The word most often applied to the 1980 film, Caligula, is “pornography,” which the dictionary defines as “printed or visual material intended to stimulate sexual excitement.” Of course, all sorts of things can “stimulate sexual excitement.” The bosomy babe without clothing may do the trick for the average heterosexual man (although some men might prefer a flat-chested woman), while a transvestite may be more excited by the thought of trying on her discarded panties. A naked woman won’t do much for a gay man, but might get an approving nod from a lesbian. Someone with a foot fetish can get more kicks in a shoe store than in a strip club, and the rapist’s thrill comes not from intercourse, but the power he wields over his helpless victim. Like beauty, pornography is in the eye of the beholder. The orgy scenes in Caligula may indeed stimulate sexual excitement in the viewer who responds to close-up views of fellatio and cunnilingus, or simply the sight of a mass of nude bodies performing similar acts upon each other. For many viewers, it will do no such thing. It may even disgust them, which may be the point.
Even before the credits, Caligula opens with a title card identifying the setting as “Pagan Rome.” And what do we know about Pagan Rome? Was it not a crumbling empire marked by debauchery, by moral and spiritual corruption? Caligula depicts this rather well, maybe too well for some viewers. Entertainment comes in the form of debasement and sadism.
Reading what the critics had to say about Caligula is enlightening, not so much about the film but about their own double standards. I hate to pick on Roger Ebert (I did so once in a review of his Movie Companion at Amazon.com and received an angry email from the man himself), but it seems to me his review of Caligula, dated September 22, 1980 and posted at his web site, suggests the man has the kind of double standards of which I speak. “There are X-rated films I’ve enjoyed,” he writes, “from the sensuous fantasies of Emmanuelle to the pop-comic absurdities of Russ Meyer.” Ebert doesn’t bother to mention that he wrote many of the screenplays for Russ Meyer’s X-rated films, but charges ahead with his denunciation of Caligula and its creators, “that they are jaded, perverse and cruel human beings. In the two hours of this film that I saw (Ebert admits to having walked out after 120 minutes when there were still 50 to go), there were no scenes of joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer. There was, instead, a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies.”
But did Caligula, or, for that matter, Rome fall because he/they were devoted to the pursuit of “joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer?” I believe not. Although it could be argued that there was some joy and good sensual cheer in Ebert’s and Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, there were also some scenes that might identify its makers as “jaded, perverse, and cruel human beings.” When a lesbian love scene is interrupted by a killer who puts the barrel of a gun in Erica Gavin's mouth (and then pulls the trigger), what are we to make of that? It’s much more shocking than the depictions of fellatio in Caligula. At least in Caligula, it’s sex. In Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s perverse, it’s violent, and meant to shock. It might also be interpreted as anti-gay, which in 1970 was acceptable even among liberals. These two lesbians have no need of a cock, and the man wielding the gun might as well be saying, “Suck on this, bitch!” Prior to that violent act, the women are making love while soft romantic music plays in the background. It would be easy for its makers to claim otherwise now, but back in 1970 the music might have been meant to mock what most viewers would have considered an act of perversion. Look at these freaky lesbians!
Caligula is not a particularly good film. Its cardinal sin is that it’s mostly boring. True, the film's producer, Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse, was probably less interested in an accurate portrayal of the moral bankruptcies of ancient Rome than he was in the sex, but that’s a trait he seems to have shared with the real Caligula. Guccione might as well have been producing his autobiography.
Critics like to talk about the director as "auteur," and debate who and who does not qualify for this status. The auteur, you see, puts his personal stamp on a film, and you can trace his obsessions, etc, throughout his body of work, even when individual titles seem to have nothing in common with each other. Caligula would seem to be very much the work of an auteur, who, in this case, is not the director (someone named Tinto Brass receives the official credit), but the late Mr. Guccione. The carnal philosophy of Penthouse is very much apparent in Caligula. Guccione is an auteur. Critics may not like his “personal vision,” but it’s there alright.
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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