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Gone

Paul in New York City, Memorial Day weekend 1997

In 1983, when I was 19 years old, I visited a doctor for some long-forgotten reason.  Before then I had noticed a slight leftward tilt in my torso, even when I stood perfectly straight.  As a gymnast, perfect form was essential.  It still is for that matter.  When I mentioned it to the doctor, he said, “Oh, that’s scoliosis.”  In my naiveté, he might as well have said, ‘You have terminal cancer and have about six months to live.’  I honestly knew nothing about scoliosis, so after he left the room, I began contemplating my 19 years on Earth and what kind of mark I’d made on my loved ones.  I took it that seriously.

When the doctor returned after a few moments, I inquired further, and he explained in greater detail what scoliosis is and what causes it.  My anxiety came across as mere curiosity.  I had learned to act and – as a typical male – hide my emotions.  If the bastard only knew how terrified I was…

One of my long-time friends, Paul, died on April 9 after a year-long battle with liver cancer.  He was 55.  I’d written about him previously.  Paul and I had known each other for some 35 years.  We actually attended the same parochial grade school in Dallas and were altar boys at the same Catholic Church.  Our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas in the 1930s and 40s.  Like me, Paul had a strong dedication to family.  We had so much in common, yet differed on many levels.  We often dined together, and during one meal a few years ago, he asked why I still hung around him.  I couldn’t really answer him.  In some respects, he had an elitist mentality; in part, I think, because of his years living in New York and his trips to Europe.  We had something of a love/hate relationship.  We’d have a dispute over some issue and would be estranged from each other for weeks and sometimes months.

Aside from good food, one love we shared was cinema.  Among our favorite films was the campy 1962 classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”.  The movie is like a steak cooked rare – an acquired taste.  We often jokingly referred to ourselves as ‘Blanche’ and ‘Baby Jane’, the dueling sisters of the story enmeshed in an unbreakable union of alcohol, bitter memories and dated outfits.  Yes, I know that sounds gay, but bear with me.  We watched a slew of films over the years and afterwards, critiqued them like an amateur Siskel and Ebert duo over cocktails.

Like me, Paul desired a career in the motion picture field.  In the mid-1980s, I studied filmmaking at the University of North Texas.  In 1991, Paul moved to New York to study the same at New York University.  He earned his degree three years later and remained in New York; trying to secure his place in one of the most fickle industries in one of the toughest cities in the world.  He finally decided to move back to Dallas in 1996 whereupon we began hanging out together again.

The friendship connection extended to our respective families.  I’d come to know his parents, and he had come to know mine.  We experienced each other’s struggles with family, friends, romance and work – you know, the usual stuff of life.  When he lived in a tiny apartment, he had Christmas parties every year, with plenty of food and beverages.  As much as it cost him, he told me, the gatherings made him happy.  And it made others happy.  They were simple times, but they were good.

I’ve written before about losing a close friend to AIDS in 1993 and how I got sick with hepatitis at the same time; how that prevented me from attending his funeral; how that made me feel I had betrayed his mother at the last moment by abandoning them – like so many of her son’s so-called friends had done.  I noted how the bonds of friendship are tested during the worst times of our lives.  I’m proud to say I’ve often been that ‘True’ friend and equally happy to say I have ‘True’ friends among my inner circle.

Paul and I had a dispute at the end of 2020.  The source?  A “New York Times” editorial about the unexpected support Donald Trump received from Hispanics in Texas.  I expressed surprise, but Paul (who had grown increasingly conservative) said it made perfect sense to him.  A short time later he learned he had liver cancer.  As 2021 progressed, his health worsened, and our mutual desire to reconnect increased.  We were old friends, after all, getting to be old men.  Or as I like to call it – the tail end of middle age.  A news editorial shouldn’t be a permanent barrier to good memories.

When Paul’s sister called me that Saturday night to inform me of his death, she asked, “Are you sitting down?”

“Is he gone?” I replied.

I already knew the answer.

One of my last text messages with Paul

I’ve been going through a lot personally in recent months.  Paul’s demise only adds to it.  There’s nothing like the death of a relative or close friend to put our lives into perspective; to understand what is truly important and valuable.

