Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Last night I watched Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché on TCM — it is one of the most creative documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’ve been having trouble focusing on television lately, and this show not only grabbed my attention but energized my brain. The film is available to rent or buy at Amazon and other outlets. I bought a copy because I want to study how the documentary was made and to be sure I have a copy for the future.

Now I know most people won’t be interested in silent movies, or even a history of silent movies, but if you are interested in the history of film, storytelling, creativity, women’s rights, memory, unearthing history, or how to make a powerful documentary, then you will be interested in Alice Guy-Blaché.

Not only is Alice Guy-Blaché as important to the early cinema as better known filmmakers like D. W. Griffith but her career began right after the Lumière brothers gave their first presentation in 1895. Most of the creative people from the silent film era are forgotten, as are the films they produced. Be Natural is about how history forgets and remembers. Be Natural is also about how we tragically ignore women. Be Natural inspires viewers by reconstructing Alice Guy-Blaché’s reputation. On another level, I also enjoyed seeing how such historical sleuthing is persued. (It’s important we save everything.)

One of my hobbies is scanning old magazines, and the value of old magazines turned up in this film. Alice Guy-Blaché’s work was often written about while she was making her movies, so old magazines offer proof of what she accomplished. Even the early historians of the cinema overlooked these sources when they were writing the first books about the silent era. They interviewed men, and many, if not most of those men conveniently forgot the contributions of women. Those early histories of the silent film often attributed male directors to Alice’s films. Just imagine how pained Alice would have been when her own husband started grabbing her credit after they divorced.

Even if you don’t care about feminism, history, or movies, you should still consider watching this documentary. Modern documentaries have become very sophisticated in recent years, especially after Ken Burns. Quality documentaries often seem to follow the same techniques with emerging filmmakers trying to add a few new creative touches.

I felt Be Natural extended documentary techniques in several ways, and I think that’s partly due to the growing success of documentaries and even YouTube. Within the documentary, they pointed out that in the early days of cinema everyone was amateurs trying to figure out how to use the new invention, the movie camera, and today, YouTube is full of amateurs trying to figure out that new medium. This causes people to experiment, inspire, and even steal from each other, so we’re seeing a perfect storm of creativity.

Cheap technology allows bold individuals to compete with industry professionals. There’s all kinds of innovations going on in documentaries today. Be Natural has Hollywood support and is a slick production, yet it tells a very personal story on two levels. Upfront is the mystery of Alice Guy-Blaché, but behind the scenes is the story of how Pamela B. Green and Joan Simon track down her story. Their historical detective work is compelling and inspirational, and they include some of the details of how it was done, which I loved. Watching this film made me wish I had a subject I loved so much as they did.

I highly recommend Be Natural. “Be Natural” is a sign that Alice Guy-Blaché posted in her studio to inspire her actors. If you know anything about silent films then you’ll know that was one way she set herself apart.

Jim

 

 

Reliving Recorded Reality

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, November 30, 2019

Humans are known for their self-awareness, but we’re also reality aware. Before our species evolved its higher awarenesses Earth was covered with countless species who just existed. Grazing animals grazed, carnivorous animals hunted, fish swam, birds flew, snakes slithered, and none of them paid much attention to themselves or reality. They just did their thing. Reality unfolded in an infinite variety of creations. Probably, always has, always will.

Then we come along and said to ourselves “Hey, I’m here. What’s going on?” At first, all we did was think and talk, ooh and aahed, bitched and moaned. Along the way, we began to remember, and then to think and talk about the past. Finally, some cave person painted something on the wall, and said, “This is something I saw.” Thus began our long history of wanting to record reality.

Many of us spend more time reliving recorded reality than we do just existing. Just existing is what gurus teach. Be here now. I don’t follow their advice.

We record our reality for many reasons. Often we just want to remember. Sometimes its for art. Other times its because we can’t let go. Last night I watched The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, a documentary about a photographer who shared his New York City loft with jazz musicians and recorded the sessions with photography and tape recorders. This documentary is free to watch if you have Amazon Prime.

W. Eugene Smith was a major photographer who worked for Life Magazine before and during WWII. Smith was a wildly productive picture taker, overly-obsessed even. After recovering from injuries he received doing battlefield photography, he took the above photo, A Walk to the Paradise Garden. Smith then went back to work on several large photo projects, but couldn’t settle down.  He left his family and moved into a rundown loft in the flower district of NYC in 1957. From then until 1965 he recorded 4,000 hours of audio and took over 40,000 photographs from the windows of his loft, or the jazz musicians who came to jam.

Watching The Jazz Loft perfectly illustrates our effort to record reality. Smith assumed what the musicians were doing was important and should be preserved. I spent an hour and a half of my life last night reliving what he had recorded by watching a documentary that other people spent years to make by studying those recordings. Jazz musicians also study Smith’s recordings to see how musicians they admired jammed and practiced. Photographers study Smith’s work. Historians of New York study those photographs and tapes.

