Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini: 1975)

Salò is regularly both celebrated and decried as being the most obscene film ever made. It has been wailed about by critics and regularly tops Internet top tens of cinematic excess. Its relentless depiction of the torture and humiliation of Italian youths held prisoner and presided over by four sadistic libertines certainly isn’t easy or comfortable viewing. The subject matter is about as bleak as imaginable: an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s blackest book set in an occupied chateau in fascist Italy. Pasolini’s film has been understood in many different, and legitimising, ways. It has, naturally, been understood as a reading of Sade’s thought, a comment on totalitarianism or, as the director himself suggested, a critique of consumerism and a consideration of sexual politics. But what if we read it as a comedy?

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I’ve seen Salò twice now. Some might suggest this is two times too many. The first viewing, at a sparsely attended screening at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2001 was, of course, unsettling. My most recent viewing was at a packed Paris Cinématheque as part of the current Pasolini season and the experience was a little different. Yes, the film was still difficult to watch, but the screening was notable for the sniggers and ripples of laughter that spread out throughout the film once the torture scenes got underway.

Why laugh at Salò? It could, of course, have been uncomfortable laughter as the audience struggles to process the brutal scenes of sexual abuse, humiliation and coprophagia. Maybe the laughter was one of relief that the film wasn’t as shocking as the hype had led them to believe it was. An uncharitable observer might note cultural differences between friendly Mancunian and colder Parisian crowds. I’m not quite what sure the nature of this laugher actually was, but there were however, more giggles at Salò than at some more traditional comedies I’ve seen.

Writing about the film in October, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, have noted that there are a number of jokes or straightforward old-fashioned corny verbal gags in the film, easily overlooked amongst the more striking scenes of torture (Vol. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 22-35). At one point, as Bersano and Dutoit note, the head libertine, or President, asks: ‘What is the difference between the number 8, a gate and a family? An 8 is always closed, a gate is sometimes open. “And the family?’ asks the other person. “They’re fine, thanks,” answers the President, overwhelmed with glee’ (p. 29). There are, I think, other comic moments to be found throughout the film. Rather than purely horrific, there is a sustained slapstick quality to many of the scenes as the libertines’ frenzied excitement sees them often literally fall over themselves to realise their desires. Equally, the sheer extremity of the ‘narratives’ that are provided to accompany and inspire the libertines sexual excesses have their own degree of burlesque, if very dark, humour. The incongruous ridiculousness of the libertines’ drag attire, particularly that of the bearded libertine Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) and the acutely strange looking and cross-eyed President (Aldo Valletti), prime candidate for a comic lead, if indeed the film has one, also clearly add a degree of humour.

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The film has been pored over by theorists, but the humour in Salò has been noted by John Waters, himself a controversial film director. For me, there are even striking resonances between Water’s comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), released three years before Pasolini’s film in both Divine’s outrageous drag, that of the libertines, and, of course the scatological preoccupations of both films. Is Pasolini making an intertextual nod to Waters?

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I think we’d be wrong, and perhaps slightly twisted, to watch Salò exclusively as a comedy. Although I believe there is humour in the film, it is ultimately, however, overwhelmed by the relentless torture and excess. What role, then, does laugher play in the film? Perhaps Salò’s relationship with resistance is revealing from this perspective. At a key moment, when one of the chateau’s prisoners is discovered having unauthorised sex with a serving girl and is about to be shot for his transgression, he confronts the libertines with a raised first, a universal leftist symbol of resistance and rebellion. This gesture is, however, futile as he is shot after a brief, but tense, stand-off. There is also a similar sense of futility in the film’s absence of narrative progression. As Éric Marty has suggested Salò is in many ways a very shallow film – there is no development of character or plot (Pourquoi le XXe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux?, Seuil, 2011). In this way, any value, meaning or satisfying resolution that a viewer would be able to take from the film through a happy ending, or any conclusive ending at all, is not supplied. This reinforces the overall inescapable horror of the Sadean, fascist and consumerist systems sketched out by Pasolini’s film. A satisfying narrative pay-off would, like the raised fist and, ultimately, the humour in the film, be futile in the face of these systems according to Pasolini’s pessimistic vision. If not, then, a comedy, comedy plays a role in the film in a way that captures a spectator off-guard but closes off the possibility of a redemptive reading of the film. Sniggering is futile.

Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino, 2013)

In some ways, a new Tarantino film is a very much like a pair of Clarks, a Vauxhall car or a bottle of seven quid wine from Sainsbury’s. Reassuringly, you know pretty much in advance what you’re going to get.  Unlike the desert boots, the Corsa or the Rioja, though, you can generally count on a Tarantino films to show enough sparks of cinematic magic to make the whole affair live long in the memory.

Django Unchained certainly looks like it fulfils most of the expectations that a cinema-going public weaned on Tarantino’s earlier work will have. It follows heist-movie Reservoir Dogs (1992), martial arts revenge film Kill Bill (2003-4) and war romp Inglorious Basterds (2009), by again paying fond tribute to an unfashionable genre. This time, Tarantino has remade a western, but with a twist: picking on Carbucci’s Django and Francisci’s Hercules Unchained to inspire a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) wreaking revenge on the white men who dominate nineteenth-century American society and have hold of his wife.

Tarantino’s treatment has lent the film a reliable whiff of provocation: its subject, liberal use of the n-word and its par-for-the-course bloody violence, have already sparked debate with Spike Lee kicking off online and Krishnan Guru-Murthy rising to the bait too easily on British TV. Of course, we’ve seen controversy with Tarantino before. The ‘is it too violent?’ question  being a particularly limp one.

Like Tarantino’s previous films, Django Unchained provides both a platform for stars from the past we thought were long forgotten (think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction or Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) or shows us stars we though we knew in radically different ways (Uma Thurman as sword-bearing ninja or Robert De Niro as a weed-smoking small-time crook). Here Django casts, Titanic whimperer Leonardo DiCaprio as a menacingly evil plantation owner whilst the iconic cool Samuel L. Jackson loses the Kangol and is cast as Stephen, his simpering right-hand-man.

We can also generally expect a Tarantino’s film to feature a somewhat toe-curlingly embarrassing cameo from the man himself (check) and for the films to be slightly over-long and rather clumsily put together at the final edit. Kind of clunky. That’s OK though, because the music will be good and there is enough going on to keep our attention. The bloated-yet-compelling Pulp Fiction being a case in point.

Django Unchained has most of this. It is most effective when it comes to character. Christophe Waltz gives a notable turn as dentist-turned Bounty Hunter who frees Django from his irons and kicks off the movie’s plot. A performance not as memorable, however, as his as a particularly sinister Nazi ‘jew hunter’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. It is Jackson, who is almost unrecognisable from his previous Tarantino roles and, in particular, DiCaprio who steal the show. The latter, as Calvin Candie is alternately charming and brutal, echoing, in fact, Waltz’s role in Basterds.

You can normally count on tense set pieces to be the highest points of Tarantino movies. These are scenes that stay in the memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film. Reservoir Dog’s ear surgery to a Stealers Wheel soundtrack set the mark. This was followed by Pulp Fiction’s adrenaline shot through the heart and Jackson’s fire and brimstone hitman speech. Even the woeful second half of Death Proof doesn’t seem quite so bad when you remember Vanessa Ferlito’s lapdance. A highlight of Basterds was, equally, a set piece, set in a Munich beer cellar where an Allied undercover agent infiltrates some heavy duty Nazi drinking. This is, however, where Django Unchained lets us down. The film has its fair share of good moments, most of them stating DiCaprio and Jackson, but nothing approaching the sheer heart-thumping tension of his earlier works.

Yes, there is excitement, yes there is violence. Yes, it looks great – I particularly liked the flashbacks, themselves shot on pseudo vintage film. Django Unchained is a good movie, but mediocre Tarantino: Tarantino restrained. Maybe describing it as the movie equivalent of a warm Pinot Grigiot or a Vauxhall Astra is doing the director a disservice, but Tarantino is here on, what is for him, uncharacteristically comfy territory.

