Porn for thought

The 20th-anniversary edition of "Caligula" may be digitally remastered and enhanced with Dolby stereo sound, but its core is as raw as ever.

Topics: Pornography, Movies,

Porn for thought

Sir John Gielgud, one of England’s most celebrated thespians, was 75 years old when he proudly announced, “I’ve just finished my first pornographic film, called ‘Caligula.’”

Today the notorious 1979 film remains the only major motion picture to couple respected, eminent film actors (Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren) with graphic, penetrative, smut-style sex. The 20th-anniversary edition of “Caligula” may be digitally remastered and enhanced with Dolby stereo sound, but its core is as raw as ever.

As part of Penthouse magazine’s 20th-anniversary celebration, “Caligula” was given a brief theatrical rerelease earlier this fall and is now available on video and DVD from Image Entertainment. In the film’s press release, producer and Penthouse founder Bob Guccione claims the revised edition of “Caligula” will “fundamentally change the theater-going public’s perception of motion pictures.”

Apparently, Guccione’s goal for “Caligula” was the same goal he has for Penthouse — to free it from the domain of barbershops and locked basement bureaus and to get the public to acknowledge porn as a worthy art form. But the new “Caligula” DVD comes packaged with a one-hour disc of Penthouse Pet DVD clips — not exactly the “extra” that you would find enclosed with, say, a Merchant-Ivory period picture. Guccione himself accounts for the differences between “Caligula” and Penthouse porn in purely quantitative terms: “For [the] kind of money [spent on 'Caligula'], I could have made 200 porno films.”

The story of a depraved and cruel Roman emperor who sinks into a psychotic hell of sex, torture and casual killing, “Caligula” permanently threw the porn smut curve. Movie reviewer Leonard Maltin spoke for almost every film critic when he said “Caligula” was little more than “chutzpah and six minutes of not-bad hardcore footage … Most viewers will be rightfully repelled.” The TLA Film & Video Guide is more generous: “For those chagrined at having missed the decadence and excess of the Roman Empire, this X-rated epic is as satisfying as a day of debauchery.”



Guccione didn’t take the criticism well. “I don’t wish to sound paranoiac, but I knew, or rather suspected, that the press would see me as a kind of dilettante upstart, an intruder,” he says. “No matter how good the film was, they would see me — Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, wheeler-dealer in sex and nudity, trying his hand at something new, pressing his luck … buying his way in.”

It’s not clear what, exactly, Guccione thinks he bought his way into, but he proudly flaunts the $17.5 million budget that he personally put up (in cash, of course) to produce the original. And, to Guccione’s credit, “Caligula” does make you reevaluate your umbrage yardstick. The sex is explicit, yes — but it is just sex. “Caligula’s” gratuitous decapitations and disembowelments — presumably far less common in everyday life — are now accepted in everyday cinema, and even then went largely unremarked upon.

Guccione sidestepped the Motion Picture Association of America’s inevitable X rating by branding “Caligula” with his own MA (Mature Audiences only) rating. But MA seems far too respectable a label for a film that has all the markings of a chintzy skin flick, and rarely betrays its lavish preparation. The 20th-anniversary edition still has muddy sound, and still uses awkward wide shots and clumsy camera zooms to clump together a shot sequence. Rather than rethink the process of photographing sex, the makers of “Caligula” use Penthouse as their only artistic reference.

The result is an indulgence in standard fantasy filth: A women’s bathhouse is, naturally, writhing with hot, girl-on-girl action and lots of big tits (forget “breasts” — “tits,” “cock” and “cunt” are also operative words here). And even if sperm really is a good exfoliating agent, as one scene would have us believe, a group of men spewing it synchronously is strictly porno hour — not quite “shockingly realistic,” as the press release promises.

Guccione knows that pornography fuels the gender wars: Women rightfully feel objectified by pornography, and attack the industry; men who don’t join the crusade are, in turn, labeled as industry sympathizers. The only place in this moral mess where men and women actually seem to get along is in the pornography itself. While feminist author Andrea Dworkin writes, “Pornography is the material means of sexualizing inequality,” Guccione must think, “Pornography is the material means of equalizing sexuality.”

But Guccione safeguards his work from censors by aligning it with legitimate thinkers — writers Gore Vidal, Isaac Asimov and John Chancellor were all Penthouse contributors. “Caligula,” then, was the distillation of the Guccione empire: naked flesh on Page 1, cultural critique on Page 2 and when you close the pages it all smashes together.

For the film’s cheeky finale, Caligula unveils his magnum opus — a ship that serves as a colossal brothel. Guccione’s presence is felt heaviest here; just as Caligula used his power to turn his eager kingdom into an orgy, Guccione has used Penthouse to turn an eager America on to the idea of an orgy. And if group sex isn’t your cup of tea, just turn the Penthouse page, or let Caligula lead you to the ship’s next chamber. Torture, toys or midgets? There’s something here for everyone! Caligula and Guccione both pride themselves on packaging and trading sex for gold — or, if you prefer, booty for booty.

“No one doubts the importance of sex,” continues Guccione, “and if you do it a little better than the next guy — accenting people rather than the pneumatic, nonstop grind of disembodied cocks and cunts — if you show more respect for everyone’s favorite subject, that’s value!”

But hiring an Academy Award-winning production designer to adorn your porn with 64 sets, 450 gallons of blood and 3,592 costumes hardly equals “value.” Consequently, “Caligula” emerges as a form of perversion, and not strictly of the sexual sort. Just as the Penthouse Forum reassured readers that they weren’t alone in their fantasies, “Caligula” uses its respected credentials to persuade you to give in to your “indecent” urges (see, even Sir John’s doing it!). Guccione’s film is not just a presentation of lechery, revelry and anti-political-correctness; it’s an invitation to join in, be proud of it and publicly ask for more.

Ten years ago, during a “60 Minutes” interview, Guccione told Morley Safer, “If … the biggest-selling newsstand magazine in the area, that is to say, Penthouse, isn’t the community standard, what is?” But even if Guccione was right, a magazine and a movie are entirely different beasts. Despite grossing $23.4 million in the United States alone and selling thousands of videos monthly, “Caligula” provided a lead that few films followed. And apparently, we’re still not ready to bring our dark desires into the light and noise of a crowded movie-theater lobby. Which is why — 20 years after its initial release — “Caligula” still stands as an oddity, the cornerstone of a film movement — and a sexual awakening — that never happened.

Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."

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