Videogum friend Rich Juzwiak, who writes the tremendous website FourFour and also blogs about I Love Money for VH1, likes some fucked up movies, and sometimes he makes me watch one. This week, we talk about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous film Saló: 120 Days of Sodom, which Wikipedia describes this way:
Four men of power, the Duke (Duc de Blangis), the Bishop, the Magistrate (Curval), and the President agree to marry each others daughters as the first step in a debauched ritual. With the aid of several collaborator young men, they kidnap eighteen young men and women (nine of each sex), and take them to a palace near Marzabotto. Accompanying them are four middle-aged prostitutes, also collaborators, whose function in the debauchery will be to recount erotically arousing stories for the men of power, and who, in turn, will sadistically exploit their victims.
A warning: Saló is not really safe. For anything. So the discussion is NSFW.
rich: Instead of The 120 Days of Sodom, this movie should have been subtitled, Penis and Poop.
gabe: Well, it kind of was subtitled penis and poop.
gabe: That was a joke about the subtitles.
gabe: Pretty successful.
rich: I got it, I got it. There’s always a delay on subtitle humor. The command to “mangia” applies equally to both penis and poop.
gabe: I don’t know about you, but the “mangia” part was really difficult for me to hear with a straight face. Because I think that was the only Italian word I knew as a kid. The classic Italian incitement to eat.
rich: I want a pasta sauce with the kid getting his eye gouged out on the label.
gabe: You should write Paul Newman.
rich: I’m doing it. For the sake of a nation’s appetite. That shit would fly off shelves.
gabe: I think that if this exact same movie were made today or by an American, but everything about it basically the same, I would have a different reaction.
gabe: I give a big sweeping pass to people who lived through World War II. I feel like they can make their own rules on morality or decency or what’s of value to talk and think about.
rich: That’s interesting.
gabe: Pasolini was in his 20’s during the war, which is the perfect age to be kind of broken by it, permanently.
gabe: I mean, I guess any age, really.
rich: That’s a great point.
gabe: World War II was a real mess, you know?
rich: Was it? A bigger mess, than say, Rock of Love?
gabe: If I am to believe Steven Spielberg, yes.
rich: Please, let me be your Reich of Love.
rich: Do you regard this as an exploitation movie?
gabe: Not really. Do you?
rich: I guess in a way I do. I understand the free-pass philosophy. But people being made to act like dogs is…people being made to act like dogs. For all the unrealness and camp…there’s realness, things actors were actually made to do…naked, a lot of the time.
gabe: Oh sure.
rich: On top of the fact that, per your of-its-time point, I don’t think that child-pornography laws would ALLOW this to be made today.
gabe: Well, a couple things on that: 1. The free-pass philosophy doesn’t address exploitation. It’s more just a matter of me feeling like “OK, Pasolini. If you say so.” Part of me wants to recoil, and part of me is just like, “Who am I to tell this guy what the world is like, or what is or isn’t appropriate?”
gabe: Because I can talk to Pasolini.
gabe: Because he didn’t get run over with his own car.
gabe: In a brutal murder. But as far as exploitation is concerned, I guess I just think of that as being something bigger than this movie is capable of. Like, what could the people who may or may not have been exploited possibly have hoped to gain from this? To the point that they could be manipulated against their better judgment to the detriment of themselves and possibly their community?
rich: I mean, why does anyone do movies in which they’re asked to reenact atrocities or to have those atrocities reenacted upon them?
rich: Fucking famewhores.
gabe: I agree that they were treated badly and humiliated and that there’s no real distinction between the recreation on the screen and the reality of what they’re supposedly doing. But I don’t know if in this instance they’re actually being exploited. The whole movie is so confusing in that way. How it got made is a mystery to me.
rich: Yeah, totally. And a lot of people think that Pasolini’s homosexuality is wrapped up in his imagery. That adds another layer of confusion or, as I like to call it, exploitation. His sexuality informs his process, for example, by employing good-looking boys and having his camera gaze slowly on their penises. Like the first shot of cock is verrrrry slowly sweeping. He wants you to feel the foreskin.
gabe: Yeah. I felt it. No homo.
gabe: I guess maybe in that way, the movie is exploitative.
rich: It’s messy, but that makes it ripe for discussion.
gabe: Almost self-exploitative? I don’t know, I might need to go back to college.
rich: If it were just a sterile depiction of this grossness against humanity, it’d be less provocative. But despite Passolini’s best efforts (i.e. his long, detached shots), there is humanity there.
gabe: Oh definitely. The movie is all the harder to watch for the fact that there are no recognizable actors in it. At least, not recognizable to me. And they don’t even seem like very good actors.
rich: It’s so telling that these people didn’t go on to do anything else. It’s one of THOSE movies. Like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or Meet the Feebles.
gabe: well, to be fair, Peter Jackson directed Meet the Feebles.
gabe: Where is our SALOTR?
gabe: Wasn’t he a neo-realist or whatever?
rich: Hmmm, I think I need to go back to college for that one.
gabe: I believe that the Italian neo-realists regularly used non-actors to tear down the artifice of narrative films, which in a film like this makes things extra uncomfortable.
rich: Yes. These people might as well have been put through this shit for all it did for their careers.
gabe: They couldn’t really have thought this was going to be a career thing. Not that I have any idea why someone would want to be in this movie
rich: Yeah, I mean, why then? Do you believe in art so much that you’re willing to take part in being degraded (even fictitiously) with absolutely no payoff?
