Monday, November 05, 2012

"If only all of Rome had just one neck" - CALIGULA (1979) and Guccione's Goombah Grandiosity

If you were alive in 1979 maybe you remember the avalanche of seedy press for CALIGULA, Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione's rose garden funeral of sores: tales of the countless bored and abused extras; the rants of unfair treatment by inserted porn stars; furious British stage thespians; and writer Gore Vidal. It all trickled down into your local newspaper, which you read after your dad tossed it down by his feet, where you crouched reading the funnies and looking for bra ads. It seemed like a neo-pagan bacchanal was going on, drowning all concerned in flames of sin and aggravation.

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, far more lurid than Lang's topless mermaids. It was the sex and violence entwined that made CALIGULA stick out amidst the legion of past gaudy Roman spectacles of vile excess and pretentious overblown grandeur (of which SATYRICON, with its relentless parade of grotesque homosexual spectacle, was perhaps the pinnacle). Rather than just shocking or prurient, Guccione trying to be genuinely dirty, not just titillating and lurid in the service of a biblical-ish story that would smuggle smut past the censors like Cecil B. DeMille did with SIGN OF THE CROSS, but something unapologetically irredeemable --to not only capture the genuine decadent excesses of its times (when it was made and when it was set alike) but to sicken even the grindhouse crowd. It carried a queasy anticipation that shockmeisters like Peter Greenaway and Michael Haneke would spend their lives trying to instill, only to fall back in the waves of pretentiousness so many critics mistake for art.

We must remember this: Playboy, for all its 'dirtiness,' couldn't really expand past Hef's limited-if-larger-than-life sexual parameter; his idea of sexual content was frozen at the heterosexual, white, privileged and bawdy. But Guccione, the Soprano to Hef's Corleone, 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, throw it in anyhow. Print the legend. That took guts! And guts like that can only come from Roma or Italian New York City. 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!

Let's set the scene: 70s New York City was not unlike 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 here in Wherever-sville 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. We read entertainment page write-ups, chronicling the disasters, set disputes, rewrites, ego clashes, and general nausea of the entire crew, with a mix of agog titillation and puritan judgment. Schadenfreude over the film's problems turned us all into moral knee-jerk prototypes for Jason Voorhees and Anita Bryant.

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) myself. It was the wintry Halloween of 1988 in ancient Syracuse, where wind freezes the snot while it's still in your brain and from Oct-April, the sun is never seen behind the concrete sky, and the sidewalk is not seen below the layers of frozen slush. 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 at, no matter how many layers of thermal underwear we wore, no matter how many drafty windows we covered with plastic tarps and duct tape, we were frozen - fingers too froze to play. We had to sharpen up, get mean, get psychedelic, get drunker. So we rented a VHS camera to film our impending frat show, and CALIGULA (and a Betty Boop compilation) to, you know, do some VCR-on-VCR recording action, because cameras back then came attached to VHS tape recorders in strap-on bags that you slung around your shoulder while you recorded, or trusted the equipment to some shaky friend to film your band for you.

Even in 1988, after years of wide XXX availability, CALIGULA had a rough reputation. Sick shit like that wasn't just floating around; there was no internet for all the world to slowly grow jaded via. Decadence 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. None of us had seen it, but we knew of it from being kids during al that bad press. We knew it had a big budget and real name actors in a historically 'accurate' but soul disparaging world where somehow ancient Rome used neon lights and the entire world was like some end-of-the-night Studio 54 bathroom. 

This comboi made it seem legit dangerous. 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."
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 glee
That's right, bro... we, who are about to rock, relate!

The gig at the dismal packed, steaming, decadent frat house over, we come home and, lo and behold, CALIGULA didn't record properly. We wasted the whole 3 hour stretch of our initial viewing for nothing; so we had to try again. It was painful enough the first time and we were too busy with pre-show jitters to pay close attention, 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 LSD, which had kicked my brain into lightshow nirvana 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 (it was Halloween), 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 gazing down the abyss in Poe's "Descent into the Maelstrom."

So now dawn is coming up and our duping of CALIGULA is still slogging away, and I'm feeling guilty and scared of my girl upstairs in my room, beckoning mr, even asleep, with her lizard makeup off, exposing her alabaster perfection (she was Italian-American, from Carmel, NY; with pale blue eyes and perfect white skin - dear lord) and right as I was drifting up in mortal dread, I saw 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 for the approaching blades. And Caligula's immortal line, "If only all of Rome had just one neck!"

I crawled up as if one with the rising sun, with the girlfriend waiting, asleep but sexually hungry as always, even in sleep, her lips reaching up from the warm earth like a flower in search of the sun on a foggy day, but everything about her was too beautiful, her alabaster Roman skin and deep jet black hair now swathed in my deep red sheets in what looked like endless permutations of still-beating hearts. 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 defenestrations echoing from tinnitus feedback and her yearning with every breath, her pulling me towards her, her big legs grinding me up like a sticky Venus fly trap snapping shut, castration with every decent, the perfume drifting around--the patchouli and the hash and the sweat congealing--it all intense, lusty, not beguiling but freaking me out.

I closed my eyes and melted into her arms and there are these big mower blades coming for me, the wall of death... the blades, the black blood-stained earth, the red wall, the jeering, the light rain, the mist, the tomatoes pelting my head.

It's never stopped, that LSD-vision of death whilst wrapped in sleepy white arms and red sheets on a cold Sunday morning... it's my VERTIGO cliff ledge, 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 the blades rush forth...  closer. 

Because a week later, Max rented the 'other' edition of CALIGULA. We apparently had got the wrong one; it had been re-edited and stuff added and other stuff removed and either way we hated it but it just... would... not stop. So we went through the whole thing again. That "just one neck" line (and the "Go into your dance!" line) made it into our daily parlance to express nearly anything we hated or wished to devour --it summed up perfectly our LSD-addled desire to crush our enemies, i.e. all frat boys, and hear da lamentation of their Benetton-wearing girlfriends; to devour and encompass, or at least keep warm against the looming upstate NY winter; to reclaim some modicum of glorious and even arrogant power over our own lives; to not get old, and swollen, and engorged like a snake eating ourselves from the bottom up. 

1 comment:

  1. Malcolm said her he didn't think Helen Mirren ever forgave him foe getting her into this project!


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