Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guest Post: Victor Serge- Memoirs of a Revolutionary

This little composition is not intended to be a recapitulation of the historic and biographic content that was eloquently disposed onto the pages of Serge's memoir. So though this review may appear to be on a work of belletristic nature, it is only because it is the aesthetic properties of his memoir that I found to be particularly profound. The francophonic author, born in Belgium, had joined the Bolshevik party after his arrival in Russia, which was only a short time after the October revolution of 1917. His experiences within the Soviet borders are largely what are expounded upon in the work. After the death of Lenin, he joined the Trotskyist/Left Opposition camp of Soviet politics in disgust of Stalin (though even broke relations with that movement over disagreements regarding the Krondstadt uprising and the role of the Cheka), which ultimately led to his arrest (he was eventually able to obtain a visa allowing him and his immediate family to depart from the Soviet Union, unfortunately the rest of his friends and family died in prisons and gulags).

Serge beautifully narrates in his memoirs a despondent environment but coupled it with a reluctant, but still, sanguine attitude. His memoirs are a reflection of an immensely complex personality, an extremely moral character, and above everything else, a genuine and categorical humanist. A piece of romanticism that really could melt the hardest of hearts, it puts the transcendentalists to shame! Throughout his memoirs, Serge recollects from his childhood, through the tumultuous beginning of the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazis moving through Europe. Solemnly, he describes the transition of many of his comrades shift from romantic idealists to brutal pragmatists. In contrast, it is also a tribute to his comrades who would sooner give up their lives than their principles, friend after friend, comrade after comrade, their lives prove to be nothing more than ephemeral, giving way to suicide, to execution, to illness, to starvation, to madness. Serge struggled internally with the concept of violence, with his utmost priority focused on humanity, he defended the initial revolutionary violence, but as he witnessed the ideology descend into bleak and brutal nihilism, he broke relations with all his former comrades, including Trotsky, who he affectionately referred to as "Old Man".

I beyond recommend this piece of literature, it is a must read for everyone.

Some closing words from Serge himself, of what he learned from his direct and personal experiences:
"What can I say that is at all essential, to these forty faces gathered together in the twilight between sky and sea, and blending with the stars? I have a faint inkling of what is really essential: that we have not lost after all, that we have lost only for the moment…It is no longer the revolutionaries who are making the world's tremendous revolution; it is the tyrannies that have set it going, it is the actual technique of the modern world that is breaking brutally with the past and throwing the peoples of entire continents into the necessity for starting life afresh on new foundations. That these foundations must be of social justice, of rational organization, of respect for the individual, of liberty, is for me a wonderfully evident fact which, little by little, is asserting itself beyond the inhumanity of the present time. The future seems to me full of possibilities greater than any we have glimpsed throughout the past. May the passion, the experience and even the faults of my fighting generation have some small power to illumine the way forward!"


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Guest Post: Salo: Film Review

As those of you close to me know, of all the modern arts, I have a certain special affinity towards the cinematic medium. My tastes I consider to be fairly eclectic, never leaning towards any specific genre, I will watch anything, silent German expressionism, Italian Neo-realism, Bollywood spaghetti westerns, trashy seventies exploitation, modern blockbusters, I will watch ANYTHING. With no guiding criteria regarding genre, I make an effort to watch the supposed zeitgeists of any given epoch, the cultural vanguards, or simply films whose singular purpose is to push certain cultural boundaries. Trash and sleaze included… Throughout my viewing history, I have seen a rather large amount of sleaze, films that are sordid even to me. Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, the Japanese Guinea Pig series, anything that was ever put onto celluloid under the guidance of Jesus Franco. I have seen almost just about all of it. I then recently came across a film which had developed quite a notorious representation since, well probably before it was even released. It was a little piece of work created by a filmmaker that I greatly admire, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Though I have been vaguely aware of its existence, I never actually took the time to watch it (until recently of course), never really paying attention to the reputation that the film had acquired, that was….until someone told me it was probably the most vile thing they have ever seen, which I took to be a challenge. The film is titled Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

The second part of the title probably sounds familiar to some of you who might be familiar with the works of the Marquis De Sade. The film is an adaptation of the work, so that should already give you a hint as to what the film might be like. Though, Pasolini was not the first, nor last, filmmaker to adapt a work by De Sade for the cinema, what differentiates his work from most of the others who had made film adaptations of works by De Sade is level of competence, and it is this competence which also gives it that certain quality that makes the film that much more repulsive, for what makes those other films so trashy is their tastelessness and intent of exploitation, Paolo's work of vulgarity is a work of class and art. Throughout the film there is a stark contrast, rather even a dialectic (for Pasolini was an outspoken Italian communist) between that which is beautiful and that which is grotesque, speaking about both the aesthetics and ideologies presented in the film. Pasolini presented De Sade's tale in the context of World War II, cleverly mixing philosophical Sadism (as a philosophy of nature and morality, not to be mistaken with the word sadism) with the branch of nihilism that was adopted by the Nazis with the help of Elisabeth Forster (though the setting of the film is in Italy). Aside from simply being an assault on fascism, (Pasolini grew up in Fascist Italy), it was also an enquiry into sex, and how a certain culture can mold not only ideas about sexuality, but ones sexuality itself. The film in short, is about four men who ranked in the upper echelons of fascist society, the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President, and the film is broken up into four different chapters. The film starts off with the four men agreeing to marry each others daughters, then from there, they organize the kidnappings of a number of youth, both male and female, throughout the city of Salo. The victims of the kidnappings are then brutalized throughout the entirety of the film, this includes (indiscriminate of either sex) rape, torture, murder, forced acts of coprophagia, and much more, and all of this while a former prostitute who takes delight in the sufferings of the youths tells tales of her former life concurrent with a live romantic classical pianist.

Obviously, this is not a film that I recommend to everyone, but for those of you whose interest I have piqued, it is undoubtedly a film that you will not forget, whether you "enjoyed" it (this isn't really a film one enjoys) or absolutely hated it. Pasolini, who I consider to be rather ground breaking filmmaker (and not even really referring to this picture, if one is unfamiliar with his works I recommend the Hawks and the Sparrows or the Gospel According to St. Matthew prior to seeing Salo) certainly rid himself completely of all inhibitions when he created this film, keeping the content of the film as close as one can to the works of Marquis De Sade, and he did this by focusing more on the philosophical nature of De Sade's work and not just the sexual nature of his work (as what most exploitation films do). So not only is the aesthetic content of the film troubling to the senses, but also…the imputations regarding man, nature, philosophy, and morality (or there-lack-of).

Just as a little heads up, here is the cover of the DVD.

Could be considered inappropriate....
Criterion Collection DVD cover: