My avoidance of grading papers stems much from the same place as my avoidance of watching Pasolini’s Salò; or The 120 Days of Sodom.  First, they’re both something I feel very much that I should do, but don’t feel particularly compelled to do.  And while I don’t equate reading composition papers with sexual degradation and Fascist violations, I have to say that sometimes those papers leave a shitty taste in my mouth.

I’m a self-professed horror movie aficionado (admittedly, I’m mostly agnostic towards the recent “torture porn” phase, which seems to have thankfully passed), but Salò makes me react the way horror movies should.  I wince, I hide behind my fingers, I recoil.  Hostel and the Saw series don’t elicit anywhere near the same reaction.  Indeed the torture porn filmmakers seem to issue a challenge:  oh, think I can’t top that?  Try to watch this.  And I do.  And I go, Meh.  (Fingernail trauma, however, does make me cringe.)

This is where the “porn” designation of “torture porn” come in.  Pornography is meant to titillate; as you watch it, you imagine yourself as one of the participants.  Same with torture porn — it’s effective because you imagine yourself enduring the same bodily dis-integration as the victim (or, for the sociopathic, inflicting bodily harm).  But the tortures in Salò are too detached, too aesthetic, too farcical to allow any audience identification. Never before have handsome young Italian boys engaging in gay sex seemed less erotic.  The power dynamics that invigorate pornography and “torture porn” are carried to an unbearable extreme.

The DVD version of Salò has its own storied history.  It was originally released in 1998 for a short time before it had to be withdrawn for copyright reasons.  And, until its re-release, it was the hottest commodity on the Criterion eBay racket, fetching prices of hundreds of dollars.  One of the first editions sat on my shelf for the longest times, begging to be watched.  The cover featured a still featuring a boy getting his tongue cut off.  The movie that dare not speak its name.

Then the re-release came out, and prices tanked.  This is why I don’t play the stock market.

This is the only film I’ve seen that suggests a reading list in its opening credits.  And not just any reading list, but one that includes Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir.  Cliff Notes knowledge of the Marquis de Sade and Dante help as well.  As Jean-Pierre Gorin mentions in his interview, this is the opposite of a research paper, where the bibliography comes at the end.  (And yet, my yearly entreaties of ‘MLA style parentheticals will save your soul’ go unheard.)  Here, the film pushes its influences at you before the first scene has unspooled.  But book learning does little to prepare you for what follows:  dog collars and spiked cheese (or, alternately, meandering paragraphs and unattributed quotations).

But here’s where avoiding Salò and avoiding grading papers most resemble each other:  even though I’ve reached the end of a grueling ordeal, I don’t feel triumphant.  Instead, I feel tired, demoralized, and despairing at the state of humanity.