Part Three: Oh My Dear Sweet Lord...
So: eating poop. Why do we do it? Who does it benefit? Are we really a stronger nation because of it, as so many people claim? But no...I'm getting ahead of myself.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo needs no introduction, even for those who've never seen it -- I'd never seen it before this past Friday night (Saturday morning, really), and I certainly didn't need anyone to tell me what the deal was. It's the movie you don't want to sit through, but of course you sort of do, because you want to be one of the people who can take it, and for a while there you would have also been one of the few who was able to get their hands on it, because it wasn't available on home video, and arthouse theaters who would show a print of it weren't what you might call common. Then Criterion had to come along and ruin that part of it, so now anyone with a Netflix account can put it in their queue. All that's left to accomplish is the working up of enough nerve to actually have it mailed to you.
Another thing Salo doesn't need in a write-up like this is a plot summary, because there is no plot to be summarized. Here's what happens: in World War II Italy, a group of rich fascists round up a bunch of local youths (some of whom are their own children, unless I'm much mistaken) and proceed over the next several days to rape, torture, humiliate and murder them. Every night, one of two women tells everyone stories of their sexually disgusting pasts to fuel the imaginations of the fascists, although one gets the sense that's not really necessary.
Anyway, that's pretty much it. So where does that leave us? With rape, torture, humiliation and murder. And poo-eating, of course, which is obviously just an example of the aforementioned torture and humiliation. But that scene -- well, two scenes, really, but the second scene makes the first one look like the bit in Defending Your Life when Albert Brooks is eating the greatest omelette he's ever tasted -- is the moment in Salo. It's the shower scene from Psycho, the "I'm mad as hell" speech from Network, Anita Ekberg in the fountain in La Dolce Vita, the billiard scene in Le Cercle Rouge, or the part where that one chick gets hit by a bus in Final Destination. Despite the fact that there are quite a few other images from Salo that those who've seen the film most likely wish they'd never been exposed to, it's the moment where everyone has poop for dinner that has most earned, if that's the word, this film its place in history.
And it's a repulsive scene, all right. It was even worse, in fact, than I'd always expected it would be, although if there is a graphic poop-eating scene that exists in some other film which would somehow be less bad and more tolerable than this one, I can't imagine what it might look like. Anyway, at one point -- I won't describe it -- I raised my hand as though to block the offending portion of the screen from my view, but I didn't go through with it. Because that would be cheating, I guess. So I watched it all, and I hated doing so at the time, but now, on reflection, I can very easily shrug it off. I think I can do this because, you know, they weren't really eating poop. I don't know what they were eating, and I wouldn't even want to eat that, but it's ultimately just a special effect that carries with it no real meaning beyond the initial disgusting shock.
That's really how I feel about the majority of the film. Unlike Inside, I will admit that I was able to sense an intelligence behind the camera, although let's be honest about that: is that just because this film was made by Pasolini, and Inside wasn't? If Pasolini weren't Pasolini, and this had been the only film he'd made, would I have sensed an intelligence at work, or simply a man trying very hard to shock me? Because like Inside, I was almost completely unmoved by this film. It registered as a high-minded grotesque show-off, and the ideas that make it so high-minded are simple enough to fit on the back of a postcard. Because Fascism and money pervert everything, you see. Having a great time in Italy (not really, LOL!). See you when I get back. Etc.
The most effective part of the film, for me, is the end sequence, when the fascist guards are executing all of their remaining captives. We see all of this from a distance, as the leaders of this atrocity watch it all through binoculars from the country house where the majority of the film takes place. The violence is sadistic, but the sadism is just one element of the sequence. Everything is more or less casual and largely free of the kind of ceremony that has surrounded most of the film (though there is a bit, as each of the fascist leaders have a turn with the binoculars, handing them off to the next in line). And then there's the film's enigmatic final moment, which involves two of the guards not participating in the execution deciding to dance together -- which highlights the ambivalent and corrupt sexuality of the rest of the film, in a way -- and ends with one guard asking the other, "What is your girlfriend's name?" The other responds, "Marguerite." The end.
Now, however, I have to make a confession, which, among other things, might explain the disjointed quality that I suspect is a feature of this post. About halfway through Salo, I got really tired. I wasn't so much bored by the film -- though I honestly don't think there's a hell of a lot to latch onto in it, outside of that last section -- as I was just crashing from a week at work and over four hours of straight, punishing movie-watching. And so the truth is that a great deal of the dialogue in this film -- the perverse philosophical conversations of the fascists, primarily -- completely blew right by me. Now, I felt at the time that the point of each of these scenes was the same, and can be summarized like this: "These guys sure are wrong about everything they are saying." But I don't know that for sure, because I was too tired to focus on any of it. "When's that poop scene coming??" my fuzzy brain kept saying. And when the poop scene had come and gone, my thinking ran along these lines: "Man, that poop scene sure was gross. Before that I thought that maybe I wanted a snack or something, but now I don't even want to. Some of those guys weren't even being forced to eat the poop! That bad guys were eating it on purpose! That is so messed up. Oh shit, they're about to rape somebody again." Which should give you some idea of the immense power of the poop-eating scene, but should also indicate to you that I wasn't really firing on all cylinders by that point. I even called it a night with a half hour to go, and finished watching the film the next morning, a fact which probably explains whatever clarity (not much, probably) I brought to my reading of the ending.
So perhaps there is much I didn't get about Pasolini's final film. Maybe it's impossible for me to appreciate and understand the film without watching it a second time. Which is a shame, since I will never do that, but whatever ignorance I'll retain about Salo for the remainder of my life is something I think I'm quite comfortable with.