Feb 152009
 

Karl Marx wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2 (1942))

Consider the film Reefer Madness.

It was originally financed by a church group and made under the title Tell Your Children.

The film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use. However, soon after the film was shot, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film for distribution on the exploitation film circuit. The film never gained an audience until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and gained new life as a piece of unintentional comedy among cannabis smokers.

In later years, Reefer Madness became a stage and film musical.

The moral panic about marijuana users in the original has translated into pure camp. It took a while for the material to percolate through the culture and for the culture itself to change. Now moral panics concern drugs like crack or crystal meth.

A similar process occurs when what was a threat is transformed over time into erotic fantasy. Consider the threat posed by the Catholic church to Protestants in the 18th and 19th centuries, of the militant Orient to the Christian West in the 19th century, of fascists to democratic societies in the late 20th century. Even after the external group is no longer a credible threat, the fantasy remains. Whatever the threat group is, it can be slotted into the usual Gothic narratives that underlie BDSM scenarios.

At Mood Pictures, they make corporal punishment videos with scenarios based on recent, Eastern European history. The two videos titled “Gestapo” include the following disclaimer

The creators of the film do not identify with the Nazi conceptions. The film illustrates the brutality of this historical period; the uniforms, dialogues and Hitler’s voice are used exclusively for portraying the era in an authentic way.

Other Mood Pictures productions are set in ancient Rome, South America, a convent full of nuns, or unspecified military, prison or school situations.

Over in the Czech Republic, Rigid East Pictures makes spanking videos with political subtext. In From the Headmaster’s Study: The Anarchy:

Imagine the shock and satiety of the Headmaster when he captures an anarchistic pamphlet which urges the students to break the morale. Acts, which would destroy the very basics of the society. Miss Benesova, who was caught with the leaflet, now faces the Headmaster, but seems to try to explain why she believes in its contents.

Upset Headmaster commands the girl to read the pamphlet out loud. “Comrades workers…” and other disgusting sentences soil the Headmaster’s study. The Headmaster cannot bear it – he bursts with rage. But then an idea springs in his mind. Having read such filth, the student should wash her mouth… yes!!! Wash her mouth!

Other Rigid East or Lupus Pictures videos are set in various periods of Czech history and reference Slovakian nationalism, homosexuality in a homophobic society, cross-ethnic relationships, class conflict, life under the EU, or life in former Czechoslovakia under Communist rule.

As the story of the “Stalin” movie unfolds, you will be brought to the former Czechoslovakia of the 50s; the reign of the communist regime was at its highest. Similarly to any other totalitarian regime, that time was full of absurdity, oppression of ill-fated individuals by the government and its agencies, and also terror, inflicted for example on impeccable young female students. Anyway, the power the political commissars had was virtually unlimited and ordinary people simply had to collaborate with the communists. Only a few individuals kept their independence and honour. Our young female hero was one of the few. She was a daughter of an executed political opponent, which was a grave sin by that time’s standards. She committed a very bad act along with her three fellow students – she modified a photo of Josif Vissarionovich Stalin, published in Rudé Právo.

“Too Many Fathers” gives this little slice of Eastern European history:

The authors chose very delicate subject matter for this movie. It presents a terrible reality. This is no fairy-tale. This movie describes rough post-war events; however, it could happen in any society that offers enough space to despotism, lack of understanding and that treats traditions of western civilization with disdain. It is a moving story of a simple girl whose father perished in a Nazi concentration camp. Her mother, a simple woman with low social position, is trying to start a new life and find a new father for her daughter with the credulity and common sense so characteristic of many people in similar situations. Even though she is initially led by her good will, she goes astray. Her fault is disputable.

The new stepfathers gradually take advantage of the daughter: first the former friend of her father, then a deceiving profiteer and finally a political careerist who gains a lot of power due to the victory of communism. Each stepfather represents a symptomatic archetype of male character. They enter the life of a young girl who, because of their influence, little by little transforms into a young woman. She is able to understand the first and the second stepfather. But she gives up when she meets with the devastating malice of a communistic beast that doesn’t hesitate to use dirty tricks, the beast that takes pleasure in hurting weaker people. And all of that under the guise of false morality and impeccability, allowed by the malformed era of totality.

[...]

No, you are not mistaken – this is still a spanking movie with everything that goes with it. But unlike many others this one is very specific and realistic. In this film spanking takes place as in a harsh reality. Let’s look at the reverse side of life. Let’s peek at the world where physical punishment and debasement are integral parts of everyday life. There, where they bring real pain, agony and despair…

The Gothic mode is unstable and ambiguious. It can easily slip back and forth between exploitative and sympathetic, and the viewer goes through a complex process of shifting identification. Freud noticed this in “A Child is Being Beaten”, and it applies to more elaborate scenarios.

A lot of people will be discomfited by the above scenarios and ideas. Even heavy BDSM players can get edgy about Nazi or plantation slave scenarios, or more recent scenarios. However, the Master-slave elements that are commonplace in BDSM play can be traced back to Atlantic slavery, though at a remove. Maybe it’s just a matter of time or distance until it becomes acceptable. I imagine that, once upon a time, some book or film villain was the first to tie a damsel in distress to a railway track. It was probably pretty scary then. Now, it is a completely worn out cliche, something that cannot be taken seriously.

The Gothic is all about virtue in distress, and what is distressing the virtue can be any oppressive institution. The virtue in distress scenario can in turn be interpreted either way. In the French Revolution, royalist writers used the Gothic image of the dauphin being forced to flee Versailles in her nightgown, an attempt to drum up sympathy for the royal family. More revolutionary-minded readers could feel quite different about the same image.

I don’t think this pattern will stop anytime soon. We still see it in the “torture porn” genre of films like the Saw and Hostel franchises, and in more high-minded films like Rendition. The abuses of power in the name of the War on Terror will generate Gothic scenarios for decades to come, and they will operate in that ambiguous zone between sympathy and exploitation.

To quote the Rigid East site again:

The history of totalitarian systems is an unlimited source of violent and humiliating stories that always make you experience various feelings. People, as human beings, naturally condemn atrocities and injustice of such tyranny; but on the other hand, some who would never admit it are fascinated by scenes involving pain and tears – scenes that truly depict the abuse and suffering of victims.

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