I had never intended to publish these remarks, but now do so on the occasion of Bob Guccione’s death. It is interesting that the occasion of his passing has elicited so much public remark: the general availability of pornography today now finally renders such a thing as Penthouse seem as quaint and old fashioned as trying to spy on your female relatives naked. Playboy seems staid and devoid of erotic interest: it can now be put out on the coffee table with Reader's Digest.*
*[Sadly, hypocrisy, too, has kept up with these developments]
In discussing the film Caligula, there are at least two obstacles, common to discussing bad films generally.
The first is authorship. This 1979 film is very much a bastard. Both the scriptwriter, Gore Vidal, and the director, Tinto Brass, disowned it. If you consider the other films that they both have kept their names on, this is really saying something.
Like Apocalypse Now, the flaws of the production parallel its subject. Who is to blame for Caligula, the emperor? The film itself blames, if anyone, the gods and the Roman people. Likewise, it is the Italians who are blamed for much of the final product of Caligula: Bob Guccione, Franco Rossellini and Giancarlo Lui.
The second is that any description of a bad movie makes the bad movie seem fascinating. There are many different ways in which bad movies can be quite enjoyable, most of which involve a Buñuelian sensibility, alcohol and snarky pals. Caligula might be in some sense enjoyable given some of those things, but at over three hours long, it may require a lot of them to be worthwhile. Like the anti-war movie, the worse the description, the more people want to experience it.*
*[This is certainly true for me, as I invariably make note of anything that is described as “unwatchable,” “unlistenable,” or “unreadable.” This is the sort of perversity that results in the creation of vast “no-go” regions in your iTunes library].
On one interpretation, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket attempts to defeat this problem of making its subject (war) unattractive by breaking up the narrative so that identification with its subject is impossible. As we shall see below, Caligula may employ a similar, unintentional strategy that makes it, above all, pornography. In a similar vein, these notes resist a strong unified, coherent thesis, under pain of making Caligula seem more interesting and fun than it actually is to watch. I emphasize that it's really not. As evidence, I relate that I would write a proper essay and include more screencaps, but that would probably require actually seeing parts of the movie again.
Of course, such caveats never dissuaded me: this why I ended up studying philosophy at the U of C. Here then, should you so choose, is the film itself. It will not destroy you as a human being, but I promise it will make you in no ways a better person, much like Penthouse.
Finally, despite all this, these notes do focus attention on Guccione's most infamous son. Anyone reading in the present knows this is all that is possible for us by way of praise: snarky reviews of Gimmie a Break or President Obama are the only form of public discourse that we know how to fashion. As such, these notes are an encomium, much like that of Gorgias, excusing the inexcusable.
I. "Strike So That He May Feel Himself Die"
Pornography is a parody of human life.
Behold, the glory that was Ancient Guccione!
Gilgeud sees what’s coming and opens his wrists in a bath. For the viewer’s pleasure, this bath is, of course, transparent.
Director: “You know what would make this shot? Pubes.”
Compares favorably to all the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I-III).
Compares unfavorably to the issue of Penthouse you first read about it in.
Compares favorably to Myra Breckenridge or simply being sat and farted on by Gore Vidal for 210 minutes.
Compares unfavorably to Mel Brooks’ The History of the World, Part One, or the simple purity of a hand job.
Not so much a film as a coke binge in 16:9.
Wow, this film has lesbian orgies like Smokey and the Bandit had car chases or shots with cars in it.
This film achieves the remarkable feat of making Ancient Rome actually seem kind of sleazy.
Caligula is portrayed as cowardly, cruel, perverse, superstitious, stupid, traitorous, completely selfish, mendacious, greedy, excessive, shortsighted, murderous, incestuous, cruel, vain, psychopathic and insane. His only redeeming quality is that he has a sense of whimsy.
This is one possible key to the whole picture: in effect, it is a reworking of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where chocolate is replaced by nads, tits and ass.
[Caligula’s sister dies]
“You know what would add some pathos to this shot? Pubes.”
Rome: it's kind of like Disneyworld by George Bataille. Had Rome been like this, Christianity would have been an improvement.*
*[Then again, if human beings were as Christianity describes them, Christianity would be an improvement.]
Artistic excess: Salo.
Excess excess: Caligula, wall to wall ass-to-mouth anthologies.
