Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Gaumont Treasures DVD 1: Alice Guy (Part 1)

The Gaumont Treasures DVD is a collection of three DVDs highlighting the work of three French directors (from Gaumont studios) from the early days of cinema. The first disc is the early work of Alice Guy. I'm not giving each film its own review because, well, some of these films go for a minute, and I don't really want to have to write more than one sentence about some of the others. The reason I have split this review up into parts, rather than just reviewing it all after I have watched it is because, quite frankly, if I don't write this down immediately, I'll probably forget what half these films were. Okay, so here we go.

Oh, by the way, these films are in chronological order, so in addition to talking briefly about each film, I'll maybe bring up how it affects Guy's progression as a film maker.

The Fisherman and the Stream: I put this DVD in, and this is the first thing that greets me. "Oh jeez," I think to myself, "this is going to be one boring arsed DVD." It's a minute long, and it's a fisherman getting pushed into the river by some young men. It is not a good start.

Bathing in the Stream: Then this starts, and I think, "are all these films about people in streams? What the fuck is this?" But no, this one isn't just about people in streams, it's also about dogs in streams. So there's Guy's first evolutionary step as a director: she added a dog.

Serpentine Dance by Mme. Bob Walker: And then this starts, and finally I can see hope. I mean, it isn't a great film, or anything, but it's visually quite interesting, and it doesn't play like someone you don't care about's home movies.

The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man: This "comedy routine" is about a blind man begging for change, but it turns out (ho ho ho) he's not blind at all! Many of the films on this disc are like this. And, okay, I'll buy that people at the turn of the century thought this was funny, but did wouldn't it have been much funnier performed live? What was the point of filming this - it was obviously originally some crummy vaudeville sketch, now they've gone and sucked the colour and audio out, and removed the possibility of audience interaction. Hooray!

At the Hypnotists: Alright, this one was kind of amusing. A woman goes to the hypnotists, and it's pretty obvious that Guy just discovered the jump cut, because everyone's clothes keep changing! This is the other type of comedy on this disc - clothes changing magically. It is strangely more interesting than the bad vaudeville stuff.

The Burglars: This one is so incomprehensible and poorly laid out, I don't really know what's supposed to be happening. I mean, okay, I get that some burglars break in to a house, the police come, and then the burglars... beat them up... with the art they just stole? Huh? Wha'? And it's all set on this bizarre rooftop set, which doesn't simplify matters at all.

Disappearing Act: This one's on the exact same set as At the Hypnotists, but is much less good. It's the same sort of idea - fun with jump cuts, but some of them are pretty poorly handled, and I don't know why they used a monkey suit. This is another one of those things that would have maybe been fun to watch on stage, but here, when it is so obvious how it is all done, it's just unimpressive.

Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak: This is another one where I was just "Huh? Wha'?" There's a... house... and some... soldiers (?) ... attack... it... or something? And then it just ends. Like, immediately. It's just bizarre.

At the Club: This is another one of those "comedy routines", except here I can't even tell what the joke is, if there was one. Maybe it was just supposed to be an accurate depiction of life. Two men are playing a game, one of them accuses the other of cheating, they get in a fight. THE END.

Wonderful Absinthe: This one's actually alright: A guy is at a cafe, he thinks he's drinking water, but it's actually absinthe. He immediately goes berserk. It's kind of funny, and recalls the comic drunkenness that was perfected by the American silent comedians (particularly Chaplin in 1 a.m.) I don't care what anybody says - I find drunk people in silent films funny.

Avenue de l'Opera: It's just regular footage of an ordinary Parisian street but (ho ho ho) the footage is being played backwards! Honestly, I can't really make fun of Alice Guy for this one - I remember in Year 10 Media Studies giggling myself silly at footage of me and my friends doing stupid shit played backwards. It is inexplicably entertaining, although I don't know why she felt compelled to release it commercially - perhaps because people at the time didn't have access to iMacs and cheap cam corders.

Automated Hat-Maker and Sausage-Grinder: This one is kind of funny as well. I mean, yeah, it's stupid, and everything is summed up in the title, but hell, it only runs for a minute - it's like a 1900s Far Side cartoon or something.

At the Photographer's: I assume this is Guy venting about all the stupid morons she dealt with as a photographer. A man goes to a photographer to get a photo of himself, but refuses to sit still. The photographer gets increasingly more and more annoyed, a confrontation ensues, the camera is broken, the end. It's not a good film or anything, but it's better than some of the other bad vaudeville sketches, because it feels oddly personal.

Dance of the Seasons: Winter, Snow Dance: When I saw this title I thought to myself, "oh good, we're going to get something else cool looking, like the Serpentine Dance." But it's actually pretty boring, as dances go. The only interesting thing about it is the fact that people are very obviously standing just outside of frame, throwing handfuls of snow at the dancer.

