Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial anti-fascist masterpiece is so apt it even has a golden shower scene – seriously, there are allegories EVERYWHERE
The Young Pope just can’t catch a break. People are only too delighted to point out that the Pope is not only young and hot and played by Jude Law, but also American president-elect Donald J. Trump, only young and hot and played by Jude Law. Not even Sorrentino is safe from America’s new favorite past-time: Trump-spotting. An obnoxious portmanteau? Yes. Did I just make it up? Yes. Trump-spotting is a smug sort of political pareidolia via which one excitedly points out vaguely Trump-shaped things in pop culture in the pursuit of social media capital. Westworld has been Trump-spotted. As has Children of Men. It’s been done to Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood and that Black Mirror episode where an insufferable cartoon is used as a political pawn to win an election over a female career politician. Forget dumpster fire — that is so pre-November 8. The hot take du jour is recognizing IRL fascists in fictional fascists who were written as diluted, moustache-twirling Banksyfications of IRL fascists.
The most susceptible targets of Trump-spotting are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and even Game of Thrones, which makes no sense but for the uncomfortably pertinent figurehead of a hawkish white feminist who panders to and tokenizes people of colour and exploits their bodies as a means of taking her rightful throne. Like all bad takes, this has received an equal and opposite piss-take: “Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?” asked Slate, uncharacteristically. “Trump is evil, and Voldemort is evil, ergo… You get it. Simple,” mocked Esquire, which went on to call it “bullshit nostalgia — a kind of moral and moralistic idiocy.” The same idiocy, by the way, that many have pinpointed as a characteristic of the Democratic party. Of all the ways to deal with the election, calling Trump Regina George for a small amount of Twitter favs has got to be the most self-congratulatory and pointless. Not to mention downright offensive to those of us whose exposure to racism and systemic violence. Organised resistance did not originate with wizards (at least imaginary ones) or a white girl bootleg of Battle Royale.
Dangerous, even, when it becomes one’s main form of political engagement. “If you've gone from ‘just ignore it’ to ‘antifascist guerilla’ in 48 hours you're not #woke you just oscillated from one fantasy to another,” tweeted Fuck Theory. “I'm not advocating ‘chill,’ I'm just saying what's needed is a healthy dose of reality and not an imaginary movie franchise starring you.”
"My life won't change" and "I'm going to kill those bastards" are both self-oriented fantasies in which you are the guest star of history.— ft (@FuckTheory) November 15, 2016
Put another way, in the words of artist Shivana Sookdeo, “2017 goal for white people: you're not Katniss. You're not even a von Trapp. Stop LARPing thru activism. Get out there and go hard.”
But, much like increasingly horrific revelations that the president-elect is mostly likely a meat-flavoured condom whose horcrux, if you must (which, no), is Vladimir Putin’s forearm, the takes keep coming. A few, like MTV News’ comparison of Trump to Othello’s gaslighting Iago or The New Inquiry’s use of Westworld to describe the liberal tendency to compartmentalise racism and sexism as glitches, are even very good. There is value in critically analyzing the ease and speed by which sympathetic characters normalize fascism in widely and otherwise passively consumed works. The vast majority, however, look like Patton Oswalt’s.
So if we insist on persisting in that vein, I hereby submit an exponentially woke af alternative to Star Wars. Reader, I give you... Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It’s so spot-on, in fact, that you can skip the inauguration entirely. Presented with two equally relentless and tastefully bankrupt yet nevertheless mesmerising celebrations in which nubile youngsters are coerced to degrade themselves in increasingly debauched ways for the amusement of Machiavellian despots, one should always choose the one soundtracked by Ennio Morricone. Are you with me?
Salò by itself is a great film. But as Trump-spotting fodder, it’s utterly perfect. For one, its potential for performative displays of resistance is rich and bountiful. Nothing says a refusal to kowtow to the whims of Middle America like a film only available via $29.99 Criterion Collection DVD. What’s more, it’s John Waters-certified. Even better, Pasolini was a gay Commie poet whose brand of Dirtbag Leftism, just like us, probably resulted from his daddy issues, except his dad was a literal not just figurative fascist and get this: 20 days before Salò’s release, he was murdered, rumour has it, by either a secret cell of right-wing extremists or the Mafia who pinned it on a teenage sex worker. If nothing else, watch it for the #aesthetic.
