CALIGULA, or: The Paradox of Fascinating Failures

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In my continued life experience watching film, there are certain films I am drawn to, films that I should have no reason to revisit, films that aesthetically may not even be worth a second glance. And yet, I do revisit them, often more than once. I am preoccupied by the strange and conflicting feelings they conjure up in me, even when none of those feelings are particularly positive.

I call them “fascinating failures.” These are films that in my own personal opinion, fail to accomplish what they originally intended. And yet, perhaps because they show remarkable potential or perhaps because they veered so wildly off-course, they continue to fascinate me, perhaps more so than if the film had been a success. I am not writing about those films that people like to poke fun of, the ones where they snicker and say they are “so bad they’re good.” Laughter is not the first response brought about by these films. Pity, sadness, bafflement, even disgust, but not laughter.

Now, I’m going to take you through one of these fascinating failures to better explain where I’m coming from. And perhaps the ultimate fascinating failure is Tinto Brass’ notorious epic, CALIGULA. Entire books have been written about this production and all the things that went wrong. So, even though I am only going to give an overview of the major highlights, the article is going to run a bit long.

Fortunately, the timing for this article is perfect, as this article is meant to coincide with Moviocrity’s ongoing Glory of the 80s column. Around this time back in 1980, CALIGULA finally began escaping into the public spectrum. This followed a couple disastrous showings in Italy and the U.K. back in 1979. Starting in February 1980, following a top secret production spanning nearly four years, everyone finally got to see what the fuss was about. The film did indeed shock as it had promised to, but this was due more to the indulgent and wrongheaded execution than anything else.

When this film is brought up, particularly by those who have not actually sat through the whole thing, it is often referred to as a big budget porno. This is not entirely inaccurate. The film was produced by Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame. It did indeed feature graphic imagery, including hardcore inserts directed by Guccione himself. But despite its reputation and graphic imagery, CALIGULA was never intended to be a pornographic film in the same sense as the ones that played 42nd Street on continuous 24 hour loops. Instead, it is a dark and audacious mirror image of the glamorous epics Hollywood had churned out for decades. Forget BEN-HUR, forget CLEOPATRA, CALIGULA would show the Roman Empire in all of its cruelty, corruption and debauchery.

This is not to say that the film is anything more than a total flop.

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THE FILM

The film follows the rise and fall of Gaius Caligula (Malcolm McDowell). Though raised mainly in army camps and without any practical experience in any field, Caligula has been nurtured in the highest echelons of power in the Roman Empire. He is already known for his ambition and ruthlessness. At the start of the film, he is anxiously counting the days until the syphilitic Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) will die, allowing him to take the throne. He deflects a casual assassination attempt by Tiberius and continues to plot with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), his sister and one true love with whom he shares an incestuous relationship.

He nearly botches the job of murdering Tiberius, and it is his most trusted aide, Macro (Guido Mannari) who actually accomplishes the deed. Caligula has risen to the seat of the emperor through the same murderous treachery that has claimed so many lives in the Caesar family line. He publicly declares his love of his sister and demands she be treated as his equal. This starts his reign off on a scandalous note, even for Rome. He accuses Macro of treason and has him killed, in order to eliminate those who could hold Caligula’s crimes against him.

Caligula continues the affair with Drusilla, though she instructs him to find someone out of his immediate family line to produce an heir. He selects Caesonia, a priestess in the occult practices Caligula and Drusilla indulge in. Caligula’s unprofessional, immature and cruel behavior continues. He shows no interest in the affairs of the people and shows open disdain for the Senate. He tortures and kills people for his own enjoyment. As his reign continues unabated, his disgust for the entire Roman Empire only increases.

