In the fall of 2000, I naively attended a screening of a restored 35mm print of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. The film was shown as part of a thorough Pasolini retrospective; several friends and I tried to catch every film we could. For Salò, I happened to go to the screening alone. I was lucky to get a seat. The audience was more than capacity, overflowing the theater's ample seating and standing room. It struck me as an oddly restless group. But there I was, surrounded by a crowd of some truly strange strangers with no idea of what I was about to see.
As I learned, Salò is a highly structured and ritualized film set in 1944, during the short-lived days of Republic of Salò, a puppet government nominally headed by Mussolini in northern Italy. The film follows a group of Italian fascists who abduct a number of beautiful, young peasants in order to torture them. Most of the torture is 'sexual' in nature. In a way, Salò is about everything except sex. It is about what happens when sex stops being sexual and devolves into pure brutality and torture.
The writer Gary Indiana introduced the Anthology screening. He was not in an enviable position. I'm not sure if my memory serves me correctly, but as I recall, Indiana began his talk by explaining how he turned down the British Film Institute's invitation to write a book about Tarantino's Pulp Fiction for the Institute's "Modern Classics" series. In its place, Indiana selected Pasolini's most notorious film, Salò. I do not remember exactly how Indiana explained BFI's decision to publish the study. According to the BFI account, the book's release would be accompanied by a restored print of the film. Due to the film's graphic violence and sex, Salò had only been shown in the UK in an edited form; a prologue was added to describe the film's historical setting and literary background. Eventually, the film was no longer shown in the UK.
Indiana rightly described the film's restoration as a small success for free speech. Some members of his audience weren't having it. Murmuring began. Indiana then read from a New York Times article about the pornography industry. The lengthy article brought up the inconvenient fact that major telecommunication corporations profit most from the porn industry due to the cable and satellite systems they use to distribute softcore and hardcore porn. The Salò fans were finished. Isolated clapping and booing erupted; a verbal fight detonated near me, mostly in Italian. I thought several rows would instantly drop the fast insults and break into fisticuffs. As I remember it, Indiana had to pause to tell a "loud Italian man" sitting in the back row to shut up. I don't think Indiana finished reading his article.
The film began. Two hours passed. When Salò ended, I exited the theater in an unreal daze few films have left me in. That night at Anthology was my only viewing of Salò. I don't plan on seeing it again. The memory is enough.
On the day that I write this, there’s no way of predicting what effect the “snapshots” from Abu Ghraib will have on world politics. Perhaps, as is routine in the US, the photos will drop into the black hole of national senility. They already seem pushed aside in the news, and whether the investigations will reach to the top of the military command is, right now, unknowable. It is also not likely.</p>
When the Abu Ghraib pictures first flashed across my computer monitor, my immediate reaction was to remember that dark, damp night at Anthology years before. It appears that many others also thought of the Pasolini film. (As did Susan Sontag when writing of the Abu Ghraib photos in her recent New York Times Magazine article, which is included here.) The comparison is not made to diminish the political importance of the film or severity of the photographs, but instead, to elucidate both.
Pasolini's film is fictional, with special effects, severed rubber tongues, imitation human blood. The photographs are not fakes. In them we see real suffering. Although Salò is staged, its gore is unlike what one might find in Dawn of the Dead or any '70s 'splatter' film. There is no entertainment value in the violence (at least for most). As Pasolini wished, the film is indigestible. It seems real, not in a banal, documentarian way, or in a way that a Spielberg movie might seem so. It reality is deeper, more disturbed. What one sees is not just a recreation of wanton cruelty; it is an instance of the most extreme fascism, the limit of human criminality. Moreover, Salò implicates us in that criminality.
I relate the Anthology story to bring up the theme of my readings: spectatorship, in specific, the moment when we come to view brutality. In distinction with many movies, my memory of seeing Salò is intimately enmeshed with a particular theater and specific night. In looking over Gary Indiana's book on Salò, I was pleased to rediscover that he too began his essay with memories of where and when the film first burned across his consciousness. I more or less agree with his analysis, so I'll allow his book to explore Pasolini's last cinematic work.
As for Salò's real world remake, I won't preach about the ultimate ethical implications of the Abu Ghraib photographs -- politicians who voted for the war are already insulting our intelligence about their 'disgust' and 'revulsion.' (Even more outrageously, the families of the torturers claim that their kids were 'only following orders.' Perhaps they did, except the defense is hardly original or commendable.) Supporting torture is an old business for the American government. One can randomly select a country south of the US to find an example of torture-happy regimes trained, funded and covered up by Washington. Yet in this case we have pictures, and the pictures are on the nightly news.