The funeral was this past Wednesday, the 20th.  Beneath a cloudy sky, I stood beside a mutual and much younger friend who was doing everything not to burst out crying.  I wrapped an arm around him and told him these moments are what make life so hard.  We have to deal with the deaths of people we know and love – family, friends, coworkers.  It’s what allows people to survive and reach a certain age.  Paul buried both his parents, a beloved aunt, his older brother and two nephews.  For whatever reason, his time here had ended.

Another mutual friend told me shortly after he’d learned of Paul’s death that he had dreamed of him.  “I didn’t know if it was the edible I’d eaten earlier,” he added.  But he said Paul told him he was happy now; he felt good and was safe.

I have to admit that – as bad as I’ve been feeling lately – I bore some envy of Paul.  He was no longer suffering.  All his pain had gone.  He didn’t have to worry about credit card bills, taking out the trash – or wondering if he was going to wake up the next day.  He also won’t get to live out his dreams of being a screenwriter.

When each of my parents died, I told people my only consolation was that they were no longer suffering from physical agonies.  But they had lived long lives and they’d achieved the best they could, given their circumstances.

I suppose Paul had done the same in his 55 years.

Living our best lives is all we should do with whatever time we have.

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Most Inspirational Quote of the Week – April 2, 2022

“I got you.”

Lady Gaga, to Liza Minnelli, as they presented the 2021 Oscar for Best Picture

This year marks 50 years since Minnelli’s Oscar-winning performance in “Cabaret”.

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Brats

It was the slap seen around the world.  During the single most awkward moment at this past Sunday’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual Oscar ceremony, actor Will Smith got so mad when presenter Chris Rock made cheap comment at the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, that he stormed the stage and literally smacked him across the face.  Rock – a comic already known for his abrasive sense of humor – was about to present the award for Best Feature Length Documentary, when he started his usual routine of picking on some of his fellow celebrities – including the Smiths who were seated in the front row.

In recent years Jada has been suffering from alopecia, so she sat beside her husband with her bald head.  In an industry that puts so much emphasis on looks, with most everyone – especially women – trying to out-coiffure and out-style one another, Jada appeared defiant and comfortable with her new-found condition.  If not comfortable, at least accepting.  When Rock turned to her and said, “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it,” he was referencing the 1997 movie “G.I. Jane” about a fictional first female Navy SEAL candidate, where actress Demi Moore portrayed the title character and even shaved her head as part of her method-style acting.  If you watch the moment, it’s obvious Will got the joke and started to laugh.  But his wife rolls her eyes, as if she was suddenly offended.  At that point, Will snapped and practically ambushed Rock, then proceeded to curse him out once back at his seat.

The audience gasps are audibly apparent, and the mood suddenly darkened.  What many in the theatre and global audience thought was a staged incident turned out to be brutally real.  Will Smith really slapped Chris Rock across the face!  Rock – in his usual comedic, show-must-go-on persona – seemed to brush off the incident and continued with his presentation.

Things seemed to get more awkward when – some 35 minutes later – Smith won the Best Actor award.

But the response has been insane and surreal.  Social media (of course) blew up with Smith defenders and critics, as memes mocking the fiasco exploded across the cyber universe.  The incident made national news, and late night talk show hosts have had fun with it.

The Oscar ceremonies have dealt with plenty of controversy over the decades.  A kerfuffle arose over Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in “Gone with the Wind”.  She was the first African-American to be nominated for and to win an Oscar in any category.  Just as many eyebrows were raised when “Midnight Cowboy” became the first (and to date, only) X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar.  George C. Scott created a tiff when he refused to accept his 1970 Best Actor Oscar for “Patton”.  One of the biggest fiascos arose two years later, when Marlon Brando didn’t appear at the Oscar ceremonies to receive his Best Actor award for “The Godfather”.  Protesting the treatment of Native Americans, he sent a would-be actress attired in Indian headdress to speak for him.  The audience booed her as she exited the stage.  The following year saw another unexpected moment, when a male streaker pranced across the stage behind David Niven.

Over the past several days, just about everyone has an opinion about the Rock-Smith flap.  Ricky Gervais tweeted a clip from his popular TV show “The Office” that pokes fun at alopecia.  Like Rock, Gervais is known for his unbridled humor.  If everyone who got offended by his jokes took a swing at him, a coroner would have to identify him by whatever little pulp of his flesh remained.  Comedian Kathy Griffin – definitely no stranger to controversy – worried openly that Will Smith’s actions could pose a danger to everyone in her profession, if the incident goes unchecked.

