Jul 20, 2015
If Federico Fellini had been an autistic British queer with next to nil artistic talent living abroad in NYC during the late 1970s, and attempted to adapt Satyricon using his uniquely untalented dope-addled degenerate friends as actors and a couple East Village apartment and pseudo-classical landmarks as settings, it might begin to describe the unsurprisingly forgotten, ludicrously low-camp micro-epic Rome ’78 (1978) directed by British painter James Nares (TV Faces, No Japs at My Funeral). Best remembered today as a footnote in American underground filmmaking history than a revolutionary piece of cinematic art, Nares’ first (and last) narrative feature is considered a landmark work of the so called No Wave Cinema, which was a highly derivative and obscenely overrated NYC film movement that probably contributed less to the (de)evolution of the art of cinema than Robert Redford or Whoopi Goldberg. A virtual who’s who of late-1970s dope-addled NYC hipsterdom, Rome ’78 features actor/filmmaker Eric Mitchell (Underground U.S.A., The Way It Is), lecherous lard ass Lydia Lunch, musician James Chance (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), actor and musician John Lurie (Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law), platinum blonde East Village diva Patti Astor, and homo proto-reality-TV star Lance Loud, among various other sub-popular figures of the then somewhat artistically incestous ‘No Wave’ scene. Notable for being “the first and only No Wave epic,” Nares’ one-time excursion into Super-8 feature films is easily the most superlatively shitty and compulsively campy ‘sword-and-sandal’ flick ever made as a work that unequivocally proves that the (anti)aesthetic of Andy Warhol and the man that made his films, Paul Morrissey, can be utilized for making epic costume films. In fact, Nares would confess in an interview with The Village Voice regarding his glaring influences, “I think the films I was most thinking about then were the Warhol/Morrissey films—LONESOME COWBOYS, TRASH, that sort of thing.” Indeed, like the shot-on-video Tennessee Williams adaptations of proud ‘aesthetic nihilist’ John Aes-Nihil (The Drift, Suddenly Last Summer), Rome ’78 can be described as one of the true bastard (anti)cinematic bastards of the Factory brand of films. Like the early costume films of Derek Jarman (Sebastiane, The Tempest) stripped bare and lacking the high-camp aesthetic integrity and hyper homoeroticism, Nares’ film is riddled with botched lines, obnoxious unintentional laughter, and the in-camera flash-frames that are a grating signature quality of the early Warhol-Morrissey projects like My Hustler (1965) and Bike Boy (1967). Despite featuring the aesthetic grace of wino vomit, Rome ’78 is, for better or worse, one of the true ‘classic’ films of the almost wholly disposable No Wave Cinema movement and thus is a must-see film for any cinephile that is masochistic enough to endure it. Indeed, if you enjoy toothless art fags slurring marvelously moronic dialogue, posturing homo hipster man-children trying in vain to resemble heroic Roman soldiers, Lydia’s Lunch’s unclad thunder thighs, and non-fratboy oriented toga parties where the only ones probably giving head are the men, Nares’ film is probably for you.
While seemingly ceaselessly stupid and senseless on the surface, Rome ’78 ultimately features a triple-layer allegorical critique of the decadence of three different cultures, including (but probably not limited to) the ancient Roman Empire, the post-counterculture American plutocracy/pseudo-empire, and the No Wave movement itself, with the latter obviously seeming like the most hopelessly decadent and depraved of them all. Not featuring a single drop of testosterone during its over-extended 80-minute running, Nares’ film is delightfully and distastefully tongue-in-cheek to the core in its flagrant, flaming American fag approach to Roman decadence, as a work that ultimately makes Tinto Brass’ abortive Gore Vidal adaptation Caligula (1979) starring Malcolm McDowell seem like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). While featuring a bodaciously bitchy and insanely infantile dictator antagonist that likes little boy dicks named Caesar, Rome ’78 is clearly an aberrosexual cinematic molestation of the tragic story of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (aka Emperor Caligula), who has always been the victim of ahistorical cinematic obloquy, but never to such a uniquely unflattering extent. Indeed, the so-called ‘Caesar’ of Nares’ film is a literal motherfucker and prissy pederast portrayed by ‘visual artist’ David McDermott (of the duo McDermott & McGough, which is best known for using various archaic 19th-century style photography processes) who screams about realizing his deluded dreams which involve, among other things, Bolshevik-esque methods of genocide and theft. Partly filmed illegally on private property (Nares would pose as a potential renter and would unlock the windows in buildings so that he and his crew could break into the apartments later and film their scenes), as well as neoclassical tourist attractions in NYC like Ulysses S. Grant's tomb, Tribeca's American Thread Building, and a couple places that look too elegant and aesthetically pleasing to be located in the rotten Big Apple, Rome ’78 is ultimately a particularly potent reminder that aesthetic autism has always been an innate characteristic of American underground cinema. Featuring a somewhat obvious combination of both scripted dialogue and wayward acting and inexplicable dialogue that was improvised right on the spot, the film was notably described by filmmaker Nares in the documentary Blank City (2010) directed by Celine Danhier as a work where, “I typecast my friends in roles where they could sort of act out what was going on in their real lives in a way.” Indeed, it is quite apparent while watching Rome ’78 that Nares had certain ‘Superstars’ in mind when he assembled the film, which bleeds a certain collective ‘scenester’ excess and all around degeneracy that one can only assume epitomized the post-punk No Wave scene.
