Saturday, July 21, 2012
You could spend hours searching for the first female director and studio owner somewhere between essentials Hugh Grant and Jake Gyllenhaal in something that calls itself The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and never come across the name Alice Guy. So I’m not surprised I’d never heard of her. My shadow-life film education has always been informal and haphazard, growing in the cracks between classes and deadlines, events and obligations (and sometimes instead of them), with all the focused appetite and short abandonment of a yellow lab. It was only a year ago that I sought a verbal Virgil to guide me through the eleven circles of The American Cinema, and we never quite made it to the 19th century. At the moment, the only thing I’ve read about Alice Guy is the article that introduced me to her name—and that of Léonce Perret—Dave Kehr’s NYT essay on the 7-disc Gaumont set (abridged to 3 for us Region 1 philistines) about the early days of the French studio, likely the oldest still in operation.
I'm not a total neophyte—I'm familiar with Dickson and Heise and Reynaud and George Albert Smith, not to mention Lumière and Méliès—but 64 shorts in chronological order is somewhat more helpfully curated than Youtube. Going through the Gaumont discs is a trail-blazing journey from 19th century action flicks, by which I mean those pre-narrative actualities about the basic actions of everyday life (like “The Kiss” and “Fencing”) to early 1900s dramatic narrative shorts. It’s not just a filmmaker growing. It’s cinema growing.
That superficial narrative to Guy’s work would almost explain her contemporary underexposure by consigning her to cinema’s curiosity shoppe: Like many of her day, she’s an experimenter, a restless, boundary-pushing director whose work seems to show more interest in the possibilities of molecular gastronomy than the taste of the food.
She starts in the grand tradition of Louis LePrince’s 1888 “Roundhay Garden Scene,” capturing staged snippets of reenacted life, like “Bathing in a Stream” and “The Serpentine Dance.” Then come the trick films, Méliès-style vanishings and reappearances put to comic effect in pieces like “At the Hypnotist's" and “Disappearing Act.” The funniest of these is “How Monsieur Takes His Bath,” in which a man gets undressed, and every time he gets off an article of clothing, he's magically layered in even more garb, the victim of some hydraesque curse of discretion. Sets start to grow elaborate, a stark divergence from the early location-shoots and simple proscenium stages; the rooftop in the single-location chase film “The Burglars” has enough levels and portals for its titular characters to arrive out of and disappear into that it practically invented Benny Hill. Around the turn of the century, experimentation becomes the focus of Guy's work like so many gimmick-artists in cinema history, only Guy is at least striving toward a film standard based on basic color and sound (as opposed to one based on pixel explosions and glasses-based illusion):
Like her experiments with hand-tinted color, as in the joyful “Pierrette’s Escapades,”
And her sound-synchronized pieces, like the playful “Cook & Rilly’s Trained Rooster”
As well as some musical performances that are most interesting (besides, you know, for the singing) for the cravat-asteroid-expressionist background, not that Guy was the only one working on proto-color-and-sound techniques.
She also had less traditional pursuits (consider her curious, backward-running tour of “Avenue de l'Opéra”), but Guy's most exciting formal adventures wag her storytelling instead of vice versa. These—the camera panning like a baby learning to use its neck and the surprise close-ups that reveal the distanced default of the early cinema—are where she stakes her claim as a pioneer of narrative film. In the opening shot of her travelogue “Spain,” a crowd of Madrid residents gather round as the camera pans 360 degrees around a plaza. Guy strings open-framed shots of pursuit into terrific chase comedies like “The Race for the Sausage,” and cross-cutting shows the cascading fallout of a prankster in “The Glue.” In “Madame’s Cravings,” a pregnant woman goes through town taking a child's lollipop, a gentleman's pipe, and more on account of her pregnancy cravings, and after each swipe Guy inserts a close-up of Madame enjoying her entitlements. By 1907, she's even creating dramatic five-minute shorts that aren’t far off from those of the teens, like “On the Barricade,” about a French Revolution family whose simple subsistence brings them into the line of fire. Then there’s the elephant, Guy's (numerologically sound) 33-minute telling of “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” a compilation of Renaissance tableaux in motion.
Because I only have a few puzzle pieces in this portrait of early cinema, it’s hard for me to tell if Guy’s thematic perspective is singular. But it’s clear to me that she takes enough potshots at the bourgeoisie to position herself among the early realists, always sympathizing with the working classes and never missing a chance to mock the powerful. Joining the lampoon of “Madame’s Cravings” and near-tragedy of “On the Barricade,” not to mention the put-upon Christ, is the cheekily named “Midwife to the Upper Class,” in which a Guy character, the Cabbage Patch Fairy, tries to pair a wealthy couple with a suitable child. They recoil in comic horror at a black baby. Then there's “A Sticky Woman,” a hilarious short in which a lady uses her maid’s tongue for stamp-licking, which excites a lascivious onlooker who winds up stamp-glued to her mouth, much to the consternation of the post-office bureaucrats.
Even in the early days, Guy's comedies stick it to the man. 1898 sees mischievous robbers evading the police in “The Burglars” and a smooth beggar outwitting a beat cop in “The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man.” Later a Marx-style slapstick foursome called the O'Mers cause all kinds of trouble for the policemen patrolling their construction site. It's easy to detect a proto-Chaplin streak in Guy's comedy of rebellion and sentimental vignettes (not that Guy pits money against passion so frequently or purposely), but I fear that’s like saying the bat must have evolved from the bird. After all, targeting the more powerful is where the comedy lies. Pranksters are funny; bullies aren't.
