If you need another reminder that book publishing and New York City aren’t what they used to be, you could do worse than to immerse yourself in Obscene (2007), an affectionate documentary portrait of the life and times of Grove Press and Evergreen Review publisher Barney Rossett. A thinking man’s perv with a patrician air, Rossett almost singlehandedly challenged the stultifying cultural puritanism of 1950s America through his publication of and landmark legal victories in defense of previously censored or criminally “obscene” books by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs.
As an early advocate of Beckett and the Beats, Rossett did as much to inspire the personal politics and social upheavals of the ’60s as Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. Over the years, driven by amphetamines, Cuba Libres, and a hungry eye for erotic excess, he married and divorced Abstract-Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, had his office bombed by anti-Castro fanatics, brought the steamy Swedish “art film” I Am Curious (Yellow) to these shores, published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was monitored and harassed by the CIA, and made and lost fortunes several times over. Unabashed and unbowed in a far less interesting city, Rossett still lives in a fourth-floor walk-up on Union Square.
Filmmakers Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor weave this envy-inspiring narrative from archival footage, Rossett’s own amazingly well-preserved 8-mm films and reel-to-reel tapes from the ’30s through the ’60s, and new interviews with Amiri Baraka, Jim Carroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Erica Jong, Ray Manzarek, Michael McClure, John Rechy, Ed Sanders, John Sayles, Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Rossett’s editorial colleagues and acolytes from Grove’s glory days.
Obscene opens at Cinema Village in New York on September 26 and in Los Angeles on October 24.
Lee Anne Schmitt, California Company Town, 2008, still from a color film in 16 mm, 76 min.
LAST YEAR, the CIA reported that if California were to become an independent state, it would have the tenth-largest economy in the world. Despite the state’s steady rise as an important center of production, there still exist a number of severely depressed and abandoned towns scattered just outside the county lines of California’s largest metropolitan areas. These sites—former boomtowns established around specific industries and occupied by laborers—are the subject of Lee Anne Schmitt’s haunting new film, California Company Town. Since 2003, Schmitt has been researching, visiting, and filming these outlying areas, which are depicted in the film with a quiet restraint that to some may seem like indifference. Shot on 16-mm film, the twenty-odd towns that Schmitt profiles appear as they really are—as vacant buildings, abandoned graveyards, warning signs, and tourist spectacles; as spaces where marginal inhabitants move under the muted blue-gray of polluted skies. As the film progresses, one town becomes nearly indistinguishable from the next. Accompanied by Schmitt’s earnest narration, these images quickly become an essay on privatized land ownership, the failure of cooperative labor, the effects of industrial fallout on the environment, and, underlying it all, the American dream. Recounting facts and using archival film and audio, the artist cautiously fleshes out short, contained narratives to hang on the bones of each town; the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, for example, is brought back to life with propagandistic film clips created by the US War Relocation Agency (footage that has also been employed by video artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto). The desolate streets of Eagle Mountain are set to a requiem that, we are told, is a recording of the last student concert held in the town. In Keene, we catch glimpses of scattered ephemera at the abandoned United Farm Workers headquarters while a Cesar Chavez speech plays briefly on the sound track. Schmitt’s strength as a filmmaker is precisely this balance between composed documentation and efficient storytelling. While each shot moves at a steady, somewhat eerie pace, each company (be it McCloud Lumber, Standard Oil, or the United States government) is rendered through uncomplicated testimony. The effect of this rationalist drift through a facet of twentieth-century economics is powerful.
California Company Town receives its world premiere on September 22 at REDCAT in Los Angeles. For more information, click here.
Howard Shore, The Fly, 2008. Performance view, Los Angeles Opera, 2008. Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch) and Veronica Quaife (Ruxandra Donose). Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert.
DESPITE A SEQUENCE IN WHICH DANIEL OKULITCH, the talented singer playing the role of the overreaching Seth Brundle, gives the audience a full frontal, Howard Shore’s opera The Fly, staged by David Cronenberg with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, is disconcertingly bland musical theater. Several years in the making, the opera is based on Cronenberg’s 1986 movie for which Shore wrote the score. The production opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris this past July and traveled to the Los Angeles Opera for six performances this month (I attended the one on September 13). This is Shore’s first opera, and as often happens with composers who’ve written with great verve in popular forms (Leonard Bernstein is a case in point), he seems inhibited by the history of modern classical music stretching behind him. The score for The Fly brings to mind operas by composers as dissimilar as Alban Berg and Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, another opera about scientific discovery, is an obvious reference), but lacks the dramatic urgency and restrained romanticism that makes Shore’s movie music so effective and memorable. While not pointedly repetitive, the music is without rhythmic or melodic surprise. There are no arias or set pieces of note, and after a while, the long vocal lines that just skirt atonality combined with bang-on-the-beat orchestral harmonies blur together in a dulling drone.
