Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Where to start? Caligula is the rare sort of film whose production seems more relevant to its storyline than its actual content. It’s a monstrous, shambling wreck that infuriated its director and its screenwriter, thoroughly embarrassed its cast, and so appalled critic Roger Ebert that he was unable to sit through the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. (He gave it zero stars anyway, calling it “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash” in his review.) Most critics were equally dismissive. Bob Guccione, the recently deceased founder and publisher of Penthouse magazine, financed the film with little understanding or interest in how big-budget epics were actually shot, ultimately firing original director Tinto Brass and editing footage into a hash that removed what little sense may have originally existed in Gore Vidal’s screenplay, and inserting hardcore sex scenes to spice up a movie already loaded with enough naked flesh to make David Duchovny blush. Wikipedia currently lists an astonishing nine different cuts of the film, including the 102-minute R-rated version, the 156-minute unrated version, and the horrifying-if-real 210-minute work print. Given its salacious content and infamous reputation, it’s no surprise that Caligula has been released on home video and DVD multiple times; the only surprise would be if anyone watched it all the way through more than once.
Curiosity factor: If reading the previous paragraph doesn’t make you even a little interested in watching the movie, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. A porno starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud? Oh hell yeah. I was under no illusion that Caligula would be any good at all, and that 156-minute run time did make me nervous (yes, I went with the unrated cut; would you expect less?), but some movies persist in the cultural memory simply because they’re so outrageous, we can’t help but be delighted they’re real. Oh of course it’s trash, and of course it’s filth and perversion and horse-fucking and girl-on-girl and Peter O’Toole being crazy and Malcolm McDowell fisting a dude and—wait, what was I saying? Right. It’s trash, but in concept at least, it has the potential of being gloriously transgressive trash.
Warning: All of these clips are decidedly NSFW.
The viewing experience: Transgressive? Yeah, maybe, although not in any way that matters. Trash? Honestly, I’m uncomfortable with the moral component there. I’ve heard nothing of anyone being assaulted or brutalized over the course of filming that I could find, so “trash” is probably going a little far. It’s stupid, but not hatefully stupid. Glorious? Er, no. Aside from some impressive pieces of set design and the occasional strong performance or striking shot, “glorious” doesn’t fit here. “Sleazy” would be more appropriate—and that’s a moral-ish word I do feel comfortable using, because I’m pretty sure Guccione was aiming for it. Watching Caligula is like flipping back and forth between a prestigious but dull historical epic and a movie in which people masturbate a lot. The masturbation may be some kind of symbolism, but when you’re watching actual genitalia onscreen… well, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a dick is just a dick.
It’s tempting to blame most of Caligula’s flaws on Guccione’s meddling, and there’s little doubt that his additions—including, most infamously, a five-minute lesbian sex scene that doesn’t have anything to do with anything beyond being a five-minute lesbian sex scene—were distracting, pointless, and, by the end, irritatingly dull. During a late-movie orgy sequence, I’d swear I saw the same woman giving the same guy the same blowjob at least six times. Apart from ruining any sense of narrative momentum, the constant assault of fuckery just gets old. It starts as shocking, becomes compelling in a Rube-Goldberg-meets-the-Marquis-De-Sade kind of way, but by the time you hit your third finger-bang, the magic is gone.
Even stripped of its sexual content, though, this would be a slog, though admittedly a much shorter one. Again, much of the problem can be laid at Guccione’s feet. His influence in the editing room changed the order of some scenes, which probably didn’t much help the story’s attempts at rising action, not to mention scene-to-scene continuity. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether Vidal’s screenplay and Bass’s original vision would’ve been anything more than another by-the-numbers historical epic without the interference. There would have been nudity, and there would have been a quality cast, but as it now stands, this is an epic that mimics a standard rise-and-fall arc without ever generating any drama outside a few isolated moments. Obviously, it’s impossible to judge what might have been, but this is fitfully intriguing at best.
Take the plot: Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, inveterate sister-fucker and heir to not-quite-dead Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). The movie opens with a familiar quote about gaining the world and losing one’s soul, but let’s be honest here: When your idea of a perfect day involves romping naked through the woods with a sibling, then screwing that sibling to your heart’s content, the soul train has already left your particular station. Caligula and his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy, who replaced Maria Schneider) form the closest thing to a positive, loving couple in the entire film, and something could’ve been done with that. As creepy as their situation is, at least this is a starting point of (incredibly comparative) wholesomeness.
Unfortunately, there’s no place to go from here, because there’s no sense of anything important being lost once Caligula takes over Rome. Tiberius, who spends his days bathing, groping slaves, and hanging out in what looks like the hell set from The Apple, comments on what a bastard his heir is, and Tiberius’ advisor, Nerva (John Geilgud) kills himself to avoid living under Caligula’s reign. Maybe not everybody understands what’s coming, but Caligula’s rise to power and his instantaneous corruption seem like inevitable outcomes of his poisonous upbringing and his own built-in crazy. There’s nothing wrong with that for a movie—inevitability is one of the cornerstones of tragedy—but aside from the spectacle, and the initial curiosity as to what the nutty bastard will come up with next, there’s surprisingly little drama here. Caligula commits atrocities, anonymous attractive people grope each other, rinse, repeat. (Not kidding on the “rinse” part.)
Late in the film, Drusilla catches a fever (probably from Caligula himself) and dies, and Caligula goes mad. Well, madder, I guess. He goes and hangs out with the common people, who mock him and his dead lover, and that bothers him somewhat. You can tell because he claims he’s a god, and then he goes to war against Britain, even though they don’t provide an army to fight against. He also declares himself the Pimp Of Rome, and we get the really, really big orgy scene that ties the other orgy scenes together thematically. My grasp of Roman history is limited to what I remember from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (Claudius shows up a few times here, but is never anything but a joke), but much of this seems familiar; what’s odd is that here, the story seems almost sympathetic to the strutting, venomous creep. We see most of the movie through his perspective, and he’s largely opaque, doing ugly things one scene, rending clothes and mourning his sister the next. Apart from the personality-free victims of his atrocities, none of the people in the film distinguish themselves as worthy of our admiration or emotional investment. So who cares?
But hey, what about that cast? Nobody winces on camera, and they all manage to escape with their dignity intact, which is the most anyone could hope for. Performance-wise, McDowell is just doing a less charismatic version of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and Gielgud’s role barely qualifies as a cameo. Helen Mirren does what she can with what she’s given, which is mostly just hanging out and occasionally getting naked. (Her expression of bored contempt when McDowell mounts her from behind during their first sex scene is great.) About the only one to really make an impression is O’Toole. Glowering through a face full of sores, he is gleefully decadent and vile, and when he dies, he takes with him the only thing that could’ve saved the movie: a sense of humor.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time: Because I refuse to believe that anything with a naked Helen Mirren in it could be completely worthless, I’ll say 30 percent. It’s worth seeing as sort of bragging-rights viewing experience, although viewers with weak stomachs are advised to look elsewhere. As a reenactment of history, Caligula is too scattershot to be much use; as entertainment, it’s a drag; and as pornography—well, a person can only take so much in one sitting.