Caligula for President

The following piece was written for a British magazine right after George W. Bush was elected to his second term. As we head into another election season, that collective amnesia seems to be setting in again. We should be looking back to Bush and his policies, and maybe even farther back, to the Claudian dynasty and their policies.

”I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.”—George W. Bush, Rome, July 22, 2001

Few people remember Caligula, a twenty five year old (now 32 year old) film about the Emperor of Rome, Gaius Germanicus Caesar, popularly known as Caligula, or little boots. The film was a notorious aesthetic collision involving the classical scholarship of writer Gore Vidal, the pornographic gall of producer Bob Guccione, the sleazemanship of director Tinto Brass, and the imaginative production design of Academy Award winner Danilo Donati.

Caligula the film, like Caligula the emperor, was the product of too much money and too much ego; it’s the product of an anarchic power struggle that is show business legend, yet for all its flaws it evokes the spirit of the most notorious, self-indulgent tyrant in human history.

Caligula is in the air today. Odd that people would be talking about a Roman emperor who reigned for less than four years nearly two thousand years ago, who died at the age of twenty nine, but he did make quite an impression during his brief tenure and among political writers on the scene in Washington, D.C., that almost desperately neo-classical city designed to mimic the imperial grandeur of Rome and Athens, Caligula has become a buzz word. It’s not that George Bush, an abstemious born again Christian, overtly resembles the libertine Roman Emperor closely, but there are unmistakable similarities.

Each began his reign with great popularity among the people. Bush was beloved for being a regular guy, and then as a man’s man, a “don’t mess with Texas” guy with the gumption to stand up terrorism. Caligula was already popular for not being Tiberius, and he then became wildly popular because he inaugurated his reign with a general amnesty, tax cuts and various acts of largesse. He adored public attention and hammed it up for the people. His games were more elaborate than any seen before, and he was a fanatic for horse racing.

For both Caligula and Bush the problems began when they started to exercise vast power; something clicked within, monsters were unleashed. Like Caligula, Bush has changed the structure of government through a relentless drive to concentrate all power in the executive, reducing the legislature, the essence of Democratic Republicanism, to a rubber stamp. When George W. Bush recently shocked even his own party by nominating his utterly mediocre personal legal counsel, Harriet Meyers, to the Supreme Court, waggish pundits widely compared this act to Caligula’s attempted appointment of his beloved horse Incitatus to a Consulship.

This is probably unfair, either to Meyers or Incitatus, and yet it rings true in the public imagination. Then there’s that heavy metal musician who has named himself Emperor Magus Caligula. The lead singer of the heavy metal band Dark Funeral, he recently commented that he was “somewhat impressed” that a fan of his band, a fan whom Caligula had once branded with a cigar, slit the throat of a Chilean priest during mass at Santiago’s cathedral.
Certainly decadence is up these days and democracy is down, despite Mr. Bush’s attempts to force it on countries around the world. And Caligula’s popularity rises as Mr. Bush’s approval rating plummets. On the popular talk show Charlie Rose, Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, the senior member of the House of Representatives with fifty years service, called the Bush administration “the worst administration since Caligula.”

While Paris burned, the Paris Opera Ballet mounted Caligula, a five act ballet with twenty three dancers based on the life of Caligula. As the holidays approached I received an invitation to a poetry reading from a new translation of Catullus, sponsored by ArtForum and featuring a group of distinguished authors. The invitation is a still photo from the 1979 film Vidal/Guccione “Caligula, “it shows Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) in bed with his quadruped friend Incitatus. It seems that the most decadent of reigns is suddenly in vogue again.
Caligula the 1979 film, which starred McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren, is enjoying an odd renaissance, aroused by an imaginary remake of the film. The hit of the 2005 Venice Biennale was Francesco Vezzoli’s extraordinary five minute film “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” an over-the-top Hollywood-style coming attractions for an utterly non-existent film. The trailer features Gore Vidal, Helen Mirren, Milla Jovovich, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Black, Barbara Bouchet, Michelle Phillips, Tasha Tilberg ( “and her eagerly anticipated first lesbian screen kiss,”) and last but far from least, Courtney Love, who shares the title role with Vezzoli himself. The stars romping histrionically and hilariously through a Donatella Versace version of Imperial Rome.

