For Shits and Giggles
Forced Entry: Delving into Pasolini’s Salò
By Chris Arp
The President of Italy and his three friends, a Duke, a Magistrate and a Bishop, sit at the head of a table surrounded by teenage SS officers, a few older women, and about twenty young boys and girls. Some of the youths are dressed in suits and dresses, others in their underwear, while still others sit naked. A nude girl emerges from the kitchen with a large tray of steaming shit. The human feces are served, log by log, to those assembled. The President relishes the flavor, swirling it around in his mouth, showing his poop-stained teeth to a little boy in order to encourage him to eat. The children follow suit. While they cry and gag, they know that not eating would result in unspeakable torture, and so they eat, while one girl whispers across the table to her friend: “I can’t go on. I wish I was dead.” Her friend can only cry and swallow.
After this scene, the President escorts a teenage boy dressed in a wedding gown upstairs to his chambers. The boy’s mouth is smeared with poop, as is the President’s, and when the President kisses the child it marks the most nauseating kiss in the history of cinema. The film is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, and it is the filthiest movie ever made. By far.
Banned for years in many countries, Salò was re-released by The Criterion Collection in a limited run in 1998, and copies now sell on Ebay for upwards of 300 dollars. While bootlegs (like the one you can rent at the Language Resource Center) abound, an authentic copy is considered by many to be the rarest DVD in the world. Pasolini himself was killed (brutally, and by a male prostitute, no less) three weeks after the film was completed, a stroke of fate that many critics saw as justice for making such a film as Salò. Children are raped, have their eyes gouged out, genitalia burnt, scalps pulled off, tongues cut out, and of course, they eat copious amounts of human waste. In the midst of this nightmare vision, the four noblemen dance the can-can and sing jazz tunes. And the film is, in all seriousness, quite excellent.
Salò is a close adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (which, you should know, was written in the Bastille, stolen during Bastille Day, and only published in an edited form for doctors and lawyers until 1935), set in Fascist Italy in the small town of Salò. The four noblemen round up teenage boys and girls, choose which ones they find attractive, ship them out to their mansion and proceed to mess them up. The structure of the film is heavily based on Dante: broken up into four parts of increasing deprivation, entitled “Anteinferno,” “Circle of Obsessions,” “Circle of Shit,” and finally the “Circle of Blood.” Needless to say, by the “Circle of Blood” I had to watch the screen from inside my couch-fort while I stroked my blue buddy blanket that I’ve had since infancy.
“In addition to being anarchic what best characterizes power – any power – is it’s natural capacity to turn human bodies into objects,” Pasolini writes, “Nazi-Fascist oppression excelled in this.” The film is certainly a withering attack on Fascism, but I have a feeling that the political bent of the film has faded and will continue to obscure until the film reveals itself to be an earnest meditation on the underlying nature of perversity and morality in a perverse and immoral world.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the movie is a celebration of the extreme rationality and lustful debauchery of the Marquis de Sade, wherein only the most heinous is allowed. The cinematography is certainly gorgeous, as Pasolini steadies his camera as if each room were its own stage, and the walls and floors of the splendid villa shimmer and shine as if buffed by the tongues of pre-teen boys. The costumes and mannerisms of the aristocrats adhere to the “‘veiled’ reconstruction of Nazi ceremonial ways,” as Pasolini outlines, and the acting (most of the stars are amateurs) is at times remarkable. Aldo Valletti, as the cross-eyed President, smiles like the Cheshire Cat as he holds a candle to a girl’s nipple, and his squeals of pleasure are some of the most profoundly disturbing I have ever heard. But what does it all mean? There is much philosophical musing between the gory bits, to be sure, but the ultimate message of the film is to be debated.
What really makes such grotesquery worth the trouble is the general ambiance Pasolini establishes from the first scene and manages to maintain throughout. The Villa in Salo rests apart from the natural world, in a void independent of human history and standard emotion. Here children are not children as we would think of them, rather they are lesser citizens who have not earned the right to complain when we murder them. Women are performers, libertinage is the only virtue, and pleasure can only be maintained when it is accentuated by grievous brutality. The mansion is truly a nightmare, and in this light the film assumes a distinct and beautiful totality. In a dream, the worst dregs of the imagination, indeed images we would not have thought ourselves capable of creating, exist side by side with the vagaries and absurdities of standard dream-stuff. When they come to dominate the dream, to influence the tone completely, the dream becomes a nightmare, with its own nightmare logic. This is exactly the world of Salò. When glimmers of humanity enter (one of the guards falls in love with a black maid, two of the girl-slaves fall in love with each other, and one of the aristocrats seems to feel genuine affection for one of the boys), they become the freakish oddities. Pain is the norm, and when the boys seem to enjoy the forced sodomy, it is so much more disturbing because it feels contrary to the system of rules established at the beginning of the film. To watch Salò is to immerse yourself completely in a skewed and disordered universe, where emotions and morals have rearranged themselves in new combinations. The most horrifying moments are those of recognition, when the dream vision becomes momentarily familiar.
So walk yourself over to the Language Resource Center and pick up Salò. And don’t feel ashamed if you get a little aroused when they force-feed nails to a collared slave-girl, it happens to all of us.
The End of Rock and Roll
No More Solace for America’s White Underbelly
By Jacob O. Gold
There is a neighborhood on the outskirts of a city with a lousy bar and grimy brick buildings and orange lamps in the alleys. There are towns where in the deep hours of night cars prowl the streets full of dumb menace. Vague criminals and edgy losers grope at women dressed in cheap finery and the sex is drunken and ugly and brief. Degenerate districts of the underclass brood with a special life, a marginal life championed for a time but championed no more.