Released in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, Cronenberg’s film was regarded by many as a metaphor for the terrifying transformation and decay of the body wrought by the disease. Cronenberg saw that interpretation as limiting, which in part may account for the decision to set the opera in the ’50s—the decade in which the short story that is the source material for all the Fly movies was published. The other factor may have been the difficulty of rendering a contemporary computerized science lab on the stage.
In any case, the most effective aspect of Dante Ferretti’s set are the two teleportation pods, which look like giant versions of Nam June Paik’s ’50s-era television sculptures, connected by a long control console, on which Brundle has rough, writhing sex on at least two occasions when he’s in the early stage of his metamorphosis into Brundlefly. But the set as a whole, particularly the huge, tastefully painted drop, which hangs at the back of the stage throughout, works against the concept of the opera. The Fly is essentially a chamber work with two lead characters and a handful of supporting players who occasionally make very brief appearances. Told in flashback, the narrative is largely staged in the laboratory that is Brundle’s refuge, but there are also crucial scenes that take place in the world outside the lab—a world that Brundle finds threatening. Ferretti’s set is too inflexible to distinguish these locations, and thus adds to the problem of the overall sameness of the music.
The most dismal, although sometimes laughable, aspect of The Fly is Hwang’s libretto. The playright has a tin ear for dialogue, whether spoken or sung, and his choice of adjectives and metaphors is clunky at best. All the singers have excellent diction, but on several occasions, I had to check the supertitles to make sure I’d heard correctly, as when Brundle, excited by his emerging flylike agility, intones in Valley-girl mode, “Did you see that awesome backflip?” Like a college film-studies student, Hwang grafts references to “The New Flesh,” the central metaphor of Cronenberg’s Videodrome, all over the libretto. The term “The New Flesh” has also been used to characterize Cronenberg’s work in general, and while it is certainly applicable to The Fly, hearing it sung some dozen times is embarrassing—as if a groupie couldn’t get over the fact that Cronenberg had actually been involved in conceiving and executing the opera.
The Fly is the first work Cronenberg has directed for the stage, and despite some obvious Cronenbergian moments, his attempt to make the various unwieldy elements cohere is not particularly distinguished. Denied camera close-ups, the body-horror sequences have little impact, and the love scenes between Brundle and Veronica Quaife (Ruxandra Donose), the science writer who falls for him, while more explicit than what passes for sexual passion in opera, are nevertheless awkward. (Two people who want to bury themselves in each other’s bodies nevertheless have to hold their heads up so that their singing can be heard.) Cronenberg’s best work is his direction of the two principle performers, especially Okulitch. Donose has a rich mezzo voice but not much dramatic range. Okulitch, however, is a captivating singer/actor with a flexible, warm voice who seems to get off on every trick Cronenberg invents for him, which include sustaining a complicated vocal line while hanging upside down from a metal crossbeam structure and crawling, head down, one of its columns. At the climax of the first act, when Brundle, in a fit of anger, strips naked and enters the telepod, Okulitch crouches like Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun minus the loincloth. Emerging triumphant, he faces down the audience (the LA Opera seats about three thousand people) with his beautiful body and very handsome package in full view. Later, in act 2, he dons white boxers and prances around, boasting of his enhanced physical capabilities. The scene, which gives Okulitch a chance to display his ironic wit and comic spontaneity, is the only patch of pure pleasure in The Fly.
Two performances of The Fly at the Los Angeles Opera remain, one on Saturday, September 20, at 7:30 PM and the other on Saturday, September 27, at 2 PM. For more information, click here.
Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas).
Each visitor to a film festival makes a unique and particular passage through the new territory it offers. My own trek through this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was marked by one conspicuous recurrence: films, often by reputed and challenging filmmakers, that took the viewer aback with a disarming accessibility. On the one hand, I welcomed the ease with which these films dispensed their immediate pleasures; on the other, it meant being doubly vigilant about looking beyond the arresting surfaces for the wrinkles these works were hiding away.
