samedi 30 janvier 2010

Satan in High Heels

In the United States it was also from the peripheries of the classical system that this major shift towards “sexploitation” occurred, coinciding with the end of roadhouse exploitation in 1959 (1). In grindhouses -often burlesque strip joints-, films started assimilating different aspects of bondage subculture in a complex web of subversion and enactment of the “productive repression” underlined by M. Foucault.

From the Bettie Page trilogy, icon of the bondage subculture revolving around Irving Klaw’s publications, to jungle-quest or “goona goonas”, native 'documentaries' featuring grotesque rituals and scenes of human perversity –like xenophobic Naked Africa (1957) or Pagan Island (1960), populated only by beautiful man-hating semi-naked women-, the “nudie cuties” shown at 'men’s-only' stag parties were introducing violent elements that would eventually bring Russ Meyer towards sexploitative violence with his “roughie” rape-revenge rural sex film Lorna (1964) and H. Gordon Lewis to the creation of the “gore” subgenre (with the overtly “gynecidal” Blood Feast of 1963, followed by 2000 Maniacs in 1964). Grand-Guignol horror mixed with sex while S&M imagery added to the eeriness of the whole (Ramses whips a brunette with a cat-o’nine-tails bellowing “give yourself up to the goddess!”). A new trend, appropriately called “pornoviolence” by Tom Wolfe, was born: “in the new pornography the theme is not sex. The new pornography depicts practitioners acting out another murkier drive: people staving teeth in, ripping guts open, blowing brains out” (Esquire, July 1967).

It is highly symptomatic that many of the key directors who made innovations in the blood horror genre had gotten their start in sexploitation filmmaking, illustrating the millennial Western connection between sex, guilt and body horror that Christianity took on from late Greco-Roman pessimism (2). Symptomatically this boom of the “sex-and-gore” subgenre emerged from the same American erotic underground that was harvesting S&M subculture. In 1960 fetish producers Burtman and Himmel released Satan in High Heels, infused with references to female domination, being the first mass-produced film to employ explicit American Fetish imagery that would haunt such cult classics as the murderous desert rampage of Tura Satana’s go-go dancers in Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).

samedi 23 janvier 2010

Productive Repression

Illustrating Foucault’s “productive repression” hypothesis a subculture actually grew responding to this normative classification, springing from the traditional whipping brothels and flagellant’s clubs that were so characteristic of the “English vice”. From 1918 to 1941, the fetish magazine London Life published extensive correspondence about corsetry, high-heels, piercing, corporal punishment, rubber fetishism, pony play and similar themes while American bondage comics proliferated and “fledge literature” literally invaded Parisian pornographic bookshops, becoming the dominant trend between the Fin de Siècle and the Roaring Twenties (Aimé de Rod, Dr. Claqueret, Jean de Villiot, Mac Orlan’s Sady Blackeyes, etc.). This extremely ritualized iconography directly mirrored mainstream popular culture like women in distress serials or The Boy’s Own Paper and its endless sadistic acts carried out on “natives” or heroes. In 1946 John Willie would edit the first issue of the iconic bondage magazine Bizarre, soon featuring the mythic serial Sweet Gwendoline which epitomizes the sado-masochistic undercurrent of most Men’s Adventure Magazines of the time.

The next stage of the psychotronic construction of sado-masochism, after the formalization of the Hays Codes and the triumph of Hollywood puritanical order, would be the emergence of a “cinema of cruelty” (André Bazin, Flammarion, 1975), situated “in the shadow of the Divine Marquis” (Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford University Press, 1978 [1933]) and on the peripheries of the classical studio system. Amplifying the sado-masochist overtones of sublimated and heavily censored mainstream cinema, studied in G. De Coulteray’s classic Sadism in Cinema (1964), a marginal cinema, mainly conditioned the use of “shock value” in order to compete, marketing-wise, with major productions, emerged, creating a specific “niche” that delimitated the possibilities of transgression in the evolving standards of a perplexed and anguished society.

