Alice Guy-Blaché: The First Female Director & the Cinematic Trailblazer You Likely Never Heard Of

Alice Guy-Blaché  (1873 –1968) is the great trailblazer of early cinema you probably never heard of. She was film’s first female director. She made one of the first narrative movies ever at age 23. She wrote, directed and produced over 700 films. And she remains the only woman ever to build and run a movie studio. Even more remarkably, she did all of this before she had the legal right to vote, and when convention dictated that she wear a corset. Yet Alice Guy-Blaché‘s name doesn’t appear alongside other cinematic pioneers like George Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith in film school history books. Somehow, she has fallen out of the canon of great early filmmakers.

Fortunately, there’s a movement to correct this grievous error. In 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art programmed a rare screening of 80 of her works. After a long campaign, the Directors Guild of America awarded Guy-Blaché with a Lifetime Achievement Award. And most recently, filmmakers Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter for their upcoming documentary on Guy-Blaché called Be Natural, which is being executive produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Jodie Foster.

Born in 1873 in Paris to a bookseller, Alice Guy found work in 1894 as a secretary for Leon Gaumont, a still photographer who founded one of the first movie studios. Guy was immediately taken with the possibilities of film and asked her boss if she could experiment with their brand new movie camera. Her first film was The Cabbage Fairy (top), which shows a woman plucking infants from a cabbage patch in a single, unmoving shot. To a modern eye, The Cabbage Fairy might seem merely like a cute film that nicely captures Victorian whimsy. But this film was made in 1896, one year after the Lumière Brothers screened the first films ever made. In 1896, the Lumières were still making their Actualités – documentaries in their most basic form. Their most famous film was simply of a train roaring into the station. Guy’s film, by contrast, looks strikingly original.

Ten years later, she directed the big-budget film The Birth, Life and Death of Christ for Gaumont Studios. It was one of the first bible epics made for the silver screen, requiring over 300 extras. You can watch it above.

By 1907, Guy married cameraman Herbert Blaché and soon moved to New York. The filmmaker, now called Alice Guy-Blaché, founded The Solax Company with her husband in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There she continued to make groundbreaking movies. A Fool and his Money (1912), for instance, is the first movie ever with an all African-American cast. It was made three years before D. W. Griffith directed his cinematic landmark/racist embarrassment The Birth of a Nation.

True to film industry convention, her husband left her for an actress in the early 1920s.  Soon thereafter Solax folded and Guy-Blaché returned to France. She never made another movie. In 1953, she was awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government but, by then, most of her movies had been lost and her reputation as an early cinematic innovator was largely forgotten by the public.

Guy-Blaché’s films will be added to our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Stephen Colbert & Neil Young in a Comic Duet: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up? (and Save the Earth)”

Neil Young has a new book out — Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars — which means he’s doing a quick media blitz. Tuesday morning, Young paid a 90 minute visit to the Stern Show, where they talked about, well, everything: polio, the rift with David Crosby, how he writes his music, the time he spent with Charles Manson, what went wrong at Woodstock, what’s gone wrong with music (and how the PonoPlayer will fix it), and how we’re trashing the environment. Young takes the environment and politics seriously. No doubt. But he could also work it all into a good joke. Just witness his performance later that day with Stephen Colbert.

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Martin Scorsese Creates a List of 39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker


Eight or so years ago, young filmmaker Colin Levy got an opportunity of a lifetime. He got a one-on-one meeting with Martin Scorsese. After spending much of his time in high school making a five-minute short, Levy won the national YoungArts award — and, with it, the chance to chat with the guy who directed Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

After getting a personal tour of Scorsese’s office and editing bays by none other than legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Levy met the man himself. “It was a defining moment in my path as a filmmaker,” he later wrote on his blog.

Martin Scorsese was intimidating, to say the least. But very jovial, very talkative, and he took me seriously. (Or convinced me, at least.) I pretty much kept my mouth shut. Every 30 seconds he would mention an actor, producer, director or film title I had never heard of before. I was stunned just to be in his presence. He liked my film, he said. “How did you do the little creatures?” I tried to explain how I figured out the basics of 3D animation. His eyes lit up and he started talking about the digital effects in The Aviator.

The juxtaposition of scales was overpowering. I felt like I was in a movie. Why he spent so much time with me I do not know, but it was amazing just to be in his presence. A few weeks afterwards I labored over a thank-you card, in which I expressed the overwhelming impression I had gotten that I don’t know enough about anything. I specially don’t know enough about film history and foreign cinema. I asked if he had any suggestions for where to start.

A couple weeks later, Scorsese’s assistant sent him a handful of books and 39 foreign movies personally picked by the filmmaker. “Mr. Scorsese asked that I send this your way,” his assistant wrote to Colin. “This should be a jump start to your film education!”

