It’s funny to me how often history repeats itself. How true the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is. How through the past we find our present and, sometimes, our very destiny.
Look to the movie Booksmart being released in theaters this weekend (May 24th, 2019) as a starting and ending point for this notion. It’s a film directed by female actress Olivia Wilde who, whether she was influenced directly or indirectly by this figure remains to be seen, follows in the footsteps of another American female actress turned director Lois Weber. Lois was a filmmaker at a time when in society, only men were seen as leaders of industry. Only men were capable of command, be it in war or in art. Cut to the present day, and women are still fighting to be heard from in Hollywood. There are victories here and there, but much progress is still to be made.
Lois Weber plays but a small role in the story of Alice Guy-Blache as showcased and revealed in the absolutely stunning chronicle Be Natural, but it is representative of the trials and turmoils that women of prominence face all over the world. In Be Natural, Lois Weber is depicted with speculation and mystery. What is known about her is expressed for sure, but certain deeds, certain methods to get ahead in career and life are hinted at, all at the expense of Alice Guy-Blache, the very first female filmmaker.
Nothing about that aside is definite or proven, as present-day filmmaker and researcher Pamela Green sifts through dusty boxes upon dusty boxes of photos, letters, and silent film reels to conjure and cull together a tale of a true original that almost faded away to the horrid ravages of lost memory. It’s a small anecdote in a life most fulfilling for Alice, who in late 1800s Paris took to the new invention of the motion picture camera with imagination, grace, wonder, and confidence in spite and despite this being a medium not yet understood or fully acknowledged. Through desktop globe-trotting skype conversations and multiple sit-downs with famous contemporary visual artists, a genealogy-like thread is painted into being, interspersed with rare footage of Alice herself discussing her accomplishments in the twilight of her time.
Be Natural is thoughtful and dedicated to the mission of history and the contrasting of then to now. As it stands, it’s essential for cinephiles and students and even casual moviegoers to watch and appreciate the pioneering nature of cinema’s early days, where everything was still being built. Where people dared to dreams and act upon those dreams. Where a woman took these new tools and forged a form of entertainment, of storytelling, and of spotlighting the human condition for the world and maybe, someday, beyond. My meager and limited knowledge of this time period is completely upended and yet most thankful for this film and to these women.
“The more things change…”
In the beginning, there was Alice Guy-Blache, mothering what would become cinema. Now, at the cusp of the so-called end of cinema as we know it, women are slowly but surely taking back their roles within. Will movie theaters survive? What will become of feature filmmaking in this new golden age of serialized TV most on-demand? Will the magic of the light dissolve and flicker away? And what of the place of women, people of color, and purveyors for inclusion in this space?
If Be Natural teaches anything, it’s that time moves forward, but people can travel onward or backward at will. We yearn for discoveries, those yet to happen and those mostly forgotten. Whatever the case, we’ll still be watching. We’ll still be making. We’ll still be searching. We’ll still be learning. We’ll still be fighting.
A world without film? I’m thankful to have been born well into its then decades-old existence. I’m thankful for what comes next and to those who’ll make it all. I’m thankful to Alice Guy-Blache and all women filmmakers. A world without them? That’s not a just place to live.
Could Be Natural, with its on-screen pictures and document scans, with its heart for what was lost and its soul for what can be found, be any more stunning? Maybe if Alice rode a dragon. Instead, she led behind a camera. Both breathe fire, so let’s call it a day.
RATING: 5 / 5
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache screens at The Prytania starting this weekend.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.