I post “Indelible Film Images” on my blog – the radiant woman who it is impossible to take your eyes off of whenever she appears.

The first shot of Dommartin in the film: an angel flying toward us.

Henri Alekan’s cinematography captures her glistening skin, as well as the light reflecting on Bruno Ganz’s hand – he tries to touch her even though, as an angel, he cannot.

The “Six Bells Chime” concert scene is the film’s definitive example of desire. Solveig Dommartin dances as though moving through water, swimming and swaying through the thick waves of sound in the smoke-filled, dim-lit glow of the ballroom.

The extreme close-up near the end of the film: a face for the entirety of the MoMA screen.

In the end, as at the beginning: Dommartin defies gravity. She spins around and around on the rope that connects her from the ceiling – the sky/heavens above Berlin – down to the ground, where Bruno Ganz, the angel made mortal because of his love for this earthly woman, holds onto the rope. Dommartin is somewhere in between the two worlds, not quite angel but more than human.