Art Movie Hell: Watching Climax and Salò Among the Animals
A tale of horn honking, hot boxing and jumpstarting at a Bronx Zoo Drive-In double featureMovies Features
”You may need psychiatric care afterwards—something, unfortunately, the New York Film Festival cannot offer tonight.”
The McDonald’s bag stank up the entire car. We had originally planned on indulging with Wendy’s—objectively the best fast food choice—but Google Maps was on the fritz and refused to divulge the chain’s Bronx locations. There was also intent to grab a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee (now with oat milk!) before the three-hour screening, but in an equally disappointing turn of events, the Dunks right outside of the zoo’s perimeter appeared permanently closed. We had no choice but to enter the venue with second-rate munchies and a disappointing dearth of caffeine, but we were as ready as we would ever be.
Grease, salt and Sprite coated my tongue in a waxy layer, yet I couldn’t seem to eat fast enough. Not only had I been starving during the entire drive from my Queens apartment to the Bronx Zoo, but I knew that the longer I took to eat, the higher the possibility my stomach would become severely unsettled during the double feature.
“Thanks for the pit-stop,” I said to James—my boyfriend and chauffeur for the night—finally able to breathe after scarfing down the last of my insipid spicy nuggets. He nodded sweetly, as if we were stationed and ready to watch The Wizard of Oz as opposed to foreign-language shock cinema.
In reality, we were settling in to watch a double-feature of Gaspar Noé’s 2018 dance with death Climax alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 anti-fascist horrorshow Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Both flicks were programmed under the title “Art Movie Hell” by acclaimed camp director John Waters in conjunction with the 2020 New York Film Festival (which is surprisingly Waters’ first ever inclusion in the New York institution). Due to the global pandemic that continues to ravage our country, the double-feature was conceived as a drive-in—which happens to be a point of expertise for the king of camp. In fact, the confines of this year’s festival evoked the very nature of Waters’ filmmaking style: The inherent chaos and disorganization of doing something completely different, yet a distinct determination to have fun in the messiness of it all. Appropriately, the festival chose the Bronx Zoo’s sprawling parking lot as its venue, immediately invoking the primal nature of the harrowing films being shown.
At nearly 8pm on the dot, John Waters appeared on the makeshift silver screen in a purple-drenched spotlight, donning a striped and plaid print blazer that should have been an eye-sore, but instead looked elegant and playful.
“Finally! Subtitles at the drive-in,” he joked, clutching a microphone in one hand and his notes in the other. “I got my exploitation education at the drive-in. And tonight, thanks to the New York Film Festival, you will too.”
While the cadence of his voice was warm and enlivened, there was the slightest twinge of ominousness to the statement. The films being shown are, simply put, no picnic. Undeniably exhilarating, ambitious and relentless in portraying the disturbing underbelly of human nature, they work against the expectation for a moviegoing experience to be enjoyable (or even entertaining).
But for some, this fact makes them all the more exquisite.
“I love a feel-bad movie, especially if it’s French,” continued Waters. “I want a movie to grab me, slap me around and show me a vision of hell I’ve never experienced.”
While I resent the generally male-coded descriptor “auteur,” which Waters used to describe the Argentine Francophone director Gaspar Noé, I was giddy with excitement for Climax to begin. James and I had seen Climax when it was released in 2018, and while the demonic energy of the film was far from beguiling, it would serve as the perfect precursor for the infinitely more brutal Salò.
Evidently, there’s a reason why subtitles aren’t really a thing at drive-ins. As soon as Climax started, I was grateful for having seen the film before. Although we were no more than four rows away from the screen, the English subtitles appeared to be in Helvetica size 12 font. On top of that, my severely impaired vision and outdated glasses prescription made the endeavor particularly straining.
James began reading the dialogue out loud—half out of humour, half out of pity—but this tactic quickly lost traction. Especially having seen the movie before, the silliness of conversations about sex and the subtle terror of something suddenly feeling off just didn’t hit the same. My only respite were two characters who conversed in European-accented English with each other—and, of course, the dancing.
While Noé remains perpetually on my shit list for Enter the Void, one of my least favorite films of all time, his brilliance in capturing the movement of ballroom and krumping in Climax is organic and spectacular. The opening dance sequence—an uninterrupted shot of a five-minute choreographed routine featuring over 20 professional dancers—is pure ecstasy.
As the film gradually plunges into psychedelic mania after it’s revealed that the sangria—which the dance troupe merrily sips throughout the course of their afterparty—has been spiked with copious amounts of LSD, it’s clear why John Waters programmed this film as part of a study of depictions of hell in arthouse cinema. It features incest, corpsicles, scalps ablaze, the constant shrieking of a terrified child locked in an electrical closet. It’s thoroughly unsettling, yet it probes a sort of guiltiness in the viewer: Why the hell am I having such a goddamn great time?
