I had just been laid off, and I needed to go home, process the news, and plan for the future with my partner and loved ones. Instead, I went to see Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
It was January 4, 2019, the day that single-handedly blew up my late twenties. Throughout that one workday, I had interviewed Debbie Harry, gotten laid off from the magazine where I’d worked for five years, and found out that my book proposal had been accepted — in that precise order. These last two events had occurred more or less simultaneously; when I recount this story to friends, I still feel like I’m narrating a clunky screenplay, not an actual event from my own life. My magazine had been undergoing severe turmoil for more than a year, and I knew my days were numbered. Still, I was taken aback.
After boxing up my belongings and leaving them in the care of a trusted coworker, I called my parents and girlfriend, ate a sad Starbucks dinner, then hopped the subway to Metrograph, the indie theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I was reeling, and maybe I should not have capped off a disorienting day by going to see a sadistic art film so disturbing that it has been banned in numerous countries. But I had made the plans days earlier with Danny and Peter, good friends from college, and I wasn’t going to bail just because my entire life had been uprooted in a few short hours. Plus, I like using moviegoing as a coping mechanism. I was intrigued by the film’s transgressive reputation, though I didn’t know quite what I had signed up for.
What Is Salò?
For the uninitiated, Salò — the final film by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered shortly before its 1975 release — is not a movie you should watch in the midst of a stressful life event. If you are squeamish around brutal depictions of sexual and psychological torture, it is not a movie you should watch at all.
Its plot, set amid the 1944 German occupation of Italy, concerns a crew of sadistic libertines who take captive a group of teenagers and subject them to rape, torture and ungodly forms of humiliation in a debauched palace. Its unflinching portrayal of violence, power, rape, coprophagia (that means shit-eating) and the general human capacity for cruelty has earned it a reputation as one of the most disturbing films of all time. Imagine if 2 Girls 1 Cup were two hours long and endowed with deep historic and artistic significance.
Even Salò’s strongest admirers have been repulsed by it. “I remember having a hard time watching the film when it first came out,” says Thomas E. Peterson, a professor of Italian at the University of Georgia. “My wife and I walked out of a theater in San Francisco. Later, when I began a Masters program in Italian at Berkeley, I felt like I owed it to myself to sit through it.” (Peterson wound up translating Pasolini’s poetic text The Divine Mimesis.)
Upon its release, the film drew scandal and was formally banned in Italy. “Other films [by Pasolini] were shocking, but not in such an explicit visual sense,” says Michael Syrimis, a professor of Italian at Tulane University who has written about the erotic gaze in Pasolini’s work. “They are shocking because of their moral message. But they don’t show anything so explicit in terms of graphic portrayal of the body or violence.”
If this was shocking in 1975, time has not dulled its sickening impact. I’ll never forget sitting in that darkened theater, pondering my newfound joblessness as an increasingly horrific succession of images crossed the screen in front of me. The film’s portrait of fascism is funny in a sadistic way, and the audience laughed uncomfortably — the way you laugh when someone in a classroom shouts an expletive — prompting one aggrieved moviegoer to shout, “You know this isn’t a comedy, right?” I remember I had a cold and was coughing a lot, unsure whether the bodily discomfort I felt was a cold symptom or a visceral reaction to the film.
I was disillusioned with capitalism that day, but not as disillusioned as Pasolini when he made the film. “He felt completely dispirited and sickened by capitalist modernity,” Ara Merjian, an NYU professor of Italian Studies (and author of a forthcoming book on Pasolini), tells me. “And [with] Salò, he really aimed to make the audience feel that sickness. To make it feel as queasy and uneasy and physically revolted as he felt by consumerist culture.”
Surely he succeeded. After the film, my friends and I went to a bar nearby, but none of us had the energy to drink. We ordered tea and sat in a dead-eyed trance while the waitress eyed us quizzically. Later, Danny joked that the film had put him off eating shit forever.
Salò Memes in an Age of Modern Fascism
I figured that would be my last encounter with Salò for a while. The internet had other plans.
Against all odds, this fucked up 44-year-old Italian film has become an increasingly popular source of dirtbag humor online. Of course, it’s a niche phenomenon — I don’t think Salò-related humor is racking up millions of likes on TikTok or being co-opted by fast food brands (ball’s in your court, Denny’s Twitter account). But if you spend time on Twitter — particularly the intersection of what might loosely be called Film Twitter and Leftist Twitter — you may have noticed that Salò is… a meme now? A recurring punchline?
