One reason I found this spring’s Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective so valuable was that it marked the first time I considered Pasolini’s cinematic output as a continuous narrative. The Italian poet-novelist-public intellectual-director was one of the great political artists in film history—not only because of the content of his individual films, but because he recognized how his films functioned societally. Some of Pasolini’s films stand in response to contemporary cultural trends (Love Meetings, Porcile), some challenge long-standing prejudices in Italian society (Mamma Roma, Teorema), and other films, made in response to the public reception of his work, functioned as autocritiques. Only this year did I come to understand that Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom belongs to this third category. Appalled that his “Trilogy of Life” (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) had inspired a cycle of soft-core porn films, Pasolini created Salo, in part, to express his disgust over the commodification of human bodies in the age of mass media.
Pasolini claimed to have had no pornographic intent behind the explicit nudity and sex in the Trilogy. He wanted to show these things within the context of a more natural mode of living, in which all sensual pleasure (not merely sexual) is integrated fluidly into life in general. To Pasolini, it represented a societal failing that any viewers would interpret these images as exploitative. And thus Salo responds to that misinterpretation and pushes its underlying worldview to its endpoint. In that film, bodies are reduced, over and over, to objects. Their sex organs are emphatically not instruments of pleasure—they exist to be degraded by a tyrannical ruling minority. Even in our era, where the Internet has made degrading sexual fantasies practically ubiquitous, Salo has lost none of its devastating power, since it speaks so clearly to Pasolini’s despair over the degradation of our culture.
I thought of Salo while watching Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac last month, and not only because the film includes a mocking allusion to the Trilogy of Life. (“I’ve appreciated the great works of erotic fiction—The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights—but only as literature,” Stellan Skarsgard’s asexual scholar insists at one point.) Nymphomaniac presents sex organs as frequently as the Trilogy does, yet the film in no way characterizes the onscreen behavior as natural or exalted. The epic joke of Nymphomaniac is that the film isn’t about sex, per se, but about the pursuit of worldly knowledge. Nearly every sex scene gets annotated with digressive discussions of subjects totally unrelated to sex (fly-fishing, parallel parking, religious arcana, etc). One comes to regard sex and the bodies involved as yet more ideas. Is this von Trier’s comment on our culture’s normalization of hard-core sex (for which, as a sometime producer of hard-core movies, he shares some responsibility) or another prank on his audience? Either way, I don’t think Pasolini would have enjoyed it.
What would Pasolini have thought of the singular Roommates, which I wrote about last week? Here’s a film, made ostensibly for the hard-core pornographic market, that seriously laments the sexual degradation of women. In my blog post I wrote that director Chuck Vincent and his lead actresses “effectively portray the heroines as three-dimensional people,” though that isn’t quite true. Revisiting Roommates at Doc Films, I had to acknowledge the tawdriness of some of the melodrama and the amateurishness of much of the acting. (At least a few audience members responded with derisive laughter, and not without cause, to Samantha Fox’s overplayed monologue about her career as a prostitute.) And yet I left the screening with my admiration for the movie intact. Even though these actresses aren’t always convincing in their performances, it’s always clear that they feel what they’re talking about. There’s a poignancy to seeing these women, who’ve earned their living by having sex on camera, express desire to be respected as human beings. I’d argue that the hard-core sex scenes add to this poignancy by illustrating explicitly how the actresses earn their keep. Because all 35-millimeter prints of the hard-core version are currently out of circulation, however, Doc Films had to screen the soft-core version of Roommates. Without its explicit imagery, the film seemed deprived somewhat of its subtext. Yet compared with von Trier’s shrewd, equivocating approach to desensitizing sex in Nymphomaniac (which, as far as I know, doesn’t exist in a soft-core version), Roommates still seemed remarkable in its ungainly moral stance.