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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
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by Jay Seaver

"Impressive from the start."
4 stars

There's a montage in this movie where a bunch of filmmakers confess that they hadn't heard of Alice Guy-Blaché before (with one notable exception because of course Ava DuVernay knows who has been overlooked), and I must admit that I'd only heard her name a few times before, as one of a number of examples in a different documentary about how women's contribution to cinema was historically underrepresented. And while "Be Natural" would be useful even if it was just about drilling down into something known generally, it's also an intriguing look at early cinema and how we've been unable to shake issues from a century ago.

Alice Guy was a central part of the movies' formative years from the very start; born in 1873, she was the secretary to Leon Gaumont and was with him when he attended an industry presentation by the Lumiere Brothers months before the public screening in December 1895 considered the birth of cinema, and would start producing and directing movies for the Gaumont company soon after, when the were by and large 5-minute "attractions". She would meet future husband John Blaché-Bolton in 1906, and they would come to America a few years later, where they soon form the Solax studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Their marriage would start to fall apart at around the time when the industry was moving to Hollywood, and as the movies grew respectable enough to be considered man's work, her contributions would be erased.

The early days of the movies were frantic as everybody was trying to figure out what technology to use, how to get the results in front of an audience, and whether or not these moving pictures would be the sort of cash cow that transformed one's company or a flash in the pan, with the films themselves often super-compact to start and then sped up, and Pamela B. Green's film embraces that frenetic nature. The documentary starts out as energetic and fast-paced as the early films Alice Guy directed, packing tons of information about the start of cinema and her life & career into a compact package, whooshing across maps and renderings of Paris and Fort Lee and sticking in markers to note important places and events, practically having the people interviewed finish each other's sentences. It's exhilarating, and at times almost exhausting, like the filmmakers are afraid they won't get it all in and still have time for the rest of her life.

Looking closer, it's not just that Green has a lot of information to get through in relatively little time: Her virtual pins in maps, the little rewind/play/pause/forward icons that appear when she uses an audio or video clip, and the rapid jumps from one subject to something related make the film feel like she learned about Alice Guy-Blaché and dove down a Wikipedia hole while recording and editing the process. It's a very contemporary approach to a turn-of-the-last-century story, and perhaps more engaging to younger viewers who aren't so much filling in gaps in their knowledge as learning things for the first time. As such, it includes a fairly decent primer on the movie business in the 25 years before it settled in Hollywood, and Green makes certain to tie Alice's story to more contemporary analogues, from Gale Anne Hurd mentioning that she started out as Roger Corman's secretary to how Green crisscrossing California to find someone who can read and digitize a tape containing a 1980s-era interview with Alice's daughter Simone parallels Alice's own attempts to recover her work later in life, by which time 90% of silent films would become lost.

Green steps the pace back a bit as the film reaches deeper into the twentieth century, bombarding the audience with fewer facts but giving viewers a bit of time to absorb the close relationship Alice had with her daughter and the steps that erased her from film history. Some had to be deliberate, some the result of unthinking sexism, and seeing it laid out sometimes slows the film down in a way that makes one question how many earlier anecdotes must have might have been cut for it, but then, imagine living through it. It's told with a bit more resignation than overt anger. Although resignation is not exactly the correct word - Ms. Guy-Blaché lived to a ripe old age and there is delightful audio and video of her in her eighties and nineties, telling film historians and television interviewers the way things were in plain-spoken fashion like the practical French grandmother film deserves. It requires no imagination whatsoever to see her diligently responding to those who wrote articles that left her out, and just a bit more to see her as possessing the combined creativity and organizational skills needed to make what she did from almost nothing.

By now, most of her work was done more than a century ago, so relatively few of the 440 films she is listed as having directed on IMDB survive, but the film still at least gives the audience plenty of chance to see bits of her movies, and while there's some element of choosing good scenes, it's amazing stuff for being made in the early 1900s, certainly work that's got me digging out that recent box set of woman film pioneers that Kino put out that includes three and a half hours of her American shorts. It's a fraction of what there should be, but this film will probably help few more people get interested in what there is.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32913&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/14/19 13:37:31
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USA
  26-Apr-2019

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Pamela B. Green

Written by
  Pamela B. Green
  Joan Simon

Cast
  (documentary)



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