When I was in college in the early 90’s, I once took a weekend trip to Ohio University for their annual Halloween revelry. I’m not by nature much of a party animal, but some friends urged me to go and I had nothing better to do that weekend…so I said ‘Fuck it…’, rounded up a friend, and drove the four hours to Athens, Ohio. Unwisely (or perhaps wisely, depending on your frame of mind) the only music I’d remembered to bring was a cassette single of Beers, Steers, and Queers by The Revolting Cocks. Undaunted, my traveling companion and I listened to that sumbitch repeatedly for the entire eight-our round trip. That was fun.
Anyway, the weekend was spent dicking around setting powdered coffee creamer on fire and hanging out with a girl I met up there, the roommate of a friend. We kind of hit it off and by the time I left she gifted me with a CD she said she didn’t really care for but that she thought I’d like and a small handful of Psylocybin mushrooms. I never did the shrooms – I threw them in a sock drawer when I got home and basically forgot they were there until I cleaned out the drawer a year later and ended up throwing them out.
The CD, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. It was a copy of Coil’s second full-length album, Horse Rotorvator. And – damn if she wasn’t right. I listened to that thing several dozen times over the following week and essentially fell in love with Coil. (I kind of fell in love with the girl who gave me the CD, too – but I never saw her again. That’s kind of how my life works, if you haven’t noticed…)
One track in particular really stuck with me however, and still does to this day. If you’re familiar with the album you probably already know which one I’m talking about.
At the time, I had no idea really what the song was about…the lyrics were kind of impenetrable, but they embodied a sort of vague mysticism that appealed to me in ways I couldn’t quite grasp then. Even the title ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)‘ was alluring and strange. What the fuck is an Ostia? And who the hell is Pasolini?
I’d known of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final work, for a while at that point – but I didn’t know the name of the director. I hadn’t actually seen the film then – I was only vaguely aware of its’ reputation as a nasty piece of cinematic grand guignol. You know ‘…it’s the movie about a bunch of kids being raped, tortured, forced to eat feces, and finally murdered…’
Grim stuff, right? Who would watch such a thing? It would be another ten years before I finally saw Salò and while I won’t say I fell in love with it, I certainly fell in love with the sheer fearlessness of the thing. That it existed at all was kind of remarkable to me. I mean, it’s relentlessly dark. And not just because of the content; Pasolini allows the story (a rough adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom) to just unfold before you without judgement or commentary. He lays out his tapestry of misery and death the way one would set out Thanksgiving dinner and say ‘Here, enjoy!’
I think it’s this lack of fucks given in the delivery that shocks so many people. Pasolini never for a second dwells on the victims – the children – in any meaningful way. We never really enter their world to find out what they think of their plight. Pasolini never attempts to build a bridge between their suffering and our empathy. It’s almost like unceremoniously handing someone a manila folder full of autopsy photos and then walking away without explanation. We never really even penetrate the minds of the monsters perpetrating the atrocities. Yes, we have private moments with them – we hear their conversations and ruminations from time to time, but there’s never a moment where they reflect or consider the source of their impulses. We watch their mania unfold and listen to them talk about how much fun they’re having and what they plan to do the next day.
So yeah – it’s rough stuff.
I was kind of fascinated by the film at this point, so I dug up what information I could and learned quite a bit about Pasolini. And…it clicked. That song, the one on that CD given to me years ago…the lyrics started making more sense.
And the car
The body in the basin
In the shallow
And the car
And his body rolls over
from the shoulder
You can hear the
Pasolini was murdered in November 1975 in a rather unpleasant and violent fashion; he’d been run over repeatedly with his own vehicle, his testicles crushed by a blunt object, and his body burned. Initially the murder was attributed to Giuseppe Pelosi, a male prostitute who claimed that Pasolini took him for a meal and subsequently attempted to sexually assault him. Pelosi was convicted of the murder and sent to prison. Despite the confession, however, rumors swarmed that Pelosi wasn’t the actual perpetrator – that Pasolini had been killed by members of the Mafia or that he’d been killed by an extortionist holding stolen reels of Salo for ransom.
Whatever the case, it was clear Pasolini had a lot of enemies and did not suffer a deficit of people who would have been happy to put him in an early grave. Pasolini was active in left-wing politics and a lot of his work took aim at those in power (sometimes even those who shared his own political leanings). Throughout his career Pasolini found himself running afoul of the authorities for his art, being charged with obscenity for his novels and films.
His final work, Salò, was a pointed political commentary on the dangers of fascism. Seen now, divorced from some of the immediate political context, the film seems a bit crass. Perhaps even pointlessly vile (although, anyone who thinks Salò is vile really should delve into the original work – if anything, Pasolini went to some lengths to tone down the horror and wretchedness of de Sade’s work). But in art, context is everything. The political power structure in Italy at the time Pasolini produced Salò was filled with remnants of Benito Mussolini’s WWII fascist government.
Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on post-War Italian politics…most of what I’ve been able to dig up is the stuff you’d find on Wikipedia and whatnot, but one thing is clear: Pasolini’s film was intended to vilify and shed light on the activities and legacy of a number of Italian fascists and right-wing elements who still held positions of power in Italy in 1975.
Say what you want about the content of the film, but I’d say that’s about as noble a purpose as you could ever want for a piece of art…to uncover and expunge elements of real suffering and misery, to bring them unwanted publicity and cast an eye on their crimes.
So – yeah. It’s not surprising that a lot of people thought (and still do) that Pasolini was murdered to silence him. Because his art was dangerous.
Looking now at that song, it’s clear that Coil were commenting on this very fact. Ostia (The Death of Pasolini) places the director’s murder in the context of a ritualized assassination, committed to protect the State and its’ interests.
You can hear the
Killed to keep
the world turning
Throw his bones over
The White Cliffs
Into the sea
The Sea of Rome
And the bloodstained coast
“Killed to keep the world turning…”. That’s pretty fucking chilling, when you get right down to it. Push the State too far and it will do whatever is necessary to protect its’ interests. That’s not conspiracy, that’s math.
Killed. Killed for art. Because art is powerful shit. Art gives power to the powerless. It allows those without a seat in the houses of power to have a voice – to speak truth to power, and inflict wounds on an enemy in a way that no amount of bullets and bombs can achieve. I know I’ve spoken unkindly of propaganda in the past, that art isn’t about certainties, it’s about creating uncertainty. But weaponized Art, wielded properly, has the ability to create tremendous change. This doesn’t mean that art produced for the purpose of political action is inherently good. The Nazis were incredibly adept at using imagery and ideas to motivate people to all kinds of terrible ends. But just as a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone to death, so it can be used to build shelters for the homeless.
I’ve long held the opinion that terrorists would go much farther in achieving their aims if they relied on wit and cleverness rather than blunt violence. I don’t expect any of them to relinquish their tools of death to take up my methodology, but I think they’d do well to consider it.
So – Salò. Much ink has been spilled over it’s value as a work of art, mostly because of its content. But I think such arguments miss the forest for the trees. Salò does indeed have value, for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. The fact of the matter is, art can sometimes be ugly. It can be downright vile. This is the price we pay for staring into the abyss. But it’s a price worth paying. Art isn’t always about beauty and light – often it has to reflect the worst aspects of our nature. You can’t comment on terrible things without reflecting terrible things…and if we as a society want to confront the monsters in our midst, we must occasionally be willing to see them for what they are.
So yes, Salò has value. It has value. It doesn’t make it an easy viewing experience, or the kind of art you turn to for reassurance. But it does make it a thing which should exist.
Arguing anything less is craven and misguided.