Also, unlike Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, Salò has actual Nazis in it, being set in the twilight of Mussolini’s regime. Not magical pretend-Nazis with stupid tattoos and a dumb obsession with shitty anagrams. That’s kids’ stuff. This contains strictly adult literary references for the strictly adulted: The entire thing is an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s political rebuttal The 120 Days of Sodom, written to fit the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, referencing Proust, Nietzsche, and Baudelaire.
Best of all, Pasolini pretty much gave us permission to retcon it to our hellish present. Although set in 1944, he intended it both as a critique of fascism and the “new Fascism” of capitalism in 1975 Italy. Even so, his quotes from the making-of documentary are super resonant: “Nothing is more anarchic than power,” he says at one point. “Power can essentially do what it wants, and what it wants is completely arbitrary or dictated by its economic needs that elude common logic.” Sound familiar? So prescient.
Now on to the Trump-spotting. As promised, the President-elect is everywhere. In fact, in Salò, you can find an allegorical equivalent of damn near anyone and anything. Four fascists, aided and abetted by soldiers chosen for their impressive endowments, marry each other’s daughters, kidnap nine girls and nine boys, and torture them for four months by sexually abusing them, forcing them to sexually abuse each other, feeding them nails, feeding them shit, subjecting them to monologues about how fascists are the true anarchists, and otherwise subjecting them to physical, sexual, and mental torment. Four old brothel owners provide the fascists with entertainment by narrating inspirational tales of child abuse and crimes. The four fascists are Trump, Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, and Peter Thiel! The daughters are Ivanka! The four ageing brothel owners are Tucker Carlson, Dick Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Kellyanne Conway! The studs (not cucks) are the alt-right! The film’s four chapters — the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood — describe the next four years! The kidnapped youths forced to eat shit who end up turning on each other, why, that’s us of course! There’s even a golden shower scene.
“Salò by itself is a great film. But as Trump-spotting fodder, it’s utterly perfect.”
Another great thing about Salò is that there’s no happy ending, so you don’t have to feel guilty that you’re fantasising about being part of an underground resistance made of sexy teens you’d never join in real life. It comes straight from Pasolini’s mouth: “I don’t believe we shall ever again have any form of society in which men will be free,” he says in the documentary. “One should not hope for it. One should not hope for anything. Hope is invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.” Salò, indeed, is overwhelmingly, utterly, and immersively nihilistic. “Never has the mere act of watching felt so like victimhood, so like complicity, so like power — the unholy trinity of Fascist ideology that the film both embodies and dissects,” wrote author Neil Bartlett. So if you belong to one of the groups lucky enough to denounce identity politics, well, here’s your chance to get in on the action.
The thing about Salò, though, is it’s a little too spot-on. “In what is probably the most savage twist, Pasolini implies that watching this movie makes one complicit in its horrific world — our own voyeurism is inescapably guilty,” wrote essayist John Powers in 1998. “At the end, we witness the ritual murder of innocents through reverse binoculars, a distancing process that frees us from the sound of their screams and lets us ‘enjoy’ the moment with proper detachment.” But this is not so in Trump’s America. Watching Salò in 2017 begins with the giddiness of live-Tweeting an apocalypse from your bedroom, but eventually the apocalypse creeps in and refuses to leave. What exactly is to be gleaned from watching a group of teenagers systematically and routinely raped by a group of old men when our President-elect has been accused of the same? In addition to the golden shower scene, by the way, I neglected to mention the numerous pussy-grabbing ones. What happens when your fictional dystopia is a little too literal to be metaphor? And did we really just watch ourselves eat shit for two hours? How did we ever think that was clever? Trump’s America does the impossible, and turns an incredibly nuanced political allegory into nothing more than torture porn.
“The body of the spectator, the one inside the film, or our own bodies — there is no more difference, that is Salò’s monstrous stroke of genius, the principle that fiction is no longer before us, it is no longer a projection that we’re invited to witness but an invisible haemorrhage,” wrote director Catherine Breillat.
It’s enough to put you off Trump-spotting as your main form of political engagement for a while. But if not, well, Game of Thrones Season 7 is coming back this year.