Monday, September 26, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff vs. Cleopatra: A Legend by Hollywood

I'm thick into reading Stacy Schiff's recreation of first century BC Alexandria, the opulent Egyptian coastal city that was home to the ancient world's greatest library and a 300 foot tall lighthouse that brought home fleets of quinqueremes, war vessels powered by five tiers of rowing slaves. The city itself was dressed in walls of alabaster, ivory and red granite and played host to elephant parades, political intrigue and extravagant banquets served on gold plates and scented with incense. And ruling over all, the legendary Pharaoh Cleopatra.

Schiff's new biography Cleopatra: A Life tells a true story as wondrous as science fiction, of a woman ruler believed to be divine. Brutality, excess, and marriages between immediate family members were the rules of the game. Fratricide, filicide, uxoricide and all the the other -cides were commonplace in efforts to keep ultimate control of the country and its wealth.

Schiff's accounting of this world is astounding, not just by the jaw-dropping subject matter, but by her work of faithfully tracing the story itself. The record is full of holes, the ancient accounts colored by contradictions, slander and sexism. "As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman," writes Schiff, and Cleopatra's education and power proved so threatening to her first historians that her early image had to be smudged out, then recreated as that of a sexy vamp, a seductress of great beauty, luring great men to their doom with her kohl-lined eyes.

But that is the Myth, the kudzu of history, as Schiff describes it, that rushes in to fill where facts are absent.

There is little evidence that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but much that she was intelligent and well spoken. Rich, resourceful, flattering, clever and witty, yes. A sexy seductress? Eh.

The mythologizing of the history-makers works to diminish the pharaoh queen who in life was capable of raising armies while exiled in the Syrian desert. Making Cleopatra's sexuality the source of her power instead of her considerable intellect, inspired leadership, extensive education or natural talent reduces her to a less threatening figure to the male power structure. Making her a seductress makes her morally suspect.

Schiff: "What unsettled those who wrote her history was her independence of mind, the enterprising spirit." To the first century poet Lucan, she "whores to gain Rome."

Modern movies did not originate the Myth, but have done much to perpetuate it. In a 1999 TV miniseries, a young and sinuous Cleopatra makes rolling out of a rug in front of Caesar as sexy as a veil dance. No surprise that the HBO miniseries Rome has Mark Antony calling the queen a wh0re before they preside over throne room orgies.

Even the supposedly "educational" video, "How Beautiful Was Cleopatra?" from the UK's Open University uses overtired sexist stereotypes and Playboy-style silhouettes to make its Neanderthal point:

"She did what women have done for centuries: used her sexuality to manipulate men."

While many films have exaggerated Cleopatra's sexual powers to the diminishment of her intellect, one movie seems to have gotten at least part of her culture correct - the opulent Alexandrian spectacle of which she, as one of the richest women in history, wholeheartedly took part.

I saw Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1963 production of Cleopatra years ago and all I remembered was

1) it was long;

2) it was overwrought;

3) it had less kitschy pleasures than my favorite sword and sandal epic, The Ten Commandments;

4) the two stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, began their tumultuous relationship on set, although both were married at the time; and

5) the excessive budget nearly bankrupt the 20th Century Fox studio. (Actually, the film recouped its $44 million budget - about $300 million today when adjusted for inflation - after a few years of theatrical and TV showings.) And...

6) ...there was this one scene, where Cleopatra makes a dramatic entrance in front of the Romans. The pageantry was out of control, with a wild parade of animals, dancing girls, colored smoke, a bird flock release and hundreds of men pulling a Sphinx-like parade float bearing Cleopatra and her young son dressed in gold. The first time I saw it, the scene looked to me like wildly inaccurate Hollywood exaggeration.

What a surprise to read in Schiff that Mankiewicz got it about right. She describes an Alexandrian parade: "a Dionysian procession had introduced gilded twenty-foot floats to the city streets, each requiring 180 men to coax it along. Purple-painted satyrs and gold-garlanded nymphs followed, along with allegorical representations of kings, gods, cities, seasons....Fires erupted and died down; lights flickered from statues' eyes; trumpets blared spontaneously." Seems the only thing anachronistic in this movie scene was Elizabeth Taylor's wink!

