So Slate has started a "culture blog," called "Browbeat," get it?, and it seems pretty much as delightful as you'd expect. And yesterday over at said blog David Haglund put up a brief post with the headline "Must Film Buffs Watch the Revolting Salò?" which is really a pretty interesting hed by my lights, because every word in it except maybe 'film" and "the" represents a category error. This whole notion of film "buff"-dom, and/or cinephilia, as a kind of contest; I never got it. No one individual knows the entirety of film history; no one has seen everything; no one can speak with authority on every film, every filmmaker. Enthusiasts are enthusiasts, and yes, "professional" critics ought to have seen more, and processed more, than laymen or enthusiasts or what have you. The notion that you're going to get thrown out of some club if you don't "subject" yourself to film X seems entirely ridiculous. And while I'd be the first to argue, very strongly, that a wide viewing background and some substantial historical context is essential not just to persuasive and engaging critical writing but also to critical thinking itself, even the most learned and erudite will find themselves in a position when they're obliged to bluff, punt, or just pass on the subject.
This might seem an especially inapt way to put it, but I personally don't give a shit whether you've seen Salò or not. I've seen it, I may watch it again now that it's out on Blu-ray (once my PS3 is replaced), but your having seen it is not the linchpin on which I'm going to base my assessment of either your cinephilia or your critical intelligence. I bring it up because I find (and you may be surprised to discover this) the whole perspective of the discussion to be kind of dispiriting; this whole sense of Salò as a kind of totem of all that is reprehensible in cinematic imagery and hence reducible to a parlor game acid test, the art-film equivalent of The Human Centipede, for the adults in the room. Except discussing it on that particular level simply is not adult (I know, I know, I'm turning into Lee Siegel, right?) and while Haglund quoted mostly smart people in his piece, only Scott Tobias of The A/V Club is quoted in such a way as to even suggest that Salò has any kind of cultural specificity outside of its status as some kind of coffee-table gross-out object. (I know that Richard Brody certainly apprehends the film in a culturally specific way, too, but the quotes from him in Haglund's piece are on the more general side.) For many reasons it's a shame that Salò, a deliberately unreasonable cinematic disgorgement of despair, was Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film; it gives it the aura of a testament that it was likely not intended to be. I wrote about the film myself for what was then known as The Auteurs' Notebook, and concluded, "as an examination of any facet of fascism in particular, or power relations in general, Salò is a welter of incoherence." I said "welter," and I meant "welter," and if I watch Salò again, it will be to reexamine my own assessment of it, not for the sake of testing my tolerance for unpleasant imagery. Again: Cinephilia is not a game of "Guts," for fuck's sake. Criticism even less so.
And yes, it is snicker-worthy that in the "Browbeat" post, Dan Kois, who essentially made his name by saying, "Nyah, nyah, Solaris is a bore that only stupid collegiate posers fall for" chimes in that "yes, a serious cinephile ought to see [Salò]." It's almost as if the guy is pulling a gigantic practical joke or something.