Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

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The mythology that surrounds Saló is more interesting than Saló.

(WARNING: This post contains a discussion on matures themes in a mature film, and if you are underage or possess a weak constitution, I would advise that you venture no further than this warning. And that full stop.)

What I mean by this, is that the ideological conflict which was spawned due to this films release, the censorship, the bans, the death of Pasolini himself, the entire genre of depraved cinema it gave birth to, and the battles of its meaning which have raged (quietly, by intellectuals with too much time on their hands) has been near ceaseless, with the film still inspiring those with that deep instinctual reaction, one of admiration or one of disgust. That history attached to Saló, will always be more interesting than Saló itself. So in provoking discussions on the human condition in it’s all hideousness, the film has succeeded.

I’m struggling to think of anything else it does well.

 

People are desperate to plant their flag after seeing Saló. It’s exactly the sort of film that provokes either extreme love or extreme hatred. You can roughly sum it up as; Admired by Nihilists, Reviled by Moralists. There’s not really much room for my reaction, which was one of mostly indifference.

And I’m upset by my indifference towards it. I wanted to be incensed by it, I wanted to be filled with the extreme adoration or extreme anguish that the film supposedly provokes. It’s a musing on power. It’s an exploration of sexual depravity. It’s a hate filled, misanthropic bastard film. It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful.

It’s not really anything. If anything, the best term I can come up with it is this. “It’s a limp sketch”. Limp because its pretty boring. A sketch because its pretty half-baked. If that’s me throwing down the gauntlet, it’s not much of one. I don’t want to hate this film, generally most cinephiles spend their time railing against mass manufactured, uninspired films made on formulas. The generic if you will. We always try to champion the individual artistic statement (hell it was cinephiles who had the arrogance/self belief to invent the auteur theory, a theoretical prism of viewing film which attributes sole intent to the director) over the mass-produced schlock.

Pasolini made his statement. And I commend him for that. But his statement is caught in an odd place. For its one of the most controversial films ever made, and yet in comparison to the story it is based on, written by the infamous Marquis De Sade, well it looks positively PG.  And I think here lies an incredible crux. Because the depravity of the story has been effectively dismantled, the revulsion inspired by the film is incomparable to the revulsion that can be inspired by the text, because the text is really untransferrable, because its fantasy.

Now of course, millions of fantasies have been transferred from book to screen. But the kind of fantasies involved in this are not the fantasies we ever expose ourselves to. These are fantasies of the most profane, the kind of fantasies we dare not speak them out loud for they represent such abject horror that to utter them is almost a sin. De Sade does not just call for sexual liberation, he calls for absolute sexual freedom, the ability to get your rocks off to anything, no matter how monstrous. And I’m not just talking BDSM (the S is for Sadism, named after guess who) or some peculiar fetishes here. The book uses pedophilic pleasure as a base for every other story told by the madames to enjoy. In the final months of the book, equivalent to Pasolini’s “Circle of Blood”, the madames tell stories about men getting their rocks off to disembowelment of pregnant women, skinning of children alive, and an infinite number of unimaginable horrors. The best the film does in this regard is the torturing of the captives.

Pasolini would have been a genuine madman to ever attempt to properly capture the absolute mental insanity, the unhinged words of Marquis De Sade. No one could ever do justice (ha) to it, besides De Sade himself, and the only way he could do justice to his vision was to enact his fantasies into the real world. The libertine’s destruction. So Pasolini fundamentally changes the internal structure of the tale, turning it from an indulgent fantasy to an indulgent allegory. I can’t find the direct source, but it is said that Pasolini meant the corprophilic scenes as a comment on the fast food industry, the willingness and often desire for people to literally, eat shit.

But who cares at the end of the day, because this film exists almost as a blank slate to inscribe your meaning onto. It’s oppressively neutral. It’s a vacuum, because it ignores for the most part, the second half of human existence. The first is action. The second is consequences. There are no consequences to any of the actions. There’s just a general descent into highly detailed degeneracy. The insular world becomes a mirror to its own hollowness. Even crumbs of construction, the girls that develop a lesbian relationship, the socialist salute of the ‘transgressive’ guard who sleeps with a black servant girl, don’t really offer anything besides fleeting fragments of meaning in an ocean of grey void.

