January 26th, 2017

hand of isis

Finding Alexandria

The month before I turned five years old, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Cleopatra aired on US network tv.  The movie was ten years old then, but it had been a great sensation and if my parents had seen it in the theater, that was ten years ago.  (Remember, there were no VCRs or DVDs in 1973 -- you watched things when they aired or not at all.)  I suppose they started talking about it when the TV Guide came, deciding that they were going to have a movie night after my sister and I had gone to bed.  We were plopped in (a little early, I thought) and told to go to sleep.  Which my sister did promptly.  I, on the other hand, knew something was afoot.  And if it was something only for grown ups, it must be too cool for kids.  I gave them a few minutes to decide we were asleep and then snuck downstairs.  If you sat on the third step from the bottom and peeked through the metal stair rail, you could see the tv over the backs of the big people on the couch, but they wouldn't see you unless they turned around.  This was my plan, and just in time because the movie was starting.

It opened with the credits, the names of actors superimposed over pictures of places and things rendered weathered, as though they were old paper left out in the rain.  It was interesting, but not that much.  It was hard to see what the pictures were or what the people were doing.  They were static, drawings in a storybook, not real.  And then.  And then there was that moment when the drawing faded into reality, into glorious technicolor, soldiers burning their dead on pyres and an urgent messenger arriving.  Not dead.  Not a storybook.  A bunch of men talked about people I'd never heard of and decided things and then we were back to the pictures again and the ponderous voice over.  A ship's sail spread with an eagle upon it, and Mr. Narrator intoning, "Just as the Romans, the Egyptians also made war upon one another."  Then the magic again -- the sail belled, filling with wind.  The galley was real, rounding the point with the Great Lighthouse, Alexandria spreading out before it full of living people, all in glorious technicolor.

Real.  Vivid.  The shiver that ran down my spine -- I can still feel it.  I can still feel the metal of the stair rail in my hands, poking my face out through it to see better.  I was utterly transfixed.  I wanted to step through the screen, to go there.  To be in that place that must be as real as my grandparents' house or the grocery store, somewhere real but just not here.  I wanted to be in that story.

I crouched there on the third step all the way through the first half and a bit. I remember Cleopatra's farewell to Antony at the boat on the Tiber after Caesar's death.  I was crying for Caesar, trying to be quiet, but I remember thinking, "This scene isn't right at all.  Antony shouldn't be there and it should be scary and rushed, not dignified and sad.  I wouldn't tell the story this way."  I remember Cleopatra's arrival in Tyre with her fleet, and how hard it was not to bounce up and down on the step and make noise because yes!  That was perfect and beautiful and oh to walk into that scene!  And then the banquet.  I remember thinking that some of this food had to be cooked ashore because seriously?  Roasts and sautes, maybe, but someone whispered in the back of my head, even I can't cook cheesecakes on a galley!

And then I got caught.  One of the big people turned around and saw me, so I was marched unceremoniously back to bed.  "Don't you realize it's almost ten o'clock!"  I didn't see the end, not that time.

The next day I tried to draw it, but I couldn't.  My not quite five year old hands couldn't make the crayons produce Alexandria or Rome in technicolor.  All they produced were boxes with columns in front and some Christmas tree looking plants and smiling stick people with the right colored hair.  I showed them to my father and told him what I was trying to draw.  He got out a book of his, or maybe it was an issue of National Geographic, and showed me a two page spread -- the ruins of the Palace of Minos on Crete on one side and the artist's rendering of the palace as it had looked on the other.  Wow.  Oh wow.  "But how does the artist know what to draw?"  My father explained that archaeologists dig up ruins, and for some places there are also descriptions of them that were written in the past, and then the artist uses this information to bring the place to life.

Magic.  Utter magic.  "I want a time machine," I said.  My dad said, "The artist's imagination is a time machine.  The artist takes what he or she sees in their mind and turns it into something that everyone can see.  Dead people and places are gone, but art can make them live again.  A drawing, a movie, a book.  Art can resurrect the past so that anyone can step into it."

To make the past live again.  To make a door that you can step through and be there.  "That's what I want to do," I said.