dimanche 5 octobre 2008

Alison McMahan "Lost Visionary of the Cinema" Alice Guy Blache

Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan

March 15th edition of 'Library Journal'.

Alice Guy Blache directing Oddly enough, the life and work of the first woman filmmaker has received little attention. McMahan redresses the oversight by critically and comprehensively analyzing the contributions of Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968).

A filmmaker herself and one of the foremost authorities on the subject of early cinema, McMahan examines the themes of the few remaining Guy Blaché films, the techniques of her actors, and the evolution of a film "language" in the director's choice of shots. In her quest to uncover her subject through contact with original primary sources, McMahan reveals why research into early cinema can be problematic: it is difficult enough even to locate material, much less ascribe attribution. The author's first-hand "discoveries" also have implications for the conceptualization of early cinema. Meticulously documented, this book tells not only what this film pioneer did but also why her work is important. Anecdotal nuggets make the study compelling for general readers, too. Recommened for film history collections.

by Alison McMahan
New York and London: Continuum 2003. 361pp, illus.
Hardcover: $39.95. Paperback: $21.95

Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968), the world's first woman filmmaker, was one of the key figures in the development of narrative film. From 1896 to 1920 she directed 400 films (including over 100 sychronized sound films), produced hundreds more, and was the first - and so far the only - woman to own and run her own studio plant (The Solax Studio in Fort Lee, NJ, 1910-1914). However, her role in film history was completely forgotten until her own memoirs were published in 1976.

This new book tells her life story and fills in many gaps left by the memoirs. Guy Blaché's life and career mirrored momentous changes in the film industry, and the long time-span and sheer volume of her output makes her films a fertile territory for the application of new theories of cinema history, the development of film narrative, and feminist film theory. The book provides a close analysis of the one hundred Guy Blaché films that survive, and in the process rewrites early cinema history.

Alice Guy BlachÉ: Lost Visionary of the Cinema
by Alison McMahan


May 2002, 361 pages, $35
by Tara Taghizadeh

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth 24 times per second.”
— Jean-Luc Godard

Has any medium fascinated and bewildered the world as much as film? The average moviegoer attends five to six movies a year, and watches countless others on video. Listen to any casual conversation, on a date, at the office, or at a party, and inevitably a reference to a particular movie is mentioned. What started over a century ago as an experiment by pioneers such as Edison and the Lumiere brothers has become a main staple in our lives, serving to entertain, amuse and educate, and strangely enough, connect the world: Most Africans, or say, Indonesians, may not know the intricacies of the U.S. and its customs, but they are aware that somewhere there is a Hollywood, replete with Rambos, Rockies and superheroes.

According to most film historians, the medium (though very much an American institution) spent its formative years in France, before Americans took the idea and made it the larger than life industry it is today. And as the Lumieres and Melies were developing the cinematic art, a woman by the name of Alice Guy Blaché arrived on the scene and established herself as the first woman filmmaker.

Author and scholar Alison McMahan has painstakingly devoted a decade to researching the life and works of Guy Blaché; the result: Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (a title which aptly portrays the curious how’s and why’s of this forgotten film pioneer).

Lost? Apparently. McMahan argues that, from her feminist perspective, the reason that Guy Blaché’s contributions have been forgotten, and that she has not been rightly credited with directing the first fiction film is due to the “misogynistic male historians” who simply denied appropriate acknowledgment. McMahan’s argument is a tad weak, however, since Guy Blaché herself has claimed that the Lumiere brothers’ film, “L’Arroseur arrose” came first. In addition, Guy Blaché isn’t the only filmmaker to be forgotten. William Kennedy Dickson, an assistant of Edison’s, produced his “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” in 1894, yet the Lumiere brothers have been credited as the official inventors of the moving picture.

Guy Blaché’s entry to the world of film came by way of Leon Gaumont who hired her in 1894 as a secretary and soon realized her filmmaking potential. 1896 marked Guy Blaché’s first narrative film, “La Fee aux choux” (The Cabbage Fairy), and by 1897 she was running all production at the studio. Interestingly enough, McMahan writes that Guy Blaché initially learned the tricks of the trade by “copying, sometimes precisely, the Lumiere fiction films . . .” before developing her own style.

