Championed by a few, loathed by the many, Caligula is surely among the most mangled, mutilated, misunderstood movies in cinema history. There are several
My goal back in early 1979 was to learn enough about this movie to write a pamphlet about it, maybe 100 pages, certainly no more than 150 pages. I wanted simply to describe Gore Vidal’s screenplay and follow that with a brief description of the film as Tinto Brass had directed it. That’s all. I just wanted to know why Gore and Tinto had both disowned the final product. Simple as that. Alas, there was no information anywhere — no script was available, and no shooting records could be found. Then in the autumn of 2003 there was an announcement that the Gore Vidal Papers were to be housed at Houghton Library at Harvard University. An inquiry confirmed that many Caligula-related papers were included in the collection. They were treasures, and I spent a total of four weeks there — four weeks that opened me to many new ways of thinking about many things, not merely Caligula. Then in early 2007 I got a brief glimpse of some of the contents of the film vault. That changed the story almost entirely. At the same time I began to acquire the previously unknown storage locker rented by Caligula producer Franco Rossellini. (Yes, Franco Rossellini was the producer of Caligula. You didn’t know that, did you?) Over the course of almost two years, three friends helped me acquire the bulk of the contents of that storage locker. We tried to get every scrap, but that proved impossible. We got the most important items, though. Frustratingly, there were many gaps in those four crates of papers. Why was I surprised in July 2012 to discover that about 800 of Franco’s missing pages were held at Duke University? I paid a freelance researcher to photograph all the relevant materials there. In 2014 I discovered that a goodly number of items from Bob Guccione’s personal Caligula collection were being auctioned. Again, with the help of friends around the globe (“The Gore Vidal’s Caligula United Front,” we called ourselves), I managed to acquire a fair number of those items. Then papers stored in the attic of a house, papers that had been destined for the rubbish heap, were shipped to me instead: two crates of documents from Twickenham Studios relating to the protracted editing of Caligula. Just as the book was two short leaps from the finish line, I got full access to pretty much everything else, which, again, was just days away from being dumped into a landfill. That story is itself worthy of a book, and I am in part responsible for the rescue operation — you see, nobody at Penthouse knew these materials still existed, and had I not revealed the whereabouts of the collection, there would have been no effort to preserve it. The amount of rescued material, now at Penthouse headquarters, is overwhelming. Kelly Holland, the new Penthouse owner, kindly gave me the key and invited me to examine and copy anything I wished, on condition, of course, that I not publish any of it without her permission. I felt honored. I spent a goodly amount of time with the files, which are massive. Working 50 hours a week, it would take several years to get through them all. The amount of significant material is minimal. I’m searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
More precisely, I was searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. From the day I was allowed into the archive, I feared that the tide would turn and that I would be locked out again. After about eight months of having the doors swing open wide whenever I had a few hours to spare, there was the inevitable lawyerly roadblock: Continued admittance would hinge upon my signing a series of
It was not the closing of the doors that turned me into an emotional wreck. There have been adventures of late. They were not always good adventures. Some were pretty darned devastating adventures, draining adventures, and most were tied to this book. So many novel (mostly bad) things happened from October 2016 through July 2017 that those nine+ months seem as long as fifteen years. 28 June 2017 through 10 July 2017 seems like two and a half years. So I decided: This book has caused me too many problems, has taken up too many years, has started too many arguments, has ended friendships, has prevented me from pursuing other activities, has gotten me stuck in offices with too many vampires, and has resulted in too many emotions. On top of that, it has cost me all my savings and then some. Nearly the entire book consists of details about conflicts — major conflicts. I dislike conflicts. I dislike even learning about them. They drain me. Nonetheless, these particular conflicts were important, and most of them were unknown, and remain unknown. The conflicts spilled over from the page and into real life, and so I found conflicts all around me. After ten or so years of people verbally beating up on me, some instantly treating me as Public Enemy Number One, I entirely lost interest in the book. I was tired. I was tired beyond description. Burnout. That’s the word I was looking for. Burnout. Despair, too. That’s another word that described my feelings. Add to that despondency. Add to the despondency the horrifying results of the 2016 elections. I knew that all options were dreadful and dangerous, and I was apprehensive about any outcome, but we got the worst. Many of you will disagree with me completely. Fine. Maybe the new laws are helping you. They are not helping me, nor are they helping the people I care about. Why was I wasting my time on a book about a dumb movie when I could be working to help make things better? I also realized that, though the book was never in any way designed to give Penthouse publicity, its publication would inevitably have that result, and I had no wish to give Penthouse publicity. This was a worthless endeavor, I decided, and so I cut my losses. Upon making this decision, I felt better. Upon surrendering the key to the new archive, I slept better than I had in many months — not well, but better. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll do some useful things for a change. Hoorah.
