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Endurance Test Theater presents: ‘Caligula’

January 21, 2010

Caligula, 1979

Director: Tinto Brass, with additional footage directed by Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Liu

“Adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal,” additional material written by Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Liu

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Guido Mannari, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Giancarlo Badessi

Back in the 70s and 80s, when people still bothered with buying porn, the holy trinity of dirty magazines was, of course, Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. Playboy always tried to stay just on the side of tastefulness; this is probably why it’s also been the most successful, as it’s less embarrassing to buy at a 7-11 then, say, Big Black Butts or Oriental Dolls. Penthouse, the Jayne Mansfield to Playboy‘s Marilyn Monroe, was best known for publishing grainy, badly lit nude photographs of celebrities before they made it big, such as Madonna and Vanessa Williams, and for Penthouse Letters, hilariously awful erotica that mostly consisted of people engaging in sexual activity that in real life would most likely result in someone either losing their job, getting arrested, or quite possibly being killed. Now, ideally Hustler should be the Mamie Van Doren to Penthouse‘s Jayne Mansfield, but it’s really more like a dumpy, middle-aged female impersonator trading handjobs for cigarettes behind the local Denny’s.

All three magazines are still in publication, though fighting a losing battle against the internet. United in their fading relevance, they no longer appear to be actively competing against each other. This wasn’t the case during their heyday back in the 70s, when Hugh Hefner only had to look over his shoulder to see Penthouse‘s Bob Guccione and Hustler‘s Larry Flynt trailing not far behind him, scheming to take him down and assume his role as America’s leading purveyor of poon. Guccione, who spent the entire decade with his shirts unbuttoned to his nipples, seemed the most formidable of Hefner’s opponents, and did triumph over him in one area: being the first to have his name attached to a film. Unfortunately, that film turned out to be Caligula, a disaster in pretty much any way possible. If copies of it just burst into flames the minute anyone tried to watch one, it wouldn’t be a bigger disaster.

Guccione wanted to produce a movie that could be shown in more than just dark, foul-smelling theaters with sticky floors, and luckily, he happened to run into writer Gore Vidal, who had adapted an earlier script by director Roberto Rossellini but couldn’t secure the funds to film it. Vidal wanted to make a serious historical drama about Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, nicknamed Caligula, one of the best known yet least interesting of the Caesars.  I say least interesting because Caligula is known for only one thing, and that’s being a horrible person who did horrible things.  It may not necessarily be accurate, but it’s what history has proclaimed, and it’s not like anyone’s going to suddenly pop up and provide irrefutable evidence that he loved dogs and helped old ladies cross the street.  Hitler may have been evil, but he was also an artist and devoted to his mother.  When he wasn’t raping and strangling coeds, Ted Bundy carried on reasonably normal relationships with other women and was a dedicated law student.  They both possessed some shred of humanity at some point, which is fascinating, whereas Caligula seemed to emerge from the womb a murderous degenerate, which is not. He’s boring in the same way people who are constantly happy and carefree are boring.

“Degenerate” was all Bob Guccione had to hear before agreeing to put up the bulk of the cost of filming Caligula, however, and his money paid for lush Italian shooting locations, sumptuous costumes and set design, and even appearances from elder statesmen of cinema Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud. Rather than focus on Vidal’s not terribly original story of absolute power corrupting absolutely, Guccione wanted to focus more on what Caligula did on his off time from running Rome, mainly killing, torturing, and, most especially, engaging in kinky, debauched sex. Wikipedia offers a dizzying explanation of how Caligula became such a bloated, appalling mess–in short much of it could be blamed on the clash of egos between the notoriously cantankerous Gore Vidal, who apparently didn’t realize that whoever provides the most cash for a movie has the most say over how it turns out, director Tinto Brass, who had his own, allegedly even more incomprehensible vision for the film, and Guccione, who just wanted to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, preferably while still being able to get away with the occasional money shot.

Eventually both Vidal and Brass disavowed any association with the film, while Guccione, not certain that the finished film would draw in enough of an audience to recoup his investment, thought that the best course of action was to add in several hardcore sex scenes, many of them spliced into the film willy-nilly, like some bored teenager’s attempt at sabotaging his family’s vacation videos.

The movie opens with a title screen reading ‘PAGAN ROME.’ Pagan Rome was a very nude time–male slaves break rocks in the buff, Caligula’s outfits often seem to consist of little more than a yard of fabric and a belt, even the upper-class women walk around with one or both breasts hanging out, apropos of nothing. People have sex with each other out in the open, whether the occasion calls for it or not. Dinner parties often broke out into impromptu orgies.  Presumably this was supposed to illustrate just what a decadent, godless era ancient Rome existed in, and of course it was intended to be arousing. After a very short time, though, the near-constant sight of sagging tits and lumpy male asses in the background and often in the foreground, adding nothing to the proceedings, gets annoying, then numbing, then eventually it has the exact opposite effect of what it was intending. When I was done with Caligula, I never wanted to see a naked person again. I hoped to usher in a new trend in clothing, one in which we emulated the Amish, or perhaps Orthodox Jews. Anything so I didn’t have to see one more inch of jiggling bare flesh.

