Reading through some of the writing of Frankfurt school philosopher, Theodor Adorno, it becomes extremely clear that mass culture is what he believes to be the fault of many of the world’s problems as well as symptom of them too; a false enlightenment perhaps, which is the product of simply being unable to accept a world after the end of the Second World War and, more specifically, the holocaust. Though some of his writings on mass culture, music and film are before 1946, they not only predict the full circle of the enlightenment producing an act such as the holocaust but also deny the artistic and creative merit of most forms of popular mass culture.

At the time this would have been jazz, blues and the like (as well as numerous classical composers) but also extended to film and film music. With this in mind, the concept of an Adornian film is almost impossible to conceive; its mere form automatically negates even the most artistic and complex of cinema into the “enlightenment by mass deception” category making it a lie to Adorno. Yet there is one film that feels explicitly Adornian, even going so far as to show a number of his ideologies through character moments. This film is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days Sodom (1975).

There are a number of reasons for this though some are more general than others. Adorno’s Marxist-Freud based arguments make far too many assumptions to be taken as a general rule. They fit nicely onto modern fallacies such as popular chart music and perhaps even multi-plex fodder, the idea being that they are consumed and consumed in extremely easy way. They cannot possibly acknowledge any part of the human condition or show an acknowledgement of the past’s atrocities. These consumerist forms are designed to help hide these acknowledgments away. They cannot accept the failure of the enlightenment or believe in fighting fascism as the concept itself does not fit into the mass cultural world unless purified or reformed into a more safe and digestible version.

Salò does not present itself as a consumable product even if its form is so and cannot be viewed through a regressive light. This is beyond a horror film or any other film built on the premise of shock value which often takes advantage of society’s constant desensitised nature. Salò instead presents a fascism that is as ugly as its real-life counterpart. The actions of the four fascists, dictated vaguely by the Marquis de Sade’s narratives, are extreme but not simply for the sake of showing fascism itself to be evil. By making the visual actions of the film completely impossible to withstand (at least to most exempting the most desensitised of viewers) fascism is shown to be ugly but also the product of wilful neglect and lack of action against its own ideologies.

Adorno famously quoted that “Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.” This is given a visual form when the young people are gathered up, stripped, forced to wear dog collars and beg for food before being abused. This again isn’t purely Adornian but a coincidental sharing of values; both creators believing fascism and the actions that come from it start off with a basic ignorance towards the importance of life.

This may raise the question of how the film is Adornian. The film, no matter how its form has the potential to be consumed on a mass level, is not able to merely be viewed eating popcorn and relaxing with friends. The switching off that Adorno feared (and Pasolini also for that matter with his enraged views of the political left student movement that, in his opinion, did exactly the same) is impossible. The film is no longer a passive experience but one that, if stuck with, cannot be escaped. Its moral questioning is unavoidable in the same way that the plight of humanity and the true emotional self was unavoidable while listening to the music of Schoenberg. Adorno found beauty in the chaos of Schoenberg’s music because it used technical methods to convey a defined “real” rather than the composer’s contemporaries who sought sanctuary in post-romanticism and impressionism.

Though the patchwork nature of the film’s music goes against the Adornian view, the way the characters interact with it is one of the most typically Adornian in film (even if this sentence in itself is a contradiction). Adorno disliked the cutting up of classical music into single melodies, hummable by people who knew nothing about the full symphony or movement of the said piece. However, the music in the film presents this cutting up as the action of the characters rather than a choice by the director. Pasolini’s past films are not Adornian in this sense. For example, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) uses an array of popular music within its soundtrack as well as cut up sections of various bits of classical music.

These choices were not down to Jesus or his disciples but Pasolini himself. There is no getting away from the director’s obvious hand in the diegetic reality of that film. Salò is different in its uses. Though of course they are the director’s creative choices, they are not presented as so and are instead shown to be character traits of the fascists. A common factor between Pasolini’s and Adorno’s impressions of people taking part in the consuming of mass culture, are made explicitly even if only by accident. The main point of this crossing within the film is not through one of its more extravagant or sadistic scenarios but in the film’s final, sickeningly gentle ending.

With all of the mentioning of consumption, there is perhaps a temptation to recall the film’s Circle of Shit chapter but it is too obvious and vulgar a connection (despite its importance to the film and very obvious ties to Adorno’s ideas). The finale is a better example and is the culmination of torture for the remaining young men and women which showcases a better tie-in to the philosopher’s ideals. The young people have been put through literal hell, subjected to the vilest of actions. Mentally and physically, they have been raped, beaten and tortured.

The final scene segues from another where each of the fascists voyeuristic tendencies shine as they watch the killing and final torture of the surviving people. As the scene begins, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana: III. Primo vere: Veris leta facies (The Joyous Face of Spring) is heard, creating a montage effect over the torture. The Adornian sense comes from the two mercenaries who are accompanying each fascist as they watch the scenes for their pleasure. Carl Orff’s music, which at first appeared nondiegetic, is now shown to be diegetic, playing from a radio.

Orff’s music initially lends the scene a tragedy, almost acknowledging fascism’s horror and the ultimate evil within their actions. Instead of letting this play on, the mercenaries (who are the only people with the potential to stop the horrors) switch the music over on a radio so that instead, some quiet dancehall music is heard with which they begin to dance together (the piece in question is Son Tanto Triste, composed by Franco Ansaldo and Alfredo Bracchi and conducted by Ennio Morricone) . This is purely Adornian in that the mass cultural product allows the everyday person to switch off from the problems of the world; a vital component of mass popular culture (which, according to Adorno, can only be accepted if experienced through a regressive form of listening). The horrendous actions occurring in the courtyard outside are no longer in existence for the two men, now caught up in the dance and discussing the triviality of their relationships. This is the final step in Pasolini’s film towards driving the viewer to questioning. Salò is about not simply accepting blindly what is told, especially those suppositions accompanied by a jackboot and rifle. In doing so, Pasolini’s film goes against Adorno’s generalisations of forms and instead uses them to drive home an Adornian final message; lethargy and ignorance in the face of the enlightenment induced right wing can only lead to the worst atrocities whether it be small scale sadism or a large scale murder.

Adam Scovell

Stolen Days – Pier Paolo Pasolini

We who are poor have little time
for youth and beauty:
you can do well without us.

Our birth enslaves us!
butterflies shorn of all beauty,
buried in the chrysalis of time.

The wealthy don’t pay for our time:
those days stolen from beauty
possessed by our fathers and us.

Will time’s hunger never die?

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