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 like SATYRICON and SIGN OF THE CROSS (and later PASSION OF THE CHRIST). It was trying to be genuinely dirty, not just titillating in the service of a biblical-ish story that would smuggle smut past the censors, 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-up, 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.
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. 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, no matter how many layers we wore, no matter how many drafty windows we covered with plastic tarps and duct tape. 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 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 CALIGULA 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. 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 gleeThat's right, bro...
The gig at the dismal packed, steaming, decadent frat house over, we come home and, lo and behold, CALIG 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 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 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) 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 executions 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, its perfume not beguiling but freaking me out though I was too tired to express it, could only submit.
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. That "just one neck" 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 and hear da lamentation, to devour and encompass, to rule them all, or at least ourselves, or at least keep warm against the coming 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. Winter in Syracuse is a pitiless tyrant, and beauty and sex are the province of Italians, the sunny climates. All was soon back to normal, barely heated squalor, pitiless urban landscapes, and booze just enough of a lifeline to strangle ourselves with. If all Senior year had just one neck.... it would have broke under salt slush icicles like guillotines. The 80s could only last, after all. We'd learn the meaning of autoerotic asphyxiation (our guitarist), and of Lockerbie (classmates), and that would be that. Crack! Go into your dance!