Wednesday, December 5, 2007


How can we justify the existence of a film that consists of little more than a constant series of sadistic sexual tortures and humiliations, a film that devotes a lengthy segment to forced coprophagia and that is finally unbearable in its despairing view of the human condition? Notwithstanding the numerous efforts at interpretation that have attempted to make the film, if not more palatable, at least comprehensible as an artistic gesture, Salò is ultimately impervious to understanding unless we are content to view it solely as a personal expression of rage and disgust on a level unachieved in any other screen effort. Whatever the trigger for these emotions (and given Pasolini's insistence on setting his film in 1944 Italy and identifying his torturers as fascists, the explanations offered for the film are generally political), it is the absolute expression the filmmaker gives them that counts. Trying to justify the film as some sort of comment on the persistence of fascism in contemporary Europe or as a statement about consumer culture (although its political context can't be entirely dismissed, it should not be overemphasized either) makes nonsense of what Pasolini is actually giving us, an ultimate vision of power and debasement that defies all efforts at rationalization.

Pasolini's aggressive conceit is compounded by the shrewd way he draws the viewer into the film through a program of forced sexual identification. The acts being committed may be indefensible, but they are, at least initially, arousing and Pasolini is unwilling to deny this inherent attraction in even the most horrifying sequences. The eighteen victims are evenly split between male and female, so as to appeal to viewers of all orientations and they are all young and well-shaped. In an early sequence, the victims are selected, brought in front of the four Masters and then forced to "audition" for the men (and viewing audience) by stripping and having their physical merits assessed. Later, this voyeuristic program is repeated when the victims are again stripped bare and arranged in a semi-circular pattern with only their buttocks exposed. The men walk around the semi-circle, judging which victim has the "best ass". The judgement is based solely on the feature in question, since the rest of each victim, including his face, is hidden. Thus the individual, reduced to a body in the initial scene, is further debased by having his identity defined by a single feature, a feature frequently viewed with shame and disgust. In both scenes, the film's audience finds its voyeuristic mirror in the Masters since, like them, its members are (presumably) fully clothed and watching the (at least occasionally erotic) proceedings from a safe vantage point. As a singular expression of disgust, Salò is harrowing enough, but when the viewer is so thoroughly included in that disgust, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a work whose content consists principally of sadistic torture, Salò was certainly exceptional in 1975, but today this content has largely been mainstreamed through the efforts of such "torture-porn" offerings as Hostel and Saw, films which are no more justifiable than Pasolini's. So what separates the earlier film from today's offerings, apart from the fact that it's considerably more imaginative? Authorial intention, as far as it comes across on-screen, would seem to be one of the chief differences. While the current crop of products evince a calculated nihilism, Salò feels like the genuine expression of a single outraged individual. Directors like Eli Roth cook their product for maximum saleability, concocting a crude series of bloody gags and a cool cynicism to match, satisfying their largely youthful audience who, they believe, wants to have its blithely nihilistic world-view confirmed. In addition, such directors seem to take a real delight in staging their bloody humiliations. If the directorial presence in Hostel is aligned with the torturers, in Salò it seems more in line with the victim. It is not that Pasolini evinces any sympathy on behalf of the victims - if anything, he is more brutal with them than Roth - but, his anguished presentation of their suffering implies a degree of personal identification that doesn't extend to the Masters. Regardless of its author's actual mindset at the time of filming (and whatever insight biographical accounts can offer us doesn't change what comes across on the screen) Salò registers as a brutal howl of pain, a pronouncement of a despair personally felt. In expressing this despair on the screen, the director takes, not the position of a gleeful torturer, but that of a committed artist who, in staging the humiliations, forces himself to experience them as well. It is this personal stake in the project that, if not able to provide the film with a justification that it doesn't need, at least endows it with a certain importance, the importance of an ultimate, deeply felt aesthetic gesture.

This post was selected as a link of the day on The House Next Door for December 6th.


MRS said...

I haven't seen Salo, though after your description I feel both compelled and afraid to. However, I did want to comment on your criticisms of "torture-porn," particularly your lambasting of Eli Roth. While the Saw movies are pretty much indefensible, Roth was seriously attempting to make something akin to a coherent point with his Hostel movies; that is, a point above and beyond the usual Freudian horror-movie template of decadent fantasy actualization (id as teen sex) followed by merciless punishment and repression (murder by an eccentric super-ego like figure). What I think is actually more interesting about a director like Roth is not the assumed vacuity of his purpose but rather the attempted meaning. In some preverted way Roth was as dedicated to making a meaningful movie as Pasolini but he simply couldn't rise to the occasion. A pure explotative director would be much easier to dismiss (and easier, in a sense, to admire.) Perhaps Roth, despite his best efforts, is simply too embedded in the prevailing pop-violent zeitgiest; any attempt to say something intelligent, or politically relevant, using violence is preemptively short-circuited by the Pavlovian way he has been conditioned to make motion pictures of that kind. (Though his first film "Cabin Fever" was far wittier and original than anything he done since.) Hostel remains a curious and unsettling (but not in the way Roth intends) picture, mostly for it's total embrace of sadism. Not to the main character mind you(though there is plenty of that throughout the film) but rather BY the main character in the film's revenge-fantasy dénouement. In any event, it's not a film to be simply dismissed as an anonymous cash cow- it's intentions are greater and it's failure all the more acute because of it.

andrew schenker said...

