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.

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