When I think of Climax, it’s rarely the shocking events that unfold in and of themselves that come to mind (apparently inspired by a French dance troupe that had their drinks spiked with LSD in the ’90s, but that’s where Climax’s real-world inspiration ends). The lingering exhilaration of the title card dropping a full 45 minutes into the film—right after a disorienting dance circle sequence where every dancer shows off their individual talent—remains the most potent aspect of Climax for me. It’s simply God-level visual indulgence, as well as an effective transition from the frenzy of physical movement to the lunacy of psychological disintegration.
“Life is a collective impossibility,” reads one of the giant intertitles that periodically pop up in the film (some of the only text I could make out). Upon rewatching, I couldn’t shake reading the latter half of the film as an apt metaphor for COVID anxieties. All too recognizable were the looming feeling that something is suddenly not right, the loss of control over body and mind, the panic and finger-pointing that ultimately only increases the bloodshed. The confines of the abandoned school that the dance group practice in—as well as the frigid, snowy weather that keeps them inside—screams quarantine. The eventual death and destruction that the film leaves us with is also a stark example of a human inability to cooperate and remain calm in the face of personal ailment and tribulation.
Halfway through the movie, I became increasingly aware of how thirsty I was. I intentionally deprived myself of liquids before the double feature, as I didn’t want to have to leave the car and go to the Porta Potty during any part of the experience. This obviously backfired; my mouth dried out and my head felt light.
“Let’s wait until after the intermission is over to go to the concession stand,” James said after Climax ended amid frantic horn honking. “Plus, it might be really crowded with other people getting out of their cars and having the same idea.”
He made a good point—even as we were outdoors with masks and hand sanitizer at the ready, there remained a definite drive to stay as far away from strangers as possible. We sat in the car, watching vintage (and appropriately campy) drive-in adverts: for eskimo pies, corn dogs and beloved American snacks from yester-year. There was even a scene from Waters’ 1981 movie Polyester, where the protagonist finds herself at an absurd drive-in showing Marguerite Duras films.
However, as John Waters took to the screen once more in order to introduce Salò, James ran out to hit the concession stand only to find that it had shut down within the period of the five minute intermission. He returned sullen and empty-handed, feeling guilty that his gut instinct cost me the hydration I was desperate for.
During his season eight cameo on The Simpsons, John Waters attempts to explain the ethos of his aesthetic to a dumbfounded Homer: “It’s camp! The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.”
While the films being shown are primarily recognized for their callousness and barbarity, there is also a distinct over-the-top nature to both which posits them in prime camp territory: Climax’s earnest commitment to imagining the worst possible trip ever, Salò’s insistence that the deepest recesses of human sexual psychosis be given a gruesome spotlight.
Having just sat through five minutes of ’50s-era soda pop commercials, it certainly felt tragically ludicrous that I couldn’t quench my thirst. As pissed and thirsty as I was, I couldn’t help but find the humour in it.
“Salò: A horn-honking masterpiece of sadism, joy and the thrill of extreme filmmaking,” Waters continued in his final speech of the night. “Ah, the old days of drive-ins. Rowdy viewers honked their horns every time there was gore or nudity. But tonight, watching Salò, I want you to change that. I want you to honk your horn every time you see art, alright?”
Salò reimagines the sadism originally conceived by French writer Marquis de Sade in his 1785 writings while prisoner in the Bastille. It depicts acts of depraved sadomasochism, involving coprophilia (sexual arousal from feces), urophilia (urine) and haematophilia (blood), performed by Italian fascist libertines upon a group of underage teenagers during the tail end of Musolini’s regime. In its nauseating depictions of sexual transgressions, Pasolini condemns the wickedness of fascist control over mind—and above all, body—on the most vulnerable members of society.
This is when the screening reached unprecedented levels of unhinged communal debauchery. While the honking had been playful and sparse during Climax, Waters’ declaration opened the floodgates for a raucous appreciation for some of the most questionable depictions of brutality in cinematic history.
It began with the exposure of 14-year-old boys’ pubescent genitals—eventually leading to their recruitment in a fascist experiment of sadomasochistic sexual degradation. There was nothing inherently sexy about their exposure; their members were flaccid and their nudity was coercive. Yet fellow drive-in viewers began honking furiously. In their defence, this certainly was art—Duchampian and incendiary, as some of the best art often is.
During this early stage of the film, categorized as the “Anteinferno” before 18 teenagers are kidnapped and forced to endure 120 Days of Sodom, we noticed John Waters making his way through the parking lot. Having said his piece for the night, he walked back toward his car—a spotless white sedan—while a few burly men trailed close behind. We noticed the men earlier in the evening, but we didn’t put two and two together as to why they were there—we had chalked it up to some sort of festival security precaution.