Kenneth Anger, galérie du jour, Paris 4ème

There are few figures in the art world more enigmatic or more paradoxical than Kenneth Anger. Whilst he is regularly championed by high-profile figures such as Martin Scorsese for his “poetic” filmmaking and the influence of his work pervades contemporary culture: it can be traced within music videos and the aesthetic of David Lynch, Anger himself has, for the most part remained on the fringes of artistic production. Unlike Lynch, for example, Anger has largely shunned the commercial for the avant-garde, the Hollywood payday for his often beautiful, just as often deeply unsettling film.

Hollywood Babylon, copyright held by Agnès B/galérie du jour/Kenneth Anger

Hollywood Babylon, copyright held by Agnès B/galérie du jour/Kenneth Anger

At the same time, however, Anger has at least embraced an idea of Hollywood rather than mainstream film itself; his two volumes of Hollywood Babylon have established him, somewhat bizarrely, as an authority on the sordid underbelly of its golden age. A third volume, dealing with salacious contemporary gossip is, according to Anger too controversial to release in litigious times. Whilst Anger’s work has been anthologised by the BFI and he has exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, he has never fully embraced canonical canonisation spending his time playing sporadic gigs with his noise music project and being focus of a substantial amount of celebrity myth-making himself – inspired by the self-proclaimed “Great Beast” Aleister Crowley and a frequenter of Satanic circles with a reported penchant for placing curses on those who have fallen out of his favour.

Perhaps surprisingly, or maybe inevitably given the all-recuperating nature of the contemporary spectacle, Kenneth Anger has recently interested the fashion world: he directed a short film/advert for Italian fashion brand Missoni in 2010 and has recently fallen under the patronage of French fashion designer and aspirant cultural polymath Agnès B, collaborating on t-shirt designs and exhibiting at her Parisian galérie du jour with this present show.

This show showcases both extremes of Anger’s aesthetic. Much of the show is given over to artefacts from his vast private collection of the relics of a lost Hollywood: film-posters and faded black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings of forgotten matinée idols, all bathed in the neon glow of a light sculpture which bears the “Hollywood Babylon” slogan and immediately greets the gallery-goer. This pole of Anger’s art is supported by his short Puce Moment (1949), itself an homage to what the filmmaker has described as the “goddesses of the silent screen”.

For me, however, whilst the mythology surrounding figures such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Billie Dove is clearly important for Anger’s aesthetic, it is the darker, more dangerous elements of his work that represents the true interest in Anger’s work – the gay Anger explored in the blackly humorous eroticism of Scorpio Rising (1964) and the satanic Anger in the sinister bad acid trip of Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) (with a Moog soundtrack by Mick Jagger and cameo performances by Anton Szandor La Vey and pre-Manson murder Bobby Beausoleil, and the complex cosmic mythology of Lucifer Rising (1981) (staring a wasted-looking Marianne Faithfull). The true Anger is the dangerous one.

Thankfully, visitors to this show get a chance to glimpse this Anger with a loop of 1954’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, inspired by Crowley’s poetry and starring erotic diarist AnaÏs Nin, through a series of bizarrely colourful and poetic juxtapositions, which acts as a ritual, both for the onscreen character and, one suspects, which has the power to contaminate the viewer.

Whilst commercial partnerships with sponsors such as Agnès B clearly provide both exposure and a platform for the artist’s work, Anger doesn’t, or perhaps, shouldn’t sit comfortably within the context of the fashion world. At its best, is work is complex ans has the power to be deeply emotionally affective for the viewer – precisely capacities the fashion world doesn’t have. Hopefully this isn’t the sign of things to come. By his very nature, Anger’s work resembles that of French writer, mystic and pornographer Georges Bataille: it resists mainstream recuperation and any attempt to sanitise and whitewash it risks reforming it beyond recognition. Whilst we can appreciate that Agnès B has given us the opportunity to reconnect with Anger’s work, he is too interesting, and too important, to be confined to the catwalk.

