By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
“Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement …”
— Poet, William Butler Yeats, from “Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop”
“We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.”
— Novelist Henry Miller, from “Tropic of Cancer”
It’s with a piece of poetry that Yeats reveals a paradox. What does it mean to have love pitched in excrement? Literally, it’s Yeats’ clever way of describing the amusing and contrary nature of human anatomy. But this cheeky observation leads to a more interesting question. If art is as Andre Breton wrote in “Manifestos of Surrealism”: “The saddest road to everything” — than doesn’t it also require one to mire in the muck? Art needs depravity to clarify life. Just as love’s natural bedfellow is the place of excrement, so too is the knowledge of life’s worth interlinked to understanding states of abasement. Italy’s Pier Paolo Pasolini, the director of 1975’s controversial film, “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, presents a loosely-borrowed story about 18 kidnapped boys and girls who are sadistically, sexually and perversely tortured. “Salo” is Pasolini’s melding of 18th Century libertine Marquis de Sade’s novel with shades of Dante. Four corrupt remnants of Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy (a bishop, magistrate, president, and a duke) round up nine boys and nine girls for their twisted pleasures. They take them to a palace near Marzabotto, where they become part of a game and ritual of ever-increasing debauchery, and chilling cruelty. The children are taught how to masturbate their captors. The group is forced to eat excrement and strip naked for ogling eyes. One girl is forced to eat food containing nails. Some in the group are made to crawl on all fours like dogs. There’s a faux-marriage and forced public coupling. Four old female prostitutes, dressed in the grandest fashion, work as accomplices to the four men. In a palatial room, they tell stories of debasement that serve to heighten the men’s perversions so they can become excited enough to act. The structure of the torture is acted out in detached ritual and sadistic stateliness. It’s a grotesque mix of real anguish and warped visual grandeur. It’s still a difficult film to watch, even to this day.
It’s easy to write off “Salo” as pornography, or worse yet, the sickening mind of a dirty old director. But many of the world’s most thoughtful artists have been called worse, and yet their work is considered art. Painters like Salvador Dali (“The Great Masturbator”) and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (“A Clockwork Orange”) or Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango In Paris”), have felt the lash of critics who see only the vulgarity of their work, or take the art without context. Baudelaire wrote that the best artists must be willing to conjure the ugliest, most private aspects of consciousness in order to attain beauty. The same holds true for writers as well as filmmakers. The literary merits of books like de Sade’s “Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue”, “Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded”, Laure’s “Selected Writings”, Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers”, or Georges Bataille’s novels, “Story of the Eye” and “Blue of Noon”, have been debated for years. But it’s through a degradation of art that those writers lift life to sublimity by lowering readers into the depths of human percipience.
At the end of “Story of the Eye” (considered one of the most pornographic pieces of literature) the narrator relates this harsh observation about a sexual encounter and ostensibly about the world itself: “… in Simone’s hairy vagina, I saw the wan blue eye of Marcelle, gazing at me through tears of urine. Streaks of come in the streaming hair helped give that dreamy vision a disastrous sadness. I held the thighs open while Simone was convulsed by the urinary spasm, and the burning urine streamed out from under the eye down to the thighs below.”
Is that paragraph beautifully written or an act of mental masturbation? To me, it’s high art. The image of the eye within the vagina presents the narrator’s truth: that a search for veracity, sight, vision, and clarity is lost forever in a cavern of darkness. (Certainly a book’s worth of feminist criticism.) The eye itself is lost. Think of it as this non-sexual metaphor: the slow death of a giant sun. The “come” becomes an echo of the tragic vision. It is hope lost forever in a state of disappearing translucence. It is the potential for life, lying dead in a stream of pubic hair. Imagery doesn’t get more bleak than that. Pasolini lives in this tradition of Bataille, building his “Salo” sacrament with boundless visionary conceptualization. American writer, Norman Mailer, went so far as to suggest that the real and dirty truth of imagery, sexual or otherwise, was the only direction left for art because all other avenues of expression are mere repetition. While many critics were shocked by the first showings of “Last Tango In Paris” in 1972, Mailer despaired that actors Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider weren’t actually screwing, but having simulated sex. Whether “Salo” is a film you’d sooner burn than see, one thing is certain: Following Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic work and the elucidation of the subconscious, clearly there are enormous pathways left for artistic expression, especially in regard to sexual thought. So many life questions have been mined through cinema, yet still deserve artistic re-analysis:
How does sexual desire really work? Filmmaker Catherine Breillat is at the cutting edge of this search with films like 1999’s “Romance”, 2001’s “Fat Girl”, 2004’s “Anatomy of Hell”. Then there’s Julia Leigh much-maligned but courageous 2010 failure, “Sleeping Beauty”, where it’s easy to see the examining of Emily Browning’s body as a nod to scenes in Pasolini’s “Salo”. What is fear or repression? Roman Polanski’s psychological 1965 film “Repulsion” takes aim at that question. Are some thoughts too private to be made public?: Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film “Belle de Jour” or 1977’s “The Obscure Object of Desire” or Lynne Stopkewich’s surprisingly masterful and touching 1996 film, “Kissed”, hit on that subject. What happens to a person when obsessive sexual jealousy becomes manifest? Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”.