A former slave turned glorious Roman soldier with a low IQ but lofty intentions named Metellus (Eric Mitchell) is scheming to overthrow the government and murder young degenerate Emperor Caligula (David McDermott) with the help of some campy conspirators, or as he brags to a comrade, “Just between you and me, I don’t give a shit about Caesar. Nothing could be more convenient to me than the disappearance of that little brat.” Metellus is fucking Caligula’s wanton wife Lydia Lunch (who stoically states, “My marriage was just a formality”), but the emperor couldn't care less because, as the Roman soldier says, “Besides his sister, he only really likes boys.” Indeed, proud widower Metellus cannot get enough of the Empress’ “imperial ass” and she is more than willing enough to give it, so long as the philistine soldier feeds her grapes when not plowing her puss. When Caligula sees Metellus and his wife lying together, he is far from angered and instead cries like an autistic toddler, “No one likes me anymore” in the hopes of being comforted by his apathetic ladylove. Metellus uses the opportunity to berate Caligula for the decline of the Roman economy and then argues regarding his own plans to fix things, “We’re thinking about going into the business of selling the Roman way of life.” Assumedly stealing his ideas from the bolshevik playboy, Caligula argues that he plans to fix the economy be killing all Roman children and then forcing their parents to give the Roman Empire their inheritance, arguing, “They’ll be so happy the emperor came to visit them and then they will die.” Indeed, Caligula immediately begins carrying out the plan by rounding up children and slaughtering them, but it ultimately proves to be a bad idea because it just gives his people more reason to welcome his seemingly inevitable assassination. While having his soldiers arrest young children, including newborn babies, Caligula proudly declares he is the only one in Rome that is allowed to wear purple and then proudly states, “I’m the only baby in the room” when all the kids have been cleared out.
As a supremely infantile megalomaniac that loves hearing the sound of his own superlatively gay voice, Caligula likes standing outside and screaming things like “I am the Emperor of the universe” and that he is a “god” that “owns everyone” because he created them in a “dream.” Unfortunately for him, no one seems to listen to Caligula, which probably has to do with the fact that he is an incest-inclined pederast who has been cuckolded by an ex-slave. When an eastern empress named Queen of Sheba (Anya Phillips) shows up with her own personal fuckboy (musician James Chance) and attempts to create a merger with Rome and her all the more backward nation, Caligula immediately blows her off, stating, “No one can join with Rome. Rome is too great," and then complains that slaves outnumber civilians and asks for troops. Apparently, Sheba is desperate to join Rome because her own nation is being overrun with a cancerously growing slave population, which absolutely disgusts Caligula as indicated by his remark to the empress, “Well, I have to admit a nation run with slaves would be most distasteful.” Meanwhile, John Lurie, who thinks he is Jesus Christ, laments regarding the current sorry state of Roman art that it is certainly also true for the No Wave movement, “Our artists are the worst.” Later, while hanging out with Mr. Lurie, Caligula goes on an insane tirade and screams while sounding like a lovelorn poof who has just discovered that his size queen beau has just cheated on him with an AIDS-ridden Puerto Rican, “If my fantasy does not rule, Rome will decay…And the trash and the filth and the garbage of the barbaric tribes will sweep into my city and everyone’s civilization will end…And the beauty and the culture that has been handed down from century to century will be lost…Lost to idiots and morons.” Of course, since Caligula’s “fantasy” involves cross-dressing and buggering little boys, it is nothing compared to the moronic martial prowess of Mettelus, who plans to take out the gutter queen posing as an eternal emperor for once and for all.