When first we meet the title character (played by Malcolm McDowell), he’s frolicking with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), who seems like a perfectly nice, normal girl except for that having sex with her brother part. Caligula’s grandfather Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) is Emperor of Rome, initially, though he appears to be dying of leprosy or some other illness that makes him resemble the Cryptkeeper. Summoning Caligula, Tiberius offers him the classic good news-bad news scenario: the good news is that Caligula will eventually succeed him. The bad news is that Caligula will almost certainly be horribly murdered at some point, probably by people he trusts, because it’s basically all in a day’s work when you’re Emperor of Rome, which makes you wonder why anyone would have wanted the job in the first place. It’s hard out here for a Caesar.

Tiberius’s friend and advisor Nerva (John Gielgud) commits suicide rather than facing a Rome run by Caligula. We’re never quite sure what Nerva has against Caligula, other than the fact that Caligula seems rather insincere, smiling at people in a way that suggests he will very shortly tear out chunks of their faces with his teeth. In a stunning plot twist that comes straight out of left field, Caligula has Tiberius murdered, which is good because while alive he was inhaling so much scenery that small children had to be pried out of his mouth. Caligula enters office and promptly loses his mind, which is apparently also par for the course when you become emperor of Rome. He openly carries on his romantic relationship with his sister. He has his loyal friend Macro arrested and executed for murdering Tiberius. He torments his sniveling teenage brother Gemellus, eventually ordering him arrested and presumably killed as well. He insists that his constituents hail his horse. He rapes a new bride and assaults her groom, later killing him. Most tellingly, he insists that his companions and guards wear color-coordinated outfits to match whatever he’s wearing.

Drusilla tells Caligula he needs to marry a woman of breeding, so that he may have an heir. Caligula would rather marry her, but she talks him out of that idea, because while fucking your sister is a-okay, marrying her is just weird. Mostly to annoy Drusilla, he chooses Caesonia (future grande dame of the silver screen Helen Mirren) as a wife, even though she’s described as “the most promiscuous woman in Rome,” which in this movie would mean she’d have to be walking around with a penis inside her every minute of the day, every day. Caesonia bears him his first child, a girl who he proclaims to be a son.

Shortly after that Drusilla dies of “the fever,” and Caligula really becomes unhinged, which is quite a feat because that would suggest that he’d ever been in the neighborhood of hinged in the first place. His breakdown scene, which involves shrieking at the top of his lungs, flopping the recently deceased Drusilla’s arms around like a big doll, ripping off her clothes and dragging her around the room while he remembers the good times (and also committing necrophilia, though that’s mercifully cut from the edition I watched), is meant to be the height of drama. He then inexplicably takes to the streets dressed as a beggar, ostensibly to hear the rumors of plans for his inevitable assassination from the ground up. Like pretty much everything else in the movie, the dramatic impact of this scene is considerably lessened by a bizarre shot of a group of people hanging around in the background naked below the waist, and a man walking around wearing a giant wooden penis on his head, selling smaller wooden penises. You’re supposed to be antsy with anticipation over what Caligula is going to learn while going undercover, and instead you’re wondering just what in the hell someone would do with a wooden penis. Is it art? A doorstop, perhaps? Or maybe a clubbing device of some sort, to ward off bandits. The mind reels.

Caligula winds up in jail, where no one, not even the guards who pick him up, seems to recognize him for some reason. After he’s released his returns to his palace, insists that his senators agree that he’s a god, and then leads them in a chorus of sheep’s baaing. The biting subtlety of the script suggests that Caligula considers his senators to be sheep themselves, accepting everything he says and does without question. Only then, after nearly an hour and a half of betrayal, murder, rape, torture, incest and overacting that all but peels the paint off the walls, only then does one of Caligula’s associates, Longinus, declare “He’s gone mad!” Really, Longinus, what was your first clue, the minute he appeared on the fucking screen?

One of his final acts of madness is to order the senators’ wives to become prostitutes, though they don’t seem to mind too much. In fact, it’s pretty clear that they dig it. But hey, that’s kinky ancient Rome for you. No wonder it fell, with all the rampant fucking going on all the time how could anyone run a government properly? However, only after he begins talking to seashells, forcing his armies to engage in pretend invasions of Britain (naturally the foot soldiers are balls-out naked, which doesn’t seem to be practical for battle) and arresting most of his senators does the end not so mercifully come for Caligula, when he’s brutally murdered by his closest companions, along with Caesonia and their young daughter. One of Caligula’s last words? “Scrotum.” That pretty much says it all for Caligula as a film.

