The tattoos that cover Finley Blake’s body are as much a subject of Jacky Goldberg’s documentary as she is herself, the director often pausing for a moment to zoom in close and allow his camera, and us, to take in the beautifully detailed drawings. While the meaning behind them isn’t always explained, it’s obvious that for Finley each of them represents a significant time in her life – a life that we soon learn has been fraught with obstacles, and which even now is proving to be a struggle. It’s a journey that Goldberg attempts to uncover in Flesh Memory (2018), his fascinating documentary taking in Finley’s world over the space of a few days as he delves into her past, her various relationships with others, and her job as a camgirl.
When watching Flesh Memory, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is a documentary with a difference, Goldberg deliberately defying what we’ve come to expect from this particular film format. Gone are the talking heads and voiceovers, replaced instead by a more candid filmmaking approach, the camera following Finley as she goes about her regular daily routines, almost unaware of us watching. It’s a surprisingly engaging method, these intriguing snapshots of Finley’s life drawing us in, the silences that often accompany them giving parts an almost hypnotic quality. Yet it can also feel uncomfortably intrusive, Goldberg deliberately challenging us as viewers in some moments, whether that be by turning us into her online audience by putting her webcam performance onscreen, or by simply keeping the camera rolling as we watch her work (especially when we see how varied her job actually is).
One such scene early on in the film captures this perfectly, Finley talking to a customer on the phone and ‘performing’, the static long take Goldberg uses for the whole conversation making it hard to look away, but ultimately incredibly awkward to watch. That this happens just after we have seen Finley casually eating and chatting at her breakfast table makes this particularly unexpected, the voice she uses with her client suddenly higher and more alluring in order to get the reaction she wants.
While these moments are undeniably shocking, especially when we see how Finley caters to some of the more niche sex markets, Goldberg’s decision to stick by her side throughout allows us a greater understanding as to why she wants to be a part of this industry. With her performances giving her a level of control that she clearly enjoys, it’s also a profession that she’s good at and can therefore use to her advantage, much in the way Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei portrayed similar sex work in their recent film Cam (a brilliant thriller which I reviewed earlier this year). However, Finley’s need for money stems from a more sentimental cause than shown in that film, her profession a way for her to make a decent living, but also to have enough money to provide for her young son.
It is this aspect that makes Flesh Memory surprisingly touching, the everyday moments between her and her son given great importance throughout, whether they’re reading a bedtime story together or simply talking over breakfast. But these scenes become especially poignant as Goldberg unravels the bigger picture around their relationship, something that we gradually learn through the many phone calls, text messages and Skype conversations that we see between Finley and other people. And soon we understand just how desperate her current situation is, as well as some other aspects from her past that continue to shape her life.
Goldberg’s ability to build up a portrait of Finley without ever really leaving her home is an incredible achievement, and one which often adds a potent claustrophobia to proceedings – something that Finley herself is eager to escape from via her various online connections with clients and the other people in her life. However, while her world is brought to the screen in an assured and captivating way throughout, there is also an undeniable flaw to the techniques Goldberg uses. Some scenes feel staged even as Goldberg is aiming for realism, moments unfurling onscreen in a way that seem deliberately set up so Goldberg can hit all the right notes in his narrative.
An awkward phone call between Finley and her mother is stilted, while a scene in which the power suddenly goes off in her house is certainly one hell of a coincidence if it did actually happen. And a deliberately staged moment, in which someone reaches out and touches her arm as she sleeps, is tender yet confusing – Goldberg suddenly attempting to bridge the gap into fiction without fully committing to it, as nothing like this happens again throughout the rest of the film. Although it’s an intriguing way for a documentary to unfold, it can’t be denied that instances like this really detract from the overall emotions of the film and lessen our interest in the story – a shame when what we see elsewhere is so promising.
Finley is such a fascinating subject that most of the problems with Goldberg’s film can be forgiven though (even when the score he uses becomes so invasive that it’s almost deafening). Yet when Flesh Memory reaches its final frames you can’t help feeling that Goldberg doesn’t delve into her life enough, leaving something ultimately unknowable about her and her work (like just how does one realise they have a talent for the cam industry?). Spending a few extra days in Finley’s company could have given this a more satisfying conclusion, but what Goldberg has crafted here is still admirable – an interesting film that cleverly immerses us in Finley’s world, and which wisely doesn’t judge her or the profession she’s chosen.