‘Caligula’s Ghost: Why Cinema Needs Epic Failure More than Mediocre Success

“Effort must be made to bring what we think about sex and what we say about sex and what we do about sex into some kind of realistic relationship. Indirectly, the pornographers do this. They recognize that the only sexual norm is that there is none.”

— Gore Vidal, ‘On Pornography’, The New York Review of Books, 31 March 1966

During one of my strategic retreats from the outside world, spending a rainy afternoon perusing the shelves of my favourite second-hand bookstore, I came upon a quaint little paperback nestled amongst old editions of Gore Vidal’s fiction. Sure enough, his name was on the cover, in garish letters larger than the title itself: Gore Vidal’s Caligula. Only buried at the very bottom, in typeface smaller than a publisher’s imprint, could be found the words: ‘Based on Gore Vidal’s original screenplay, by William Howard.’ In shamelessness, the cheap novelisation I had discovered almost matched the film upon which it was based, still hungry for the reflected literary glory of the writer who renounced it, in the court, in the press and in spirit.

I bought it for pocket change (which, after reading it, may still have been too much) because Caligula, one of the most infamous movies in history, had been on my mind recently. It seems we need a little of Caligula’s mad hubris; to lay down a challenge, and change the way people think. For example Shame, the new adult art film and rumoured underdog Oscar contender by Hunger director Steve McQueen, was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA in October, to the surprise of virtually no-one; the story deals graphically with the unravelling lives of a hopeless sex addict and his dissolute sister (played by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan respectively), so naturally features scenes of sex and full frontal nudity throughout.

What made such news unusual was how maturely it was accepted by all concerned. Fox Searchlight, the studio behind Shame, reportedly expected the rating — often seen as a dead albatross around the neck of any new release — and will press ahead with its campaign to make Shame the first NC-17 rated nominee for an Academy Award (though Midnight Cowboy did win Best Picture in 1969, despite labouring under the now-outdated ‘X’ rating). Even more surprisingly, John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, gave an interview to The Wrap website stating that in his opinion,

“It would have destroyed this film to cut it down to an R rating. Too many filmmakers and too many studios do that, and I applaud Steve McQueen and Fox Searchlight for sticking to their guns. This is the kind of film that the NC-17 is designed for, and I think we need more bold filmmakers and distributors to make content appropriate for the rating and release it that way.” “‘Shame’ Shocks AFI Audience, Theater Leader Calls for More NC-17 Films”, by Steve Pond).

Shame, much like Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 experimental drama The Girlfriend Experience, raises the issue of sex in film; how we perceive it, what its purpose is, and how it should be rated. It never paid as well to question the connection between sex and violence as to exploit it, but the two extremes are no longer as intertwined as some might believe: violence, whether realistic or ridiculous, has become a seemingly limitless format, embraced by all mediums from children’s cartoons to the bloodiest of grindhouse. Sex on screen, on the other hand, remains subject the strictest levels of regulation and categorisation.

“I mean, it’s sex,” said Steve McQueen at a recent press conference. “I think it’s what most of the people in this room have done, if not all of us have done. I mean I’ve never held a gun in my hand in my life. So, it’s this whole weird thing where what we do in our daily lives should be censored. It’s very odd. And things that we have no idea of, or have no capability of doing, should be viewed on the masses.”

But Caligula — a $22 million Roman epic, funded by Penthouse Films and starring some of the greatest actors of the era, detailing the short, bloody, orgiastic reign of ancient Rome’s most depraved emperor — kept reoccuring to me, and not just as an earlier, infinitely more grandiose and ultimately misguided attempt to change the way audiences thought about sex in film. The sad and as-yet unexplained death this October of Anneka Vasta, the actress and former Penthouse model who portrays Messalina in Caligula, refreshed the movie’s infamy by dragging its name back into the headlines. Meanwhile, rumours emerged over the past year and a half suggesting Tinto Brass, the Italian director whose career has been built on attempting to marry cinematic art and hardcore sex, was planning on revisiting the subject of his most notorious work. Who Killed Caligula?, now in pre-production, is pegged for a 2012 release.