It has to be noted that Smith apologized to the Academy during his acceptance speech, but waited until the next day to apologize to Rock.  Jada has now opined and called for a “season of healing” – whatever that’s supposed to mean.  These latter two statements naturally came out on social media.

The matter took a more serious turn when the Academy’s Board of Governors decided to convene and discuss possible actions against Smith, including stripping him of his award. That has never happened in the institute’s history. If bad behavior on or off stage is reason to rescind someone’s Oscar, then the majority of recipients would be award-less.

The show’s producer, Will Packer, now confirms that Academy officials asked Will Smith to leave the Dolby Theatre, but he refused.  Moreover, Los Angeles police (who are always present for such a large-scale event) entered the chaos and said they could arrest Smith.  After all, it was felony assault.  Packer says he deferred to Rock who refused to demand Smith be arrested.  Now, this about this for a moment.  How many of you believe you could bitch-slap someone in a public forum and then be given the option of vacating the premises?

One unique irony of the incident is that, just last week, Jada posted a TikTok video stating she doesn’t give “two craps” what people think of her now and how she looks.  So what happened at Sunday night’s event?  She suddenly got offended?  Or is that woman’s prerogative to change her mind suddenly manifest itself?

I couldn’t care less.  One egotistical celebrity attacking another egotistical celebrity because his feelings were hurt amidst a pack of overrated zealots gathered to bloviate how wonderful they all are doesn’t bother me.  Will Smith’s actions shouldn’t surprise anyone.  After all, he’s a rapper at heart, so violence and vulgarity are in his blood.  Neither he nor his wife are exactly class acts.

Jada admitted a few years ago that she had strayed from their union on more than one occasion.  She confessed to having entanglements – meaning she fucked around.  But Hollywood is like Washington, D.C.: if you want loyalty, get a dog.

Understand one thing: Jada is suffering from alopecia – not cancer!  She’s losing her hair – not her life!  Considering that thousands of our military personnel from returned from Afghanistan and Iraq without limbs – if they didn’t come home in body bags – and what’s happening now in Ukraine, it’s really tough for me to feel sorry for an over-hyped actress who has an image problem.

Jada is a selfish, egotistical wench who went from empowered to pissed off in a nanosecond.  And her husband felt into her trap as he let himself get sucked into the proverbial chivalrous role of male protector; a man willing to become violent to uphold the dignity of his woman.  In this case, a woman who had already disrespected him by entangling with other people and then playing the victim when someone made a joke about her hair.  Spare me the drama!

Of all the antics I’ve seen at the Oscar festivities, I have NEVER seen anyone physically assault another person!  This is truly a first.

The show produced a few other unique firsts.  “CODA” became the first film with a majority physically challenged cast to win the Best Picture Oscar.  Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, while Ariana DeBose became the first queer woman of color to win Best Supporting Actress.  (Curiously, DeBose won the same award for the same role that Rita Moreno won 60 years ago.  They’re the only two Hispanic actresses to win acting Oscars – something that annoys me more than a fight over hair follicles.)

On Friday, April 1, Smith declared that he will resign from the Academy.  But the damage is already done.

The Rock-Smith incident will forever be sealed into the memory of the American public.  No one who saw it – either as it played out or later – will ever forget it.  Will Smith will forever be known as the guy who struck someone on live television in front of a global audience.  His award does not overshadow what he did to Chris Rock; what he did to Chris Rock will overshadow his award.  No matter what he says or does now, he will never be able to escape that.

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Book Less

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [‘hard-core pornography’], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964

You know the old puzzle: if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?  Using that logic, if a book is published, and no one finds its content offensive, is it obscene?

Obscenity seems to be subjective.  Right-wing extremists certainly feel that way, as they have (once again) assumed the role of moral overseer and decided they have the authority to determine what books are and are not appropriate for others to read.  To we writers and other artists, the term censorship is like holy water to a devil worshiper: it’s terrifying!  Whenever we learn that some people are challenging the presence of certain materials in a public venue, such as a library, we bristle.  But, instead of running and hiding, we’ve been known to stand and fight.