The Kenneth Anger collection at the galérie du jour,  44 rue quincampoix, Paris, runs until November 3, 2012

A Dangerous Method (dir: David Cronenberg, 2011)

David Cronenberg is a particularly violent film director. When his films aren’t perpetuating violence on his protagonists or his audiences as in The Fly (1986), Videodrome (1983) or Crash (1996), they create a similarly oppressive, threatening, violence-tinged atmosphere to that of his recent, and under-appreciated, Eastern Promises (2007).

Equally, psychoanalysis as pioneered by Sigmund Freud is preoccupied with violence. Throughout its chequered history it has argued that man is inescapably in the grip of latent impulses, mostly sexual. He is, psychoanalytic theory has shown us, frequently helpless in the face of Eros, the drive towards life, sex and creation as well as what Wilhelm Stekel later termed, Thanatos or the death drive, a compulsion towards death and destruction. This is at the heart of man’s inner life, but this violence is also frequently reflected outwardly. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argued that, “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man”. Man, inside and out is unstable, frequently unsettled and violent, in the work of Cronenberg as well as Freud and his disciples.

For that reason, it would have been reasonable to expect that an on-screen meeting of the pair might have producing an altogether different film to the mostly pedestrian and strangely low-key. A Dangerous Method. The film examines the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his divergent disciple C. G. Jung (Michael Fassbender) through the prism of the relationship between the latter and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), herself who was play an important role in the history of psychoanalytic treatment, the dangerous method of the film’s title. In short, Jung begins a sexual relationship with Speilrein, tinged teasingly with a liberal dose of spanking (as gratuitous as we might expect from a Hollywood blockbuster) which has its roots in her own humiliation-based neurosis. Freud is not impressed with the unethical nature of the relationship. He has little to say, however, about the spanking.

Rather than the final product quivering with tempestuous libidinal forces one might anticipate (not least because of the Knightly-spanking rumors which followed the film’s release), A Dangerous Method remains disappointing muted throughout. That’s not to suggest that cinema should be visceral, sensual and violent just because it can. Indeed, the tension of restrait can produce some wonderful works, as Hitchcock memorably remarked. Here, however, Cronenberg, in adapting Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure for the screen (itself an adaptation of John Kerr’s book of the same name) appears to have fallen into the trap focussing on the theatrical, rather than, as in his previous films, even his previous literary adaptations Crash and Naked Lunch (1991) making a work that is specifically cinematic.

That said, Fassbeder and Mortensen’s performances are as polished as one would expect from the pair, but naturally within the constraints of Hampton’s script and Cronenberg’s direction; the latter resulting in little more than a lot of disappointingly low-key scenes featuring middle-aged men in suits talking politely. Emotionally, Eros and Thanatos are never brought to the boil, barely even simmering.

The only exception to this is Knightly’s unrestrained portrayal of Spielrein, particularly her early mental distress which manifests physically in a way that resonates with the paintings of Freud’s fellow Austrian Egon Sciehle (thanks to Lindsey for the tip-off). However, the hyper-intensity of Knightly’s acting, in contrast with the low-key Fassbender and Mortensen. Whilst appropriately incongruous, it actually serves to highlight Knighty’s limitations as an actress, something not helped by a bizarre Swiss/Russian/Austrian accent which, particularly in the light of the fact Fassbender and Mortensen remain anglicised, seems somewhat ludicrous.

A Dangerous Method is a missed opportunity. The idea is an exciting premise: a film exploring the ideas of and relationship between Jung and Freud, two of the twentieth centuries most radical thinkers through the lens of an ambitious and arguable equally radical director. The end result, however is not only devoid of violence, but also, ultimately, risk which doesn’t do justice to the work of Freud, Jung or even Cronenberg.

Film: The Baader Meinhof Complex (Dir: Udi Edel)

I have to admit it. I’m a sucker for movies about romantic, well-dressed and just plain fucking cool revolutionary groups. The Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Situationists, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation army; wherever you stand on their politics and the morality of their actions, you have to admit there’s a Robin Hood-esque attractiveness to all of them. Some of them also wore some very cool clothes.

The Baader Meinhof Complex isn’t the first film I’ve seen recently about a terrorist group – I reviewed Steve Macqueen’s Hunger a couple of weeks ago (some I’m probably on a Government watch list somewhere) – but where Macqueen’s film is a profound, sombre picture of a men pushed to the edge, the Baader Meinhof Complex is as much about the sex and the style of the terrorists concerned as it is analysing their substance and their actions.