So what exactly does Miller mean when he writes, “We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice”? This sentence represents the essence of depravity in art. Literally, if not “for the lice”, Miller’s narrator would have never been so intimate with his friend. Symbolically, he’s saying a person cannot truly live, know another human being, or understand life without experiencing the very bottom of the pit, the poorest of conditions, or seeing the basest nature of humanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean to act upon it. Quite the contrary. But only in darkness does one see the light. Or, in the most pessimistic of viewpoints, only in the darkness will a person know that all is dark. Perversity, demented dreams or “lice” are one part of the vast core of human nature. But it’s a part that cannot be ignored. Pasolini’s “Salo” sheds light on the things that scurry across the floor in the dark.
In “Blue of Noon”, the narrator finds himself playing games to see how far he can push others. He has sex with European women named Lazare, Dirty, and Xenie, leaving his wife in England. He has thoughts of necrophilia with his own mother, giving pause to even the most novice of Freudian readers. In the story of “Salo”, de Sade describes the duke as “a drunk, a liar, a thief, a sodomite, a gourmand and a mother-fucker”. (The latter is meant literally.) And given all those “splendors”, de Sade jokes that he’s also blessed with a crowning monument — “his enormous prick”. In de Sade’s world, a woman who is a whore is wonderful, but an apologetic whore is a laughable tragedy. Conventions are shackles. At the top of his universe is the hedonist, who acts more like a gnarled version of a Byronic hero; a self-centered, brash and excessive person who dominates those with desires weakened by self-restraint. Pasolini neglects to use any of de Sade’s smirking humor, and instead concentrates his imagery on pure masochism, because he has a different view to tell. So, what transforms Pasolini’s “Salo” from sick smut to high art like pupa to butterfly? Or is that metaphor even accurate? Shouldn’t his film be discarded on the rubble heap with all of the other exploitative art?
Pasolini shows a world in which fascists reign, and self-fulfillment at all costs ultimately leads to death. Interestingly, the innocents are the ones that die, while the powerful live on, resembling anything but humans. Pasolini thrusts his images, in all their gross perplexity, into the faces of his audience — insinuating a type of audience-guilt at the shared voyeurism — especially in the closing 10 minutes of the film, where we’re given a POV through a pair of binoculars, peering onto a scene where the captives meet their cruel end. It’s the same sort of audience accusation you find in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960) or the famed Belgian, dark mockumentary, “Man Bites Dog” (1992).
Like de Sade, Pasolini is more than a provocateur. The film “Salo” isn’t a tale glorifying evil men, it’s a story about evil that reveals hypocrisy and depravity in class, in politics, in culture, and in philosophy. In de Sade’s short-story “Justine”, a good girl is constantly fooled and taken advantage of sexually. Every good act she does is rewarded with suffering, pain and barbarism. In “Juliette”, a girl is full of vice but only meets with good luck. It is a twisted version of Voltaire’s “Candide”. For de Sade, the world is without redemption, illogical, and good happens to the bad and bad to the good — so why not do what one wishes? It is a world without meaning, and pleasure is its only reward. De Sade finds a type of restoration in wallowing in the mind’s mire. He debases everything in his writing to prove the entire world is a sickening fraud, a gaping wound. Genet wrote in his book about the studio of sculptor Alberto Giacometti, “There is no other origin of beauty than the wound, singular, different for each person, hidden or visible, which every man keeps inside him, which he preserves and where he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for a passing but profound solitude.” For de Sade, the wound became a philosophy of life. For Bataille, his heretical works are meant as the destabilization of everything. For Pasolini, “Salo” dissolves the line between art and life. Ultimately, you can’t finish the film without thinking beyond it.