If you were alive in 1980 maybe you remember the avalanche of seedy press for CALIGULA, Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione's carnival of sores: the countless bored and abused extras, the rants of inserted porn stars, furious British stage thesps, and writer Gore Vidal, into the trades and down into your local newspaper, which you read after your dad tossed it down, down spinning into the pile where you crouched reading the funnies. It was a disaster.
Now that DVD, internet and--'choke'-- sobriety are here, we have a model for this situation -- CONTEMPT (1966): Guccione would be Jack Palance; Tinto Brass would be Fritz Lang; Gore Vidal would be Homer. But then you would need to stretch the shooting and reshooting schedule of the diegetic Odyssey to around two years, and add a lot of sensationalistic excess. That was the thing that made CALIGULA stick out amidst the legion of past gaudy Roman spectacles of vile excess and pretentious overblown grandeur like SATYRICON and SIGN OF THE CROSS (and later PASSION OF THE CHRIST). It was trying to be genuinely dirty, unapologetically irredeemable. It carried a queasy anticipation that shockmeisters like Peter Greenaway and Michael Haneke spend their lives trying to instill, only to fall back in the waves of pretentiousness so many critics mistake for art.
Playboy, for all its 'dirtiness,' couldn't really expand past Hef's limited-if-larger-than-most idea of sexuality; the magazine's idea of sexual content was frozen at the bawdy. But Guccione liked to smash taboos, his own sexual preferences be damned. If it turned him off, if it made him sick, well that was his problem. Print it. Guts like that can only come from Rome or New York. Oh if only there was someone other than Donald Trump (and the Grand Prospect Hall commercials, "we make-a your dreams come true!") to represent that kind of goombah grandiosity in today's world. We're still waiting for Scorsese to go back to his old neighborhood and stop pussyfooting around gay Paris. But 70s New York City wasn't no Paris; it was the Rome of Nero, of Caligula, with the then-legendary Plato's Retreat, the then-beginning to boom rise of VHS rental, Giorgio Moroder, disco, glitter, cocaine, perms, shoulder pads, Sylvester Stallone, Travolta's chest hair, it all congealed into CALIGULA. Chances are it wouldn't even make it to our local theaters but we knew it had some sick, gaudy mojo working, beyond good and evil, beyond taste and vulgarity, into some ultra violent energy expenditure and grand guignol excess as a generator for black magic cine-alchemy.
Of course I wouldn't see it until eight years later or so, when I was reasonably bloated and debauched from being in a rock band. It was the wintry Halloween of 1988 in ancient Syracuse, where fall comes with wind that freezes the snot as it forms way up in your brain. My band was playing a Halloween party at some dismal frat house. The cold was in our bones no matter how many flat kegs we suckled, we needed to get it together. We had to sharpen up, get mean, get psychedelic. So we rented a VHS camera and CALIGULA to you know, do some VCR-on-VCR butt-leg action, because cameras back then came attached to VHS tape recorders in strap on bags that you slung around your shoulder while you recorded.
Even in 1988 CALIGULA had a rough reputation. Sick shit like that wasn't just floating around youtubes for all the world to slowly grow jaded via; it still had currency beyond merely making you depressed for all humanity and sick in the pit of your stomach, there was an extra, sexually-charged frisson to the old ultra-violence. CALIGULA had a big budget and real name actors in a historically accurate but soul disparaging world where somehow ancient Rome has neon lights and the entire world was like some end-of-the-night Studio 54 bathroom. As writes Cinema de Merde's CdM.Scott:
"...the story already includes a lot of sex, and to include all that sex, making the film disreputable porn, means that it can go in any direction, explore any topic, without having to tiptoe around it. And the result is a movie that maintains an excitement throughout, because we are acutely aware that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN."Dude! I totally remember feeling this watching the film for the first time
So we begin with a title telling us it’s Pagan Rome, 37-41 AD. We see Caligula and his sister Drusilla cavorting... He is called to see Tiberius, the current ruler and Caligua’s adoptive grandfather, played by Peter O’Toole. He’s all pale and his face has bloody sores, seriously such a horrifying figure I was really hoping he would die sooner than later, because his presence made me so uncomfortable. He forces Caligula to “do your dance, boy” which Caligula resists. Tiberius makes him do it, and it’s this highly-stylized military thing that you can tell he’s been doing since he was five and finds horribly humiliating. However, we see the first glimmers of Caligula’s character when he snaps into this almost psychotic wide-eyed smile, seems to turn his mind off, and throws himself into his performance with maniacal gleeDude, that's about as good a description of this film as I can get...
