Sadly, Alice really doesn’t live here anymore

Alice Guy-Blaché, "The Ocean Waif," 1916. Courtesy the Library of Congress MBRS Division.

I’m new here.  I should explain.  At university, I wanted to be a video artist.  Maybe I should have been born into another time (and matriculated to another university) because the history, theory, and philosophy of what we were studying was never followed through at the quite the same pitch in the practical elements.  Of course, we were there to dissect the works of greats such as Martha Rosler, Chantal Akerman, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Michael Snow, though for me they always played in reference to the discussions around Maya Deren.  Thousands of words were written and much gas emitted spent talking about the migration from Europe to the USA of the leading avant-gardist lights during the inter-war period.  Less time was spent on the mainstream foundational actuality of film and video at the time, the context in which “the artists” were able to juxtapose their films.  One name I recall but have heard very little of since is that of Alice Guy-Blaché who, on July 1, should have the world celebrate the 137th anniversary of her birth.

It is difficult to imagine how the reactionary avant-garde would interpret and reinterpret its own narratives through the medium of film (and later, video), had it not been for the introduction of linear fictional narrative into the mainstream (or at least what constituted a mainstream in those seminal years) cinema of the time.  The experimentation with medium and the modes of effect are, very broadly, common elements that summon a direct link between the early experimentations of the inventor of motion picture film, Louis Le Prince, and the films of committed Dada/Surrealists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.  Both, in essence, unsurprisingly focus on the curiosity of movement either, say, through Le Prince’s documentation or Man Ray’s performances.  The early cinema was one of the most progressive and transformative mediums ever created and practitioners such as the Lumière brothers, Émile Reynaud, or Georges Méliès were instrumental in developing a visual art-based aesthetic for a mass audience. And though largely forgotten, one person was largely instrumental for developing the medium of film as cinema.

Léon Gaumont hired Alice Guy in 1894 at the age of twenty-one as a secretary for the still film-photography company that he worked for at the time.  The organization was soon declared bankrupt and Gaumont the following year set up his own moving-image film production company.  The company, which is still in operation, is the oldest surviving film production company in the world.  For the ten years spanning 1896 to 1906, Alice Guy was Gaumont’s Head of Production and was involved in the writing, production, and direction of films — the number of which is unknown but believed to between seven hundred to a thousand.  She is quietly credited as having developed narrative structure in filmmaking.  She was the first filmmaker to create genre films, writing, producing, and directing everything from slapstick comedy to domestic abuse dramas (in fact, in retrospect an interesting, though harrowing, double-bill would be Guy’s The Stepmother and Bresson’s Mouchette.  Understandably, Guy is more sympathetic to her heroine).  At the time, Guy oversaw Gaumont as the largest film production company in the world.

In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blaché, who was appointed as Gaumont’s United States production manager.  Three years later, the Guy-Blachés formed their own production company, The Solax Company.  With Alice Guy-Blaché as creative director, Solax was to become so successful that they were able to invest over $100,000 in a new studio and production facility to rival their neighbors in New Jersey — home, at the time, to the American film industry.

Film and video are my first love and for me, there are no differences between a video artist, an artist filmmaker, a feature filmmaker, or a documentary maker – all are classed under artists of the craft of moving image.  That Alice Guy-Blaché utilized film as a narrative storytelling device, and that audiences were extremely receptive to this offer of hers, does not detach from the fact that Maya Deren (as an example) appropriated what would soon be termed “cinematic” techniques.  The recent surge in feature-length artist’s films means that artists, too, have to borrow these techniques in order to sustain an audience’s engagement in an auditorium setting, be it a gallery or film theater.  Her legacy is very clear on this.

There remains one glaring omission from this post, but I am not writing about Women’s Cinema or women in cinema.  In terms of skill — actual, fertile skill — it is irrelevant that Alice Guy-Blaché and Maya Deren were women. Indeed, I have not at all mentioned the work of Germaine Dulac, who began her filmmaking career during the Great War. However, the legacy of women filmmakers, starting in the post-war period and continuing through the 20th century, has been bound within certain iconic figures whose successful creative and intellectual ambitions have been celebrated.  In deference to this point, is it important that Guy-Blaché and Deren were making films of their own creative endeavour, essentially only assisted by their husbands, despite how the films are credited (and in the partisan account described by Stan Brakhage in Film at Wit’s End)?  It is more than probable, yes.  Is it coincidental that Solax folded after the Guy-Blachés divorced in 1921 and, despite her track record, that Alice was never able to make another film where Herbert Blaché was?  It is more than likely not.

In particular, there has been this one female filmmaker in my head recently and it has made me wonder about the opportunities that are afforded to women in filmmaking when their background is trained in the fine arts.  Indeed, the best feature-length artist’s moving image works that I have seen in the past year or so have been Helen by Christine Malloy and Joe Lawlor, Tacita Dean’s Craneway Event and the outstanding Game Keepers Without Game by Emily Wardill — all of which have had extensive distribution, recognition, and exhibition.  The name Alice has been an enduring symbol in the language of cinema; today, as much as ever, it should be celebrated.