If I were to make a list of every way that Caligula went wrong, this would extend to at least two blog entries. The most glaring error, though, was the fact that a guy whose claim to fame was publishing the first magazine to show pubic hair was at the helm of a costume drama. Bob Guccione had no interest in bringing the story of Caligula to the masses. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t even know or give a shit who Caligula was. What he wanted to do was produce the most expensive pornographic film ever made, with the hope that all the money he spent on it and the star power attached to it would make it both a hit with critics and at the box office. Well, he succeeded in making the most expensive pornographic film of all time, we have to give him that. However, big budget porn is like the McDonald’s Corporation’s recent plan to remodel some of its restaurants into upscale, Starbucks-like cafes.  They’re both futile wastes of money.  It doesn’t matter how many de Kooning reproductions you have on the walls or how much Norah Jones music you’re playing, you’re still serving McRib sandwiches and Hi-C fruit punch.  Caligula may have lush set design and luxurious costumes (for those who bother to wear clothing, that is), but underneath all that it’s still mostly just a bunch of people fucking. All it’s missing is a pizza guy.

There are an astonishing eight different versions of Caligula floating around out there. If that doesn’t blow your fucking mind right through your fucking hat, the original cut was 210 minutes long. That’s three and a half hours, nearly twenty minutes longer than Schindler’s List. A newly reedited version was released as recently as 2007, which suggests that someone is still trying to figure out how to make this masterpiece anywhere near watchable. That was the version I watched, and let me assure you they still have a long way to go. This version does away with all the graphic sex scenes and much of the violence, including a scene in which a severed penis is thrown to a pack of dogs. Much of Caligula’s more nefarious misdeeds are shown off-screen; the only reason I knew what happened was because I had heard about what was on the X-rated version. What is left is a weirdly edited, frightfully dull melodrama with some of the worst acting this side of a Sarah Palin press conference. God knows I love Malcolm McDowell, but he’s never been known as a low-key actor, and he goes full tilt boogie here, giving such an over the top performance of shouting and flailing that some of his co-stars literally seem to be shrinking away from him in fear.

The only one hammier than McDowell is Peter O’Toole, who has the good sense to die a half hour into the movie. O’Toole bellows his lines like he’s playing to the back of the Globe, and you come to the startling, perhaps even sobering realization that he thought he actually was in a legitimate historical epic. Then again, it’s also entirely possible that he spent most of the shoot inside a bottle of Bushmill’s, which may be the only way possible to enjoy this movie. More than anything else, though, Caligula is boring: at one point while I was watching it my laptop went into screensaver mode, and it took me a few moments to realize anything had changed. It’s interesting to realize that, while Guccione’s skin flick contributions certainly didn’t make Caligula any better, they probably didn’t make it any worse either. Nothing could have saved this wreck.

PHUN PHACT: Caligula is banned in Belarus.  Wise decision.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April permalink
    January 22, 2010 12:21 pm

    I laughed at least a dozen times during this review AND I learned a lot about the history of the porn industry (and Roman leadership structure). Gena, you are amazing! One of your all-time best reviews EVER.

    • Gena Radcliffe permalink*
      January 24, 2010 1:54 pm

      Thanks so much! I didn’t have fun watching the movie, but it sure was fun writing about it.

  2. Meredith permalink
    January 23, 2010 2:22 pm

    Actually, the vendor of little wooden penises seems to be the most (or perhaps the only?) historically accurate thing in the movie. Ancient Romans really did love having around tiny little penis amulets made of wood or clay – they were supposed to be good luck. People would hang them over their doors, kind of like windchimes. They would also make statues of the god Priapus (yes, like priapism), whose primary attribute was a ridiculously oversized erection – you were supposed to stroke the penis as you traveled by, for health and fertility. TRUE FACTS.

    This is what I get for having four years of Latin in high school. A deep knowledge of ancient penis culture. And then I went to college and minored in religion, so don’t even get me started on the shiva lingam.

    • Gena Radcliffe permalink*
      January 24, 2010 1:54 pm

      Fascinating! And no, I’m not being sarcastic, that is fascinating. Of all the things for them to get right…

  3. January 23, 2010 9:21 pm

    Was the scene with the giant head-chopping machine in the version you watched?

    Or the bit where the Roman soldier forced some guy to drink several gallons of wine so his stomach distended, only to cut him open with a sword, sending the wine gushing out?

    Because those scenes were badass.

    The version I saw of Caligula was long, with all the porno bits in. I felt kind of like I needed a hug after, having gone a bit sort of naked and fetal, sobbing quietly in the corner.

    I find it hard to despise Caligula though, because I always take great pleasure in recommending it enthusiastically to people as a bit of a practical joke. The expression on their faces the day after is priceless.

    • Gena Radcliffe permalink*
      January 24, 2010 1:53 pm

      No, the version I saw wouldn’t have rated any higher than an R, there was just a lot of nudity, most of it female. I did see the head-chopping machine, but it cut away (no pun intended) any time it got near someone. The stomach scene was cut in a way that you couldn’t quite tell what they did to him, except force him to drink a lot of wine. As I mentioned, the only reason I knew about any of the more hardcore sex and violence scenes was from hearing about it in the past. To be honest, I was a little disappointed! ;oP

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