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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Why Salo Matters Or: How I Managed Not to Vomit and Learned to Love Pasolini

For years, I’ve heard people tell me that Salo would mess me up. I’ve never walked out of a film because I was offended or because I was grossed out, but I’ve been told again and again that Salo would be the film that would really get to me. So I picked up the new Criterion DVD of the 1975 film and popped it in the player, hoping it would startle me in some way.

Well, it startled me, but I wasn’t grossed out.

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom is not the most disturbing movie ever made. In fact, I’ll wager that if you’ve seen films like Cannibal Holocaust, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Pink Flamingos and managed to survive those images, you’ll probably be able to sit through the entirety of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film without losing your lunch.

It’s not really the images in Salo that are so disturbing, it’s the ideas behind them. I expected my stomach to turn as I watched people being forced to eat excrement and I was right, but not for the reasons I thought. It wasn’t the image of a crying, naked young girl bending down to eat the filthiest of things that perturbed me, it was the idea that this girl represented you, me, and everyone we know.

Let me back up here.

Based on the novel “The 120 Days of Sodom” by the controversial Marquis de Sade, it follows four men who – after listening to stories by prostitutes – proceed to torture young men and women that they have kept prisoner. Pasolini’s film, Salo, modernizes the story by bringing it to World War II Italy and the titular town. The four men in this film are fascist higher-ups and they order their troops to capture eight young men and women. The tortures start with mere humiliation, stripping them naked and poking fun at them, then gradually progress to include physical and sexual tortures, including sodomy and rape. Eventually, the tortures become more violent, including scenes of the captives eating food that has nails in it and some even being scalped. All the while, most of the captives seem to be expressionless and emotionless; of course, they cry when they are tortured, but mostly they seem complacent.

It doesn’t exactly sound like a pleasant day at the pictures, but it is important because these are not just images without context. The complacency in the eyes of those who are tortured is the whole point … these captives are almost complicit in their own degradation and suffering. When a character is made to eat human excrement, it is not a simple disgusting act that Pasolini shows for kicks, but a comment about how people eat crap every day; whether it’s what the government tells us or what the media tells us, Pasolini is making the point that we, as a people, are more than accepting of the crap that we are fed. In fact, we don’t even question it, we just do as we are told.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with the political statements that Pasolini makes in this film – he was an avowed Marxist – but I definitely think this is a fascinating study of what happens in a society when people do not question authority. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that not a single one of the captives asks why they are being held prisoner or punished and the captors never tell them. The idea is broad enough that you can insert whatever current issue concerns you the most, but Guantanamo Bay seems a likely place to start if you want to compare the issues in the film to contemporary life.

But it’s not so simple, and there are many ideas at work underneath the blood, vomit and defecation (which, by the way, will be the title of my first album if I ever start a band). Something I pondered was why Pasolini chose to portray homosexuality in this way, as something of a fetishistic and violent culture, when he himself was a gay man. I came to the conclusion that this was Pasolini’s way of visualizing other people’s fears of homosexuality, bringing them to vivid life and hoping to thereby point out the ridiculousness of homophobia. I’m not entirely sure he was successful in this endeavor since many scholars believe, based on this film, that Pasolini must have been a self-loathing homosexual, but I have to believe there’s more to it than that.

Perplexing to me was a scene in which the fascist leaders stage a wedding between two of their captives – complete with ceremony – after which they insist on watching the consummation of the marriage. I’m not sure what Pasolini was trying to say in this scene, but the impression that I got was that he was against the formality of marriage. At one point during the ceremony, one of the fascists starts to kiss and lick all of the participants, interrupting the wedding. Is that fascist supposed to represent the evil of marriage that is licking and tainting all of the ‘sheep’ that watch such a ceremony? Is Pasolini saying that marriage is just another form of humiliation and punishment, like a deranged Woody Allen joke?

There are a number of questions like this in the film and, if it were a lesser film, it might be easy to take these kinds of scenes on their face as nothing but shock tactics. But Pasolini is clearly an intelligent guy and these scenes must all mean something – this is, after all one of the only films that has a bibliography. The difficult part is trying to figure out what everything does indeed mean; it is, however, impossible to say for sure except to add that every person will probably come up with a different answer.

Some people may look at this film and dismiss it as nothing but a series of disgusting acts, loosely strung together – as de Sade’s book really was nothing but a collection of torture scenes, not even fleshed out – and some may parse through every glance and every touch with a microscope, trying to figure out what is being said. For me, Pasolini is constantly trying to say something, but sometimes it doesn’t come out right, like he were a man with a speech impediment and his tongue gets lazy.

The last fifteen minutes of the film culminate in an orgy of torture, death, dismemberment and horror and all of it is seen through the eyes of the men in charge as they watch through binoculars; close enough to see what is happening, but not close enough to feel it. I don’t think it would be out of line to say that this is what happens anytime the leader of any country sends troops off to war. It is impossible for that leader to understand, truly, what he is doing to the young men and women that will suffer because of those decisions. This is not a partisan issue and I’m trying not be political, but Pasolini’s film details pretty clearly in that final scene why war must be avoided at all costs.

This is not a dangerous film nor one that will give you nightmares or haunt your dreams; rather, it’s a film full of ideas that will make you look at the world around you and hopefully question it a bit more. We are in, after all, an election year and I think watching Salo is one way to prepare ourselves; not because this is our imminent future, but because if we don’t continue to question the world we live in and become outraged when we are wronged, then this is the path we could be headed towards. This is not to say that either of the candidates running for office will take us down to this level because as Pasolini shows, it is not up to who is running the country: it is up to you and me to stay vigilant and to overcome our collective apathy and complacency. Salo in the end is not about partisanship nor is it really about politics; it is, finally, a film about human beings allowing others to take advantage of them and humiliate them. The internet – and the world at large – is full of complainers and whiners, but you know what? We’re better off for it because it’s preferable to the alternative of nobody questioning anything.

Salo is not an indictment, it is a warning. Let us heed it.

– Noah Forrest
September 17, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon