Posts Tagged patriarchy

Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, 1954)

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.

How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.

Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.

There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.

A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.


Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.

Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).

Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.

Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.

A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ’em and I’ve ridden against ’em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.

Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.

It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…

Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.

Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart. It belongs to Johnny Guitar.


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The Cremator (Herz, 1968)

Fascism is born in the mind. We live secure in the knowledge that such minds collectively form little more than insignificant minorities in contemporary Western societies – but how much of that knowledge is based upon material fact, and how much is self-delusion? The capacity for bigotry exists somewhere within us all. And although in most cases it lies dormant (or at least translucent enough to be wilfully ignored), such volcanoes of devolution may not need the strongest of catalysts to awaken from their respective slumbers. After all, for most the delineation between normality and brutality will remain forever untested. Could it be, then, that our moral boundaries are more precarious than we’d like to believe?

Juraj Herz’s The Cremator dives head-first into the degenerative psyche of one Karl Kopfrkingl – an eccentric, somewhat awkward bourgeois fantasist who lives for social advancement. This oily, rotund character rigidly maintains his aura of respectability, priding himself on his familial and professional roles (both, for him, are fundamental status symbols). In terms of the former, our protagonist appears nigh-on faultless: the patriarch of an immaculately nuclear household, his only visible “flaw” (in Czechoslovakia c. 1938) is an overly-effeminate son and heir. And with regards to the professional, few are likely to relish their careers as much as this eponymous cremator, who zealously forges fantastical links between his own incineration of the dead and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in a sincere attempt to garner validation for his work. Unfortunately for Kopfrkingl, society is slow on the uptake when it comes to the self-perceived benevolence of his undertakings, leaving him with an inferiority complex that he’ll do anything (anything) to conquer.

Bulging at the seams with its director’s visual flair, The Cremator‘s primary intent is to disorientate the viewer into incertitude. Sharp, angular compositions; quasi-abstract montages; a random deployment of fish-eye lenses; extreme close-ups that dissect and distort the human body – all contrive to impair our comprehension of an otherwise straightforward narrative. Herz’s most cunning tactic finds him cannily abusing the audience’s trust in the integrity of the audio-visual relationship through his editing: by frequently resting his camera upon Kopfrkingl’s face (as the character espouses the garrulous monologues that so pervade the film), the director lures us into a misappropriated understanding of on-screen action. On certain, unpredictable instances however, the camera zooms out to reveal a backdrop which deliberately contradicts that of the preceding shot. Thus, the dialogue continuity enacted by the protagonist is deftly exposed as an illusive device that unsettlingly conceals scene-to-scene transitions, quietly disembowelling our awareness of space and time.

Such strategies prove emblematic of the director’s diegetic formation, conceived as a dynamic duplicate of the paranoia-inducing frameworks that one more commonly associates with the horror genre. And indeed, in many respects the gruesome content of the film lends credence to his designs: given its portrayal of Nazism’s inevitable onset and the consequent upending of a tenuous national order, The Cremator effectively invites murder and mayhem into its boudoir. Less expected, though, is the macabre humour that incises its way throughout the proceedings, perplexingly undercutting the emotional intensity of the drama at hand. Kopfrkingl is riddled with bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies – consider his casual insistence upon removing cigarettes from others’ mouths, or the wryly comical over-ardour with which he discusses his “Temple of Death”, or especially his ritualised hair-combing procedure, in which he caresses the heads of his corpses before brushing his own thinning locks – and Herz doesn’t waste the opportunity to take potshots at those of his ilk. It’s soon discovered that this ‘perfect’ family man acquiesces to his adulterous impulses with laughably ordered regularity (“only on the first Thursday of the month!”); his fastidious observance of socially-sanctioned morality a mere ruse for the simmering amorality within.

Equal parts drama, horror and satire, Herz’s anxious synthesis of tones builds – alongside his stylistic erraticism – the backbone of a brazenly eclectic approach to his material. The director exploits this schizophrenic modus operandi for two immediate ends: first, to imaginatively mould his deranged protagonist’s fragmentary perspectives into a subjective narrative of insightful vigour; and second, to goad the viewer outside of his/her standardized comfort zone until they’re assailable enough to be ambushed by The Cremator‘s disturbed nucleus. This core displays an aggressively historical bent, with the film’s integration of its late-1930s political context giving rise to the condemnation, not to mention the allegories (the Third Reich can be substituted for any other totalitarian state), that one would envisage from so curious a premise. With these reference points in mind, Herz’s high-octane tributes to the German expressionism of yore play exequially, striking purposefully and powerfully at the cultural magnitude of all that was lost following Hitler’s rapid, ruthless ascendancy.

Of course, Herz’s bereavements go well beyond the artistic; his plot acting as an eerie pre-emptor of the human tolls that would eventually become synonymous with National Socialism in practice. The director’s shrewdest study however, concerns that more intrinsic element within the ideology’s (and, later, the regime’s) rise: the gaping void of compassion. We realise early on that Kopfrkingl is a morally-deficient hypocrite, but his idealistic fluidity nonetheless startles with its accelerated descent into opportunistic savagery. Notice, for example, the slippery transience of his patriotism: initially identifying himself as “purely Czech”, he then discovers “a drop of German blood” before allowing himself to be cast as a fully-fledged Übermenschen. It’s this final transformation which initiates a similarly mercurial attitude to his own family (all of whom have been “tainted” by his wife’s Jewish heritage), pointing the way towards a Final Solution with its contemptuous dismissal and subsequent destruction of these purest of human relationships.

Whilst nourishing a culture of audience bewilderment, The Cremator‘s surface flair dualistically invents a cinematic nightmare through its visual rendering of Kopfrkingl’s psychosis. Herz exploits his myriad of techniques to create an acute psychological proximity to his deranged antihero; the intimacy marking the disquieting pith of his thesis: the style in itself stupefies, but it’s the exposition of the internal hysteria which horrifies. The director swims deep into Kopfrkingl’s troubled pneuma, bringing each of the character’s malevolent ailments to the fore for audience scrutiny (one shouldn’t be surprised when confronting a mirror image or few). Understandably, the natural effect of such devotion is to inhibit character development elsewhere. But therein lies the strength of Herz’s achievement, for Kopfrkingl’s inundation of the narrative itself becomes a commentary on the subservience accorded to and extracted by the tyrannical lunatics of past and present – the incubus being, of course, that the character is not so much a lunatic as he is a capitalist everyman and overeager conformist. As the director lurches towards his frenzied finale, the reduction of human life to anonymous archetypes fails to diminish the harrowing implications of the injustices on-screen. We need not know people to comprehend the impact of their suffering. As Herz so persuasively argues beneath the hysterics: knowledge is overrated, and empathy is everything.

Perhaps the film’s most poignant ongoing thread is the conspicuous lack of a female presence to counter the fascistic manoeuvrings of the men. Kopfrkingl’s soliloquies saturate the narrative with his pseudo-tender male chauvinism, objectifying all women (only when viewed through the prism of sexual desire can they be granted the gift of speech) and relegating their voices to the non-diegetic orchestrations of the soundtrack. Composer Zdenek Liska imaginatively moulds the sounds and strains of this feminine oppression into choral harmonies of cherubic splendour – exalting the female voice as a communicative medium of unparalleled ethereality. As our protagonist sets about extinguishing this vital life-force with methodical precision then, the absurdities of the director’s vision gradually fade away to leave only the excruciating barbarity that they once sheltered. The Cremator thus bares its teeth as a tale of loss. A loss of values, a loss of integrity, and finally – most devastatingly – a loss of humanity: that virtue which needs to be upheld against all odds. In Juraj Herz’s spiritual replication of the Nazi terror, one man’s failure to do so allows the horrifying to swiftly, effectively morph into the tragic. And as Kopfrkingl’s numerous descendants continue to remind us, that tragedy very much remains an ongoing reality.

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The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960)


Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.

With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.

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Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.

Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.


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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975)

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Heil Pasolini! From the dying embers of Italy’s fascist nightmare, this provocateur extraordinaire found truth, beauty, freedom and above all things love. Make no mistake, the iniquitous repute of cinema’s most notorious bête noire is entirely just: Salò depicts the debauched, the depraved and the disgusting with indefatigable relish. Even so, the film is not deplorable… never deplorable. No, the surface repugnance of the director’s masterpiece may overshadow the appeal of its naïve extremism and its truculent fury, but the rectitude behind his achievement sears the memory long after its numerous horrors have subsided. Pasolini’s sentiments are as pure as his visuals are lewd; exemplars of a tormented artist’s last stand against a world dismissed as beyond redemption. Galvanised by this incendiary vitriol, Salò unleashes a violent barrage of ideas and images whose cumulative impact achieves the coup of transplanting its inter-filmic suffering directly into the viewer’s psyche; this dualistic infliction of abuse forming the crux of the director’s hermetic dystopia – a cause and product of the nihilism that so repulsively engulfs his subtexts. His is a work that seemingly revels in the darkness of the abyss; a work that venerates murder, rape and torture whilst denigrating their respective meanings unto the level of sadistic pleasure; a work that trades in on its puerile shock value to actively lust after reprehensibility – eventually attaining the ideal with incomparable causticity.

But Pasolini was too skilled an artist – or perhaps too conflicted a man – to wallow so unremittingly in literal misery-porn. The director’s pessimism finds itself both emboldened and muddied by the ridiculous, possibly even humorous treatment of his material. Salò‘s problematic hinges upon this dogged refusal to capitulate to our understanding of tragedy: its narrative’s mechanisms grind out devastation that’s deprived of sentiment and laden with camp, nonsensical satire. Thus, the perverted quartet of oppressors who invoke its infernos are rendered nothing more than mere pantomime villains at the heart of an elaborate farce; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse recast as hysterical drag queens, dancing their way toward a 20th-century Armageddon. Pasolini’s tone is wild and unruly, veering from the cataclysmic to the gelastic with the blink of an eye (provided, of course, that the eye in question hasn’t been gouged from its socket). Nevertheless, his purpose is clear, for nowhere in Salò is it possible to properly process the magnitude of its victims’ pain – and in thwarting his audience’s cathartic needs, the director endeavours to expose and then redefine the limitations of human empathy. Unable to reconcile the abominations on-screen with any depth in the film’s emotional matter, we end up lapsing puritanically into a moral panic (though not unjustly). Pasolini’s relentless antagonism drives the film into a crevasse unto itself, in which it harbours a disaster so incomprehensible that it become an exercise in the anti-tragic. Reason – as we once understood it – no longer exists.

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If Salò succeeds in the anti-tragic then it surely excels at the anti-erotic. Populated by the lithe, pubescent figures of its uniformly-unclothed teenage captives, the film invites titillation only to emphatically molest it. Pasolini’s camera doesn’t always shy away from the expected gaze – skin, torsos, pubic hairs and genitalia all appear in close-up – but his imagery’s pornographic potential is either offset by the victims’ howls of anguish or supplanted by the perverse glares of their tormentors. The director thus pries open a chasm between object and desire that’s impossible to traverse; our latent aphrodisia neutered by the all-too conspicuous framework of exploitation which effectively desexualises an otherwise attractive group of bodies. The distance that Pasolini begets between viewer and content subsequently materialises inside his frames themselves. Brandishing his mastery as an aesthetician beyond compare, he constructs a series of tableaux informed by the classical elegance of High Renaissance paintings, carefully dividing the action within each of these impossibly-perfect compositions: trauma relegated to the background, with emptiness and/or irreverence dominating the foreground. As the atrocities increase, so too does the physical distance between the two planes; the director at once emulating the reality of marginalised agony, maintaining the tradition of its artistic veneration, and posing the question: is the horror any less real if we’re forced to remain blind to it?

In this paraphilic paradise, the characters’ suffering finds itself incarcerated by the inexorable allure of Pasolini’s artifice. Beauty is therefore as much a curse as it is a blessing: a distraction; a masquerade that protects barbarism; a fallacy. Whilst condemning his own aesthetics, the director incorporates a not-unrelated discussion on the subject of eugenics. Salò‘s victims are chosen as such for their physical perfection, their masters’ filtering procedures unmistakably calling to mind the Nazis’ vision of a flawless gene pool (the geometrical precision of the film’s mise-en-scène further evokes the regime’s ruthless sense of order). However, where Hitler & co. were intent on preserving the “master race” (albeit by destroying others), Pasolini proves hell-bent upon obliterating it altogether. The hollow ideal of an Aryan utopia is thus disembowelled, evaginated and then beautified as the director lambasts the very notion of unnatural selection; his total disillusionment with the modus operandi of interwar Europe’s purportedly “developed” societies blisteringly apparent. Given his Marxist sympathies, it’s unsurprising that this contempt should extend beyond the obvious extremist targets and into the more general domain of capitalism itself. It’s the ubiquitous value of rabid consumption which he denounces most vehemently of all, and it’s the culture of greed that it perpetrates which enables his clinical debilitation of intercourse: he invades this most intimate of acts and reduces it from its zenith as the utmost expression of love to its nadir as the vilest demonstration of hate – where bodies are rendered commodities (if that) in transactions impelled by the privileged perversions of the ruling classes. Enveloped by this ever-decaying morality, Pasolini’s eroticism perhaps appears not quite anti-erotic per se, so much as a mere reflection of the dominant, ruthlessly systematic approach to human life engendered by the reverence of money over man.

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Adopting as his mantra the notion of “absolute power corrupting absolutely”, the director retools Sade’s lascivious libertines (in Salò: a Bishop, a Duke, a Magistrate and a President) and uses them to launch a multi-pronged, defiantly allegorical critique upon the vestiges of authority. The centrepiece of the film’s infamy – a Last Supper-inspired banquet of faeces – is therefore not simply an exercise in maximal revulsion, but also the very axis to all Pasolini’s promulgations. This grossly hypnotic celebration of the coprophilic, conducted at the whims of the merciless foursome, takes the film’s debasements to their inevitable extreme – though lest we forget, the scatological is a genuine fetish to which the libertines are far from alone in subscribing so avidly to; Salò‘s ignominious feast of shit is first and foremost a part of its sexual paraphernalia. Regardless, the scene in question remains irrevocably coloured by the director’s manifold political subtexts: Pasolini himself reportedly contended that the entire conceit was a figurative representation of a world increasingly obsessed with junk food, a statement that may seem somewhat ludicrous on paper but nonetheless keeps entirely in tune with the film’s acerbic depiction of social regression in the face of corporate esurience. The director thus pre-empts the acknowledged McDonaldisation of society and pushes the notion of immediate gratification to its entirely natural breaking point. In this typically sardonic twist, “fast food” is given a new meaning altogether whilst materialism backfires spectacularly upon the materialists.

As the multitudinous images of excrement-smeared faces recedes from the consciousness, what persists in residing is the perturbing perception that, in Salò, anything is possible. Pasolini crafts an alternate reality which conserves a familiar social structure (the hierarchical pyramid from top-to-bottom: elites → accomplices → victims), but he shatters the legislative glass ceiling designed to curb hegemonic abuses. Consequently, all restrictions to the tyrannies inflicted by the elites are eradicated – it is, after all, these individuals who make the laws of governance – and so it follows that there is no end to the complacency of the accomplices, nor any respite to the exploitation of the victims. As one of the libertines memorably declares: “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” – and the shit-eating episode therefore comes to epitomise the height of authoritarian anarchy; an anarchy of power that gleefully nurtures brutality. Even the slightest hint of dissidence is swiftly repressed in Salò‘s monstrously insular milieu (though one of the film’s most resonant images remains the Communist salute of a nude, recalcitrant guard, causing the libertines to collectively gasp in momentary disbelief before gunning him down). Detached from the outside world and shielded from its scrutiny, Salò can turn upon only itself. How appropriate then, that its inhabitants should end up ingesting the faecal so vividly – what better metaphor could there be for the transgressions of a societal microcosm hung up on self-extirpation?

