A feminist reader in early cinema
By Jennifer M. Bean
Duke University Press ISBN: 0-8223-2999-9
Circuits of Memory and History
The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blache
But for all that I now knew that I was not in any of the houses of which the ignorance of the waking moment had, in a flash, if not presented me with a distinct picture, at least persuaded me of the possible presence, my memory had been set in motion; as a rule I did not attempt to go to sleep again at once, but used to spend the greater part of the night recalling our life in the old days at Combray with my great-aunt, at Balbec, Paris, Doncieres, Venice, and the rest; remembering again all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me.-Marcel Proust
The majority of the work concerning the world's first woman filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blache, has been produced under the rubric of remembering her: writings and films about her seek to recollect and retrieve her lost work and her "lost" place in history. For instance, one of the first essays to initiate some revived interest in Guy-Blache, by film historian Francis Lacassin, is titled "Out of Oblivion: Alice Guy-Blache." In this short piece, printed in Sight and Sound in 1971, Lacassin declares: "Inaugurated in the prehistoric period and over before the history of the cinema was born, Alice Guy's career on both sides of theAtlantic has been either forgotten or attributed to other people." Gerald Peary's "Czarina of the Silent Screen: Solax's Alice Blache," originally published in the Velvet Light Trap in 1974, opens similarly: "Look through Rotha or Jacobs or Knight or any of the standard histories of the cinema and you will not find any reference to the existence of Alice Guy-Blache, though she directed approximately 270 films in the early silent era." In fact, she was responsible for the production of more than seven hundred films, most of which have also disappeared.
Moreover, as Peary's above statement illustrates, the breadth of Guy-Blache's cinematic output is often contrasted in those works that lament her "disappearance" from history. So, in an open statement concerning "Woman and the Formal Film," issued in 1979, a group of feminist filmmakers and scholars make the following proclamation: "Alice Guy is not represented in 'Film as Film' [a British film journal] and has scarcely been recognized anywhere. She was actively involved in film-making at the turn of the century, experimenting with narrative structures and the use of sound with film, but has long been forgotten by historians. Why are her films forgotten while those of Lumiere and Melies are used as standard texts?" They then offer a general summons to women to fill such gaps in film history. Other works stress the fact that no obituary appeared on Guy-Blache's death in 1968 despite her tremendous labor. Finally, a 1996 documentary about the early filmmaker, The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blache (dir. Marquise Lepage), comments on and corrects this lack of obituary. It ends with a printed coda that appears over an image of her gravestone in New Jersey: "Although she had been decorated by the French government and inducted into the Legion of Honour for her pioneering work in silent pictures, and went on to write, direct, and produce hundreds of films, becoming one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the early days of American cinema, Alice Guy-Blache's contribution to the art of filmmaking was totally forgotten."
These concurrent losses-of films and position in history-are not necessarily coincidences. Indeed, I would contend that the loss of Guy-Blache's place in history largely resulted from the loss of her films. That is, a primary reason why her contribution was "forgotten" is because most of the films shemadewere not preserved, or centrally archived, at the time of their production. Those histories that do exist usually note this lack of availability of her films. At the same time, in their repeated emphases that Guy-Blache's work and life have been forgotten, each of the above works attempts to correct this resultant historical amnesia: each strives to remember Guy-Blache. They do so especially through her writings and the writings of others. In this essay, I consider the peculiarities of the construction of Guy-Blache's history by bringing together written and cinematic forms. What, I ask, might we glean about film history and cinematic form through an analysis of words? Conversely, how might we read these words through film histories and theories of film form? These questions are particularly relevant in a study of a figure like Guy-Blache, whose cinematic works were largely lost and whose written words sought to recollect them.