The Landlady: Filmed vaudeville with little to recommend it. It's almost like they hadn't invented the pratfall yet.

Turn-of-the-Century Surgery: I've got no idea what to say about this one. I just... I've got nothing. Wait no, here's something: it's terrible.

Pierette's Escapades: I'm not sure if this was the intent, but I believe this to be the first lesbian relationship portrayed on film. At least, I'm pretty sure it's a lesbian relationship. I mean, one of them is wearing pants, but she clearly has a bust, and is female. I don't know what people at the time thought of this, whether they just went, "that is a woman, but she is pretending to be a man, so it's alright" or what. Also - experiments in colour. Garish, but interesting.

At the Floral Ball: Another experiment in colour. This one is much more boring though. I actually found myself watching the weird gittering colours on the ceiling, rather than the performers.

The Cabbage Patch Fairy: Apparently this was a remake of one of Guy's first films, from before even The Fisherman at the Stream, but I can't really see why she remade it. It isn't interesting. And she decided to remake it again two films later.

Serpentine Dance by Lina Esbrard: I was like, "Serpentine Dance! Hells yeah!" And it was alright, but it wasn't as good as the first one. For one thing her movements were less graceful, as well as less wild. Also, the Lina Esbrard looks like she's really angry to have to be doing it. And at the end, it doesn't seem like she was intending to stop, it seems like she just drop one of the sticks, thought, "fuck it," and walked off.

Midwife to the Upper Class: More involved remake of The Cabbage Patch Fairy. So, okay, obviously Guy likes the imagery of babies coming from cabbages, so let us actually analyse this film. So, okay, cabbages do look pretty vaginal, so it is surreptitiously acknowledging where babies actually do come from, but she is saying that this is where the Upper Class gets their babies from. Maybe the point is that the upper class are so removed from their emotions and their human nature that they are incapable of getting babies the usual way. But because they have repressed the idea of sex, it comes out in twisted and illogical ways, such as getting babies from things that look like (but aren't) vaginas. Or maybe it's just a stupid fucking film.

An Untimely Intrusion: A man and woman are fighting, the cleaner comes in. That's it. Some plates are thrown, but apart from that, there is no point or punchline to this.

Miss Dindee and her Performing Dogs: Man, stuff like this, I always just feel really bad for the dogs. Especially the little one, dressed in the tuxedo. Although at the end I think he gets a blowjob from a dog dressed in a princess outfit, so I guess he's probably alright. It's really difficult to tell what is actually happening at the end, but Miss Dindee sure doesn't want that dog in the dress doing whatever it was doing to the dog in the tuxedo.

How Monsieur Takes His Bath: This is another of those jump cut films, and this one is so bizarre that it's quite entertaining. A man is trying to get undressed to take a bath, but new suit jackets, and vests, and trousers keep appearing on his person whenever he gets the old one off. I don't know what it means or what the point is, but it is oddly fascinating.

Faust and Mephistopheles: This one is fascinating as well, but for different, less good, reasons. I know the story of Faust and Mephistopheles pretty well - I studied Marlowe's play of it at Uni. And I think this is supposed to be the same plot as Marlowe's play except that at no point is it clear who any of the characters are or what the hell is going on. At first I was trying to go, "okay, so that's Helen of Troy... no wait, that's Joan of Arc... oh, she's gone now..." but then I just thought, "fuck it" and watched in detatched fascination as these people appeared and disappeared without any discernable rhyme or reason.

The O'Mers in "The Bricklayers": This one was... terrible. Just terrible. I can actually see how this could be entertaining on the stage, with live performers, but it just fails as a film. There's no logic to any of it - the camera doesn't follow the action, and there's often multiple things happening at the same time, so you just sit there going, "okay, so now he's climbing the ladder... wait, when did he get attached to the rope? And why is that guy rolling around on the ground? The guy fell off the ladder? I didn't see that. Just slow down, goddamnit! I can only focus on one thing at a time!"

The Statue: Well, this didn't have the problem of unintelligable action, but it did have the problem of being bad vaudeville. A statue comes to life and hits people. To be fair, this one wasn't as bad as most of the other actually bad ones, but it was still kind of bad. It did have some nice pratfalls in it towards the end, though, so that was alright.

The Magician's Alms: A rediscovery of the joy of swapping people's clothes. Except this time it isn't so joyous. It's actually kind of boring. Not terrible, but not good. And the characters all act like dicks. Oh, I suppose this is an important evolutionary step in Guy's film making: I'd never been able to tell if her characters where dicks or not before - she has discovered character development. Not particularly well utilised here, but we shall see if it improves.

Okay, so that's it for Part 1 - that's all I could take in one night. Tune in at some undisclosed point in the future for the further adventures of Alice Guy (soon she starts dicking around with sound).

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