Aug 162011

Continuing my discussion of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the function of violence, here’s the Room 101 scene from the American 1956 film version.

Note that the story pretty closely follows the book and the other two film versions: the electric shocks, the “How many fingers?” routine, Winston seeing his degraded self in the mirror. You can see how much of a perverse initiator O’Brien is (called O’Connor in this adaptation), guiding Winston room to room, preparing him for each stage of his descent into hell.

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Jul 252011

In a previous post I touched on the difference between fantasizing about a person being in peril of violence and a person actually suffering violence.

This clip above is the 1954 BBC television adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

In the book, Winston is shown the rat cage device, strapped down and then the device is placed on his face. Only then does he crack.

In this production, they don’t even put the device on Winston’s head. O’Brien merely shows the device to Winston and describes how it operates, and this is enough to make Winston crack and say, “Do it to Julia!”

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Jun 042010

Ah&Oh Studio created a line of perfume packages based on male writers, including George Orwell, LaClos (author of Dangerous Liaisons), Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade.

We found inspiration in the great, dark literature and distinctive, strong characters. We tried to describe the dark sides of men’s nature with line of scents named after famous writers.

Interesting that all four writers, not just Sade, could be seen as factoring into the history of BDSM. LaClos wrote about seduction and power games, and Poe about obsession and imprisonment. Even Orwell’s vision of dystopia in 1984 became fodder for masochistic fantasy.

I wonder what Sacher-Masoch or Richardson would smell like? Perhaps a complementary line of women’s fragrances: Stowe, Radcliffe, Rachilde, Reage, Rice, Carey?

May 232010

Susannah Breslin’s column has a fascinating article on This ain’t Max Hardcore: a XXX parody. It’s a turn-the-tables scenario in which a baby-doll-style woman beats up and anally foot-fucks an actor playing the famed gonzo porn maker.

Paul “Max Hardcore” Little, currently serving a prison sentence in Florida, is known for his particular style of videos, which Breslin describes thusly:

In his movies, women are urinated upon, forcibly fellated until they vomit, their orifices cranked open with speculums. They are pile-driven, skull-fucked, and fish-hooked. Mostly, they are dressed and behave as if they are underage girls — somewhere in the neighborhood of, say, six or seven. These women-as-girls are accosted on playgrounds, where they suck provocatively on lollipops and respond to Hardcore’s come-ons with baby talk. In their sex scenes — if they can be called that, as they seem more like systematic attempts to break the human spirit recorded on videotape for posterity and profit — Hardcore, who wears a cowboy hat and whose prop of choice is a hideous canary yellow sofa, violates their holes while spewing forth a stream of degrading language.

Assuredly, Hardcore’s movies are not for the faint of heart. They are targeted at a demographic one would perhaps rather not dwell upon the existence of for any length of time. They are less “movies” and more political demonstrations: of power, of violence, of one man’s seeming frustration with the opposite sex: porn’s very own final girl, who, no matter how hard he tries, will not lay down and (pardon my language) fucking die, leaving poor Max with no choice but to return to the scene of the crime and do it all over again.

Breslin cites the “final girl” from Carol J Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws. Clover argues that final girl, with the androgynous name and the ambiguous gender identity, is the one girl who ultimately survives and defeats the killer, who is also riddled with flawed sexuality and gender identity. This is part of the viewer working through his adolescent male sexual anxieties. Hardcore’s oeuvre bears a certain resemblance to the slasher film, an extremely prolific genre in the early and mid 80s, full of endless variation on the same basic formula. The story reminds me a little of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was about the standard horror victim into the hero(ine).

So, if Hardcore’s films are working through (however unsuccessfully) male issues with women, what is This is not Max Hardcore working through? Who is going to watch This is not… and who is going to cheer the female protagonist on? If we assume the default viewer of video porn is a young heterosexual white male, then he might make the identification shift (as Clover describes it) from the “monster” to the “final girl”, rooting for the girl to defeat the “dirty old man” archetype represented by Paul Little. Maybe This is not… is the other half of the dialectic, with the first half by the usual Hardcore video.