Vezzoli is witty but profound young artist, a casually visionary maverick in an avarice-driven art world, who is seems more concerned with reaching the thinking public, not speculator elite. In his short career Vezzoli has worked in the seemingly opposite media of embroidery and video, creating ideosyncratic works based on the cultural iconography that has fascinated him, from Pasolini and Visconti, to soap operas and daytime television, to Gore Vidal and his epic film gone wrong.
I found a wonderful paragraph about him on-line, one of those instances where translation (in this case from French to English) produces poetry: “The technical perfection of the video is therefore confronted with the impreciseness or the uncultivated characteristics of canvas. He opposes the art and craft of embroidery to the icons on glossy paper who, by the power of attorney, live a paranoiac fame that they have proclaimed themselves.”
I will never think of power of attorney in the same way again. And as I watch the trailer, again and again, I think my understanding of “decadence,” “perversion,” and other contemporary fascinations, continues to grow as I laugh along with this satire of Hollywood pretension and celebrity vanity.
The trailer begins with eighty year old Gore Vidal, the distinguished author, surrounded by imperial statuary, seated next to a golden harp, standing with power of attorney for lyre of the poet. He says, “What is the point of telling the story of someone who was… somewhat insane… at a very dark point in human history?” Vidal speaks slowly, deliberately, dramatically, letting his words sink in, with a tone reminiscent of Vincent Price narrating a horror film. “I think the answer to that,”Vidal says, pausing dramatically, “is that every point in human history is dark.”

Ah, but sometimes that darkness goes unnoticed. The glow of luxury and the glare of spotlit celebrity sometimes obscure the darkness on the edge of town. Torture hidden away in somber secret prisons is easily forgotten when the big flat screen high definition television lights up the decorator white walls of a glass-walled penthouse high above a city burning 12,000 megawatts. It doesn’t matter what’s on the screen. Glib brilliance surrounds the heart of fabulous formless darkness. The auras of thousands of celebrities blind us to the fate of the overcast masses. Perhaps the darkness of an age can reach a sort of black hole stage, an event horizon, where the gravity of the situation is so powerful that no light can escape. The darkness itself is invisible. But at a safe distance, say 2000 years, we might find clues as to how darkness works.

Little Boots, Caligula. The name is synonymous with the madness of power. He took power by murdering Tiberius, his adoptive grandfather, and was given absolute power by the army and then a corrupt and fearful Senate. He committed incest with all three of his sisters and took his favorite sister, Drusilla, as his de facto wife. He declared himself a god and had the heads on the most famous statues of the Greek gods replaced with his own head. He murdered not only his enemies but his closest supporters, rivals in the Senate, men whose wives or fortunes he envied and took. He declared that the cost of feeding his of wild animals was too high and took to feeding them criminals. He delighted in spectacles of cruelty, from the arena to his personal dining room where offenders were often beheaded for his amusement. When he bankrupted the treasury he raised funds by falsely charging leading citizens and seizing their assets. He taxed food, marriage and prostitution, and even opened a brothel in the palace as a money making scheme. Although he behaved impulsively and erratically, going about costumed as a god or a goddess, acting from paranoid impulse, and behaving with unprecedented cruelty, he managed to rule absolutely through the imposition of terror.
Gore Vidal, conceived of the project, originally titled “Gore Vidal’s Caligula” in the early seventies, inspired, he says, by Albert Camus’ play Caligula. Vidal felt the material relevant to the increasing imperial nature of the United States. When Teddy Kennedy was considering a run for the White House, Vidal announced his support. When asked why he quipped famously, “America deserves its own Caligula.”
Vidal recalls “I was fascinated by Albert Camus’ Caligula. I thought I would try to do my own. I became involved with the producer Franco Rossellini who suggested doing it as a low budget film with Paul Morrissey who was interested. He also alleges that he told me his uncle, Roberto, was interested. I don’t remember it and he died before shooting of Caligula began.”
One of the screenwriters of the 1959 epic Ben Hur, Vidal was a scholar of the Roman Empire. (He later wrote a splendid novel, Julian, about the emperor who attempted to restore paganism after Christianity had already been made the official religion of Rome. Ironically Peter O’Toole, who plays the murderous Tiberius in Caligula, held the screen rights for years. )

Caligula began as Gore Vidal’s Caligula. He conceived of the project long before he ever heard of a man named Guccione. “I was fascinated by Albert Camus’ Caligula. I thought I would try it. I became involved with the producer Franco Rossellini who suggested doing it as a low budget film with Paul Morrissey who was interested. He alleges that he also told me his uncle, Roberto, was interested. I don’t remember it and he died before shooting of Caligula began.”
It’s hard to envision how a Caligula collaboration between Vidal and Andy Warhol’s director Morrissey might have turned out. “I was not above doing a rather light version.”
“Holly Woodlawn as Drusilla?”
“Something like that,” says Vidal. “Or Monique van Vooren…”

