Friday, November 11, 2011

120 Dollars Worth of Sodom

Without a doubt, the real crown-jewel title for me during the semi-annual Barnes and Noble 50% Off Criterion Collection Sale (going on for at least another week) was Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALÒ, O LE GIORNATE DI SODOMA/THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. When all was said and done, I spent an eerie $120 on Criterion titles. Man alive, has my Mastercard taken a beating this month...

Those of you who have known me for some time likely already know that I have quite a bit of affinity for - and even some history with - this film, so I'll try to keep my riding of the director's stiffened corpse relatively brief. Based largely on the Marquis de Sade's massive tome detailing literally every example of human torture he could imagine (with just a pinch of Dante's Inferno as a framing device), we are treated to just shy of two hours of four men - men of power, high breeding, above average intelligence and a profound understanding of the world around them - who have decided that they're not satisfied with the way the world is turning, and bring with them a number of anonymous, beautiful teenagers to live out their deepest and most taboo fantasies while the world, for all they care, burns to the ground outside the walls of their remote castle.

The film is an oddly perfect example of stripping humans of their basic dignity and even their names or personalities, and that's exactly why the proceedings become so horrifying: The "Victims" presented in The 120 Days of Sodom are just that, prisoners with no hope of escape or betterment in their short, meaningless lives. The libertines have brought with them the unshakable force of the bloodthirsty fascist military, and what few uprisings happen are dealt with in swift and certain terms. The human body is reduced to a silent, miserable bag of meat, and it becomes clear that even the libertines themselves are no longer taking any joy in torturing them. The "Masters" become bitter husks of humanity, whipping, bludgeoning, raping, and pissing on their assortment of beautiful toys in the vain hopes that they'll feel something, anything before the winds of change render them as empty and powerless victims as well. Presented in long, wide takes like a cloying documentary, the film's otherwise sensational content is downplayed to a fault, reducing the lengthy and loving descriptions of de Sade into an "indigestible" melange of melancholy and disgust.

The film is not, however, remotely exploitive; for that to be the case, there would have to be something viscerally or morally aggressive for viewers to cling to and be excited by. Instead, the process is a morose mockery of life, with one of the most tense moments being a celebrated beauty's very existence being threatened at gunpoint as a solliloquy of the nature of the Sodomite is explored. The Sodomite (not necessarily a homosexual - just one who interntionally turns their back on the laws of nature), they argue, is more powerful and deplorable than a murderer, because the Sodomite has the power to continually destroy the foundations of life itself. In a sadly absent snippet of dialog found from the final scene of the original script, the following partial quote - one that sums up de Sade's nihilist pre-Nietzchian "we are all selfish animals bound to goodness for society's sake" principles almost perfectly - was to have been uttered just before the closing credits:

...I personally maintain that my imagination has always greatly surpassed my faculties. I lack the means to do what I'd like. I've conceived things hundreds of times worse than what I've done. I've always complained that nature gave me the desire to violate it, but never the means to do so.

There are only two or three crimes worth committing in this world. Once that's done, there's nothing more to be said...

It's only in the final reel that they seem to find satisfaction, and we - the viewer - are left with no choice but to empathize with the vouyeristic sadism the libertines visit upon their nameless, spineless, perhaps even soulless victims. It's a merciless sequence that should rock even jaded gorehounds to their moral core, but like a ton of shit slapping you in the face, any astute viewer will recognize that they themselves are no different - sitting in the comfort of their chair and peering at these horrors as a vouyer into de Sade and Pasolini's mad dream. Unlike an oddly similar sequence in the 2010 feature A Serbian Film, there is no morally vindicative moment in which a heroic figure stands up in disgust and walks out: we are invited to join in their sadistic, perverse delight, and to look away as so many paying patrons have done over the years would be to miss the point of the film entirely. We as the audience are the libertines, not the victims - paying to vicariously revel in the untold power they exert on the hapless casualties we don't even know by name. To go into Salo and turn away is to deny the part of yourself that wants to exert dominance - something mankind as a race has proven completely incapable of doing since the dawn of recorded history.

