Cleopatra & Godzilla: With or Without Backstory?

Most decidedly epic.

Cleopatra arrives in Rome, photo from 1963’s Cleopatra, 20th Century fox

I had the opportunity to watch both the 1963 Cleopatra and 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters this month and found myself loving them both. They share eerie parallels. Both are expensive movies, which also were wildly popular despite getting horrid reviews. Both reflect on the past and are engrossing films, even if you bring no prior knowledge to the viewing. But both really pay off if you know the history outside the story and let that backstory clothe your experience, almost like an extra dimension. Trashy pinnacles of cinema; perfect for summer watching.

History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men…

Blue Oyster cult

The 26th Most Expensive Movie Ever Made

By the time Cleopatra premiered in 1963, the film had overspent its $5 million budget by somewhere between $20 and $39 million. The lavish Roman epics that were popularized in the 1950s were driving up costs, but films like Ben Hur, which were costly and well-received, paved the way for Cleo. Variety puts the ultimate cost of the 1963 Fox epic at $44 million, so even before it came to the screen, it was rumored to be a disaster. Cleopatra was a huge box office success, the highest-grossing film of the year at $57 million, but was considered to have lost money. As you watch the scene where Cleopatra enters Rome on a giant barge, flanked by hundreds of costumed dancers, you can’t help but hear *ca-ching* with every painted golden trumpet.

Yet at least in Cleo, you can see where the money went. In this helpful list by Wikipedia of the most expensive films ever made (scroll to the middle table, adjusted for inflation), Cleopatra at #26 is flanked by Wild, Wild West, Spectre, and Prince Caspian, all movies which couldn’t hold Liz Taylor’s size eight sandals.

The 1963 film was also infamous at the time for another reason unrelated to the film. Burton himself called it Le Scandale.

Liz & Dick on the set of Cleopatra 1963, photo by Paul Schutzer

Liz and Dick, the Original Brangelina

Liz had already broken up one Hollywood marriage by the time filming started on the new epic. She was called by some the most beautiful woman in the world, and whether you appreciated her acting or not, as Cleopatra you can’t take your eyes off her. One modern review describes her as “pretty scrummy in Egyptian softcore porn clothes” but her wiles go beyond the gauzy veils.

Taylor had won an Oscar a few years earlier for Butterfield 8 and would win another in a few more for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In fact, the reason it took me fifty years to watch Cleopatra is because it was hard for me to see Liz as anything other than the fright-wigged Martha from the later film. With enough time to re-objectify my opinion, I now find her over-the-shoulder haughtiness a perfect match for the character. Cleo, like Liz, had all eyes of the world on her, too, and had to navigate a world full of demanding old men with all the cunning and beauty she could muster.

How DARE you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!

Cleopatra, 1963

Yet the Liz and Dick attraction, parallel to those of the characters they played, ended up overshadowing the movie at the time. They broke up their own marriages with an affair obvious to the world, married a year later very lavishly and publicly, and ended divorcing, remarrying, and divorcing in a way that kept the tabloids solvent until Brad Pitt came along. Thus, when Antony first sits down with Cleo after Julius Caesar’s assassination, and she starts gazing at him with those violet eyes, and he starts drinking heavily… well, art imitates life imitates art, and it is delicious.

If you also come to watch the film without knowing ALL THAT, or even having forgotten ALL THAT, it’s still pretty good. Several contemporary reviewers point out that the director had in mind two three-hour movies but was forced by the studio to chop and edit until the single three hour version is a hash. To put it in words my spouse and the modern moviegoer would understand, imagine if you tried to smush Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame into a single three hour and forty minute blockbuster, oh, the horror!

Get Cleopatra off TCM, Netflix, or your local library and fire up the microwave popcorn as you ponder the key questions. How is Cleo going to seduce Julius, given that Caesar doesn’t respect Egyptian authority and is wise to the ways of young women and their fluttering eyelashes? What role will she play in Caesar’s assassination? If Antony is also wise to her tricks, why does he let her seduce him as well? Is Cleo just a femme fatale or does she use lust as a chesspiece? And how could you not have given Cleopatra an Oscar for Cinematography and Costume Design over How the West Was Won?

Movie poster, photo from Warner Bros

Godzilla has his Own History*

So we move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or do we? I once designated the Godzilla franchise and films like Mothra as So Bad It’s Good, but I have started to rethink that designation. Critical history has been kind to the Godzilla franchise, which after the making of this summer’s version, is now 35 movies. Certain of the entries don’t hold together, due to inane dialogue, cheesy special effects, or lack of action. But the original 1954 film and some of the spinoffs and remakes–especially this one–are effective as films for a number of reasons.