In the latest battle, the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee decided to ban the 1986 Art Spiegelman book “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” from its library.  The illustrated tome is Spiegelman’s recounting of his parents’ experiences as prisoners of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp.  It won Spiegelman a Pulitzer Prize and, in 1992, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition displaying his original panels for the story“Maus” had been party of the school district’s lessons on the Nazi Holocaust.  The McMinn school board’s complaints about “Maus” are the usual gripes: language and nudity (animal nudity in this case).

It’s worth noting McMinn County, Tennessee is near the location of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, where the concept of evolution became intensely controversial.  In 1925 the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, a bill banning the teaching of evolution in its schools.  Evolution, declared legislators, contradicted the Christian Bible as the single standard of truth in public arenas, such as schools.  The move astonished – and frightened – many across the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded immediately by vowing to support any educator in the U.S. who dared to teach evolution.  A popular young high school teacher in – of all places, Tennessee – named John Scopes offered to be the defendant, if the state decided to make good on its promise.  They did.  On May 7, 1925, Tennessee authorities arrested Scopes and charged him with violating the Butler Act.

The ensuing legal battle made headlines across the country and the world.  The judge in the case showed his deference to the state by opening each session with a prayer and refusing to let Scopes’ defense call any scientific witnesses.  Ultimately Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.  The ACLU hoped the case would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Tennessee State Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.  Still, the repercussions were widespread.  The Butler Act was never enforced in Tennessee again, and similar measures in other parts of the U.S. met with failure.  But progressives realized they could never relax in the face of extremist ideology.

So, here we are in the third decade of the 21st century, where the U.S. has come out of two brutal Middle East wars and is now facing an onslaught of urban violence.  We experienced 36 mass shootings in the month of January, resulting in 101 injuries and 42 deaths.  That’s just in the month of January 2022 alone!

But, as usual, social and religious conservatives are more upset with books.  In October of 2021, Texas State Representative Matt Krause asked the Texas Education Agency for information about 850 books in school libraries.  He wanted to know how many copies of these books were in each library.  It didn’t surprise observers that the majority of the books are by women, non-Whites and/or LGBT authors.  The imperial Krause is concerned that taxpayers are funding the presence of these books in school libraries.  Yet, my tax dollars are wasted if those books are removed because he and other like-minded folks find them unacceptable.

Some disputes have become hostile.  Police in Leander, Texas got involved in a controversy over one book, “Lawn Boy” in 2021.  Author Jonathan Evison says he received death threats because of it.  Texas – where any restrictions on guns is considered anathema – isn’t the only state under siege by moral zealots.  Similar attempts at censorship and assaults on free speech have played out in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“If I had a statement, it would be ‘Read the book or sit down,’” says Evison. “I feel like these people are frightened because they’re losing the culture wars.”

Yeah!  Sit down and read – more than the Bible or the TV guide.

I will concede parents have the right to be concerned by what their children view and read.  But I feel banning books from a school library is just one step away from banning books in any library or elsewhere.  It’s truly not an unrealistic stretch to envision such a scenario.  The world has witnessed such activities in totalitarian societies, and the results are often sanguineous.

Once again, though, what is obscene?

The 1920s was a decade of both progress and excess, particularly for the growing film industry.  Although silent and in black-and-white, movies had begun to show a variety of mature content – mainly heavy alcohol consumption and sexual behavior.  Concern over the material became so intense that, in 1934, Will H. Hays – then head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – introduced his personally developed “Hays Code”, a standard production guide for what is and what is not acceptable content for motion pictures.  The code remained until 1968, when the MPAA introduced its film rating system: G (General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance recommended), R (Restricted) and X (mainly for sex, but also for violence).

By the 1960s, films were presenting increasingly controversial subject matter – and headaches for the MPAA.  The 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shocked audiences with its blatant use of foul language and served as one catalyst for the rating system.  The 1968 film “Vixen” became the first movie branded with an X rating.  The following year John Schlesinger released “Midnight Cowboy” with Jon Voight in the titular role.  It, too, was branded with an X rating.  Despite that, it went on to win the 1969 Academy Award for Best Picture – the first and (to date) the only X-rated film to win such an honor.  Viewing both “Vixen” and “Midnight Cowboy” now might make somebody wonder what the fuss was all about.

The film rating system took an odd turn in 1983 when a remake of the classic film “Scarface” came out.  The MPAA initially granted the movie an X rating because of its excessive violence.  Director Brian DePalma reluctantly trimmed some of the footage, and the film was rebranded with an R.  If it had gone out with the X label, “Scarface” would have been the first movie released as such because of violence.