Look maybe the reason why nihilism never took off is because it’s really fucking boring, and it doesn’t contribute anything interesting. It’s the ultimate critic, because all it does is deconstruct everything, and contribute nothing. Sade finds his construction in his pursuit of pleasure. Pasolini doesn’t even find it in that.

It takes no stance. It’s characters discuss the relationships of power without ever coming to any conclusions. They drop famous libertine writers in, Nietzsche being the name most people would pick up on, without actually discussing what the ideas mean, or what they can mean. Nobody contains any depth, any motivation. Because their motivation for desire is completely separate from the films stylistic concerns.

Everybody says exactly what they think, which ends up as an effect described in this video essay underneath as “Talking Wallpaper”:

We are not invited to be part of these events, the window does not open and we cannot climb through. We simply watch them from the vast chasm of the room, their passivity not allowing us any conduit to witness the events from a viewpoint. This is not entrancing, hypnotic cinema. It is not making you complicit in its crimes, it’s simply making you an uninvolved witness. Which is without a doubt, the worst message Pasolini could ever have conveyed.

Pasolini was a well know left-wing filmmaker and political activist in Italy, and his films have been the endless study of marxist film critics and those with Communist leanings. His films are just begging for that indulgent transcribing of political subtext onto film, something I am not a great fan of. And the literature on this film fills books (the BFI edition I purchased comes with a booklet of essays). But at the end of the day, if you really believe this film’s worth, then the best compliment you can give it is your silence. Because it’s not a film which wants to be talked about. It’s a film which does its best to confront you with examples of human cruelty, and its ability to adapt, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. It’s the abandonment of everything beyond primordial desires, far beyond the realm of judgement. Anybody who tries to inscribe it as a condemnation of fascism is missing the point, because all it is conveying a well-known platitude; that people with power have the ability to abuse it.

So enough with this film. Saló is controversial, but controversy doesn’t mean its good, and it doesn’t mean its interesting. Enough using this film as a litmus test for how out there a film is, because it’s not very out there.

In fact, it’s not very much at all.

-Alex

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Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent

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“Embrace of the Serpent is a mesmerizing feat of cinema. Guerra had me at frame one.”

-kogonada, Sight and Sound Magazine

It has been two days since I watched Embrace of the Serpent. I read a review of it in today’s newspaper, The Times (UK) film section, where they used the word “preachy” and awarded the film 3/5 stars. Arbitrary numbers out of numbers aside, I am fixated on this description of the film. The term preachy carries some very negative connotations with it, patronizing, condescending, essentially having someone openly and authoritatively explain things to you, without treating you as an independent free-thinker, but rather as a blinded fool who hasn’t seen the light.

Or maybe it doesn’t, maybe preaching is the act of teaching convinced by belief. The nature of preaching is up for discussion. The aching soul of Embrace Of The Serpent is not.

In its original tongue, El Abrazo de la Serpente is a story about the Amazonian orphan/outcast/shaman Karamakate, as he encounters two explorers 40 years apart, whose separate journeys intertwine and weave together along the winding river and maddening jungle world they inhabit. It’s also a densely textured work which questions the morality and ethics which drove the interactions between the invading colonial ‘whites’ and the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon. I use its original name, due to the film’s highly placed importance on language as being one of the key frontiers on which battles of culture and knowledge can be fought on ( the list of languages found in the film can be noted as such; Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna ,Wanano, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and English).

The phenomena of the jungle landscape has been a partial obsession throughout cinema history, both Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola saw something beyond comprehension and utterly compelling there,  and they conveyed that through their films, Herzog with Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Coppola with his opus Apocalypse Now (1979). As has been reiterated many times in the promotional interviews for this film however, the difference lies in the central viewpoint being that of the native, rather than the ‘civilised’ explorer descending into an exoticised portrait of  savage jungle life. Possessing incredible nuance gives it the ability to shift in and out of multiple viewpoints however, and imagining the film as a one-sided defense against the evil invading white people is a view which is only briefly held onto, by Karamakate himself.

