Lost Visionary - Reviews

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Alice Guy Blaché 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.

- Jane Plymale, Library Journal

Alice Guy Blaché was the first woman filmmaker in the world. She was the first and sole director for the French House of Gaumont until 1905; there she experimented with a variety of genres and techniques, including early sound production, from 1895-1907. After moving to the US in 1907 with her new husband Herbert Blaché, she shortly thereafter built her own film studio, Solax, which she ran from 1910-1914. Indeed, she was the first woman to head a studio in the US, where she was one of the primary directors and from which she gained a highly respectable reputation. These accomplishments alone would logically seem to be enough to secure her a place in history, yet in fact Guy Blaché was written out of (or never written into) history books for decades. Until quite recently, the majority of work on her in the last thirty years has primarily bemoaned her disappearance from history rather than sought to redress this loss. Part of this problem is based on logistics. Though she was responsible for over 1,000 films in her lifetime, her work has not been well archived and has thus not been readily available for viewing. Even the filmmaker herself was unable to recover any of her films during her lifetime. So, rather than track her films down or attempt to write a history by incorporating those materials that do exist (such as contemporaneous summaries and reviews of her films, other trade publications, stills and other images in print form), most scholars have repeated the same refrain about Guy Blaché's loss from history.

One significant exception to this pattern came in the form of the publication of the filmmaker's memoirs, translated by her daughter Simone Blaché and daughter-in-law Roberta Blaché and edited by silent film scholar Anthony Slide. In fact, most American scholars writing on Guy Blaché largely depended on the memoirs to construct a history of the filmmaker; but while these memoirs are indeed invaluable to our understanding of her and while they appear to be largely reliable, there are limits to relying almost solely on a subject's own autobiographical writings when we are attempting to expand the study of her life and work. For instance, Guy Blaché's own self-effacement in her memoirs might have helped to set the stage for subsequent work on her. She begins her work by stating, "I have no pretense to making a work of literature, but simply to amuse, to interest the reader by anecdotes and personal memories concerning their great friend the cinema, at whose birth I assisted." Even the recent beautiful documentary, The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy Blaché, which happily has created more familiarity with Guy Blaché after years of relative obscurity or anonymity, formally takes a modest tone in its recounting of her history. While it boldly restages Guy Blaché's productions in order to give the filmmaker an authority in the telling of her story, its accompanying music is lilting and the voice-over narration is proud yet wistful.

Alison McMahan's Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema, despite its title, successfully resists those tropes set in motion over the past few decades. Most important, McMahan's work appears at the center of a constellation of archivists, private collectors, and film experts who are responsible for rediscovering, restoring, and archiving Guy Blaché's surviving body of work. As she notes, when she began her study in 1992, only forty films were known to exist, but by the publication of her book, close to 110 films have been found (some still in need of preservation), in part thanks to McMahan's own labor. Producing access to these works is of paramount importance to McMahan's book and to future studies of the director. For one, it belies the claims that Guy Blaché is a "lost" figure; McMahan herself stresses that this sort of mythology which has surrounded the director has both made her look like a victim and has also "seduced us into overlooking her work." Thus McMahan's study seeks "to sort out fact from fiction" in Guy Blaché's history as well as to look carefully at her cinematic accomplishments.

In so doing, McMahan makes some striking and crucial claims regarding Guy Blaché's position in film history. That is, she simultaneously sets the history of Alice Guy Blaché in a triple context: her film production; the myths, stories, and legends about the filmmaker; and the central movements and achievements in early film history. She thus binds Guy Blaché to the very history from which she was displaced. Indeed, she tells the history of film through Guy Blaché, thus displaying her significance to the development of the medium and how we understand its story.

Most chapters therefore take on an element of Guy Blaché's chronological history in relation to a particular question of interest to film historians. For instance, the first chapter, "The Birth of Film Narrative," examines the question of whether Guy Blaché made the first fiction film alongside a review of the origins of filmmaking, definitions of narrative and fiction films, and Guy Blaché's first film productions. While McMahan ultimately asserts that Guy Blaché did not make the first fictional film, she does suggest Guy Blaché was the first to utilize other conventions of film production, such as the close-up (an honor long ascribed to D.W. Griffith). In the second chapter, "Sound Rewrites Silents: Alice Guy and the Gaumont Chronophone," McMahan studies Guy Blaché's early experiments with sound to reconsider how we have understood silent and sound production overall. She rightly advances that "once the so-called early synchronized sound 'experiments' are taken into full consideration, the history of silent cinema will have to be completely rewritten". In her fourth chapter, on Guy Blaché's American Solax company, McMahan reevaluates the common assertion that her husband Herbert Blaché was responsible for the dissolution of the company and also links Guy Blaché's work at Solax and Gaumont. In the case of the latter, she is able to sketch the intricate relationships between three types of film companies (the licensed, the independent, and the foreign) and, even more suggestively, to reflect on how Guy Blaché worked in the "director system" at Gaumont well before this system has historically been understood to be in place. She also emphasizes Guy Blaché's authorship through her understanding of Guy Blaché's sub-genre production such as what McMahan labels the "forgiveness film." While the project of attempting to trace a unifying thread across conventional genres of films is useful, McMahan's case for Guy Blaché's "authorship" is more strongly made through her vast detailing of productions, which shows not just creative but also administrative and managerial control. She continues this kind of discussion in the following chapter on feature-length films, noting in particular the confusion caused by the interchangeability of the terms "produced by" and "directed by" in early narrative production - a confusion that sometimes gave Guy Blaché mistaken directorial credit and in some cases erased her authorship. In these ways, she invites a broader rethinking of the role of the author-director in history, if not in theory. And in general, this is an example of how McMahan sets Guy Blaché at the center of fundamental developments in film history throughout her volume and how we might utilize McMahan's extensive research to further think about common film studies terminology.