From the late seventies through the late eighties, music celebrated the illicit pleasures, gritty struggles, and seedy badass fatalism of The White Man on the skids; it was the driving theme of the hard rock music which once shook the workaday masses all night long.
For some holdouts pulsing amid the musical mutations of the following decades, this was the last phase in a history of an un-self-conscious rock music, wherein the lyrical voice of an Alpha persona reckons with love, lust, debauched good times, and the rougher side of the social order. This sense of uncompromised power washes over the listener for the few minutes that one of these songs may last.
Later developments in rock lack this great stoic ignorance. In self-conscious Late Rock, the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of the heart, the right time to do wrong things, is no longer be a Valhalla of dudehood. Hard rock was an undanceable music for people who never entertained the notion that dancing had anything to do with being a cool jerk having a sweet time, who were righteously content with the pumping of fists and goofy joggling of the body while the beers kept coming and butter-faces remotely reminiscent of Tara Reid (who had only just been born) stumbled around acting stupid.
The reproduction of these scenes in our present times is best complemented by this type of music, which has ceased being produced. The fact that Dave Matthews Band or even Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may be heard playing at a frat party at, say, the University of Illinois, is merely a matter of bad taste exercised by young men whose un-monstrousness, given the context, is more than a little embarrassing.
The implication of the disappearance of Alpha Rock music is that a certain type of musically-constructed American person, one that is a composite between lives both real and imagined, has lost its voice and consequently the ability of that voice to say something to those who might identify with it. In a sense, the disappearance of this type of music has actually resulted in the public denial of a certain experience of life, the life which had brewed this music in the first place.
This rock rightly recalls the Greek epic and Norse saga; the relationship between the lyric and the listener is that of an all-too-mortal man coming to grips with his own possibilities through the exemplary being and action of a godlike hero. Like Beowulf himself, hard rock’s demigods are not strung from some fiber other than that of every other Trans Am-driving shitbag in the mead-hall, but are rather the perfection of that fiber and the embodiment of its ideals. In their own sleazy way, hard rock songs attempt to address the joy of celebration, the pain of love, and the struggle of everyday life with a nobility of spirit tooled for the postindustrial age in all its dirty glory.
This retooling replaces a nobility of the spirit with an infamy of the spirit, the hero with anti-hero. What remains is the exaltation, hard rock’s huge electrified noise effacing the pretensions of the tragic to reveal those epic heroes for what they were: slaughterers who get us high. This music effects one of the ultimate statements of the modern era- that the Pathetic has replaced the Tragic as the driving paradox of artistic creation. And so, in the Guns N Roses song “Nightrain,” Axl Rose gives banshee voice to a venomously arrogant pretender-outlaw who describes himself in the following verse:
Well I’m a west coast struttin’
One bad mother
Got a rattlesnake suitcase
Under my arm
Said I’m a mean machine
Been drinkin’ gasoline
An honey you can make my motor hum
I got one chance left
In a nine live cat
I got a dog eat dog sly smile
I got a Molotov cocktail with a match to go
I smoke my cigarette with style
An I can tell you honey
You can make my money tonight
For this denizen of some world intimately tied up in The Bus Station, it is important to get across to us relatively quickly the fact that he carries a rattlesnake suitcase. Upon inspection, none of the phrases employed turn out to mean anything concrete but are instead, like the rattlesnake suitcase, strung together in order to strike a pose, to sculpt a grifter idol whose shrine is the cassette deck. This stasis is reinforced by the conclusion of chorus: “I’m on the nightrain/Ready to crash and burn.” (ital. added) This crash never happens, allowing the song to forever encourage the manner of mimetic worship and contemplation this frozen fetish requires: getting trashed.
AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” operates from a similarly static platform. The pith of chorus, “Shoot to Thrill/Play to Kill/ Too many women/Too many pills” divides the violently active phrase “Shoot to Kill” into two puns of felt (less-than-active) pleasure- thrill and playfulness, and the paralleled phrases following this, in their double “too,” suggest that the singer experiences a paralysis in his degree of sex and drug consumption.
“Shooting” can also be read as a reference to heroin and the catatonic thrill it affords, and “playing” to (and here is the one action conceded by the fact that this song exists) the performance of rock music, though killing is not meant literally. All of this generates the image of a rocker whose ‘doing’ is deferred so that the listener revels along with the singer in the ‘being’ of the rock star, the raw (self-)destructive privilege of his status.
Some of the hard rock of white marginality indulges more of this life-pathos. Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” goes:
I live my life like there’s no tommorow
All I’ve got i had to steal
At least I don’t have to beg or borrow
Yes I’m living at a pace that kills
(runnin with the devil)
(runnin with the devil)
And Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”:
An’ here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a hobo* [this word was changed to ‘drifter’ in 1987] I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time
I’m just another heart in need of rescue,
Waiting on love’s sweet charity
An’ I’m gonna hold on
For the rest of my days,
’cos I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams…
Like their hard-scrap American forebears, the westward loners, these are the haunted and forlorn losers of their time and place. Somehow, they are damned. And yet there is no frontier for them, no escape from night highways through the sprawling low-budget neon necropolis, the uncaring arms of strangers in dark motels. Trapped as they are in a country where the poor are getting poorer, it is no wonder their rock music embraces stagnation, the proud and wretched bacchanals of those with little to lose.
The deafening roar of this music is a testament to what it is meant to overcome, what senses it is meant to obliterate and replace with wicked glory. The poetry of the Rough Drifter has for well over a century served as solace, albeit at times politically questionable solace, for whole swathes of people who desperately yearn to break free, even if it gets ugly. The current neglect of this therapeutic tradition bodes ill for these dishonest times.