Claire Denis’s lovely, lyric 35 Shots of Rum (2008) is about the close and tender bond between father and daughter. He’s a train driver, and she’s a university student who works in a music store. Most of the film takes place in a large Paris apartment building, and the film has a nearly all-black cast. But where, one might ask, is the key Denisian theme of “foreignness”? Beau Travail (1999) has its legionnaires in Burkina Faso, No Fear, No Die’s (1990) cock trainers are immigrants living on the outskirts of Paris, and most of Chocolat (1988) takes place in colonial-era Cameroon. It turns out that the foreign presence in the new film is felt but not seen: the muse of Ozu and Late Spring (1949), which this film affectionately echoes. A trip to Luebeck in Germany and the appearance of Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven add an alien, sad touch. The high point of the movieand indeed, of the festival itselfis a nighttime bar scene with a poetically charged choreography of bodies, looks, and space.
Another surprise: Lorna’s Silence (2008), the strong new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is an unabashed thriller, tense and suspenseful. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian woman in Belgium involved in a marriage of convenience and an immigration scam. Edited with fearsome precision, and mostly eschewing the signature Dardenne walking-behind, handheld tracking shot, the film has an ending that has aroused controversy. Read narrowly in psychological terms, the ending is unsatisfying, even inept. But to do this is a mistake. The film culminates in a metaphoric act that is both deluded and revolutionary-utopian, a mad attempt to bring into being a new life on a new set of terms. After spending most of the film vividly detailing a transaction-driven late-capitalist world that thrives on globalized flows of labor and capital, the Dardennes abruptly turn away from it. Is it a hopeful or a hopeless way to conclude? Either way, it doesn’t seem to be the dead-end cop-out many believe it to be.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Center: Ryuhei Sasaki (Teriyuki Kagawa).
Lorna was one of numerous films at the festival that was urgently in tune with itsand ourhistorical moment. Jerichow (2008), by Christian Petzold of what has been dubbed the Berlin School, is an icy, intelligent work that hums along satisfyingly on multiple levels. On its most basic one, it recycles familiar film-noir material, but then quickly complicates it with modern, up-to-the-minute first-world themes: capitalist values on a micro–social plane, attitudes toward multiethnicity, and the exercise of personal power in intimate relationships. Add to this rich mix a play of constantly shifting viewer identifications and a dark, wicked wit, and what results is a genuinely subversive film that has the potential to find popular appeal and also make its audiences squirm with the directness of its moral questions.
The ground rules of the “new globalized order” put Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s family drama Tokyo Sonata (2008) into motion when the family’s patriarch loses his job to Chinese white-collar workers who cost (he is told) one-third of what he does. Unable to bear the thought of losing his authority in the household, he doesn’t break the news to his family. For much of its duration, the film works in a keen and observant dramatic-realist veinalthough with Kurosawa’s wry sense of humor ever-present. But in the last thirty minutes, it takes an abrupt, auto-destructive turn that can either be praised as a rupturing, Surrealist gesture or bemoaned as a crazy, failed experiment. Kurosawa is an undeniably gifted and innovative filmmaker, but until I hear the critical case to the contrary, I'll be in the skeptics’ corner.
David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957, still from a color film in 35 mm, 161 minutes. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).
“So now he wants to do Nostromo, does he?” director Michael Powell once chuckled. “Well, it’s just like David to pick Joseph Conrad’s most impossible novel.” The “impossible” wasn’t to be, alas. For David Lean died just as Nostromo was heading into preproduction. But his career was filled with the impossible nonetheless—and, more to the point, with the ineffable. The director who first made his mark with Noel Coward at his most patriotic with In Which We Serve (1942) and most “reserved” with Brief Encounter (1945) would shortly proceed to “quality” adaptations of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Then came Summertime (1955), that most deluxe of Katherine Hepburn romances. But rather than stick with sentiment, Lean shifted into the highest of gears with the prison-camp spectacular The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the most singularly original of all wide-screen epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). When he returned to romance with his adaptation of Doctor Zhivago (1965), it was on that same epic scale, as was Ryan’s Daughter (1970)—a film that found neither public nor critical favor but is ripe for reappraisal. Still, Lean more than regained his footing with A Passage to India, his E. M. Forster adaptation in which romance is stillborn, yet oddly resonant. What all these brilliant, seemingly disparate works have in common is the clarity and precision of Lean’s filmmaking technique, as well as his steely resolve in using it to achieve poetic grandeur.