When the low budget Morrissey project fell through Franco Rosselini brought in Guccione and things went big, big budget and down, downhill quickly.
Bob Guccione had a taste of empire, his magazine Penthouse was an enormous success with a circulation approaching five million, having taken mass market pornography to the next level, first by showing pubic hair, which Playboy had never done, then by “going pink.” The pretentious Guccione lived in a 26 room townhouse filled paintings by El Greco, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse and Modigilani. Guccione was a painter himself. Bas reliefs on his walls depicted the emperors Nero and and Vespasian. Caligula appealed to him because it gave him a chance to make history, making the first epic porn film with a cast of distinguished actors, as well as the classic nature of decadence and sexual license. Guccione was an ambitious man; his other big project at the time was nuclear cold fusion. He put up 17.5 million to make Caligula, a huge budget in the seventies, and with interest it eventually hit 22 million.
Guccione picked journeyman director Tinto Brass, who resembled a heavier version of Jon Lovitz, to direct Caligula. He liked Brass’s arty soft core film Salon Kitty which featured big name actors like Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin and John Ireland, about a brothel in Nazi Germany that spies on the troops. The tagline was Depraved. Decadent. Damned.” Vidal was horrified by the choice. They got this distinguished cast, with Gielgud and O’Toole, based on my script and then they hired this man….” He recalls Franco Rossellini taking him to visit Tinto Brass at his home. “He received us in his library. There were three shelves of books that looked like bound paperbacks. There were this strange kind of porno books for children. There were no other books of any kind. His mind was revealed in that book case.”

This was the beginning of the end for Vidal who entirely disapproved of Brass. “I saw a picture that were supposed to be me with Tinto Brass on the set,” says Vidal. “I never set foot on the set.” He didn’t.
“Yes,” I replied, “Malcolm McDowell told me you were never on the set.”
The mention of McDowell brings a bristle from the great author: “It is also said that he drove me from the set, which is unlikely, since I am larger than he is. There are so many lies. This is probably the lowest movie ever made.” Talking about Caligula is a sure way to bring out the delightful Vidal’s grumpy side. He still accuses McDowell of consipiring against him and almost everyone else of idiocy. His ultimate judgement is pronounced simply, with bemused disdain, “I’ve never seen it.”
The film was shot over five months, ending on New Year’s Eve 1976. In January 77 Bob Guccione secretly returned to the studio with a cinematographer and thirteen Penthouse Pets to shoot additional scenes, to be edited in with the 120 miles of film that Tinto Brass had shot. The enormous editing process took place in England. Guccione fired Brass and hired an English editor who was also fired, apparently because he didn’t want to use the mismatched footage shot by the Emperor of Penthouse. When Guccione got wind of a possible police seizure of the footage he moved his operation to Paris. Finally, in June 1979, Caligula premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in a 210 minute version which, apparently, no longer exists.

The film opened in New York in February 1980 at 156 minutes and at the unheard of admission price of $7.50 (all other films were $5.) In 1980 the uncut film was brought to the UK for release but was seized by customs as obscene. Nearly fifteen minutes were cut and it was released with an X certificate. America’s leading critic, Roger Ebert “Sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.” Despite generally terrible reviews, slags from the cast and a rash of lawsuits, Caligula on to gross more than $100 million, and had great success in video, although in a considerably abridged form. The 20th Anniversary version now available on DVD is probably the best viewable version of the film, running 156 minutes. The DVD also contains an amusingly awful “A Documentary on The Making of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” with a narration that sounds like the Alpha 60 Computer of Alphaville imitating Bob Guccione.
“As history teaches us,” the narrator croaks cancerously, “sex in many of its forms was a way of life to the Romans.” Guccione appears, shirt unbuttoned to the navel, wearing six gold chains and medallions, seated behind a huge silver bowl of fruit with prominent bananas and he explains that Caligula could only be made in Rome: “It is the historic site of the Roman emperors, this is where Caligula lived, where he loved and where he died. “

He continues: “What I heard from Franco Rosselini that Gore was going to do this script I was delighted. I took the first opportunity to go to Italy, to Ravello where he lived and spend three or four days with him just discussing the script and some of the ideas we had concerning it. I found him to be enormously well informed, enormously excited by the project. He had a great willingness to pour himself into it. Not just to sit down and write the script but to make a personal pilgrimage to some of the historic sites that involved the life and death of Caligula. I knew Gore would be as liberal and as liberated as I wanted the film to be.”

