The virtues of Caligula


Barrett Brown

I am the founder of the distributed think-tank Project PM and a regular inactive to Vanity Fair and Skeptical Inquirer. My work has also appeared in The Onion, National Lampoon, New York Press, D Magazine, Skeptic, McSweeney's, American Atheist, and a couple of newspapers in the U.S. and Mexico as well as a few policy journals. I'm the author of two books and serve as a consultant to various political entities and private clients.

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19 Responses

  1. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    The other work in question is William Gibson’s Neuromancer, in which the Tessier-Ashpool family is seen to have largely closed itself to the outside world and redefined itself as something akin to a hive of wasps.

    Indeed. I found the Tessier-Ashpool family quite a lot more disturbing than Caligula, perhaps because I found Caligula almost cartoonish in his madness, whereas the TA’s were really deeply disturbing to me. Both Gibson’s book and Caligula were indeed well ahead of their time.Report

  2. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    The impression I got from the movie was how could such a talented cast make a movie that’s just…not good? I like the Prokofiev. ELP does a great version here:


    • Avatar Barrett Brown says:

      It should have been directed by Stanley Kubrick and it should have been about Tiberius, Nerva, and Macro. Caligula himself really does not come off as very interesting, which is an incredible feat.Report

    • I agree with Jon Rowe. You’d have thought if Bob Guccione was going to do a feature-length movie with freakin’ Roman orgies, it would at least have been sexually arousing. Or at least interesting. This was back when Penthouse was edgy stuff.

      John Hurt’s Caligula in I, Claudius was way scarier, way funnier, and way more dangerous. As a bonus, Beth Morris as Drusilla was way hotter, and ultimately more tragic, than Teresa Ann Savoy.Report

  3. Avatar Enjolras says:

    I had the dubious fortune of living down the hall from a leading member of one of America’s most illustrious and well-connected political families during my Freshman year at an elite American University. We became fairly decent friends, drinking together, smoking from a bong together, and we even went skiing together over winter break, during which time I visited his family’s residence in the middle of one of the most moneyed residential areas in the world. As you write, “the inner sanctums of powerful men who have gone “mad,” or, more accurately, whose view of humanity has been informed by the expansive view that one only gets from the top of the pyramid.” is definitely a very real thing.Report

  4. “Technology has rescued film from the filmakers, allowing us to skip around. It’s also kind of a plus that we can now steal them. I recommend The Pirate Bay.”

    I’m sure you’ll understand when the next time I’m in the city I track you down and punch you in the face.Report

    • Avatar Emma says:

      Dear Tony, I was moderated by the mysterious Gentlemen OverLords for not being a Gentlemen and blatantly defending my countryman, Mr Shelley. My next post was monitored for signs of mutiny. I was judged sufficiently polite to continue.

      So I sincerely hope you are looking at a banning for threatening to punch Mr Brown. Or at least a stern telling off.

      Unless “punch in the face” is some puzzling American prison lingo which I have yet to become familiar with. In which case, video it.Report

    • Avatar Barrett Brown says:

      Be sure to film it so I can steal it later.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Like others have noted, one of the most puzzling things about Caligula is how it just doesn’t work. There seem to be three or four movies happening at once and the end result is that you have these wonderful actors standing around looking embarassed. I actually think Malcolm McDowell is great in the movie and generally enjoy all of his performances from this era, and like you said, the film really does capture something about a power-mad tyrant. There’s no scene in which we’re expected to feel bad for Caligula- he’s just a monster, and I think that probably comes from the Gore Vidal script. I love the “I have existed since the beginning of time…” speech. But, for me, nothing else works. Tinto Brass tends to make corny adult movies and should never have been hired to direct something like this, none of the other actors seem to be enjoying the experience at all, and the pornography that Guccioni tacked on tends to bring the film to a screeching halt. I think it’s possible to include sexually graphic material and not kill a film, and there are directors who are doing so now, but it has to enhance the storyline and not amount to, “Hey, check this out over here!”Report

    • I think Caligula is best understood as a movie that was made at least seven years too late to have any chance of being a success. By 1979 X-rated was a joke/box office death* and (virtually) no one was willing to take the idea of explicit sex in cinema serious. The production was marked by mixed agendas and duplicity all the way around. More over, (presumably due to a desire to be “taken seriously”) Guccioni betrayed his own sybaretic impulse and set sexuality in the context of depravity; negativity was and still remains the only accepted way explicit sex that sex is depicted in “ligitimate” cinema.

      *Tracking how the X-rated symbol was used between 1968 and 1980 is instructive, as is the Cyclesluts sandwich board sequence from “Owl and the Pussycat”.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        You’ve got some interesting points. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on Emmanuelle and whether it’s a sex-positive or negative film.Report

        • There’s a good chance you weren’t yet born when I saw Emmanuelle, so the plain truth is I don’t remember very much about it. I do remember I saw it in a theater, with my girlfriend, it wasn’t hard to sit through, and it didn’t ruin the evening. I also remember some time later we picked a sequal on VHS (this back when decks were so expensive you could rent the movie the deck) and I remember being disappoint and not watching it all the way through.

          Vis a vis the debasement of the X-rating (a self-applied quasi MPAA rating) the producers recognized it was going to problem and came up withe the very catchy “X was never like this.”

          Notable: Just this week I saw the not an MPAA NR in a faux MPAA ratings box on the box-cover artwork of a self-described “proud pornographer”. It’s history repeating itself. Just like in the late 60s, when pornographers started putting the not trademarked X-rated on their poster art to make their movies look more “ligit” now their putting the not trademarked NR .

          Ironically, NR has a better position in the DVD market than the MPAA’s NC-17, even though they are functionally equivelent in terms of content restrictions (ie. none.) If the NR gambit catches on and NR become the black mark that X became 30-40 years ago, it could breathe new life into the MPAA’s orphaned AO rating.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            No, I definitely wasn’t born. I just asked because read an article a while back claiming that it was a ‘feminist’ sex movie, which sounded a bit loopy. Then I rented it and sort of saw their point, but still thought the argument was a bit loopy. The movie too. But entertaining.Report