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Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Taste No Evil: Religulous (2008), Blindness (2008) & Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 22, 2008 08:01pm | Post a Comment
Power can essentially do what it wants, and what it wants is completely arbitrary. -- Pier Paolo Pasolini in the documentary "Salò": Yesterday and Today

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~ Hard of Hearing ~
 
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods. -- Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro

In every internet debate I've ever had regarding religion (almost always with a Christian fundamentalist), I bring up the Euthyphro dilemma. Before Christianity even had its start, good ol' Plato cut it off at the knees with one sentential swipe. His reasoning goes something like this: if an action is moral only because a god says so, then morality is arbitrary; but if it's moral because it coincides with moral reality (what's objectively real), then morality is independent of a divine will (i.e., a god is good because it subscribes to the same reality that we mortals do). In either case, we don't need a god for morality. However, I've yet to meet a Christian who's convinced by this argument -- such is the function of faith -- but if he's intellectually inclined, he'll acknowledge that the argument is important enough to be dealt with. After all, what good is a religion that doesn't ground morality? Religions suck at doing science and are even worse at giving day-to-day practical advice. Thus, there has been a fine, honorable tradition of Christian rationalist attempts to explain away Plato's argument.

The logical tradition is interwoven with the history of Christianity. Indeed, my personal favorite argument for the capital-g God's existence (i.e., He who is omnipotent, -scient and -benevolent) -- the ontological proof -- was proposed by a Christian Platonist, St. Anselm (just check it out; it's got a real aesthetic beauty to it). And no sooner than Anselm's ink had dried on the parchment, there was a rebuttal from a Benedictine monk by the name of Gaunilo. All of this took place in the socalled "Dark Ages," around the time of the Crusades. My point in bringing all this up isn't that Christianity (or, by extension, any religion) is, in the final instance, as rational as any other belief system (it most certainly isn't), but that based on what it uses as an ontological ground (faith in God), it has a tradition of rational argumentation that's pretty fucking solid, even if you reject the ground.

Enter Bill Maher, skeptic, talkshow host, and humorless prick. Watching some of his early performance clips in his and director Larry Charles' documentary, Religulous, suggests divine intervention (or, at least, demiurgic interference) that such an individual could've ever had success as a comedian. His role in the film is as a bumptious court king, spewing out pieces of his leg of lamb while insisting that his dimwitted subjects entertain him ("orf wit' 'is 'ead"). As with the politicians he regularly lampoons, Maher's popularity rests on an audience even duller than he is. Likewise, his role as social critic is the result of the dependable outrage of people even more humorless. It's the sort of controversy that made both Rush Limbaugh and Madonna stars. Thus, there's no modern day Anselms in his film (no Alvin Plantinga), just a parade of faithful ignoramuses at whom we can point and laugh. True, Christiatnity has its fair share of such people, and I'm not unsympathetic to their being mocked. I just don't need Maher and Charles' subtitles to see the stupidity on display. And, yes, subtitles are actually used to point out what's supposed to be funny.  It reminds me of those bits on Leno where the audience is clued in by knowing comments and looks from Jay -- with the answers in front him -- on how ignorant the people on the street are about politics or grammar. Elitism for dummies.

Maher knows he's taking easy shots as demonstrated by the two exceptions in the film where he evinces bill maherany sort of respect for his interview subjects: Francis Collins, the former head of the human genome project, who is a devout Christian (although he feels misled), and some old middle management type in the Latin division of the Vatican, who seems to have lost his faith long ago and is now just collecting a paycheck. Knowing these guys aren't idiots, Maher doesn't even try to be funny around them (albeit the Latin expert is a real hoot). He's clearly only comfortable mocking the easily mocked (confer this).

