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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?

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, "">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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