Archives for February 2014

The Girl With the “Laughing Gas”

Lost to time … my tale of pioneering African-American actress Bertha Regustus.

Several months ago, while watching the miniseries The Story of Film – An Odyssey, I was taken with a clip from the early silent Laughing Gas (1907, dir. by Edwin S Porter) and its lead, Bertha Regustus. Not only did she strike me with her beauty and affable appearance, what I found most appealing about her (and the film) was, despite being African-American, this was not a ‘race film’ (quite something for the time) and that her character’s, ethnicity played no factor in the narrative, also unique for its time. In the central role, Mandy (Regustus) visits the dentist’s office in excruciating pain. As part of her treatment, she is administered laughing gas and …

… on her way walking home, and in other situations, she can’t stop laughing, and everyone she meets “catches” the laughter from her, including a vendor and police officers.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Laughing Gas Bertha Regustus

I also found this wonderful scene-by-scene account of the film, which runs around eight and a half minutes in length. But you do not have to take this author’s word for it; go ahead and watch it below!

Nearly a year later another film with the same plot and title was produced. These pieces were produced presumably to demonstrate the power and contagious nature of laughter (Source: Kino Lorber).
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Since that evening, the image of her face, frozen in rapturous laughter, has been indelibly marked on my brain. I resolved to make it a goal of mine to find out as much as I could about Regustus’ life and work.

Cue the montage of me spending what felt like a long time devoted to internet exploring; alas, the results proved scant. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), produced one very intriguing fact – that this was in fact her only film credit. Undaunted, I charged ahead with a similar measure of success. This deeper dive yielded little else, save for a brief mention in an article featured in a 2013 Highbrow Magazine.

At this point, I come to you, fellow lovers of film and film history – have YOU heard of this early African American artist, quite possibly cinema’s first major African-American film star? Please share in the Comments section below.

In closing, this remarkable mini-adventure of mine has shown me the beauty and ultimate tragedy of this medium we all love so much – while it captures fleeting moments of joy for our entertainment, its players are preserved for posterity, and/or in this case, lost to time.

Tumbling ….

Well I have been online this week, but mostly hanging out in tumblr-land. So much so that I actually posted a couple of proper blog posts in that space, in addition reblogging a whole lot of lovely photographic stills (many from classic Hollywood).

I know some of you don’t venture over there, but as short as these posts were, I had a lot of fun putting them together and hope you will find them informative.

Here are the links:

What inspired these posts, you may ask yourself? Well they are topics that have interested me and that I have wanted to highlight on my site previously but simply never gotten ’round to it.

Hope you enjoy!

Happy Valentine’s Day

I put this on my tumblr and Twitter feeds, and just felt “What the heck, might as well post it here too.”

Happy Valentine’s Day to all, from the Little Tramp (City Lights, 1931).

31 Days of Oscar

This winter has been brutal here in the Northeast, like Day After Tomorrow brutal. But fortunately it has been made a little warmer thanks to my television friends at TCM, with their annual 31 Days of Oscar viewing party.

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Image Credit: Turner Classic Movies

In the lead up to the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Each night’s [TCM] primetime lineup from Feb. 1 through March 3 will be devoted to showcasing all the movies nominated in a particular category in a given year. Meanwhile, daytime programming will focus on specific categories, with winners and nominees from multiple years.

So yeah we are currently a third of a way into the cinematic lovefest, but that does not mean you have to miss out on the remaining action. I personally feel about cinema the way I feel about any other topic of interest – in order to be truly literate in that area, a grasp of all leading up to the present is essential for true appreciation.

The prime time schedule (as of today, February 12) includes:

  • Feb. 12: Best Supporting Actress nominees from 1963
  • Feb. 13: Best Actress nominees from 1942
  • Feb. 14: Best Actor nominees from 1955
  • Feb. 15: Best Picture nominees from 1929-30
  • Feb. 16: Best Picture nominees from 1951
  • Feb. 17: Best Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment nominees from 1962
  • Feb. 18: Best Film Editing nominees from 1959
  • Feb. 19: Best Supporting Actor nominees from 1937
  • Feb. 20: Best Actress nominees from 1934
  • Feb. 21: Best Actor nominees from 1944
  • Feb. 22: Best Picture nominees from 1948
  • Feb. 23: Best Picture nominees from 1938
  • Feb. 24: Best B/W Art Direction – Set Decoration nominees from 1965
  • Feb. 25: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White nominees from 1947
  • Feb. 26: Best Actress nominees from 1931-32
  • Feb. 27: Best Actor nominees from 1943
  • March 1: Best Picture nominees from 1967
  • March 2: Best Picture nominees from 1935
  • March 3: Best Special Effects nominees from 1958

As if the films are not enticing enough, the interstitial “extras” are equally informative; the original TCM program, And the Oscar Goes To … airs this Saturday (February 15th) and traces the history of the ultimate in cinematic awards ceremonies, with archive clips and interviews with past and contemporary winners, it is a treat for people who love the Academy Awards.  