The film's politics are - as with everything Pasolini did in life - an important component, even if the majority of the action on display was written in the 18th century and is set in Mussolini's historic last stand against the Allied Forces. In the Neo-Consumerist culture born in the second half of the 20th century, you are either a libertine abusing those below you, or a victim being abused by those above you. To look away is to be among the victimized, and to watch on is to agree with the tenets de Sade quite literally wrote on tightly coiled toilet paper. Interpreting the film as a literal allegory about Fascism is, frankly, a heavily flawed way to read the events as a whole, but equating it (if only symbolically) to the social inequality that rampant commercialism has led to - particularly in an era in which "The 99%" is making a public stand against those who, it's charged, abuse their seemingly limitless power against them - seems more relevant today than a great number of more recent films with the same underlying message.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Salo was largely lambasted by critics upon its 1976 theatrical release, banned as obscene in much of the English speaking world and largely forgotten in the annals of tragic arthouse history up until The Criterion Collection released the film as a part of their prestigious Laserdisc lineup in the late 1990s. The DVD infamously went out of print in 1998, less than a year after its initial release, and due to being "the rarest of the rare" quickly commanded prices of up to $500 at auction - this is despite the fact that the DVD was of exceptionally poor quality, being sourced from a PAL video master, presented at 1.85:1 in a letterboxed 4:3 widescreen presentation, having an unnaturally heavy green hue and missing a 22 second sequence that was actually available on their prior LD release. It was truly a shit release of a phenomenal film, and it's the title I can't help but point to and shake my head whenever I see people going on about how perfect and caring those folks at Criterion are. Don't misunderstand, they usually do very decent work for the hefty price tag they continue to charge in the climate of studio-owned double disc special editions, but they're far from infallible.

Even 35 years later the film is notoriously difficult to watch, not only for its' psychotic and pointless brutality but for the way in which all of these acts are presented; the film takes place in a cold, uncaring universe in which anything resembling compassion has absolutely no place, and this leads to lengthy, cringeworthy sequences without a single sympathetic human emotion to be found. The camera languidly watches over the victims and victimizers alike with an uncaring indifference, while Ennio Morricone's minimalist score, itself reinterpretations of period pop music, intrudes on reality only by way of a background pianists intervention. The entire film has been meticulously constructed to anger and disgust viewers without manipulating them unjustly into feeling one way or another; you are invited to watch humanity at its most basic and transparent, seeking power in its most basic form of sadomasochism. Never before or since has such a literal and profound piece of cinema been crafted from the wretched mind of history's most celebrated pervert, and never before has so much controversy been attached to a film's premier, with Pasolini having been murdered literally just three short weeks before the release of Salo - with new implications going all the way to the 21st century that political extremists aware of the film's distaste with fascism and capitalism were who did him in.

The BFI Blu-ray from 2008 actually has far more comprehensive coverage of his mysterious death than I can give here as supplementary material, so anyone interested in as much of the story as possible should watch the 1981 documentary "Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die". Unfortunately, the image and sound quality of the 2008 UK import - something I find far more important than any supplementary material - left much to be desired. Despite having been supposedly made from the camera negative, the whole transfer was a clumpy, blue tinged mess of digital noise reduction and heavy edge sharpening, looking less like 35mm film and more like each and every character was sculpted out of clay and given a glowing electric outline. It was, for the time, still the best looking and sounding release of the film available. The Criterion Collection struck back a mere week later - but with only a standard definition DVD, and no Blu-ray in sight. As THE CAPS-A-HOLIC COMPARISON accurately shows, the Blu-ray showed increased resolution and less in the way of low-pass filtering and compression artifacts, but the DVD featured a more lifelike color and a healthy, natural coating of grain. I'm not one to suck Criterion's asshole on a regular basis, but I think it was perfectly fair to say that the BFI Blu-ray was, at best, only a modest improvement over the R1 DVD.

Thankfully, it's 2011 and we finally have 120 Days of Sodom on Blu-ray from Criterion Collection. Almost everything negative I've had to say about their treatment of the film has now been made irrelevant; this is by leaps and bounds the best it's ever looked, and honestly, I don't picture anyone topping them in the near future. I'll point you all to CAPS-A-HOLIC ONCE MORE for the BFI vs Criterion Blu-ray comparison. Yeah sure, I guess I could do it myself, but why bother? The results would be identical, and they have done a stellar job of showing how the CC release all but obliterates the 2008 BFI transfer. The warm, healthy skin tones of the 2008 CC DVD have been augmented with the full 1080p resolution of the source, and a natural coating of fine grain and the accompanying fine detail has been preserved. Though limited by the source to some degree, the CC release has also removed the majority of analog hiss and crackling from the original audio mix without any obvious degradation in sound quality.

