Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth
Rules and Regulations
Michael Koresky on Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
A photograph taken on March 28, 2017, shows the 45th President of the United States, sporting his perpetual half-satisfied, half-confounded smirk, holding up for the camera two white papers in an official-making leather-bound folder. His ostentatious signature is clearly visible, so much larger is it than the type spread across the pages. He sits behind a desk marked with the Presidential Seal; everyone around him stands. He is flanked on both sides by an array of people, all of whom happen to be white men, their hands caught in mid-applause. Some wear polo shirts and khakis; these are coal miners, gathered at this photo op for a momentous event engineered to augur the supposed improvement of their lives, as it lifts a moratorium on federal coal leasing. The others wear suits (Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt); these are the men sealing the deal, helping to compose and institute the changes outlined in this latest Presidential Executive Order, which is “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” and which will hasten the process of dismantling and reversing the significant strides made by the 44th President of the United States to fight climate change and try to help ensure longer lives for future generations on our planet.
While claiming, in Section 1 (a), to “promote clean and safe development of our Nation's vast energy resources,” the order rolls back “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.” It turns a blind eye to our world’s rising sea levels and temperatures, and deregulates carbon emissions and rolls back clean air protections. This is the first step in the Trump administration’s battle against science in favor of fleeting, and only ostensible, monetary benefit, reflecting a philosophy that we should live for today, at best a tacit acceptance that the future doesn’t matter, at worst an aggressive act against our children and our children’s children, a message that our temporary earthly pleasures are more important than their livelihoods and the future of the species. But of course, according to Section 5 (c), this is all done out of concern for our shared economic livelihood, “with respect to the consideration of domestic versus international impacts and the consideration of appropriate discount rates” and “embodying the best practices for conducting regulatory cost-benefit analysis.” The men applaud.
We’ve come to see the world this way: a group of severe white men in a tucked-away, sunless room, signing and stamping papers of purposely impenetrable legalese that, though casually inked, will have life-or-death repercussions for countless people who will never even come close to seeing the inside of the room in which the decisions are made. Because we each play an unwitting, unwritten part in their invented dramas of power, submission, and false prophecy, we find this scene fascinating—the machinations of anonymous-looking men in suits will always hold us in thrall, a spectacle of the most hideous banality.
The four men of Salò are first seen together, hunched over a table in just such a room, deviously planning with a coldness that will define the film’s entire aesthetic and narrative structure. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s legendarily controversial film, a rigorously appalling representation of fascism and economic exploitation set in Mussolini’s Italy during the darkest days of World War II, these men—four libertines identified as only as The Duke, The President, The Magistrate, and The Bishop—are planning the rounding up, kidnapping, sexual humiliation, and ultimate murder of a group of randomly selected rural teenagers (though as viewers we aren’t initially privileged to know this). The victims are proletariat offspring, the sons and daughters of subversives and peasants. Their spirits, attractive for being naïve, will be broken by a relentless obeisance to power; their bodies, appealing for being unblemished, will become the objects in a game of dehumanization. Pasolini’s plan is insidious, too: the images he serves up will be marked upon his viewers’ minds forever. Adapted from the Marquis de Sade’s blasphemous 1785, scrawled-in-the Bastille opus The 120 Days of Sodom, Salò is a metaphorical film grounded in corporeal horror. It’s too symbolic to be taken literally, but too visceral to not be; it’s too satirical to be taken seriously, but too serious to not be.
For just these first few months of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the disgust many of us have been feeling is the result of a combination of looming terror and laughing disbelief at not just one man’s actions but the crumbling of codes of decency, reason, and discourse he fostered and represents. Calling the president a fool is a way of relieving him from responsibility; Trump’s directives are no longer the mere machinations of a fool once he puts pen to paper. Trying to diminish the horror of our political catastrophe by laughing at it is similar to how many viewers have tried to treat Salò over the years, as a work of camp, which puts a safe distance between them and the screen. But, based on the angry, disillusioned tone of his writing and interviews around the time of its making, this is not how Pasolini seems to have intended it. “My need to make this film came also came from the fact that I particularly hate the leaders of the day. Each one of us hates with particular vehemence the powers to which he is forced to submit,” he said in an on-set interview. “It is a power that manipulates people just as it did at the time of Himmler or Hitler.” Before his murder, which occurred on November 3, 1975, just weeks before Salò’s premiere in France, Pasolini saw Italy as a place of increasing and potentially irrevocable social and cultural decline.
As a film that encourages and exploits our feelings of helplessness as not just individuals but citizenry, Salò may be as powerful and great a work of art as George Orwell’s novel 1984 (which has been back in the conversation since Trump’s election), but it’s so troubling—and literally nauseating—that it would have as much of a chance of being consumed and understood on any kind of wide scale today as it was when it was (barely) released, and often summarily banned, around the world in 1975. It’s one of history’s few genuinely dangerous films, a risk-taking work that seems to have been made in some unimaginable netherworld, sort of like the rule-flouting, crumbling-villa-cum-death-chamber in which it takes place. The mechanisms that helped Trump get elected—the entrenchment of extreme bipartisan politicking, rampant consumerist amorality, the collapsing of the conservative right into the ignorant, secularist mainstream—are something like a parallel if not a direct outgrowth of the rise of neocapitalism that Pasolini saw in Italy in the late sixties and seventies. Furthermore, Pasolini viewed television as solidifying the defeat of Italian society, representing as it did a vulgarization, depoliticization, and complete homogenization of culture. Salò was a response to Pasolini’s fears that Italy, with its once vibrant proletariat, was not just in a process of decline but no longer was; he used the term “cultural genocide” to describe this inexorable descent. By setting this film in Northern Italy in 1944, at the height of the country’s fascist dictatorship, and directly evoking de Sade’s 18th-century manifesto of pornography and debasement, Pasolini created a cultural triangulation—conflating fascism itself with the rise of popular culture, and conveying a sense that history was folding in on itself, triumphing over humanity, and eradicating standards of logic and decency.