W. Eugene Smith experienced reality deeply by working so hard to record it. Watching what Smith recorded helps us appreciate our place in reality. Not only are we aware of our own existence, and the reality in which we exist, but we take those awarenesses to meta-levels by recording them and then reliving reality while thinking about all of this at higher levels of reflection and contemplation.

Pay attention to how much you observe reality first hand, and how much is second, or even third hand. Watching TV involves several layers of recorded reality. A movie might be based on a novel where the author tried to capture a primary experience. Then screenwriters reinterpreted that novel by their experiences. Then actors and a director added their interpretations based on their personal experiences in reality. The film is further shaped by the cinematographer and film editor. And, when the story was filmed, the cameras captured a staged version of a creative past reality in the existing real reality. It’s like two mirrors reflecting back and forth.

Art is part of reality, but it also apes reality. The above photograph represents an actual moment in Smith’s life when two of his children walked out of the dark and into the light. It’s a very sentimental view of reality and childhood. In the documentary his son talks about the day the photograph was created. Smith had his children do their little walk over and over again. So what we see is artificial and real at the same time.

I often ask myself should I be pursuing direct experiences of reality or allow myself to enjoy reliving recording reality. I have friends who love to travel. They consider traveling the best possible experience a person can have. I often feel guilty because most of my experiences in retired life are based on reliving reality. I find art more rewarding than travel. In fact, the only incentive for me to travel is to see original art elsewhere.

My waning years are all about reliving recorded reality. I sometimes worry that I don’t spend enough time experiencing primary reality, but I also wonder if those real experiences aren’t an illusion too, aren’t that primary. We can’t leave reality. Moving from one location on Earth to another might feel more thrilling, more real, more important, but is it? It’s not where you are but what you do.

The reason why The Jazz Loft is so inspirational is it tells us about a time when many very creative people hung out and were very productive at being creative. That loft, that location in time and space is important because a parade of extremely talented people gathered together. It was a locus of admirable activity. If you think about it, such loci of creativity become special to us, and documentaries and books are often about them.

Sensualists are often travelers, especially ones who like to eat, drink, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of foreign places. Artists are people who like to create new things in reality. Scientists are people who like to measure reality. But it is us philosophers who like to relive and analyze reality.

My reality at the moment is trying to recapture the philosophical insights I felt while watching a documentary last night about people who lived in a rundown building in 1957-1965. I went to sleep last night wearing headphones playing The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall, a recording of a live performance, which I had seen the musicians practiced for at Smith’s loft in the documentary. In the future, I will listen to other musicians I saw in the documentary, and I will study Smith’s photography. I have already gotten a lot out of that 90 minutes watching The Jazz Loft. I will go on to get more. I may rewatch it in the future. I’ve also got the experience of writing this essay. Reality is endlessly fascinating when you think about it.

JWH

 

 

Ken Burns Chronologically – The History of the United States

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

While watching the new Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, I realized that his documentaries often cover the same time periods but through different subjects. For example, in this new series, I was enamored with how country music was spread in the early days of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Burns had also covered radio tangentially in his series Jazz, specifically in the film Empire of the Air, and to a lesser extent in such series as The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and other shows. We forget, and I guess for the young, they never imagined, that radio had the society changing impact of the smartphone.

This got me to thinking. Instead of watching Ken Burns films by subject, what if I watched them by time periods? I then made a Google Spreadsheet of all of Ken Burns’ films and sorted the episodes by date. (This is a crude start I hope to refine over time. I “borrowed” the descriptions from Wikipedia and Ken Burn’s websites.)

Let’s say I wanted to focus on the 1920s and get a multi-dimensional view of that decade, I could watch these episodes and films:

  • Empire of the Air
  • Jazz – “The Gift” – episode 2
  • Country Music – “The Rub” – episode 1
  • The Roosevelts – “The Storm” – episode 4
  • Baseball – “4th Inning: A National Heirloom” – episode 4
  • The National Parks – “Going Home” – episode 4
  • Jazz – “Our Language” – episode 3
  • Jazz – “The True Welcome” – episode 4 (first part)
  • The Dust Bowl – “The Great Plow-Up” – episode 1 (second part)

And then supplement those with parts of:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
  • The Mayo Clinic
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Thomas Hart Benton

Now I’m thinking about all the everyday history Burns hasn’t covered. I wish he would do documentary series on:

  • Feminism – especially the first and second-wave feminists. He’s got a start with Not For Ourselves Alone about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I wish Burns would film the book Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith which is about the rise of feminism, abolitionists, the temperance movement, and spiritualism in America from 1848-1900. Goldsmith also covered Stanton and Anthony.
  • Science Fiction in America – how did the genre evolve. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain wrote science fiction, as did many other Americans in the 19th century. Did cowboys discuss Frankenstein and Jules Verne out on the prairie? Show how science fiction developed in the dime novel, pulp magazines, on the radio, in movie serials, newspaper comic strips,  comic books, hardbacks, paperbacks, movies, television, and video games.
  • Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and Bookstores in America. How did we become a nation of readers?
  • Rock and roll – give it the same treatment as country music and jazz.
  • The History of High Fidelity in America. About how recorded music technologically evolved.
  • The Transcendentalists. Include Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson.