It was the birth of the “immoral tales” of European sex and horror movies studied by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs. While Pauline Reage’s Story of O reinvented sado-masochist high culture imagery (1954) Mario Bava explored their sublimated version in the Gothic tradition, Italianized and at the same time literalized with Sadean and Swinburnean echoes as reveals the title La Fusta e il Corpo (1963), followed by a host of productions like Massimo Pupillo’s Il Boia scarlatto (aka Bloody Pit of Horror, 1965). Closely related to this reinvention of Gothic sexuality Italian fumetti neri redefined the comic-book genre with such S&M icons as Angiolini’s Isabella (1966) or Leone Frollo’s Maghella.

British S&M Gothic was not left behind, starting with Sadean early movies like The Hellfire Club (1960) or John Gilling’s Flesh and the Fiends (id). The subgenre of “sex and sadism” was also receiving a Goyaesque touch in Jess Franco´s early productions where tortured women were the dark side of sex-symbols, “scream queens” of an increasingly sado-masochistic imagery that goes from Miss Muerte (1965) to the sleazy Necronomicon (1967). Nourished by the French fantastique tradition, Franco’s cinema blended romanticism and the decadent tradition with buñuelesque surrealism, spicy pulps and old serials, comic strips and jazzy improvisation. Other peripheral cinematographies were willing to cash-in with the new trend, as pathologically macho Mexican horror (Federico Curiel’s El Imperio de Dracula, 1966), Filipino sex monsters of Brides of Blood (1968), Brazilian necrophilia rituals of Zé do Caixao or, more explicitly, Japan extreme S&M thrillers like Jigokuben (1969) or Moju (1969), leading to the idiosyncratic subgenre of sexual tortures –oscillating between ars erotica and scientia sexualis- illustrated by Sejun Suzuki’s Nikoti No Mura (1963), Wakamatsu´s and Teruo Ishii´s oeuvre or Akira Inoue’s Hiroku Onna-ro of 1967.

The narrative excuse used for the film’s non-stop sexual violence "is the imprisonment of a young woman (Yasuda) in the 18th century on suspicion of murder. The film dwells on her painful experiences and graphically portrays her stepfather being tortured to death. As an added twist, her main tormentor in prison is later revealed to be her long-lost sister. Unlike American sex-and-gore movie-makers, Japanese practitioners rarely slip into the torture-for-fun-and-profit attitude (….) avoiding the cultural conservatism what refuses to take responsibility for the unpalatable fantasies they exploit” (P. Hardy, The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, London: Aurum, 1993, p. 189).

lundi 18 janvier 2010

Happiness through Suffering

Simultaneously sado-masochism was being constructed by medical and legal sexology discourses as the ultimate model of what Foucault termed the “proliferation of perversions” that defined the bourgeois disciplinary society and its “medicalization of sin” (1). Combining the attraction of the disciplined body that pervaded schools, armies, hospitals and factories with laicization of Puritan rituals of expiation, sado-masochism was the epitome of the abnormal and the “perverted”, therefore redefining guilt-ridden sexuality. Krafft-Ebing`s study of “sadism” (lust for murder and related appearances up to cannibalism) and its strange counterpart, “masochism” in his Psychopathia sexualis (1886) presented them as polar opposites, often linked to fantasy and involving very specific scenarios that involved some sort of fetishism.

S. Freud´s Three Essays on the Theory of Sex (1905) took on this polarity and described both “disorders” of the libido as a result from an incorrect development in the early childhood psyche, the child’s sadistic (non-sexual) impulses being too severely censored and leading to feelings of guilt and shame that turn into self-harm and an introjection of the aggressive energy. Through the sexualization process of the Oedipus, this impulses became charged with sexual energy often leading to active fantasizing or transmutation into symbolic forms around fear of punishment for acting out sexual desires. In this early model the psyche is inherently sado-masochist, whereas in “A child is being beaten”, sadomasochism is related to a gender divide that makes sadism (a sexual “turning out” of masochism) a Darwinian male attribute, the perverse coupling of both poles being a regression in the face of castration anxiety (2).

