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Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology

Flicker Alley // Unrated // May 26, 2017
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 23, 2017 | E-mail the Author
One of the most damaging ways underrepresented or minority groups have their influence or authority in the world eroded is also the simplest: erasure. Erasure is devious because it relies only on the passage of time and people's unconscious (but socially biased) interpretation of what constitutes historical importance. In 2017, director Patty Jenkins, following a stunning 14-year gap between features (her debut was 2003's Monster, a massive financial success that won Charlize Theron an Academy Award), became the first woman in film history to direct a movie with a budget of over $100m. Given how many $100m+ productions are made by Hollywood every month, much less every year, that statistic is mind-boggling in and of itself, but the injustice of it is only further emphasized by Flicker Alley's essential "Early Women Filmmakers" box set, which provides a crucial, erasure-reversing look at the women who were some of the first and most influential film directors.

"Early Women Filmmakers" was the final project by film preservationist David Shepherd, whose career focused on the restoration of silent films. Through his Blackhawk Films, and with the help of a number of countries all over the world, this box set, subtitled "An International Anthology", assembles 24 films of varying length and one film excerpt as a glimpse into the importance of women's contribution to cinema. The films are spread across three discs, and the box set by Flicker Alley contains separate Blu-ray and DVD editions in their own individual cases -- possibly an eye toward libraries who can get dual usage out of a single purchase. The easiest way to look at the content in the set, given the volume, is to touch on the various filmmakers represented within. Helpfully, each section of a director's work is preceded by a screen or two of text on the director's history, and each film is preceded by a text description of the film.

First up, both in terms of the set and film history, is Alice Guy-Blache. A secretary at Gaumont when the Lumiere brothers unveiled the first projected film, Blache was, at the very least, one of the first two people to look at film as a medium with potential for fictional storytelling, and from 1896 to 1906, she may have been the only woman director in existence. "Early Women Filmmakers" comes in closer to the end of that period, starting with the simple Les Chiens Savants (1902), a video of a woman performing circus tricks with a group of dogs. There are six Alice Guy-Blache films included in the set, the most impressive of which is Making an American Citizen (1912), which follows two Russian immigrants and their assimilation into American culture. When it was made, the film's story about a man learning America isn't sexist was probably told in earnest, but now the short seems positively ironic. Across these six films, it is impressive, especially in Le Barricade (1907), a drama about a young man inadvertently being identified as part of a gang, how much Guy-Blache manages to capture without intertitles through her skill at visual storytelling.

The set contains only three films by director Lois Weber, but two of them are among the set's most incredible inclusions. The first is a short, Suspense (1913). A prime example of how visual language hasn't changed in over 100 years, Suspense looks pretty much like a 21st century thriller, telling the story of a man racing home to save his wife and child from a vagrant. The film includes a three-way split screen of the man talking to his wife on the phone as the bum listens in, and a frantic car chase from the office to the house, complete with the standard sideview mirror shots of the police trying to catch up. The second is the set's crown jewel: Weber's feature-length drama The Blot (1921) which outlines the complicated push-pull web of class divide linking a group of people in an unidentified American town. It centers itself around entitled rich kid Phil West (Louis Calhern), and his infatuation with Amelia Griggs (Claire Windsor), daughter to his impoverished professor, Andrew (Philip Hubbard). Andrew's poverty leads to the suffering and angst of his wife, Mrs. Griggs (Margaret McWade), which then fuels a jealous battle between Mrs. Griggs and the woman next door, Mrs. Olsen, whose husband Hans is a successful shoemaker. Similar to Guy-Blache's American Citizen, there is a somewhat ironic quality to this story of a rich kid facing the excess his wealth provides him while leaving others without, but Weber's precise storytelling and Calhern's fantastic performance provide powerful emotional hooks that help The Blot feel as if it's hardly aged. Given the tenor of the modern world, it also seems refreshingly optimistic for a film by a female filmmaker (not that modern women have much to be optimistic about at the moment), although Weber tinges the ending with some bittersweetness.