Needless to say, when Mettelus is told by a stunning blonde beastess named Octavia (played by Patti Astor) that “someone…is after your blood” and “It seems that there is a price on your head,” he decides he needs to take decisive action and carry out his Game of Thrones-esque coup d’état. Knowing that various factions want him murdered, Caligula decides to fake his own death by telling everyone in Rome that he was murdered in his sleep. Before faking his death, Caligula’s brother attempts get him to runaway with him, pleading, “We can’t die. If we die, we’ll kill the empire ourselves. They’re going to murder us now. We have to sustain the life of the empire. Somehow through it all, we are gods. We have to survive,” but the Emperor refuses, stating, “Why didn't you tell me this when we were six years old? Why did you wait until I killed twenty million people to ask me to go live on a farm with you?!” After it is announced that the Emperor has died, Caligula appears in drag under the name “The Deity Venus” and then proceeds to have a couple of his enemies murdered, including John Lurie/Jesus Christ. Caligula-as-Venus also rebukes Metellus, bitching to him, “How dare you want to sexually abuse the emperor. How dare you, you piss. How dare you want to use the emperor like a woman […] You can’t have the emperor…You can’t.” Needless to say, macho Mettelus is hardly impressed with Caligula’s queen-ish spiel. After killing the Emperor’s guard and virtually everyone else, Metellus asks “Who’s next?” and proceeds to murder Caligula, who pathetically pleads, “I’m only six years old. I’m just a baby.” Using his trusty sword, Metellus proceeds to slaughter Caligula and then shoves his weapon in his mouth like it is a giant cock. While taking the phallic sword in his mouth, Caligula cries, “I’m still alive,” but Mettelus makes sure to inform him, “You’re dead.”
Notably, auteur James Nares would brag in an article for The New York Observer regarding an audience response after a screening of Rome ’78, “I heard laughter, which was good […] I think I saw people leave and then they came back again. Very encouraging. This was not very well received and we intended it that way,” thus reflecting his hopelessly hipster-like mentality when it comes to his intentionally lackluster style of filmmaking Somewhat fittingly, Nares seems to consider the film to be nothing more than old news as indicated in an interview with The Village Voice where he stated, “It's my only attempt at a narrative film with actors. It has its moments—quite funny at times, quite beautiful at times, too. But it doesn't interest me so much now.” Personally, I consider Rome ’78 to be, at the very least, one of the ‘masterpieces’ of the No Wave Cinema movement. It should be noted that virtually all of the greatest films associated with the movement were directed by foreigners, including the campy WWII ‘thriller’ The Long Island Four (1980) directed by Swedish twink Anders Grafstrom and starring Klaus Nomi as a Nazi spy, as well as French-born filmmaker Eric Mitchell’s Underground U.S.A. (1980) and The Way It Is (1985) starring a very young Vincent Gallo. Unlike the later works associated with the movement like those of Scott B and Beth B (who helped spawn the innately inferior ‘Cinema of Transgression’ movement), Nares and Grafstrom’s films rely on attitude and gutter grade comedy as opposed to cheap and sensational sex and violence, among other banal beaten-to-death things. While Nares never directed another narrative feature, he did direct some video art work, as well as the fairly worthwhile and brilliantly title documentary No Japs at my Funeral (1980), which features a candid interview with an IRA member. Despite being a decidedly decadent piece of innately amateurish celluloid swill that is ultimately as debasing as the dying cultures it criticizes, Rome ’78 is ultimately of Spenglerian proportions as far as No Wave Cinema is concerned, thus making it a work worthy of following in the lo-fi cinematic tradition of it's proudly conservative influence Paul Morrissey. While not exactly depicted from a flagrant conservative angle like Morrissey’s film, Nares’ micro-budget epic surely manages to express the worst of the worst in terms the particular zeitgeist it belongs to. Indeed, as a work that features homely perennial whore Lydia Lunch as an empress, a frog wimp like Eric Mitchell as the most macho and murderous of Roman warriors, a toothless raging queer queen portraying Caligula, and various deadbeat dope-addled NYC art fags standing around and talking about nothing while acting as the supposed movers and shakes of the Great Roman Empire, Rome ’78 indubitably demonstrates that Sir Nares was quite right when he stated regarding No Wave Cinema in the documentary Blank City, “I do think that…the movies were somehow, all about New York…Even when they were about ancient Rome.” I almost hate to state it but, despite being a totally tasteless piece of hipster trash, Nares' film is ultimately even more effective than Fellini Satyricon (1969) when it comes to making parallels between the decadence of the Roman Empire and the contemporary Occident and especially NYC. Additionally, I not only had more fun watching Rome ’78 than the obscure Fellini rip-off Satyricon (1969) aka The Degenerates starring Tina Aumont, but also Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) and virtually any other Hollywood sword-and-sandal or Italian peplum epic that I have ever seen. After all, when I see a man sporting a dress, it better be for comedic effect, even if he is portraying some sort of genocidal Roman dictator.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:12 AM
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