Saturday, November 3, 2012

Now that we're back, some old-fashioned filth

 Well, it's only been three days, but welcome back to the Third Row. As I said last time, we're back to the single long-form reviews for now, so I hope you guys like this one.

That said, in the interest of shamelessly exploiting holidays, this entry is partially inspired by the calendar-in that I wanted to try and find something for Election Day next week.

Of course, for the sake of fair play (I've made my choice, but frankly, there's enough shitstorms brewing on the web without my stoking the fires) I tried to find something relevant, yet apolitical.

Bad taste eventually won out and I decided to salute the potential outcomes we're facing with a salute to one of the most downright insane leaders in known history, as well as one of the most fascinating trainwrecks in film history.

I DID promise you guys filth, after all...

That's right. In honor of our electoral process, the Third Row will be saluting one of history's first insane leaders by reviewing Tinto Brass's sex and sandals insanity 'Caligula' (unrated edition, for the completionists out there.)

Now, for any readers out there unfamiliar with the history that inspired this movie, let me try and sum this up as follows:

Third Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Grew up under Tiberius (who was himself pretty downright insane/perverted, but that's another matter.)
Tiberius died under dubious circumstances and Caligula took power.
For a time, people hailed him as a breath of fresh air after Tiberius's general insanity and paranoia...
...then things started going south.
Caligula's life was a bizarre array of sex, incest, and insanity. Many people are familiar with the story of him making a horse into a senator, but compared to some of the rest of his actions (some of which, surprisingly, this film left out) that's actually a quaint use of his madness. He essentially took Rome to the cleaners in his madness and was eventually assassinated for it.

To the horse's credit, Incitatus may have been one of the few people in Caligula's court who didn't sleep their way into the position...
...we think.

Several centuries later, famous writer Gore Vidal, working from a planned television miniseries by acclaimed director Roberto Rossellini, worked on a script to adapt the fabled insane emperor's life for the big screen. With the assistance of Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione as a producer, the two set to work to bring the film to the big screen. What followed was a bizarre game of cinematic musical chairs which saw multiple directors before settling on Italian Tinto Brass (prior to him, John Huston and Lina Wertmuller each were on deck to helm it.)

I can't help but suspect John Gielgud's 'Fuck this, I'm out' face here might not have been entirely a product of acting.

From there, the film went through a LOT of control issues, which I won't go into full details on because background is going long enough as it is...the primary contenders being Vidal, Guccione, Brass, and lead actor Malcolm McDowell all jockeying for their say in the script (Vidal would eventually disown the film and have his name removed from the credits.)

The finished film is what we're here to discuss, so I'll try to ease off of the behind the scenes shenanigans for now.  Understand in advance though that I promise nothing.

With a background like what I just described though, you can probably get something of an idea where this is going. In the nicest words, the film is a mess. A full on multi-car pileup, the likes of which makes the famous chase in 'The Blues Brothers' look like a minor fender bender. This is a massive mixup of ideas that, on paper, seemed like genuinely good ideas that all came together into a sort of cinematic Frankenstein's monster.

In a lot of ways, it actually feels like 'Heaven's Gate'. For as much of a mess as this turned into, it honestly feels like it could have been a really great movie.

The history of Caligula, for one, could potentially make a fascinating study in power and madness. The cast is impressive; alongside McDowell, the cast includes the likes of a young Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud in a small role. Even Guccione, despite his being part of the film's upped random sex scenes, seemed like he was interested in trying to make this into a legitimately good film. Unlike 'Heaven's Gate', however, this didn't just go wrong in the sense that things didn't really gel. This went wrong in the sense that those good pieces all skew sharply in how they go wrong.

Helen Mirren sees into the future here, and is relieved to find out she'll be getting out of this just fine.

In particular, the cast, as impressive as they look on paper, can't even save themselves on this one, much less the movie. While Mirren admittedly isn't too bad (and on a side note, I have to admit, she looked pretty damn good back then) her role is also somewhat downplayed, as is Gielgud who is gone from the movie early on. Meanwhile, O'Toole's performance is a mixed bag of madness. As an aging and diseased Tiberius, I can't really say O'Toole's bringing his a-game to this role. On the other hand, the insane and almost campy way he plays the ailing emperor is so over the top I find my disappointment replaced by an almost gleeful enjoyment at his screaming madness (some have speculated he may have done some of these scenes half in the bag...much as I hate to say it, they may be on to something.)

