I guess it’s been up for a while, but I just discovered this BFI reference page on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s perennially controversial film-adaptation, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom. I was immediately drawn to the slain director’s annotative jottings, in which obligatory antifascist precepts are quickly overborne by a clear aesthetic fidelity to the Sadean logic of a "mad dream," which is revealed to be "all the more logical in its whole when it’s the least in its details."
In commenting on the ideological import of Salo, Pasolini asks, perhaps not at all rhetorically, "[w]ho could doubt my sincerity when I say that the message of Salò is the denunciation of the anarchy of power and the inexistence of history?"
Show of hands?
More significantly, there is his closing distillation of craft, where Pasolini explains:
In every shot it can be said I set myself the problem of driving the
spectator to feeling intolerant and immediately afterwards relieving
him of that feeling.
Recognizing that relief is not the same as catharsis, it is tempting to reflect on Pasolini’s bait & switch in light of Michael Haneke’s more structurally trained experiments, and readily articulated justifications.
Don’t get me wrong. I do worry about cynicism. But it’s not as if the critics aren’t looking for excuses. Consider the tactical palliation deployed to attenuate — or simply deny — the clear-cut cosmic nihilism expressed in Todd Solandz’s Palindromes; or consider the pretextual convolutions marshaled in denial of Gaspar Noe’s point-blank nationalist requiem, Irreversible (note to Stephen Hunter: we are most certainly in Paris, and while "natural man" may be a monster, he’s not the species you prefer; watch Straw Dogs and try again). I’m never sure if it’s blindness or mendacity, or shades of the two. But I am sure of some things.
Unlike Pasolini, David Cronenberg is one of those auteurs whose work is reliably more interesting to read about than to see. There’s an iteration he’s fond of, here excerpted from the fascinating interview collection, Cronenberg on Cronenberg:
As an artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every aspect of human experience, the darkest corners — not necessarily — but if that is where one is led, that is where one must go. You cannot worry about what the structure of your own particular segment of society considers bad behavior, good behavior; good exploration, bad exploration. So, at the time you’re being an artist, you’re not a citizen. You don’t have the social responsibility of a citizen. You have in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever.
And later in the same exchange:
When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all of that. If I listen to all of those voices I will be paralyzed because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke to me before all these structures were imposed on it, and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible.
In his BFI commentary, Gary Indiana, suggests that part of Salo‘s continuing resonance may be explained by the fact that "there weren’t imitations of it." True enough, Ilsa came before. But I wonder how he could have overlooked Last House on Dead End Street, or for that matter, Fat Girl?
By being irresponsible I will be responsible.