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Salò

14 Jan

Salò – directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Drama. 116 minutes, Color 1975.

★★★

The Story: A group of teenagers are forced into sex school by a coterie of autocrats.

If this is denounced as pornographic, it is enduring a terrible because irrelevant wrong. For no one has a good time at all in sex here. Everyone is either too mean or too horrified to feel or even pretend any pleasure. So, taken at its face value as pro-church and anti-pleasure – since any natural and easy pleasure that seeps in is punished morbidly – one must assume that Salò is about something else.

Watching it, my notion was that it is about sexual addiction, that is to say the imperious, internal compulsion that forces one to have sex rather than by normal inclination. For everyone is strong-armed into it here. All the young players are between 14 and 18 years old, and they are first kidnapped and then roughed into various sexual congress. But it’s never any fun and always unlovely, for, as it is based on a work of De Sade, it is, perforce, sadistic. The only beauty is that provided by a pianist who accompanies their lectures in degradation by playing Chopin. The exit of this pianist from the proceedings is typical of the director’s rigorous anhedonic message.

So, in terms of the actual material, Salò would seem to be The Allegory Of Rough Trade, which was Pasolini’s fancy and by which he soon was soon slain.

You have to go to the Extra Features to learn that the film was meant to be an allegory of neo-capitalism, the fascism of consumerism. There we learn that we are all being put under the trance of pleasant things. Pasolini himself tells us so. But you may be sure that when a director tells you what he intended to be in a film that he has failed to include that intention in it.

For no pleasant things are in the film itself. Or I should say, there are certain pleasant things, but they have nothing to do with neo-capitalism. We have such pleasant things as the nude bodies of the children who act in it, a bouquet of inviolable adolescents. And we have the sets, which are more interesting than the events which take place in them, for they are often big spare rooms decorated with elaborate old wallpaper. Pasolini has a classic eye for the formality of spectacle. And Pasolini’s set-ups and the arrangements of the personnel in them reveal a fine old-fashioned enjoyment of ritual. All these are pleasures to be sure. But sexual pleasure?

Pasolini himself says that power is anarchic, since it can do what it wants. And he’s right, and this is cogently illustrated by the rites of anarchy we see before us here. For fascism, dictatorship, absolutism, fundamentalism must have tremendous regimentation in which to do as it pleases. Too bad that, having achieved that level of power, doing what one pleases results in no pleasure whatsoever. The only two young people who slip out and take sexual pleasure are slaughtered.

What is it like seeing Salò? There are virtually no closeups, the camera seldom moves, and there is no focal character, only groups. Individual personalities do emerge, because Pasolini likes humans and is shy of them, both of which make him a good voyeur, so he is able to capture persons at true and characteristic moments. But that still leaves Pasolini as a bigot – the commercial classes being his detestation – since he sets them up as The Corrupt Against The Innocent – but bigotry is bigotry no matter what class you hate, and especially, as always is the case, you are fervently partial to your own notion of virtue in doing so.

Besides there is a technical problem with his Allegory, for you cannot have an allegory without a focal dupe. You cannot have a Duessa without a Red Cross Knight, a principal innocent. When in Allegory, even aimed at groups, a single person must carry us through it, as through a supermarket of abuse and temptation. For it is we, the reader, we the audience, who must pass through it with that dupe and therefore wake up to the trance of vice we are permitting ourselves to repose in. Here we witness a crowd from a distance beyond Pasolini’s own distance to it.

So the allegory is lost. But it is lost mainly because a sexual arena leads one to look for sex. It’s the crude but natural thing to do. Setting up A School For Orgy is such a bind on the imagination that the message about consumerism is somewhere over there off-campus. Yes, one is offered bread and circuses, if only in the shape of a starved clown and a crust, but still they are offered in the Circus Maximus of sex. In it, one cannot simultaneously overhear too well a homily from Saint Peter’s down the street. A different internal mob attends.

It has been elaborately re-released in a two-disc box, the second disc of which containing professors talking to professors about what professors talk to professors about. All this keeps professors in business professing, but has little to do with the actual picture, Salò, about which they are endeavoring to make a case. Although there are interesting inclusions by actual participants, such as actors, designer, original writer, and Pasolini, who is handsome, rather dear, very masculine, and genuinely reserved. A booklet of essays includes itself. I have not read it.

And why shall I read it? To prove myself wrong in all that I have said here. For why on earth would anyone read anything at all, save to be seriously disabused? For perhaps I too am lost in the vicious pleasure of consumerism. And what would it be that I consume so hungrily?

Why films, of course. Which is why I watched Salò, just as Pasolini asked me to, wanted me to, and why he made it for me to consume to begin with.

 
 
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