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man… and therefore I am a God.”

— Malcolm McDowell, Caligula, 1979

The worldwide media attention elicited by the mere announcement from Brass that he would reimagine a motion picture widely regarded as one of the worst ever made, proved that the morbid fascination of Caligula has not worn off. Roger Ebert famously gave the original film zero stars, describing it as “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.” That reputation has endured; in the same way much of our attention-deficit civilisation may go through life vaguely aware that Citizen Kane is a masterpiece without ever seeing it, or that Shakespeare is magnificent with ever reading a line, we know that Caligula is awful, usually without ever finding out for ourselves. That said, underappreciated classics are one thing. Bizarre cult favourites are another. Caligula is something else entirely.

The movie plays voyeur to the life of the Emperor Caligula, from his murderous ascent to power, through his decadent and sadistic reign as Caesar and apparent descent into madness, to his death at the swords of his own Praetorian Guard. We see Caligula make love to his sister, execute his friends, proclaim himself a god, and turn the Senate into a brothel filled with the noblewomen of Rome. There is penetration, fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, orgies, necrophilia and implied bestiality. Intestines are spilled, blood flows freely, and heads are decapitated by gigantic mechanical spinning blades.

The gaudy, nightmarish relentlessness of the film — over two and a half hours in length — still stands as its one unqualified triumph: in its commitment to producing the most extreme portrayal of pagan Rome’s depravity ever envisaged, Caligula remains unmatched. Much like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, making the choice to watch Caligula requires a personal, or even moral, judgement about whether or not you believed something of worth, artistic or otherwise, existed beneath the hysteria and the shocks.

The critic and exploitation film expert Brad Jones ( The Cinema Snob.com) may be alone in his opinion, but still proudly describes Caligula as his “favourite film of all time”, so when I ask him to make a case for its defence, his enthusiasm is evident:

“It’s like the universal movie. It combines the elements of a lavish, big budget Hollywood production, a satire on political power, and exploitation porn. The movie doesn’t hold back, it goes for broke, and as a historical epic the movie is beautiful. The costumes are magnificent, the sets are awesome, the music is epic, and it’s got all of these classically trained actors who give it their all. And as an exploitation film, it’s entertaining as hell.”

In order to understand Caligula‘s reputation, and even its relevance, it’s necessary to understand the story behind its making — a story of art, pornography, betrayal and clashing personalities arguably more compelling than what ended up on screen.

Of all the apparent lunacies of Caligula, the involvement of Gore Vidal is the one that often leaves modern audiences most baffled. However, this generation — which, if it knows Vidal, knows him as a venerable man of letters, a patrician wit and defender of an American republic that never was — may be prone to forget that daring and sexually explicit satire was, for a good period of his illustrious career, what he was most popularly known for. During his most infamous on-air debacle with William F. Buckley, the arch-reactionary dismissed Vidal (after threatening to punch him in the face) by muttering that “the author of Myra Breckinridge should go back to his pornography.”

As the story goes, in 1976, Malcolm McDowell — already notorious for his work in If…, A Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man! — was bemused to find he had an appointment with Gore Vidal — one of the most famous gay writers in America — at the Penthouse Club, attended to by a bevy of voluptuous attendants. Once there, Vidal offered McDowell the lead in Caligula.

“I’ve always been interested in the Roman Empire, since I am, like so many of us, a child of the American Empire,” said Vidal. “And empires tend to be more like one another than different.” Originally planned as a miniseries with Robert Rossellini, the financing had fallen through, so Vidal, who regularly contributed essays to Penthouse, approached Bob Guccione, the magazine’s publisher and founder. Guccione leaped at the chance and promised to invest heavily in the film.

When McDowell expressed trepidation at the fact the money was coming from a pornographer, Vidal was unruffled: “Malcolm,” he said, “just think of Bob Guccione as one of the Warner Brothers.” In other words, so long as it was his script they were shooting, who cared where the funds came from?

