“I want to say it plainly and clearly: I go down into hell and I see things that don’t disturb the peace of others. But be careful. Hell is rising towards the rest of you. It’s true that it dreams its own uniform and its own justification (sometimes). But it’s also true that its desire, its need to hit back, to assault, to kill, is strong and wide-ranging. The private and risky experience of those who’ve touched ‘the violent life’ will not be available for long. Don’t be fooled. And you are, along with the educational system, television, the pacifying newspapers, the great keepers of this horrendous order founded on the concept of possession and the idea of destruction. Luckily, you seem to be happy when you can tag a murder with its own beautiful description. This to me is just another one of mass culture’s operations. Since we can’t prevent certain things from happening, we find peace in constructing shelves on which to place them.” —from the final published interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini
What is there left to say about Salò that hasn’t already been written? Much like the libertine “heroes” of the film (and Sade’s source text, The 120 Days of Sodom), who seek increasingly diverse ways of defiling their victims, so many keen observations have been noted on behalf of the film that at this point one might only hope to scrape the barrel of redundant commentary. And yet, for those viewers (like myself) who simply cannot leave things well enough alone—those of us who are unable to digest the immense mindfuck of Pasolini’s swan song and quietly move on—something draws us inexorably back to the words and images that fill the space of those traumatizing 116 minutes; and that something will not allow us to leave in silence.
I first read about Salò when I was a senior in high school; like many young filmgoers with an interest in classic and foreign cinema, Janus films (now synonymous with the Criterion Collection) provided an endless source of education in this department—and by this point in time, Salò had not only earned a rather singular reputation as a motion picture, but special notoriety as a home video release. Assigned spine #209 in the original Criterion library, Salò had its first major US home video distribution in 1993 (VHS and laserdisc); in 1998, it made its DVD debut in the new (post-laser disc) Criterion library, and was assigned spine #17. The DVD was soon discontinued (due to distribution conflicts) and quickly returned to the realm of lost classics inhabited by the likes of Von Stroheim’s Greed (which remains forever lost in time) and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. As it had been for decades prior to the Criterion release, it was simply not possible for most of us to lay our hands on a copy of this forbidden fruit—the holy grail of midnight art movies, once a fountain of discourse, now a collector’s item on an ever-growing online auction website called eBay.
Fast forward a couple years to my days as a fledgling young adult attending community college, getting my gen. eds. out of the way but still entirely unsure as to what my chosen educational pursuit might be. Disappointed by the mundanity of required courses (an ever-expanding category of elementary knowledge which the government can no longer guarantee students to be provided with during high school, thanks to faulty incentives such as “No Child Left Behind” and the advent of standardized testing), I begin searching elsewhere for a true education. I was yearning for exposure to materials that had been previously withheld from me (due in part to my youth, and in part to the fact that my high school had been of a private—and, more to the point, Christian—disposition), and was rapidly absorbing works by the likes of William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and contemporary (popular) subversives such as A.M. Homes and Chuck Palahniuk. I was also delving into the films of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Jean-Luc Godard.
One day, I overheard a friend discussing a conflict she was having with an instructor from the community college we were both frequenting; the crux of this conflict was a paper she was writing on Pier Paolo Pasolini and the film Salò, and the issue at stake was that the instructor could not bring herself to believe that such a film might possibly exist. Beyond that, this instructor was entirely unfamiliar with the works of the Marquis de Sade, and was attempting to impugn the character of my friend as being deliberately perverse. Though Sade was a far cry from the comparably tame writings of Burroughs and Kerouac (then the focus of my literary quests), I was at least aware of his existence, and, more importantly, I was aware of the notorious film in question. Before I could even begin to address the frustrating ignorance of this purported educator (especially her failure to research the subject at hand before deeming it fictitious), the first question I posed my friend was, “you’ve actually seen Salò?” It was the post-high school equivalent of meeting someone who had lost his/her virginity, or had been the first one of the gang to smoke grass; a host of questions quickly rose to mind (“what was it like?,” “where did it happen?,” “how did it feel?”). My friend fielded my questions with bemused indulgence, and when I finally posed the big question—“could you hook me up with a copy?”—she said that wouldn’t be a problem, but forewarned me that it wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience. I dismissed her hesitation and explained that I had read quite a bit about the film already, and would be prepared for whatever it had in store. She gave me that sideways glance that says, “you have no idea what you’re getting into.” And she was right.
Roughly seven years later, here I sit at a laptop computer with the beautifully restored reissue DVD of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom playing out of the corner of my eye, that unforgettable piano score by Ennio Morricone emerging from time to time in crisp high definition from a pair of Fisher speakers. I think back to the third (or fourth, or fifth…) generation VHS copy that my friend gave me—which I still have set aside in the corner of a shelf with a handful of as-of-yet-unreleased-on-DVD titles, such as the abominable-but-lovable Jeff Goldblum vehicle Mr. Frost (the one where he plays a serial killer with a fondness for baking cakes while he commits his crimes, pinning Polaroids of his finished desserts to a bulletin board—a variation on the old cliché of photographing the victims for posterity), as well as music video collections of the Psychedelic Furs and Siouxsie & the Banshees. I cannot help but ponder nostalgically the lost art of passing duplicate VHS tapes around, the movie equivalent of the audio mixtape: in a day and age when virtually any title can be acquired in a matter of minutes, either instantly streamed on YouTube or Netflix, or via inter-library loan technology which allows free access to materials from libraries across the country, it is increasingly difficult to appreciate the value of individual movie experiences. It is the proverbial case of having very little and appreciating what you can get your hands on, versus having everything and not knowing where to begin. But I digress…
I’ve come here to write about Salò, to come to terms with what remains the most haunting cinematic experience of my life, as well as the most remarkable. Sometimes this writing may appear circuitous, as though I am trying to find my way through a web of underground tunnels and keep passing a certain way before finally making the right turn. If this happens, it is only because these underground tunnels I am about to explore with you (the reader) are strangely beautiful—and as much relief as it brings to emerge unscathed on the surface, it is worth taking note of certain eye-catching details along the way. After all, these are the tunnels that lie beneath the whole of our civilization.