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The Peripheral Aesthetic:

Literature Review

Socioeconomic and cultural factors drove the birth of several American film genres in the mid-20th century, including the American slasher flick and the classic softcore pornographic blue film. The origins of both these genres can be traced to the post-War economic boom of the 1950s, a time of economic surplus when suburban family units found themselves with free time for leisure. Economic prosperity meant that these individuals had the time to pursue arenas that provided comfort. One of these arenas was the newly introduced world of television, but the other was the Hollywood industry. From this sprung the Golden Age of Hollywood and the cinematic medium was monopolized, dominated by glitz, glamour, and theatric storytelling. This left small-time and low-budget filmmakers unable to reach their audiences, and thereby, more likely to search for different avenues of gaining popularity. That avenue was via paracinema, the academic terminology for the film genres that “opposed” the “legitimate,” classic output of Hollywood.

Paracinema took root when the moral sanctity of the period coincided with the release of sexual hygiene public service announcements of the 1950s, but resistance to this stodgy austerity had many audiences viewing these PSAs for their scandalous visualizations of naked bodies and sexual activity, ignoring the lackadaisically tacked-on medical messages. As the years progressed, censorship enacted by the Golden Era Hays Code, and obscenity laws codified by the government, facilitated the modelling of those educational shorts into what came to be known as exploitation films, which freely flaunted their libidinousness for viewer’s delight and resultant profit. Sexploitation later seceded from this and developed into its own subgenre. The spinoff gore genre, which delved into presenting gruesome manipulation of the human body for the inherent and inaccessible sadistic pleasures of viewers, paved the way for the horror slasher flick. These genres engaged an audience’s most feral desires, something the Golden Era films never would.

The intent of these new films was something utterly new to cinematic language. Thus birthed a new aesthetic, where films were created to conjure visceral reactions from spectators, not intellectual involvement, where films were carnivalesque, relishing in the grotesque imagery of the manipulation of bodies and licentious corporeality, rather than the novelistic productions that upheld good taste and moral righteousness. Necessity drove innovation and eventually precipitated new modes of viewership that engaged public discourse through subjectification and virtually originated unique baselines within the cinematic medium. Thereby, the socioeconomic conditions of America in the 1950s can be said to have fomented a new type of cinema. Another time when economic travails brewed new cinematic approaches was in Italy after the fall of Mussolini, Italy’s economic destitution finally allotted non-sponsored low-budget filmmakers an opportunity to rebel against the Italian film standard. The films of the 40s were frequently criticized as “white telephone” films, focusing on the champagne problems of the upper-classes, topics irrelevant to the masses of wartime Italy, who never saw a luxurious “white telephone” in their lives. After the war, however, studios faced bankruptcy and capital for financing such irrelevant leisures as films was slim. This socioeconomic atmosphere precipitated the coming of the Italian NeoRealist standard, filmmaking that exalted grainy docu-style photography, cherished real-locations instead of ostentatious Art Deco sets, and utilized non-actors instead of Hollywood-copy-cat divas and models. The content of these films eschewed typical theatre drama domestic scenarios for the plights of the impoverished in Italian streets. Aesthetically, budget limitations forced most Italian Neorealist films to discard haphazardly-gathered field recordings, which were often times unusable because of conditional limitations, and instead dub the entire film in post-production. This disconnect between the soundtrack on screen and the visuals unconsciously created a wholly new type of aesthetic quality of the film. Another uniquely-originated aesthetic of the NeoRealist film was mentioned by film historian Siegfried Kracauer, who, in his studies of Italian NeoRealism, talks of the film movement’s tendency toward disjointed and chance-based “flow.” This “flow” was a result of the Italian NeoRealist tradition of de-prioritizing literary sources and scripts, lending a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness approach to the derivation of plot and story.

The fall of the Soviet Union coincided with the economic change of many nations under the Iron Curtain. In Hungary, for example, following the Hungarian revolution, the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism in 1968 largely decentralized the film industry. As a result, small pockets of filmmakers began to emerge on (initially) privately funded ventures. Among these were the most revered Hungarian directors of the generation, including Miklos Jancso and Karoly Makk. Jancso, in particular, utilized the lure of an escapist cinema of the period by focusing his content on national history, but tingeing it with a form of extreme symbolism wholly original. These films featured blatant nudity and sexuality that, perceived from an everyday standpoint, could be interpreted as providing mere hedonism, as an exploitation film might. Yet, Jancso’s works could also be read critically due to their sophisticated yet subtle iconography, providing for a new mode of cinematic viewership, both engaging in standards and liable to analysis on a more metaphysical level.

For Spain, this is not the first time an economic crisis has driven cinematic enterprising. The economic crisis in the Spanish film industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, compounded by the shift “in the media landscape” due to the introduction of the television, as well as the relegating of cinema as a “leisure” by national decree, fomented the growth of double-billed low-budget genre filmmaking – focusing primarily on horrors and exhibitionist (American: “nudie-cutie”) films that fed the rural circuits and then were distributed for international consumption with even more “explicit” edits, generating a large-scale revenue business. This model was largely copying the American exploitation model.

In Portugal, the Carnation Revolution, the 1974 political event, transpired, partially, as a result of the nation’s cinematic tradition of the “revolutionary” Cinema Novo, a collective of internationally-educated Portuguese filmmakers who formed a cooperative called the Portuguese Centre of Cinema, an institute that later received funding by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and produced enough works to undermine an entire political regime. Constantly skirting Marcello Caetano’s censors, Cinema Novo triggered a “revolution” in its own nation and did so using an entirely new cinematic aesthetic, born by political crisis, rather than by an economic one. Other smaller examples of alternative cinema catalyzed by economic downturns can discovered throughout Europe in the late 20th century. Though Lars von Trier’s “Dogme 95” style is worth mentioning as a potent example, it derived more from a theoretical place, an existential lacking in the cinematic tradition, rather than purely from an economic place. Other auteurs that experiment with form and aesthetics, such as Chantal Akerman and Michael Haneke, might come to mind, but their experiments generally are not derived from a flailing economic situation either.

Today, the economic fragility of the peripheral nations of Greece, Portugal, and Spain comes close to the economic fragility of nations post-WWII and post-communism. Therefore, it is with little doubt, that the cinematic output of these nations will reflect this both in content and aesthetics. Yet, as of today, there are strikingly few studies concerned with charting the cinematic developments in these nations. The Greek New Wave is occasionally assessed in this context. A paper delivered to the 6th Annual Critical Finance Studies Conference at the University of Amsterdam by Roberto Mozzachiodi addresses some of these issues worth exploring. However, other these scant instances, there is a major research gap here worth filling.

Research DESIGN & Methodology

The way to prove how the emergent cinema of Greece, Portugal, and Spain’s new aesthetics reflect the contemporary economic crisis that impacts them is through a film philosophical framework. In particular, these films belong to a category of a “cinema of the body,” works preoccupied with body politics articulated through stagey, gesture-like performance, unusual cinematography and lensing of the body, and sound. All this lends itself to a new form of subjectivity. The collecting of this information will be conduced through deep formalist analysis of the works and each year’s new work in this context.

Thereby, the research methodology will be a theoretical synthesis of a film philosophy approach that captures the political and social aspects of the project, and a phenomenological approach that “negotiates” aesthetic issues (through body positioning, mise-en-scene, and cinematography). Ideally, information can be gathered through interviews with the filmmakers, actors, and/or producers most closely attached to these works. Details of the aesthetic style employed can be scrutinized by close viewings and information gathered on pre-production budgets, funding sources, equipments used, and types of actors employed.