The underpinnings of the franchise are the imbalance that humans have brought to the earth. In 1954, this was represented by the nuclear threat, which the Japanese would have felt so deeply and personally in their culture. Each movie variation that pays homage to that underlying theme is successful. The ones that don’t simply use a problem=monster, solution=clever science+guns+other monsters formula.

Furthermore, each version that pays homage to the original films becomes richer to watch because you will naturally compare. Versions like the 1998 abomination with Matthew Broderick are simply stomping and shooting, a hash of special effects and dialogue with the G-man’s name pasted on the poster. The 2019 version, which reverberates continuously with reverence for Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and the Big Guy, succeeds in every way to live up to its predecessors.

Movie poster from the 1954 version with Raymond Burr pipesmoking, photo on Pinterest

Nature has a way sometimes of reminding Man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up terrible offsprings of our pride and carelessness to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake, or a Godzilla.

Raymond Burr repeating his role in Godzilla 1985

Godzilla Is at Heart a Morality Play

If the Japanese in 1954 needed to create a mythology that evoked the imbalance of their world, how much more do Americans need it in 2019? Climate change is wreaking its own havoc as we have barely attempted to respond, some still arguing about whether it exists and others content to leave the mess for future generations to clean up. This 2019 version plugs itself straight into those concerns, which lets the film put some meat in the dialogue. Humans play roles that affect the action and there are plot twists beyond Run, the monster is coming!

Sam Coleman: Senators, we believe that these titans are just the tip of the iceberg. Which of these titans are here to protect us, and which of these titans are here to threaten us?
Senator: So you’d want to make Godzilla our pet?
[the other senators laugh]
Dr. Ishiro Serizawa: No. We would be his.

From 2019 Godzilla, King of the Monsters

There’s even a nod to a distant past where humans might once have lived in some kind of truce or harmony with Godzilla and Friends. I couldn’t help but think of Egyptian hieroglyphs when the ancient carvings are revealed. History runs in cycles, where civilizations rise and fall. If we are not listening to the earth, are we not doomed to repeat some of the catastrophic failures? Rome ruled the known world once, and the sun never set on the British Empire. Are there not lessons in history, even in Godzilla’s history?

The ancients lived in harmony with Godzilla, photo from Warner Bros

The more I think about these two movies together, the more fun it becomes. For example, what if Cleopatra had been able to forge a partnership with a contemporary Godzilla? What if he was her Big Strong Man, so that she didn’t need to rely on those testosterone-driven generals to stay in power? Ah, but what if the Romans had then had their own variation–a Rodan or a Ghidorah?

Or what if we think of Cleopatra and her contemporaries as symbolized by these monsters, epic historical characters and epic cinematic characters? Is she Godzilla, reigning over the known universe? Definitely not. No, Cleopatra is Queen, which makes her Mothra. Surely any scene where the twin princesses and the costumed dancers are singing and praying to the giant monster cocoon could remind you of the dancers bowing before the royal Egyptian beauty. That would make Antony into the macho King Godzilla, wreaking virile havoc on a world that will not curb its excesses.

Together, they would have ruled the world…

*Full confession: I have my own Godzilla history, having once nearly won a costume contest with my alien garb from Monster Zero.

Photo of and by kajmeister

Beat the Dictionary

In 1936, the winning word was eczema. In 1967 and 1970, the words were chihuahua and croissant, commonly viewed words in TV ads for Eucrisa, Taco Bell, or Burger King.

Somewhere along in the 2000s is when the spelling bee contestants stepped up their game so much that the words became more difficult, less recognizable. In 2003: pococurante. 2011: cymotrichous. 2017: marocain.

2019 spelling bee winners
The eight winners of the 2019 Scripps spelling bee, photo by Erik Lesser

In 2019, as you may already have heard, there were eight winning words because the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee resulted in an eight-way tie. Just for the record, those words were Auslaut; erysipelas; bougainvillea; aiguillette; pendeloque; palama; cernuous; and odylic. I’d be surprised if you even recognize anything besides bougainvillea.

Social and technological changes have created a competition that seems otherwordly in difficulty, yet there are more ties and more winners than ever. Contestants hustle to cram as many words in practice as they can, use special computerized services, hire coaches, and reportedly spend 30 hours a week looking up the meanings of prospicience and antipyretic.

