"I staggered through my career and came out the other end alive. I made some films that meant something to me. In my opinion, they weren’t all great, and they weren’t all successful, but they sure were ‘me’. And this is what I was going through or thinking or feeling as a director at the time, and I’m very proud of them. A lot of great directors just never had the chance to have their work appreciated and celebrated and watched all these years after they were made. So, man, what do you want out of life? It’s great!" — John Carpenter
Open the pages of any horror fanzine—Outre, Fangoria, Cinefantastique—and you will find listings for mail-order video companies that cater to afficionados of what Jeffrey Sconce has called “para-cinema” and trash aesthetics. Not only do these mail order companies represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the video market, but their catalogs challenge many of our continuing assumptions about the binary opposition of prestige cinema (European art and avant-garde/experimental films) and popular culture. Certainly they highlight an aspect of art cinema generally overlooked or repressed in cultural analysis; namely, the degree to which high culture trades on the same images, tropes, and themes that characterize low culture.
In the world of Horror and cult film fanzines and mail-order catalogs, what Carol J. Clover calls “the high-end” of the horror genre mingles indiscriminately with the “low-end.” Even more interesting, European art films that have little to do with horror… are listed alongside movies that Video Vamp labels “Eurocine-trash.” European art films are not easily located under separate catalog subheads or listings. Many catalogs simply list films alphabetically, making no attempt to differentiate among genres or subgenres… Where art films are bracketed off, they are often described in terms that most film historians would take pains to avoid. Instead of presenting Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975) as a work that explicitly links “fascism and sadism, sexual licence [sic] and oppression,” as the Encyclopedia of European Cinema does, Mondo simply notes that the film “left audiences gagging.”
The operative criterion here is affect: the ability of a film to thrill, frighten, gross out, arouse, or otherwise directly engage the spectator’s body. And it is this emphasis on affect that characterizes paracinema as a low cinematic culture. Paracinema catalogs are dominated by what Clover terms “body genre” films, films that Linda Williams notes, “privilege the sensational.” Most of these titles are horror, porn, exploitation, horrific sci-fi, or thrillers; other non-body genre films—art films, Nixon’s infamous Checkers speech, sword-and-sandal epics, and so forth—tend to be collapsed into categories dictated by the body genres that are the main focus…The design of the catalogs… enforces a valorization of low genres and low genre categories.
Williams identifies three pertinent features shared by body genres (which she defines as porn, horror, and melodrama). “First there is the spectacle of the body caught in the grips of intense sensation or emotion.”; the spectacle or orgasm in porn, of terror and violence in horror, of weeping in melodrama. Second, there is the related focus on ecstasy “a direct or indirect sexual excitement and rapture,” which borders on what the Greeks termed insanity or bewilderment. Visually this is signaled in films through what Williams called the “involuntary convulsion or spasm—of the body “beside itself” in the grips of sexual pleasure, fear and terror, and overpowering sadness”. Aurally, ecstasy is marked by the inarticulate cry—of pleasure in porn, of terror in horror, and of grief or anguish in melodrama.
Finally, body genres directly address the spectator’s body. This last feature, Williams argues, most noticeably characterizes body genres as degraded cultural forms: “What seems to bracket these particular genres from others is an apparent lack of proper aesthetic distance, a sense of overinvolvement in sensation and emotion…..viewers feel too directly, too viscerally, manipulated by the text”. The body of the spectator involuntarily mimics “the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen”. The spectator cringes, becomes tense, screams, weeps, becomes aroused.
Run at Heart
The dress. The car. The dress. The car.
This week, Rhea and Destiny talk about that new Godzilla trailer, 3DS habits, Captain America, and women saving women.
The Wicker Man (1973)