James Franco on 120 Days of Sodom
Not long ago I caught a double feature of portraits of creative types at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue in New York: Noah Baumbach’s great Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig at her best, and Paul Schrader’s strange The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan and the porn star James Deen. The first movie capitalizes on the filmmakers’ knowledge of New York culture for its quirky and moving portrait of a dancer’s struggle amid financial and personal woes. The second movie purposefully showed unlikeable movie types in Los Angeles using each other and being disgusting for no good reason. It was a depressing film, not because the characters were all anti-heroes, but because it seemed like everyone could have had more fun depicting such people. If you’re going to get depraved, at least have fun doing it. And if it’s not fun for the filmmakers, it’s probably not going to be fun for the audience. That said, I am still a Schrader fan for his stylish explorations of America’s underbelly and a Brett Easton Ellis fan for his unabashed and flagrant embrace of narcissism and nihilism.
While waiting in line for my small popcorn, no butter, I saw that the IFC was selling a new Criterion edition of Pier Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom. I bought it along with a special Werner Herzog shirt that mashed his name with a Danzig logo. I had seen Salò years before on VHS after buying it out of some bargain bin on Melrose. I felt dirty watching it alone in my little Sherman Oaks apartment. If you don’t know, Salò is the name of a town in Italy where Pasolini plays out some of the activities that the Marquis de Sade describes in his masterwork, 120 Days of Sodom. The text was written while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille for some sort of extreme behavior in a brothel (Whipping? Stabbing? Sodomy? Whatever it was was nothing compared to what is described in 120 Days). Sade’s text catalogues the depraved acts in an isolated chateau that a quartet of wealthy decadents inflict on a group of teenagers that they have either kidnapped or procured for this purpose. The descriptions of the live acts practiced on the teenagers are interspersed with sexual narratives from a group of old women hired to spice up each day with such lewd stories from their own youth. In the textual format both the acts imposed on the teenagers in the present and the storytellers’ narratives about the past are flattened into the same mode of delivery. There is little difference between an old prostitute talking about her experiences and Sade relating what the rich perverts are doing to the children, you readboth things. But in the movie, the stories from the past are told and the acts with the teenagers are shown. “Manga, Manga” says one of the men to the children when they are forced to eat their own shit that has been collected in a large pot. And we watch them consume it. (It’s really just berries, and sausages, or something like that, covered in brown sauce.) On film what is shown and what is told are very distinct.