REVIEW: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché [2019]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: April 19th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Zeitgeist Films / Kino Lorber
Director(s): Pamela B. Green
Writer(s): Pamela B. Green & Joan Simon

“How come she got lost in the shuffle?”

An opening montage of images and maps briskly moving backwards from present-day to the late nineteenth century while moving from Hollywood to France foreshadows exactly what Pamela B. Green has delivered with Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. This is a history lesson, investigative journal, and memorial for one of the great pioneers of cinema who inexplicably had been left out. With phone calls, interviews, archival footage, and Skype sessions discovering new and unknown ancestral lineages in real time, Green is providing us a procedural account of what it means to research in the twenty-first century alongside her record-straightening purpose for the subject she’s chasing back and forth across the Atlantic. One blink of the eye will risk missing the latest, seemingly impossible revelation.

The result is invigorating not only as a fan of the medium, but also as an admirer of the painstaking work that goes into changing the public consciousness via primary source material that’s been misconstrued, ignored, or maliciously excised by those few we often let control the historical record uncontested. So don’t think this is only for die-hard cinephiles simply because it pertains to the life of the first woman film director (who also wrote, produced, and built her own Fort Lee, New Jersey studio alongside those behemoths still standing today in California). Because beyond the intrigue and importance of reclaiming Alice Guy-Blaché‘s part in creating a multi-billion dollar a year art form is Green’s accomplishment ensuring as much. That in and of itself makes this must-see cinema.

Green rifles through a series of recognizable faces in the industry to hear their answer to the question, “Have you ever heard the name Alice Guy-Blaché?” Having only three respond with an affirmative (of course Ava DuVernay is one with an elaboration on why coming later) therefore proves the challenge she faced in making sure every single one of them would the next time she asked. With Alison McMahan‘s book Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema available as a jumping-off point, Green ultimately finds herself hunting down leads that originated from obscure datebooks, newspaper clippings, and storage boxes Guy-Blaché’s own ancestors didn’t think to catalog. It’s difficult to believe the erasure of Alice’s name was so prevalent that even her family had no idea about her legacy.

With the assistance of co-writer Joan Simon, Green is able to convert old tapes of Alice’s daughter Simone Guy being interviewed by Maxine Haleff to accompany an older Guy-Blaché on film and audio. She has cinematographer John Bailey looking to use one of Alice’s old crank cameras to restage a film under similar conditions today. And she digitizes the photos, letters, and whatever ephemera she can find to immortalize them on-screen. Add quotes from luminaries that cinema has remembered talking about Guy-Blanché with the same reverence others have for them and you can imagine how infectious this project must have been. And because the information is obviously there to be found—with a bit of forceful prying on Green’s part—you must wonder why it’s taken so long.

The final quarter of runtime is dedicated to this unfathomable reality with talk of how tirelessly Alice worked to correct the record herself only to get ignored. Her being a woman plays a big role in this since the men writing about the origins of film had an inherent bias to leave her out under the assumption she wasn’t important. If there’s a still from her 1896 work The Cabbage Fairy with her present, the male photographer must have been the “actual” director. If she created Solax Studios with her husband Herbert Blaché, it must have been his alone despite him coming onboard later to handle the business side of things. If there was a way to attribute her success to a man, the powers that be did.

That’s the true injustice here. Green shows how Thomas Edison strong-arming studios to leave Fort Lee for Hollywood ultimately cemented the male fraternity that would form around the occupation. And when Alice’s personal life forced her to move back to France, those like Lois Weber (whom she stewarded) in America took her place instead. It doesn’t take long before everything is rewritten under a male gaze to put a stranglehold on directing that continues even now. It’s therefore through the process of watching Green discover Guy-Blaché’s worth that we understand how it was forgotten. And if a woman name-checked in Alfred Hitchcock‘s memoirs whose film The Consequences of Feminism is described as an inspiration by Sergei Eisenstein, what lesser-known figures were also stricken from the record?

There’s also dramatic intrigue where it concerns Herbert and his trajectory making it appear he did nothing to stop the mistakes being told about his wife, the advent of new technology spearheaded by Gaumont that Alice would travel the world to teach, and the singular differences between static one-shots documented by her contemporaries and the narrative stories she constructed instead. To now have much of her work restored and available means current directors (many interviewed here) can confirm Guy-Blaché was more than merely “the first.” Her editing, naturalism, and composition are feats to behold regardless of realizing she stopped directing in 1920 (not for lack of trying). More than a new chapter in cinematic history, Green’s film becomes a key piece towards revising everything we thought we knew.


photography:
[1] Alice Portrait 1912
[2] Alice directing Bessie Love in Great Adventure 1918
[3] Alice onset Life of Christ 1906
courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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