My chronological tour of 1970s film comes to an end with two films that perhaps represent the two directions in which the decade pulled: Superman (1978, dir. Richard Donner), one of the original summer blockbusters, and Caligula (1979, dir. Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione), a decadent, exploitative flop that has gone down as one of the worst films ever made.
Superman is slick, action-packed, cinematic in a very classical way, with lovingly photographed shots of Midwestern fields and city skylines set to a rapturous John Williams score. It embodies the principle that movies should be fun—grand entertainment—chases and hair-breadth escapes and things being spectacularly destroyed and some laughs and a girl. (In the era of the vapid, Pilates-ed, Botox-ed female star, it’s almost shocking to be reminded that “the girl” was once played by the likes of real-person Margot Kidder.) I say all of this having very much enjoyed watching the film for the first time last week. Meanwhile, Caligula stands for everything excessive and disastrous about 1970s film—its trashiness, its insatiable appetite for graphic sex and violence, its utter blindness to (or perhaps sheer disregard for) the standards of good taste. Caligula promises depraved pleasures—of images of naked bodies rent apart by knives and writhing in lust, of bodies drenched in blood and sweat, faces contorted in grimaces of ecstasy and pain. It reeks of too much money, too much sex, too many people. It is an “adults only” film, as opposed to the kid’s-movie appeal of Superman. I say this as someone generally disposed to enjoy a good, sleazy exploitation film but who found Caligula to be interminable and basically as noxious as it’s chalked up to be, if not quite as disturbing (Roger Ebert walked out “disgusted and unspeakably depressed”).
The common factor shared by Superman and Caligula is their bigness—their attempts to assume epic proportions. Superman, of course, was a box-office hit, whereas Caligula was a critical and commercial failure, for reasons too complicated and also perhaps too obvious to enumerate. But what’s interesting about the utterly-random-but-strangely-illuminating pairing of the two films is that both embody different aspects of the late-70s desire for spectacle, whether that spectacle is a throwback to the innocent childhood pleasures of Saturday matinees and comic books or an orgiastic, hours-long wallow in gore and sex dressed up as an historical epic. The lesson of Caligula seems to be that “exploitation” and “spectacle” don’t go together; exploitation films are small films, really, often short in length and inexpensively produced, and their appeal is lost when blown up to the size of a massive international co-production. The summer action movie, on the other hand, has (or at least had, in the 1970s and 80s) mastered spectacle, at understanding how to use size and scope, and how to play on perhaps more satisfying emotions. Caligula tries to cater to the tastes of “adults only” and fails; Superman makes its audience feel like kids again, and succeeds.