If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times: I absolutely hate art house (with some exceptions: see Why Blow Up (1966) is the Only Art House Film Worth Seeing and Irreversible Might Be the Most Misunderstood Film of All Time).
Why do I hate it? Originally, art house referred to a type of sophisticated, intellectual avant-garde movie that was coming out of Europe in the early 1960s, particularly from France, Sweden and Italy. However, in just a few years, something happened. For whatever reason, film snobs and critics started confusing the most superficial elements of art house for art house itself. As a result, any movie could be considered art house if it hit all the points on a check list, such as:
- Is the film directed by a European whose last name contains at least four syllables and several vowels? Check. (Extra credit if the vowels contains at least one umlaut or accent aigu.)
- Is it foreign language film with subtitles? Check.
- Does it have a barely comprehensible plot that never seems to go anywhere? Check.
- Is the pacing so slow it makes paint drying look like time lapse photography? Check.
- Are there scenes of nonsensical imagery, albeit shot artistically? Check.
- Does it push the envelope in terms of sex, violence or other controversial matter? Check, check, check!
This wasn’t the worst part about art house. Because the genre had originally earned a reputation for being oh, so intelligent, nuanced and full of hidden meaning, any film that could successfully pass itself off as art house was instantly seen as intellectual. It didn’t matter how shallow or pedestrian the movie was. It didn’t matter if it was poorly directed or written. If it ticked the boxes, it was magnifique! Brilliant! Sophisticated!
Below, you can see a perfect parody of the art house phenomenon when it began making a turn for the worse. In it, Benny Hill plays an inept French director, Claude Le Twit, whose movie is being hailed as a deeply symbolic, meaningful film because it’s considered art house. Rather than see the movie for the garbage that it is, art house snob Henry McGee keeps trying to interpret all the stupid things in Le Twit’s film as being deeply symbolic, only to learn that they were all either thrown in there by accident or ineptitude. For example, he suggests that Le Twit had the main character talk with a lisp to show how imperfect she was, when the reality is that the actress had a lisp in real life and was only chosen to play the lead because she was the producer’s girlfriend.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus also skewered art house in its “French Subtitled Film” parody, in which a boring conversation between a Frenchman and a woman holding a cabbage in a garbage dump is seen as thought-provoking and filled with political commentary.
On top of the aforementioned, there was another maddening problem with art house. Because the genre was seen as automatically deep and intellectual, art house films were always above criticism and anyone who hated them dismissed as illiterate morons. If you thought a movie was trash, you were just plain wrong, with the condescending explanation that it was above your head, you missed the point of its symbolism or that you needed to read a few volumes of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche to understand what it was trying to say. This issue, more than anything, is why I hate art house so much. It’s the only art form that’s been able to get away with murder time and time again.
All of this leads me now to the worthless pile of crap (no pun intended) known as Salo (1975), directed by Pier Pasolini. Normally when I trash a movie, I try to talk it up as best as possible just so people know that I didn’t just watch it half-heartedly. I want to show that yes, I did pay careful attention to story, characters, plot point and dialogue from beginning to end. However, Salo is a movie lacking so little in substance there’s nothing much I can do to talk it up. There are no interesting characters to write about, no interesting dialogue or interactions to take apart.
There isn’t even a story. Once we get past the opening scene of a bunch of nubile young teenagers being abducted by a group of rich perverts, Salo is one boring, self-indulgent, repetitive drumbeat of humiliation, rape and torture that plays out in more or less the same repetitive sequence: 1) The abducted teenagers are forced to listen to a middle aged hag tell an overly long, boring erotic story. 2) The kids are then degraded or tortured in some fashion. 3) There will occasionally be a short scene of some of the abductors sitting in armchairs and making nonsensical comments. 4) We are back to the hag again regaling the victims with another boring story. Wash, rinse, repeat for several cycles until the kids are all murdered in graphic detail. The End.
assholes art house fans and elitist film snobs have been bleating to high heaven that everyone needs to see this film because of how thought-provoking it is and how it’s a brilliant metaphor for Fascism. But sorry–I’ve seen enough mindless grind house exploitation to know it when I see it regardless of how artfully shot, and that’s what Salo is. It’s mindless grind house exploitation.