“If only all Rome had just one neck…”

— Malcolm McDowell, Caligula (1979)

The Bravery of an Epic Failure

“Look, you’re offered the chance by Gore Vidal to play the lead in his new movie,” McDowell later argued. “You’d be an idiot to say no.” McDowell agreed to play the young emperor, under the impression that the film would be directed by Nic Roeg. Fate had other ideas; Guccione, while in the process of auditioning directors, wandered into the wrong screening room and caught Salon Kitty, the Nazispoitation flick that was then earning Tinto Brass some early controversy.

Guccione decided that he had found his director, and proceeded to plough an initial $17 million into an epic production which he was convinced would create something entirely new. “I promised that Caligula would fundamentally change the theatregoing public’s perception of motion pictures,” Guccione said later. “That it would foment changes within the industry itself.”

With the grand language stripped away, what Guccione wanted was “a blue film with stars”, a big budget production filled with famous names that would bring the kind of material previously associated with hardcore pornography into the mainstream, and garner the respect he felt it deserved. The idea was unlikely, madly ambitious and as ill-conceived as one might expect from a decade saturated in cocaine. It says even more about the era that this was an idea that a great many people were willing to entertain.

Peter O’Toole was soon cast as the syphilis-ridden Emperor Tiberius, John Gielgud took the role of his suicidal advisor Nerva, while Helen Mirren, then one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s brightest stars, became Caesonia, Caligula’s wife and “the most promiscuous woman in Rome.” The names may raise eyebrows today, but in the ’70s, the novel but oddly self-evident idea was in favour that Shakespearean actors, being the best of their profession, should take on the most challenging, shocking and dangerous of roles. As for McDowell, there was no reason to believe Caligula would not fit nicely amongst the lost innocents and sociopaths that had made his name.

Shooting began in 1976 in Rome, with all outsiders banned from the set. Wild and occasionally accurate rumours circulated around the city of what unimaginable scenes might be going on behind the studio doors. The hugely elaborate, hugely expensive sets were often unfinished, O’Toole was permanently drunk while shooting, and due to Brass’s habit of filming with several cameras at once, none of the actors knew if they were in close up, long shot or anywhere in between.

But the troubles only truly began when Vidal, already unhappy with the direction the film was taking, gave a typically acidic interview to Time magazine, stating that directors were parasites living off writers, and a director’s job is merely to follow the screenplay’s instructions. In a rage, Brass barred him from the set. Vidal, who had already seen the film adaptation of his novel Myra Breckinridge turn into “another bad joke movie”, walked away from the project and into court, where he sued to have his name removed from the title: Gore Vidal’s Caligula became, simply, Caligula.

By the end of principal photography, Brass claimed to have shot over 100 miles of film, having gone vastly overbudget in the process. Even more enraging to Guccione was Brass’s habit of using ordinary people from the streets of Rome — students, housewives, vagrants — to fill out the (mainly nude) crowds of extras. Repelled by the sight of ordinary, unglamourised nakedness, which he felt would poorly represent the Penthouse brand the film was intended to promote, and finally sick of Brass’s argumentative independence, Guccione threw him out of the editing suite. When the Italian courts ruled that Brass had the legal right to edit the footage however he liked, Guccione had the exposed film smuggled to England (wrapped around the legs of couriers in order to get past British customs) so it could be edited in London.

Guccione had flown in several ‘Penthouse Pets’ to be included in the film — all of them under the impression they would be starring in the latest James Bond — and, having banished Brass, secretly filmed six minutes of lesbian scenes which he interwove into the final cut, in the hope that this would salvage his dream of a hardcore masterpiece. Having alienated the writer and the director, these new inserts — which bore no relation to the remaining plot — finally alienated the actors, particularly McDowell. He soon joined Vidal, Brass and O’Toole in publicly badmouthing Guccione’s butchered edit.