Hostel is the only Eli Roth film I've seen, so I'm limiting my discussion to that film. I'm not sure what Roth's aims are in Hostel. Is he trying to make a statement about the genre by subverting the "suppression of the id" formula of the typical teen horror picture? Perhaps, but I don't see much evidence of any sort of critique attached to his deployment of sadistic violence. Whether the violence is being perpetrated against the protag or by him, it seems pretty much designed for the sole purpose of "delivering the goods." The violence is clearly intended to be thrilling (if disgusting), to delight audience members by tapping into some cynical fantasy that Roth shares with his intended viewer. The fact that Roth forces his viewers to become sadists, though, doesn't seem cause for reflection on the director's part. Rather, he seems to fully accept his role as uncritical feeder of audience fantasy. You are certainly correct in highlighting the film's "total embrace of sadism" and the fact that Roth is willing to make such a gesture shows that he is uninterested in critiquing his own methods or his audience's presumptive reaction, since the sadism is understood to be an essential part of his program as entertainer. Perhaps it's slightly unfair to say the film is shrewdly calculated for commercial success (and that's not exactly what I'm saying in my post), but Roth does seem to want to share his delight in torture with a certain targeted audience, an audience that is all too willing to embrace an easy nihilism without giving it a second thought.

MRS said...

In his own words, Roth during a interview with TimeOutLondon:

"Anyone who criticizes this movie for exploitation, I'll find a hundred reasons to shut down their argument as to why it's there. It's no accident that these guys are American, that they are very sexist in their attitude towards women, and that the things that they feel about the girls in Eastern Europe is very much based on American fantasies and stereotypes. And everything comes back to bite them in the ass. They pay for it. People don't want to talk about the ugly side of America; people don't want to talk about the ugly side of culture and exploitation and what I'm doing is simply reflecting that - reflecting what I see going on in our culture."

His message was political but he has no idea how to film that message in a way that doesn't mimic exploitative cinema. Few of the young men seeing his movie will find any reason to question their own attitudes and behavior. Indeed, their sexism and misogyny can and will be reinforced by the movie. What Roth doesn't understand is that ideas cannot just be present in films, to be effective they must be actualized. Anyway. This conversation does bring up the question of whether or not horror movies are sadistic or masochistic? I am inclined to think the latter, Hostel included (up until the end). That is a discussion for another day though.

andrew schenker said...

Well put. Just because Roth says his film embodies a certain attitude doesn't mean that that attitude is succesfully expressed in the final product. He may claim that he is not intending to make exploitative cinema, but the end result is that he has. But, when it comes to intentions, I wouldn't neccesarily take Roth at his word. Perhaps he really did mean to make a serious political comment, but he may also be speaking disingenuously, using the idea of providing a commentary on "ugly Americans" as a smoke screen to hide what seems to me to be his primary conern, the delight he takes in staging tortures.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

Pier Paolo Pasolini, as is well known, was murdered not long after he finished work on this, his most audacious and confrontational film, yet even the most casual viewing of SALO begs the question - had he not been murdered, would he have taken his own life anyway? Every sequence, every shot and practically every moment of this film is so burdened with despair, barely concealed rage and a towering disgust with the human race, one gets the impression that Pasolini was barely hanging onto life - and any attendant shreds of hope - by his fingernails. Although ostensibly an adaptation of one of DeSade's most depraved works channeled through the horrifying excesses of the Second World War with the Fascist ruling classes as its (authentically vile) villains, SALO also contains a lot of contemporary criticism - Pasolini hated the modern world, and explained the stomach-churning 'banquet of s**t' as a none-too-subtle attack on the encroaching global domination of the fast food chains. (The scenes of sexual excess can similarly be read as a despairing attack on the permissive society - those who come to SALO expecting titillation or B-movie sleaze will be sorely disappointed.) consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online Beyond the nihilistic content, which has been well documented elsewhere, the film has an overall mood that seems to have been engineered to make the viewer thoroughly depressed. Shot on washed-out, faded film stock using primarily static cameras, long shots, choppy editing and very few cutaways, SALO has a visual style reminiscent of cinema-verite documentary. Add to this the unnerving use of big band music, piano dirges and the (intentionally?) scrappy post-dubbed dialogue, and the distancing effect on the viewer is complete. SALO comes across as one long primal scream of rage, designed to shake the viewer out of his complacency, and in this respect, the film succeeds unequivocally. Whether or not you would care to watch this more than once, or indeed for 'entertainment', is another matter, but SALO is an important film that demands a careful viewing ONLY by those prepared for it.