Note, if you missed anything, you can always play catch up with the NEW Watch TCM App. And for a little more fun, if you are on Twitter, you can participate in live-tweeting events with my classic film friends using the TCMParty hashtag (#TCMParty).

 

My Sundance Experience (& Some Lessons Learned)

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It has taken me  a minute but I have recapped all that was seen during my first ever trip out to Sundance last month. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and this experience was no different. So permit me to indulge you with my overall impressions during m four day stay in Park City and a couple of things that I will be sure bear in mind for my next trip, for rest assured, with any luck I will be reporting from the ski resort in 2015!

ICE ICE BABY I used this trip to take advantage of the ‘walkability’ in getting from some of the more popular venues to Sundance Festival HQ. That said, it should be noted that there is a preponderance of ice. Granted, I did not see any slips and spills, but personally I have busted my bum enough times to be OVERLY cautious when traversing by foot. Luckily I had my North Face boots (other brands are available) on to keep me warm and safe.  My Advice: Wear proper footwear and watch your step. Hand Warmers (sure other brands are available) can also be your friend when standing outdoors waiting to gain entry to a midnight screening at the Egyptian Theatre.

BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE Maybe it is the Northeaster in me or the fact that in going to Park City I was actually escaping the menacing “polar vortex” back home, but the cold really did not bother me too much. At times, all the walking I was doing meant that I shed some of my outer layers due to overheating. My Advice: If you are not used to it, still prepare to button yourself up. Remember, it is a ski resort, so dress accordingly.

DRINK WATER Nothing more need be said about that. Hydration (at all altitudes) is necessary of course, but especially in the mountains when you are thousands of feet above sea level, you really feel the effects. And have no fear, there are hydration stations at nearly all of the Sundance venues for you to (re)fill your water containers.

A ‘GET’ LOST DAY When I first arrived on Monday I took a couple of hours to hop on and off of many of the FREE shuttles that are available in Park City as well as walk around the center of all the action, Main Street. And yes I did manage to get disoriented at times that first day. But rest assured, it helped me navigate the remainder of my time at the festival as if I was a townie. My Advice: sure plan ahead and map out the area but allow yourself some time to really familiarize yourself with your surroundings.

TAKE YOUR VITAMIN C In any form possible. I had oranges, powdered supplements and drinks that I imbibed with aplomb during my stay for as warm as you make yourself, your exposure to the elements and incessant running around all day make you vulnerable to catch SOMETHING. I am proud to report that because of the precautions I took, I came home with the same vigor and energy as when I touched down. My Advice: just laid it out.

MEET & GREET There are a lot really cool people that attend this and many festivals. And I am not just talking about industry folks. Just the people from all walks of life that have a curiosity, passion and enthusiasm for film in general and the Sundance experience in particular. Repeat customers also tell you some of the insider’s tips about where to stay, eat and the like. Because I went alone I think this increased my willingness and desire to just step to people and chat.

That said, since I arrived in the middle of the festival (did not stay either weekend), I did end up missing a lot of the formal meet and greet networking events. Will make sure to work my calendar of Arrival/Departure better next year. My Advice: Go out and press the flesh!

ALWAYS BE OPEN AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE Prior to my journey out west, I dutifully plotted and planned screenings, meals and other events. A game plan is always good. But as a first timer you soon realize you cannot exactly be everywhere you want to be in the time necessary to guarantee a seat. Being flexible and constantly checking the schedule allows you to make on the fly decisions that may allow you to catch that one amazing film that everyone is talking about!

 

Sundance ’14 Dramatic Spotlight: Dear White People

In my final cinematic recap for Sundance 2014, I would like to take a look at the film Dear White People.

Dear White People, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Dear White People is the directorial debut for Justin Simien, uses the setting of a fictional elite university to examine issues of racial identity and conflict in a ‘post-racial’ America.

The film looks at the dynamics of various subgroups on the campus by focusing the dorm life of the predominantly African American Armstrong/Parker house and contrasting it with the “establishment’s” university humor magazine The Pastiche. The interaction within and between these two organizations sets the stage for increasing tension and conflict that culminates into a major incident that touches all of the main characters.

Speaking of characters, instead of looking through the lens of one principal character, Simien wants to challenge our perceptions by creating a multi-protagonist story, meaning that at any given time, the narrative is being controlled by a different character or set of characters. Projecting the narrative from these various points of view is a clever device that takes the edges off of a sensitive topic, allowing the film to accessible to a diverse audience.

