Move over, Hugo! Pamela B. Greene’s new documentary on Alice Guy-Blache will give another parent of cinema the spotlight, after cimematic history has been dominated by the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies for too long. Watch this film to see not only Guy-Blache but also the many Hollywood luminaries Green interviews about her. (GPG: 5/5)
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
I had never heard of Alice Guy-Blache in film school, but I was a bit prouder to be a woman filmmaker after hearing about this tenacious lady’s career in the very first days of cinema. Alice Guy-Blache used to work for one of the most popular camera companies in Paris, as well as having worked with the Lumieres, who are credited with pioneering much of cinema’s earliest breakthroughs. Guy-Blache is pre-dated by Edison, but she was the contemporary of the Lumieres and Melies, and she managed to make many steps like coloring black and white film that had never been done before.
As Mark Stetson says in his interview for the film, a technique for Alice Guy-Blache’s film about the life of Jesus was a precursor to a scene he shot for Superman. The camera being strategically lowered can force perspective to make it look like a figure, such as Jesus or Superman, is rising above a crowd. Guy-Blache also predicted a Lonely Island sketch, many social media posts, and narrative cinema in general. That’s right, Guy-Blache was literally the first filmmaker to actually write stories into her films, and she pioneered slapstick, satire, and comedy in general with her feminist stories. She even wrote a film where men and women changed roles in society to show how absurd gender roles are!
Another interesting tidbit is that Guy-Blache had to hide her scripts to keep them from being stolen by competitors. It was standard for film companies to spy on each other to take each other’s ideas before the other could execute their productions; actors would even run over to competing studios to give information on the films they had just acted in. Many of Guy-Blache’s scripts were stolen over the years, until she started putting powder on the pages to detect fingerprints and locked even later scripts away in safes. Guy-Blache was apparently a pioneer in both cinema and counterintelligence!
The production of this documentary is fun, combining detectivework, nostalgia, and the filmmaker’s personal love of Alice Guy-Blache. Jodie Foster narrates the biographical portions of the film, which are presented with detailed pictures of Paris during the period and clips of silent films from Guy-Blache’s day. Then in the present day we see Pamela B. Green looking for evidence about Guy-Blache’s life, which is scarce due to the extent she has been forgotten by Hollywood. Luckily, she has not been forgotten by the annals of film history, and many of her earliest films were preserved in the Library of Congress, in relatives’ attics, and other unlikely places that Green uncovers.
Finally, something should be said about the star-studded cast of interview subjects for this film! Evan Rachel-Wood, Walter Murch, Diablo Cody, Joan Simon, Agnes Varda, and Marc Abraham are just a few of the actors, producers, writers, and directors who were unaware of this woman’s influence. It’s fun to see them learn about this early filmmaker, since Green showed them these films over the course of their interivews. Green also interviews random people on the streets everywhere she goes, and even film students in places like Paris and Los Angeles aren’t generally aware of Guy-Blache.
In the end, Guy-Blache came to America and began making films in the new studio system, where she continues to be a pioneer. It’s amazing to me that even I didn’t know who she was at this point, since she seems to have made her mark on cinema. Pamela B. Green has made a significant contribution to documentary cinema as well. This is one of the only documentaries I’ve ever seen that felt like an actual work of history, though it’s fitting that this chapter of film history be written with film as its medium.
Does Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Since it’s a documentary that’s harder to say than with a narrative film, but since Green interviews many women about Guy-Blache and they talk about a woman, Guy-Blache, that means the interviews with women meet the requirements of the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Top Photo: Portrait Alice Guy-Blache.
Middle Photo: Alice Guy-Blache while shooting.
Bottom Photo: On set of a Guy-Blache film.
Photo Credit: Pamela B. Greene