The film is certainly “liberated.” Although Guccione couldn’t have known that Gore would liberate himself from the film before shooting even commenced. Vidal himself didn’t know. But he did believe in the relevance of the project. Standing on his terrace in Ravello overlooking the Amalfi Coast, the pert, then forty year old Vidal says:
“I’ve always been interested in the Roman empire. After all, like many of us I’m a child of the American empire and empires tend to be more like one another than different from one another. In a sense we’re looking in a mirror and we are seeing not just seeing an emperor two thousand years dead, but we see ourselves.
“It was a strange society that was not as corrupt as sometimes depicted. And of course there was slavery. You could own another person. Caligula lived nearly two thousand years ago. The question is why do a story about a young man who was murdered two thousand years ago, who was an emperor of Rome…I think what attracted me to Caligula as a character was what happens if you take a normal young man, rather ordinary, and you give him absolute power of life and death over everybody in the world. I think it’s fascinating to watch as Caligula begins to regard people as things. In a sense when you give people the power to use other people as things they begin to treat them as toys and children sooner or later break their toys.”
I spoke with Malcolm McDowell who starred as Caligula in epic fiasco. McDowell is now enjoying great popularity on the hit show Entourage playing super Hollywood agent “Terence.” He says that playing the power-mad emperor was good training for his current role. “It’s similar, except I don’t have to take my clothes off.”

“Caligula is an amazing piece of film history, “ says McDowell. “I once sat with the producer and the director of Das Boot and the producer said “Malcolm you made my favorite movie of all time,” and I said, “Thank you very much, expecting him to mean Clockwork Orange,” and he said ‘Califgula was the best film I’ve ever seen.’ I always felt there’s a really good film dying to come of out of that film, but it didn’t come out.
“Gore took his name off of it. He used to call me quite drunk very late at night. In the end I said Gore you’ve got to stop doing this, I’ve got to get up very early in the morning. Whatever he says, the script was not really in shootable conditions. I know he disagrees with me and thinks I’m a bastard but there’s no way we could have gotten through that script. There were some wonderful things in it but it needed another pass and it needed him to continually work on it and he wouldn’t do it. He had a row with Guccione and that was it.
“You had a director who was sort of left of Lenin and Guccione who was right of Atilla the Hun. There had to be some compromises made and there weren’t. In the first week the director turned to me and said “We will screw Guccione.” I said “Well, why don’t we just make a good film.” Who cares about Guccione. I said to Gore, “Well who is Guccione?” And he said, “Malcolm, think of Guccione as one of the Warner Brothers. They just signed the checks.”
“Franco Rosselini was the one person I really liked a lot. He was a gentleman. So sweet. I had so much fun with him, but he put too much store in Guccione who in the end stabbed him in the back. The producer has to be loyal to the money and in the end the money couldn’t have cared less. “

“Guccione was without any talent whatsoever. He may be good at running a porno magazine, which actually he has proved that he isn’t, but he certainly knew nothing about film. He was clueless. He added porno scenes two years later and he couldn’t even manage to match the lighting. His interference really came later. I think he only came to the set twice. He saw the dailies in New York and he was upset by the extras. He said they were using ugly Romans. He said “I’m the proprietor of Penthouse and I can’t have ugly Romans in the film. I’m sending over some Pets. Which he did and they were hilarious. They were quite sweet, actually. One of them said to me, ‘I thought I was coming over to be in a James Bond movie!’ Then there was a big kerfuffle because one of his Pets tried to jump the line one day when all the extras were taking off their wigs. She said “I’m not to be treated this way, I’m a star!” She pushed an extra and the extra pushed back. I came in the next day and they said “Shooting has been cancelled because none of the dancers will show up.” Because of this stupid girl. it turned out that she had come and complained to Guccione so he lined up all the extras and had her ‘look ‘em in the eye and tell me which one insulted you.’ So she walked down the line and found one and said “that’s the one!” and she was fired. So I got the screenwriter and said lets do the same bit with Gemellus. Guccione saw that, basically saw himself, and he said ‘I really like that.’ I asked him why he didn’t play the part himself.