Although Guy-Blache has begun to appear in standard histories of the cinema since 1990, and her films are now being found throughout the world, acts of remembering, recollecting, and retrieving remain significant on several levels. By definition, they imply a certain repetition: to remember is to bring to mind again; to re-collect is to gather together again or to re-member; and to re-trieve is to get back, to re-store, to re-member. We can thus deduce two important-if somewhat obvious-points concerning this work of remembrance and Alice Guy-Blache. If we are remembering her and recollecting her work, then her work (and our memory of her) has been lost, but at one point her work (and she herself ) were in mind, or known. In other words, she had to have been in mind once to be brought to mind again. Indeed, this is the assertion repeatedly made by those who have attempted to restore Guy-Blache's history.
In their works on autobiography, both Leigh Gilmore and Paul Freeman recognize that repetition, as well as the loss-or erasure-that necessitates it, are inherent in definitions of "remember" and "recollect" (respectively). In Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation, Gilmore emphasizes the repetition inherent in remembering as she scribes the word "re-member"; she then defines it as "both the act of memory and the restoration of erased persons and texts as bodies of evidence." In Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative, Freeman similarly focuses on the inherent repetition and loss inscribed in the word "recollection": "While the 're' makes reference to the past, 'collection' makes reference to a present act, an act ... of gathering together what might have been dispersed or lost." He then goes on to consider the relationship between recollection and writing. He asserts, "Framed another way, the word recollection holds within it reference to the two distinct ways we often speak about history: as the trail of past events or 'past presents' that have culminated in now and as the act of writing, the act of gathering them together, selectively and imaginatively, into a followable story." For Freeman, then, the process of remembering is essential to writing histories. These notions about memory, autobiography, and writing have much to bear on the history of Guy-Blache, since her writings and spoken words are at the fore of all the acts of remembering her.
Recognizing herself that her work and name had been practically erased from film history and thus endeavoring to re-place herself in this history, Guy-Blache took on the task of writing her memoirs. These memoirs (and spoken interviews with her) have now become the dominant history of Guy-Blache; most works that treat her heavily depend on them for facts and the story of her life. So, as the generic name memoirs suggests, the history of Guy-Blache is largely known through her work of remembrance and recollection. This juxtaposition between memory and history is just one of many mergings between apparent oppositions in common representations of Guy-Blache. Another such union exists between the private and public spaces of Guy-Blache's life. Indeed, considering the fact that the process of remembering is normally a personal one, we also might recognize how Guy-Blache's private history (necessarily) became a public one with the publication of her memoirs and their subsequent circulation in writings about her.
The very title of Lepage's documentary, The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blache, exemplifies the common tropes in works on the filmmaker. As it rediscovers her "lost" work, it both separates and conjoins Guy-Blache's "life" and "cinema," posing, then, an intermingling between a private and a public history, as well as the filmmaker's personal and professional status. Such contrasts and connections are not uncommon in representations of women in particular, and they are certainly consistent in almost all texts on Guy-Blache. In fact, as constructed via discursive forms ranging from her memoirs to The Lost Garden to her own filmic works (especially those produced with her production company, Solax), our understanding of Alice Guy-Blache signifies a persistent merging of what might appear to be oppositional practices or spaces: public/private, professional/ personal, institutional/familial, history/memory, fact/fiction, and even image/word.
Moreover, the separate components of each of these sets might also be linked: history is often understood as providing a seemingly objective, institutionalized view that hence circulates in public and professional realms, whereas memory is more often understood as springing from a subjective and private position, one linked to personal and familial arenas. Tracing recent changes in the conception of these phenomena, Pierre Nora argues, "Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition." He then details what positions them oppositionally, for instance, "memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority." History thus appears to have the status of fact, whereas memory-owing to its subjective and hence fallible nature-appears potentially aligned with fiction. Considering, however, that such a notion as history itself guards memory, the movement between these oppositional domains becomes evident and even inevitable. At the same time, the fallibility of history, which often springs from its very institutionalization, suggests a further kinship with memory, as I later sketch. I would add, fallinally, that it might be her very consistent movement between these seeming oppositions that, for decades, had displaced Guy-Blache from broader accounts of film history. As she moves between public and private, professional and personal, factual and fictional realms, we haven't known quite where or how to place her.
Although the image/word dichotomy might appear to be the most puzzling pair I have laid out here, I would like to turn to it now, as it does suggest a way to place Guy-Blache in film history and film historiography. Indeed, it forces us to ask what happens when we seek to recreate a history of a filmmaker, the majority of whose films have been lost. One way to begin this work, as this essay shows, is through the re-collection of images in and from written forms. That is, with the loss of and relative inaccessibility to her cinematic texts, I would suggest that we might read certain written works, like memoirs, not only as historical texts, but also as cinematic ones. In part, we can see the written work as an extension of the author's cinematic production. To this end, then, I am reading the memoirs as histories but also through particular theories of film form. In producing this sort of reading I do not mean to argue that the two forms (written and cinematic) are interchangeable; rather, I would like to suggest that seeing a provocative convergence of these forms can not only reveal insights into the history of the figures but can also suggest a renewed interest in the relation between writing and filmmaking. Finally, as these issues relate to the loss of images and the production of words, we can also see Guy-Blache's memoir-writing as one authorial mode that seeks to recover another form of authorship.
Setting Memory in Motion
Because they inaugurated the re-collection of her history, I focus my subsequent examination on Guy-Blache's memoirs, which are clearly an attempt to reconstruct the author's history through her own recollective processes. The text generally follows a chronological line, if an incomplete, or at least interrupted, one. As the memoirs narrate, Guy-Blache was born in France in 1873, raised briefly in Chile, and returned to France as a young girl for schooling. When her father lost his publishing business in Chile, he moved with the rest of his family back to France, and died soon after. With the death of her brother and the marriages of her sisters, Alice became the primary support for her and her mother. She took stenography lessons (unusual for a woman of the time) and found a job with Leon-Gaumont. When Gaumont began producing films to market with his burgeoning camera production, Guy asked permission to try to make some films as well; soon she became the sole director for the House of Gaumont. There she experimented with a variety of genres and techniques, including the chronophone (an early mechanism to produce sound films).
In 1907 she married Herbert Blache, an agent for Gaumont, and moved to the United States. Blache helped set up Gaumont's American business; Guy-Blache initially assisted him with his work, gave birth to their first child (Simone), and then began a studio of her own, the Solax Company. She had her second child around the same time that she moved Solax from Long Island to Fort Lee, New Jersey. For Solax, she supervised hundreds of films, but the company was dissolved in early 1914. Guy-Blache then went on to work for her husband's new company, Blache Features, as a director and Blache's assistant. Not long after Blache ran off to Hollywood with one of his stars, Guy-Blache followed him in an attempt to repair their marriage. Although she made a number of films for other companies, Guy-Blache suffered great financial loss during this period. After the clear failure of her marriage, she returned to France with her children, where she unsuccessfully sought work in the film industry. She toiled to restore her reputation in film history; she could not retrieve any of her lost films during her lifetime, but she was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1955. Having traveled with her daughter Simone throughout the latter's diplomatic career, mother and daughter retired to the United States, where Guy-Blache was also reunited with her son's family. She died in 1968.
Even though we get this image of Guy-Blache's life, the memoirs seem incomplete. Moreover, the often tangential stories the author tells interrupt the chronological detailing of her life. In this sense, the text seems to exemplify Walter Benjamin's definition of an (anti)autobiography; that is, the memoirs are not an autobiography but a series of reminiscences. In relation to his brief memoirs, "A Berlin Chronicle," Benjamin writes:
Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. ... For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life. Here, I am talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities. For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have at the moment of recollection. This strange form-it may be called fleeting or eternal-is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
Circuits of Memory and History
Guy-Blache's Memoirs are made up of such "moments and discontinuities": throughout the work, one brief story or image begets another and so on, often with seemingly little connection between them. A short text, it includes a series of sketches whose individual length, in a sense, resembles many of her early short films. The sketches tell stories about her life: her upbringing, her entry into film production, her marriage, her move to the United States, and, finally, her relative disappearance from historical records.
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