The film, directed by Udi Edel who also masterminded the controversial, but critically acclaimed Last Exit to Brooklyn movie and Madonna’s woeful Body of Evidence, and produced and written by Bernd Eichinger who last brought us Downfall basically tells the story of the life of the group officially called the Red Army Faction, but became more popularly known as the Baader Meinhof group, after two of the Faction’s leading personalities (Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof).

The RAF (no, not them) saw themselves as a politicial group. History views them as extreme left-wingers – they used the Marx as a starting point and were influenced by, Rudi Dutschke – but really saw themselves as sitting outside the conventional ideological framework, so were inevitably described lazily as anarchists. They saw themselves as kicking against authoritarianism – they’d grown up with the Nazi legacy and were determined to do everything in their power to prevent Germany again falling foul of a similar police state nightmare. They did this through a series of revolutionary actions, mostly bomings of what they selected as ‘legitimate targets’.

The Baader Meinhof Complex only pays lip service to the rights and wrongs of the Red Army Faction’s campaign. Frankly, Eichinger and Edel don’t need to, its been dealt with previously by countless documentaries including this fairly recent one from BBC4. This film is instead about the RAF’s actions, its impulsiveness, its vanity, its glamour – what it did, rather than what it thought. In that sense, its an action movie in the truest sense of the word.

It’s the group’s fundamental vanity, that led to its eventual downfall – something defined in the film as the Baader Meinhof Complex and personnified in it by Ulrike Meinhof’s breakdown. The group became less a band of revolutionaries than a killing machine – jettisonning Meinhof’s theory for the guns and bullets and a love of live on the edge of society.

The Baader Meinhof Complex isn’t as great a piece of art as Hunger, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t offer a critique of the RAF, but an intensely entertaining film. It is slightly longer than it should be, and suffers from some horrendous musical choices (Blowin’ In The Wind over the ednd credits and My Generation earlier on – how cheesy can you get?!), but is definitely worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

An interesting article from the Guardian on the cultural legacy of the Red Army Faction, here.

A useful Baader Meinhof resource.

Film: Hunger (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Hunger is a terrifying film. It’s the debut feature film from Steve McQueen, best known for beating Tracey Emin to the Turner Prize in 1999. It tells the story of Irish republican inmates holed up in the Maze prison, Belfast protesting against not being treated as political prisoners – specifically the highest profile protestor, Bobby Sands. McQueen is an accomplished video artist, and he’s made the move from galleries to cinemas with arguably the most difficult subject matter he could have selected; the Northern Ireland political situation has been covered impressively in the past, and the instinctively physically repulsive nature of the prisoners’ protests isn’t one that lends itself naturally to your local multiplex. You won’t want to bringing popcorn to this one.

McQueen, however, has suceeded in bringing the story of Sands and the protestors to life in an unflinching, yet visually compelling way. In short, the film never pulls away from showing the brutality of the prison officers and their treatment of the prisoners, or the full horrors of the dirty protests and hunger strikes. Since his death in 1981, Sands has been something of a romantic figure in popular folklore, he’s slightly romanticised here (its certainly a synpathetic portrayal), but its also a warts and all picture of a man pushed to the edge of reason.

It’s refreshing to see a film that takes a new approach to cinematography. Visually, its obvious that McQueen has broached the subject matter as a visual artist, every scene is perfectly composed. Impressively, he never lapses into self-indulgence as one might expect from a video artist – the film comes in at an impressively concise 96 minutes, despite one of the longest one-take scenes in cinema history (this is worth the price of the cinema ticket alone – acted by Michael Fassbender as Sands and Liam Cunningham as his priest).

Hunger is terrifying because of its relentless honesty – there’s no airbrushing (although the naked prisoners did look a little too well toned at times!), no distracting sub plots, no smart-arsed conceits. It’s a naked, uncomfortable but gripping film. Anyone with even a passing interest in British or Irish politics needs to go see it.