Arguably, Hardcore’s videos can be seen as an extreme form of “virtue in distress”, a distant descendant of Richardson’s Clarissa, but misread so that the power dynamic is only one way. This video could be seen as a “strong misreading” (as Harold Bloom would put it) of the Hardcore videos that unwittingly returns to the form’s ancestor.

Here’s a question: does the violence of a Max Hardcore video have the same impact when it is a young woman doing it to an older man? Or does femdom-malesub violence not have the same impact because it is not “real”, that we do not take women seriously as agents of violence? When Red Riding Hood fights back against the Big Bad Wolf, is it heroism or a joke?

Breslin’s piece also provides a great look into the porn culture of 2010, with biographical sketches of Debi Diamond, the producer and former porn performer, Rod Fontana (former US Army officer, porn performer and would-be preacher), and Kristina, the vengeful ersatz Max Hardcore girl who described Paul Little as a “sweet, little old man.”

(Note to Ms. Breslin: When are we going to see a non-fiction book from you?)

Mar 172010

It’s already been removed, but FOX was running in interactive website game called “KeepHerAwake”, as a promotion for the new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The idea is that the user manipulates a girl in her bedroom to keep her awake so that the supernatural killer can’t kill her in her sleep.

From Susannah Breslin’s post on True Slant:

It’s going to be a long night, so you start with something light. You click an icon and her alarm clock rings. You make her jump up and down on her bed in her underpants. You get her to read a book. But that’s no fun, right? Maybe you’re a little bored.

You put her in the shower, naked, natch, where the camera wanders across her body. You make her do jumping jacks and watch her boobs bounce in that very tight T-shirt she’s wearing. Still, there’s something missing. Isn’t there something else you can do? Something, say, more … fun?

You decide to apply more aggressive methods. You click the switchblade icon, and she picks up a knife. As you watch, she cuts herself in the side with it, gasping. Hm, not bad, you think. You try another. You click the icon that looks like a lighter, and she picks it up. You look on while she burns her arm, trembling in agony. If you’d known torture was this easy, well …

Unfortunately, now you’ve run out of tricks, and it seems your options are more limited than 18 U.S.C. § 2340. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Slowly, she falls asleep. Suffice to say, in the end, she dies. Too bad all your torturing couldn’t, er, save her.

While I’m not familiar with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, I understand that a key aspect of the premise is that Krueger can only attack his victims when they are asleep. Therefore, the dramatic tension comes from the increasingly desperate measures the characters adopt to stay awake and therefore alive.

Presumably, while watching the film, the viewer will empathize with the characters and their struggle to stay alive. (Carol J Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws has a detailed exploration of the complexity of audience/character identification in horror, in which the viewer’s identification constantly switches between killer and victim.) In the realm of interactive entertainment, this seems to be a rather different experience, and one that raised the eyebrows (to say the least) of Breslin and’s Xeni Jardin.

The late, lamented (in my opinion) Joss Whedon series Dollhouse had a similar promotional effort in which a visitor to a website could manipulate a version of Echo, the show’s protagonist, by programming her with different personalities. This was an odd choice for a series that is all about questioning the morality of manipulating people like dolls, and came under criticism. Like the KeepHerAwake game, it seemed like an exercise in sadism.

We live in an age of virtual entertainment, in which people create and control online characters and develop a high degree of empathy and identification with them. In this case, the user is presented with a menu of things the character can do in response to other events in the virtual world. In the case of KeepHerAwake, however, the user selects from a menu of things to do to the character. It’s doing with vs. doing to.

KeepHerAwake does present these choices as ways of solving a problem: if the user doesn’t do anything, the character will die. Contrary to the headline of Breslin’s piece, you aren’t trying to torture the character to death, you’re trying to keep her alive. However, I can see why people would be troubled by feeling that they or other people had missed this key point.