Another X controversy arose six years later with “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”.  The film’s gratuitous sexual content garnered an X rating from the MPAA.  As with DePalma and “Scarface”, director Peter Greenaway reluctantly agreed to edit out a small portion of the sexual matter – small as in some 5 minutes – and the film was upgraded to R.  The fiasco upset many in the entertainment community – not just in the U.S. but across the globe.  If the difference between an R and an X rating is a paltry 5 minutes, then how valid is a film rating system?

What is obscene?

In the 1950s, the Hays Code was applied to a growing new medium: television.  In motion pictures, the code, for example, dictated that people of the opposite sex could not be filmed in bed together, unless one of the duo (usually the man) had at least one foot on the floor.  In TV, however, even married couples couldn’t be shown in the same bed.  The rule went into effect after a 1947 episode of “Mary Kay and Johnny” showed the title characters hopping into the same bed.  But that taboo dissolved completely in 1969 with “The Brady Bunch”.  Bathrooms also were generally off-limits in television.  One exceptional first was a 1957 episode of “Leave It to Beaver”, when the boys tried to hide a pet alligator in the tank of a toilet.  An early episode of “All in the Family” produced another first: the sound of a toilet being flushed.

As mundane as all of these events are today, they each sparked a ruckus at the time.

Personally, I find excessive violence offensive.  I never laughed when I saw men and boys get struck in the groin in slap-stick comedy scenes in films and on television.  I grimace at bloody acts in similar venues, while others react as if nothing more than a sharp wind blew past them.  Conversely, many of these same individuals are horrified by the sight of blatant nudity, especially if the nudeness is that of a male.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but even as recently as the late 1960s words like pregnant and diarrhea were forbidden on television.

The word “bitch” is used frequently on TV today.  But, in 1983, a musical group called Laid Back released a song entitled “White Horse”, which features the line: ‘If you wanna be rich, you got to be a bitch.’  MTV played the video, but bleeped out the term “bitch”.  In 1994, Tom Petty released “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, which contains the line: ‘But let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint.’  Music video networks deemed the ‘roll another joint’ verbiage unacceptable and bleeped it out whenever they played the video.

In 1989, rap group 2 Live Crew released two versions of their song “Me So Horny”: what they dubbed the G-rated version and the R-rated version.  Radio stations played the G-rated version frequently, but the R-rated version generated the most strife.  At the start of 1990 a federal judge in the state of Florida considered the group and their music obscene and in violation of community standards – whatever that’s supposed to mean – and forbid local radio stations from playing any of their music.  Consequently, 2 Live Crew’s reputation and music sales skyrocketed.

I remember the controversy that erupted with the video to Madonna’s 1990 song “Justify My Love”.  Once again, music video networks assumed the role of moral protectorate and either refused to play the video or played it late at night, when children and other fragile souls – such as moral crusaders – were asleep.  Undeterred by the skirmish, Madonna packaged the video and sold it independently.

In 1965, The Rolling Stones made their debut appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, during which they performed a sanitized version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”.  Producers convinced the group to sing ‘Let’s spend some time together’ instead.  Lead singer Mick Jagger leered at the camera – in the way only Mick Jagger can – when he spat out the words.

Two years later The Doors were presented with a similar option when they made their appearance on the show and performed their already popular and now seminal hit “Light My Fire”.  Sullivan’s son-in-law, Robert Precht, suggested they alter the line ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher’ to ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.  The group refused and performed the song as it was.  Their act of defiance resulted in their permanent ban from the show – a move I know upset them to no end.

I’ve noticed social conservatives haven’t raised concerns about inappropriate material in books like “The Anarchist Cookbook” and “The Turner Diaries”.  The latter served as a blueprint for Oklahoma City bomber (domestic terrorist) Timothy McVeigh.  If conservatives really want to ban books with sexual references and violence, they should start with the Christian Bible, which is rife with salacious and unsavory behavior.

Meanwhile, “Maus” has experienced a surge in sales as a result of the squabble surrounding it.  If there’s one way to ensure something’s popularity or success, it’s to try to ban it.  In other words, censorship always backfires.