In the year or so since I was kicked out of Penthouse, there have been changes. The lawyer resigned. Penthouse filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Kelly sold it at auction to porn behemoth WGCZ of Prague for $11,200,000. I worry that the archives are now doomed. Another change has been personal. I have mostly recovered from the setbacks. Perhaps in September or October I’ll rewrite a bunch of chapters and be done with this 200 Degrees of Failure book once and for all and good riddance. If I do eventually publish the book, I would never give any personal appearances or interviews, nor would I do any book signings. The adventure will be over.
In case you’re wondering, I confess: I am not a fan of Caligula. I think the world of Gore Vidal. I think the world of Tinto Brass. In numerous interviews, Malcolm McDowell expressed his conviction that, buried beneath the mess, there is a great movie struggling to get out, if only it were to be edited properly. Until recently, I agreed. I was wrong. Sorry. I saw some more rushes, and I saw what survives of Tinto’s first draft of the rough cut. Dreadful. I have no doubt that Tinto would have cleaned it up immensely had he not gotten the boot, but even then, the result would have been a piece of junk. Once I saw that, well, I was deflated. I had been eagerly pursuing a whole big bag of nothing for all those years. I felt so stupid. There are wonderful things in the movie, yes, I admit. There are some stunningly beautiful images. The absurdist comedy sometimes works. The thick, unreal, dreamlike atmosphere sometimes works. The Pyramid of Power makes the whole rest of the movie worth enduring. As much as I love everything Gore wrote, I must correct myself: I love everything else Gore wrote. Yes, his final draft of the script was quite strong, and, superficially, it would have made a compelling
Curiously, despite the ludicrous onscreen results, there is something addictive about Caligula. Even some of the worst scenes have a marvelous moodiness, sometimes bordering on dreamlike. What fascinated me, personally, was the puzzle. The writer and director were initially cordial and worked together splendidly. The friendliness evaporated in a single moment, and the two sued each other. When they were through, both disowned the result. Beginning on 4 October 1980, and for the next three and a half decades, I watched the movie probably well over fifty times, analyzing every last detail under the microscope, trying to discern what had been cut out, rearranged, rewritten in the dubbing; I was endlessly trying to imagine what the movie was supposed to have been like. That is why I was addicted. No longer. If the film were ever to be restored to Tinto’s intentions, I’d watch that restoration — only once, and only if I don’t have to pay for it. Enough.
In the meantime, why not look at the attractive advertisement that announced the beginning of the filming? As with nearly every contemporary press item about Caligula, it was a lie:
Originally I had some pages on this site devoted to analyzing the film. They were beyond erroneous. I junked them. So stroll around through the links below. Have fun.
You’ve Been Wondering
for Four Decades:
It’ll Never Happen. Sorry.
It Just Won’t.
The Multiple Versions
Opinions about the Movie
The Mysterious Death
of Anneka di Lorenzo
Tie-Ins, Promotional Items,
and Other Such Phenomena
You’ve Been Wondering
for Six Decades:
Stuart Urban Remembers
Working on Caligula
The Posters and
You Know More
Than We Do
Alan King’s TV Special
The Cast and Crew
Every Screening and Booking We Have Learned About
Bob Guccione’s Flirtation
with Thermonuclear Fusion
Incredibly Difficult Translations That Gave Us Mountains of Migraines
Oodles and Oodles
The Real Reason Why
You Could Never Learn
Greek and Latin
(Hint: No, They’re Not Hard, and No, You’re Not Stupid)
Interesting External Links
As far as I am now concerned, the movie is not the story. The story is the decade and a half of behind-the-scenes intrigues and legal battles. Those are much more worthy of study. You have never heard about most of those behind-the-scenes dramas. They were never published. Not even the people who lived through the legal actions understood what they were doing or what was being done to them or why. No judge could make head nor tail of the arguments and exhibits. In its totality, the Caligula saga is a horrifying example of how the law works, both in the US and in Europe. The story is truly demoralizing. It will weaken your hope for humanity. No. That’s too optimistic. It will probably end your hope for humanity. Writing that story took me from the beginning of January 2009 to the end of December 2014, and I was discovering the story as I was piecing it together. I didn’t study the evidence first and then summarize it later. I wrote it as I was discovering it, which is why I had to go back and revise and correct probably every last paragraph multiple times as I encountered each new piece of evidence. The evidence told me the narrative, and I simply obeyed it. I did not impose my narrative upon the evidence. Composing these chapters was a painful process, because the story is so awful, and because the good guys lost. When I