Everyone recalls the great shot of Omar Sharif slowly approaching a desert watering hole in Lawrence of Arabia—a seemingly banal moment redolent with visual and dramatic suspense. But you can find the same cinematographic insight in the railway station waiting room where much of Brief Encounter unfolds, or in the out-of-the-way antiques shop in the Venice of Summertime, or in that wonderful moment in A Passage to India when an elephant brings the heroine and her friends to the mouth of the Malabar caves. “Every picture tells a story,” as cliché would have it. But with Lean, no picture is ever clichéd.
Film Forum’s two-week retrospective, being complete, includes not only these classics but such less familiar but still powerful works as Madeleine (1950), a period mystery romance with Ann Todd and Ivan Desny, and The Passionate Friends (1949), with Todd again, this time accompanied by Trevor Howard and Claude Rains. Based on an H. G. Wells novel adapted by Eric Ambler, the latter might be described as Brief Encounter in a darker key. A much lighter key is heard in Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s sophisticated ghost farce Blithe Spirit (1945)—shot in beautiful pastel-like colors by frequent collaborator (and fine director in his own right) Ronald Neame. This Happy Breed (1944), another Coward project, with Celia Johnson, John Mills, and Robert Newton, finds Cowardian flag-waving in a yet lighter spirit. Hobson’s Choice (1954) likewise celebrates an England many still wish existed; The Sound Barrier (1952) is a fictional tale about a moment in aviation history that definitely did exist. In it, test pilots attempt a feat of flying that was once thought impossible. But, pace Powell, nothing is truly impossible with David Lean.
“David Lean” screens at Film Forum in New York from September 12 to September 25. “David Lean: Ten British Classics” screens at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles from October 10 to October 26.
Maria Lassnig, Palmistry, 1975, still from a color film in 16 mm, 10 minutes.
Audiences visiting the Whitney’s film and video gallery this summer have been privy to an ample and diverse program of artist-curated screenings. Complementing the museum’s exhibition of Paul McCarthy’s dynamic sculptural and moving-image installations, and continuing an autobiographical project begun earlier this year at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco, “Paul McCarthy: Film List” primarily comprises films and videos that influenced the artist's practice; the screenings also serve as a set of miniretrospectives of both familiar and neglected bodies of work. The programs titled “Los Angeles,” for example, included the seldom-seen videos of Nina Sobell and Bas Jan Ader, in which McCarthy had clearly discovered affinities with his own strange slapstick. These programs also surveyed the work of Pat O’Neill, Jack Goldstein, and Morgan Fisher, all of whom share with McCarthy an obsession with the Hollywood dream factory. In my view, the real find of the program was Fisher’s deadpan Turning Over (1975), a live-to-tape commemoration of the rolling over of the odometer in the filmmaker’s old car (a video shot in San Francisco, as if in homage to Hitchcockian suspense).
The remaining weeks offer the chance to review Austrian classics by Kurt Kren, Valie Export, and Peter Kubelka, as well as the lesser-known films of Maria Lassnig. Those with an interest in McCarthy’s darkly comedic side will want to catch Lassnig’s Palmistry (1973), in which an overweight girl sings of her refusal to become thinner for the sake of a man (“I like the cakes, I like the pies / As long as you eat, you will not die”). The final program, “1965,” includes Russ Meyer, Jonas Mekas, and Sidney Lumet, but its attention-grabber will likely be McCarthy’s own upside-down-and-backward version of Robert Wise's The Sound of Music. Titled cisuM fo dnuoS ehT (2001), the piece was first shown in Austria in response to the rise of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party. In a sense, “Austria” and “1965” are no different from the rest of the series: They suggest the artist’s deep-rooted and ongoing dialogue with Hollywood, experimental film, video art, and performance.
Sam Peckinpah, Straw Dogs, 1971, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes. Amy Sumner (Susan George).
“Times have changed,” says newly elected sheriff Pat Garrett to his erstwhile partner, Billy the Kid, at the beginning of the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film that bears their names. “Times, maybe, not me,” replies the Kid. It’s as good a summation of Peckinpah—the work and the man—as any critic’s encomium. Best known for his “revisionist” westerns, mostly set in the early twentieth century, Peckinpah evoked an America that had run out of frontier, doubled back on itself, and was beginning to fence land, pave roads, and enforce laws. This was the country where his characters—Billy the Kid, the Wild Bunch, Cable Hogue—tried to shoot or scheme their way out of anachronism, almost always to fail; the country where technology and “progress” took the Wild out of the West and made it safe for organized capitalism, much like an industrious colony of ants smothering a scorpion.