This is not entirely new for the United States. The momentum of the outrage surrounding the Abu Ghraib photographs is at least as strong as that of the My Lai photos from the Vietnam. Today, the possibility of any photographic material staying hidden is decreasing rapidly, but the acceleration of the means for distributing images has an equally stifling effect. In contrast to 1969, the public has a great many more images to compete for its attention. Small gruesome jpegs on your computer screen, no mater how compelling, are always disconcerting contiguous with, say, an ad for cheap broadband service or an article about Michael Jackson's own alleged Sadean chateau. Other stories and images are only one click away.
It's amusing to think that the FCC, the federal commission that sets broadcast decency standards in the US, is currently at war with the networks over curse words and boobs, meanwhile news editors are nervously trying to define how much violence from Iraq is too much for viewers to bear. Currently, photos of naked Iraqi men being forced to give each other blowjobs is okay, but Berg's decapitation, or the videotape of the Abu Ghraib rapes (if not more) are somewhere on the other side of the line. For now.
Pasolini's film embodies this anxiety caused by the representation and consumption of violence. It does so in a singular way. Pasolini assaults consumer society by making a film that one cannot consume; he attacks the viewer not unlike the film's Libertines do their prey. If the filmmaker had been more polite, the film would have been a failure -- Salò cannot be reduced to a simple lecture on the "ethics of otherness" or the dangers of fascism. Despite what Pasolini may have intended, he made a film that outgrew many of his critiques of capitalism. Indiana amusingly takes Pasolini to task for the directo's statement that the shit-eating scene was about, of all things, processed food. Not unlike what Coppola said about Apocalypse Now and Vietnam, Salò is not a film about the violence, it is that very violence.
I have surrounded Salò with a few readings that may or may not be related to the film. Except for Indiana's study and the BFI statements, you could skip them if you like. The extra credit includes Tom Keenan's "Publicity and Indifference;" Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others and "Regarding the Torture of Others;" and excerpts from Don DeLillo's novel, Underworld. I personally favor the DeLillo's novel; I hope the excerpted chapters give some idea of what is at stake here, in a way that only fiction can. No moralizing or systematizing, no academic jargon, only fictional descriptions -- an imaginative report on what goes down when seeing a quasi-snuff video on the nightly news or a banned film in a dark theater.
I've included the Sontag and Keenan readings mostly to throw their non-fictional approaches into question. They are fine texts, well argued, well written, and although I disagree quite a bit with the Sontag book Regarding the Pain of Others, I quibble with its details more than with her general position. Nevertheless, both authors fail to capture something that Pasolini and DeLillo do: the visceral and terrible moment of witnessing the unmentionable. Regardless, I do I feel that the Keenan and Sontag texts quickly sum up the issues at stake. Save your energy for Pasolini. Keep in mind that the Sontag and Keenan essays are, unlike Pasolini, easy to absorb, essentially polite objects of society talk, meant for the Times and university journals, almost wholly without an irony about their own place in the world. And, in that, they perhaps fail to approximate the horrors they wish to overcome.
Looking over this selection of readings, I can't help think how grim it all is. I would have liked to put together a series on contemporary film noir, the political transformations of the American Western, a reader on Abbas Kiarostami or Robert Bresson... anything else would have been more enjoyable. Despite my reservations, most of the other options didn't stay on my mind for very long. The Bresson series was a consideration, instigated mostly by his beautiful film A Man Escaped. However, after seeing it again, I thought the film's Gestapo prison was more appropriate to our moment than any of the director's hopeful gestures of freedom. So, Bresson's graceful optimism will have to wait.
Readings + Film
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 155-166.
Indiana, Gary. "Interview with Gary Indiana." The British Film Institute (2000). 24 June 2004
Indiana, Gary. Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom. London: BFI, 2000.
Keenan, Thomas. "Publicity and Indifference: media, surveillance, 'humanitarian intervention'." The Human Rights Project (2001). 24 June 2004
Lapper, Craig. "Salò and Censorship: a history." The British Film Institute (2002). 24 June 2004
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. "A Mad Dream." The British Film Institute (2000). 24 June 2004
Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. DVD. The Criterion Collection (DVD), 1975.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Sontag, Susan. "Regarding the Torture of Others." The New York Times Magazine 23 May 2004. 24 June 2004