As I wrote (or cowrote) the earlier chapters (1 through 27), I was laboring under the preposterous delusion that the story was about the script, about the direction, about the design, about the actors’ neuroses, about the imposition of foreign concepts onto Gore Vidal’s vision, about the entirely insane editing processes by people who had had nothing to do with the filming and who were thus entirely unable to understand the footage dumped into their laps. You thought that was the story, too, didn’t you? That was not the story. The heart of the book became the story of the Rossellini-versus-Guccione conflicts, a gruesome and harrowing tale. When I finished the
A great highlight of my life was when one of Franco Rossellini’s relatives read chapters 28 through 41 and approved them fully, without amendment. Catharsis! I must have done something right! She said I should just go ahead and publish them as is. So, okay, here goes, all of Part Five and the opening of Part Six:
Chapter 28, Money
Chapter 29, Partners
Chapter 30, “Under No Circumstances Honest People Should Surrender
to the Intidimidations of Irresponsable Criminals”
Chapter 31, “Readjust Reciprocal Relations without Any Reservation or Restriction”
Chapter 32, “Every Kind of Harassment and Abuse”
Chapter 33, “A Shameful Attempt to Mislead the Court”
Chapter 34, “Should I Abandon the Case?”
Chapter 35, “Your Liver Is Not Functioning”
Chapter 36, “I Did Not Give Directives to My Colleague”
Chapter 37, “I’m Incorruptible”
Chapter 38, “Empower the Good Relations”
Chapter 39, “Such a Confused Situation”
Chapter 40, “Penthouse Is Hoping That I Die and That My Company Goes Bankrupt”
Chapter 41, “Good Sushi”
If you can read these without suffering overpowering pains of empathy, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. Well, either that or you’re a psychopath.
The other chapters, though, the ones dealing with the actual preparations and filming and editing and release, they’re a whole different kettle of fish. To publish them I would need to rewrite them from scratch. Yes, I could do it. No, I really don’t want to, at least not now. We shall see. Rewriting those 800 pages or so would take only a few months, and the end result would be considerably less than 800 pages. In my mind I can see it. I sort of want to do it. The problem is my energy level, which is nonexistent.
Freed from the book, I have gone back through the Ollendorff Italian course, beginning with Lesson One, and it is now much easier to absorb. At last I am nearly at the
In this new state of mind, and in this new state of being, I make discoveries. The first discovery is that I have no desire to watch movies any more — except for the occasional educational item or documentary. Once in a blue moon social obligations require me to watch an occasional flick, and then there are a few movies (very few) that I watch for educational purposes (Agostino, for instance, since Franco Rossellini worked on it). Growing up was not a happy time, and movies were my escape. The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mae West, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy were my therapy. They kept alive in me the smallest ember of sanity that would otherwise have been irretrievably extinguished. The old vaudeville clowns led me, in my teens, to the wonders of the modern filmmakers — Fellini, Makavejev, Pasolini, and so forth. The films were a revelation, I thought.
Then came the fascination with the mutilated Caligula, widely castigated for all the wrong reasons. That is what began my investigation, which lasted from early 1979 through
Now that I have learned this detective skill, I can leave movies behind. I crossed that bridge, and I need never cross back. I can leave theatre behind. I can leave entertainment behind. They served their purpose and helped me to move on. They no longer interest me in the least. Of course, if the Red Mole were still alive and performing, I would make an exception for them, since what they did was far deeper than entertainment; they animated on stage the dreams of our prehistoric ancestors, and made their dreams our dreams. That was an amazing thing to experience. Alas, they are gone. There is nothing left that catches my attention.
Once I finish Ollendorff’s course, and review through a couple of other courses, and once I can read Moravia and newspapers without difficulty, then I’ll delve into Classical Greek, a childhood fantasy that I could never fulfill until now, since I could never previously find any courses that were worth a plugged nickel. After my lengthy perusals of the Greek courses by Asahel Kendrick and Thomas Kerchever Arnold, I conclude that the language looks a lot simpler to learn than Italian. The grammar is a bit more intricate, but the usages are considerably more consistent, which is a blessing. Once I begin to get comfortable with that, then I’ll consider ploughing once again through the rough Caligulan terrain. I now have a map of the territory, and so I know where the quicksand and sinkholes lie, which is why the next time I’d be able to avoid them quite easily.