Peckinpah is an American maverick who makes Clint Eastwood look like John McCain. His legion of imitators—has there ever been a director whose style has been so shamelessly, and shallowly, lifted?—mistook the bloodshed for bloodlust, deep melancholy for cheap comedy. For every Martin Scorsese, there’s three or more pale riders—Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and Robert Rodriguez, say—whose balletic orgies of violence go no more than skin deep. You can laugh (I have) at a cop getting his ear sliced off or at Bruce Willis with a discipline ball in his mouth in a Tarantino film. You can also laugh at Warren Oates in Peckinpah’s 1974 classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (I certainly have), losing his clip-on tie while trying to talk tough with the big boys or having his tête-à-tête conversations with Al’s severed head in the passenger seat. But in Tarantino, laughter is all that’s warranted. In Peckinpah, you’re laughing to keep yourself from crying.
“To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Bob Dylan, a bit player in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, once said. This is true for Peckinpah’s honorable antiheroes, who would rather commit suicide in an apotheosis of futile bloodletting than live within the law in an institutionally corrupt “civilization.” His films speak to us more now than they did in the ’70s. Who today will refuse to shut up and take the money, like Oates at the end of Alfredo Garcia, even if it means his certain death? Who today will simply say no? Peckinpah puts us all to shame.
Olaf Nicolai, Rodakis, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 12 minutes.
Though Brangelina visitations may be what creates mob scenes at the Toronto International Film Festival, the “Wavelengths” program has quietly become one of the festival’s best assets. Named after Michael Snow’s 1967 slow-zoom wonder (and in acknowledgment of Canada’s disproportionate influence on cinema’s avant-garde), the program was added only eight years ago, and its experimental offerings leave no room for the Oscar bait and celebrity vanity projects that can clog up TIFF’s other arteries. Indeed, the six screenings—which take place at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall from September 5 to 8—constitute a fest within the fest, one in which formal daring and ingenuity take precedence over the medium’s usual priorities.
Not that this subsection of international cinema lacks its own brand of stars—the 2008 edition showcases new material by Nathaniel Dorsky, James Benning, Jennifer Reeves, and, in his first solo work since the death of partner Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub. A key figure in American film and visual art since his pioneering series of installations in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pat O’Neill is represented here by the latest version of Horizontal Boundaries, his ongoing study of Los Angeles and a film whose shape shifts as much as the city that has long fascinated the artist.
The constant lateral and vertical motion of various categories of images (trees, housing, beach scenes) has a richly hypnotic effect, especially in tandem with a sound track that intermingles ambient noise and composer Carl Stone’s grinding drones, one of the new additions for the 2008 version of the work. A maestro of the optical printer, O’Neill packs the screen with an abundance of detail, though it soon becomes clear that the boundaries that interest him are not just those at the edges of the city but also those that separate the individual frames of film.
O’Neill’s twenty-three-minute movie is included in a program on September 6 that includes six more experiments in form. Particularly cunning is Eriko Sonoda’s Garden/ing (2007), a trompe l’oeil exercise in which a camera’s repeated half-circle motion in front of a screen door eventually dismantles the usual laws of perspective. “Trips,” the shorts program on September 7, includes two other provocative explorations of physical space. Rodakis (2008), an elegant twelve-minute film by Olaf Nicolai, consists of fixed-camera shots of a nineteenth-century house on the Greek island of Aegina. Despite the confident tone of the unidentified narrator, the exact significance and history of this place become increasingly ambiguous in Nicolai’s architectural mystery tale. In Flash in the Metropolitan (2006), the British team of Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer provide eerie views of antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum’s Near Eastern, African, and Oceanic collections, lit only by a strobe. This silent sequence of briefly illuminated objects calls to mind both some mysterious rite and a nighttime expedition by thieves who may be eager to return these objects to their original homes.
A similar effect dominates Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007), another exhilarating installment in an ongoing series by Chicago’s Ben Russell. Here, the light falls on the rapt, sweaty faces of indie hipsters as they lose their collective shit at a Lightning Bolt concert. A burst of noisy mayhem, it couldn’t be more different from the “Wavelengths” program’s more serene selections. But like the series’s most remarkable titles, Russell’s work boasts a bracing degree of rigor and vigor.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, 1975, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes.
