Alice's Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché
Early cinema does not exactly seduce the viewer with lush visuals or subtle performances. As even Alison McMahan, Guy's biographer and most tireless champion, phrased it at a panel discussion last fall, "Nobody wants to sit down on a Saturday night" and watch the films of Alice Guy, but everyone wants to know why "both her careers were over by the time she could vote in either country where she lived." Yet contemporary viewers could also fail to be moved by the moving picture: in those earliest days, when people were unaccustomed to the medium, silent film retained the strangeness it has reacquired since. You get a hint of this in Red Velvet Seat, Antonia Lant's vast, piquant anthology of women's writings on the first fifty years of cinema. Here we discover an article from the San Francisco Examiner of 1897 by Alice Rix ("no dates found," says her bio note at the back of the book), who gives a candid assessment of the medium:
The lights go down and the single light boxed in the gallery reaches out over the house and burns on the canvas screen. The audience is shrouded in the silent dark. The light widens on the canvas and suddenly the screen is alive with the figures of men, moving, gesticulating, smiling, speaking, without sound. It is weird, peculiar, a little uncomfortable--a grayish shuddering semblance of humanity, neither shadow nor substance, neither quick nor dead.
It is very trying to the eyes, but it is even more bewildering to the brain. One cannot but seek to liken it to something--and it is like nothing in all the world. It is like nothing I have ever thought of as belonging to other worlds. These silent, moving shapes are neither ghostly nor shadowy. They are fully featured and of the earth. Their unreality is in their grayish color, their strange silence and the eternal blinding, flickering light that plays over them as at the morgue water runs over the faces and bodies of the dead.
This is not a pretty simile, but the Veriscope is not an entirely pretty exhibition. It is in its way a little awful.
At the turn of the century, film comprised a "cinema of attractions," in the words of film scholar Tom Gunning: it was a carnival diversion, a vaudeville bauble, a machine-age marvel. One recalls the lament in Ezra Pound's 1920 poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley": "The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace." The borrowings (and outright thefts) that marked Alice Guy's first years behind the camera make it all the more interesting that, in her memoir, she nominates a different sort of film for her maiden effort in directing: La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). This film is not a documentary scene such as the Lumières were making; it is not a trick film à la Méliès; it's not a chase caper or a one-gag bit of slapstick. It is a fantasy along feminine lines, a minute-long meringue in which a smiling lady curtsies to the camera amid wooden cutouts painted to look like cabbages, bends down behind first one "cabbage" and then another, and plucks up several squirming, naked infants, placing them on the ground in front of her. The contrivance of the whole production--revolving around this rather stiff pixie cultivating her two-dimensional garden--has the unexpected effect of making the babies look like what they are: somebody's actual babies, probably catching a chill.
Some scholars don't believe this film was her first: Guy's claim that it was shot in 1896 is contradicted by the Gaumont catalog, which dates it to 1900. Guy also seems to confuse it with a more sophisticated film, La Sage-femme de première classe (Midwife to the Upper Class), whose date of 1902 is not in question. La Sage-femme is a variation on the choux theme, with fancier camera work, three characters instead of one and a gently satirical story: a wife and husband, played by Guy, visit a midwife who runs a cabbage patch, where they choose their baby from several specimens pulled out of cabbages. At the end, when the new mother is walking off with her child, the husband reluctantly turns to the midwife and drops a few coins into her hand. As Alan Williams writes in his supremely sensible essay for the catalog of the Whitney show, Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, whether Guy filmed La Fée in 1896 or four years later is fairly moot: "no one else in the world, at that time, would probably have made such a film. It is, in terms of cinema, a relatively original work in a medium that thrived on imitation."
The genial absurdity of both cabbage films--and the odd confidence of their interest in women's bodies and experiences--heralded what would become most special about Alice Guy's vision. In a remarkable film of 1906 called Madame a des envies (Madame Has Her Cravings), the main character is comically pregnant, her belly stuffed with what might be a breadbox, and driven to snatch food out of strangers' mouths. Her giddy refusal to restrain herself, her appetite for mischief--she's filmed in groundbreaking close-ups licking her lips and rolling her eyes with pleasure, all but catching the eye of the audience--tempts me to dream that a 17-year-old named Charles Chaplin saw this movie in some English town that same year, when he was touring the music halls and already standing out amid a troupe of clowning teenagers.