My biggest problem was following John Hurt playing Caligula in I Claudius, the BBC mini-series; he was incredible. But Caligula had a wonderful cast. John Gielgud was a very beautiful man. I remember Peter O’Toole teasing John, “Why is a knight of the realm in a porno movie?” and he replied, “Well, I think it will be a frightfully good film.”
One day I was walking to the set where Tiberius is in the pool and he says ‘Dance, Caligula, dance!’ and I’m walking down a long corridor and John Gielgud comes running toward me. He says ‘Oh, Malcolm, have you been on the set?’ No, John I’m just on my way now. He said, ‘I’ve never seen so much cock in all my life! I wonder if they are shaved or pubescent. Perhaps you could let me know.’
I said ‘John I think they’re all heroin addicts from the Piazza Navona.’
The teaser line on the film is: What would you have done if you had been given absolute power of life and death over everybody else in the whole world? I suppose today George W. Bush is the only person who could answer that question.

It might seem odd to compare such an infamous character as Caligula to President Bush, the son of a President, a Christian, a conservative and a man devoted to the virtues of simplicity such as bike riding and clearing brush on his Texas ranch, but there are obvious similarities. Both men came from imperial families. Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, descended from Augustus Caesar. George W. Bush, son of George H.W.Bush, the president of the United States, was the grandson of Prescott Bush, a United States Senator who managed the business affairs of Nazi tycoon Fritz von Thyssen in the United States until the Thyssen-owned companies were seized in 1942 under the Trading With the Enemy Act. Despite his folksy manner there is no one in American empire more patrician or, indeed, imperial than George Bush. Like Caligula, Bush was born to his role; he did not choose it. In the face of his increasing eccentricity and intransigence, there is a groundswell of suggstion that Bush may well be insane—including theories from medical scholars who suggest that he suffers from dementia resulting from congenital conditions aggrevated by alcoholism.
Is it possible that George W. Bush is insane? How could he resemble a made Roman emperor? When he was a child he put firecrackers inside frogs and blew them up. When he was president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity he branded a pledge with a branding iron. Once, when drunk he challenged his father to a fist fight “mano a mano.” When he was Governor of Texas he presided over 134 executions, a record number that included minors, mentally ill and retarded persons. When the born again Christian Karla Faye Tucker pleaded for clemency he mocked her, saying “Please don’t kill me Mr. Bush.”

George Bush insane? I suppose it depends on how one defines insanity. Like many of his supporters Bush is an evangelical Christian and he often cites his Christianity in the context of politics, such as his recent Supreme Court appointments. Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus Christ will soon return, and that all of those born again in Christ will physically vanish from the earth, beaming up to meet Christ “in the air.” Is this belief, accepted by about one in four Americans, insane?
In 2002, Bush who has said “I believe God wants me to be President” stated that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in schools because “religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism.” In his State of the Union addresses that year he declared: “‘There’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” and he called upon Americans to “confound the designs of evil men.” Clad in a flight suit aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln he addressed his forces thus: “And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope–a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘To the captives, come out! To those who are in darkness, be free!'”
Bush has been wary of discussing his religious motivation when speaking to Americans, at the Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting in 2003. Nabil Shaath, then Palestinian foreign minister recalled: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.…And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East’. And, by God, I’m gonna do it.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has been quoted saying that President Bush told him: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did…” Is it rhetoric, or does Bush believe that his presidency is divinely ordained? So far he has not altered any of the heads on Mount Rushmore, but he has nearly three years left to serve.
What Bush would seem to share with Caligula is a divine mandate. While Caligula consorted with gods and declared himself as one, Bush communes with God and sees himself as an instrument of “His” will in a Manichean battle between the forces of light and darkness. But the result of both leaders of empire is equivalent—the dismantling of republican institutions, in Caligula’s case through intimidation of the Senate and popularity with the military, in Bush’s case through the Patriot Act and the redistricting of legislative districts, through an end to the politics of diplomacy and compromise and the beginning of an all or nothing mentality.
Like Caligula, President Bush basks in the light of his own vision by keeping himself in the dark. He doesn’t read newspapers or watch TV. He gets his news from aides who fear him enough that they will never bear the bad news. Those with bad news, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, General Jay Garner, General Anthony Zinni, General Eric Shinseki, top terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, to name a few, were fired. Dissent is not tolerated; it is equated with disloyalty. Offenders are banished.
Is this madness? Or is it democracy? Do the opinions of the experts matter as long as the majority of the people share his vision? Bush and Caligula stand face to face, or is it back to back in the imagination. Great minds think alike they say. “You’re either with us or against us.” But what happens if that majority erodes enough that they no longer believe in the President’s vision?
Caligula said, “Utinam populas Romanus unam cervicem haberet!”
That’s usually translated “Would that the Roman people had but one neck.” But lately I’ve been wondering if it could be translated as “You’re either with us or against us.”

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