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THE PRODUCTION

In trying to figure out what went wrong with CALIGULA, the most important thing to remember is that no one knows what went wrong with CALIGULA. Every actor, producer, director and technician has different stories that serve as pieces to the puzzle. They should fit together to form a definitive narrative of events. Unfortunately, many of these stories can’t be corroborated and many more contradict one another. As everyone and their sister have shared their own recollections, it becomes clear that some of the parties are either lying or at least subconsciously fudging with their own memories. Trying to pinpoint who is telling the truth is a daunting task.

Watching CALIGULA, one cannot help but wonder how so many talented people allowed themselves to get roped up in this crazy production. McDowell was on a tremendous run, becoming one of the most celebrated English actors of the 1970s. Likewise, Guccione managed to sign O’Toole and even Sir John Gielgud to supporting roles. Helen Mirren was already a star of British stage and screen and had worked on other explicit productions including AGE OF CONSENT and Ken Russell’s SAVAGE MESSIAH (It should be noted that of all the big names, only Mirren speaks positively of CALIGULA. In the book, CALIGULA AND THE FIGHT FOR ARTISTIC FREEDOM, she called it “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.”).

But how did these paragons of the acting community, both young and old, agree to do a sexually explicit epic bankrolled by the publisher of Penthouse magazine? Well, it’s important to note that the film was never touted as BOB GUCCIONE’S CALIGULA, but GORE VIDAL’S CALIGULA. Vidal, a celebrated novelist and man of letters, had written the original screenplay, drawing on historical sources and exploring themes never attempted by a major motion picture. And looking at the initial layout of the story, one can easily see how the script may have been great. I look at some of the dialogue that had ended up in the film and see the potential of what may have originally been on the page. The Vidal name and perhaps even the quality of the script itself would have been enough to attract interest from a great many people.

But what of Guccione? Those who signed onto the film were well aware that it would be explicit, though many were reportedly unaware of the hardcore footage. Though adult film was a province primarily funded with shady financiers and attended by people in raincoats, changes in the early 1970s were being noticed by the so-called respectable crowd. As hardcore emerged, certain films such as DEEP THROAT, BUTTERFLIES, THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES and BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR were not just being attended by the glorious perverts and junkies, but by well-known celebrities of the era. Also, adult magazines were not the enemies of Hollywood. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire helped back Roman Polanski’s MACBETH. Guccione himself reportedly invested in films such as CHINATOWN and DAY OF THE LOCUST. When Malcolm McDowell met with Gore Vidal to discuss the script, Vidal told him, “Just think of Guccione as one of the Warner brothers.”

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The first draft of the script is indeed quite different, though the progression of events remains the same. Early scenes between Caligula and Tiberius are well-written and disturbing as the aged degenerate keeps an eye on the youth destined to usurp him. Much like the finished film, the 190-page draft, gets more repetitious once Caligula rises to power. In this version, Caligula behaves as much like a spoiled child as a tyrant. He immediately becomes bored with the omnipotence of his station. This version focuses more on his fear of death and what lies beyond. Late in this draft, Caligula marries a Greek actor, giving him both a husband and a wife. This character was cut out before filming commenced.

A later draft dated July 1976 is most likely the one that was filmed, and I am surprised by how much of what is on the page winds up on the screen. Much of the dialogue is identical. However, it is one thing to write something on the page and quite another to commit it to the screen. The essence of what Vidal has written has survived, but the tone is quite different. For instance, Vidal makes a point in the first pages that Caligula should be introduced as a naïve but rather innocent youth, with no hint of what is to come, even as he rolls around in bed with his sibling. In the finished product, the dialogue is the same as is the setting. But right away, we immediately sense the ruthlessness and childish cruelty within the future emperor.

Whatever Guccione expected of CALIGULA, he should have had a good inkling when he hired director Tinto Brass. Guccione hired the director after viewing portions of SALON KITTY (Some accounts say Guccione went to a theater showing the film. This is impossible since it was only released after CALIGULA had finished shooting.). Though the names of other, more well-known directors were tossed around, Guccione apparently saw a lot of what he wanted when he viewed Brass’ film. Brass had been dealing with eroticism and explicit sexuality on screen for a decade when Guccione approached him. Brass was also a self-professed radical and enjoyed subverting notions of authority and higher social status both on and off-screen. McDowell recounts a story shortly after Brass’ hiring in which the director boasted, “I am going to destroy Guccione!” This has not been corroborated and Brass himself states that it was only in post-production that he clashed with the producer.

