1963’s Cleopatra is famous for all the wrong reasons. A disaster movie not because of what happens on-screen but rather due to what unfolded behind the camera, the production experienced every setback imaginable, and then invented a few of its own for good measure. Star Elizabeth Taylor became extremely ill during the early stages of shooting, necessitating an emergency tracheotomy. When she returned, the foul British weather did nothing to improve her health, and the entire production was moved from London to Rome where, it was hoped, the balmy Italian weather would speed up her recovery. Every set for the massive production had to be rebuilt from the ground up, costing millions of dollars.
The film changed directors midway through shooting. The screenplay was constantly revised, never settling on a clear story. Most notoriously, Taylor and her costar Richard Burton, who portrayed Mark Antony, had an open affair during the shoot. Both actors were already married and this was the early 1960s, when marital dalliances were to be kept private rather than the front pages of the international press.
The final budget for the film was $44 million—$334 million, adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars. The film performed reasonably well at the box office, but 20th Century Fox, the production studio, failed to clear a profit. The studio lurched along until 1965 when it released The Sound of Music . That paean to wholesomeness and family values was also a rebuttal to the excess and amorality of the Cleopatra production, and audiences loved it. A tidy production with a virginally modest budget, Maria and the Von Trapp children made 20th Century Fox profitable once again.
I have been thinking of Cleopatra a lot recently. Not for the story it tells or the gossip it peddles; rather, for the spectacle it offers, the sheer, overwhelming sensation of watching thousands of extras traipse around enormous sets, seemingly on the verge of breaking the frame and spilling onto the floor. Set pieces such as Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome are breathtaking—hundreds of actors hauling an obsidian sphinx the size of a jet liner into the imperial court, Taylor-as-Cleopatra decked out in gold and jade and borne aloft in a sedan chair. Back in the day, when movie studios flushed money down the toilet, they still gave audiences a spectacle that was worthy of the name.
I regard these scenes of massive, teeming crowds with equal parts awe and disbelief, not unlike how us moderns regard the architectural wonders of the ancient world. The Pyramids of Giza are wondrous to behold, but perhaps more astonishing is the fact that they were constructed without any of the modern equipment that today seems necessary for erecting structures of such immense scale. The lovable crackpots of shows like Ancient Aliens milk this impossibility for all it’s worth, finding evidence of extraterrestrial intervention in everything from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat. A similar disbelief crops up when watching films like Cleopatra . We’ve witnessed so many CGI crowds and battles and parades over the last couple of decades that scenes of such tremendous human presence look impossible without the aid of computers.
The mere logistics of getting thousands of people on set and in front of the camera are baffling. Each one of those extras hauling Taylor on the ancient parade float had to get paid for the day, be provided lunch, fitted out with a costume, and given direction on how to look appropriately subservient. Numbers and numbers on page after page of paper—written out in pencil, no less! Film production in the analog era was like fording a new route through the wilds of the Amazonian jungle.
Sometimes there will appear throwbacks to that all-hands-on-deck approach to moviemaking. Mad Max: Fury Road is surely the most notable recent example, an epic of real actors in elaborate makeup driving diesel-chugging, exhaust-spewing vehicles across an apocalyptic desert landscape. The crowd scenes in that film are like nightmare versions of those in Cleopatra —mutants deformed by radioactive fallout begging the prosthetically-enhanced Immortan Joe for what little water is left. But flesh-and-blood spectacles like this are the exception. To find where the crowds are today, one has to look at different screens.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks staring at screens with an expression of terror and disbelief on my face. I’m keeping up with the news, checking my various feeds for the latest debacle perpetrated by the current US administration, the religions insulted wholesale, and the national heritages auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It feels like this is all I can do. I’m a stay-at-home father living in the Midwest, you see. (The younger of my two daughters requested a graham cracker, gesturing with great forcefulness, as I typed the previous sentence.) Neither my profession nor my location would seem to lend itself to political activity, at least the kind that results in the spectacle of marches in the streets and descents on courthouses. I post updates on current events and call my representatives in the Senate and the House, providing a tinge of political energy to the domestic sphere that I inhabit almost exclusively.
But I’ve seen something different in the last couple of weeks. I mean, of course, the crowds. Literally overnight, crowds of millions sprung up in dozens of cities and towns, sporting knitted pink hats as if in uniform. It is as though some Americans have grown tired of being spectators, enduring yet another bloodless CGI spectacle in a dim multiplex, and decided to become citizens, if only to assert their right to assemble and create a crowd worth looking at. And not just in the streets of the capitol.
The many injustices perpetrated in record time by the administration—particularly the unconscionable immigration ban of Muslims, refugees, and even green card holders—have motivated people in unexpected parts of the country to show up in unusual corners of our public spaces, including airports. The last time airports served as a hub for political action, during the 1970s, radicals of various stripes hijacked planes and redirected them to Third World locations. Today, ordinary citizens are gathering in a space that is so often the scene of twitchy boredom and low-level humiliation—the shoes removed at security checks, the magnetic wands passed over bodies—to reassert human dignity, extending it to people suddenly deemed undesirable by executive order.
These protests were everywhere, disproving the notion that standing up against fascism on behalf of refugees was a concern specific to the citizens living in America’s coastal enclaves. There were even protests in Indianapolis, where I live. I was all ready to haul the kids off to our peerless international airport when I became very sick and had to lie in bed all day while my wife took the lead in caregiving. It feels like every day brings a new overdetermined metaphor for the brokenness of civic life. Presidential aides who can’t turn on light switches, advisors declaring that Darth Vader Is My Co-Pilot. Getting felled by the stomach flu on a day when I hoped to stand up to fascism is, in that sense, perfectly in keeping with the florid melodrama that our republic has become. But no matter. It was enough to know that these lo-fi crowds were appearing in my hometown, and they won’t be going anywhere.
These enormous crowds appearing in unforeseen places reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s observation on the future of cinema. A master Hollywood showman, poet of crowds and spectacle, Coppola saw the promise of his medium not on studio lots, but in the backyards of far-flung artists. As filmmaking technology becomes more cost-effective and widely available, he predicted, cinematic visions will come out of quarters where no one is looking.
“Suddenly one day some little . . . girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camcorder, and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will become an art form.”
Coppola spoke these extraordinarily prescient words in the early ’90s. For all his foresight, however, it’s unlikely that even he saw the political relevance of cheap, easily available recording technology. The cameras in our phones can document the injustices committed by a systemically racist police force. Such records of violence can induce a certain numbness, however, their sheer volume making one, understandably, want to stop watching. But using those same phones to show ourselves coming together, forming barricades numerous enough to be immovable, can be energizing, a glimpse into a better world rather than confirmation of the horridness of our current one.
If there is one thing that politics needs, and one thing that art and literature can provide, it is imagination. Enough with the data and the demographics. Give us visions of good lives in a great world. We can start by marveling at these crowds appearing in our midst, crowds that we created without the aid of Hollywood green screens, and asking ourselves what’s next. Already we are more spectacular than the latest PG-13 dystopia. What else can we do?