Salo (120 Days of Sodom): Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | February 19, 2009 | Comments ()
Pop culture item consumed: Salò, aka 120 Days of Sodom, the infamously degrading and violent 1975 film by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, released on DVD in August 2008 after a long, controversial path which included, and continues to include, import bans around the world. Which just goes to show that censors can rarely be bothered to view what they want to ban.
Beverage consumed: The Macallan 17-Year Fine Oak, a caramely single malt scotch with strong notes of honey and peaches. I know that sounds poncey, but I’m not even kidding. The “single” in single malt refers to all of the barley malt in a batch originating from the same distillery; this factor, combined with the use of local waters in the brewing process, lends distinctive local character to each of the various single malts made in Scotland. Water is used both to malt the dry barley grain and to make mash out of the resulting malt; as yeast ferments the mash, alcohol (yay!) results. The product is then distilled and aged, with different batches from the same distillery mixed together to produce individual flavors. Certain distilleries introduce burning peat to add a smoky character, including two of my favorites, Laphroaig (pronounced “lə - froyg”) and Lagavulin (pronounced “sit on my lap, Svetlana”). Many distilleries also instill a sea water undertang, either from the barley being grown along the coastline or (I suspect) from introducing small amounts of sea water into the mashing and malting process. This is particularly the case with island and coastal scotches such as Talisker and Oban.
The Macallan is typically among the sweeter single malts, though that’s a bit like being on the quieter end of a missile range. For newbies, whiskeys can be characterized with bread analogies: Scotch whiskys are the pumpernickels and dark seven-grains of the whiskey world; rye whiskey is to bourbon as rye bread is to pumpkin bread; and blended Scotch is more like ordinary wheat bread. As for white bread? We’re talking scotch, man, don’t go on raving about bread!
Summary of action: Salò, based on 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, depicts bizarre rites of sexual humiliation, torture and murder at a remote mansion in Nazi-occupied Italy at the end of World War II, offering a stunted dramatic narrative as a metaphor for the dehumanization of Western culture in the mid-20th-century. Desiring to experience the philosophical purity of absolute, amoral excess, four powerful Italian collaborators, working with a group of young soldiers and a quartet of middle-aged prostitutes — just go with it — kidnap and imprison eighteen teenagers, subjecting the youths to a series of physical, mental and emotional torments of increasing intensity. The soldiers oversee the prisoners while the prostitutes while away the hours with tales of aberrant sexual behavior for the titillation of the men of power. Among the tortures inflicted on the youths, aside from such mundanities as whipping, are non-consensual sodomy, public sex under threat of violence (involuntary by both partners) and forced consumption of human feces.
Then it gets weird.
Pasolini didn’t make Salò because he was obsessed with violent sexual rituals — at least not exclusively because of that, though he had what one might call “a predilection.” Salò is what your pinko liberal arts professors would call an allegory, offering Pasolini’s critique of the world around him in the early 1970s, a world in which the Western powers, in Pasolini’s view, had accomplished through the crushing force of capitalism what Fascist leaders had accomplished through threat and use of violence in the 1930s and 40s. Pasolini posited that the commercialization of human emotion and the modern obsession with materialism had commoditized spiritual desire and sexuality and thereby done great violence to humankind. The four men of power represent the modern authoritarian structure; the harlots fill the role of the media, spinning empty, prurient tales to distract the populace from the ugly reality around them; and the soldiers and prisoners are juxtaposed elements of humankind, at once both a complacent populace aiding and abetting its own downfall and an avatar of our degradation as a society.
Salò was not the first film to offer such symbolism in appraising the state of post-war Western culture, nor was it by any means the last or even the most well-known. So why is it important? Well, because over the last thirty years enough people came to believe in its importance. I’m as guilty as anyone of scoffing when someone lauds a film I think is tripe or puffs up a film’s significance in a way I think is pretentious. In point of fact, however, regardless of whether you or I believe Citizen Kane, for example, is a “great” film, it is indisputable that Citizen Kane is an important film in the world of cinema and visual arts. I don’t care much for Citizen Kane, but the narrative approach and technical aspects of that film revolutionized the way movies are made. If you want to discuss film theory or the history of cinema, you have to know about Citizen Kane, and that makes it important, ipso facto.
So: Salò. Many people view Salò as one of the most significant political allegories of the 20th century, if not the most profound ever committed to film stock. In response to my inquiry, no less an authority than Ranylt Richildis explained to me that its historical relevance as an influential anti-fascist statement is substantial even though the film is hard to watch. When I think small thoughts or don’t understand important things, Ranylt makes troubling remarks about my penis. And while “not listening to Ranylt” is right up there with “spitting into the wind” and “tugging on Superman’s cape,” there is a host of other people who are a little too eager to tell you how important Salò is, especially if they managed to see it while it was not available in their home country. It’s always more fun to extol a film’s awesomeness when it’s difficult or impossible to test the theory by viewing it. Or maybe misery just loves company.
