Caligula  (1979)

In another review, I named Baise-Moi as the first feature film to include hardcore sex while not being about sex.  I’d still say that’s true, but twenty years earlier there was another film that should have been the first to make that breakthrough... but it failed, because the people creating it were unable to agree on what they were making.  Very explicit material was filmed in a non-erotic way, but in the final cut, the great majority of the hardcore content is entirely conventional pornography.

Some bad movies are bad right from the start, and have nothing but bad in them.  When you start with a title like Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, or have Tom Green write a screenplay, you know right up front that your chances of ending up with a good movie are zero.  But there are other bad movies that didn’t have to be bad.  For instance, the 1976 version of King Kong, or the Madonna version of Swept Away — the same material worked well when handled by other people. Sometimes you can bring together plenty of money and plenty of talent, and still end up with an awful movie.  Caligula is a very, very bad movie... yet somewhere inside it there is what could have been a good film.  Had they managed to make that hypothetical good movie, it would have been revolutionary.  Instead, it ended up being the film that was probably responsible for the closing of the small doorway that had been briefly open, in the seventies, between porn and mainstream cinema, despite the fact that in purely financial terms, it was successful.

The story of Caligula — what we know of it — is a powerful one, and had been made into successful drama before.  During the very time that this film was in production, British TV broadcast the miniseries I, Claudius to great acclaim... and it’s worth nothing that that series was — and may still be — some of the most explicit material ever broadcast on network TV.

Any exploration of the mess that ended up in theaters has to start with the convoluted and conflicted history of the film’s creation.  It began when Roberto Rossellini (father of Isabela) wrote a treatment.  His nephew Franco Rossellini took it to Gore Vidal to have him write a screenplay.  The idea was that Franco would be the producer.  They needed money, so Vidal went “I know — I’ll ask Bob Guccione.  He of all people would make a film like this.”  Vidal had written for Penthouse many times, and figured that he and Guccione would get along.

He was wrong.  Once his money was in the film, Guccione had final say on everything.  His first decision was to pick Tinto Brass as director.  And this is where things started to go wrong: Brass became the fulcrum of most of the conflicts that followed.  Brass had made a film called Madame Kitty or Salon Kitty which fit Guccione’s idea of what he wanted.  (I gather that this was an exploitation film about Nazis.)  But what he filmed didn’t suit Guccione’s agenda at all.

They hired prestigious British actors.  At first they wanted John Gielgud to play Tiberius, but he wouldn’t, so they cast him as a Senator who commits suicide when he hears that Caligula will become emperor, and got a drunken Peter O’Toole as Tiberius.  They wanted Maria Schneider (of Last Tango In Paris) as Caligula’s sister and lover Drusilla; she refused and they went with Teresa Ann Savoy, who had been in Salon Kitty.  (She proved to be the best bit of casting in the film.)  They got Helen Mirren as Caligula’s wife.  And they got Malcolm MacDowell (of A Clockwork Orange) for the title role.  And then they filled in the backgrounds with American “Penthouse Pets”.

They went to a studio in Italy and built huge, lavish sets, and did lots of research to get the sets and costumes as authentic as possible.  But then Franco Rossellini — who was on-set much more of the time than Guccione was — insisted on pushing ahead the shooting schedule and using sets that weren’t finished.  They had to shoot around the holes, which meant the sets got underused, and much of the lavish amounts of time and talent that had been sunk into them was for nothing.  Meanwhile, shooting was hardly underway before Brass and Vidal got into conflict.  Vidal eventually walked out, losing his ten percent cut.  He demanded that his name be removed; they did change the title from “Gore Vidal’s Caligula” to just “Caligula”, but the “written by” credit remained.  (And Vidal went on to narrate the making-of documentary — pompously — which at an hour long, was more than I was able to sit through.)  Gielgud later wrote that he got through the filming because he was sure that the movie would never be completed.

They shot footage for a year and a half.  And when it was finally done, and Brass began to edit down the result, Guccione took a look at it and was appalled at what he’d paid near twenty million dollars for.  It was full of shockingly explicit material that could never get an R rating, yet it contained nothing erotic!  At least not to Guccione’s eye, trained as it was in the taste of the middle-American porn purchaser.  I mean, it might be memorable to see guys jacking off into a bowl so that some highborn lady can use it as skin cream, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s really a mainstream audience draw, is it?  Guccione kicked Brass out of the editing facility and hired Hugh R. Lloyd as editor... but then fired him too, and began to re-edit the footage with his own staff.  The final edit was made by people who had no idea what they were doing!  The result was probably the sloppiest, most unprofessional job of editing ever done on such an expensive movie — one that made the entire behind-the-camera crew look completely incompetent.

But before he was done editing, Guccione decided that he could not release any film made only from Brass’s footage.  He got together a cheap minimal camera crew, snuck back to the studio, and began filming new material without Brass’s knowledge.  His added footage was straight, conventional hardcore porn.  Apparently Guccione even operated a camera himself, despite having no experience.  This sort of thing was routine in porn filming, so why not?  He intercut this footage into existing scenes, using Brass’s material for long shots and his own for closeups, with the two sometimes rather badly matched.  And in one case he inserted a whole scene that completely failed to fit — a lesbian encounter which ironically manages to be the only bit of the film that works as erotica.  (His other hardcore additions, sad to say, are mostly of fellatio.  What good is that?  If I want to see a massive nine inch member being pleasured, I can look in the mirror!)

Finally, almost four years after they’d started the production, he had his movie.  It became one of the most hated films ever shown in American theaters.  And it made Guccione so much money he was able to build a casino.

Guccione, Brass, and Vidal all sued each other.

Given the above story, it would be easy to fall into an assumption that if Tinto Brass had been allowed to finish the film according to his own vision, we would have gotten a legitimate, meaningful, artistically coherent, and quite possibly even good film.  But any viewing of the finished work verifies that unfortunately, Tinto Brass was at the core of how the movie went wrong.  His material is awful!

Many of their famous multi-million-dollar sets look completely stagey.  In the case of Tiberius’s grotto, for instance, you can’t for an instant see it as anything but stagecraft, rather than a real location.  Their carefully researched costumes are preposterous monuments to tackiness — because so many of them are cut to leave the actors’ butt cheeks hanging out.  Their expensive big-name British acting talent show us how they like their ham: sliced extra thick.  What was supposed to be a docudrama of shocking and sickening historical truth, about the horrible intersection of personal lust and political power, instead becomes a cornucopia of kitsch.

If you want to sum up what’s wrong with Brass’s filmic vision in one word... it’s too gay.

I don’t just mean that as a politically incorrect stereotype about kitchiness.  I mean it’s seriously gayed up.  There are far more male than female full-frontals onscreen — hell, even a count of male vs. female butt cheeks will show the scale tilting to the left.  And Brass delighted in throwing unattractive overweight matrons into scenes where Guccione thought his Penthouse Pets were supposed to be used, and then in the next scene strewing the background with naked musclemen swinging hammers.  And when it comes to explicit action involving people’s genitals — whether it be sexual or bloodily violent — in Brass’s footage it’s almost all male.  And at the very rare times when he does throw in a genuine act of simple mutual sex outside of the lead characters of Caligula and Drusilla, it’s male-on-male.  Action involving women, especially in any positive way, comes almost entirely from Guccione’s extra footage.  How much of this comes from Brass and how much comes from Vidal is a mystery — Vidal may be known as one of the finest historical novelists of the twentieth century (Burr, Lincoln, etc), but he’s also known for some truly jaw-dropping flights of gay-themed tackiness (Myron, for instance).

The funny thing is, as far as I’ve been able to learn, Brass’s many other erotically-themed films don’t have any such gayness about them.  Rather, what they’re known for is their worshipful attitude toward feminine buttocks.  So what’s he playing at here?  Is he carefully following Vidal’s instructions, despite all the disagreements?  Is he mocking Vidal?  Is he sabotaging Guccione and pitching the film to a gay audience on the presumption that they’re the only people who will be able to enjoy it?  I have no idea.  It makes no sense.

There’s a certain flavor of exploitation or horror movie that delights in graphically depicting sexualized violence against women.  Such films are often called misogynistic.  What do you call it when auteurs make a film that delights in graphic sexualized violence against men?

Combine the glitzy sets, laughably cheesy costumes, and super-hammy performances, and what Brass gave us looks a lot less like ancient Rome than like a Las Vegas revue.  Throw in hideous acts of brutality, exploitation-grade gore effects, and blunt-instrument dialogue, plus McDowell (who is in almost every scene) serving up the thickest and glaziest ham of all, and we’ve achieved all the requirements of perfect crap cinema.  Except that mixing it with hardcore porn is, for most viewers, a stomach-turning combination.  If you’re okay with that, then... what the hell, despite its big budget this may be the trashiest exploitation movie of all time, and for some of us, that makes it essential viewing.

The one island of non-lameness amongst all this failure is Teresa Ann Savoy as Drusilla.  She looks terrific, clothed or not, and her performance is very natural — the only one that disappears into the story and doesn’t call attention to itself, while strengthening every scene.  (Helen Mirren also doesn’t call attention to herself, but in her case it’s in the sense of her character becoming an instantly forgettable nonentity.)

To this day, a vociferous minority still defends the film.  Many who saw it in its initial release were apparently very impressed, and they still argue that this is the one movie that captures what it was really like in those hideous times.  Let’s clear that up right now: this is not what Rome in 40 AD was like.  First of all, the story of Caligula that we have is based as much on tabloid rumor-mongering as on fact, and second, the film shows Caligula as so besotted with privilege and lunacy that he was incapable of any governance, whereas the real Caligula was a canny enough politician that he kept the general public solidly on his side despite his abuses, right up to the sad day when his administration ran out of money.

In sum, it’s hardly possible for a movie to go more wrong than this one did.  This is truly a film only for those who enjoy the rankest and most pungent flavors of cinematic badness.  And yet it could have been good, if only the people making it had not all been egotistical buttheads.