It has been refreshing to read Schiff's revision of Cleopatra's Myth that parses the legend into less simplistic likelihood. I can't wait to see what she does with the bacchinalia and the asp.

You can read more posts about Cleopatra: A Life here. I received a copy of the book from the publisher with no obligation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Christina Haglid & Friends at the Architrouve Gallery

Dear friend Christina has a new show opening this Friday at the Architrouve gallery, with two of her fellow fine art conservationists from Joel Oppenheimer.

From the gallery: "The attention to meticulous detail as a conservator combined with ... intuitive skills of an artist exemplifies the three superior artists exhibiting for the first time together."

Christina's paintings are mysterious and mesmerizing, based on minute observation of the natural world that produces images so intense, they are nearly spiritual. A purple flower of the herb borage, lit by the glow of a paper lantern and suspended over water; a ghostly boat under a foreboding sky; stardust and cellular membranes. Her watercolors compel us to consider the slightest tug of a silken strand, the hush of waves, stillness.

She has recently expanded her usual tiny canvas by several inches - I teased her and asked her if she had to start using brushes with more than five hairs.

The show runs through November 18th. Come see her beautiful work.

Meticulous Detail: Conservator's Paintings. The Architrouve, 1433 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Michigan Vacation With Kids: Saugatuck

Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

Feeling a little Simonion nostalgia for our Big Trip, after all, it was a whole month ago and the details are getting soft. No man in a gabardine suit, but there was a bit of "I'm lost," while everyone was sleeping. Oh, you know me; there's always some falling down. But most of the days and nights were very happy; I'm flying high on progesterone which made the whole trip possible (I will save the TMI medicinal details for another post.)

Small towns sometimes give me the Been There Done Thats, (Love ya, Delavan!) but Saugatuck just keeps getting better and better. Of course it is our gatekeepers, dear cousin Sally and her lovely hubbie Erik, who enrich and deepen our time with dollops of family love, local culture and stories from the front lines of small town life.

Erik is a part time first responder for the fire department, (his pager took him out of bed five times the Saturday night we arrived but he was sweet and amiable as ever over breakfast the next morning at the Elbow Room) and Sally does design and cheerleading for the historical society and the chamber of commerce so they both have their hands deep in the good stuff of this beautiful arts and agriculture community.

There's news of a big developer from Oklahoma trying to buy up land north of town, (he offered one landowner with acres of untouched nature the grand sum of one meeellion dollars.) There's a drive to save a Douglas root beer stand from the '50s, built from 110 curved redwood staves in the shape of a giant barrel.

(I'm always tickled at how the characters in the small town stories keep cycling through - like a play with a big cast but few actors who are compelled to play multiple parts. The guy who runs the dune ride, the restaurant owner, the fire chief, all keep reappearing wearing different hats. The mayor catered the wedding of my friend Chris, who has a summer house here, and who, to my thrill, I ran into when we were both taking morning runs along beautiful Lakeshore Drive.)

Sally's current projects (of many!) include the design of The Village Table, "a delicious history of food in the Saugatuck-Douglas area" including stories of a 1917 fried muskrat banquet (sauerkraut on the side) and plenty of yummy contemporary recipes from local restaurants. Drunken Shrimp Sambuca from Everyday People, anyone?

The Village Table devotes an entire chapter to that local favorite, ice cream, and after dinner on Saturday, Sally gave the girls a plastic baggie and helped them pour in sugar, half and half and some vanilla extract. They sealed up the bags, then placed them in larger baggies with salt and ice. We helped the girls squeeze and pummel their bags and five minutes later, voila! Ice cream!

Can you guess how much the girls love coming here?

Sunday was rainy, so we took the girls to the Express Yourself Art Barn where the girls happily painted ceramics under cheery Christmas lights and giggled as they slurred the name of the place. The barn door was open to a view of the cool rain and a gorgeous Midwest garden in bloom.

The sun had reappeared by the time we were finished so we headed for the historical museum on the shore of the beautiful Kalamazoo River streaming north on its way to Lake Michigan. We parked at the base of the 323 step staircase that takes you over the wooded dune to gorgeous Oval beach. Sally thought the stairs would be too much for little Nora and I agreed, but guess who was the first one to the top?

