Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Pasolini’s Salo Cured Me of My Need to See Extreme Films

Glenn Kenny recently wrote about Pier Pasolini’s final film Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom on the occasion of its Blu-Ray release from Criterion. I don’t need much to be reminded of Pasolini’s film, which I watched last year when I was attempting to beef up my top 10 lists from every year. The film didn’t make my list for 1975. And it’s a film I will never, ever watch again. But I’m glad I saw it – if for no other reason than it cured me for having watch every “extreme” film that comes along.

For years, I watched the extreme horror films that made their way whether on DVD or occasionally in theaters, when they actually made it there.  I’m not going to say I saw all of them – not by a long shot – but I saw many of them. Some of them – like Takahasi Miike’s Audition (a brilliant bait and switch as a creepy romantic comedy becomes an exercise in torture) and Ichi the Killer (a sly satire on the whole extreme genre – with its two characters representing the torturer and the tortured) were actually brilliant. Some – like The Human Centipede or Martyrs – were simply sickening – movies pretending to be about something deeper, but were really just an exercise in putting disgusting images on the screen. Just off the top of my head I can think of the following films, some have merit, some don’t - Irreversible, both versions of The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes – the remake, the Hostel movies, the Saw movies, Frontier(s), Man Bites Dog, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Funny Games – both versions - Captivity, Dumplings, Inside, In My Skin, Imprint,  Battle Royale and many many more. All of these films, both good and bad, made me want to have a shower afterwards.

My mantra with these films was simple – I can’t have opinion on them unless I’ve actually watched them myself. That was true then, and it’s just as true now. But something has changed with me. I no longer really care if I have an opinion on movies like this anymore. And I stopped sometime after watching Salo.

For those who don’t know, the film takes place in 1944 Italy, just after Mussolini’s fall, and is about four Italian fascists, who kidnap 18 teenage boys and girls, and subject them to four months of torture – physical, sexual and mental. The film is icy cold and detached in the way it presents the events – from the kidnapping of the 18 young men and women, to their examination by the four men, to forcing the victims to literally eat shit (in a sequence that is making me wretch a little bit right now just thinking about it), to the graphic, brutal murders that culminate the film. Believe me; I’m being kind in sparing the details on display in Salo. But they will remain seared in my mind forever.

Pasolini is miles away from someone like Eli Roth or Tom Six, who makes their films full of torture simply because they like to shoot them, and because they like to punish their audiences. He actually has a point, although it’s buried under everything in the film. The film is about how the Fascists, and their collaborators, raped and destroyed Italians, and how most people simply sat back and did nothing. The final shot in the movie is of two of the collaborators, who have seen everything, as they waltz together. The most despicable things happened in front of them, and they don’t care. And that’s the point. For a time, under the Fascists, the most despicable things were done in Italy and in Italy’s name, and Italians did nothing to stop it. They simply kept waltzing.

I admired Pasolini’s film, even as I was sickened by it. The grandeur of the surroundings offset against the depravity going on inside of them, make the movie effective, as does Pasolini’s cold, detached style. He has made precisely the film that he wanted to make, and his message came through loud and clear. I just don’t want to watch it again.

This brings me to two more recent films – The Human Centipede 2 and A Serbian Film. Owen Glieberman has praised The Human Centipede 2, saying it’s precisely the film the first one wanted to be, and failed. Roger Ebert called it a geek show. A Serbian Film was named the most extreme horror film of all time by one website, so curious, I looked up the synopsis. It is about a male porn star, looking for one final pay cheque, and being tricked into doing an “extreme porn” film. He is drugged, and doesn’t remember what he’s does, and then watches on videotape, as he rapes and murders people on film. It gets to the point where his own family is involved, and even in death, they cannot escape.

The director of A Serbian Film is most likely a fan of Pasolini’s film. He says the movie is about the Serbian government, and how they have raped the people. The film has been banned in some places – a distributor showing the film has even been charged with distributing child pornography in Spain. Netflix is refusing to carry the film, and I highly doubt you’ll see it on the shelf in your local video store (it was released yesterday – with one minute trimmed from its original version) – unless you live close to one of those cool video stores that carry everything, and not just by a Rogers like I do. You can get it online however, if you are so inclined.

There was a time when I would have seen both The Human Centipede 2 and A Serbian Film. Both may be masterpieces for all I know, and I cannot know unless I watch them. But I simply don’t have an interest in them anymore. Somehow Salo, which was supposed to be the ultimate endurance test of the movie, has made me immune to wanting to see the films that want to top it. I saw Salo, I survived, I even admired the film. Its images are now forever locked in my brain. Now I can move on with my life.

In his piece, Glenn Kenny surveyed five film experts to determine if Salo is a film that everyone “needs to see” – and four of them said yes. But Kenny disagrees. He rightly points out that it is impossible to see every film out there, and that one film doesn’t determine your seriousness as a film buff. I agree with that. I’m not saying that I’ll never see another “extreme” film again. I do, after all, still consider myself to be a horror movie fan. But I don’t need to see movie that push boundaries simply for the sake of pushing them. Now if something comes along that sounds interesting, I’ll surely watch it. But more and more, I get the feeling that I don’t need to see “extreme” films, just to prove that I can, or so I can express an opinion on them. I’ve already done that.

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