Along the way, she met and married Herbert Blaché, eight years her junior, and together they formed Solax, a film studio in the States, a successful company which produced a slew of films and enjoyed a stable of actors and actresses, and budding filmmakers who were trained by Guy Blaché.

During her Gaumont days, Guy Blaché produced a series of what McMahan refers to as “Miracle films” which were always laced with strong Catholic references. (Guy Blaché was a devout Catholic and politically conservative.) These films then paved the way to the American versions (made for Solax), the “forgiveness films” which similar to the French films often depicted a savior who offers redemption. As McMahan explains, “these ‘forgiveness films’ are direct descendants of the ‘miracle films’ . . .the ‘forgiveness films,’ with their focus on the family romance are [Guy Blaché’s] way of adapting what worked in France for an American audience.”

In addition, other genres such as the military film and Westerns (which fascinated both French and American filmmakers) gained popularity, and were significant in the methods they used to depict ethnicity. McMahan writes: “Indian characters were played by whites painted red and little regard was given to correct depiction of Indian customs and dress.” In addition, “Rarely was the suffering of the Indian at the hand of the white colonizers shown.”

The Eastern Westerns (which were made in the East before filmmakers headed West) began to wane as viewers and a number of critics became annoyed with the films’ “Jersey scenery” (these eventually paved the way to more authentic Westerns which were filmed where they should be). This also coincided with the Americanization of the film industry, prior to which the French held the reigns on the medium.

Eager to depict itself as an American company, Solax interestingly played an important role in depicting Jews and Blacks in a more kindly fashion than the times dictated. Two films in this genre, “A Man’s a Man,” in which “a Jew is represented as a man and not a subject of ridicule,” and “A Fool and His Money,” which catered to an African-American audience, served to depict these immigrant/ethnic groups in a more deservedly respectable light.

McMahan deftly outlines and describes the stages of film history and development, but unfortunately, the book reads more like a thesis than the sort of prose which the average layman can enjoy. McMahan’s language and style is aimed at film industry connoisseurs who arrive with an already well-developed knowledge of film history. Her arguments—though valid—are never really settled one way or the other. Is Guy Blaché the first filmmaker of fiction film or not? The interesting marriage of Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché proves as a solid foundation which led to promising film careers for both, but we are suddenly confronted with the fact that Herbert Blaché abandons his family and leaves for Hollywood with one of his actresses. The leap is a little sudden, and the reader is left wanting more details about Guy Blaché’s personal life and a little less about the minute details of film development.

All in all, McMahan’s research is inevitably worthy of shedding light on an important figure in film history whose extensive body of work should be studied by film students everywhere. We only wish that the life and career of this pioneer was presented in a more reader-friendly manner.

— 12 June 2002

True, this individual was not a member of CineWomen NY. But it is safe to say that a debt of gratitude is owed by all of us to pioneering filmmakers like Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968).

Ms. Guy Blaché, the world's first woman filmmaker, was one of the key figures in the development of narrative film. From 1896 to 1920 she directed over a thousand films (including over 100 synchronized sound films and twenty two silent features), produced hundreds more, and was the first-and so far the only-woman to own and run her own studio plant (The Solax Studio in Fort Lee, NJ, 1910-1914). However, her role in film history was completely forgotten until recently.

In March 2007, three of Ms. Guy Blaché's films were shown as part of our screening series:

A House Divided (Solax 1913)

Officer Henderson (Solax 1913)

Cupid and the Comet (Solax 1911)

These films were introduced by CWNY Co-President Alison McMahan Alison is the author of Alice Guy Blaché Lost Visionary of the Cinema, (Continuum 2002). She is a consultant for the Alice Guy Blaché retrospective planned by the Whitney Museum for the winter of 2008-2009. She was interviewed as an early cinema expert and did research for the documentary on early woman filmmakers Reel Models: The Women of Early Film, which aired on American Movie Classics Channel.

Spearheaded by Christina Kotlar, efforts are now underway to have Ms. Guy Blaché inducted into The Directors Guild.

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