If Criterion’s description of the film as a “masterpiece” makes you a little suspicious, given that Criterion is the distributor, then let’s consider some other opinions. Mainstream reviews from well-known sources are actually hard to come by, but The Village Voice named Salò to its list of the top 100 films of the 20th century. Closeted Italian scat sadists intent on poisoning our minds, that’s what they are. Of course, the contrary reviews aren’t helpful either, tending toward condemning those who praise the film as “just as sick as the person who made it.” (In fairness, that one was from IMDb, where retard grenades are typically helpful in framing a debate over artistic merit.) The problem with evaluating films like Salò is that the mouth breathers who condemn it and the censors who ban it drive one toward the twits who view it as a modern Dante’s Inferno. At least with them we all believe that everyone should be able to watch whatever they want to, which is far more important than the credibility of any particular piece of art.
If you’re looking for a neutral take on Salò, the best place to go is probably (ugh) Wikipedia. I hate to rail on Wiki too much, as I use it frequently when goldbar-quality facts aren’t that critical (writing this column for example). Relying on Wikipedia is akin to asking ten random people a question and then going with the plurality answer; it’s probably not a bad place to start, but I sure wouldn’t bet the mortgage payment on it. Wikipedia has a surprisingly useful analysis of Salò’s history and meaning, however, without a lot of the foo-faw nonsense of highbrow criticism from people who feel like they’ll be thrown out of the Jagoff Ponce Club if they don’t like it.
In sharp contrast to a fair-minded evaluation of artistic significance, there’s an essential point every kindergartener knows after reading The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sometimes the things critics tell you are wonderfully insightful are actually the most ludicrous shite imaginable. That painting at MoMa that’s just a circle on a solid background? That’s crap. I understand that some consider it significant because it challenged the artistic conventions of the time, and I understand that I can’t talk about art seriously if I don’t know about the modern schools. But writing only with vowels to challenge the brutal hegemony of English Lit ain’t the way to go either.
So what about the Official Boozehound Viewing? With my strong antipathy toward torture porn, I felt trepidation at the idea of watching Salò, and the Netflix DVD sat on the shelf for several months before I worked up the stones, aided by a Christmas bottle of McCallan 17-Year. Ultimately, Pasolini’s reputation convinced me to take a look. Given his historical association with Fellini and other Italian masters, as well as the descriptions of the film I had read, I anticipated that Salò might serve as a kind of ultra-violent fable condemning the commercialization of human passion.
I shouldn’t have been concerned; not because the film is mild — Salò truly is not for weak stomachs — but because Salò is such a laughably inept clump of dogshit. Salò is enjoyable enough, but only because the acting, writing, plotting, costuming, and staging are so direly pretentious, shoddily executed, and self-consciously artsy that Salò rises to the level of high camp. Indeed, given sufficient booze and weed, the dubbed version offers a howling good time for the non-squeamish — the voice actors all sound like they’re auditioning for “Leave It to Beaver.” (“Aw, shucks, Wally, this fine little strumpet won’t lick the shit off my rigid penis!”) The sub-titled version — both are available on the new release — is not quite as compelling but still plenty ridiculous to make one wonder if there’s some kind of mass hypnosis at work among those who love this film. If Springtime for Hitler were straight-facedly reinterpreted by night-school junior college film students with a decent budget, this would be that film. Salò does earn its notoriety to some extent, in terms of grotesque sexual degradations and a closing act featuring explicit mutilations. Even the most horrific of these, however, only causes the seasoned viewer to ponder what kind of elementary-school intellect believed this film was a suitable vehicle for the philosophical message it carries. I’ve always believed that wisdom and insight are far more likely to be found among the subtle than the overtly abrasive.
It’s not that I don’t understand the thrust of this film, so to speak. It’s not a straight narrative, it’s not supposed to make sense as a realistic drama; it’s a nightmarish metaphor, a lurid spectacle driving home the apathy of modern citizens about their own exploitation. I get it! It still sucks much ass, though it does confirm my longstanding belief that the fastest way to turn steaming crap into cold cash is to persuade the government to censor your art. Serrano’s “Piss Christ” wasn’t offensive because it depicted Jesus submerged in pee — as I understand it, Jesus is pretty tough — it was offensive because the artist had such contempt for the viewer that this lazy, slack-jawed excuse for an artistic work would be offered up for serious consideration. The fuckwits who want to censor these things invariably fail to realize that the most effective response to such nonsense is an open forum where the harsh peals of mocking laughter can be more readily shared.
Pasolini was killed shortly before Salò opened in Italy, and there is a theory that he was assassinated because of the film. I have to admit, that sounds much better than “murdered in tawdry encounter with male prostitute.” Pasolini’s death, combined with the immediate retraction of the film in response to charges of obscenity, got the ball rolling at high speed in terms of notoriety and undeserved publicity. Had there been no murder, had Pasolini lived to defend his film against the censor, perhaps it would have received the universal eye-roll it deserves, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. Damn you, male prostitute. Damn you to hell.
How well the pairing held up: Like having a 16-year-old girl and your own feces in the same room, it’s best avoided; if that’s not possible, then best ignored. The Macallan kept the exercise from being totally pointless.
Tastes like: Salò? Like eating an old man’s fresh dung. The Macallan, on the other hand, never fails me.
Overall rating: It did quite well on the laugh-o-meter.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.