So, back to Christianity, morality and rationality: the largest majority of morons in America didn't get that way because of their mistaken faith in a mythical foundation. Rather, the majority of morons are Christians simply because most people are Christians. If you were to draw some Venn-like diagrams with one big circle being labeled 'morons,' another big one 'Christians,' and a much smaller one 'non-believers,' you'd find that even if the non-believer circle was completely contained within the moron one, you'd still have more Christians coming out morons due to the sheer quantity of people stuffed within the overlap. I'll leave it to another day as to which group is actually proportionally more likely to be moronic, though. Suffice it to say that knuckleheads abound in any social affiliation.

Therefore, the nonreligious shouldn't make the same fallacious assumption about the religious that they often do about the nonreligious. One's belief in the foundation of morality or truth shouldn't play a part in determining whether one is behaving morally or rationally. The absolutist and relativist, for example, can agree that the indiscriminate killing of 10 year old boys is wrong while being in disagreement over the metaphysical why. For the calculus of brutality, it doesn't much matter whether people are getting slaughtered for God's Will or the good of the collective. Conversely, who cares if the leaders of Civil Rights Movement were acting in accordance with religiously inspired principles? What matters, as Plato demonstrated, is whether the actions coincided with correct moral thinking. Consequently, when Maher ends his film with a lengthy, humorless, tin-eared rant about the evils of religion and how much more peaceful the world would've been without it, he violates his own flippant disregard for faith, ironically giving the religious foundation too much credit in a film that had until then given it none. Religion is just an ideological muzzle used to cover up man's evil inclinations or to accept the credit when he does good. Man would still behave in the same way without it in his conceptual toolbag, only with a different set of rationalizations for doing so.
 
~ Seeing is Believing ~
 
Just like a blind man I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the lord I saw the light. -- Hank Williams, "I Saw The Light"

A friend's mother used to have one of those tacky plates expressing homilies hanging up on her kitchen wall. Hers read, "Lord, if you can't make me thin, please make all my friends fat." There's a sort of religious fanatic's wish fulfillment fantasy expressed in that message, blindness posternamely "I don't want to be happy, I want others to be more miserable." Only, it doesn't quite get the desire for power correct. More accurately, it should've read, "make my friends fatter than me." Peter Parker would've hardly captured the dork imagination had he only been given the strength of his high school archnemesis, Flash Thompson. No, he needed to become vastly superior. A thought experiment regarding this fantasied superiority complex comes by way of Fernando Meirelles' film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay On Blindness). I haven't read the book (but this plot summary sounds pretty close to the film's), so I'm just going to be talking about the film.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city where an epidemic of "white blindness" breaks out. The afflicted characters describe the blindness as swimming through milk, and the grey shapes fading into a white fog created for the camera eye reinforce this description. A more allegorically rich name for the film might've been The Ganzfeld ("whole field"), since the affliction bears a close resemblance to the old gestalt effect of creating a sort of snowblindness with a homogeneous distribution of light across the eyes. The ganzfeld parallels the redistribution of power relations among the blind and seeing within the story. As it were, "seeing the light" no longer has any beneficial effects for the sighted (just as belief in God has no real moral benefits for the religious).
 
Since blindness can occur just as much from a lack of contrasts within light as it can from the simple lack of light, it makes for an interesting allegory of societal relations centering on faith (even if the film as a whole fails to follow through with the full promise of its conceit). As Maher or some of the currently popular atheist ideologues (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) would have it, ridding the world of religion would reduce evil (a dream that isn't that far removed from the totalizing desire of the religious fanatic). What Blindness shows (badumpbump) is that any such homogeneous effect would, at best, provide for a temporary state of equilibrium in the social structure. As faith qua sight begins to disappear, the blind willingly lead the blind through the building in which they've been quarantined. But is this charity -- good will towards fellow man -- or an act of desperation resulting from what was lost? It doesn't take too long for a rebellious group to form around a charismatic leader (Gael Garcia Bernal as "the bartender") who decides to take control of the food supply. Blindness becomes the new source for the same julianne moore in blindnessideological struggles now denuded, with seeing as an otiose mask, or useless filter. As such, the one person who retains her sight (Julianne Moore as "the doctor's wife") hides her (now super-) ability, pretending to be blind in order to belong to what remains of her society. Moore is Superman to Bernal's Lex Luthor.