Sometimes it’s deployed as a means of dunking on someone else’s tweet:
Other times it’s an amusing punchline for a quote-tweet gag:
The Salò joke’s natural habitat is Twitter, but visual memes referencing the film and its assortment of horrors have also popped up on Reddit, imgflip, Flickr, Quick Meme, Tumblr and god knows where else. You might even find a Salò reference folded into the now-familiar Marriage Story meme format, such as this meme by Reddit user krisstivers:
…or deployed to more serious ends, such as comparing the cruelty of Salò’s libertines with the callousness of a real-life politician:
It’s strange that such a horrific film has become a vehicle for goofy memes. But the rise of Salò humor combines several internet phenomenons into one. On one hand, you have the internet’s longtime habit of latching onto and celebrating bizarre cult films that violate boundaries of good taste (think The Room, or all those Wicker Man memes). On the other hand, there is online leftist humor’s fascination with dark and disturbing subjects: 9/11 truthers, the Zodiac Killer, the Pee Tape, the killing of a gorilla named Harambe — all fodder for surrealist memes. Why not Salò?
The film’s harrowing visuals easily translate into reaction memes; its nauseating shit-eating sequence places it within an old literary tradition yet also connects to more recent spectacles, like modern-day fascists at TPUSA dressing themselves in diapers. It makes sense, perhaps, that Salò has increased in visibility during an era defined by a gratuitously cruel fascist administration.
In February, on the evening of the New Hampshire primary, Salò humor reached peak controversy, and infiltrated the consciousness of displeased Pete Buttigieg fans, when Virgil Texas, co-host of the podcast Chapo Trap House, tweeted an image from the film to mock Buttigieg’s loss:
The tweet, which depicts one of the Italian teens being tortured by fascists, was widely and loudly denounced as homophobic by people who don’t know what Salò is or possibly believe it to be a gay porn film. “This repulsive tweet is so Mike Pence, it’s chilling,” replied journalist Victoria Brownworth (although it seems unlikely that Mother would ever allow Pence to watch Salò in the first place). Nonetheless, Texas’ tweet became a sort of torture-porn Rorschach test for distressed liberals. It generated even more Salò memes in the replies:
While the Salò meme likely reached saturation point in early 2020, Ben Mekler — the guy who joked about having been traumatized by the film as a kid — was ahead of the curve. He was tweeting perverse jokes about Salò way back in 2014.
Mekler, a writer and director who’s worked on Adult Swim specials and various TV shows, says he first watched Salò as a teenage film buff. “Naturally, I was curious what the most fucked-up movies were,” Mekler says. “Movies that were either lost or banned or hard to find or rare. And I heard about Salò, and then sought it out and watched it at the beginning of college. It was always my running bit, I guess. If there was a joke that called for a particularly fucked up movie to be ironically funny if I were to say the title at a particular moment, that was the one I went to.”
In such jokes, Salò is a placeholder, a punchline; plenty of other titles would work: Hereditary? Enter the Void? A Serbian Film? Salò just works particularly well, Mekler says. “I think it helps that the title is really long and complicated,” he adds. “Salò jokes land for me. I think because they require some amount of thought.”
I asked several Pasolini scholars to weigh in on Salò’s meme status. They were surprised by the jokes, but seemed intrigued and pleased by the film’s cultural endurance.
“I think the allegorical nature of the violence of Pasolini’s film makes it transcend its particular historical contexts,” says Merjian, the NYU professor. “Which is really what Pasolini wanted to do. How he would feel about it being used as a meme, and in ways that trivialize the historical elements of the film — I can only imagine he would have been disappointed. But works of art are used in all sorts of ways, both productive and perverted, in ways that artists can never control.”
Although other academics stressed that they aren’t knowledgeable about memes, Merjian described memes as “a brilliant new way of communicating, and using irony in particular. But these Salò memes don’t seem to be terribly nuanced or exciting.”
Syrimis, the Tulane professor, observed that it’s fitting for Salò to become a source of dark humor, since the film essentially is a repository of very dark humor.
“The whole thing is based on black humor,” Syrimis says. “It’s kind of like a really nasty joke about human experience. It’s about the abuse of power through language, through the telling of stories, through manipulation, and through the selling of a certain ideology … It’s a joke. But it’s a very, very serious joke. It’s also there for public consumption. It’s funny and it’s nasty and it’s gross. People can just do whatever they want with it. They’re gonna use it to make jokes about other things.”
Sometimes Syrimis shows the film to students in a course on Pasolini. Occasionally, students walk out, which is understandable. Syrimis’s theory is that the film entraps its viewers whether they leave or not. “They are telling you, ‘Oh sure, you’re gonna walk out. I know you’re gonna walk out. But there’s nowhere else to go. You’re in the system. You’re part of it.’”
Perhaps he’s right. We can never escape Salò. As for me, I plan to inaugurate a new tradition: Every time I get laid off, I’m watching the film. It’s a nice reminder that things could always be worse.