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When publisher Hugh Hefner entered film production, he financed sexy documentaries (The Naked Ape) and high-end works like Roman Polanski's MacBeth. Playboy hadn't broken a real cultural barrier since the 1950s, when his magazine kick-started the mainstream commercialization of sex. 1
Publisher Bob Guccione's competing magazine Penthouse went far beyond Hefner's fairly repressed notions of sexuality and relative good taste. Guccione had no use for literary pretensions and catered to readers who liked smutty humor; its fantasy women were not only available, but wanton as well. Clearly deciding that mainstream interest in porn was a growing trend, Guccione launched Caligula, a multimillion dollar X-rated Roman costume epic. Using big name talent to transpose his slick magazine visuals to the big screen, Guccione hoped to make cinema history by breaking taboos along with box office records.
Image's expansive new Blu-ray contains plenty of interesting behind-the-scenes peeks. The Bob Guccione account of the film's making is a collection of controversies, some self-generated. Noted author and sage Gore Vidal maintained that he was hired to write a daring but literary exposé on a Roman child-emperor who abused his powers. Original director Tinto Brass makes big claims for his artistic rights -- in Italy the director has legal rights over the fate of his work. Guccione appears on camera in a pulled-open shirt and several pounds of gold chains, doing his best to work up a major controversy over the rights of authors vs. directors. Even before the film was finished Vidal and Brass were suing Guccione and possibly each other. An actor or two expressed disgust at being roped into performing in the film, but I don't see any guns pointed at them in the BTS footage. Perhaps Guccione was holding their loved ones hostage? As for the young English leads Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren, they probably judged that a film maudit or two in their résumés might actually be a plus. Asked to provide an on-camera testimonial, the unflappable Mirren chooses irony, describing the movie as "an irresistible mix of art and genitals".
The driving impetus behind Caligula was, of course, money. English actors Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud contracted to perform and dutifully complied. Gore Vidal's name provided a veneer of respectability; "erotic filmmaker" Tinto Brass could deliver the genitals. The director's previous claim to fame was Salon Kitty, a successful cocktail of Nazis, sex and sadism. The "official rumor" on Caligula has it that, unbeknownst to the director or actors, Guccione imported his "Penthouse Pets" to surreptitiously film additional hard-X footage. But dailies suggest that plenty of sexual activity was going on even in the main shoot. As reported in the disc's insert liner notes, multiple edits were undertaken in Italy, England and finally America, making who filmed what difficult to determine.
Caligula isn't much of a movie. The extended "Imperial Edition" is a lovingly transferred 157 minutes of bad writing and acting dominated by Danilo Donati's extravagant, absurd sets. The acres of naked flesh are just an extension of the set design. Guccione permanently dispels the pre-70's notion that attractive people can't be induced to disrobe or perform sex in front of a camera. A cast of at least 500 appears willing to do whatever's asked of them in scenes arranged as free-form orgy-pageants.
Faced with scene after scene crowded with naked bodies, Tinto Brass utilizes a sensible if artless directing strategy. After covering the star talent and doing a few basic moves, he hoses down the scene's action with zoom cameras, giving the editors reels of free-form footage to work with. For the orgy sequences several minutes' worth of action is planned out and performed as a block, and then covered from a multiplicity of angles. This explains why so many 16mm BTS shots are taken from the studio rafters, the one place where an extra cameraman could be certain not to spoil some camera's line of sight. A scene in which McDowell's Caligula watches his consort Caesonia (Helen Mirren) dance is splintered by at least four or five sidebar diversions. A reverse angle reveals the two nymphettes lying on either side of the emperor being happily molested.
Some of Danilo Donati's sets are fairly inspired, making better use of curtains and lighting than Hollywood spectacles. The settings for orgies favor multi-level open-face constructions and artificial cyclorama backgrounds, suitable for high-key, warm lighting to favor the flesh on display. These sets seem patterned on the stylized work for Fellini's Satyricon, organized to produce the flat look of an ancient frieze or tapestry, with "action" played out like panels in a comic strip. The sets in Caligula resemble giant toy play sets, to better see the action "figures" from multiple angles at once.
