First Lady of Film Alice Guy Blaché at the Whitney


Largely written out of U.S. film history, cinema’s first woman director—as well as producer and studio head—Alice Guy Blaché enters the pantheon, or at least the Whitney Museum of American Art, with a three-month, 80-film retro. A French pioneer, Guy Blaché was, for a decade, the prime creative force at the world’s oldest extant studio, Gaumont, and a nickelodeonist in some ways comparable to D.W. Griffith (whom she predates) and Louis Feuillade (who served as her assistant at Gaumont). Relocating to the U.S. in 1910, she established a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and, for another decade, produced longer fare: domestic comedies, family melodramas, social problem films, and adventure movies, often with female protagonists.

Guy Blaché was not an innovator—although she made her first film only months after the Lumière brothers demonstrated their cinématographe in a Paris café and, among hundreds of one- and two-reelers, she directed 150 of the synchronized sound-on-disc variety performances that Gaumont called phonoscènes, as well as a behind-the-scenes actualité, Alice Guy Films a Phonoscène. What is amply apparent in her early work (much now available in the Kino DVD set “Gaumont Treasures”) is her touch. There’s a rapt quality to her documentation of boleros, cake-walks, tangos, and other dance performances; her use of hand-tinting is delicately understated. The Life of Christ (1906), a 33-minute series of tableaux, was Guy Blaché’s nickelodeon spectacular. It’s a credible precursor of the studio blockbuster, but the movies that pack the greatest punch are the slapstick comedies she made at the same time: The Sticky Woman (rampant orality), The Result of Feminism (total role reversal), and Madam Has Cravings (because madam is pregnant), are all robust—even raunchy—efforts, with a decidedly female perspective on male prerogatives.

Also: Newly out on DVD from Icarus Films, Chantal Akerman’s 1993 From the East is, in a way, a movie with some of the fascination of early Guy Blaché—not just because of the filmmaker’s gender, but because, in its essence, From the East is a nickelodeon epic. A travelogue through history, in which Akerman ventures into the newly de-Communized world—driving from eastern Germany across her parents’ native Poland to Russia, ruminating on the landscape or representative individuals within it—the movie could have been made in 1903, save perhaps for its soundtrack. The individual shot is the basic unit, and these shots are largely autonomous. Akerman has described this elegant masterpiece as “documentary bordering on fiction”; it’s also a purely cinematic monument in time and space.