I can't help but think of Bill's disquisition on Clark Kent in Kill Bill 2, where he gives a Nietzschean spin to  Superman's secret identity. Therein, Tarantino suggests that Superman is the true identity and the bumbling Clark reveals his contempt for Earthlings as a mocking imitation. Another possible interpretation, more consistent with Superman's own thought balloons, is that Clark represents the smalltown values with which he was raised and can never completely escape, regardless of how much power he might possess. Superman is no übermensch, but a being who uses his power to reinforce his (and others') place in the flock. It's the all-too-human Luthor with the Zarathustran dreams. Like Superman, Moore's character eventually uses her extra-ability for some violent superego retribution to the unbridled id impulses of Bernal and his group. It was the arrival of the adults in Lord of the Flies that stopped the children's savagery. It wasn't that the shipwrecked kids became wholly alien to civil society, but that they were cut off from the filtering mechanisms which normally regulates our inclinations. As an inverse of the standard monster film where the monster is the repressed, the appearance of the adults represents a thankful return of the oppression. Similarly, the white blindness doesn't so much create a new totalizing desire for power as it breaks down the repressive mechanisms that were in place during the occularist order. As the last vestige of occular control, the wife's struggle with the bartender points to another prominent Nietzshean idea: with the failure of faith in a previous order, the desire or need to control doesn't disappear; it just gets restructured. 
 
~ Melts in the Mouth ~
 
[W]ho will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salò: "I am really not like them, I am not a fascist, since I do not like shit." -- Roland Barthes, Sade-Pasolini

Another filmic thought experiment is Pasolini's Salò, a modern retelling of Marquis de Sade's The 120 Nights of Sodom. (You can read a plot summary here.) It might not be science fiction proper, but it fits within the umbrella category of speculative fiction, into which more respectable authors like J. G. pasolini salo italian posterBallard are often put to escape the critical taint of the science fiction genre that snobs like Susan Sontag have expressed. In fact, Salò isn't all that far removed from the dystopic disaster subgenre of Blindness -- the main difference being the willful ingestion of feces versus blindly stepping in it. Pasolini takes the dystopic idea to the extreme by removing any figure of the old restraining order, letting desire follow undeterred its own logical course of objectification. For all the posturing Kulturkampf (dim-)witticisisms of a film like Religulous, Pasolini's cropophagic masterpiece provides a cleansing of the palate. Where Blindness offers a glimmer of hope at the end that sight will return, Pasolini is consistently pessimistic. Hope, he said, is manufactured by those in power to maintain their control of others.

Thanks to the fetish film night over at the Egyptian Theater, I finally got to see it on the big screen. No matter how good the print (and the Egyptian had a recent 35mm one), there's a crude pornographic quality to Pasolini's stilted, wide-angled mise-en-scene. Like in the days of cheap VHS porn, the characters tend to look lost within the frame. I doubt the film ever looked new or crisp. This degraded aesthetic only adds to the degradation of the teenaged victims. The Kubrick-styled design of, say, Salon Kitty, would've made the film kitsch. Too much high-minded visual style can turn the transgressive into mere silliness -- just look at Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's Crash. Pasolini knew he had to get ugly for the film to work. Thus, there is something to be said for experiencing Salò in the washed out images on a well-worn tape and at home. Nevertheless, Egyptian's sound system gave me a newfound appreciation for the film's sound design, most notably the low level rumble of planes flying overhead while one of the lady storytellers began to relate her first experience with the Dirty Sanchez. The rumble continues through the "Circle of Shit" segment until the victims are finally released from their mandated constipation, providing the main course for the infamous dinner scene.

It might no longer be censored in as many countries as it once was and it has a lot more fellow travelers these days in narrative cinema (from Takashi Miike to Catherine Breillat), but it hasn't lost its transgressive potency. Transgression depends on shock, an ability to rattle one's preset concepts (moral or otherwise), and the film can still activate the flight or fright mechanism in even the most ironically detached of modern viewers (I counted 3 walkouts by the middle of the film). We won't be salo by pasoliniseeing any digitized appropriations of the characters for the purpose of selling things any time soon. For good or ill, the film remains defiantly authentic to itself, much like its literary source. That's real art to my mind.