The CC master is (according to the booklet) based on an Interpositive, while the BFI release was (again, so the booklet says) mastered from the "restored negative" - I have little reason to doubt either claim, so unless I find evidence to suggest otherwise I'll take their word for it. Sadly, any enhanced clarity the OCN may have had to offer has been thoroughly obscured by heavy digital filtering, rendering what could have been a superior presentation anything but. Criterion may not be infallible, but I'd be lying through my teeth if I said they didn't mop the floor with BFI's presentation of the film, and I for one have never been happier to have one of their minimalist and overpriced digipacks sitting on my shelf. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that even if you've imported the BFI release that adding the Criterion Blu-ray to your collection is worth the current sale price. Admittedly, if you already own the BFI Blu-ray and the CC DVD it's kind of a hard sell, being that the CC Blu-ray is composed of the same materials, but not one I'm convinced would be without merit to those who see the profound and grim power lurking beneath its infamy and morose musings about mankind's most base properties.

The only real complaint I have with the Criterion Collection Blu-ray is that, just like both their 1998 and 2008 DVD releases, there's a brief scene missing during chapter 10 (0:44:33). After the wedding ceremony the victims are rushed into the stairwell and the doors slam shut - following this, there's a 17-second sequence in which one of the libertines quotes a poem by Gottfried Benn. Criterion ADDRESSED THE ISSUE on their website at length (complete with a comparison video), stating that the camera negative lacks the poem recital and that their print was sourced from the negative, so they simply released the materials as they were given to them. Concurring on some level with this story, BFI had stated on the booklet included with their 2001 DVD release that the poem recital was actually sourced from a 35mm print at the British Film Institute National Archives. Seeing as how the sound mix on the shot of the clothing being dropped after the cut on the Criterion print is indeed completely different - you can hear the door slamming both times, but not the libertine saying "Gottfriend Benn" immediately before the first slam  - I can only assume they're being honest about it.

What's especially bizarre is that this scene was dubbed into English! Sort of, at least - the English dub for this scene has the English voiceover quoting the poem in its original German (...the hell?), while the Italian dub* has him quoting the poem translated into Italian. That said, the video quality does shift visibly during this scene on the BFI Blu-ray, so it wouldn't surprise me if the sequence itself was, for whatever reason, cut out of the original negative. The end of the wedding ceremony was a reel change point (as evidenced by the cue-mark in the DVD BEAVER COMPARISON), so the most logical answer is that the Gottfried Benn poem was just removed from the negative due to print damage over the last several decades. Now Criterion can do all the research into the issue they like, but common sense dictates that if the scene was dubbed into multiple languages, including the film's original language (ie: Italian), odds are it's a valid part of the damned film!

If Criterion simply didn't want to include the scene in the film due to the quality of the materials - a valid enough concern, I admit - couldn't they at least have added it to the Blu-ray as a deleted scene? For that matter, the BFI release also included the vintage English credits via seamless branching (which alone suggests access to the more materials than Criterion had), but an alternate set of motionless film slates, while still pretty cool to have, is of substantially less importance than footage from the middle of the actual film.

Bottom Line: If you're interested in the highest quality release of Pasolini's final masterpiece the BFI Blu-ray has been violently usurped, so get that Criterion Collection Blu-ray while it's still cheap! Alternately, if you want to get in on those juicy BFI extras the 2 disc Blu-ray + bonus DVD has recently been replaced with a 3 disc Blu-ray/DVD dual format set for the same price as the prior DVD set (readily available from Amazon UK for about 15 GBP/25 USD).

The CC release is "REGION A" only, while the BFI release is "REGION B" only with a REGION FREE/PAL DVD for most of the bonus features. Hopefully you can find a way around all of that, but if not...

*Italian films from the 1970s were regularly shot without any sync sound, and Salo was no exception. The film premiered in French before any other language, so it's not unthinkable that all of the various languages the film was dubbed into - French, Italian, German and English, among others - were done at roughly the same time. The actors all spoke Italian on set, and the script itself was written in Italian, so despite being a post-dubbed feature Italian is still the "original" language. I wouldn't be surprised if the French version follows de Sade's text more closely, but not speaking a word of it I wouldn't be the guy to confirm it...

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