Guy's focus on women may or may not be similarly common, but I was struck by the relative richness of her female characters. They get to be funny and heroic and independent and villainous and vulgar, just like their male counterparts. “The Consequences of Feminism” is a fascinating gem. Despite its serious (and ever so slightly pejorative) title, which reads like a pseudo-scientific pamphlet being circulated at gentlemen's clubs, it's mostly a lark, illustrating some scenes from a universe where gender roles are reversed. But it’s subtly thrilling to see a world where women are allowed—expected, even—to be the lusty aggressors in sexual affairs while the men are at home folding laundry and comforting babies, tongue-in-cheek or no. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine anybody else coming up with such a short.
But ultimately, I rally round the name as an important one in early cinema because Guy is a goddamn conquistador when it comes to space. Her worlds are fully three-dimensional, landscapes waiting to be colonized by the characters she invariably sends to survey them inch-by-inch. From the earliest shorts on the DVD, two snippets of kids playing in a river, Guy sculpts sequences of uncanny composition.
In 1897’s “The Fisherman at the Stream,” a boy zig-zags around a boulder, across the screen, and back to the middle in order to sneak up on a fisherman and knock him into the water. Until that point, the fisherman exists in a serene middleground, balanced by a babbling waterfall, and every actor sits at 45 degrees as the momentum Zorros its way down the image, checking off axes as it goes.
A year later, in “Bathing in a Stream,” five boys frolic in a river that’s essentially unscreencapable, a fray of torrents in every direction arriving at the middleground rocks and flowing in unison over the foreground shoal. If only it wandered through the air, too, it’d be Guy in a metaphor right there. The boys climb all over the scene, drifting in and out of frame, one escaping into the foreground, another spelunking deeper backward, and all of them at varying postures: standing, sitting, lying, leaning, squatting, crouching, climbing.
Even a film crit Frankenstein monster would see the basic aesthetics at work—Balance good! Levels interesting! Diagonals exciting!—but Guy’s painterly instincts go beyond the image into a persistent exploration of deep space, not just a balanced frame but a truly three-dimensional arrangement of figures in motion. "A Story Well Spun" sends a barrel into the distance, not flying at the camera but rolling into the frame, with a prankster at the top of the hill/bottom of the image to maintain a balanced T with the forest. Even in static-camera journey shots, Alice Guy covers the entire x-axis,
Whether a hurrying crowd sweeps across the frame only to be chased back in the direction they came by an oncoming train (like in “The Race for the Sausage”),
Or an ambushing army approaches from one side and is chased off the other (like in “Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak”). Naturally the ambushed soldiers leak out of every orifice in the building, and they defend their garrison by forming an offensive tableau in the exact space their attackers held. It isn't just geometrically beautiful, this flat L dancing with a cluster in the opposite corner of the cubic frame, but it's also narratively meaningful, the extreme opposite positions and the symbolic ground-holding.
In 1906, Jesus’ march up Golgotha fully snakes across the frame from the top-deep-right to the bottom-front-left to illustrate a particularly arduous journey.
Even in relatively still shots, “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ” emphasizes 3D. It's hard to tell here but The Last Supper table is angled, some apostles are seated with their backs to us, and a foreground chaise longue pops out the wide scene (while balancing the mammoth capitals).
Dave Kehr compares “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ” to “a series of disconnected images composed as painterly tableaus,” which is exactly how I thought of it while watching: Each scene is about actors taking their place in a single image that distills some chapter of the life of Jesus Christ. But this isn't the flat lines, cutesy movements, and regimented sections of Méliès (who was working with maximum artifice anyway). This is a fluid leviathan composed of individuals together building to that crystallizing moment. It may not be the best Guy short I’ve seen, but the use of space—the winding path up Golgotha, the oblique Last Supper, the multi-level sets—is typically thorough.
“The Game-Keeper’s Son” is an even clearer example of Guy’s sense of space. There are two primary locations, a house facade (complete with surrounding yard) and a chasm in profile. It opens at the house with a game-keeper going off to work rightward, unaware that his oldest son is following him. The game-keeper chases some poachers to the chasm, and they cross the bridge right-to-left and remove it just in time for the game-keeper to fall in. The boy is now stuck on the right side, and returns home to tell his mother and brother. The boys sob into their mother's dress, but the eldest dashes off in the opposite direction (the left side of the house) and the camera pans to accommodate. His diagonal motion in the deep left balances the still mother in the right foreground, and Guy holds the shot until he fades into the treeline. Now that's deep space. One of the poachers is arrested by game-keepers, but the boy chases the other back to the chasm, from the left side this time. The poacher falls in, and the plot comes full circle just as the setting does, this whole self-contained universe elegantly united by Alice Guy’s spatial integrity. It's basic, but it's more coherence than many of today's 3D hucksters are capable of. The foundation may be elemental, but the execution is remarkably organic.
Alice Guy makes two appearances in the shorts on the Gaumont set, each in a slow left-right pan, one apparently accidental and the other very deliberate, both charging their scenes with a seductive self-consciousness. In “Spain,” she was caught off-guard by her cameraman on one of his roving panoramas. And “Alice Guy Films a Phonoscène” is exactly what it sounds like, Guy directing her cameraman to pan slightly across a set from a film-within-the-film. She keeps looking at the tableau and then back at the camera, and it's impossible to focus on anything else. She's smiling like the Mona Lisa. I drink in the far-off Granada hillsides, but I'm thinking about the crowd of children around Guy offstage. I'm probably just feeling the inundation of so many Alice Guy films, but it's exactly right. Even when she isn’t trying she can fill up a landscape.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 1:21 PM