 Pictured here sporting what comedian/reviewer Brad Jones has coined 'The Drunk Face'...
...and then he turns on 'Screaming Crazy' mode.

Meanwhile, as the lead, McDowell actually does manage to do well in a few scenes. I mean, I was kind of surprised at first. It was a reminder that, in his younger years, he was actually showing a lot of potential to be a big name. After his work on the movies 'If' and 'A Clockwork Orange', he was coming across as an actor to beat, and even at points in this film, that talent shows through. At other times, however, he joins O'Toole in the high camp and hystrionics, strutting around and screaming over the top (in one scene where he accuses someone of accusing him, he culminates in a scream of "THAT IS LOGIC!" that send me into fits of laughter every time.)

 One of his better moments here...actually, it feels weird to say some of his best moments acting-wise are largely tied into the incest parts of the movie.
...and then it turns into a Monty Python sketch.

Of course, the actors are still only able to do as well as the script and direction let them, and in a film like this, the writing and directing are as useful as trying to staunch bleeding with a chainsaw. For one, Vidal's script is subject to a LOT of reworking, by the above mentioned three contenders of Guccione, Brass, and McDowell. So much so that, as far as Vidal is concerned, it's no longer his work. In this regard, I am actually rather curious to read his original script and see how it differs (all I can tell from what I've found on the film so far is that Brass himself had no love for it commenting that if he was ever really mad at Vidal, he'd publish the original script to get back at him. Given the film Brass gave us, I'm not gonna take this as a condemnation just yet.) Whether as a result of the constant rewrites, or just from one guilty party somewhere in the midst of things, the campy element is pretty spurred on by some of the choice lines the actors get to give. Likewise, the directing doesn't help things. While I do give Guccione some slack reading more about the project, I can't say he didn't have his share of blame in the project - for one, many of the film's somewhat random sex scenes are a result of his backing. While some at least makes sense given Caligula's own bizarre history, as well as Rome's general attitudes towards sex, there are some scenes where it simply feels overboard-Most notably in the case of a recurring lesbian couple who randomly spy on events or in one scene urinate over a character who's just been executed. I never thought I'd see the day I typed out that with a straight face, but that's really the kind of film this gets into. After a while, the oddities just feel commonplace. A sentiment that actually is best summed up in a scene where Caligula himself starts taking a leak in the middle of talking with someone else. Why? No real reason. It just is.

That said, I do at least give him some points for the "Yeah, I know it makes no sense, I don't care!" expression he's sporting here.

Of course, as discussing the film's use of sex goes, there's two scenes that inevitably have to get discussed in passing in the movie, simply because they're two of the film's most well known sequences (well...these and the headmower. I'll get back to that, I promise.) First, and less odd, we have the orgy scene that makes the climax of the pun intended. As the turning point where Caligula's subordinates decided he completely lost it, this is kind of a mix of crucial scene and somewhat superfluous sex. Now, I realize it seems kind of weird to call out THIS scene in this 2 and a half hour film for having random sex, doubly so since the context of said sex is at least plot relevant...but it really does drag down the scene after a while. Especially after a while when we're supposed to focus on Caligula's madness...and they keep intercutting it to a blowjob. Seriously, it's a back and forth to the same blowjob...madness, blowjob, madness, blowjob, and so on...

For lack of a worksafe screencap of said orgy onhand (or at least one that wouldn't look awkward censored at this resolution) please enjoy this bit of foreshadowing for the next part of the review - as it seems to say 'Guess where THIS is going next!'

The other scene...well...anyone with a passing familiarity already knows where this is headed, so let's get the screencap out of the way.

In widest gash
In tightest ass
No orifice will escape his pass
Let those whose cheeks don't clench en masse
Beware the fist
of Caligula's wrath!

(...yeah, I'm not proud of what I do here sometimes.  With some apologies to DC here, largely in hopes they don't sue.)