Perhaps, if the KeepHerAwake game had been presented so that the user was encouraged to directly empathize with the experience, we would feel differently about it. Perhaps it should have been “KeepMeAwake” instead, but that would have been a difficult game to make. How would the user have subjectively experienced the pain and fear of the experience? KeepHerAwake, unsurprisingly, uses a young attractive white woman as a “suffering body” so that the user can see the evidence of the pain. A male body probably wouldn’t have allowed the same precise calibration of empathy; men in our culture are not supposed to admit pain, and especially not visibly express it through shaking, screaming or other losses of bodily control, which are essential in visual media.

In BDSM, the top must have a degree of empathy for the bottom. He or she must care about the bottom’s subjective experience, and not regard the bottom as simply an inert body with no subjectivity. I think the mise en scene of KeepHerAwake discourages the player from developing the requisite empathy with the manipulated character.

Side note: French documentarians recently replicated the infamous Milgram experiment (“Will you torture someone if an authority figure tells you to?”), though this time in the setting of a fake game show.

Apr 232009

The US policy on torture is much in the air today. Some of the defenders of the policy liken the kinds of “stress positions” and the like allowed to be used to fraternity hazings.

One interesting angle is comparing torture to SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training, used by the US military to prepare soldiers for being tortured. Slate compares SERE and real torture, making explicit comparisons between the former and BDSM.

Third, SERE offers interventions that relieve stress and reinforce the unreality of the exercise. Instructors and psychologists are available “to watch the students for indications that they are not coping well with training tasks, provide corrective interventions with them long before they become overwhelmed, and if need be, remotivate students who have become overwhelmed to enable them to succeed,” Ogrisseg noted.

Fourth, SERE has “defined starting and ending points. … [T]rainees arrive on a certain date and know that they will depart on a specified date.”

Fifth and most important, SERE is voluntary. “Students can withdraw from training,” Ogrisseg noted. In a report issued four months ago, the Armed Services Committee added that in SERE, “students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop” any ordeal.

The difference between SERE and the Bush interrogation program is the difference between S&M and rape. There is no consent. There are no mutually understood boundaries. There are no magic words. People who can’t tell the difference between rape and S&M go to jail. What happens to people who can’t tell the difference between torture and training?

In this argument, the social context matters.

Over on Susie Bright’s blog, she talks about the impact SERE training had on her Airforce Academy boyfriend in the early 1970s:

In addition to the group beatings, waterboarding, electric shock, sleep deprivation, sound/noise torture, starvation, dehydration, he was also forced to eat human feces and vomit, in accompaniment with the beatings. They had replicas of “tiger cages’ they kept him in. He wrote me that after awhile of knowing it was all a training, he couldn’t hold the frame anymore and it became nothing but his reality. His sense of time and self evaporated.

His father was Air Force— and I think even he was taken aback by the SERE training. Afterward, as far as I could tell, Robbie had a psychological breakdown. He wasn’t the same guy. I was afraid of him.

They’d given him some very peculiar advice about women— it creeped me out. I was, like, ‘HEY, it’s me, remember?” But he didn’t. He hurt me when we made love, my back bled. He acted like we were supposed to play this out until I got “tougher” and could take it. It didn’t have anything to do with “kink” or fun.

The Slate article says that the “frame” is very important, the subject’s awareness that there are rules and limits to this, that there is a safeword. However, Bright’s account suggests that it is not always possible to maintain that frame.

May 142008

Frost, Laura Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism, Cornel University Press, 2002

I once interviewed an elderly French woman who had been a courier for the Resistance in occupied France. In Paris, she was captured by the Milice, French fascist collaborators, tortured without divulging anything and held prisoner for months. A Milice officer named Cornet would visit her cell and point her out, saying, “That one didn’t talk. She has courage.”

One night, Cornet and she drove to a nightclub for Miliciens and German soldiers, the Green Parrot, which she soon realized was also a brothel.

