Monday 28 June 2010

A simple test and a challenge

The New Zealand Film Festival is on soon and in the spirit of women movie making I propose a challenge to you, dear readers. Whether you'll be seeing films within the festival or outside of it, whether you are seeing them in New Zealand or elsewhere, I challenge you!

Challenge #1: The Bechdel Test

One of my dear readers (Thank you Melody!) posted an interesting video on this blog's facebook page recently. Here it is

The Bechdel Test is the application of certain criteria to films, allowing for a study of representation of women in films. The criteria are the following:
  • Does the film have two or more women in it who have names?
  • Do these women talk to each other?
  • Do they talk about something else than men?
From now on when you go to the movies keep an eye out for these criteria. You'll be surprised (or maybe not) just how many films, old and new, do not even pass this simple test. In the 21st century, kinda astounding.

Challenge #2: Find films to watch that pass the Bechdel test

Pretty straight forward that one. Once you have watched a few of these Bechdel-films, ask yourself are these films feminist films or just films in certain cinematic genres that happen to pass the Bechdel test? Are they good films? Would they be better films if the same story had been told with male characters?

Then ask yourself, why are there so many films that get produced that do not have more than one female character (criterion here simply being a female with a name)? And why on earth do female characters when there are more than one of them often only talk about men?

I find this cinematic reality absolutely devastating! What does that say about women? What does it communicate to women (and men) about women, our place in storytelling, in the context of a film's world and the real world? Are women not worthy of an equal presence in stories, in cinema, in the arts? Are we not as interesting, challenging, funny, dangerous, brave, mischievous etc as male characters?

Why is it that in the 21st century it is still the most difficult thing to achieve in storytelling to get a male audience to identify with female characters and therefore watch them on screen, read about them in books, listen to their song? How come women are allowed and expected to identify with male characters on screen (and therefore buy movie tickets) but men do not seem to be?

Maybe, just maybe, when we start to be aware of the reality of a cinema without an equal female voice, be it through a film's characters, through story-writing or directing, we will start to demand that this voice be heard. I challenge you to be a part of this change. Women and men, go and write about about women, seek women's stories! We have a right to tell them, we have a right have them told - as equals of men. And our stories are just as beautiful, exciting, gut-wrenching, devastating and hopeful as any man's story. 

Friday 25 June 2010

Herstory: Alice Guy-Blaché

Zoje Stage, in her recent guest post on Kid in the Front Row asked, 'Are you familiar with Alice Guy-Blaché?' My answer was a resounding 'No...', which is a real shame because Alice Guy-Blaché was seriously amazing, a force majeure behind groundbreaking developments in the early film industry.

Why not knowing about Alice Guy-Blaché may not be entirely due to my own ignorance you can read here in Zoje's enlightening post.

Alice Guy, the youngest of four daughters, was born in Paris in 1873 and grew up in Switzerland, Chile and France. Her father, owner of a chain of book stores, installed in her a love of literature and the arts.

After her father's untimely death, Guy sought financial independence by making a living as a short-hand writer before gaining employment as a sectretary to French movie pioneer Leon Gaumont in 1894.
In 1896, Gaumont agreed to let Guy make her first film, provided she didn't neglect her office duties. Guy made her directorial debut with "La Fee aux Choux" ("The Cabbage Fairy"), a 60-second short film believed (by many) to be the first ever fiction film. This achievement makes Alice Guy-Blaché the first woman if not the first person to use the camera for more than scientific purposes, turning it into a tool  for story telling. In her memoirs, published in 1976, Guy recalls, "If the future development of motion pictures had been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained [Gaumont's] consent. My youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me."

However, with the Cabbage Fairy Guy-Blaché's achievements in film had only just begun. After her first film had sold eighty copies, Gaumont was impressed enough with the young film-maker to  eventually make her head of production of Gaumont films in 1897. Guy-Blaché became a prolific film maker, making films across many genres, including westerns, detective stories, biblical epics, melodramas and romantic comedies, and ranging in length from short shorts to feature films. In the 19 years in her creative role at Gaumont films and in the years after, Guy directed, produced, wrote and/or oversaw an incredible number of films, some hundreds, some even suggest around 1000. The exact number is still a matter of some confusion.

Guy-Blaché's technical expertise and inventiveness also rivals her male contemporaries and journalists praised the 'polished' look of her films. Using the Chronophone, a vertical-cut sound-on-disc device invented by Gaumont in 1902, Guy-Blaché made over 100 sound films, long before synchronised sound became standard in film-making. Guy-Blaché also used special effects such as double exposure masking techniques or running film backwards, and once exploded a ship off the Jersey Shore instead of using a model. Guy-Blaché also had a special talent for drawing sensitive performances from her actors - allegedly simply by hanging up signs around the studio reading 'Be natural' or 'Act natural' but I'm fairly certain that this is not the whole story.

In 1907, shortly after her wedding to Herbert Blaché, Alice Guy-Blaché followed her husband to the United States where he had been appointed production manager for Gaumont films. Three years later the couple founded their own studio, The Solax Company, the largest studio in America until Hollywood. Alice Guy-Blaché was artistic director and directed many of the studio's films herself. On the back of its successful films the Solax Company expanded its production facilities with their studio  plant in Fort Lee, New Jersey quickly becoming the film capital of America. Alice Guy-Blaché became the first woman to own and run a studio plant!

Kristin M Jones, writes Guy-Blaché's 'visual flair, use of real locations and imaginative scripts for comedies and dramas defined the Gaumont style. Before Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, she directed hilariously deadpan slapstick comedies, such as "Le Matelas alcoolique" or "Le Matelas épileptique" ("The Alcoholic Mattress" or "The Epileptic Mattress," 1906), in which a drunk is sewn into bedding. And before D.W. Griffith, she used expressive close-ups in the saucy "Madame a des envies" ("Madame Has Cravings," 1906), about a pregnant woman who steals and savors phallic treats.'

