The most fabulous and fascinating thing about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notoriously terminal film “SalÃ², 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 “SalÃ²” 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 “SalÃ²” 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. “SalÃ²” 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 SalÃ², 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 SalÃ²’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.
There is no arguing with Pasolini’s sincerity “SalÃ²” 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 “SalÃ²” 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 “SalÃ²”‘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 “SalÃ²” 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.
The 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 crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me, 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 FÃ¼hrer 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: “SalÃ², or the 120 Days of Sodom,” Zebra, 1977; “Television Under the Swastika,” Spiegel TV, 1999]
“SalÃ², or the 120 Days of Sodom” (Criterion Collection) and “Television Under the Swastika” (First Run Features) are now available on DVD.