Friday, March 16, 2007

Termite Art Classic: Caligula (1979)

Note: I wrote a column for three years on a website owned by Kevin Smith called Movie Poop Shoot. It is now defunct and so is the column. But it occurs to me that most of the people who read this blog who aren't my parents have never ready any of that stuff. Until tonight, I hadn't looked at it in years, and assumed all of it was crap. By my current estimates, I was at least 80% right. But some of it holds up, and I will occasionally share it here, in the interest of posterity, and maintaining a healthy flow of content without doing any writing. Please to enjoy, Matt Singer: The Early Years.

Back in olden times, say before 1965, nudity was only permissible on the big screen in the context of education. Bookers travelled the country promoting these pictures, the first true "exploitation" films, in roadshows. Of course the educational value was ignored; the only people who went to see these pictures were those looking to see naked men or women. CALIGULA, made at the end of the 1970s during the efforts by some to make porn legitimate, has the vibe of one of those older hygiene pictures: salacious material for paying audiences and history lessons for conservatives who try to call it obscene.

With the former goal in mind, CALIGULA is packed to the gills with naked people. Nearly everyone in the enormous cast appears at least once in the buff; even star Malcolm McDowell pees on screen at one point (Thankfully, aging co-star Peter O'Toole's wrinkled flesh remains relatively obscured). But despite a few orgy scenes, most of the nudity comes in the form of background characters in ancient Rome who simply go about their daily lives without clothes on. To my eye CALIGULA offers sexy mundaneness in the form of: naked lounging, naked house chores, naked jogging, naked conversation, naked manual labor, naked deliberating, naked courier service, naked drum playing, and naked war. See that's real poverty: being so poor you can't even afford clothes. And we're not talking expensive designer brands; these guys can't even afford a plain white sheet.

Otherwise serious scenes of conspiratorial intrigue are interspersed with jarring crotch shots. No scene in CALIGULA is too asexual that it can't be spiced up with a quick anatomy lesson. One guard caught drunk on the job gets his weiner hung up in a noose, then forced fed wine, then sliced open with a sword so all the blood and wine pour out of him, and we get to watch it all with the poor actor's wang in full view. I think I have an uncle who died like that.

One early dialogue scene between the incestuous Caligula (McDowell) and Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) offers no close-ups of the two as they speak, choosing instead to zoom in on a shot of Ms. Savoy's vagina as she wags her butt in the air. Well the dialogue (by Gore Vidal) is terrible, but at least the view is nice.

Now that I think of it, over and over again, there are few close-ups of anyone speaking; CALIGULA seems presented entirely in long shots and takes, and scenes play out in front of us as if on a stage, on sets that are richly detailed but visually flat. Everything occurs as if recorded from a camera placed in the audience of a Broadway theater (possibly one on 42nd Street). The end result looks sort of like Masterpiece Porno Theater, an idea that would really boost pledge drive revenues if public television every got really desperate.

This ancient lunacy was devised by Bob Guccione, the creator of Penthouse Magazine. According to a recent Vanity Fair article, Guccione put $17.5 million of his own money into the project and directed several of its scenes after director Tinto Brass quit over creative issues (Perhaps Brass felt it was more important to see Miss Savoy's face than her undercarriage when she spoke). His credit reads "Principal Photography by Tinto Brass;" Vidal's reads "Adapted From A Screenplay by Gore Vidal." Those titles dilute their guilt, but don't disperse it entirely, since none of the photography or story is any good and they surely contributed to both.

CALIGULA isn't sexy enough to work as pornography, nor interesting enough to work has costume drama. It's also nefariously long, and eventually a little too confusing to follow; I watched the entire film but I can't recall a single thing that happened after Caligula's sister dies. CALIGULA is sort of a good example of why porn and non-porn didn't end up mixing well; this sort of movie has a strange uncomfortable tone. It's difficult to be aroused by an incestuous relationship surrounded by scenes of violent torture and decadent weirdness. Maybe that's just me.

Still, I sort of liked the scene where McDowell's Caligula, sick with fever, lies in a bed beside his beloved horse while shouting "He's going to kill me!" I suspect he was talking about his agent.



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