A Roman Orgy | Cinema Year One

Credit: Gaumont

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Tom Atkinson

The day I began writing this essay, I spent the morning listening to Billie Eilish in my iTunes window, reading a book on Japanese film scholarship in the first half of the 20th century on a PDF for my dissertation, and intermittently checking off my daily tasks in my Notes app, before circling back to the Eilish album and curiously searching up what Robert Christgau said about it when it dropped. An email notification appeared in the top corner of my screen informing me of some Galaxy Quest (1997) screenings at the newly reopened Prince Charles Cinema. All this happened within the however-many-square-inches my laptop screen takes up in my field of vision, which I’d brought to my university library to do my first bit of out-of-house work in many a month. 

In the afternoon, I opened YouTube and watched two time-lapse videos before finding Louis Feuillade’s 1911 short film A Roman Orgy. Sitting in the recommended videos sidebar were a human-interest video about a man in an iron lung; the Matthew McConaughey lunch scene from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); a World War II training film from an archive channel; and a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) with 153,000 views. The transfer on YouTube is surprising for featuring decent music – most silent films restored for the modern day are so heinously soundtracked that I have to find looped stock music to play underneath, or simply mute the thing altogether. It’s also one of multiple Feuillade films on the platform, though you wouldn’t know from typing ‘roman orgy’ in the search bar, as I naively did when first seeking it. The impression you would get instead is that the French fantastical realist was a director of softcore pornography and amateur nude videos, all of which are cobbled together into playlists with titles helpfully supplemented by exclamations of “*HD1080P*” and “Uncensored”. 

Then again, Feuillade was a prolific creative. If some lost Feuillade porno serial were unearthed, it would be unsurprising given that he made a staggering 80 films a year between 1905 and 1914. His turn as a filmmaker coincided with the shift from programmes featuring dozens of short film strips to the more conventional feature film that was the norm in exhibition. In recent years, of course, media ecology has mutated into a multi-valent environment both inside and outside the movie theatre on screens large and small. Yet, there is something in Feuillade’s work generally that parallels the current state of cinephilia quite strikingly. There’s the obvious comparison between his multi-layered, innovative serial films like Fantômas (1913-14) and the endless franchise shenaniganising of the Marvel films. But there is also something drawing together the 1911 viewing experience with the very same 110 years later, exemplified in the particular conditions of watching A Roman Orgy on YouTube.

A moral tale in the tradition of classic myths, and with all the debauchery one might expect from such a thing within 1911’s social constraints, A Roman Orgy concerns the last days of pampered, bratty, teenage Roman empress Heliogabalus. Her exploits (reportedly, Heliogabalus preferred female pronouns, sufficient reason for me to refer to her as ‘empress’) were far wilder than Feuillade suggests. She would play-act as a sex worker to solicit the queer gaze of her male staff, and would probably not have you in her immediate circle of friends if you couldn’t perform sexually. Here, the empress is merely a cis man engaging in such transgressive acts as – egad! – watching a woman dancing fully-clothed and listening to music.

In this case, Heliogabalus merely runs a debauched court of giggling drunkards, by Feuillade’s measure, who are only to be met with their comeuppance by the empress’ own hand. After feeding a handmaid to a pack of lions for carelessly scratching the empress during a nail-clipping session, said felines are then released onto unsuspecting revellers. The empress is then dispatched by soldiers fed up with the tomfoolery of her reign.

Feuillade’s compositions have the beauty and clarity of paintings. Figures are arranged along axes vertical and horizontal, along a spectrum from close up to far in the distance for a series of shots with immense depth and structure. He is keen to maintain that painterly orderliness, too – movement is employed very precisely and only as necessary to give these illustrations of reality texture and momentum. There is a humming bustle of crowd activity underlying almost all the frames, but when movement becomes more pronounced, it is always with purpose. When the empress brings one of her favourite dancers through the frame, for example, this movement ends with a new configuration of the characters in the shot, the moving figure having filled a precise gap in the tableaux. Meanwhile, if there is crowd movement, it is synchronised, with the flair and energy of dance or theatre, filling spaces Feuillade has strategically left in the frame for them before emptying it again. Even on YouTube, where quality is a real Russian roulette of 360p duds and 1080p silver bullets and where Feuillade’s crisp frames become abstractions of pixelated colour smeared across the screen, it’s not hard to see his gift for beautified configuration. (Cursory searches indicate that the cleanest version one can see of this film is as an extra on Artificial Eye’s DVD release of Les Vampires [1915].)