rich: And in 2008, all my reasoning comes back to is fame-whoring.
gabe: Right, but we can’t really look at this through a reality TV show contestant lens.
rich: I know.
gabe: There was a time when people didn’t even know how much they wanted that kind of attention. Or how badly
rich: The concept of “non-actors” is probably more foreign than any other related to this movie, in my mind. And that’s saying something, for a film that largely is considered to capture the un-capturable.
rich: So we just assume that these are all artists? Each shit smear was like a stroke of a painter’s brush.
gabe: I don’t feel smart enough to get into a “What is art?” argument, but what is art?
rich: Organized expression, however loosely manifested, I think.
gabe: Oh OK. Then yeah, I guess this is art.
rich: The art debate is very applicable to this movie. Because in so many ways, it’s as lofty or “high” arty as film gets.
rich: And also, there is shit-eating.
rich: That’s what I love about it, that mix of high and so, so low.
gabe: I would be curious if there was that kind of distinction back when it was made. I mean, there was definitely mass-art cinema, and smaller cinema. But I feel like it wasn’t until Miramax was founded that people really started to be assholes about it.
rich: I bet there were always snobs. And, of course, the fact that Salo is alienating adds to its art cred.
gabe: Well that is the thing that probably makes me the angriest in the art world. Or the art film world. The idea that if you don’t like something it’s either because you don’t understand it or because you can’t handle it. Not that I understand this particular movie or can handle it.
rich: But you do and you can.
gabe: It’s such a cop-out argument
rich: I mean, that’s kind of the beauty of this film. That it doesn’t really do that. It turns people off, yes. But what it portrays so simple, for all its de Sade-inspired, highfalutin conceit. It doesn’t talk above your head. It kind of just pummels you. I mean, the plot is threadbare. What you see is what you get. I think (mainly because I watched the extra features) that Passolini’s main theme was that power corrupts and renders those without it into interchangeable commodity.
gabe: Right. Very communist of him.
rich: Oh for sure.
gabe: I remember in my film classes, they were always trying to give “Marxist readings” of films. “They.” This would have been perfect for them
rich: Speaking of classes, this whole experience of revisiting this film and immersing myself in learning about it has been altering. The more I read the essays in the 80-page (!) booklet (“booklet”) and the more I watch the bonus features, the more I’m convinced of this film’s greatness. Criterion is a network of propagandists. With their own agenda. That’s why I’m going to wait for the 2-disc set of Beverly Hills Chihuahua before settling on an opinion.
gabe: Criterion is so weird. Armageddon?
rich: Yeah, that’s a blip for sure.
gabe: I still am not sure who this movie was made for.
rich: Me neither, really. Maybe Passolini wasn’t thinking of anyone else but himself at this point. Maybe that’s the final word on what makes it an art film: audience-aloofness. It’s not so much, “If you don’t like this, you don’t get it”; it’s more: “Who?”
gabe: I thought the speech on the front lawn where the President explains the rules about incest and rape and limb-severing punishments was what made it an art film. My art film alarm went off. ART FILM ART FILM.
rich: Haha. Did it go into the red when he mentioned sodomy?
gabe: Sodomy is no longer just for art films.
rich: Do you think this movie deserves its reputation for being one of the most shocking of all time?
gabe: Probably. It’s always hard to see things in anything resembling the time in which it was made, but it’s still very shocking now. I can only imagine how it must have felt in the 70’s.
rich: The sex aspect is much more affecting than the violence. Although, obviously, the two are intertwined throughout.
gabe: The sex aspect is mostly violence
rich: Yeah, I guess there’s the sex-violence and the violence-violence. But I do feel a little prude by being more shocked about the sex stuff.
rich: Rich: The real scene of carnage, the last 10 minutes of the movie, seems tame in comparison to the rest of what goes down. But there people are, being scalped and branded and burned and having their tongues cut out.
gabe: There’s also the constant threat of violence. at a certain point very early on I really felt like the film might do anything. There were no rules whatsoever.
rich: Despite the libertines’ pretensions.
rich: Salo: proto-torture porn?
gabe: Maybe, but I think you and I disagree on torture porn. I think Salo is like proto-Funny Games. Proto-torture porn for snobs
rich: Well, we disagree on what’s worth watching, certainly. It’s just that the emphasis is on the torture, on the dragging out of violence rather than quick, sometimes innovative kills.
rich: Could someone get off to this movie? Yes. That’s conceivable.
gabe: Yes. Someone could
rich: I don’t think of myself as “sick,” per se, despite what others may think, but I did feel a little gross when I found that I was ideologically aligned with one of the libertines: “All’s good if it’s excessive.” I totally agree 100 percent. And that’s why this movie is for me.
gabe: So when this movie is for you, what does that mean?
rich: Oh, just that I appreciate it.
rich: And masturbate to it.
gabe: I think it’s hard not to appreciate this movie. I mean, it would be easy not to. But it’s hard not to if that makes sense. I’m always supportive of anyone trying to do something, even if it’s kind of painful to watch. As long as I feel like they were really working
rich: It’s kind of perfect, in its depraved way. It’s not boring. Despite its depiction of excess, it’s not overly long or stuffed with needlessness. It’s paradoxically clean.
gabe: It’s efficient
rich: It’s like a car wash, except instead of soap, they use shit.
gabe: and rape and murder. dont’ forget how they use rape and murder. on your car.