Thursday, April 13, 2006


Caligula

(Italy-US, 1979, 148? min.)

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Guido Mannari, John Steiner.

Written by (deep breath) Gore Vidal, whose screenplay was apparently worked over by Masolino D’Amico, with additional uncredited scenes written by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione, and additional dialogue written for 1984 recut by Franco Rossellini, the whole mishmash purportedly based on a treatment written by Franco’s uncle, the legendary Roberto. (all info courtesy of the IMDb)

Directed by Tinto Brass and, to a degree anyway, Bob Guccione.

I’m never completely sure what to say about this notorious, would-be-arthouse, more-like-grindhouse mess about the most insane Emperor of the supremely insane Roman Empire (some would argue that that title belongs to Nero, but we’re not talking about him right now). It’s not the sort of thing you recommend to someone out of hand. And to understand why I would recommend it to anyone at all requires more than just an appreciation of bad cinema; it necessitates a grasp of that mutant urge that compels some of us to witness with no small amount of schadenfreude the failure of other’s overblown pretensions, blithely ignoring all the while the mental decay it may cause in ourselves.

Just to get a sense of things, take the scene where Caligula (McDowell) molests the body of his beloved, just-departed sister Drusilla (Savoy). (If it helps any, it wasn’t their first time; just the first time that she was dead during. That really doesn’t help at all, does it?) Now go back and read the description of that scene again, take a moment for it to sink in, and then consider that it’s far from the most repulsive thing on display here.

It’s really amazing that the thing got released at all. Different versions boast varying running times – often a sign of post-production problems – and various reports indicate that virtually no one involved wanted it ever to see the light of day. As I understand it, erotic filmmaker Brass took a script by Gore Vidal, who subsequently disassociated himself from the project, and shot it for co-producer Guccione, most famed for being the publisher of Penthouse magazine and for never buttoning his shirt. Guccione decided it was too family-friendly and added some more hardcore scenes, many of which are quite obvious in their insertion, if you’ll pardon the expression. Brass wasn’t too crazy with this tampering and also wanted to disassociate himself, but apparently didn’t completely, as his name is still in the credits. And, as if that weren’t enough, Guccione still wasn’t that nuts about the final project and considered shelving it. Which would have been a pity. Not because it’s a good film: it’s not, in fact it’s terrible. Some handsome design work is fucked up by terrible cinematography. The whole thing looks like it was shot on old stock that had been lying around in someone’s wine cellar. And I’m not an expert on Roman history – most of what I know probably comes from watching I, Claudius – but unless he was born that way, there must have been some point where Caligula began to become mad and we are never shown any real indication of this. At first he seems not really that much more crazy than the rest of them and then suddenly he’s a wack job. Seeing him lose it over time would have made for a much more interesting film. It was what was wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining and it’s what’s wrong with this, along with, as stated above, many, many other things.

But I did say I was glad it got released, didn’t I? Yes, because one man’s trash is another man’s, well, trash, but, as I implied earlier, to some of us that’s a good thing. It’s not the same kind of trash you’d get from John Waters or Paul Morrissey during his Warhol period, but…let me put it this way: Waters, the so-called Prince of Puke, is now a bona-fidey filmmaker. He is now working with much larger budgets than he used to and the result is films like Pecker and Cecil B. Demented. This can be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing (having seen Cecil I can say it’s a mixed blessing at best), but that’s not the point. The point is that had the John Waters of yore, the John Waters of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, been given the kind of budget he’s being given now, I’d like to think he might have decided to make something like this. A balls-to-the-wall tasteless non-historical historical, non-epic epic kind of film. A “screw that film school shit, let’s see if we can make this high school auditorium look like the Coliseum” kind of film. An Andy Hardy and Betsy Booth in Hell, but still putting on a show kind of film. The kind of film that Caligula is, only intentionally so. And of course the Waters version would have been funnier.

Oh well. Nice soundtrack anyway.


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