On DVD: “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” “Television Under the Swastika”

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09022008_salo.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The most fabulous and fascinating thing about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notoriously terminal film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975) is its intractability, its single-minded evasion of traditional matters of visual pleasure, narrative, spectator experience and thematic thrust. Calling it a “masterpiece,” as transgression-obsessed critics have done, or an “abomination,” as many Italians, clergy and stuffed shirts have done over the years, or even a work that could be judged as simply good or bad, thumbs up or thumbs down, is not only unhelpful but ridiculously wrong. In many ways, the movie stands outside of cinema, and art culture — which is, of course, exactly where the Marquis de Sade himself has long stood. Sade didn’t write books — stories meant to be read progressively in time for purposes of empathy and enlightenment and entertainment — he was the first hell-and-high-water oppositionist, assembling massive ramparts of words and ideas intended not as art, but only as testaments to a tireless antiestablishmentarianism. He didn’t care about his readers, their interest or arousal or even disgust; Sade only cared about building his unreadable castle of protest. Pasolini had always been a much more socially responsible, and politically savvy, artist, but with “Salò” he followed Sade’s example and managed the unprecedented: he made a film the viewing of which is incidental, but the existence of which is fundamental.

Which is all to say that “Salò” is no goddamn fun, a film with only a metaphorical agenda to recommend it, a movie that seeks to be repetitive and depressing and inhumane for the sake of its metaphors. Is this all to its credit, or not, and why or why not? Every viewer will have his or her own answers, and a lifetime of cinema familiarity will not help. “Salò” is not, at any rate, the film-to-be-feared that its reputation maintains, a reputation that’s grown like cellar mold thanks to the film’s censorship history and erratic availability on video. Pasolini’s initial idea, apparently, was to film Sade’s book straight, as an 18th-century debauch which would helplessly excoriate the indulgences of old-time aristocracy. But then it occurred to him to transplant the action — four noblemen sequester themselves in a manor house with a herd of young boys and girls, and indulge their every sadistic whim — to Salò, the northern Italian town in which a post-arrest Mussolini was placed by the Nazis in 1943, and where the new, short-lived Fascist government was formed, abetted by the local landowners. The specificity of Salò’s history as a semi-forgotten cesspool of power abuse helps Pasolini’s critique, as long as you don’t worry much about history. Otherwise, the film lays out a timeless litany of humiliation and violence, perpetrated by the four implacable old gargoyles (including Paolo Bonacelli, recognizable as Rifki in “Midnight Express”) upon a platoon of teenagers (all between 15 and 18), which include bondage, rape, coprophagy, torture and mutilation. (Of course, none of the action is either hardcore or snuff-ishly “real.”) Pasolini, perhaps sensibly, films it all with deliberate gracelessness; there’s not a single titillating or exciting moment amid the stiff-legged mayhem. “Pleasure,” as these hedonists use the word, has left the premises.

09022008_salo2.jpgThere is no arguing with Pasolini’s sincerity — “Salò” is simply too dour, too dogged, too joyless to be mistaken as pulp or pornography, which is why, I suspect, it has disturbed so many. (True pulp, no matter how realistically executed, has a juvenile energy that gives its game away. Pasolini fastidiously avoided zest.) Helplessly, in such a sex-fueled movie, there are questions of judgment — why would Pasolini, a famously gay director and author, make a film in which the primal villainous act is anal sex? (In fact, as per Sade, the four aristocrats outlaw vaginal sex at the onset of festivities.) Sex itself is a troublesome tool, subject to changing norms — violating someone sexually is still taboo, but the various types of sex practice Pasolini uses here to illustrate evil and injustice don’t seem so satanic in the age of the Internet, when horses and water sports and nipple clips, ad infinitum, are as available to every ninth-grader as a SpongeBob Spitwad game. An extreme view might conclude that while Sade’s position was irrationally liberating, a true defiance, Pasolini’s is a conservatism (fear of sexual excess) wrapped in the enigma of liberal social criticism.

But that doesn’t seem quite right, since “Salò” is so effectively soul-depleting, however jaded we may be, and since Sade’s full-on anarchy is thankfully unfilmable anyway, and since Pasolini is correctly focused on the violence of the movie’s action, and hardly at all on Sade’s various consensual scenarios. Part of “Salò”‘s mystique has been Pasolini’s still-unsolved murder, mere weeks before his film’s premiere, which lent the work a scary kind of requiem cachet. If Pasolini had lived to make ten more films, how would “Salò” have been viewed, as a mortal keening, or just a bizarre extremist hiccup in a rangy and thoughtful career? The extraordinary Criterion package comes with a second disc of docs and interviews, and a book of seven original essays, each trying to vet the movie’s elusive nature.

09022008_televisionundertheswastika.jpgThe sunny reality of fascism, if you will, is visible in all of its banality in Michael Kloft’s “Television Under the Swastika” (1999), a German TV doc that makes use of the exhumed 35mm footage broadcast on Third Reich television beginning in 1935. The Nazis didn’t quite invent TV — otherwise, there’d have been no mention of it in Hollywood fluff like “International House” (1933) — but they were the first to get it up and running as an industry and as a social phenomenon, beginning with light entertainment broadcasts to “television parlors” frequented only by the Reich’s crème de la crème, and eventually using it to record and broadcast the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The near-instantaneous spontaneity of TV made it of little use to propagandists at first (Goebbels was horrified by his own unrehearsed image), and so the footage here provides a doubly-grease-painted portrait of Nazi life: cooking shows, housewife training films, rallies, dance acts and uncontrolled footage of Der Führer processions succumbing to large-crowd entropy. Propaganda can be beautiful, too — as with the wartime footage of five one-legged runners, all wounded vets, humping enthusiastically over a track & field obstacle course, in a vision not even Monty Python could’ve matched.

[Photos: “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” Zebra, 1977; “Television Under the Swastika,” Spiegel TV, 1999]

“Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (Criterion Collection) and “Television Under the Swastika” (First Run Features) are now available on DVD.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.