Could Gore Vidal's major influence have been Pasolini's Salo? Hardly a scene goes by without a major atrocity. Caligula happily presides over the gutting of a loyal soldier, and rapes both bride and groom at a wedding reception. An arena set is a giant moving wall with rotating blades that "harvest" the heads of a number of unlucky victims buried in the ground. Caligula disposes of associates, friends, enemies and lovers as he wishes, and just for the fun of it. He helps hasten the death of Peter O'Toole's Tiberius. Both O'Toole and John Gielgud (playing an advisor named Nerva) seem happy to be disposed of, so they can exit Caligula and move on to more rewarding work, Hollywood Squares, perhaps. Did they realize what they'd gotten themselves into? Seeing O'Toole acting petulant in poxy makeup, this reviewer imagined a cutaway to the actor in a shot from What's Up Pussycat? fifteen years earlier, specifically the moment where O'Toole gives us a mournful look and says, "As a man's life goes down the drain, you are there."
Caligula teaches us that power corrupts, and when the corruption is really dirty there's a hell of a pornographic movie in it. Some detractors call it anti-erotic. But there's no denying that the Barnum & Bailey Sex & Sleaze Show is clearly not something one sees every day.
Image's Imperial Edition of Caligula features a killer Blu-ray transfer that's been given all the attention one would expect for any first-rate studio release. As the cut is the end result of various revisions through the intervening years, worrying about fidelity to an "original release" is a job for celluloid archeologists. Suffice it to say that the film is no longer known as Gore Vidal's Caligula and that the names in the main title sequence have been creatively scrambled to redistribute writing, directing and editing credit.
A second transfer is billed as an alternate pre-release version, "never seen before". Nathaniel Thompson, producer for the disc extras, assembled this longer cut from unused original negative material, adding scenes and appending others where possible. Also on the first (Blu-ray) disc are trailers and a great many deleted and alternate scenes, some without audio and/or taken from B&W dupes. Audio commentaries let Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and "on-set writer" Ernest Volkman each hold forth for the 2.5 hours. There's no explanation of what induced the stars to go through this ordeal but they tackle the job in good faith. Volkman covered the film extensively for Penthouse and his commentary is candid, to say the least.
A second DVD disc contains the extras repackaged from 2007's 3-disc set. An ultra-long Making Of docu is just as X-rated as the feature. Thompson assumes that it was made "to get international distributors interested by flashing all of the big names and sexy Pets in front of their faces". It's in faded 16mm, and affords an extended soapbox for executive producer Guccione to air his foggy claims of social importance for the film. A shorter re-edited version of the same material is present as well.
A pair of interviews with actor John Steiner (Longinus, Caligula's major domo) and Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner were edited by Bruce Holecheck. Steiner is proud of his long tenure as a highly paid player in gawd-awful eurotrash epics, while Wagner regales us with a wistfully dim accounting of her time as a nude model and her dashed desires for a bigger film career: "I didn't get a speaking part!".
David Gregory directed and produced the Tinto Brass interview, in which the highly successful director assures us that his auteur rights supercede those of a mere screenwriter like Gore Vidal. Brass also addresses into the three-way (six-way?) war of litigation that kept the movie in the trade news for two years. Brass insists that the ego problems of others caused his personal vision, a brilliant examination of the evils of power, to be lost along the way.
The second disc also contains a big still section and an even larger selection of 16mm behind-the-scenes film, apparently the footage shoot used for the docu but transferred widescreen. Producer Nathaniel Thompson spent over a year assembling and editing the film material for the special edition. For readers even more curious about Caligula, a six-part iTunes podcast is available that discusses the disc release and the film itself, combining new interviews with Thompson and the head of Image Entertainment marketing with excerpts from the commentaries.
DVD-Rom extras include Gore Vidal's original script, the three Penthouse pictorial articles on Caligula and an interview with Bob Guccione. The liner note booklet contains a hyped testimonial to the film's importance and a rushed explanation of the restoration - re-cut process.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Caligula Blu-ray rates:
1. A close friend worked at the Playboy Mansion in Westwood in the early 1970s, operating a 2-inch reel-to-reel videotape machine to record movies for Hef off the late show. He said that the Mansion was relatively tame, considering its reputation; he had few "interesting" stories to tell.
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