By the time the Gaumont-adorned “THE END” card appears, YouTube has already decided what I will watch next, even as I have opted to let it decide. The autoplay button is perhaps the most potent symbol for the inherent tension in computer usage between the autonomy of the user and their subservience to a processing system that can do a million things faster than any human can do just one. Am I doing the 2021 equivalent of buying a ticket to a picture show by pressing autoplay and letting YouTube do the work for me? Is that little grey button, a binary on/off function, the modern-day programmer? 

The short answer is, of course not. I can change tack any time I want, and I did, almost immediately taking a trip to the home kitchen of Houston-based YouTube chef Joshua Weissman, Food YouTube’s resident film bro (you can ultimately agree that a homemade wagyu burger or a Martin Scorsese film is probably “better” than a Big Mac or Scooby Doo [2002], but you just wish he’d calm down about it, you know?) But the longer answer, though it is also “no”, still erases the sort of boundaries and restraints – geography, how much time one can spare, the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow – that defined the classic role of the cinema programmer. 

Not only that, but in 1911, a projectionist would know the film’s end was in sight by the film strip’s sharp-tongued edge flying towards the projector. In 2021, it’s when the viewer themself sees the grey buffer bar gets overwhelmed by the signature bright YouTube red. We are the makers of our own cinematic destiny, so to speak. And what of the inhuman recommendations of the algorithm, jazzed up with phrases such as “We think you’ll like…” to make it a little chummier? There’s certainly something of that intuitive finger-on-pulse clairvoyance that comes with being a truly cutting-edge programmer, knowing what an audience might like before they’ve even made the choice to book a ticket. But, while a programmer could absorb statistics into their programming, the algorithm is all numbers and pure process. It’s almost too exact, and borne solely of capitalist interests without the human factor. A real programmer might have to compromise between the two, but better there was some of the latter than none of it at all. 

How then to take this move towards being our own programmers? Programming is a key curatorial function in film culture, the human conduit that, in its most idealistic sense, would filter out the shit while also reflecting the idiosyncrasies of both the programmers themselves and the audience they have hopefully cultivated. (Case in point: the forward- and fast-thinking team at Another Screen, who had an entire season of films made by Palestinian women on their platform less than a fortnight after the Israeli storming of the al-Aqsa mosque.) But when the most established programming minds in this country – the BFI – can get away with an entire musicals season without a single Indian picture, and the screenings I’ve leapt at most readily have been the result of reaching out to other people, the utility of being one’s own programmer becomes all the more apparent.

Not only that, but the interconnectivity of our viewing, only now becoming diversified again in practice with the reopening of movie screens, allows for any viewer to forage for details external to the film itself. Trivia, cultural references, good criticism if you know where to look – without these, A Roman Orgy is a handsomely shot ethics tale by the then-head of Gaumont studio. But in context, it becomes a strangely conservative, edge-smoothing portrait of an empress who, by all accounts, was a fascinating, multi-layered public figure, whose sexual openness and queerness was only matched by her unrelenting cruelty towards those she disliked (the bit in the film about lions being unleashed on guests is, supposedly, true). Then there’s the opportunity to go further, to finally start working one’s way through Fantômas or Les Vampires, or to keep on the theme of Roman luridness and find Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979), which sits in truncated form on the pornography website xHamster. Or, like me, you can go back to those time-lapse videos where someone has taken a picture of themselves every day for 20 years, going literal on the time-travelling aspect of interconnected viewing that can send one back to the Roman empire, to 1911, or to last week. The choice, thankfully, is yours. 

This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rachel Rabbit White at Vice, whose article ‘The Queer Roman Orgy Where Everyone Was Suffocated By Rose Petals’ provided the background detail for Heliogabalus.

A previous version of this essay inaccurately recounted remarks by AS Hamrah. It has since been updated to remove reference to Hamrah entirely, as the inaccuracy changed parts of the essay.