Almost four years after shooting began, Caligula was eventually given a US release in 1980, by which time its legend had already crystallised. Audiences expected to be shocked, and Guccione charged them $7 for the privilege, at a time when an average cinema ticket cost $3. With this final con, and the publicity that controversy always brings, Guccione ensured that in box office terms, Caligula — savaged, hated and seemingly cursed — finally became a hit.

“In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema; literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not yet ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is, in reality, more real than reality itself, look into cinematic fiction.”

— Slajov Zizek, “http://www.timeout.com/film/news/1439/”>Time Out London, 6 October 2006

What then, is left to defend in Caligula? Helen Mirren described it as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.” True enough, there’s a lot of balls in Caligula, both in front of and behind the camera. McDowell is electrifying, simultaneously comedic and terrifying, and easily transcends John Hurt’s more restrained turn as Caligula in I, Claudius; the other performances are a mixed bag, ranging from the poetic to the pantomime.

The sets, designed by Fellini’s art director Danilo Donati, are among some of the most complex and elaborate ever seen on camera, even half-realised. And, whether admitted or not, its creeping influence can be detected in almost every swords ‘n’ sandals picture since, from Gladiator to Spartacus: Blood and Sand. And the tone, alternately depressing and absurd, is as brave as it is uneasy.

But Caligula was not an epic failure because of its content (though in some parts, it certainly helped), or its critical mauling. Caligula failed because it did not, and never could, succeed in doing what it set out to do. It did not herald a new age of artistically valid hardcore cinema; it did not, laced with sometimes laughable historical inaccuracies as it is, succeed in creating a realistic portrait of ancient Rome as Vidal intended. And the fantastical Felliniesque spectacle Brass no doubt envisaged becomes tawdry and artificial in the execution. In the end, Caligula was a cinematic Tower of Babel, rather than Sodom and Gommorrah; it was propelled and then crippled by its own insane ambition.

In 2005, the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli made a short film entitled Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula. As a satire on the nature of fame and advertising, the five-minute piece of video art suggests that such is the power of celebrity, we’ll worship it in any form — even a remake of one of the most derided movies of all time. Echoing the strange attraction of the original, the trailer shows off a pantheon of contemporary stars — Courtney Love (playing Caligula, in the best casting of her acting career), Benicio del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Gerard Butler, Helen Mirren (returning to play Peter O’Toole’s role)… and Gore Vidal, who appears at the beginning of the trailer, sitting in Italy, older, greyer but still capable of holding a grudge, getting the last word on a film that could (and should) have been. “What is the point,” he asks, “of telling the story of someone who was somewhat insane, at a very dark point in human history? I think the answer to that is: “every point in human history is dark.”

The relevance of Caligula has not, and tragically never will, desert us. The lie we tell ourselves is that this is a supreme anachronism, a speculative glimpse into the ghoulish decadence of a certain past, whether that past be the ’70s or ancient Rome — but Caligula portrays little, if any decadence beyond that of the era we inhabit. Yet beyond all its underrated qualities, its most tragic might be that the goal behind Caligula — to change the way audiences viewed sex in film — was ultimately not entirely misguided.

Its intention was to be groundbreaking, but even by the time of its release, there was something old-fashioned and reactionary about it. It carries a stink of the caricatured ’70s; if we view it now, it’s with with the smug hindsight of the early 21st century, a culture arguably even more sunken into sleaze, and still pathetically unable to overcome most of the sexual taboos and prejudices which existed at the time of Caligula‘s making.

Movies such as Shame, intelligently made and unpossessed by the same mad hubris that threw Caligula out of control, may slowly move our culture towards a more rational understanding of sex, particularly in the arts that portray it. But in order to achieve that, some films will need a little of Caligula‘s mad hubris; to take lay down a challenge, and change the way people think.

Caligula failed. But that epic failure was braver, and more significant, than a thousand mediocre successes. Art cannot retreat from such failures, only learn from them. If we fail to do that, then the decadence of the Roman Empire is not as far away as we might think.

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