Salo is a film in the same sense that, despite everything, G.G. Ailin was a musician.
Caligula is not a film in the same sense that G.G. Ailin was not a Nobel Peace Prize recipient for a lifetime of work in nonviolent conflict resolution.
This whole film is a fitting reminder of why we don't touch ourselves during Fellini films.
II. Pornography and Parody
It is not incidental or accidental that pornographic films are sometime parodies of mainstream films, whether in title or substance. Pornographic narratives often present a world that is a parody of this one, a world where things are ostensibly the same, but every situation results in sex. Sex is not a little ludicrous in that does away with a lot of our pretensions. It is comedic because it is profane and predictable. This is why the Romans were not wrong to think that putting a huge dong on your statue would be silly (see huge dongs, below).
Parody may be the key to Caligula.
III. When does Caligula Climax?
One of the most curious things about Caligula is that for a pornographic narrative, it really has no direction, no momentum. Even the crudest narrative porno film or story often has one: things get hotter, more perverse, more complex. Comedies, horror stories, martial arts films, action movies, dance and special effects sequences usually have a similar pattern or trajectory. Caligula can barely even be said to have a vector: at the beginning of the film Caligula is callow, weak, murderous and perverse. This is true to exactly the same degree in every frame of the film. The action throughout the film is consistently at the same intensity of cruelty and obscenity. You could watch it backwards or in any order with no real discernable change, as Caligula the emperor and the movie are uniformly awful. Caligula is perfectly time symmetric.
Consider: even sex acts have something like an Aristotelian structure (ideally). What is the climax of Caligula? What event or choice forms any kind of hinge that relates to the ending? Which terrible, bad thing that Caligula does damns him? How can you even tell the difference between his acts of cruelty? This is what makes the opening epigram of the film absurd (“For what shall it profit a man, that he should gain the whole world, and lose his soul” Mark 8:36). Caligula never has a soul to lose.*
*[Indeed, one could argue that the whole film has a Christian sensibility: that is, it is wholly misguided with respect to sexuality and ethics. Just before the opening quotation, it frames the whole story with the identifying inter title: PAGAN ROME in blood red letters, as though this were to explain everything that happens in the film, as though innocent incestuous love for one's sister is the closest thing possible to pagan virtue, the Romans having no norms, laws or moral sense without Christianity anymore than the Israelites did while Moses was away.]
To point to his comparatively pure incestuous love for his sister is just to emphasize that some aspects of this monstrous portrayal bear a resemblance to the human qualities they are perversions of. Nonetheless, narratively, it is hard to say how Drusilla plays a role: Caligula’s behavior and personality is not intelligibly different before or after her death. Her death really just makes for what is probably the most grotesque and lurid mourning sequence ever captured on film, where Caligula rips the clothes her corpse and stumbles around screaming with her nude corpse, a scene which has inspired deep and fervent prayers for Malcolm McDowell’s soul that the DVD has no additional extra features and deleted scenes.
There is, of course, a flat-footed, patent answer. The climax of the film is actually the on screen ejaculation in the boat brothel. It signifies that the narrative is turning, much like the flashes in the corner indicate a change of film reel. It is a mechanical and not a narrative fact. This is after the lady goes down on the masked dwarf.
IV. Caius Caesar Caligula (AD 12-41) vs Caligula (AD 1978)
This absence of direction in the narrative is all the more perplexing if you consider that one of the few things that the accounts of the Emperor Caligula agree on is that, as a historical individual, he has an intelligible life story. Caius Caligula followed his father the great Roman general Germanicus on his campaigns in Germania, wearing a little miniature soldier’s uniform, from which he got his nickname. After Germanicus died/was poisoned, his mother Agrippina and brother were sent into exile, where they lived the life of prisoners and were brutalized to death. Caligula and his sisters are effectively the prisoners of his uncle, the Emperor Tiberius. At nineteen, he goes to live with Tiberius on Capri, which, if Suetonious is to be believed, Tiberius had remade into an island sized porno stash of tableaux vivants, by posing real naked people.
To everyone’s surprise, young Caligula isn’t killed. Instead he actually manages to endear himself to his uncle enough to be named joint heir to the throne.