JUST IN TIME for the back-to-school season, Criterion has reissued the DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s pedantic bloodbath Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an apologue so heavy-handed that it includes a syllabus in the opening credits. (Barthes, Blanchot, Beauvoir, and Klosswoski all make the list. The film just preceded the publication of Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality , otherwise it would have been a probable candidate.) Made just months before Pasolini was gruesomely murdered by a hustler who ran him over with his own car (though this story is currently in dispute), the film is a modern update of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, structured according to a “Dante-esque” logic: Instead of the traditional chronological narrative, viewers encounter four overlapping “circles” (the “antinferno,” the “circle of obsessions,” the “circle of blood,” and the “circle of shit”). Set in a palazzo in Saló, a short-lived republic Mussolini created in northern Italy near the end of World War II, the film was envisioned by Pasolini as, among other things, an illustration of the “choreography of fascism” and an indictment of capitalism’s objectification of the human body.
No take on Salò is complete without a litany of the vile debauchery enacted by the libertines (and their well-endowed adjutants) on the eighteen teenage boys and girls captured for the occasion: torture, rape, coprophilia and -phagia, necrophila, branding, scalping, tongue cutting, eye gouging—to name but a few. In Vincent Canby’s 1977 review for the New York Times, he argued that the film was “a perfect example of the kind of material that, theoretically anyway, can be acceptable on paper but becomes so repugnant when visualized on the screen that it further dehumanizes the human spirit, which is supposed to be the artist’s concern.” In her 2004 piece on torture, Susan Sontag remarked that Salò was “near-unwatchable,” though I wonder now whether she was actually speaking to the film’s arid pretentiousness rather than to the revolting scenarios it plays out. Salò will probably seem quaint—certainly campy—to anyone who plays Grand Theft Auto or bookmarks the “Extreme Videos” section on eBaum’s World. This ho-hum element raises the hackles of critics who like to dilate on voyeurism’s ethical implications and of those anxious about a society inured to violent images. Of course, what to some might appear a symptom of vacuous morality could read to others as increasing audience sophistication regarding the fiction of images.
Amaury Voslion, Salò: Yesterday and Today, 2002, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 33 minutes. Right: Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Part of this sophistication comes from our growing familiarity with the mechanics of films—how they’re made and how they work. A compelling section of the documentary Salò: Yesterday and Today, one of the DVD’s supplemental features, illustrates the droll banality of filmmaking, as Pasolini instructs the actor Aldo Valletti in his role during the film’s rapturous denouement, which depicts a violent torture tableau in a courtyard. One of the other actors greedily approaches the director: “Don’t you have some nasty little role for me?”
“Wait till you see what you do in the next scene,” Pasolini reassures him.
“You can’t imagine.”
Everyone just wants their fifteen minutes. Later in the documentary, the captivating Hélène Surgere, who plays one of four narrating prostitutes, notes that, “on the set, paradoxically, the mood was jovial and immature. When I saw the film, I wondered how we’d made something so awful without realizing it.” This scission between the making and the made isn’t a deep one; most of us, when faced with a particularly nasty image, can draw on rather simple reasoning: It’s only a movie. (And an incredibly hyperbolic one at that—how can anyone get worked up over something that’s trying this hard to get a rise?)
All the lashings, slashings, and bawdy sexual pantomime quickly become cloying—which, it seems, was at least partly the point. But the disturbing thing about Salò is not its sexuality and violence, its pornographic register; rather, it is the film’s posturing as social critique, its misleading diagram of the mechanics of the ideological state apparatus and the way subjects are produced in consumer societies. Consumers don’t choke on the shit that they eat (as the ephebes are shown doing in the dining hall), they enjoy it. They’re not coerced, they’re cajoled. To articulate power in the way that Pasolini does—indeed, to conflate critiques of fascism and critiques of consumerism—is to dissimulate power’s workings, to make it more insidious, not more exposed; it works to power’s advantage.
Speaking of consumers, it’s a hard call as to whether shoppers should go for the Criterion DVD or hold out for the BFI Blu-ray edition, due out in the UK on September 29; that version boasts such fun extras as Ostia, a 1991 short by Julian Cole, featuring Derek Jarman, about Pasolini’s last days, as well as a new music video for Coil’s 1987 song “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini).” It’s a bit late for freshman orientation, perhaps, but perfect for those looking for something to keep them busy during fall break.