not only is it difficult to understand what’s going on and who all these characters are, but the whole alien world of Ancient Rome, which results in the pleasant moviewatching experience of truly having no idea what you’re going to see next.That's right, bro... so anyway, the gig at the dismal frat house over, we come home and lo and behold the tape we tried to record hadn't worked, so we had to try again. It was pretty painful going the first time, but now... well.... and to make matters 'worse,' someone had relieved my nervous anxiety of playing in this crowded frathouse basement about five hours earlier with a chunk of a beer coaster that had been dipped in liquid acid, which had kicked in a BIG way right as we started playing Pink Floyd's "Echoes." I needed a roadie/keeper just to help me out of my rig at the end, I just stood there, dumbfounded as my face melted onto the beer-soaked wooden plank stage and my girlfriend, in full lizard girl makeup, beckoned, hideously, the sweat and makeup congealing in swirls of muddy desire so terrible that even now in writing of it I cringe like a sailor in Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom."
So now dawn is coming up and this six hour movie is still slogging away, I'm feeling guilty and scared of my girl upstairs in my room, beckoning even through her snores, and finally I see the infamous death wall scene...and Caligula throwing the tomato at his foe, who is buried with his little head waiting in the dirt like a single cabbage. And Caligula's immortal line, "If only all of Rome had just one neck!"
I crawled up to sleep around dawn, with the girlfriend waiting, asleep but sexually hungry as always, even in sleep, her lips reaching up like a flower in search of the sun on a foggy day, but everything about her was too beautiful, her alabaster Roman skin and jet black hair now swathed in my deep red sheets in what looked like endless permutations of still-beating hearts. I felt like a Viking being expected to figure out how to work a flying saucer to become an acceptable part of this labyrinthine half-asleep seduction and then when I closed my eyes all I could see was bright bands of red, the heart patterns forming from rushing blood in my ears and the sounds of dozens of televised screaming executions echoing from tinnitus feedback and all the time she yearning with every breath pulling me towards her, big legs grinding together and me like that Viking now struggling out of a sticky Venus fly trap, its perfume as elegant as Paris and in its way not beguiling but freaking me out, me who has still not been there and think its all a bit bourgeois and yet I hate hippies even as I am one kind of so go figure how my hatred and judgment slowly suffocate and devour me even as a debauched youth and there I am and I close my eyes and melt into her arms and there are these big mower blades coming for me, the wall of death... if all of Rome had just one neck..
it's never stopped, it's my VERTIGO cliff ledge, it's my Rushmore, Max, it's my Joe Black chess game on the beach from which no Spassky goes unfunneled... it's there like the guardian at the gates of my coveted guest list hell. I don't want to go but there I am in line... and there that wall is... now it's even closer.
Because a week later, Max rented the 'other' edition. We apparently had got the wrong edition of CALIGULA, it had been re-edited and stuff added and other stuff removed and either way we hated it but it just... would... not stop. That "just one neck" line made it into our daily parlance to express nearly anything we loved or hated -- if only all of fratdom had just one neck; if only all of beer had just one neck, if only all of Avondale had just one neck -- it summed up perfectly our LSD-addled desire to crush our enemies and hear da lamentations of der wimmen, to devour and encompass, to rule them all, or at least ourselves, to reclaim some modicum of glorious and even arrogant power over our own lives, and to at least not sleep, at least notzzz and not get old, and swollen, and engorged like a snake eating our own selves.