Honestly I’m scratching my head talking about this, because I feel woefully unprepared to do so. I’ve managed to coast by on some earlier films, simply just winging it and talking about whatever I could conjure up. Here however, I’m confronted with a profound lack of sharpened tools to deal with such a work of poignant human exploration.  Scattershot seems to be my current approach.

The title of this piece came to me mid-way through the film, so I’ll try to investigate this. The film on its spiritual journey comes into a series of isolated conflicts. One particular conflict lies in a brief stay at a tribe, as a young Karamakate is taking  Theodor Von Martius, a sickly German explorer, to find the sacred yakruna plant which supposedly can cure him. Theodor spends good time in their company, taking advantage of their hospitality. He then shows the chief his compass, a device not encountered since their system of navigation relies on the position of the stars. When they go to leave the next morning, Theodor realises he does not possess his compass, and believes some children have stolen it. He pleads for it back, then demands, them grabs one of them. The exchange escalates as the chief reveals he has kept it, and refuses to return it, offering items in exchange. Theodor, hopeless and wounded, returns to his boat to leave. Karamakate chastises him for being ‘nothing but a white’. Theodor explains (paraphrasing) ‘that if they possess knowledge of the compass, their system of navigation will be lost, it must be preserved’ and I found myself shamefully agreeing with this in knee-jerk reaction, without thinking twice about it, because Karamakate replies ‘you cannot forbid them to learn, knowledge belongs to all men’.

That line induced a partial devastating effect on me, because it possesses such a high truth value. Theodor is happy to take advantage of them, but from a position of privilege and looking downwards on them, because the moment they try to steal the fire of the gods, in a Promethean act, he rationalises how dangerous it would be to let them learn, at the expense of preserving them like figures in a glass bottle. And it does open up that sphere of thought, because where does the act of preservation end and repression begin? Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer wrote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ so is it right to even expose people without the historical insight the West gained from building these advances step by step, to a tribe which has no historical context to justify it? The point is not whether or not I can find an exact answer to each question, but to lay bare the ideological forces at work, colliding with each other.

This all sounds very heady and mystical, and as a result can feel very isolating to those who haven’t experienced it or had the same connection. But that battle is fought in the film as well, the battle of how willing you must be to surrender yourself to unknown forces. Caapi, a hallucinogenic drink in the film, is used to cross the boundaries of those who want to speak to the jungle, to the gods, to the primal spirits supposedly outside of ourselves. And Karamakate fights this battle in two fronts, in two different histories, in two different explorers who are spiritually linked. Both cannot dream, cannot properly transcend or surrender themselves. To what? Karamakate thinks its to the jungle itself. Theodor does not dream at all, and Karamakate eventually condemns him for it, before realising that he has to teach ‘the white’, embodied in the 1940s as Evan, an ethnobotanist, how to properly transcend and become a Coihauno, a member of Karamakate’s dead tribe and a warrior. But by doing this, he addresses us as well, Karamakate calling us to be a part of this, to understand the language of the jungle beyond anything we can imagine.

Reading that back it’s almost incomprehensible.

Another portion exists in a spanish missionary, where the kids have been taken in after rubber barons destroyed their homes. The father is a callous zealot, who persecutes the kids if they even speak their language, and are forced to speak Spanish or Latin. The troupe in the 1900s come by, and Karamakate, knowing its a sinful transgression in the eyes of the christian faith shows a few of the children some of his ‘pagan’ knowledge of the old ways. This leads to the kids being whipped hideously, before Theodor’s travelling partner assaults the padre, possibly killing him and they are forced to leave, liberating the children while the rest stay, torches burning.

Fast forward 40 years, and Karamakate returns with Evan, only to find the harvest he tried to sow, a perverse cult where one of boys has become the Messiah in this madness ridden Eden. Our troupe from the 1940s are believed to be ‘The Wise Men From The East’, and are forced to help the incurable wife of Jesus, a young girl suffering from an ailment I cannot recall the name of, but looks hideous. Eventually the madness ends with Karamakate crushing a potent plant into the drink of celebration, and the insanity that ensues leaves our Messiah being consumed by his followers as they “Eat the body of Christ!”.

