Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
I went see Salo at the IFC expecting a fight. The kind of “tune in, turn on, get creeped out” internal battle of sexual monsters. If you haven’t heard of Salo, it is Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini’s interpretation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Day’s of Sodom. Bizarre sexual rites, torture and murder are committed by 4 powerful Italian collaborators on a group of young adolescents in a remote Italian villa at the tail-end of WWII, which is supposed to be some convenient metaphor for the perversity of fascism, capitalism and western power. The plan was to get hot and bothered, then worry what that meant afterwards. Preferably over margaritas.
So there we were, 2 gays and 1 lesbian in a packed movie house, bristling with apprehension, excitement. The lights went down. Some sweet, lazy pre-war jazz played while the titles rolled “Victims- Male”, “Victims- Female”, “Fascists”, “Servants”. I settled into my seat. This was gonna be so fucked up…
… Honestly, there was a lot of, well, shit. Mostly the eating of shit. Shit as control, shit as punishment, shit as turn-on, shit as dick, shit feast, shit shame, make-out wit shit on ya face. All that shit pretty much ruined any eroticized humiliation that went on. It felt infantile and boring despite the shock of seeing so much excrement. I kept thinking “Get a bunch of powerful men together with some sex slaves and all they can think to do is smear their own shit around, dress up in drag, and perform elaborate wedding rituals (that may or may not involve shit)”. Boys. Sigh. Occasionally there was a revealing line. Like when the president of the fascists says: “When I see people being tortured I feel better about myself” as he watches a girl in a dog-collar and chain bite down on a biscuit full of nails (blood pours out of her mouth and she screams on all fours while the men watch). Other revealing moments included watching the absurd way the victims would turn on each other, manipulated and coerced by the fascists, and sell each other out in order to protect their own skin for a while longer.
I had assumed the fetishistic element of Pasolini’s social commentary would be used to implicate me, the viewer. Eroticism at its best pulls the viewer deeper in, rather than keeps them at a distance. I thought he would use it to solicit a complicated and sexualized emotion from me, reach in and pull up my most jagged corners to rake along the smooth righteousness of my Western morality. But I couldn’t identify (sexually or otherwise) with any of the characters and so I watched from a somewhat bemused distance. Clit-jumping moments were few and far between. Not enough to merit internal struggle. When it was over, we drank our post-sodom margaritas in bewilderment. Were we callous? Perverted? Were we implicated? Jaded? Mostly, we were disappointed. “It just… wasn’t sexy,” my friend sighed. He hit the, ah, nail on the head. If you are going to make a Marquis de Sade-style S/M flick, where you eroticize fascism to new and dizzying, horrific heights, you might as well get as nasty and perverse as possible. Maybe I had been naive, but I figured that the homo Paolo Pasolini would have some interesting things to say about marginalized sexuality, what it is to be a pervert, what real power looks like. Poop isn’t perverse. It’s just gross. Thumbs down, Pasolini. Way down. Now… where are my thumbs screws?