As Brass laid out his vision for CALIGULA, he communicated extensively with Vidal, who continued to revise the screenplay until we get that most recent draft from July 1976. After that, Brass told Guccione that Vidal was not getting what he intended to convey and producers reportedly preferred Brass’ vision.

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They may have had second thoughts when they actually looked at what Brass’ vision consisted of. Much was made of the scope of the film, with production design by Danilo Donati, who may have been hired in part due to his work with Federico Fellini. There is indeed a Fellini-esque tone to the larger than life, garish sets. But while Fellini has a knack of transporting you to another world, the sets in CALIGULA always feel like they are sets. Giant columns tower over the actors and yet, we are always aware the columns do not support the roof but end in empty space. There is a ship entirely lined in gold leaf, the largest prop built at the time, in which a mammoth orgy was to take place. But there is so little rhyme or reason to how this sequence is staged that it may as well have been one or more standard sets. CALIGULA manages to look incredibly expensive and yet feel entirely stagebound.

The colors are garish and tacky. Setpieces involving phallic statues are silly enough to generate laughter, no matter how historically accurate they might be. Brass also seems to have taken great delight in making CALIGULA look as ugly and unappealing as possible. As far as eroticism is concerned, only a couple scenes involving Drusilla and Caesonia could be considered sensual, which is not to say they are effective.

Much was made out of the historical accuracy, but let’s remember that the historical records of ancient Rome are hardly complete. Thus, while Vidal, Guccione and the entire company may stick to their story, there are several pieces of the film that lack a concrete historical basis. These are scenes that are meant to shock and nothing more. The most notorious of these involves a machine that decapitates criminals in a giant public spectacle. It’s the type of thing you would expect to see in SAW, if only Jigsaw could rent out the Coliseum.

Then there is a scene in which Caligula abducts a couple after their wedding. He rapes the virgin bride as her husband is forced to watch and then fists the husband for good measure (This sequence is in Vidal’s original draft as well. Though in the finished film, it is not explained that the husband was a soldier whose virtue and popularity filled Caligula with jealousy.). In a later scene, he tortures the husband, before castrating him and feeding his genitals to hungry dogs. The filmmakers wanted to make it clear that they would enter extreme territory, but unlike their contemporaries, they failed to do so with any sense of reason or competence.

Some shocking scenes did not shock so much as elicit incredulous laughter from the audience. It’s hard to imagine what other response the filmmakers could have expected when we start a scene on a close-up of a feverish Caligula in bed. As we switch to a wider shot, we that lying in bed next to the emperor is Caligula’s horse. Apparently suggestions that Caligula enjoyed sex with men were too much, but bestiality was given a free pass.

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POST-PRODUCTION

Tinto Brass filmed tons of footage, enough for several films. Brass lamented that he was not powerful enough to ask for final cut, since he believes that the editing room is where a film truly takes shape. Unfortunately, he had his theory proven in the most negative of ways. He put together a first cut of the film. This probably is not the same cut as the “Alternate Version” included on the Blu-ray, but it seems closer to the July 1976 draft. To Brass’ credit, this cut is better than what was ultimately released to theaters in that it is at least coherent.

Guccione was not pleased with Brass’ cut. He took over editing of the film himself, using all of Brass’ footage as a source. The finished film is a mess, making no sense whatsoever. Scenes were drastically rearranged. For instance, Vidal suggested the film begin with Caligula awaking from a nightmare and being soothed by Drusilla. This scene was cut up into two or three segments. The nightmare portion now occurs 27 minutes into the finished film. The first image we see, even before the opening credits, is now a sequence meant to occur after the death of Tiberius. People show up wearing the same costumes in various scenes, a sign that larger scenes have been disseminated. Caligula’s facial hair now disappears and reappears throughout much of the first half of the film.

And then there are the cutaways. Oh lord, the cutaways! Each scene is cut up with shots spliced in from other sections of the film, meaning actors now react to things happening on another set and with other people completely removed from what was originally intended. There is no rhyme or reason to how the film is assembled.

Guccione also shot additional sequences himself, along with his colleague Giancarlo Lui. Some of this was the infamous hardcore footage, inserted during the orgy sequence and elsewhere. This still does not make CALIGULA an adult film in that particular connotation. The shots are too brief and the impact of the shots too light in comparison with the heavy-handed brutality present in the rest of the film. There are no erections to be had in watching CALIGULA. The erection after all is a positive response, suggesting a sense of pleasure. CALIGULA offers no pleasure; it’s a film in which positive experiences die a lonely death due to malnourishment.

The most telling aspect of how several people associated with CALIGULA feel about the finished product can be seen in the credits. Bob Guccione’s name is front and center along with Penthouse magazine. Producer Roberto Rossellini’s name also appears, though it would seem as an addendum. Instead of the typical writing credit, the film is “Adapted from the Original Screenplay by Gore Vidal.” The credit clearly spells out that Vidal’s script was reshuffled and rewritten. Vidal had long since disowned the film. Even more telling is that CALIGULA contains no “directed by” credit. Brass had actually sued the production when he learned of Guccione’s tampering. Now, there are two credits. First: “Principal Photography by Tinto Brass” and then in smaller text underneath, “Edited by the production.” This basically strips the director of final blame for the product, as if to say, “Don’t blame me. What you are about to see isn’t my vision; it is nothing but a stranger to me.” And who should the audience blame? The final credit would seem to give an answer. It reads, “Additional Scenes Directed and Photographed by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione.”

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THE LEGACY

Despite the contradicting versions of events, there is one consensus amongst all the people involved: CALIGULA was the victim of clashing egos. While trying to create a dark story of ancient Rome, the writer, producers, director and even some of the actors clashed in a mammoth gladiatorial battle of their own. And when it was all over, there was no victor.

Did anyone get the version of CALIGULA they wanted? It’s hard to say. Guccione probably came closest, but it’s doubtful that what he ended up with was completely satisfactory. Nevertheless, Guccione owned this film and he owned it with pride. Despite everything else, you have to admire the extent to which he endlessly publicized CALIGULA with hyperbolic glee. To hear him talk, everything was big, everything was epic and the story itself was the most incredible story told since the coming of Christ. For this film, Guccione was a one-man hype machine not seen since the glory days of Cecil B. Demille. He spent five years telling people he had made the biggest, most daring motion picture of all time and then the next thirty or more trying to convince the public he was right, through various cuts and re-releases.

As it stands, CALIGULA is a disaster for every second it’s on screen. The film is dull, ugly, brutal, pointless and unpleasant. It spurns any potential for enjoyment so ferociously that it seems like a cruel plot against the viewer. And yet, the film becomes an enigma. You can’t watch the film without wondering why they made the decisions that they did. More importantly, you can still see morsels of potential, even in this muddled cacophony of ugliness. Maybe there was never any hope for a film like CALIGULA. But I continue to examine it more thoroughly even than some of the films that I love. And that is the essence of the fascinating failure.  The Worst.

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One thought on “CALIGULA, or: The Paradox of Fascinating Failures

  1. I agree whit most of what you have to say about this movie. I do enjoy some of the sex scenes if only for the pure fantasy of them. This movie makes a house filled with poo flinging monkeys look normal. Still… Why do I find it so much fun to mock?
    Maybe that’s why I like this movie.. It’s my own “Manos: The Hands of Fate”

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