McMahan's last two chapters closely view Guy Blaché's feature films and gender representation in her work, respectively. The former traces the dissolution of Solax and Guy Blaché's transition to work as a "director for hire." McMahan carefully works through the details leading to the end of Solax, refuting claims that the dissolution was malevolently engineered by Herbert Blaché, which is a common element of the director's story (still, his business practices - either naïve or a little greedy - were obviously in part responsible for the end of Solax and the shift in Guy Blaché's career). In the absence of extant prints of some of the feature films, McMahan includes a great deal of biographical and production history surrounding the making of each film. In the case where a print is available, as with Her Great Adventure, McMahan provides lengthy descriptions. With such descriptions in hand, she also rightly argues that access to these films can greatly alter our understanding of her work and, as a result, of the historical changes in her career. With Her Great Adventure, for instance, McMahan claims that the director had not lost her touch, as others have argued without seeing the film: "Her Great Adventure proves that Guy had lost none of her skill, but had in fact, matured into a masterful director. However, she had lost sight of this herself." Thus she prepares to narrate the end of Guy Blaché's career: her move to Hollywood, the termination of her marriage, and her return to France with her two children.

In the final chapter, "Madame a des Envies (Madam has her Cravings): Crossdressing in the Comedies of Alice Guy," McMahan becomes more invested in contemporary theoretical issues. While earlier in the book she pays some brief attention to issues of race, gender, and nationality, here she offers a more extended engagement with feminism, particularly concerning gender identity and, to some extent, sexuality. Attempting to argue that "the connection between the diegetic and extra-diegetic discourses in Alice Guy's films is a feminist mode of address," McMahan interweaves more of a theoretical design into her text (though often this comes in the form of lengthy citations from theoretical texts). As such, this is an important chapter. Indeed, one could hardly view Guy Blaché's films and ignore the theme of cross-dressing; in so doing, one would have to take into consideration recent theoretical work in feminist and queer theories. Therefore with the display of this theme McMahan points to further ways in which Guy Blaché's work might be taken up by contemporary film historians and theorists.

At the same time, this chapter illustrates a particular rhetorical trope prevalent throughout the book. For instance, "Madame a des Envies" promises to focus on cross- dressing in the Solax films, but McMahan initially puts off a sustained analysis of this trope by looking at other films by Guy Blaché and other directors, particularly marriage comedies, including the fascinating homoerotic Algie the Miner. These various discussions provide a useful context for her eventual examination of cross-dressing, but they also illustrate an on-going rhetorical tension throughout the book: that is, a claim to focus on a particular issue that is repeatedly put off in an effort to boost the context for that issue. While it's quite useful to recognize the broader context for Guy Blaché's work, at times this rhetorical mode implies that Guy Blaché's work alone doesn't constitute enough for a book-length study (which is clearly not McMahan's intention). Indeed, the book as a whole testifies to the richness of Alice Guy Blaché's cinematic output and makes an excellent case as to how her work might allow us to understand the field of early silent film differently. In other words, it is Guy Blaché's work itself that expands the context of early film studies. McMahan's volume is thus invaluable for this insight as well as for the extensive historical research and narrative descriptions of the films that she provides throughout. Her exhaustive research is a model for other scholars who seek to rediscover early filmmakers. And it is an excellent foundation for further work on Guy Blaché herself; indeed, every subsequent consideration of the filmmaker will have to take McMahan's work into account as they also move beyond this important study.

- Amelie Hastie, Cineaste

I had a really long airplane ride today, so I read most of a book called Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema, by Alison McMahan. I already knew that Guy was the first woman who directed films. I didn't know that she directed hundreds, maybe 2000 films. Of course most were very, very short, since she started about 1896 or 1897. She was also the first woman to run a studio, which she did for Solax in Ft. Lee, New Jersey from 1910-1914.

She also directed many synchronized sound films in 1906 and 1907! They were actually like music videos of today. A singer or dancer would have their performance recorded on a disc (much like the Vitaphone disks twenty years later). Then Guy (pronounced "Giy") would film the performance, while the singer lip-synced their performance, or the dancers tried to keep up with the music. Of course the synchronization was not that great, but these films were screened in France, Germany, and the USA at the time.

After Guy and writer/director Herbert Blaché got married, she temporarily retired from Gaumont (France). But Herbert was not successful making films in the US for Gaumont, so she began working again -- writing, directing and producing films in New Jersey. By the way, Herbert was much younger than Alice!

I have not gotten to the part where she loses her studio in the US yet. Other authors have always claimed that it was because Herbert Blaché was reckless with money, as well as unfaithful to his wife Alice, but the author has already said that she can pretty much prove that theory wrong. Guy and Blaché did end up getting a divorce.

Like any book on early cinema, the author has to cover the filmmaker's struggle to figure out film language. I've only seen the word "diegesis" twice so far, so don't let that scare you away. The book also explains how the early French filmmakers Méliès, Gaumont, and Pathé, plus the American Edison studio gleefully copied each other's films -- either by re-filming them or copying them in the lab -- in the days before copyright laws had any teeth.

The book is very well researched. The endnotes and filmography alone take up about 100 pages.

- Bruce Calvert, Google Group