mercredi 27 août 2008

Alison McMahan's book analyses the career of Alice Guy Blaché

"Monsieur prend son Bain" Alice Guy

Alison McMahan. Alice Guy Blaché: lost visionary of the cinema. New York and London: Continuum, 2002.
ISBN: 0 826 45158 6
US$35.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Continuum international publishing group)

Alison McMahan's book analyses the career of Alice Guy Blaché, a cinema pioneer in France and the United States. McMahan's study also provides a valuable commentary on the way film history has been constructed, identifying cultural or academic tendencies that have resulted in flawed or misleading historical interpretations.

Alice Guy (1873-1968) was an office manager at L. Gaumont et Cie, the Paris company owned by inventor Léon Gaumont. The company's main interest was still photographic equipment. Through this connection with the photographic industry, Guy was invited to a trade presentation of moving images presented by the Lumière brothers on March 22 1895 - many months before the famous public screenings so often designated "the birth of cinema". Afterwards, Guy approached Gaumont, asking if she "might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them". She was told to go ahead, "on this express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties" (12).

This was the beginning to an extraordinary career - extraordinary not just because she was a woman (although that was startling enough), but because of her output (around one thousand films of which only a hundred survive), and her involvement with technological, narrative and stylistic innovations. For example, between 1902 and 1906, she directed one hundred "phonoscènes" for Gaumont. These were films with a synchronised soundtrack on discs for Gaumont's system, the chronophone. Guy was Gaumont's head of film production for 11 years, resigning to accompany her husband, Herbert Blaché, to the US. While he travelled the country as Gaumont's sales representative for the chronophone, Guy set up a studio, Solax, in New Jersey.

McMahan comments that "So far, she is the only woman in film history to have actually owned her own studio plant" (110).

Guy's "ability to adapt in order to meet the changing demands of the industry" are admirable, as is her ability to do any task necessary to bring a film to the screen, says McMahan (xvi). Feminist film historians have understandably claimed Guy as a leading light, and it has even been suggested that Guy may have directed the first fiction film (1), a distinction she never awarded to herself (xvi). Clearly drawn to the interpretation of Guy "as a guide for feminist filmmakers"(xxxiii), McMahan notes the pitfalls of an oversimplified feminist reading:

The myths and controversies surrounding Alice Guy's life have had two effects: they make Guy look like a victim, especially with the loss of her historical record, the blame for which is then laid at the feet of various (male) historians.... even for feminists, Guy's films have taken second place to the historical and emotional value of her personal achievements. (xxxiii)

In order to give her own work a solid foundation, McMahan went back to the primary sources, spending ten years trawling archives in Europe, as well as those in the United States. It was a painstaking process that frequently necessitated identifying Guy's films and differentiating them from those of other directors working with her or for her. Careful research like this sharpens our understanding of early cinema. For instance, in describing Guy's milieu at Gaumont, the book draws attention to the way that the nineteenth-century fascination with moving pictures was far wider than its potential as entertainment:

Writers like Émile Zola, numerous statesmen, scientists studying the motion of the stars or the functions of the body, and engineers like Eiffel, aeronauts like Andrée and aviators like Santos Dumont, all relied on Guy's assistance in using the Gaumont motion picture equipment for scientific purposes. (18)

McMahan's accretion of information is then examined through the lenses of the important scholars of early cinema - Tom Gunning, Richard Abel, Janet Staiger are some examples. This scrutiny often problematises their conclusions. The classical periodisation developed by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell doesn't sit comfortably with McMahan's description of the development of sound, for instance (46). "It is my argument," she writes "that once the so-called early synchronised sound "experiments" are taken into full consideration, the history of silent cinema will have to be completely rewritten" (45). While this is a large claim, the evidence presented certainly highlights the instability of any historical perspective. One fascinating exploration looks at a film, A fool and his money (US, 1912), that Guy's Solax company made specifically for a "race" audience. McMahan's analysis is careful not to claim Guy as a champion of race relations. Indeed, other productions by Guy include "racist depictions" (152). But for Guy, says McMahan, "It is not race that causes discord... but inequalities in class standing" (153). Guy's status as an immigrant in the US and therefore an outsider gave her a certain empathy for the situation of the "disenfranchised black" (153). McMahan, however, clearly perceives that Guy's attempts at assimilation, at becoming an American, sadly involved "taking on the stereotypes of the adopted culture" (153).

Little sense of Guy's personality comes through. This seems to be both because McMahan's focus is on Guy's career, and also because Guy was self-effacing. Her marriage to Herbert Blaché meant her private and work lives were intertwined, and McMahan acknowledges those points where the relationship seems to have had positive or negative impacts on Guy's career. In 1918, her husband formed a liaison with a young actress and left Guy and their children. This misfortune, coming soon after the loss of movement in an arm "was a severe emotional as well as financial blow" (202). By this stage, Guy and her husband had lost their studio and had been making films for other organizations. The precise extent to which Blaché contributed to the studio's demise is not known, although he is often blamed - though not by Guy herself.

The book includes useful lists, "Key Dates in the Life of Alice Guy Blaché" and a complete filmography among them. There is also an appendix of articles by archivists, one by Sabine Lenk on identifying Guy's work, and one by Graham Melville on "Alice Guy in the NFTVA". The book's origin as McMahan's PhD dissertation is betrayed by sometimes clunky prose as she follows a theoretical thread. Some mistakes have slipped through: the 1912 Solax film The legend of Hanging Rock is indexed as The picnic at Hanging Rock (360). However, in general, this is a fascinating work with credibility and authority.

Jeannette Delamoir
Central Queensland University

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