The Latin is delivered wrong, because no one knows how to pronounce it correctly. The signs and symbols of their mutated Christianity and mutated ‘jungle knowledge’ (for lack of a better term) are summed up as Karamakate, lying on his bed in a state of loss, mourns “They are the worst of both worlds.” Even when trying to win their battles, the ravaging of time and the human instinct to misinterpret is ever-present.

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I’m reminded of a sect of Islam known as Sufism, known primarily for its strong mystical slant. Over at this website they explain the ideas behind Sufism, but also the ideas which are the backbone of any mysticism;

“Sufism is a school for the actualization of divine ethics. It involves an enlightened inner being, not intellectual proof; revelation and witnessing, not logic. By divine ethics, we are referring to ethics that transcend mere social convention, a way of being that is the actualization of the attributes of God.

To explain the Truth is indeed a difficult task. Words, being limited, can never really express the perfection of the Absolute, the Unbound. Thus, for those who are imperfect, words create doubt and misunderstanding. Yet:

If one cannot drink up the entire ocean,
     one can drink to one’s limit.

Philosophers have written volumes and spoken endlessly of the Truth, but somehow their efforts have always fallen short. For the sufi, philosophers are those who view the Perfection of the Absolute from a limited perspective; so all they see is part of the Absolute, not the Infinite in its entirety. It is indeed true that what philosophers see is correct; nevertheless, it is only a part of the whole.”

A large part of Sufism is devoted to discussing your experiences of transcendence. Since you can never truly be part of the One/the Truth, the best that can be done is discussing the transcendent glimpses you can grasp onto, the scraps, and sharing them with anyone else who might have encountered the same thing. Which really seems the best way to talk about this film, because a straight analysis of it just doesn’t give much out.

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I mean this is the thing, every time I try to write about what is going on in this film, I find my words to be like sand running through my fingers. It’s so hard to even convey just what exactly happens, and I think that marks a thumbprint of true experiential filmmaking. It literally needs to be seen to be understood, and even when its seen, one can only glimpse the truth its trying to express. It’s Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave” at its highest form, because even when we stare at the sun, at the truth, we’re only glimpsing the highest truth, never being one with it.

One thing I can compare it to is Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Embrace of the Serpent even comes equipped with its own ‘Stargate’ sequence, though it’s expressed differently.But both films must be seen to be believed first, and then must be infinitely explored to even try to understand them. And whether we do fully understand them or not (which we won’t) is irrelevant, what’s relevant is the embrace of the powerful images, the symbolism imbued in them, and the thought they provoke in us.

I mean I haven’t even talked about embracing or serpents yet. Well if you’re followed me this far, there’s one more sequence I’d like to discuss in the film. Karamakate explains when he first drinks caapi, that a boa constrictor spoke to him, and told him to kill Theodor. A jaguar told him to protect Theodor. The anaconda, the snake descended from heaven and gave birth to the world. The jaguar is the symbol of the Coihauno. Later in the film, a jaguar watches a boa constrictor. It bares its teeth, and approaches slowly. The serpent hisses. The jaguar strikes, killing the snake and holding it in its jaws. By the end of the film, the white man finally has encountered the spirit of the jungle, even though he came to exploit it, through Karamakate.

My question is this (the same one I asked at the end of 2001);

“What does this all mean?”

-Alex

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The War of Knowledge/The Knowledge of War: Embrace of the Serpent

Harold and Maude

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Dear Reader, today marks the first post not written by this site’s first author. This essay concerns Hal Ashby’s 1971 picture, Harold and Maude, and is written by a dear friend of mine, currently studying a degree in English Literature and Film Studies. I won’t say any more, other than he’s seen far more films than I have and I envy him greatly for it.

-Alex


 

‘If you want to sing out sing out, and if you want to be free be free’

Cat Stevens

Harold and Maude is a name you very well may have heard and know, however why is this? This story of two lovers, one in his early 20s and the other bordering 80 has been a central example of cult cinema since its release in 1971. However what is it that has drawn people to this deeply strange 70s romantic comedy, despite the film not being a great success upon first release?