It’s not even good grind house exploitation. Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave may have been crappy, low budget exploitation films filled with bad actors and abysmal direction, but you know what? Gotta hand it to them–they at least were entertaining, made some attempt at a story and had some visually arresting scenes. They even had something to say (although admittedly, their message was usually either ham-fisted or cynically included).
Salo is just a vapid, insipid movie about nothing at all, with nothing to say. It’s so vapid that even in spite of its disturbing imagery, it lacks resonance. The reason why is that with no story, characters or anything substantial to connect with or be invested in, the movie is like passing a car wreck on the highway. You know how that goes. When you first pass a car wreck, you’re riveted because of the carnage. You’ll stare at the scene transfixed for a moment or two, go, “Oh, my God” a million times before driving off. Then what happens? Five minutes later, you’ve forgotten what you saw. This is Salo in a nutshell.
Salo is not just bad grind house exploitation. It’s pornography in the broader sense of the term–and a boring, tedious one at that. This declaration that the movie is pornographic is bound to cause some confusion because for most people, pornography means explicit sex scenes. But pornography can also mean anything that has one specific purpose in mind, and that’s to turn someone on sexually or appeal to a baser instinct.
If you compare Salo to any type of porn movie–such as sex, gore, disaster, etc.–you’ll see that it’s very similar to those types of films. Like in porn, the story and characters only exist as a vehicle to move the movie from titillating scenario to titillating scenario. Like in a porn, the scenario is repeated over and over again in masturbatory fashion. Technically, the scenes will be different but basically when you get down to it, they’re all nothing more than a variation on the same titillating theme of sex, gore, torture or some other subject.
Because Salo is shot exactly like porn, there is no question in my mind that the movie was just an excuse for Pasolini to shoot torture porn catering to his particular fetishes (in which case seemed to be sadism, pedophilia and coprophilia). Of course, fans of the film will spit out their avocado toast and civet dingle berry cappuccinos with righteous indignation at the mere suggestion that Salo is porn. They’ll say stuff like, “Don’t you know that Pasolini was a brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful intellectual and poet? He’d never stoop so low!” or “No, you moron. It’s a brilliant statement about Fascism,” or, even worse, “You illiterate buffoon! It’s a literary adaptation of the writings of the Marquis de Sade!”
But hey, you know how the saying goes. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s fetish porn directed by a sexual deviant who decided to commit his depraved fetishes to celluloid for his own sexual gratification. We can claim Salo was inspired by classic literature all we want. We can say it’s full of symbolism all we want. We can say it’s about Fascism all we want. But if it’s shot exactly like fetish porn, then that’s what it is–fetish porn. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference if Pasolini or his sycophants insist that it’s an intellectual treatise on Fascism. Execution is everything. Salo is fetish porn.
Keep in mind that I say all this, not to lambaste the movie for being fetish porn and exploitation, but to counter the assertion that the movie is above criticism because it’s art house. It’s art house in the sense that it hit all the superficial items on the check list I mentioned earlier. But outside of that, it’s grind house fetish porn and exploitation, meaning that it isn’t any more symbolic, deeper or meaningful than Cannibal Holocaust or Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. So, can people criticize it as being a boring, tedious film with nothing to say? Of course. Can they argue that it’s a trashy, sick film that had no business being made? Of course. Can they hate the movie, rant about how it was a nothingburger of a film that wasted two hours of their life? Of course.
Bottom line, if you’re one of the unlucky souls who watched Salo, thought it was garbage and are doubting yourself because art house snobs and critics of browbeating you about it (telling you that you didn’t get it, that you don’t appreciate Pasolini as an artist, or that you didn’t get that it was about Fascism), don’t buy any of it. You’re not stupid. You’re not someone who can’t understand nuance or symbolism. You’re not an illiterate person who only loves Michael Bay and jerks off to Fast and the Furious movies. Your gut reaction to the film was correct. Salo is and always has been an unmitigated piece of self-indulgent, worthless, mindless, execrable crap–and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.