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Lost amidst the grotesqueries is an assertion that offers cause for greater alarm than any of the film’s disconcerting visuals. Although frequently damned for his simplistic, bludgeon-like approach, Pasolini’s treatise decisively embraces the complexity within the historiography of fascism. So it stands that totalitarianism is acknowledged as an impossible goal and, with the film degenerating into its murderous finale, it suddenly emerges that a significant proportion of the prisoners have been covertly flouting the libertines’ preposterous “rules”. Naturally, the disobedience offers little cause for concern in its own right (given the context, its almost certainly admirable), yet the manner in which the dissent is exposed betrays the full, staggering extent of the director’s despondence in his fellow man. It’s easy to view Salò as an (overzealous) cautionary tale against the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but the film is interlaced with telltale signs that suggest something is gravely amiss with such perspectives: the prevailing passivity of the victims; the brief close-ups that allude towards not just their acceptance, but the actual enjoyment of their suffering. Bowdlerised emotions are biding their time and awaiting their release, and when the investigation into the adolescent deviance eventually commences, each of the detainees makes an attempt to delay their demise by accusing another of greater misdeeds. And so a domino effect ensues; the instinct for self-preservation devolving into a pathological desire to destroy one another, thereby provoking a battle for survival where it’s no longer the fittest that necessarily triumph, but the most ruthless. Salò‘s very foundations now crumble before our eyes – not due to the futility of the totalitarian ideal, but because its entire order is upended: absolute power doesn’t merely corrupt those who wield it, it defiles those that are subjugated by it too; the director contending that victims can become just as complicit in their victimisation as their oppressors. Faced with the banality of evil and the silence of humanity, Pasolini sees only one answer: a wave of annihilation – which, in this setting, is an act of love if ever there was one.

Salò‘s allegorical indictments threaten to read like failures; the insane ramblings of a misguided, troubled radical. Indeed, the director’s dejection becomes much easier to dismiss when one considers that his action takes place in a theatre of cruelty that’s like no other in cinema. If innocents and tyrants subsequently become indistinguishable, it’s because he coerces them into illogical scenarios from which it’s impossible to draw reasonable conclusions. Except therein lies the problem. Salò‘s extremities aren’t as extreme as decades of censorship would imply, and the horrors that occur within its confines are all too plausible for the contemporary viewer. For all his Brechtian distancing manoeuvres (his formalism, his abrasions, his vulgarity), Pasolini can’t quite suppress the devastating reality that lurks beneath the veil of his entropic vision. And he knows it. Painfully aware of his art’s woeful inability to incite a revolutionary overhaul of Italian society c. 1975, he retreats into a nihilistic wilderness and defecates on each and every one of his fellow citizens. In the film’s most confrontational gesture, he reverses a pair of binoculars to implicate his unwitting audience in the slaughters on-screen; challenging us to question the integrity behind our voyeurism, imploring us to look directly into the eyes of the inhumane. And yet, in spite of all the violence that occurs before our eyes, the utmost act of savagery is saved for the very last scene – a scene that yields nothing in the way of bloodshed and terror but instead offers a revelation which, really, we knew all along. That is to say: Salò has stamina; Salò has stealth; Salò is a survivor. Salò lives!

And long may it continue to do so.

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We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.

– Marcel Proust

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Devi (S. Ray, 1960)


A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.

Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then…  CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.

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In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:

No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…

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And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.


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