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119_withnail_originalYaldā:  the longest night of the year. On this night the Sun-God Mithra was born, he of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes. He emerged from the light from deep within the Alborz mountains and was equal to Ahura Mazda and Anahita. Our friend, Hamid, prepare a pot of fesenjan, serving it with crackling, saffroned tahdiq. We snack on green olives to protect against scorpions. A stainless-steel samovar puffs on the kitchen counter, offering water for bitter black tea. Hamid gives me an amber rock of sugar. Hold this in your cheek while you drink, he explains. It will sweeten the tea.  Our friend Jenn marvels at fresh quince. A pomegranate waits to be cracked open, the seeds as red as dawn. The last fruits of winter.

This year, Hamid’s boyfriend, Warren, invites friends with whom he used to live on a pagan commune on the outskirts of Philadelphia. They reminisce about midsummer bonfires and fertility rituals. Warren is now earning his Ph.D. in nursing; Scott and John are now a well-to-do gay power couple, an architect and schoolteacher, respectively. Everyone’s radical days seem far behind them; even the drugged and drunk Marwood, at the end of Withnail & I, cuts his hair and prepares to embark—seriously—on his career.

J___ proclaims himself the fire-tender for the evening. He has the build of a construction worker and keeps his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a spurt of plumage at the back of his head. Fueled by red wine, his voice grows larger as the evening wears on. What we need, J___ says, is a vertical fire. His big-hearted benevolence explodes. He stacks the logs into a pyramid teepee, and they’re soon blazing. The night is unseasonably warm—almost 50 degrees—and with the fire and the steam from the samovar and food, the room is a tub of embrocation.  How did the ancient Persians, gathering in the mountains to watch the miracle of dawn, vent their caves? J___ says, This reminds me of a sweat lodge, but I hope it isn’t the one in Arizona where three people died from heat stroke. The guru, James Arthur Ray, claimed that the dead “were having so much fun” in their out-of-body experiences that they didn’t want to return.

At the end of the evening, we gather in the living room. It’s a family tradition, Hamid explains, to make a wish for the new year and then to turn to a random poem by Hafez. The translations by Gertrude Bell—the woman who helped shape the borders of modern Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference—are prolix and convoluted, an remnant of Victorian imperialism; the translations by Daniel Ladinsky are cleaner and more sonorous. I throw pistachio shells onto the fire, where they spark and pop.

The subject tonight is love
And for tomorrow night too
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die!

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Part of me will always be an adolescent boy.  The part that stands in stores, reading comic books until the proprietor yells, “Hey, this isn’t a library!”  The part that giggles at dick and fart jokes.  The part that sees the future as a vast, undisturbed plain at the end of Wheeling St. in suburban Aurora, long before the encroachment of warehouses and office parks.  The part that holds desire like a switchblade — awkwardly, blindly, secretly.

This is the part, too, that enjoys Kevin Smith movies.  At the comics convention that opens Chasing Amy, one grizzled vendor wears a ‘Fuck Marvel Comics’ t-shirt.

Marvel Comics once had a contest where readers could send in samples of their own work.  One could compete in the penciling, inking, coloring, lettering or writing categories, and the winners of each would collaborate on an issue of Spider-Man.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the Spider-Man storylines to attempt writing, but lettering I thought I could do.  It requires a steady hand, a ruler, a knack for identifying empty spaces in the frames where language and thought can take shape.  Having only one of the three, I didn’t enter.

Besides, I had already tried making comics.  In middle school, my friend Josh C. and I created a three-panel comic strip called “Froggy.”  But since I was inept at drawing, Froggy was nothing more than a three-toed, ambulatory lingam.  We did a traditional three-panel strip, commonly known as ‘the funnies’:  set-up, build, punchline.  And, being middle-schoolers, we moved quickly from existential crises regarding the inability to catch flies to dick and fart jokes.

Holden and Banky, the comic-creating duo of Chasing Amy, eventually separate, in part, because of Banky’s submerged feelings for Holden.  “Some doors should never be opened,” Banky says.

Josh and I were separated by the military’s propensity to ship away families to new bases.  He used to regaled me with stories of coming across his mother’s boyfriend, post flagrante delicto, walking around with his boner, howling “A-roo-ha-hoo!”

Really?

Yep, he said.

We had swim class together, and there weren’t enough stalls in the locker room to accommodate all the bashfulness.  Once, as we showered, Tim S. zipped in and mooned us, but more often, a line of damp boys formed a queue in front of the only stall in the bathroom.

Josh wielded his unabashed sexuality like a matador’s cape.  As I waited on the bench for the stall to open, trunks clinging and reeking of chlorine, he whipped off his shorts and slipped into his underwear.  Maybe he noticed me looking.  He asked, “Aren’t you changing?  Ashamed of your manhood?”

Well, yes and no.  Our bodies were still sprouting in unforeseen ways (some more than others).  We were no longer boys, but we couldn’t claim the mantle of men — not so long as we kept subsuming and covering our desires with bluster and indifference.

Josh knocked on the stall:  “Ready yet?”  But I wasn’t yet ready to open that door.

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.

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