Freud uncovers three phases in the genesis of what he labels a feminine fantasy. The first phase, non-sexual, expresses the wish that her father would beat another child of whom the subject was jealous (siblings, etc). In the second phase, entirely unconscious, this wish has been changed into the fantasy of being beaten by the father, accompanied by masochistic pleasure. In the third, conscious phase the father has been replaced by a teacher or person of similar standing and the child being beaten is now a stranger (often a boy because of the subject’s repression of the incestuous wishes). The beating is both a punishment (for the incestuous genital wishes) and a regressive sexual substitute (for those wishes). (3)

In later theory (“The economic problem of masochism”) the infantile sexuality model is reversed as sadomasochism comes to protect the individual from the death instinct by diverting it outward (sadism) or binding it either internally or to a pregenital object through cathexis (masochism). On a more general level it has been signaled that Freud’s topography of the mind is constructed around relationships of domination and submission. While Havelock Ellis definitely popularized the binomial structure of S&M, the gender divide was further widened by Austrian psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch who explores Feminine masochism and its correlation with frigidity (1930), defining masochism, narcissism and passivity as the three vital tendencies in the sexual life of a woman. As in the Spicy Horror magazines and “monster features” this natural female sexual masochism was the ideal counterpart of the “brutalization” of the sadist male.

That same year Erich Fromm published his Studies on Authority and Family, equating Freud with Marx in order to understand the rise of Nazism and describing the “authoritative-masochistic character” as a “special case of a much more common mental mindset” produced by the economic structure of authoritative society (anticipating the disciplinary model of Foucault), softening fears by leaning against a mightier power and the absorption in this power. Against this idea of S&M as “fear of freedom” and symptom of a social illness, mildly equated with homosexuality, the masochist and psychoanalyst Theodor Reik defended Happiness through Suffering (1940), seeing “social masochism” as a “normal” development phase that helps to keep aggressive und anti-social drives under control.

(1) M. Foucault La volonté de savoir, Histoire de la sexualité, v. 1, Paris, Gallimard, 1976).
(2) Freud, S. "Sadism and Masochism." The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. Ed. A. A. Brill. New York: Modern Library, 1938. 569-71).
(3) See also On Freud's "a Child Is Being Beaten", International Psycho-Analytical Association, Yale University Press, 1997

dimanche 17 janvier 2010

Trapped by the Mormons

In opposition to high culture’s alleged flight from sensationalism, modern popular culture has been institutionally delimitated and defined by its conjoined exploitation of sexuality and violence, from XIXth century penny dreadfuls and romans-feuilleton to Grand-Guignol theater or the “spicy” torture-chambers of the “pulp era”. Fueled by the fin de siècle “sadomania” that united in similar wet dreams elitist products of the Decadents and fledge porn for the working classes, the marriage of pleasure and pain has been the latent energy of mass production and mass consumption of popular fiction, heroes and heroines being violently abused in extreme sadistic fantasies being the common denominator of dozens of narrative sub-genres, from the western to the “hard-boiled”, from horror to science-fiction and from jungle adventures to historic romances. Situated “in the shadow of the Divine Marquis” as Mario Praz so admirably remarked in his Romantic Agony, these productions present themselves as denegation and apotheosis of cruel sexuality, claiming to disqualify it as a symptom of the perversity of the villains (from the mad scientists to the uncountable ethnic Others that threaten the -Western- world) and altogether making it the centre of attention and the trademark of the product itself, quite physically so in the paratextual paraphernalia, starting with the titillating covers, inevitably presenting the same sado-masochistic scenario that will fuel the reader’s desire so often frustrated by the actual content of the texts themselves.

This legacy was reworked by cinema since its beginnings as massive popular entertainment with such sexploitation subgenres as “vice films” initiated with Traffic in Souls (1913) and followed with The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) or roadshow S&M epic Trapped by the Mormons (1922) that enacted sadistic sexual subtexts through the same denying strategy, presenting themselves as exposures of the "shocking truth” about the world of the slums. Soon contained by the Hays' 1927 list of eleven "Don'ts" that excluded depiction of sexual perversion, white slavery, rape, profanity, suggestive nudity, use of illegal drugs, miscegenation or executions, the new media found in the horror subgenre a specific and elusive niche of exploring sado-masochism, arguably the main drive of the Gothic tradition. Less lurid than the contemporary Spicy Horror illustrations, horror cinema became embedded with violent sexual fantasies, from bestiality (a topos of Romantic porn like Musset’s Gamiani reinvented in dozens of ape abductors movies that culminate with King Kong) to the “supersadism” of the mad doctors directly imported from Grand Guignol and blooming in Esper and Steadie’s 1934 Maniac. Like a distorted mirror, exploitation was emerging as a direct product of the Code, forming a lucrative fringe enterprise based on all that was to be repressed from classical Hollywood, including “white slavery” and incidental S&M like the anonymous An English story, showing explicit bondage.

mardi 12 janvier 2010

The Psychotronic Construction of Sadomasochism 1

Until recently unnoticed or discarded by many cultural historians pyschotronia (in the all-encompassing sense given to the term by pioneer Michael J. Weldon (1)) presents a particular interest for the archeologist of modern and post-modern constructions of sexualities. Beyond the canonical debate on popular versus high culture and the sociology of taste and distinction psychotronia constitutes a “new frontier” of genre analysis and film theory, confronting us with a world of paradoxes. Paradox of a non-genre that displays an hypertrophy of genre-jamming, hybridazitions and constant proliferation of sub-genres, pushing the cinematic genre construction to its limits, paradox of the creators (from formulaic cash-in of precedent trends to wild originality, from outcasts to mainstream and back), of the audiences (from teen-age rednecks to urbanite fandom, cultism and institutional recuperation), of the products themselves (different versions according to different markets and different collages and revamping of previous footages producing loose narratives that become the sign of primitivist and “authentic” creation), of their position in the cultural field (outside of the mainstream but constantly mirroring it, pushing its cynical exploitative dynamics) and their reception (rejected as trash but legitimized by the post-surrealist apology of “bad” art’s subversive potential), paradox, at last, of an alternative and off-beat but often profound and sometimes premonitory take on the major shifts of collective mentalities.

The psychotronic construction of sexuality specially illustrates this last point, being at the cross-roads of the different forces that shape the overall cultural engineering of sex and yet creating a specific vision by its massive emphasis on the interplay of Eros and Thanatos or of cruelty and sexual arousal. Evolving through the different “sexual revolutions” of the so-called “century of sex” this often disturbing vision mirrors, but often differs from other narratives and discourses, specially the medical and legal construction of sado-masochism itself. It is this “différance” that we would like to address here, dividing different “stages” of its progress and finally concentrating on a major shift both in psychotronia and in cultural history, that of the “rise and fall of sexploitation”.

1 The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Ballantine Books, 1987.

lundi 11 janvier 2010

The Psychotronic Construction of Sadomasochism

From fin de siècle “sadomania” to the “spicy” torture-chambers of the “pulp era”, popular culture has been defined by its conjoined exploitation of sexuality and violence. Heroes and heroines being violently abused in extreme sadistic fantasies are the common denominator of dozens of narrative sub-genres, from western to hard-boiled, from horror to science-fiction and from jungle adventures to historic romances. This legacy was reworked by cinema since its beginnings as massive popular entertainment with such exploitation subgenres as “vice films” or “monster features” that enacted sadistic sexual subtexts. From this initial “cinema of cruelty” emerged, outside of the increasingly puritanical Hollywood system, the sexploitation films of the 'grindhouses', assimilating different aspects of bondage subcultures in a complex web of subversion and enactment of the “repressive hypothesis” underlined by M. Foucault. “Nudie cuties” introduced violent elements that would bring to the creation of the “gore” subgenre and the boom of sexploitative violence that must be read against the other currents of the sixties “sexual revolution” more overtly publicized. Increasingly exploiting the image of the emerging SM subcultures within the frame of a problematized “male gaze”, sexploitation triumphed from the American underground to Iberian “sex and sadism”, Italian giallo, French sex-vampires or German “nasty witch-hunting”, from Brazilian psychotronia and Mexican macho horror to Japanese sexual tortures. Following the “proliferation of perversion” that characterizes the micro-powers of a disciplinary society in crisis new subgenres arise illustrating the sado-masochistic paradigm, from nunsploitation to nazi exploitation, gang girls on rampage to women in prison, rape and revenge to cannibal sex and soft-porn sadean fantasies. We will try to explain this “global epidemic” of SM imagery as a deliberate cultural “construction” that reflects the inflationary reaction of symbolic powers under stress as well as the corroding creativity of fringe subcultures liberated by a massive paradigm shift.