Pier Pasolini's 20th-century take on the Marquis de Sade's 18th-century masterwork of depravity might be stomach turning, but it's also staggeringly honest about the power and chaos of unchecked desires.
Image by Courtney Nicholas
Not long ago I caught a double feature of portraits of creative types at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue in New York: Noah Baumbach’s great Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig at her best, and Paul Schrader’s strange The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan and the porn star James Deen. The first movie capitalizes on the filmmakers’ knowledge of New York culture with its quirky and moving portrait of a dancer’s struggle amid financial and personal woes. The second movie purposefully showed unlikable movie types in Los Angeles using each other and being disgusting for no good reason. It was a depressing film, not because the characters were all antiheros, but because it seemed like everyone could have had more fun depicting such people. If you’re going to get depraved, at least have fun doing it. And if it’s not fun for the filmmakers, it’s probably not going to be fun for the audience. That said, I am still a Schrader fan for his stylish explorations of America’s underbelly and a Brett Easton Ellis fan for his unabashed and flagrant embrace of narcissism and nihilism.
While waiting in line for my small popcorn, no butter, I saw that the IFC was selling a new Criterion edition of Pier Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom. I bought it along with a special Werner Herzog shirt that mashed his name with a Danzig logo. I had seen Salò years before on VHS after buying it out of some bargain bin on Melrose. I felt dirty watching it alone in my little Sherman Oaks apartment. If you don’t know, Salò is the name of a town in Italy where Pasolini plays out some of the activities that the Marquis de Sade describes in his masterwork, 120 Days of Sodom. The text was written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for some sort of extreme behavior in a brothel (Whipping? Stabbing? Sodomy? Whatever it was, was nothing compared to what is described in 120 Days.) Sade’s text catalogues the depraved acts in an isolated chateau that a quartet of wealthy decadents inflict on a group of teenagers that they have either kidnapped or procured for this purpose. The descriptions of the live acts practiced on the teenagers are interspersed with sexual narratives from a group of old women hired to spice up each day with such lewd stories from their own youth. In the textual format both the acts imposed on the teenagers in the present and the storytellers’ narratives about the past are flattened into the same mode of delivery. There is little difference between an old prostitute talking about her experiences and Sade relating what the rich perverts are doing to the children, you read both things. But in the movie, the stories from the past are told and the acts with the teenagers are shown. “Manga, manga,” says one of the men to the children as they are forced to eat their own shit that has been collected in a large pot. And we watch them consume it. (It’s really just berries and sausages, or something like that, covered in brown sauce.) On film what is shown and what is told are very distinct.
Pasolini’s masterstroke was to set Sade’s 18th-century tale in fascist Italy during WWII, so that the horrible acts are tied to unbridled political power, something specific, rather than the random pillars of power in Sade’s version. The Criterion disc delivers great interviews with the late Pasolini, which must have been shot during the making of Salò, because Pasolini was murdered (run over repeatedly by a car) before Salò was released. In the interviews Pasolini talks about his hatred for power and its chaos and unchecked desires, as well as his distaste for the commodification of bodies in the sexual revolution of the 60s (he had a strange reading of such sexual politics). But whatever his reason for making it, what he made is amazing. It is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, but not because of what is shown (much of the violence is implied) but because of the nature of the subject matter: corruption, rape, and the murder of youth. In Sade, such depictions seem to be a rebellious affront to the conservative morals and authority of his day, in Pasolini the depiction seems an ironic indictment of authority that he sees as those who have assumed the role of unrestrained torturers. Either way, they both had to wade in the shit, so to speak, in order to present their material.
Both men died before their works were seen by the public. Sade thought his manuscript was lost in the Bastille fire. It was only published 120 years after his death in the early 20th century. Pasolini was killed weeks before Salò was released, unavoidably tying his death to his last film, which is filled with more death. Neither artist had to defend his work. It’s still shocking to think that Salò was filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the home of great Fellini films and so many other Italian classics. On the DVD there is a wonderful behind-the-scenes documentary that shows Pasolini directing the climactic torture scenes where boys with huge (fake) cocks (called “the Fuckers” in the book) and the quartet of decadents take turns burning, hanging, whipping, and raping the teenagers in a courtyard, while the other men watch from above with binoculars. It’s amazing to see the casualness with which Pasolini constructs these acts, at one point one of the actors asks, “What horrible thing do you have for me to do in this scene?
This is the art of the depraved. But isn’t it also the art of honesty? Salò owns up to what it is. It doesn’t shy away from what it’s doing, it just presents its message in a way that is obviously unappealing. Maybe what’s worse is something like a Britney Spears music video, where the intentions are obscured. Where young teenagers are playing at sex, doing everything but having sex on screen, all to the tune of a catchy soundtrack. Where is the honesty in that?
Last weekend I premiered my adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a movie that follows a murdering necrophiliac, but it doesn’t shy away from its subject and it talks about something that’s inside all of us—the need to connect with others, but also the need to control others.
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