The film does not perhaps have the same cult status as something like Blade Runner or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both of which have become lauded by either critics or fans. Harold and Maude instead has retained its popularity steadily throughout the decades seemingly just through the strength of the film itself and not through any real dedicated effort by a fan base. This is not to belittle the previously mentioned films, Harold and Maude is just an interesting inclusion to what has now almost become a genre of films in and of itself. Cult cinema is usually rooted in genre, most noticeably horror or sci-fi, for a romantic comedy to occupy the same status is odd. However it does feel apt when it comes to Harold and Maude for it to retain this status as a cult classic. The film as already mentioned has an off kilter subject matter which may deter viewers, however this is to their own detriment.

The film when just taken at a basic plot level shouldn’t work, a boy obsessed with staging his own suicide falls in love with a youthful old woman. It’s just such an unusual way to stage romance. But when seen it is clear that the absurdity in the story gives the film such a lasting effect in the cannon of cult cinema. Much like Wes Anderson, whose clear influence from the film has been noted the offbeat nature of the love stories in his films have only elevated him in this post-modern landscape to great success. If only Hal Ashby in his time had been able to enjoy the same virtues.

The films tone could easily slide into the realm of creepy or even saccharine but this is deftly avoided by Ashby. Upon release Roger Ebert hated the film stating ‘The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell.’ A sentiment which whilst as always incredibly well written I disagree with. While this isn’t the most visually stimulating of films, I feel that this is not what the film is trying to achieve. Harold as a character may be a strange and morbid boy but he is in a way the emotional heart of the film. Despite Maude in her youthfulness and appreciation of life, it is Harold who I felt really grabbed me. Through his indifference to the world you can see why he is like that, with nothing to do and no one to talk to he can only express himself in violence and nihilism. Following the death of his father he has become obsessed with trying to be dead despite wanting to be alive. He is stuck in a distinctly conservative American world, one where everyone around him feels he needs to do more even if that means going to war in Vietnam. Harold’s attitude for life should strike a chord with anyone who’s felt the crushing boredom of not knowing what or why they are doing anything.

Maude as a character embodies almost the complete opposite to Harold, if Harold is darkness Maude is blinding light. Ruth Gordon is such a strongly optimistic portrayal of a woman in old age it is hard to not fall in love with her yourself. After being shown the darkness of Harold’s mind-set, the optimism and light which comes from this old woman with everything to live for and nothing to lose is beautiful. The question of age shouldn’t and doesn’t matter to these two, and in turn it doesn’t matter to the audience.

This all being said I don’t think that this should be heralded as some example of incredible film-making. This is why I feel that perhaps Ebert is a little harsh to the film in saying it makes everyone look like a wax figure. Yes its death obsessed and has a muted visual style but does it really matter in a film like this? It’s more a character study and a rallying cry for the little man than Ebert gives it credit for. By focusing on these two weirdo’s on the outskirts of society Ashby is looking more at character and dialogue than his own auteurship. The acting may not all be brilliant and there is a naivety to it which could easily be grating. I can also say that I don’t love every scene of this film, for example I could have done without the sequence with the policeman which came off a bit too ‘haha look at the narc’ for my taste. This is definitely a case of me being in a different audience to those in the early 70s, it just does seem as subversive any more in the 2010’s. It’s the characters Ashby wants to shed a light on and not his film-making, which is far from boring but also not a visual feast. Direction is not the be all and end all of great films and I feel this film shows that.

Following on from the slightly dated policeman scene, it is obvious that this film is being made in the wake of the 60s hippy dream failing. Despite the optimism that the 60s brought, all that is left now is the conservative aftermath of that. This is why there is so much contempt for any kind of authority. The biggest laughs in the film come from these authority figure like his war loving uncle despite losing an arm. His mother played with brilliant gusto by Vivian Pickles who just seems to reek of societal compliance, has completely shut off her emotions. She cares not for Harold and his antics and instead busies herself with trying to make Harold ‘normal’.

Despite all this morbid subject matter and depressive view on the world itself, the film promotes being different in a really lovely way. The film is without a doubt sweet in nature. For me, it doesn’t trip over into being sickly because of this darkness. The weirdness only helps me understand the place from which these characters are coming from and heightens the emotional impact of the main characters relationship. I fell in love with Harold and Maude, presumably in the same way generations of people have been before me and long may it continue.

-Ed

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Harold and Maude