Yet, censorship will always remain a threat to freedom of speech, expression and the press.  The war will never be won – by either side.  But those of us on the side of true freedom can win individual battles by standing up to self-righteous demagogues.

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Solar Magic

While standing in a somewhat alien landscape called North Carolina (perhaps, at least to him) on May 28, 1900, Nevil Maskelyne probably thought of his artistic predecessors.  The British magician knew that, just a century or so earlier, many people still thought a solar eclipse was an omen.  But, for people like Maskelyne, an eclipse was the grandest trick of all – even if it was a natural phenomenon and not sleight of hand.  And, in 1900, Maskelyne had a new device that he could surely add to his chest of magic: a celluloid camera.

Now, more than a century later, Maskelyne’s short film of that extraordinary celestial event has been digitally scanned and preserved in a collaboration between the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Film Institute (BFI).  Simply titled “Solar Eclipse”, it is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving astronomical film.

As a practicing magician, it’s no surprise Maskelyne realized the potential moving pictures bore, even at the dawn of the 20th century.  He recognized the possibilities for both entertainment and education.  His own interest in astronomy had led him to the RAS, where he became a fellow and traveled to North Carolina with an expedition to view – and record – the eclipse.

Viewing the eclipse – as people had done for millennia – was simple.  But recording it with this new technology was not.  The intuitive Maskelyne, however, didn’t let that deter him.  Perhaps foreseeing the difficulty, he had designed a special lens attachment called a cinematograph telescope.

“He had previously taken out a patent for engineering equipment, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he may have developed his own camera to capture this event,” said Bryony Dixon, BFI curator of silent film.  But as the original British Astronomical Society report about the film doesn’t mention whether Maskelyne used a camera of his own invention to shoot the eclipse, “it’s something we’ll probably never know for sure.”

Despite the challenge, Maskelyne was still able to capture the exposure changes that occur throughout an eclipse.

“The diamond ring effect of the corona at totality* affects the exposure of the image,” Dixon said.  “Maskelyne was able to change the exposure and camera aperture as the event occurred, tracing the gradual fading of the corona in increasing sunlight.”

After capturing the eclipse, Maskelyne screened the film for the Royal Astronomical Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – London’s most popular magic stage at the time – as part of a larger program of magic illusionist acts.

In 2018 RAS archivists handed the film over to preservationists at the BFI, where they began the delicate process of digitalizing it.  Each frame had to be meticulously and carefully copied onto 35mm film.

Although at only one minute long and in scratchy black and white, “Solar Eclipse” is yet another one of those rare treasures of early cinema; a moment that puts you back in time, more than a century ago, when the new medium of film held the promise of a new world of surprise and…well, magic.  A door between the “old world” and a new century had opened.

*This refers to the “path of totality”, which is the track of the umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object) on the Earth’s surface during a total eclipse.

See also: “Three Generations of Maskelyne Magicians”.

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A Kiss Is Still a Kiss

Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown in the newly-discovered “Something Good–Negro Kiss”.

Little treasures from the early days of cinema keep popping up.  That’s what Dino Everett, an archivist at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered in a 19th-century nitrate print hidden among a batch of silent films originally owned by a Louisiana collector. The clip, shot on a Lumière Cinématographe, turned out to be an 1898 short entitled Something Good–Negro Kiss, which is now the earliest documented film of open affection between a Black man and a Black woman.

Everett later told his students, “I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.”  He really had no idea.

Everett contacted the University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert on African-American cinema.  Using inventory and distribution catalogues, Field traced the film to Chicago and learned it had been shot by William Selig, a pioneer in film production and a former vaudeville performer.  With help of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field also identified the performers: Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.  Suttle is dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — costumes that Field says were typical of minstrel performers.

Something Good is a restaging of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), one of the world’s earliest motion pictures.  Scandalous for its time, The Kiss featured stage performers John C. Rice and May Irwin engaging in a graphic display of physical affection.  Both Rice and May were popular figures of the minstrel entertainment circuit, and perhaps the title of this newly-discovered film, Something Good–Negro Kiss, is deliberately subverting the racism inherent in American minstrelsy.

A 120-year-old classic moment in cinematic time:

 

Image and video courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts

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“Birth of a Flower” (1910)

We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs.  But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels.  One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling.  He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films.  Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques.  Among them was time-lapse.

In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming.  It became an international sensation.  Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.

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