Scorsese’s selections – which you can see above – are a fascinating insight into what influenced the filmmaker. Several movies are perennial film school classics: Italian neorealist masterpieces like the Bicycle Thief and Umberto D pop up on the list along with groundbreaking French New Wave works like 400 Blows and Breathless. More unexpected is surprisingly strong showings of both Japanese post-war movies and New German cinema. Both Akira Kurosawa and Rainer Werner Fassbinder get three films each. And while there are some rather eccentric, unexpected inclusions in the list–Rocco and his Brothers? Il Sorpasso? Death by Hanging? – there are also some pretty striking omissions; big name art house figures like Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and most surprisingly Federico Fellini didn’t make the cut. In any case, as Scorsese’s assistant writes, this list is a great place to start for anyone looking to learn more about foreign film.

At least the first few films on the list you will find in our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Huffington Post

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Prof. Iggy Pop Delivers the BBC’s 2014 John Peel Lecture on “Free Music in a Capitalist Society”

Iggy Lecture

What Alan Freed did for rock ‘n ‘ roll in the ‘50s, DJ John Peel did for punk and new wave in the 70s and 80s, playing groundbreaking artists like Joy Division on his show and curating essential in-studio performances in his Peel Sessions. But long before he first played the Ramones on his BBC show in 1976, Peel played the 1969 debut album by the Stooges, the scrappy Detroit garage band whose frontman, Iggy Pop, would later be granted the title “godfather of punk.” He’s certainly lived up to it, consistently, writes Kris Needs at Clash, “dumping on rock ‘n’ roll’s previously set-in stone inhibitions.” Each new generation has given Pop a new set of restrictions to dump on, but many of them could, perhaps, boil down to the same thing, the very condition Peel so often diagnosed in pop culture: the packaging and selling of rock ‘n’ roll that compromises its raw power and diminishes its artists.

Who better then to deliver the 2014 John Peel Lecture for the BBC at the UK Radio Festival, despite the fact that Iggy Pop—who Rolling Stone describes as “a visiting professor from the School of Punk Rock Hard Knocks”—has never delivered a lecture before? But he has always been witty and wise, on albums and interviews, and he is now—as was Peel for over three decades—a BBC DJ, a role that grants him a certain amount of critical authority. It’s not his only side gig. During his lecture, Pop admits he’s had to begin “diversifying my income,” appearing, for example, in insurance ads for UK insurance company Swiftcover (England’s been good to him). “If I had to depend on what I actually get from sales,” says Pop, “I’d be tending bars between sets.” This is the situation he addresses—the plight of the artists, the labels, and the fans in today’s marketplace. The topic of his lecture: “free music in a capitalist society.”

Iggy is critical of the U2/Apple alliance and their intrusive and unpopular recent mass album release, but he praises Thom Yorke’s decision to release his latest solo album on peer-to-peer file sharing service BitTorrent for $6. Acknowledging that BitTorrent “is a pirate’s friend,” he claims nonetheless that “all pirates want to go legit, just like I wanted to be respectable.” This last remark may come as a surprise from the guy who wanted to be your dog, but although he defines capitalism as dominating and destructive, Pop isn’t anti-entrepreneurial—he’s simply a champion of the little guy. He denounces digital theft, calling it “bad for everything,” but he doesn’t want to see file-sharers jailed, which is “a lot like sending somebody to Australia a couple hundred years ago for poaching his lordship’s rabbit.”

The larger problem is the media conglomerates, including not only major labels, but also, and maybe more so, Apple and Google subsidiary YouTube, who are “trying to put the squeeze” on the indies, “the only place to go for new talent, outside of the Mickey Mouse Club.” Overall, the talk is a very sober and sobering look at the music industry from an old pro who has clearly paid careful attention to the trends. And although his glasses and stance behind a podium might make him look the part, Pop is a little less professorial than conversational, delivering some bad news with several doses of optimism and good humor, and exhibiting an unabashed willingness to mix tech, creativity, and commerce in a TED-like way.

The complete lecture was broadcast on BBC DJ Marc Riley’s show, and you can stream it here for the next four weeks (the talk begins at 37:00, but listen to the first thirty minutes of the show for some excellent music and an introduction to John Peel). And if you’re in a hurry, catch the highlights of Iggy’s lecture in The Guardian’s “Cliffsish Notes version” here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Typed Portraits of Literary Legends: Kerouac, Saramago, Bukowski & More

Artists have used all sorts of odd media to create portraits, everything from guitar picks to dice to wooden eggs. Add to this list Brazilian type artist Álvaro Franca, who uses the typewriter. Instead of composing literary portraits of his heroes, Franca types out literal portraits. The principle of the pictures are the same grey-scale printing used in newspapers or, if you spent time in the computer lab in the 1990s, those dot matrix images that were such the rage among computer nerds. Using a computer, Franca breaks the image down into discrete pixels and adds one or more keystrokes to that pixel. ‘I’ and ‘O’ seem to work for lighter greys while visually dense letters like ‘x’and “m” are used for the darker end of the spectrum.

