Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ave Caesar

For some unfathomable reason (sinking Empire? Class-divided society in which the rich lose themselves in McVillas and futile pursuits?), I rented Caligula, the 1979 epic attributed to spaghettisploitation master Tinto Brass (based on a script by Gore Vidal) and re-edited by Penthouse overlord Bob Guccione. Uncoincidentally perhaps, a Caligula voiceover claims "I am all men as I am no man and so…I am a God" while at the exact same time the name "Bob Guccione" appears in the credits and Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights," from Romeo and Juliet, swells in the background. Since this follows an opening scene of Caligula frolicking incestuously with his sister, Drusilla, the overall effect actually is awe-inducing in its baroque nuttiness and sense of an ego run amok.

And it's hard to get nuttier or run more amok than this artifact of the late 1970s, a time when you could do a movie loaded with sexual and moral perversity on a big budget and with actors such as John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren (pictured above, but in another Caligula project; read on). We'll never know what the film would be like had Brass made it the way he wanted, but after Guccione took control of the editing room, the result was a sometimes fascinating, sometimes revolting, sometimes boring mix of narrative confusion, visual looniness, jumbled political message and hardcore-sex inserts. Aesthetically, Caligula is equal parts Fellini bacchanalia (art director Danilo Donati seems to have recycled quite a few frocks and wigs from his own work on that director's Satyricon), Studio 54 disco and Harkonnen planet Giedi Prime as shown in David Lynch's Dune.

Some of the best scenes are at the beginning, when Peter O'Toole's Tiberius—his too-small black wig half-covering his head, open sores festering on his ravaged face—shows McDowell's Caligula how to entertain himself and spits out lines such as "Serve the state, Caligula, although the people in it are wicked beasts," while in the background conjoined twins have sex with drugged-looking courtesans. Shortly thereafter, John Gielgud's character kills himself, no doubt because by then Gielgud had realized what he'd signed up for.

It would be great to be able to say that Caligula is a violent political masterpiece that now offers us a distorted mirror of the Bush administration's down spiral into ineffectual decadence and fraught Empire-building, but alas that is not the case. Rather, it is a fascinating bit of film history, testifying to a time when it felt as if the graphic representation of realistic sex was becoming an option in the mainstream. With the recent release of similarly frank—in their depiction of sex, not their cruelty—flicks by the likes of Catherine Breillat (Romance, Anatomy of Sex), Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs), Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny) and, soon, John Cameron Mitchell (Short Bus), maybe we're trying to catch up to the ’70s.

In any case, I'm not the only one with Caligula on her mind: Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli had a short titled "Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula" (featuring Helen Mirren, back for seconds and pictured in this post's photo, along with Vidal and, er, Karen Black) in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

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