For the most part, this tactic works. While I obviously am not able to relate to every single perspective, based on the strength and ability of the performance, I was more or less convinced of where the various characters were coming from. Although the depth of character development for some characters slips at times, I do think there is enough there ‘there’ to show their motivations and actions are not just coming out of thin air but rather are affected by circumstance and experience.

Overall, I liked the film for what it was aiming to do. In many ways, it brought me back to my own college days (way back when) and my observations of the racial politics and how they operated (or not) on a major campus. In relating to the subject matter, I dare hope I was able to find deeper levels to the humor presented in the film.

Clearly the subject matter and content was something that folks at Sundance were clamoring for, as the buzz generated from the film meant I was seated in a packed house for the screening I attended. At the conclusion of the film, we were treated to a few words from the director and members of the cast during a post-screening Q&A.

Kudos to filmmaker Justin Simien for charging out of the gate with a film that tackles a provocative and timely topic while still managing to inform us AND make us laugh.

 

Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Sundance ’14: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Two men, six meals in six different places on a road trip around Italy. Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and ending in Capri.

With The Trip to Italy, director Michael Winterbottom brings us back on the road with comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in his follow up to 2010’s The Trip, which saw Coogan and Brydon go on a similar tour of the tastes and sights of northern England.

Without question, this is simply a film you just sit back and go with. I mean it is set in Italy for goodness sake! I really do not think that there is a way to shoot the splendor and beauty of Italy in a bad way. And when you add what can only be described as food porn to the mix, you have my interest AND my attention.

Aesthetics and culinary convention aside, the banter between stars Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan seems almost effortless and will leave you in stitches. In fact during the Q&A that followed the screening I attended, Coogan and Brydon said a lot of what we see on screen was the result of taking the moment and seeing where it led, all while the camera was rolling.

But it is not all laughs and giggles as some of their life’s complications enter the mix. But they are handled quite well and offer a nice balance that contrasts all the laughs that are to be in the movie.

Although this narrative of The Trip to Italy involves a fictionalized version of the actors’ real lives, this parallel live portrayal of theme as public is always something fascinating to watch. I feel that it must be quite fun for a performer to play because it allows you to exaggerate or dampen those parts of yourself that you might want to suppress or express in your actual life.

As a member of the audience The Trip to Italy sure is a fun ride that is guaranteed to entertain, leave you hungry and make you want to go out and purchase Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.

 

Photo Courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Film Synopsis Courtesy of IFC Films

Sundance ’14 Doc Spotlight: FED UP

It may not be apparent here on my blog, but I am deeply fascinated by the role that food plays in the American life. I have read several books on food origins and what some think constitutes the best way to approach shopping for groceries as well as consuming said food for you and your family. Previously I touched upon this in my review of the documentary Forks Over Knives.

So you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of catching the premiere of Laurie David/Katie Couric collaboration Fed Up, which aims to identify and cast a light on the real cause of the expanding waistlines of American youth.

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It’s what’s for lunch (at our nation’s schools)

Fed Up is an entertaining and informative documentary that follows the stories of “average” American adolescents and their struggle with food, while also examining the responsibility of food companies in perpetuating the problem.

Director Stephanie Soechtig follows the young people from their homes to school. It is evident that the parents, while having the best interests of their children at heart, are through no fault of their own as naive and ill-informed concerning the consequences of some of the food choices they have made as their children who are fighting (and seemingly losing) the battle of the bulge.

In interviews, leading health and medical experts as well as food advocates also offer well-informed insight on this topic that not only has grave consequences for the weight of the nation but also the wealth of the nation.

Loaded with wonderfully interactive infographics and animations, Fed Up deftly explains complex medical and physiological topics into ‘digestible’ pieces that the target audience can easily understand.

Most shocking learning moment? The very depressing statistic that in 30 years, the US has gone from 0 diagnosed cases of adult-onset (Type II) diabetes in adolescents to over 60,000. What astounds me about this fact is that is not taking into account all the many young people out there who are not charting their health with doctors. And this is clearly the case when you factor in the socio-economics of this crisis.

This actually leads me to one quibble I have with the film. While it did a good job of identifying and discussing the problem and possible solutions, the one area that I felt the film was deficient was in the exposition of the aforementioned social and economic issues surrounding this health emergency. The concept of “food deserts” was only briefly touched upon; however I felt there was a little more there that could have been discussed, since on its on first sight, the people most directly affected by this crisis tend to be classed as economically disadvantaged. But I guess at the end of the day, as the film explains, this problem spans all strata of society, with much of the confusion having to do a lot with us relying on the food industry to honestly inform us about leading healthy lifestyles.

And let’s remember, this is not a problem just reserved for good ole USA. As we as a nation continue to export foodstuffs around the globe, the phenomenon we are grappling with here is creeping its way onto the plates of the world.

As the film draws to a conclusion, there is a call to action on the part of the filmmakers for all of us to take on the challenges together.

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Images provided by the Sundance Institute.