Barthes takes Pasolini to task for mixing the obscenely erotic with a critique of fascism (or, really, totalitarianism in general). The gross-out factor resulting from the depths that the libertines go (Barthes seems to be saying) keeps the audience at a distance from the lure of fascism, thereby preventing a real critique (e.g., "those fascists aren't like me"). As I understand it, the difference between the erotic and the pornographic is a matter of gratification, the former being more conceptual and the latter being more physical. Salò contains many parallels to totalitarian subjugation: making the victims eat whatever shit is put before them, the Stockholm Syndrome of having a victim smilingly take on the desire of his bearded oppressor, guards justifying their abhorrent behavior with a "just following orders," and the tendency to save oneself by ratting out one's fellow captives. Contrary to Barthes' objection and unlike Cronenberg's Crash, Salò manages to keep the audience tethered to that liminal chain between disgust and desire. If, that is, the audience stays with it. Although the particular fetish objects aren't everyone's, the fetishistic desire for control is a central human trait we should all recognize.

Of course, this ain't wank material, rather it draws in vivid detail a conceptual link between the obscenities of totalitarian desire and those of an unconstrained eroticism. As Sontag has argued, this conceptual use of obscenity is what justifies its appearance in art (but not pornography), what makes it aesthetic. She suggested the obscene is ultimately a drive towards death. And I can't think of a better example of humanity's death drive than when it succumbs to the totalitarian desire for absolute control. Maybe Salò's moral is that of the old plate-worthy adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but even allowing such a pithy summation, the film's virtue lies in making you feel the truth of that expression, viscerally spelling it out (to the letter, as Barthes said). That virtue is also what led to the film being oft-labeled obscene, and unworthy of legal protection. Obscenity rulings never address the truth value of the artistic statement being judged; rather, they address whether that statement mpasolini on the set of saloeets the supposed community standards. The more self-denying those standards are, the more likely truth itself will be deemed obscene, or degenerate.

Salò addresses the central problematic constitutive of culture that Blindness doesn't have the balls to follow through with and that Religulous is too simple-minded to even understand: "Man has always been a conformist. Man's principle trait is to conform to whatever power or type of life he's born into" (Pasolini, ibid.). As opposed to its appearance in a "fetish film" series -- implying risque entertainment for the bourgeois S&M crowd who spend their leisure time in latex at bondage parties --  Pasolini's film actually condemns the very notion of "free love." Freeing desire from social constraints is what connects the fascist to the libertine. Pure subjectivity can exist only if everything else becomes its mere objects, where otherness is reified and made easily consumable. From the top down, a system of repressive mechanisms (e.g., culture) is needed to stave off the obscene end product of pure desire, namely total control resulting in death (consider Descartes' experiments in vivisection, where he denied any subjectivity to the animals he treated as mere objects). From the bottom up, the way to achieve power is to conform to the mechanisms in place, filtering the individual's totalizing desire by shaping it into the repressive forms of his or her milieu. Ridding ourselves from a particular repressive mechanism like religion or old-fashioned sexual mores won't free us from this problematic. The godless communism of the Soviets was little more than a theocracy with the name 'God' erased (unsurprisingly, distinctions become blurry under totalitarianism, where one size fits all). Either God would be replaced with another form of repression, or we would take a step towards the world of Salò. Being an atheist and an optimist, I have hope that the theocrats will eventually find a new form of repression through which they can channel their desires.

Thomas More map of Utopia
Thomas More's map of Utopia.

Relevant Tags

Salò (1), Larry Charles (1), Blindness (1), Bill Maher (1), Euthryphro (1), Transgression (3), Morality (2), Atheism (3), Religulous (1), Plato (1), Pier Pasolini (1), Superman (5), Roland Barthes (1), Evil (2), Power (3)