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

Obscene, grandiose and artistically worthless -- such is the monstrous reputation of the 1979 art-porn blockbuster Caligula. Is this most shocking of Roman epics worthy of reappraisal?

"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 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)

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