Her bolt up Mount Baldy caught up with her later, though, after the chain ferry and the ice cream and trampoline-bungie jumping. Nora slept for two hours in Randy's lap while Mia and I walked to the Douglas Beach to dip our toes in.

At our modern Saugatuck rental house, there was a big screen TV but no cable. A DVD player and a single Lars Von Trier DVD. I found this really funny. So did Erik, who knows the gloominess of the auteur who defies the bonhomie of the rest of Denmark.

Dune ride views. Developers are drooling to turn this land into a gated community.

Chain ferry! We loved the guy with the propeller hat.

I'm pulling the chain ferry! I loved the chance to slip in a bicep workout.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Tree of Life

(You can whisper this review to get the aural feel of The Tree of Life. Not that the narration of Terrence Malick's film made any sense. Words are only there as a vehicle for the narrator's solemnity.)

A child walks down the middle of a small town street at dusk.

The camera floats behind him, before him.

A woman caresses the boy's shoulder, his closely shorn head.

Tilt up to new spring leaves in a tangle of tree branches.

A face of pain.

Laughter for no discernible reason.

A woman runs and plays with her children, with no cares, no chores, no friends, no inner life except that of the joy and pain her sons and husband give her, no connection to the actual life actual women live.

A man who cannot escape being The Movie Star Brad Pitt moves through the frame as the father. His face shares the same lines as the boys', but harder, embedded in failure and bitterness, uneraseable, unforgiveable and unforgiving.

The suburban streets of 1950's Waco, Texas, but never in the heat, only the soft air of spring twilight.

The mother's perfect period dresses. Plaid, pink, oversized buttons.

Light on a river.

I sit in the theater and I think, Watching this film is not entertainment. There is no diversion here, or escape. None of the typical rhythms of Hollywood - setup, punch, setup, punch. This is work. This is beauty; this is Art with a capital "A."

I know Malick took over an entire neighborhood in a small Texas town, sent the residents away and shot hundreds of hours of improvised footage, just searching for "the unrepeatable moment." The way the boys and their parents move in the home and yard and street reminds me of paper dolls being bounced around by a child in aimless play.

Cut after cut after jarring cut from street to backyard to frog to pained face to garden to wandering figures in a green, deserted landscape. People in rooms full of light and empty of life.

The mother gets a telegram and weeps.

Sean Penn in a cityscape. Sean Penn's silent, nameless woman.

Vague words on the soundtrack. Something something something about grace or knowledge. Nothing clear enough to be poetry nor plot, except Sean Penn's voice saying: "My brother died when he was nineteen years old."

The film takes on the shape of grief. The initial chaos. The flood of memories. The search for meaning.

Attempted comfort from an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, that only deepens the pain on the mother's face: "You still have the other two boys."

Babies. Toddlers. Mother's kisses, Brad Pitt's wonder at a baby foot.

And then.

An enormous flock of black birds, fluid as mercury, undulating, glittering, amazing. A shot worth the entire film.

Lava. Smoke. Worlds beginning. Glowing cells. Hordes of life. One hundred hammerhead sharks shot from below, silhouetted against the glowing surface of water. A glistening sea dinosaur at rest on the sand at the moment the sun has slipped below the horizon.

The film comes alive for me. After great loss, this is the only place to go, to the place of greatest abstraction, back to the beginning of beginnings, to the ends of time, in search of answers that are not there, but must be pursued, nonetheless.

I grab Randy's hand -- he had been sucked in from the first moment, he tells me later, but that's him, the image guy while I'm the word girl. Our compared experiences later were almost opposite -- my slow warm up, his problems with last half hour, my appreciation of the moment when Sean Penn meets himself as a child.

"Why is that woman walking down the middle of the street?" I had whispered to Randy, exasperated, before the dinosaurs won me over. His answer, from one who works with beauty shots every day of the working week, "Why is that woman walking down the street? The tree canopy looks the best there. Don't look for logic." He could hardly believe I asked the question.

And it is a man's film, after all, much time spent with boys wandering through overgrown alleys, their random innocent violence born out of boredom and experimentation. Themes of a father's terrible love for his sons, a boy's adoration of his mother.

I understand Cannes giving the film the Palme d'Or; I also understand my sister-in-law in Orlando laughing her head off at the entire thing.