By Ethlie Ann Vare
Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 4/9/19 – Introducing the red-carpet premiere of Be Natural, Jodie Foster says, “I remember when Pamela came to me, I had no idea who Alice Guy-Blaché was.” Pamela B. Green told her, “Alice Guy-Blaché was the mother of cinema.” But demonstrating that would take 8 years of research so exhaustive you could turn it into a detective novel, and resources so extensive it took people Foster, Robert Redford and the late Hugh Hefner (plus a healthy Kickstarter campaign) to bring it to life.
After watching the fascinating, fast-moving documentary that premiered to a star-studded crowd April 9, no one would doubt the “mother of cinema” appellation. The bittersweet thing is, Guy-Blaché lived long enough to see herself erased from film history.
Foster narrates (in perfect French, when called for) the remarkable rise and unnecessary fall of the first woman director, who helmed more than 1000 movies at the turn of the 20th Century. Guy-Blaché devised the first synchronized sound, made the first color movies by hand-tinting the film stock, and even originated the concept of the “narrative film.” Yes, Alice Guy-Blaché invented screenwriting. She also founded (and ran) one of America’s first motion picture studios. Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock both named her as an important influence. Yet neither the PGA, DGA nor WGA have so much as acknowledged her.
With luck, this documentary will change that. But don’t think of it as a ruler across the knuckles; this is inventive, visually exciting, and worth watching even if you don’t particularly care about film history. The fin de siècle outfits alone are worth the price of admission.
Alice Guy-Blaché started her career as stenographer to Parisian inventor Léon Gaumont, where she was one of the first people to see the Lumière Brothers “cinematograph” in action. It intrigued her. She volunteered to use the device to make some movies herself, to which Gaumont replied that was fine with him “as long as it didn’t interfere with the mail.”
How do we know he said that? Alice Guy-Blaché told us, in a 1964 interview that Green discovered. Following the cinematic treasure hunt that leads Green to historical nuggets like this is the main excitement of the documentary. We watch as she spots a face in a photograph, then chases down the face’s descendants, which leads to a box of dusty diaries in a garage, which points her to a previously-undiscovered grandchild, who has a cache of VHS tapes, which lands her in a restoration lab, which offers up another clue…. It’s CSI: Cinema, a police procedural with nitrate film stock instead of crime scene tape.
There were a number of prominent women filmmakers in the early days of movies, as it turns out. As soon as people noticed there was real money to be made, the women got squeezed out to make room for the Boys Club. The men – and they were always men — who got first crack at writing the history books conveniently left the women out, and most of Alice Guy-Blaché’s work has been incorrectly credited to male contemporaries. Even her studio was said to be built by her ne’er-do-well husband.
But under Green’s microscope, the truth will out. We get to see snippets of Alice Guy-Blaché’s films dating back to 1896, and they hold up just as well as those by the more acclaimed Georges Méliès. Guy-Blaché made the first movie with an all-African-American cast (although, admittedly, that was because no white actor would work alongside a black one.) She made the first “music video.” She made movies about child abuse and family planning. She directed everything from Westerns to slapstick comedy. She established the modern theory of film acting: Be Natural. It was her watchword, her slogan, and the sign above the stage at her Solax Studios.
It’s a crime that she was blocked from returning to filmmaking after World War I, and it’s a crime that she been forgotten. But like a dogged detective in relentless pursuit, Pamela B. Green may yet see justice done.
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché
A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber
Featuring: Jodie Foster, Evan Rachel Wood, Ava Duvernay, Julie Delpy, Agnes Varda, Ben Kingsley, Michel Hazanavicius, Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Taymor, Gale Anne Hurd, Andy Sandberg, John Bailey, Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Marjane Satrapi, Anne Fontaine, Peter Farrelly, Jonathan Glickman, Mark Romanek, Kevin Brownlow, Kevin Macdonald, Geena Davis, Pierre William Glenn, Jan-Christopher Horak, Glenn Myrent, Serge Bromberg, Howard Cohen, Valerie Steele, Jean-Michel Frodon, Diablo Cody, Patty Jenkins, Janeane Garofalo, Jon M. Chu, Mark Stetson, Anastasia Masaro, Dino Everett, Stephanie Allain, Claire Clouzot, Anthony Slide, Cecile Starr
Director: Pamela B. Green
Screenwriters: Pamela B. Green, Joan Simon
Producer: Pamela B. Green
Executive producers: Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jodie Foster, Hugh M. Hefner, John Ptak, Robert Redford, Regina K. Scully, Jamie Wolf
Editor: Pamela B. Green
Music: Peter G. Adams
Opens in Select Theaters April 18