One question widely circulating is: Should we do anything about it?

Continue reading “Beat the Dictionary”

War Over the Thermostat

As hundreds of tornadoes blasted across the midwest this past week, the impact of climate change popped up in a more mundane but perhaps significant way in two New York Times articles about room temperature. A recent study found that energy consumption increases as you get older, especially quite old, meaning a lot older than I am right now. Another study showed clearly that women and men perform cognitively very differently depending on the temperature. Both of these studies suggest our battles over the up and down arrows on the thermostat are just beginning.

Over 70? Never Be Without a Snuggie

A study published in Energy Research and Social Science looked at the use of energy stratified by age, including impact from variables of income and housing size. The data from 1987 to 2009 used pseudo-cohorts, a sciency way of saying that the study was designed to look at age groups that changed over time. In other words, they looked at energy consumption by age, and they followed those age groups for about twenty years.

From “Age matters: Ageing and household energy demand in the United States” in Energy Research and Social Science, September 2019

Apparently young people don’t use as much household energy, most likely because they run around and live in small rooms, like dorm rooms. Multi-person families buy bigger houses, so that the entire family uses relatively more energy, which seems to pick near age 50. Energy use then decreases, but starts to drive upward again after age 70.

When the researchers added income to the model, the upward slope tipped even higher, meaning that having more income when you’re older magnified the impact. This wasn’t true for those under age 30, though. Whether income was included or not, people in their twenties don’t use as much energy, whether they can afford it or not. A lot of the increase in use as people get older was due to housing size, though not all of it.

Continue reading “War Over the Thermostat”

The Real Macbeth

When the hurly-burly’s done,
when the battle’s lost and won…


–Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act I: Sc 1: Line 3

Macbeth was a real guy. King of Scotland. Lived in a Castle near Inverness. Defeated Duncan and succeeded by Malcolm. Many things that Shakespeare used in his play were factually accurate. However, most of the characterizations of king Macbeth were historical gaffes.

Those of us who had to read Macbeth in high school, who had to diagram Shakespeare’s five act opening-climax-denouement cycle and to write papers about how Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his obsession with ambition, led to his downfall, were given the wrong impression. Macbeth the real King of Scotland (1040-1057), was not a murdering madman, but a far more complex, elusive, and interesting person whose true ambition may have been to unite Scotland.

Cawdor Castle
Cawdor Castle, formerly home to Macbeth, currently home to the Campbell’s.
Photo by kajmeister.
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Worlds Rebuilt (Crossing the Pond IV)

Near Cobh, Ireland
When in doubt, add a lighthouse. Entrance to Cobh, Ireland, photo by kajmeister

Humans have an urge to build things. Plop down on a sandy beach, and you start to create hills and draw designs. If your coffee shop booth has a stack of rectangular jam packets, you may soon be constructing a pyramid. Maybe you don’t call that building, but that’s semantics. We are busy creatures; we like to make things. When we want to, when we can, we like to remake them. In my trip across the Atlantic, we’re now touring spots near the English channel–at Guernsey, Cobh, Dublin, and Belfast–where I see this over and over.

Bunker Reborn

Guernsey is an island a spit’s distance off the coast of France, yet heavily affiliated with Britain. That is to say, it’s poised between Britain and France philosophically. The currency is the pound, the cars drive on the left side, and they sing God Save the Queen. Yet they live on streets called Rue de Felconte and de la Rocque Poisson, and the markets are full of croissants rather than scones. Actually, the markets are full of banks and real estate companies because, as our guide Ant put it, he’s “not allowed to tell us they’re a tax haven.” Because Guernsey is a tax haven, and the offshore money is rolling in.

New construction threads through the downtown area, St. Peter Port, slowly turning it from quaint to modernized. You can barely find any reminders here of the Nazi occupation that blanketed the island from June 1940 to May 1945. Children were evacuated; meat and other food was confiscated; 1000 residents were deported and sent to camps; prisoners brought in for construction were starved. What the Germans mainly seemed to do, in fact, was build bunkers. They built fortifications and towers and heavily-protected turrets and armories that apparently were never needed. Churchhill and the British ignored the island and went straight at Normandy when they were strong enough to take France back, and the island was too far away for Germany to use it as any kind of springpoint into England. Continue reading “Worlds Rebuilt (Crossing the Pond IV)”