A discussion between me, Saul Symond, and David Ehrenstein of Pasolini's most controversial film:
With a follow-up article by Saul:
Excerpt (from the Salo roundtable):
SAUL SYMONDS: Salò has a unique history in my own country, Australia, which is fairly revealing: it was banned in 1976, the ban was lifted in 93, and reinstated in 98. The inability of the censors in Australia to make up their mind about Salò reflects, in a limited but precise way, the fact that Salò has remained a live-wire over the 30 years since its original release. Most films made in the 70s that were considered sexually shocking then, would barely raise an eyebrow now. So why can Salò? A first-glance kind of answer would point to the Sadean nature of Salòs sexual relationships. Its a fair enough answer that Im not quite happy with. I think that Salòs subversive power is directly proportional to Pasolinis cultural credibility. It is precisely because Pasolini has been accorded the status of a great postwar Italian filmmaker that his critique of culture is so effective. With the passage of time, by the laws of a fairly conventional cultural process, Pasolinis status has come to carry greater, not less, cultural clout. The same culture that accords Pasolini such an honoured place, still has the greatest of difficulty in watching his film. Its like claiming that Mr. X is the greatest of chefs and not being able to digest his food. The existence of Salò forces our culture into an aporia from which it struggles to extricate itself. Id like to initiate this jam session on Salò by opening up the question of the nature of this aporia.
Most film critics and theorists repeat Pasolinis claim that the film is a sexual metaphor, which symbolizes, in a visionary way, the relationship between exploiter and exploited. These repetitions consist of analyzing Salò as a sexual metaphor for class struggle and power politics in general, or for Italian Fascism in particular. But the two basic dimensions of Salò the political and the sexual can be read both ways. That is, if Salò can be seen as a sexual metaphor of political relationships, it can also and equally be seen as a political metaphor of sexual relationships. In general, film criticism seems to have preferred exploring the ramifications of the political reading, rather than the sexual one. On a number of occasions, however, Pasolini admitted his fascination with the purely sexual dimension of his film.
DAVID EHRENSTEIN: And its because of this sexual dimension the film has been dismissed by all and sundry.
Needless to say, aforementioned all and sundry have never read Sade. Had they done so they would realize that Pasolini wasnt recreating his own sexual fantasies, but rather staging a very small selection of the sexual fantasies inscribed in Sades massive, very much unfinished work. It is absolutely imperative to read Sade in order to understand what Pasolini has done with his text.
In the three-volume Grove Press edition of Sades writings there are photographs of the ruins La Ciste Chateau the site that inspired The 120 Days of Sodom taken by Alain Resnais. Resnais was, of course, being a good surrealist. Sade isnt evoked in his work. Buñuel recreates a scene from Justine in The Milky Way, and in the popular cultural imagination Sade is Patrick Magee. The Marat/Sade is a very important piece of theatrical literature. But the Sade it depicts is quite selective. Its better, however, than Kaufmanns Quills, which merely romanticizes Sade treating him as a naughty book writer. Huxley makes this mistake as well in his otherwise sublime After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. He seems to imagine The 120 Days which he obviously hadnt read was something Marion Davies would have found exciting. Its not. Its an impossible book. And Pasolini has made of it an impossible film.
NOEL VERA: Not just an impossible film an absolute, a sort of focal node for the far end of what's possible in cinema. Pasolini takes the text, and (Ehrenstein is right, this should be read first) and infuses it with a breathtaking visual beauty that you do not find in the book, which is a relentless cataloguing of perversions and violence in minute detail that has more of the spirit of the auditorthan the artist in it an obsessive dwelling upon long beyond and way past any notion that this can be in the least bit arousing, much less entertaining.
But there's a fascinating power in Sades thoroughness, this need to imagine every kind of horror and present it in a kind of barely credible tableau (the four friends, for one, insist on kidnapping upper-class or high-born victims, and are perfectly confident that there will be no consequence to this). Pasolinis achievement is to give us a sense, a whiff, of Sades thoroughness (as opposed to merely presenting it complete and uncut, which might have resulted in a ten-hour film), then investing it with the kind of aestheticizing transformation cinema can give Sades tableaus, in effect, backgrounded by Dante Feretti's brilliant colors, surrounded by Osvaldo Desideris luxurious sets, scored to Ennio Morriconi, Frederic Chopin, and Carl Orff's music, infused overall with Pasolinis cool, equally pitiless sensibility.
Then, as David mentions, theres the shift in locale, from some fantasy neverland located outside of France (Resnais may have taken pictures, but Im sure Sade embellished on the actual location) to a Fascist vacation chateau, equating this kind of horror with that particular regime. Obvious connection, maybe, heavy-handed, maybe, but it does bring Sade up with considerable credibility to the 20th century, the denizens of whom I believe he speaks to the clearest.