When Caligula becomes Caesar, he is initially quite popular and beloved. By contrast, in the film, once Macro (one of the view likable characters in the film) is arrested the next thing you know Caligula has built a giant three story, stadium wide lawn mower with dancers and musicians that cuts off people’s heads.
The greatest event in Caligula’s life, next to his coronation, is probably the ceremony by which he returned his mother and brother’s remains to Rome. In the film, Caligula is too busy raping newlyweds on their honeymoon to bother [to be fair, Suetonious alludes to something like this].
V. The Poisonous Antidote of Caesar: Caligula as Parody
In his script, Gore Vidal seems to have followed Suetonious’ opinion that Tiberius had no illusions about Caligula’s already terrible character and deliberately reared Caligula as a viper for the people of Rome. Something of this dramatic thread survives: Caligula is himself a parody of a Caesar, a tyrannical reductio ad absurdum. Yet no one in the Roman Senate is brave enough to do anything about it. They and the Roman people prove themselves worthy of his depredations by their obsequy and Caligula himself gets tired of being a pervert, just as the audience thinks “I never thought I could get tired of lesbian orgies, but I am going to fast forward through this one and hope I make it to the other side alive.”
In this sense, we can think of Caligula as a successful transgressive artwork: the Romans should be disgusted with Caligula, the emperor; the viewer should feel disgusted with Caligula, the movie, a parody of a parody.
VI. Consider the Dong Man
To get a further sense for what is wrong with Caligula, consider the Dong Man:
You might immediately object: don’t you mean dildo man? No, look carefully at the picture. Hopefully, none of you have had anything that long go inside of you, anywhere, because the most benign case I can imagine is a javelin accident. There’s no way to even store safely a thing like that in your house.
So what is Dong Man doing? What is the purpose of his oversized wares, assuming that he wasn’t selling rotisserie chickens and is now sold out? Given the size, the pinkness and their overall proportions, I assume that these items are some kind of novelty, not unlike the similar dong he has on his head. These are then, trinkets not unlike giant foam fingers (which, it should be added, are also not intended to go inside anyone). Only instead of announcing, “We’re No#1” these items are designed to declaim: “Perversion! Decadence! Hoo-ray!”
The world that the mise en scène of Caligula imagines is like a theme park of depravity. Did I say mise en scène? Because I don’t know if it’s properly so called, since Dong Man actually has a significant role. He keeps showing up. Blink and you won’t miss him; rather he’ll put your eye out. Before he leaves he actually walks dead in front of the camera.
Dong Man: an unsubtle point made unsubtly.
VII. Caligula as an Address to the Forum
In Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) one of the robot theme parks is Roman World, where guests can live out whatever decadent fantasy they please with robots in togas. This simulacrum is itself simulated in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. This, above all, is what makes Caligula, a porno film: ancient Rome is just the setting. You could have just filmed the whole thing poolside at Bob Guccione’s house with some towels.
Compare in this light Fellini’s Satyricon (1969). Satyricon has a plot, which is all the more remarkable considering its source material. Satyricon is itself avowedly “a film from the planet Rome” and is historical in the same sense that 2001: A Space Odyssey is historical.
Nonetheless, Satyricon, Roman World and Caesar’s palace all share this in common: they are experiences that one might conceivably want to have. You can actually watch Satyricon more than once. You can even admit to owning a copy.
Caligula is isomorphic with its subject matter. In its repetitive cruelty and tiresome orgies, it is the sort of film we can imagine Suetonious’ Caligula enjoying. Caligula is not unlike Guccione’s other great literary creation, letters to Penthouse Forum. Are we supposed to believe in these letters, that there is a name and address to be withheld? No, they are parodies. They are intentionally implausible because that is how they are disarming. For the intention they have, the wish they express, is quite real. And, like our dreams, the expression of our wishes is masked with the ludicrous, the nonsensical, that breaks open the ruled logical space of reality to the space of fantasy, where our dreams realize our wishes. Caligula is such a letter to Penthouse Forum: Dear Penthouse Forum, you won’t believe this, but one day I became Emperor of all Rome. My sister, who I had been fucking since we were children was delighted. The first thing we did… Perhaps it is too Kantian to suggest that our dreams and nocturnal emissions aren’t art, but both Caligula and letters to Penthouse Forum have the same instrumental, manipulative sensibility, and depict a world where little else can be imagined or expressed.