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Jun 092007

Elizabeth of the Alternative Journey blog calls Jack Bauer, the hero(?) of 24, her “ultimate conquered male.”

Bitchy Jones followed up with a related post on male suffering and heroism.

Male submission and the archetypal heroic narrative are basically interchangeable. But somehow submissive men (and, I guess, a lot of people in general) seemed to have been tricked into thinking submission is basically feminine; that submissive men need to create feminine personas to make their submission make sense, get I touch with their feminine sides.

Which is bollocks.

Submissive men are heroes. Every time they take off their clothes. Which they should do both frequently and often.

Look, Prometheus stole fire for humans and was, in retaliation, tortured daily for 30,000 years (sm). Atlas holds up the fucking sky on his shoulders (predicament bondage).

And then there’s Jesus Christ. Where to begin? Sacrifice? Submission? Dying for all our sins? Nails? Hot jewish guy in pain and mostly naked? My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? He safewords on the cross! I fucking loved Sunday school.

Do you see what page I’m on? Every story of heroism. From then to now.

Dr Jack says to the evil ‘others’ in Lost – let my friends go and you can do what you want with me.

Angel goes back to fight in the Ring even when he could walk free because he can’t leave the other demons to their fate.

Goddamnit, Indy, where doesn’t it hurt?

And Elizabeth has covered Jack Bauer in detail. (She’s an inspiration – that woman.)

Bauer suffers, certainly, but is he a masochist? His suffering is incidental to his mission. He does not suffer for its own sake, or find meaning in it. Arguably, he undergoes torture out of guilt for his own actions. Bauer’s distinguishing characteristic, at least in my mind, is sadism. Over the course of the series he mentally and physically tortures several people, kills a man in cold blood and cuts off his head with a hacksaw, and executes people on his own side. Like Richardson’s Lovelace and Sade’s libertines, Bauer justifies his actions by claiming he is aware of a higher truth about the nature of the world.

I’d call Bauer a stoic, not a masochist. Masochists suffer; stoics endure. A masochist wants to feel deeply, while a stoic wants not to feel pain or pleasure.

Old school male heroes, the John Wayne/Humphrey Bogart/Gary Cooper generation, were defined by stoicism, their immunity to fear, pain, exhaustion and loss.

The thing is, stoicism can easily shade into masochism. In order to prove one has the proper stoic’s indifference to pain, one seeks out suffering, makes a performance out of it. Is masochism the sign of a person insecure in stoicism?

It’s later on, starting around 1990, that we get male action heroes who not only suffer, but make flamboyant displays of suffering. Mel Gibson’s characters are often tortured in his films, while Bruce Willis weeping while picking broken glass out of his bare feet in Die Hard is a far cry from Sylvester Stallone as Rambo cauterizing his own wounds with gunpowder.

Furthermore, masochism can be a relief from stoicism, saying, “Yes, it does hurt, but I can still take it!” Masochism was defined as a specifically male problem by Kraff-Ebing when the masculine ideal was the height of stoicism, and self-sacrifice was the female ideal. Sacher-Masoch could be viewed as a holdover from the previous century’s culture of sensibility.

I’ve been talking about male characters so far, but what about women? Currently, there are two female characters on TV who are defined by their capacity to withstand suffering. Claire Bennet of Heroes and Jane Vasco of Painkiller Jane both have superhuman regenerative abilities, being nearly impossible to kill. Their storylines offer plenty of scenes of them being injured and recovering, and their willingness to undergo harm is a big part of their heroism.

However, Jane feels pain, while Claire doesn’t, or not as most people do. Does that mean Jane is masochistic, while Claire is stoic? Or does it mean that Jane is the stoic, ignoring pain, while Claire is the true masochist, experiencing intense physical sensations as pleasure?

Ariel Glucklich’s book Sacred Pain emphasizes that we do not just experience pain, we interpret it, assign it meaning in our life stories. A stoic sees pain as a distraction, to be ignored, or perhaps as proof of determination to accomplish goals. A masochist sees pain as a way to get outside our self.