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in Filmmaking
on Oct 3, 2006

In an email charmingly entitled “Movie Night with Gaspar Noe,” the IFC Center announces that the “French cinematic provocateur” will be hosting a double feature for the brave: Noe’s own I Stand Alone and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infrequently screened Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. (Salo, by the way, is not available on U.S. region DVD. Asealed copy of Criterion’s old disk goes for $566 on eBay, and there’s a brisk business going in Salo bootlegs.)

Of I Stand Alone, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: “Movies don’t get much darker than this, because few of them have as much to say about what movies coax us into doing to ourselves. Put more simply, I Stand Alone is a movie that removes your head, [screws] with it for a while, and then hands it back to you.”

There has been much discussion and debate about Salo, which transposes the Marquis de Sade’s novel from 18th century France to Fascist Italy in the 1940s, over the years.

The British Film Institute has a series of articles posted online about Salo. There’s an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on the film’s relationship to censorship and pornography that concludes like this:

Viewing of Salò was not intended by the makers to be a pleasant experience and in practice most spectators do find it positively unpleasant – not because it is unequivocally repulsive (though it sometimes is), but because the repulsion is balanced against elements of attraction, whether normal or perverse. The fact that the film is disturbing in a deliberately unpleasant way does not seem to me an argument for not allowing it to be shown. Art – and film is no exception – has always contained elements that disturb rather than console, that frustrate rather than satisfy. If the subject matter of Salò is to be allowed to be spoken of at all, it must necessarily be disturbing. For it not to be so is indeed to pander to pornography.

There are also excerpts from Gary Indiana’s BFI monograph on the film:

Salò is one of those rare works of art that really achieves shock value. Aesthetic shock does have a salutary value, and it’s always amusing to read the outpourings of some cultural wastebasket decrying an artist who deploys shock ‘for the sake of shock’, as if to qualify as a work of art, a work of art has to be something other than a work of art – a tutorial in cherished homilies, an affirmation of quotidian values, and so on. I don’t think art has anything to do with morality and it shouldn’t: I should be able to kill everybody I don’t like in a novel and get away with it, rape a twelve-year-old and piss on my father’s grave. It’s not my job to tell anybody that these things are ‘wrong’. It’s my job to show that these things happen, period.

Certain works yank the rug from under the meticulously planted furniture of middle-class morality and the aesthetic torpor that decorates it. John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous, Georges Franju’s Le Sang des Betês, Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie, anything by Hershel Gordon Lewis, scattered moments in the films of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas – well, you can make your own list of things that lifted the top of your head off. I’m not sure that anyone is obliged to ‘like’ works of art that fall into this category, or that ‘liking’ them is ever entirely the point, though critics, quite often, mistake the celebration of the ghastly as an ‘indictment of contemporary malaise’, etc. – in other words, they can only like something if it can be bent to reflect their own moral certainties.

One way that Salò differs from the unabashedly perverse epiphanies of the cinema of shock is in its pedantic moralism, which might have ruined it if the ‘shock’ part didn’t so thoroughly overwhelm the moralism. There is something absurdly winning about Pasolini’s explanation of the shit-eating in Salò as a commentary on processed foods, and the fact that Pasolini was being sincere when he said it. And if you think about it, his interpretation is essentially reasonable, though it’s hardly the first thing a viewer thinks when watching a roomful of people gobbling their own turds.

Indiana talks more about the film in an interview on the site. The interviewer asks Indiana about the effect that Pasolini’s murder following the completion of this film has had on its reputation:

The problem is only there in the sense that Pasolini’s murder and this particular film were so readily linked, and eclipsed the rest of Pasolini’s work, in a certain journalistic kind of discussion. Salò is a satire of consumer society and perfectly consistent with Pasolini’s other films and his polemical writings. What he saw as an extreme spiritual crisis in modern society demanded this particular form, and these extremely unnerving images.

And although it’s not often shown, Salo does pop up in the news. Several commentators, in fact, evoked the film when discussing the torture photos that leaked out of Abu Ghraib. Here are excerpts from Susan Sontag’s “The Pieces are Us”:

An erotic life is, for more and more people, that which can be captured in digital photographs and on video. And perhaps the torture is more attractive, as something to record, when it has a sexual component. It is surely revealing, as more Abu Ghraib photographs enter public view, that torture photographs are interleaved with pornographic images of American soldiers having sex with one another. In fact, most of the torture photographs have a sexual theme, as in those showing the coercing of prisoners to perform, or simulate, sexual acts among themselves. One exception, already canonical, is the photograph of the man made to stand on a box, hooded and sprouting wires, reportedly told he would be electrocuted if he fell off. Yet pictures of prisoners bound in painful positions, or made to stand with outstretched arms, are infrequent. That they count as torture cannot be doubted….

What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the exercise of extreme sadomasochistic longings — as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last, near-unwatchable film, Salo’, depicting orgies of torture in the Fascist redoubt in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era — is now being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or venting. To ”stack naked men” is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The observation — or is it the fantasy? — was on the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh’s response: ”Exactly!” he exclaimed. ”Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it, and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.” ”They” are the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on: ”You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?”

The event will be held next Tuesday, October 10, at 7pm at the IFC Center. Both films will be shown and Noe will be present to discuss the influences of Pasolini’s work on his own.

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