That's right. For anyone who hasn't seen this yet, the unrated version includes a scene where Malcolm McDowell fists a guy. Again, one of those moments that dances between relevant as a means of highlighting Caligula's increasing insanity, and adding a sense of "'re serious?" (Made even moreso when this was apparently deemed the more acceptable alternative to the original version where allegedly Caligula was actually supposed to rape the man in question. McDowell wouldn't do that, but was apparently fine with his character ramming a fist in there instead.)

Also, while not sex...yeah, since I promised it, behold the headmower. BEHOLD!, if I were to make a Motel Hell joke right here, how many of you would get it?  Be honest with me.

Actually, this is a great demonstration of part of why I can't bring myself to really hate this movie. I can't really say I'd call it a good movie. Alongside the grievances listed above, the film is also a mess awkward edits and re-edits, including at least one sequence in the beginning which was clearly cut out of order and makes no attempt to actually hide the fact it was shoddily put together. But despite that, the movie has a certain warped fascination. Even with all the power struggles going on behind the scenes, the film still managed to keep itself on track enough to pull off some downright insane manners of spectacle generally reserved for big budget epics (appropriately, parts of the film were apparently shot in the same studio used for the previous high-budget megabomb Cleopatra.) That above headmower, for example, as a completed prop was 5 stories tall...for a scene that isn't even 10 minutes long. To put that in context, the above mentioned orgy where Caligula pimps out the senators' wives lasted longer (THAT sequence is a good 10 minutes.  I went back and clocked it to be sure.) This is just one example of things too. I mean, alongside that, scenes like the list of sexual freaks on Tiberius's isle of Capri, and the over-the-top spectacle as Caesonia gives birth to Caligula's child are just done with the right level of borderline insane earnestness that I can't even really bear the filmmakers ill will. Everything about this movie and its erratic production have a sort of bizarre je ne sais quois. So for a film that, for all intents and purposes I should likely hate, I have developed a warped sort of respect the point I'm even considering tracking down the special edition of the movie so I can check out all the behind the scenes info on it.

The above-mentioned childbirth.  Cause every kid should enter the world to a Vegas stage show.

I almost feel like calling this a case of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome. I mean, simply put on its own merits, this is a terrible movie. The script is a clusterfuck (to use the technical term) the cast are almost at 60s Batman levels of camp at times, the direction is scattershot and consequently any message the project may have started with is summarily kneecapped from the film's upped bid for greater sex appeal, and the editing is...well, for the caliber of people this film landed, the fact the editing was as bad as it is is almost astonishing. I have to wonder how often this title turns up on the fan-edit circuits to see if anyone's tried to recut things into more of a sense of how they were initially lined up. Despite all these faults, I can't bring myself to dislike the film half as much as I should. I can't even entirely chalk all of it up to 'so bad it's good' syndrome. The film certainly has parts that are like that, don't get me wrong (again, pretty much any scene with O'Toole is a scream,) but there's also stretches that don't really even seem to hit that level of goofiness. For those parts, it's more just a strange fascination with the film. It's like a mix of studying a medical oddity and taking in the lost potential all in one. This was the bizarre trainwreck I almost expected with 'Heaven's Gate' in a way. Even now I'm still trying to make sense of how I came to this point...Hell, we may eventually revisit this one some time a ways off.

Guido Mannari's almost constant 'What have I gotten myself into?' expression throughout the film is actually a pretty good representation of how I feel about this as I write about it.  It's a curious and somewhat alarming feeling like that.

In the meantime, it's safe to say at least for now this film has probably secured itself at least a spot on my list of favorite bad movies. I can't say it's supplanted my personal favorite there (which we may discuss sometime in the future), but damn, it's made a strong bid for itself in the meantime, and right now is a pretty safe #2 on the list.

Whew! I forgot how those brief writeups kind of spoil me during October. Also, this one was a bit of a doozy to come back on. However, in the words of Sterling Archer, "Totally worth it." I know it feels weird to say after how up and down this review was, but still...kind of a refreshing, if warped experience to go back to work on.

Hope to see you guys back here again in the weeks to come, and will be doing other general non-review entries more during the week as circumstances allow for. Till then, have a good weekend, folks!

Caligula will be back in...

Moving on!

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