Friday, October 2, 2015
TCM: Women pioneer filmmakers : Alice Guy-Blache
Turner Classic Movies continues, intermittently, to astound. A couple days ago, I went home for lunch at noon, turned on the TV as is my custom, and discovered that TCM was hosting a Robert Bresson film festival. One night, the station broadcast a series of short silent films directed by a pioneer in the industry, Alice Guy-Blache. The show was hosted by a couple of women who managed to combine both tongue-tied inarticulacy with ostentatiously politically correct and specious theorizing -- is there really a conspiracy to "edit out of history" the contributions of trailblazing early directors like Alice Guy-Blache because she is female? And what exactly is the "female gaze"? How do its optics differ from the "male gaze?" Notwithstanding this irritating prefatory discussion, the films screened were fascinating and, certainly, worth study. As Alice Guy, she made what may be the first 'narrative' film -- an 1896 vignette, only a minute long, called "The Cabbage Fairy". The little picture has been beautifully restored and shows a woman dressed as a winged fairy prancing around in an ornate set depicting a cabbage patch. The fairy mimes that she hears cries among the cabbage and, then, plucks from the foliage scrawny new-born babies. The babies are real infants and the Cabbage Fairy has the lush figure of an 1890's Gibson Girl -- she has a huge bosom and hips and a tiny waist: it's a stylized kind of female form that no one has seen for almost 125 years and reminds us that fashions in women's beauty change radically from generation to generation. (Alice Guy obviously endorsed this style of beauty -- this physical type appears in several of her later films as well.) Guy was the director of Gaumont Studios in France around the turn of the century and, then, came to the United States, now married, as Alice Guy-Blache. She founded a film production company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Solax, and made a number of pictures there. The specimens of her work shown on TCM included a ponderous, static, if picturesque reprise of the life of Jesus made in 1906, a series of tableaux vivant -- in that picture, about 30 minutes long, Guy moves the camera several times to reposition within the baroque-looking operatic sets and interpolates one medium-shot into the narrative, an image of Veronica holding the "vera icon" ('true image') emblazoned onto her handkerchief. At the end of the Jesus film, Guy uses several sequential shots to actually narrate the resurrection and her images of the risen Christ, done by double-exposure, are eerily effective. "A House Divided" (1912) is a two-reel comedy about a married couple who suspect one another of adultery and, then, reconcile: it is notable mainly for the grotesque performance of the husband who grimaces and sulks with cartoonish ferocity, hunching his back with rage like an aggrieved cat. Clearly, the performance is intended to be comically over-the-top and it is very funny. In "Canned Harmony" (1912), a long-haired professor wants his daughter to marry a musician with "Pagnanini curls" -- the lovers deceive him using a gramophone causing the father to believe that the suitor, disguised with a moustache and curly locks, is a great musician. The film is interesting for the manner in which it suggests live sound and, certainly, a curious precursor to the sound film. It has a sweet climax in which the deceived father forgives the lovers and blesses their union. Guy-Blache also stages some knockabout slapstick comedy, but she had no real affinity for physical humor and her gags seem forced and contrived. "The Sea Waif" (1916) is a forty minute film involving an abused teenage girl who flees her violent foster-father and takes up residence in a crumbling seaside mansion. A famous novelist rents the sea-side mansion, at first mistakes the girl for the ghost of a girl who died in the house, and, then, begins a romance with the heroine. The film is surprisingly violent -- the abusive foster father pulls the girl's hair and batters her to the ground. (In some ways, the movie looks forward to Griffith's Broken Blossoms from 1919: there is a poster showing a pugilist on the wall of the foster father's shack and, of course, the abusive villain in Broken Blossoms was a washed-up boxer. But the heroine is far more robust then the ethereal Lillian Gish and seems less helpless.) The movie is ambitious and demonstrates a fascinating mix of styles and moods -- there is poetic lyricism in the scenes in which the girl explores the abandoned house (the waif looking at herself in dusty mirrors or peering through cobwebbed windows crawling with small, companionable-looking spiders) and hints of savage violence in the foster-father's plot to revenge himself on the girl, but the general tone of the film is that of a benign and sunny romantic comedy. The best of the films is "Falling Leaves", a sentimental picture from 1911, involving a girl ill with tuberculosis. The girl's baby sister hears a doctor decree that the sick teenager will die when "the last leaf falls from the trees" -- we see a window opening into a small garden-like lawn where leaves are perpetually fluttering down. The little girl gets string and tries to tie the leaves onto the branches of the trees outside. While she is doing this, a kindly doctor happens by, learns about the plight of the dying sister, and treats her with his new serum. The girl is cured and the film ends with the very slightest suggestion that the heroine, once recovered, will fall in love with her doctor -- certainly, the young doctor seems smitten with his patient. The sequence in which the small girl ties the leaves to the trees is remarkably powerful although it is hard to isolate the source of its effects -- the movie is primitively shot without close-ups or intercutting and the scenes are staged tableaux as in a film by Louis Feuillade. But the small enclosed garden with its bare trees, the poetically falling leaves, and the incredibly appealing child struggling to use string to tie the leaves in place all combine to achieve an intensely lyrical, if simple, image. Guy-Blache never seems to have figured-out how to incorporate intertitles in her movies -- for some reason, she inserts titles in advance of the action that they describe, signaling to the audience what we are about to see before we see it. This is peculiar and, probably, a remnant of her first films, made in the era of the Lumiere brothers in which the printed titles were just that -- indications about what the film would show. In any event, film students are indebted to Turner Classic Movies for this interesting program of pictures, all of them unknown to me.