Notes on the Culture

1219766971Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: Sean Keenan’s arresting photography at the Rotenberg Gallery; Criterion releases Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film on DVD; Plus: Peter DuBois stays true to his word at the Huntington Theater.

Just last month, my sister Liz and her husband Jamie spent three weeks traveling through Vietnam via planes, trains, and automobiles, as well as a three-day boat trip in Halong Bay. They emailed me regularly from every town, whether Hanoi or Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh City, detailing a tireless trip packed with six-hour treks with the Hmong, dense urban vortices, and more culture than you can shake a skewer of grilled meat at.

Hence, it was a bit of a surprise when I went to the Judi Rotenberg Gallery to check out photographer Sean Keenan‘s “Southeast Asia Series,” now in its last week. Here were several of the same locales, but now presented as eerily empty streetscapes. A student at the New England School of Photography in the late ’90s and a freelancer for venerable skateboard mag Thrasher, Keenan shows here that he has also become Edward Hopper with a lens and passport.

A half-constructed building and a metal fence. Desolate, seemingly uninhabited tenements. Cement bags and rubble. A tangle of telephone wires. No people, or even traces of people: instead there’s just silent sidewalks, decaying structures, and an oneiric mix of street lamps and twilight.

But what fills each frame is a lingering sense of loneliness, and it’s further intriguing that he pursued this aesthetic in some of the most famously crowded places in the world.

A different kind of emptiness fills the other half of Rotenberg, namely Nicole Kita‘s “The Sickness Vocation,” a collection of spare line drawings. A 2008 SMFA grad, Kita outlines Jazzercizers, crystal formations, and even Pope John Paul II in African headdress, her clean black lines dominated by white space. I found it more quirky than coherent, but ever since I saw this mindblowing 2002 exhibit at MoMA in New York, I like to see that simple graphite on paper continues to get gallery support.

The Sean Keenan/Nicole Kita joint exhibition runs through this Sunday, August 31.

Cinema de Sade: After years out of print, today arthouse-DVD producer Criterion has reissued Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), the final film by Italian poet/provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini. Being an outspoken gay, Marxist, atheist filmmaker in ’60s and ’70s Italy, Pasolini never shied away from controversy and regularly spurred virulent reaction in his newspaper columns; to this day rumors still abound that the state was complicit in his grisly murder soon after Salò‘s release, allegedly by a lone prostitute.

It was a sad end for a bold artist who revolutionized Italian film with such masterpieces as Accattone (1961), Teorema (1968), and The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). The last which is, interestingly enough, the best and most impassioned story of Jesus on film. Still, under such circumstances, it’s somehow fitting that such bleak work as Salò would be his last artistic statement.

The film is an oddly brilliant convergence of sadism and Fascism: Just as the title indicates, Pasolini adapted elements from the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom and set them in the brutal final days of World War II Italy, when the Nazis set up the puppet Italian Social Republic, known familiarly as “the Salò Republic.”

Essentially the entire plot is that the Powers That Be (an unnamed “Judge,” “Bishop,” “Magistrate,” and “President”) round up all the youths in a wartorn village, imprison them in an abandoned villa, and then subsequently degrade, torture, and kill them over two hours. Obviously, this is an impossible movie to recommend to just anyone.

However, it’s impossible to dismiss either—even though film critic lite Leonard Maltin tried, by disgustedly rating it a “BOMB” in his movie guide. Context is crucial here, especially if you learn that during the 18 months of the Salò Republic’s existence, more than 100,000 Italians were murdered or mutilated.

Or if you look closely at the beginning of the film and notice that it takes place in Marzabotto—hundreds were massacred in this town, in the war’s largest single mass murder in Western Europe. Pasolini was raised in the region, having been born in nearby Bologna in 1922, the year the Fascists took power. A little research like this reveals a stern agenda at work.

Aesthetically, the film is a triumph, beautifully shot in tomblike tableaux by legendary cinematographer Tonino delli Colli (think Fellini, Leone, Wertmuller), and the cast—both villains and victims—are so convincing as to make the experience even more harrowing. Whether the allegory holds up through all these 120 minutes of Sodom is a matter of taste (or fortitude), but its exploration of absolute power collapsing into absolute perversity makes one painfully cautionary tale.

Explore this film at your own risk, but if you get past the ghastliness, you’ll find that Salò haunts your thoughts more than your retinas.

Huntington for the masses, for a day: To celebrate the theater’s 27th season, the Huntington Theater had a one-day sale last Tuesday, offering $27 tix for the new season’s first three shows, including Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll, fresh from the West End and Broadway. Late last month, I spoke to the Huntington’s new artistic director, Peter DuBois, and asked him how he would try to draw new audiences. Without missing a beat, he said:

“The big issue is always the price point; we need to look at how to make it something that more people can afford….We need to open our doors more and say to people, ‘You have access to this organization.'”

Though an ephemeral event, it’s nice to see that he was true to his word in the most monetary sense.

Image of Sean Keenan’s exhibit at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery from the gallery’s website