Above: Doris Kenyon as Millie Jessup, The Ocean Waif in The Ocean Waif (1916).

Unfortunately Solax folded in 1914 with the decline of the film industry on the American East Coast. The Blachés divorced and eventually also ended their film and business partnership. Post-Solax Guy-Blaché 'brought increasing emotional depth to her female characters,' particularly to heronines the likes of Millie Jessup in the melodrama "The Ocean Waif" (1916)'. Upon return to France in 1922 Guy-Blaché's career as a film-maker came to an abrupt end. She failed to get any directing work and instead worked as a writer for magazines, gave film lectures and wrote novels from film scripts as well as children's books.

Alice Guy-Blaché was a major contributor in shaping early film history.  That few have heard of her is probably partially due to the fact that most of her work had gone missing for much part of the 20th century. Sadly, when Guy-Blaché passed away in 1968, aged 98, she believed that almost none of her films had survived. However, today about 130 of her films have been rediscovered. Nonetheless, the loss of so many of Guy-Blaché's films cannot explain satisfactorily why her male contemporaries, such as D. W. Griffith, are so widely known but it has not been until very recently that the world has taken some notice of her extraordinary achievements.

It makes me wonder how many amazing achievements by women across all fields of human experience and human industry have been forgotten, brushed aside and denied over the centuries and millennia past? Are we ever going to be bothered to rewrite his-tory and make it our-story?


Sources and further reading:
Alice Guy-Blaché on Wikipedia and imbd
Teo Kermeliotis, CNN The Screening Room, Alice Guy-Blaché: Unsung heroine of early cinema
Kristin M Jones, The Wall Street Journal, A Ground Breaker in So Many Ways
Alison McMahan, Alice Guy-Blaché: The Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Continuum, New York and London, 2003)
The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché, (The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1996)
Watch Falling Leaves (1912) here

Monday 14 June 2010

In progress *updated*

Just a quick update. I am still working on the next Herstory post. It is going very slowly, sentence by sentence almost. It is Meisner time again tonight, too. First class with scripted scenes. I'm off book, we have blocked our scene in rehearsal and are so so excited to see what will happen tonight. I'm shooting a short film on Saturday and am still busy learning the lines. And maybe there will be a paid job for me tomorrow. I'll keep you posted!

Update on the update: I got the job and shot my very first ever TVC on Wednesday! Not much acting required but my hands (next to the product) are the star of the ad... Everything was done within an hour and the client was so happy that he asked me to do this shoots on a regular basis, once or twice a month and a couple of times a year half to full day productions with some actual TVC acting. This gig won't make me rich but it is paid, it's regular and it's is something new for my CV. Lets see how that works out. I am very excited but can't quite believe my luck yet!

The rest of the week was spend trying my hardest to make teething less painful, awful and disturbing for my son. He's getting a set of giant molars. They are evil. Poor little guy. Dad is on duty tomorrow while I'm shooting that short film. Sunday may be the day for some Herstory?!

Tuesday 8 June 2010


It was a class of breakthroughs last night. It was wonderful. We struggled, we fought, we committed, and broke through. My scene partner and I performed one of the best improvised scenes our teacher has ever seen (her words not mine) and I found an instant connection with my new scene partner and our scene on the first read through. It was an all around beautiful class. Sigh - I love acting!

Monday 7 June 2010

Frustration, exhilaration

My last acting class didn't go so well. It was slightly frustrating. I was slightly frustrating. It wasn't a complete catastrophe but - somehow worse - really flat. As with any learning process, I guess, I hit a phase where I  feel like nothing goes. All night long I felt like I didn't apply myself enough but somehow didn't manage to give more and as if I just didn't get what was asked of me. By the end of class my head was spinning and I began to dread the next time.

I really wanted to blame the cold, the stress, the lack of sleep. While all of the above are true to some extend, there is absolutely no use in whining about them and even less in blaming them for not doing better. There will be times where I'll be in a play or shooting a film where I will have a cold, be stressed out and tired. Doing a bad job is not an option then. The rule of the professional actor is that: Always give your best. No one cares that you're having a shit day, or at least very few people do. So, just because my three hours on Tuesday nights are a class, doesn't mean that this rule doesn't apply, right?!

I have not been beating myself up about last week's class but instead have put in more work in preparation for tonight's class. Tonight I'm going to leave myself alone and just work moment to moment with my preparation in the back of my mind. It will be a challenge but what would learning be without challenges?

On a much more positive note: The Wednesday after my naff Meisner class, I had my last American Accent Class with Jade. We had been doing monologues for the last while, so we all got up in turn, performed our bit and then ironed out the kinks with Jade's help. Jade is very thorough and challenges you to pay attention to detail but at the same time work with her feels very organic. I must admit that at the start of the course I had my doubts that I would ever be able to adapt my accent. At the end of the last class however, I was told that I had come along very well and my monologue sounded very nicely American. I was very relieved and very proud! All those walks with the baby, him peering at me slightly bemused, reciting my monologue really did pay off!

The great thing about the way Jade teaches is that you end up with the ability to break down any piece of text into what it sounds like in gen Am. I am not yet ready to walk into a room and improvise my way through a scene speaking in gen Am. I can however look at a text and learn to perform the material in gen Am fairly quickly. All this in about 22 hours of classroom time! I highly recommend it!

To stay in shape with my new skill, I have taken to reading to my son in gen Am. He always thinks I'm awesome when I read to him (he's one) but I'm hoping to also wow a casting director sometime soon.

So while I felt a bit stink about Meisner, I feel like a million bucks - US!