Three more filmmakers have multiple films on the set. The first is Germaine Dulac, whose picture La Cigarette (1919), about the angst of an older musuem curator and his younger wife, is a surprisingly compassionate picture. The film uses dramatic conflicts that still exist in romantic comedies today (misunderstandings and lack of communication), only in service of a longing sadness, resolved by Dulac in an unexpected way. The other two filmmakers, Lotte Reiniger and Mary Ellen Bute, both use animation in their films. Reiniger's style involve black silhouettes in front of a white background, apparently crafted by Reiniger by hand. All three of her shorts are delightful, but Papageno (1935), a musical adventure, is particularly charming, including a scene where a man wrestles a snake while his female companion escapes on an ostrich. Her style, especially during the musical sequences, feels like a foreshadowing of the work of Alex Budovsky. Bute has two shorts, one of which is a bizarre, experimental educational film on the parabola (titled, unsurprisingly, Parabola), but the other is a fun, hand-drawn piece about ghosts and bats dancing in a graveyard, titled Spook Sport (1939).

A handful of the remaining films also stand out as marvelous. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an stunning underground experimental film about a woman returning home and possibly slipping into a strange nightmarish dream. It's hard to imagine David Lynch not having been inspired by Deren. I was surprised to learn that Charlie Chaplin's famous Tramp was introduced in a film by a woman as opposed to one of his own: Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), by Mabel Normand. In it, the tramp is a more lecherous drunk who sets off a series of slapstick antics by leering after Mabel when she's locked outside of her hotel room in her pajamas. Last, but certainly not least, Claire Parker's A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), created using the incredible technique of pinscreen animation, is a dazzling, visually stunning wonder that has to be seen to believed. Even with the set's brief description of pinscreen animation, the resulting visuals are painterly and unreal.

Not every film in the set bowled me over. Dorothy Davenport has a feature in the collection (made under the moniker Mrs. Wallace Reid) The Woman Condemned (1934), a stagnant thriller of mistaken identity that seems exciting on paper but eventually becomes tedious as it goes on, possibly due to its lack of a score. An excerpt of Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is interesting but mostly whets the appetite for further Arzner, and the set has none. Madeline Brandeis' The Star Prince (1918) is an overlong and uninspired fairy tale that seems mostly notable for its early special effects and its use of child actors. There will also always be controversy over anything by Leni Riefenstahl, and this set does offer one propaganda film entitled Day of Freedom (1935). Her use of light and shadow and the depth of the frame is stunning, but the subject matter may understandably put people off. However, the importance of the collection goes beyond the subjectivity of which films are good or bad. What matters is that they were made, and thanks to Shepherd and his collaborators, they can be celebrated one way or another for years to come.

The Blu-ray
As mentioned in the review, "Early Women Filmmakers" consists of two 3-disc Scanavo cases, one for the Blu-ray discs and one for the DVDs. Both the cases and the outer slipbox are adorned with Flicker Alley's distinctive "framed" art style that places pictures inside a line design of mixed curves and angles. Inside the box, there is also a lengthy booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Kate Saccone.

The Video and Audio
As with almost any presentation of films from the 1900s through the 1930s, fine analysis of the material is essentially meaningless. All of the films are presented in 1080p AVC video, to my recollection, all in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and with LPCM 2.0 sound. These are mostly sourced from 2K restorations from across the globe, and for the most part, they look and sound very good. In particular, Lois Weber's The Blot stands out as a highlight, as does Marie Louise-Iribe's Le Roi des Auines, and Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, thanks to a combination of minimal print damage, impressive depth, and strong textural detail, if not all three. On the other end of the spectrum, The Star Child is clearly cropped around the edges and looks the softest out of anything in the set, while La Cigarette has a number of sections completely lost to some sort of water damage, which completely consumes the image for several seconds at a time. All of the films from the sound era appear on Disc 3, and dialogue can be on the quiet side, with muffle and hiss, but the silent-era music is generally modern recordings, and obviously sounds fine. English subtitles are provided for the films that are not in English, but there are no other subtitles.

The Extras
There is one extra, an audio commentary by professor, author, and expert on women and film culture Shelley Stamp, on Lois Weber's The Blot. Stamp is a fantastic, scholarly host brimming with detail about the history behind the making of the movie, Weber, and her colleagues. Well worth a listen.

With interest in the gender gap in filmmaking growing, it's a great time for a box set like "Early Women Filmmakers." The great news is that Kino Lorber has recently Kickstarted their own five-disc Blu-ray set entitled "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers", in the pipeline for 2017. Much like the joy of Flicker Alley's excellent set, the wealth of material and pleasure of seeing is communal, as Kino posted support for this set, promising minimal crossover material. The knowledge that it exists and it's available to own and enjoy is a great feeling, and the set rewards that enthusiasm with several incredible gems. DVDTalk Collector's Series.

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