The other day a Criterion Blu-ray of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Daysof Sodom arrived in the mail. I was excited to receive it, even though I have no idea when I’ll watch it again. I’ve already seen it several times, and according to some, that may well be a couple of times too many. Since Salo – twisted, disgusting, horrific, soul-destroying Salo -- is supposed to be all about its own unwatchability. (Here’s a brief Slate piece all about whether one should really even bother to visit it once.) I mean, what do you do with a movie that supposedly dares you to watch it?
However, I don’t actually find Salo unwatchable. And maybe, if I share my own personal Salo story, I can explain why.
I became a big Pasolini fan after seeing The Gospel According to St. Matthew at the AFI Theater in Washington, DC, sometime in 1987 or 1988 – so I was 14 or 15 at the time. Hunt down his films after that wasn’t easy – very few were available even on black market VHS. I scoured the mail-order video catalogs – most of them trafficking in Z-grade dupes of exploitation flicks and other, er, disreputable material. Along the way, a screening or two happened. The Museum of Modern Art in DC screened Medea. I found a Spanish language VHS of Oedipus Rex in Addams Morgan. And memorably, during a trip to New York, my dad and I caught a screening of Decameron projected off 16mm in a makeshift theater in the back room of what appeared to be someone’s loft. (I'd found it advertised in the Village Voice.)
Salo, on the other hand, was virtually impossible to find – it was not only an obscure Pasolini film but also a scatological nightmare that had been banned left and right.
But one day, there it was! Listed for mail-order out of some store in (I think) North Carolina. I can’t remember how much it cost, but it was expensive. (Could it have actually been a hundred bucks?) Too expensive for a 15-year-old, at any rate. So I did what any enterprising kid would do. I went to my friends at school, told them I could get this incredibly outrageous movie if they chipped in. In my desperation, I might have even used the word “sexy.” And pretty soon I had five willing accomplices splitting the cost of Salo with me. In exchange, I’d dub them copies of the film.
A few weeks later the tape came, an unmarked VHS. It was a pretty lousy recording of a pretty lousy print, and every twenty minutes or so, at each reel change, there was about 10 minutes of white noise. (Whoever recorded it apparently wasn’t familiar with the pause button.) Hilariously, it was letterboxed.
I watched it. It was very different from your average Pasolini film. Sure, it was full of outrage and unspeakable cruelty. But the vibrancy of Pasolini’s work – the “earthiness” critics loved to talk about – was missing.
However, I couldn’t focus too much on what I thought of the film. Because I was suddenly terrified at my own predicament: I had taken money from my friends and I had to deliver what I’d promised was a wallow in salaciousness, the kind of thing a 15-year-old boy might want to see. These were not film buffs, or burgeoning artistes. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. One of them became an acclaimed poet, believe it or not.) Like all
15-year-old boys, they wanted to get their rocks off. And I was going to show them – hell, I was going to make them copies of – fucking Salo. I was doomed.
I dutifully made my dubs. I arrived at school, a dead man walking, lugging the tapes in my backpack. One of my friends suggested that after school, we gather in an assembly room (where there was a TV) and check out the goods. Already having given up on life, I assented.
Later that afternoon, I made my way there. We put the video on. We fast-forwarded to “the good parts.”
And then, something truly awful and unspeakable happened.
We exploded in laughter.
To this gaggle of 15-year-old boys, Salo was hilarious. We couldn’t stop laughing. Because, you know what, in this context – or rather, devoid of context -- it was kind of hilarious. This wasn’t a realistic movie. It was absurd. It was awful, but the awfulness was distant -- like a transmission from another planet. A planet where they ate shit with razor blades.
A middle-class 15-year-old boy, who probably knows very little of genuine horror or pain, wasn’t going to connect with this stuff. He might as well laugh.
What he can’t understand is that with Pasolini’s distance comes Pasolini’s sorrow. What he can’t understand is that Salo is just about the purest expression of the unfathomable despair of the man who made it – who, by the way, had been found brutally murdered right before the film came out.
Salo is, in a way, like something out of Bosch or Brueghel; the crimes onscreen often happen deep in the frame, tiny violations enacted on tiny stick-figure people. Pasolini doesn’t want to rub your face in the monstrousness on display. He isn’t interested in exposing the horrors of Fascism (because, duh) but rather wants to express the way that consumption and power reduce human beings to faceless objects. The distant shooting style – at one point even filming the violence through a pair of binoculars, silently – echoes, or replicates, our numbness to the pain of others.
To be fair, I do have some difficulty watching Salo today. And I can’t speak for others, but it’s not because it’s too gruesome or whatever. It’s because it brings me face to face with my own numbness. The feeling I get from the movie isn’t one of revulsion, but of regret. And I guess, ultimately, that I’m afraid to explore that regret. Because somewhere in there, I fear, is a dark truth about what makes me a viewer.
Somewhere in there is Pasolini's final time bomb, still ticking away...