Recently I watched the 1979 epic produced by your founder and haver of a tan Bob Guccione. And let me tell you, I was super disappointed. Maybe I wasn’t born at the right time, or maybe I’m just too jaded to enjoy something my parents once found titillating, but I just don’t understand how a movie starring such pedigreed heavy-lifters as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John “I Invented Shakespeare” Gielgud, scripted by Gore Vidal and intercut with some really weird porn can be so dull. It’s a story about a mad emperor, it has huge production values… and boobies. Why am I not entertained? Maybe because it wreaks of desperation? Maybe because spectacle for spectacle’s sake, no matter how many penis cakes are involved, just isn’t that interesting… kind of like the Beijing Olympics or Cirque Du Soleil. It’s as if you knew what was coming and scrambled for a party to end the party before The Moral Majority stepped in and started complaining about lady parts. I need answers Penthouse.
A person who has heard of your magazine but has never actually seen pornography printed in ink on paper
Enough of that. What of the mad emperor Caligula and his debauchery? Made just as the Reagan years were about to begin, Caligula was perhaps meant as a sort of grand last hurrah to the decadence of the 60s and 70s, a final orgy before the specter of AIDS and Jerry Falwell cajoled my parents’ generation into settling down in the suburbs and invading Grenada. The film spared no expense, shoving some fine actors into amazingly designed sets to basically shout dialogue penned by professional provocateur Gore Vidal. It was directed by a talented Italian, Tinto Brass (whose seems like he’s always either really horny or really stressed out in press photos), and ultimately anchored by a dedication to supreme weirdness.
Tinto Brass: oddly not the biggest pervert involved in the production of Caligula.
As an archeological artifact, Caligula is puzzling and fascinating. As entertainment, pornographic or otherwise, its reputation does not reflect its very shabby reality. Caligula is like an old Cougar sitting in the corner of a bar. It knows its time has come and gone, but it’ll be damned if it doesn’t make everyone else have an awkward night.
Guccione famously intercut scenes of hardcore slamming into the original footage in order to… well, honestly who knows what? As a result, there are some very awkward scenes featuring some very ugly (read: seventies attractive) people doing terrible things to each other whilst classically-trained actors muddle their way through a script that can only be described as baroque, and not in a good way. It’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying (in this age of internet porn) absolutely nothing that you couldn’t get a lot of (and worse) with only a few keystrokes. It pains me to say that I think I simply may not be innocent enough to view this film with anything but a very jaded perspective. It’s almost quaint. Almost adorable, even, in the same way your grandmother is when she’s drunk.
If you’re going to cast someone to play a mad emperor, why not go with Alex DeLarge, or as he is often called, Malcolm McDowell. If you need some one to play his syphilitic grandfather, let’s say you might want Peter O’Toole for the job, who was at this point slumming. Both men seem perfectly happy with the situation, throwing themselves into over-the-top situations with something like glee. Neither looks embarrassed to be here, and if they ever do, it’s quickly put to bed by the fact that they seem to know there’s a beach house in it for them at the end. McDowell in particular is a selfless actor, a man who has always brought energy to even the basest of material. O’Toole has fun playing a madman who finds that various bits of himself are rotting off. There’s only one way to approach such a character. Balls out–because, seriously, you guys, they’re about to fall off.
The sets and costumes are also nice.
It would be very easy to turn this into a long treatise on porn as reflection of cultural values. I won’t do that. But I will point out that Caligula is part of a proud tradition of mixing sex with comedy. This beer is a jolly one, not a negative one.
This image was the result of a surprisingly precise Google search on my part. And it’s hilarious!
Caligula has never been convincingly put on screen (I’ll make an exception for John Hurt in I, Claudius). How do you play a mad man? I have praised McDowell for giving it the college try, but his Caligula is little more than a petulant child, a seventies version of Joffrey Baratheon. It grates terribly after a while, and there is no Peter Dinklage to soften the proceedings. I can’t exactly complain that there’s no moral weight to what happens on screen (how could there be, after all?) but it would be nice if every once in a while the audience was given a surrogate, someone who could show up to say, “seriously? WTF?”
The night is dark and full of terrors.
This one goes to Segei Prokofiev, whose “Montagues and Capulets” theme showed up on Dancing With The Stars (which I was watching with my mother), prompting me to say, “oh hey, that’s the music from Caligula!” To which my mother replied, “And how do you know about that movie?” And then I said, “and how do you know about that movie, Mom? Shut up already. God. I can’t wait till I move out! God!” Fuck you, Sergei.
“Who wants to join me in the warm pool filled with teenaged boys?”
I love Peter O’Toole. Maybe one day I will review him in a film I actually like. Dean Koonz’s Phantoms comes to mind.
We lived through “two girls one cup”. Caligula may have been shocking in the years surrounding our births, but today it’s little more than a tribute to what our parents found disturbing. It turns out our parents were/are easily put off. It’s maybe worth watching for the sake of seeing some fine actors ham it up to high heaven, but otherwise the controversy surrounding it, the word of mouth that made it famous, seem like the panicked whispers of an entirely more mellow, entirely more innocent era. This actually makes for good companion viewing with A Clockwork Orange. Clockwork is less graphic, but also much more trenchant.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: when John Gielgud’s character finally dies and you can imagine him on the phone offscreen, yelling at his agent.
Do a Shot: when you see the man with an ass in the middle of his stomach. Okay, that is pretty fucked up.
Take a Drink: when you see the death machine and it sort of reminds you of that scene from First Knight, starring Richard Gere.