Caligula (1979)

*. It’s odd you don’t see Caligula on more “worst movie ever” lists, especially given how such lists are usually composed of “good-bad” movies or involve censorious moral judgments. Roger Ebert, for example, began his review by stating “Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.” Then he really started to unload on it.
*. Personally, I don’t think Caligula is a good movie but I still like it. I have to explain “like” though. I don’t mean it’s a good-bad movie because it’s not the rotten or bad parts that I like. Instead I give Caligula credit for being something of a mind worm. Ever since I first saw it at a rep cinema some thirty years ago it’s stayed in my head. Not just a few indelible scenes either — like the head harvester or the horse in the bed — but pretty much the whole thing.
*. A necessary digression on the different versions of Caligula. When I say “the whole thing” I mean the 156-minute version. All sorts of different cuts exist. As I write these notes there is apparently an attempt being made to reconstruct an original version of the film that’s nearly 90 minutes longer. You can check out Alexander Tuschinski’s documentary Mission: Caligula for more on this. I’m not holding my breath though. Something may come of these efforts, but from what I’ve seen of the material that was cut it just seems like more of the same, and wouldn’t add anything to the already obvious political satire. If satire is the right word.

*. Anyway, to go over some of the back story, most of the film was directed by Tinto Brass but was then recut by Bob Guccione, who also added some additional scenes. The porny ones. Brass then wanted his name taken off it. I think that gets it right.
*. I’ve seen some of Brass’s other movies and don’t think there’s any reason to believe that a masterpiece was ruined. In Mission: Caligula Kelly Holland, CEO of Penthouse, has this to say about Brass’s loss of control over the film: “it was as if Leonardo da Vinci was not able to finish the Mona Lisa, he only got three-quarters of the way through and then somebody took his paintbrushes away.” Hm. I don’t know. I suspect if Brass had had more control Caligula would have been even less coherent. To be honest, most of Brass’s movies give me a headache.
*. Gore Vidal wasn’t keen on having his name associated with the finished product either. Though if you want a good summation of what Caligula is about, a line from Vidal’s essay on Suetonius is as good as any. A figure such as Caligula, Vidal says, differs from us only in the fact of his power, which made it possible for him “to act out his most recondite sexual fantasies”: “What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.”
*. Despite these examples of failure being an orphan, I do enjoy Caligula pretty much as it is. Explaining why, however, isn’t easy.
*. An epigraph reminds us of how we profit not if we gain the whole world and lose our soul. It stays on the screen a suspiciously long time. I have to wonder if the thought was that Penthouse readers weren’t that good at handling text.
*. Immediately we are returned to those more natural days of yesteryear, when breast augmentation was virtually unheard of and pubic grooming not ubiquitous. By which I mean 1979, not pagan Rome. Hell, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) even has armpit hair. Those really were the days.

*. There are a number of porn scenes but most of these are orgies and they are very dull, explicit without being erotic. I suspect even real orgies are dull, but movie orgies may be even worse. On screen they involve a lot of fake writhing around. Porn, I think, has gotten a lot better since the ’70s. I give credit to the Internet.
*. Sticking with the porn, Newsweek‘s review said Caligula “seems to have been photographed through a tub of Vaseline.” This was, in fact, the soft-focus Penthouse style at the time. I was never a fan. The darkness of much of this film doesn’t help either.
*. I think it provides an interesting take on the emperors. I like Peter O’Toole playing Tiberius as a syphilitic hulk, and the giggling, effeminate idiot Claudius may be just as close to reality as what we got from Derek Jacobi. In fact, much of this movie may be quite realistic.
*. Much, but far from all. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus would never have referred to himself as Caligula, which was a childhood nickname. And if anybody else had dared to call him Caligula they probably would have been killed on the spot.

*. Has there ever been another movie that spent so much time in bed? Though these are certainly amazing beds. They look like Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus on opium. People have sex in these beds, lie around and talk in bed, get sick in bed, and die in bed.
*. This latter goes together with the odd fetishization of death in the film. There are even a couple of scenes that are borderline (or over the border) necrophilic. In 1979 porn was no longer so chic. But is this decadence erotic? Maybe Bob Guccione thought so. Taste in such matters varies quite a bit.
*. Well, a smutty version of Cecil B. DeMille is not such a stretch as you may think. I’d certainly rather re-watch this movie than Ben-Hur any day. Or Cleopatra. Or almost any Biblical-Classical epic I can think of. Those movies are all fantasies too, but even more turgid. Meanwhile, the pleasure palace of Tiberius is so Felliniesque that it takes Fellini at his tackiest and puts him to shame. And can we say that’s a bad thing? Less cinematic?
*. It doesn’t look like a classic swords-and-sandals fantasy. In fact, it’s so over-decorated and studio bound it seems claustrophobic despite the giant sets. We rarely go outside. Even the giant bordello barge is indoors. Which I’m sure saved money and made it easier to shoot, but adds to that pervasive air of unwholesome rankness.
*. In A Clockwork Orange Alex fantasizes about whipping Christians while dressed in the height of Roman fashion. In hindsight this seems prophetic. I don’t know if MacDowell had the connection in mind.
*. I don’t think I’ve got around to saying why I like Caligula. Maybe I can’t. Maybe it’s just something that doesn’t reflect well on me. But then maybe it’s the delight in chaos, at the way it chews up so much high and low culture and spits it out as wreckage. I don’t agree with anyone who would want to clean it up.

2 thoughts on “Caligula (1979)

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