John Waters didn’t drive off, though. A few cars left before the second feature, yet he remained for the entirety of Salò, intermittently honking his horn along with the rest of us. His bodyguards, the poor chumps, remained stationed outside of his vehicle, pacing every so often as fascist Italian libertines rape each other’s daughters and naked teenagers are forced to scurry around on all fours like dogs, leash and all.
After the second quarter of the film, the “Circle of Manias,” during which bare assholes are brandished and a mock wedding leads to a three-way sodomy session, we reach the most infamous chapter of an already notorious film: the “Circle of Shit.”
As we watch a hot turd fall out of a libertine’s ass and onto a marble floor, a young woman is berated and told to eat it with a fork. At this point, I’m trying my best not to remember having ever eaten before in my life, let alone my nauseating McDonald’s meal from just two hours ago. I faltered, I gagged. I wondered if the animals can hear the cacophony of honks; I wondered if this is what a caged monkey feels like.
At this point, there are at least five visible cars from where we are sitting that contained plumes of weed smoke as viewers began to satiate their own hedonistic urges. Honking that originally came off as edgy and insufferable became downright clownish and embraced the immaturity of finding pleasure in such a twisted tale—it was the closest I’ve come to experiencing a sort of cinephilic communion since well before the pandemic.
As we braced ourselves for the final chapter of the film, the “Circle of Blood,” we suddenly grew unbearably hot. Willing to risk the amplification of deafening honks, we decided to open the windows to let the breeze flow through the car. The rapidly cooling air relieved the thickness of late September humidity for a while. Oblivious to the potential meteorological implications of the weather shift, we became absorbed in a scene of a depraved, Black Mass-esque wedding between the libertines and their young male corroborators.
Suddenly, the car radio cut out.
“Oh shit,” James muttered.
He turns the key in the ignition, only to have the emergency alarm go off. The car died. The windows still rolled down, we heard a symphony of other car radios, faintly leaking the audio from across the vast parking lot.
James ran out to ask an attendant for a jump; I remained in the passenger seat, soaking up the violence. The victims begin betraying each other; a lesbian affair between two teenage girls is exposed; a corroborator and a servant are revealed to be sneaking around and are promptly executed, the young man holding his fist up in a socialist salute as he is met with blistering gunfire.
James returned with a small radio in hand. “They said they’ll jump the car after the movie ends, but they offered us this for now.”
I nodded as he flipped the dial to our designated station, the dialogue from the film booming throughout the car once more as several dissenting teens are brought out to the courtyard and marked for gruesome death. My right arm hung outside of the open window, relishing the breeze. Suddenly, I felt moisture. What began as a hazy drizzle gradually transformed into full-blown droplets. I moved away from the window; the rain and wind weren’t powerful enough to infiltrate the shelter of the silver Camry. But with the battery still drained, we couldn’t roll up the windows or wipe the windshield. It adds an almost surreal layer to the film—eyes gouged, tongues cut out, breasts branded behind a speckled curtain of rain.
Just like with Climax, I’d seen Salò before. While studying abroad in Europe during college, some Dutch friends decided to test my limits by randomly flipping on Salò. I was 21, desperate to prove how smart and worldly I was, and I hardly flinched. Yet during this rewatch, accompanied by a person who loves me and cinema in equal measure, I had to bat my eyelashes to keep tears from falling.
The final scene, a waltz between two heinous corroborators after the massacre they have just enabled has ended, is somewhat less puissant through streaked waterlines. Yet it’s impossible not to feel heavy, especially as the honking began to rise into an eventual crescendo.
“That last shot—so simple, so depraved, so purely evil but beautiful. I cry everytime I see it,” Waters said earlier during his introduction of the film.
As bleak as Salò may be, it is also an inherent manifestation of resistance. Perhaps not the most accessible form of resistance—especially at a drive-in that cost $45 and featured nearly illegible subtitles—but poignant and striking even during these nonideal circumstances.
As cars neatly pulled out of the parking lot and exited the venue, James and I remained in our spot, waiting for a kindly attendant to juice up the car. As we sat there, I thought about John Waters referring to Pasolini as a “saint,” and I skimmed the Italian director’s Wikipedia page. Maybe not a saint, but certainly a martyr. Murdered just three weeks before the release of Salò, it was largely speculated that he was murdered by the Italian mafia due to his homosexuality and overt communist leanings. I smirked, thinking of what a big “fuck you” it was for Pasolini to leave the world with—how lucky we are for people who make fucked up art, for fellow freaks who enjoy fucked up art.
After a few short moments, an attendant jumped the car. We all gave each other a thumbs-up, rolled up the drizzle-coated windows, and drove home. Finding street parking in Queens took almost an hour, but at 1am, after looping around the neighborhood for what felt like an eternity, a spot miraculously appeared just a block from the apartment.
“How tragically ludicrous,” I thought.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.