There’s an unlimited supply of everyday history I’d love to see. That’s what I love most about Ken Burns’ films, they are so visual.

JWH

 

 

 

What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”

JWH

 

Corrupt Biblical Archaeology

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 17, 2019

Yesterday I encountered two reports of Biblical scholarship that depressed the hell out of me. I’m an atheist, but I find historical biblical research fascinating. The first encounter was with the new issue of Harper’s Magazine and its story “Common Ground: The politics of archaeology in Jerusalem” by Rachel Poser, a senior editor for the magazine. (Harper’s offers one free article a month to read behind its paywall, so if you click the link it will count.) Poser’s report is about how right-wing activists have coopted archeology to justify Israel’s reclaiming land in Jeruselum. It’s a long, but fascinating report about right-wing politicians and zealots corrupting the science of archaeology, and their feuds with secular scholars who are seeking an unbiased understanding of the past.

My second encounter was last night on Netflix with the third episode of The Bible’s Buried Secrets entitled “The Real Garden of Eden.” Host Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor at the University of Exeter makes a rather strained case that a garden in a palace of ancient Jeruselum was the Garden of Eden, and Adam was their king. Stavrakopoulou uses almost no quotes from Genesis and builds her argument with an hour’s worth of archaeological evidence that seems flimsy at best. I can’t prove she’s wrong, but I’ve heard much better theories.

In both of these encounters with Biblical archaeology, it was obvious that science was being corrupted by shoehorning evidence to fit a cherished hypothesis. Of course, for thousands of years, humans have used ancient scripture as a kind of legal precedent to justify their claims. In both the article and documentary, archaeologists cherry-picked their findings and didn’t offer opposing evidence, either from valid scientists or their counterpart ax-grinders.

If you read the articles returned in this Google search, you’ll see many challenges to Stravrakopoulou’s hypothesis. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a theory, everyone has their evidence. There are scholars who pursue rigorous biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology, but how do we tell the cranks from honest academics?

Actually, a good place to start is Wikipedia’s entry on The Garden of Eden. At least it summarizes the complexity of the problem. Rachel Poser’s description of Elad’s effort to prove the biblical David existed and the sites Elad’s archaeologists were excavating belong to David’s kingdom are simplistic in their logic and evidence. Stavrakopoulou case for Eden is also simplistic. And if you pay attention to any of the popular documentaries about biblical history and archaeology, they’re often simplistic too. Everyone seems to be trying to deceive other people into accepting their pet theories. Is there any way of not being conned?

First of all, does the Garden of Eden or King David really matter to the modern world? I would distrust anyone who uses any biblical history as validation for any present-day disputes over morality, ethics, land, laws, etc. They are only academic issues. Researching history, and evaluating it with archaeological evidence is a fun intellectual pursuit. But if you use it for any kind of justification of action, then it’s a complete fallacy.

I find it insane that modern minds use ancient thoughts to rationalize how we should live today. We should have laws against using old beliefs for legal precedent. Read Poser’s article. It’s horrifying how we’re using three-thousand-year-old fables to kill each other.

To Christians and Jews, the world began four thousand years ago, and they struggle to overlay that fantasy onto reality. They ignore the fact that more ancient civilizations surrounded the Levant even at the time of Genesis. Even when Adam and Eve were supposed to be walking in the Garden of Eden humans had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, or that David’s Kingdom was an itty-bitty bump in the road between two vast empires.

I don’t know why western civilization is so focused on the tiny Holy Lands of the Bible when Earth is thousands of times bigger. It’s as if we all have a kind of history myopia that fails to see the planet and its history as a whole. I think the main problem is we’re raised with only one set of myths. Would we be more rational if our parents sent us to a different church/temple/synagogue/mosque/shrine every week as a child? Our insanity seems to come from trying to rationalize one viewpoint at the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis is a wonderful work of literature from pre-history. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to understand why it was written, by who, and when. But imagine if three thousands years from now, people revered a copy of Gone with the Wind as their only source of American history.

One solution might be to invite Asian archaeologists to dig up the Holy Lands, ones who had never been exposed to The Bible.

JWH