Monday, September 26, 2016
Salo salvaged, savaged
Never let it be said that I don't try to expose myself to all the extremities of gruesomeness that cinema has to offer.
I have never yet refused to watch a film because I imagined it would be too grotesque. In fact, it's kind of the opposite. If I hear something is unimaginably grotesque, I want to see just how far it has pushed the bounds of what we would consider respectable cinema. I want to see just how far something can go and still be considered a film with artistic merit worthy of intelligent discussion, and not just a snuff film or pornography.
And so I definitely wanted to get my hands on a copy of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a film that had been banned in several countries (and remains so to this day in some of them; the actual country I live in was one of the ones where it was once banned, but is not any longer). This is Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film that is basically two hours of rape, murder, torture, forced eating of human feces and just about anything else you can think of, short of bestiality and pedophilia (though it gets close on that latter front -- the victims seem only just barely of age). The actual plot relates to post-WW II fascist libertines capturing a bunch of teenagers and forcing them through four months of obscenity, humiliation, and physical and mental abuse.
It's something I've been aware of for maybe ten years now, maybe less -- not sure entirely. When I went for my Father's Day overnight hotel movie marathon, I made a conscious attempt to acquire it, as it felt like something I should watch without my wife or children around -- even in the same house, really. It was on that same hotel overnight the previous year that I had watched the film Martyrs, which is in a similar vein of incessant violence and torture but looks like a Care Bears movie compared to Salo.
So I went to the one remaining indie video store in downtown Melbourne, a place I thought might sell it. Yes, I was considering actually buying this movie, having no better idea how I might come into possession of it. Even though this is not the kind of place that would judge you for the depravity of your tastes -- it has an adult video area in the back -- I still felt embarrassed asking about it. It turns out they did once carry it, but they can no longer get their hands on it, or not with any regularity. It might not even be available in this DVD region. The woman did also mention the ban. It's not banned anymore, but I guess she thought she needed to give me more context because she heard my accent and she knows I'm not from here.
I figured I'd have to do something I never do -- pirate the movie on the internet -- if I really wanted to see it. But as I said, I never do that. So I let it fade back into the background again.
Imagine my surprise when I was at the library two weeks ago and found it there, of all places.
Not one copy, but two.
This is actually one of the least safeguarded places it could possibly be. The libraries are progressive enough here that you don't even need to interact with a librarian when you check your materials out. You just wave your card under a scanner and then your books/CDs/movies under that same scanner. It prints a receipt and you are on your way. So theoretically, my six-year-old son (who was with me at the time) could have picked Salo off the shelf and borrowed it, if he'd known how to check it out.
Funny thing is, I almost still didn't get a chance to watch it.
I threw it in the DVD player on Saturday night. I'd failed the standard of watching it with my wife and children under another roof, but as my wife has still been hanging on to the frustrating last vestiges of a chest infection, it was as close as I was going to get. She had been retiring to the bedroom after dinner for nearly two weeks now, so I figured it was then or never.
And it was almost never.
The movie was going along fine for 25 minutes, and had not even really shocked me yet -- or not much, anyway. But then the scratches on the surface of the DVD started to make themselves known, first in terms of pauses the disc had to fight through, and finally, through a fatal unwillingness to play a whole nine-minute stretch of the movie. It refused to play anything between minute 25 and minute 34.
If I was going to watch this damn thing, I was going to watch every last little bit of it.
But I knew I didn't have to give up. There was, improbably, that second copy of Salo on the shelf at the library. And when I got there on Sunday -- I had a whole mess of movies due back anyway -- it was still there, its playing surface as unmarked and shiny as a mirror. Guess I'm glad I'm not interacting with a librarian, because they would have seen me borrowing this movie not once, but twice. (And hopefully nobody will scrutinize my online rental history.)
So last night, I did indeed salvage the Salo viewing.
The tone may have been a bit different than what I was expecting. I guess I did envision it being more like Martyrs, with its near constant brutality and a numbing sense of relentlessness. In fact, Salo is quite a bit more jaunty, frequently playing more like an absurd farce than a non-stop horror show. Some people apparently even consider it a comedy. The tone seems to more closely resemble something like Caligula, though in the aftermath of Salo I've learned that the version I saw of Caligula was probably not the original. It was an R-rated version and more bad than shocking.
The other thing that tends to reduce some of Salo's shock value is that there seems to have been a conscious decision to keep us at arm's length from the victims, many of whom never speak, most of whom are not properly introduced, and some of whom seem not to react to all this terribleness in the way a normal human would. Certainly there are some moments where a victim is absolutely terrified or reduced to desperate pleading, but there are more moments when the victims just kind of go along with it. They are given no choice, of course, but often they go about this debasement with a strange sort of stoicism.
But when Salo does indeed dive into the depths of its depravity, it really dives.
I won't go into the details of all the things you see. It's not the images themselves that are probably quite so awful. They're awful alright, but I didn't see anything in Salo that I haven't seen in another movie before or since. (Movies made before or since Salo, I should say. John Waters' Pink Flamingos, another movie I greatly dislike, predates this by three years.)
No, what's so awful about Salo is that the images have no artistic justification behind them. Yes, this is a commentary on fascism, but it's so anarchic in its approach, and so disdfainful of conventional good taste, that it does not properly justify its existence. It feels like a movie made by a person for the sole reason of rubbing shit in the faces of prudes. Both literally, in terms of the characters, and figuratively, in terms of the people in the audience Pasolini imagines being horrified by this, whom he despises. Pasolini is the type of guy who, if he ever became president of a nuclear power, would launch nuclear weapons just because he could.
I guess I don't really know that much about Pasolini, never having seen another of his films. He may not deserve such an all-encompassing indictment of his artistic intentions. But I do think there are provocateurs who feel like their provocations are the only justification they need, and he seems like one of them. And that may just not be responsible, or if you want to entirely remove the notion of responsibility, it's morally reprehensible, and I don't have to stand for it.
Chillingly, Pasolini was murdered only a few months after this movie was released, and there's good reason to think that Salo had something to do with it. I've only scratched the surface of the issue as outlined in Wikipedia, but this is something I'd like to learn more about.
So I did indeed assign Salo the lowest available star rating on Letterboxd, a half star. It's not because I'm a prude. I gave Martyrs three-and-a-half stars, finding something extremely compelling about the reason behind all its brutality. One of the most horrifying images in Salo is of a woman being scalped, which you also see in the movie Maniac from a few years ago. The moment in Maniac seemed much more disturbing, and I gave that movie four stars.
I just don't buy Pasolini's motivations for making this movie, and I don't find a single thing about it to be enriching.
Now that I've finally conquered Salo, I feel like my next big fish is A Serbian Film. I pretty much know that there is no conventional means of watching this movie, but I do hope that I'll eventually have a chance.
If the library surprised me once, I suppose it could surprise me again.