Contempt for the future—for youth, for science, for progress—is at the heart of the libertines’ orgiastic nihilism. What makes Salò particularly terrifying is the perverse structural beauty of it all. Pasolini, acting as his own camera operator, and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli create a world of terrible composure and cold calculation. This is Pasolini’s most chilling film, claustrophobic and interior where so many of his earlier films reveled in the freedoms afforded by natural landscapes. The rotting mansion where the teenagers are humiliated and tortured is a fascist microcosm maintained by the strict carrying out of rules whose only verifiable reason for existing is cruelty. Decreed from a balcony, the laws invented to govern the remainder of these young peoples’ lives include banishment of religious observance and heterosexual lovemaking. (For the openly gay Pasolini, this is the film’s trickiest conceit, borrowing a form of de Sadean licentiousness perhaps as an acknowledgment that even for subversives there are standards of decency in place to keep society from crumbling.) The ever-expanding, frighteningly arbitrary rulebook, written in faux-legalese meant to confound rather than clarify (how many Republicans admitted to not even reading the recent American Health Care Act of 2017 before voting for it, and likely sealing the doom of millions of Americans?) will later include strict enforcements against private defecation and outward shows of emotion. Each time a victim breaks a rule, her or his name is written down in a little black book, foreboding punishments we and they cannot imagine.
The rigidity and reasoning of the libertines’ project is reflected in Pasolini’s dividing the film into sections, each titled with Dantean ominousness—Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Obsessions, Circle of Shit, Circle of Blood—and each teasing what we will eventually be forced to bear witness to. We’re watching a highly structured fantasy, a story of a story—as literalized in the aging prostitutes’ repulsive Sadean tales of coprophagy and sexual humiliation that the kids are forced to listen to, alongside their delighted captors, during nightly 6 p.m. story hours. This doesn’t create enough of a distance between viewer and film that might lessen the visceral and political impact. The film is drained of feeling, written, shot, and acted in a matter-of-fact way, but this both intensifies the godless horrors and makes them academic. In the ghastly finale, the libertines take turns sitting in a makeshift throne, looking onto the villa’s courtyard from an upstairs window as the last punishments are meted out to the boys and girls. The mutilations enacted upon the young flesh—disgusting to watch, but not a patch on de Sade’s monstrosities—constitute the ultimate expression of Pasolini’s commentary on the increasing commodification of the human body he saw as a cultural inevitability in Europe. Meanwhile, the men watch through binoculars—one even turns the binoculars around, making the horrors seem further away—distancing themselves from the window-framed spectacle, as though they’re television viewers denying complicity in their own downfall.
“The one true anarchy is that of power,” says the bearded Duke, who at one point plants his open mouth on the lips of every girl or boy he can get his hands on, during a libidinous mock wedding pageant. It’s the most benign of the molestations in Salò, but watching it this time I recalled another quote, one that became rather prominent during our 2016 presidential election: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Trump’s braggadocio, caught on tape and stated to smiling, enabling lackey Billy Bush, says as much about the culture of sexual exploitation and how it’s perpetuated as anything in Pasolini’s film (look at how the libertines’ studly henchmen, who help them carry out their atrocities, encourage and laugh at the leaders’ awful jokes). Power is not the “ultimate aphrodisiac,” as Henry Kissinger famously stated; it’s a terrible, destructive force men use to institutionalize rape and puff up sexual exploits. Salò concretizes these ideas, creating a space—safely ensconced in wartime—where rape and murder are sanctioned. For anyone who thinks of Pasolini’s film as a strictly metaphorical work, one only needs to point to the otherwise mundane buildings that were converted into rape and enslavement camps during the Bosnian War, as just one example: the games of domination human beings play every day, in manners small and large, merely require the pretext of war to emerge as large-scale sadism rationalized by the pursuit of power.
Our understanding of the world we live in is defined in large part by the aftermaths of wars, statistics of mass deaths and destruction, the historical repetition of atrocity. In a sense, Pasolini was packaging his political fears and revulsion in the most understandable, direct manner he could: Salò is difficult to watch, but not hard to process. During the opening credits of the film, Pasolini recommends Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Pierre Klossowski as supplemental reading (it’s open to interpretation how serious he was), but no additional syllabus is necessary to grasp the essential point here. Horror speaks for itself. It’s an intellectual film that functions on the primal emotion of disgust; the space between the intellectual and the primal is where the film’s irony lies, as well as its despair. This helps explain Salò’s appeal as a postmodern horror object, as well as the parallels one might feel between our contemporary political moment and the points Pasolini was making in 1975. The fear of the present that Pasolini felt and which occasioned Salò only would have grown more acute. Denying progress, suspicious of logic, rejecting the future, the men still stand in the shadows, pens in hand, applauding.