Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hedonism

Film: Satyricon
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.


I’m not a big fan of hedonism as a philosophy. On the surface, it looks like a pretty benign way of thinking. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure is, well, pleasing. At its fullest expression, though, it becomes indistinguishable from sociopathy. Essentially, at its extreme, hedonism is less about pleasurable experiences and far more about doing anything for one’s own pleasure regardless of consequence. On the more benign end of the spectrum, you get people doing things they like and carrying those pleasures to an extreme that affects them, but not others. At the other end, you get something along the lines of Salo.

Satyricon, otherwise known as Fellini Satyricon falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, and from what I can see, it leans further toward Salo than it does toward, say, The Big Chill. I had the damnedest time making sense of this film in any sort of context other than witnessing gaudy excess and personal pleasure at the cost of everything else (the personal pleasure of the characters on screen—certainly not mine in this case).

Satyricon is based on what is believed to be the first ever novel, or at least the first one of which fragments have survived. Fellini made this film to match what was left of the original document—the film is similarly fragmented, ending one scene and skipping ahead to the next without any sort of transition between. In fact, the film ends in mid-sentence much like the surviving manuscript.

The film, which evidently takes place at the height of Roman decadence, vaguely tells the tale of Encolpio (Martin Potter). Encolpio is obsessively infatuated with Gitone (Max Born in his one and only film role), his young male slave. Sadly for Encolpio, Gitone has been sold to a flamboyant actor (Fanfulla) by his roommate, Ascilto (Hiram Keller). Encolpio goes to get his slave/sex partner back, and then fights with Ascilto. The two decide to part ways, allowing Gitone to choose where he’ll go. He goes off with Ascilto, leaving Encolpio heartbroken and ready to commit suicide until an earthquake intervenes.

Scene shift. Encolpio meets the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone) in a gallery and the two head off to the estate of a wealthy man giving a banquet. The man, Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), considers himself a poet even though he has no real skill (according to Eumolpus). The two poets have a falling out, and then Trimalchio stages his own funeral. We get a little vignette about a widow using her husband’s body to save the life of a young soldier.

Scene shift. Encolpio is now a prisoner aboard a slave ship. Gitone and Ascilto are there as well. Forced to fight the owner of the ship in combat, Encolpio is instead spared because of his looks, and then forced to marry the man, Lichas (Alain Cuny), in a ceremony aboard the ship’s deck. Sadly for Lichas, the current Caesar is overthrown and he is beheaded, once again allowing Encolpio to chase after Gitone and other young boys.

In the struggle for power, a man and his wife commit suicide rather than allow their property to be handed over to the new Caesar. Ascilto and Encolpio arrive at the house and find a willing slave girl still there, so they spend a little quality time with her, leaving only when the soldiers of the new Caesar arrive and burn the bodies of the former masters.

Scene shift. Encolpio and Ascilto meet a caravan headed to an oracle. The people in the caravan are hoping that the oracle, a hermaphroditic albino child, can cure their mistress of her nymphomania. Until they reach the oracle, though, the woman’s husband pays the two men to keep his wife satisfied. To help maintain some semblance of order in the caravan, the woman is tied down in the cart, and left tied down during the “satisfy my wife” sessions. Eventually, they reach the oracle, and decide to kidnap the child by killing his keepers. However, the child can’t stand the heat or sun of the desert and dies, and they then kill the man who persuaded them to commit the kidnapping.

Scene shift. Encolpio is thrown into the den of the Minotaur, who takes pity on him and refuses to kill him. As a reward (punishment?), he is told to get busy with Ariadne, a pretty young maiden, while a crowd watches. He can’t, and is publically humiliated. He then discovers his old friend Eumolpus, who is now ridiculously wealthy and corrupted. He suggests a sea voyage to the Garden of Delights to restore Encolpio’s manhood, but this doesn’t work.

And on and on. Eventually, Ascilto is killed by a ferryman, and Eumolpus dies, leaving his fortune to anyone who is willing to devour his corpse.

Seriously, what the hell?

I have no idea how to react to this film. Fellini has a thing for physical freaks and disturbing images, and nowhere does he indulge in that more than in this film. It’s almost as if he’s giving in to his own hedonistic urges at the expense of the audience’s sanity or enjoyment. I felt assaulted by this film, like it was seeing if it could cause me some sort of psychic damage during its running time.

I’m certain that someone wiser, worldlier, or more scholarly could wax rhapsodic about the true value of Satyricon, but unfortunately, you’re stuck with me. From where I’m standing, this film was a pointless excursion in excess, a film about nothing but itself. It left me with nothing but an empty feeling, a touch of queasiness, and the faint beginnings of a whanging headache. It feels like waking up after sleeping a little too long and having a slight metallic taste in the back of one’s throat. It’s both unpleasant and completely unexplainable.

Screw you, Fellini!

Why to watch Satyricon: You’ve got time to kill and a sense of joy in hurting your own brain.
Why not to watch: It not only makes no sense, it’s ugly to watch.

4 comments:

  1. maybe things would have been better if the complete story had been found

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  2. Although I have a many of the Fellini titles in my collection I have not made a point of jumping into them yet. I think it rests on my past experience with his work. My only exposure to Fellini was in 1977. I was in Basic Training, and the post theater (not sure what they were thinking) showed "Fellini's Casanova".
    Only thing that I really remember of the movie was Donald Sutherland, in a boat, on a body of water that looked like it was made up of black trash bags. While that may have been a quite artful, for that 18 year old private in the USArmy it was laughable.

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  3. Steve, I ran across your blog today and am really impressed! I purchased the 1001 Movies book in March and since then have watched 108 from the list. Im averaging about 2 every 5 days, so it will be well into 2017 at that rate before I am complete! At the moment, I am using Netflix and the local library system here in Columbus, Ohio. I am sure at some point I will run into trouble tracking down the obscure films, so a blog like this may help. Today I did catch Blackmail (Hitchcock from 1929) and Body Heat.

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  4. Colby--if you're blogging the book, I'd love to see your site!

    ReplyDelete