Sat 12 Jun, 2010 07:45 pm
I'm going to speak from the perspective of having seen the film. I don't feel that I can comfortably recommend this film to anyone, though I simultaneously feel that it was a great work of art. The question I'm attempting to answer is: Why is Salo considered a great work of art?
A common approach to the evaluation of art is: Did it have an emotional effect? As far as I am concerned, Salo clearly did. I recall, the day after, doing math problems in my head to ignore the imagery popping into my head as I contemplated the film. It took me awhile to get over this initial reaction of disgust: I felt that the film was grotesque and insipid due to its bluntness of message -- "Fascism sucks. Avoid it!"
However, as I have distanced myself from the initial viewing, I'm still able to recollect the disgust I felt in watching this movie. And, while the message is a bit blunt, it was still amazing on the basis of emotional impact: It's fairly difficult to instill an visceral impact such as Salo does through art, especially when we generally view art as little other than functional entertainment.
However, I think that the best way to approach Salo might be through the conception of the Sublime. Now, this wouldn't be the Sublime of nature, as Kant generally approaches the Sublime, but it would fit within the concept of the Sublime because Salo is incomprehensibly grotesque. In trying to understand the motivations of the main characters, one fails: Reason demands understanding of the grotesque, and the imagination attempts to synthesize an understanding of the motivations behind the characters motives and desires. The imagination fails in this attempt, and the conflict between the imagination and Reason gives rise to the Sublime, but not the sublime of nature, but the sublime of the dehumanizing effects of late-stage capitalism, at least as conceived by Pasolini. So, in this way, it would be the sublime of the grotesque. This, in conjunction with the criticism of social trends, would be why Salo is great art despite the fact that it doesn't entertain (at least, not in the usual sense of "entertainment").
Further, it is great art because it is a film about late-stage capitalism/consumerism that does not cater to the audience. This is a perfect harmony, as film generally only thrives on capitalism/consumerism and the agreeableness of the film, yet the film is not agreeable and brings a message to audiences that all films shouldn't be agreeable, because they lead to obscene fetish-construction and the endless pursuit of "more". However convenient that may be for Pasolini, I can't help but think this is another reason Salo is a great work of art despite it's rather blunt themes.
Anyone else have thoughts on Salo?
In his book The Fragile Absolute Slavoj Zizek tackles art and the sublime in a manner that sort of applies. He notes that we are in an eternal chase for the divine (not necessarily spiritual divine) being physically and mentally unable to be divine we have a hole in our being that we continuously try to fill by sublimating art and other things. We however, in that chase for divinity, sublimate anything that forces us off the plane of menial existence. Sort of a modified explanation for our search for novelty.
Salo although grotesque retains a sense of sublimated beauty, unlike gore fest like say Cannibal Apocalypse. It attempts to fill the divine void momentarily by not only providing novel stimulation, but pushing that novel stimulation into the realm of esoterica and intuition. It is a fleeting connection with the unknown and unknowable. It forces introspection, speculation on humanity, and speculation about the extra-human.