As he writes in on his website:

Typewritten Portraits is an experimental art project. During my exchange in the Cambridge School of Art, I developed a technique for imaging gray scale with the typewriter and, from there, I made portraits of five of my favorite authors in literature who worked on typewriters. The series is still ongoing and there are plans for five more pictures.

You can see a time-lapse video of Franca creating a portrait of beat icon Jack Kerouac above. And below you can see a few more pictures including Charles Bukowski and Jose Saramago here.

bukowski typed

saramago typed

via Boing Boing

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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Animated Sheet Music of 3 Charlie Parker Jazz Classics: “Confirmation,” “Au Privave” & “Bloomdido”

We’ve shown you two exceedingly rare pieces of footage that capture jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker in action: one featuring him playing with Dizzy Gillespie, his fellow “founding father of bebop,” in 1952; and another, from two years before, where he plays with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Rich, Lester Young, and Ella Fitzgerald. But since so little motion-picture material of Parker exists, his fans must have savored even seeing just the sheet music of his piece “Confirmation” animated when we posted it last year, alongside other such videos bringing to life the notation of works by greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “To see it animated,” wrote Josh Jones, “is to see Parker dance a very different step than Miles’ post-bop cool, one filled with complex melodic paragraphs instead of chordal phrases.” Indeed.

And the source of those videos, Dan Cohen‘s Youtube channel Animated Sheet Music, has even more Parker in store. Here you can also enjoy Cohen’s animations of “Au Privave,” that 1951 bebop standard with the mysteriously un-French French title, and Parker’s 1953 blues “Bloomdido.” These will, naturally, provide a rich watching and listening experience to those well-versed in the mechanics of both music notation and the forms of jazz, but even if you know nothing at all about either subject, these animations more than repay the short time spent. If you’d like to get less an explanation than a feel of how sheet music works, and indeed how jazz works, you could do much worse than getting it through a visualization of Parker’s inimitable playing — and you might well come away with just a little bit more of a grasp on what, exactly, makes it inimitable in the first place. “After spending several hours precisely timing Charlie Parker’s eighth and sixteenth notes,” writes Cohen, “I have come to the conclusion that the dude can swing.” Indeed.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Michel Foucault’s Final UC Berkeley Lectures, “Discourse and Truth” (1983)

We’ve written quite a bit in previous posts about French philosopher Michel Foucault’s time in Berkeley, California during the final years of his life, and for good reason. During these years he became something of an academic superstar in the United States, delivering lectures to packed halls at UC Berkeley, NYU, UCLA, and the University of Vermont, becoming feted in academic departments across the humanities, and receiving mention in TIME magazine. He also, sadly, contracted AIDS and passed away in 1984, leaving the intriguing fourth volume of his exhaustive History of Sexuality unfinished. It remains unpublished at his request.

The title of the mysterious fourth volume, Confessions of the Flesh (Les aveux de la chair), provides us with the connective tissue between his final project and the lectures Foucault recorded in English at Berkeley. Those lectures—including “The Culture of the Self” and “Truth and Subjectivity”—betray his obsession with confession, with truth-telling as an act of self-making. In a sense, Foucault’s Berkeley lectures crystalized his life’s work. Just above, in his final Berkeley lecture series, “Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia,” Foucault delivers what may be the most plain-spoken statement of his general thesis: “My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity.”

Such directness of speech is, in fact, the meaning of that obscure Greek term, parrhesia, with which Foucault frames his discussion. Meaning “free speech,” the word—rather than, as we might think, relating to the exercise of one’s first amendment rights—“refers to a type of relationship between the speaker and what he says.”

For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. Instead, the parrhesiastes uses the most direct words and forms of expression he can find.

Foucault, of course, reveals this kind of speech—as elaborated in Greek philosophy and the work of Euripides— to be a performance with its own complicated set of rules and codes. “Truth-telling as an activity,” Foucault concludes, presents the concept of truth as “true statements and sound reasoning” with a number of seemingly insurmountable problems. Put most plainly, our subjectivities, Foucault argues, make enormously complicated any notion of objectivity.

Hear all six of the 1983 lectures above or stream or download MP3s from UC Berkeley’s library site. The full text of each lecture is also available on and downloadable as PDFs.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s Highly Controversial Film on Jazz & Race in America (With Music by Sun Ra)

“Jazz is dead.” You can imagine how that statement, potentially inflammatory even today, shook things up when filmmaker Edward Bland dared to say it in 1958. He didn’t cause the stir so much by saying the words himself, but by putting them in the mouth of Alex, one of the main characters in his controversial “semi-documentary” The Cry of Jazz. Alex appears in the film as one of seven members of a racially mixed jazz appreciation society, stragglers who stay behind after a meeting and fall into a conversation about the nature, origin, and future of jazz music. “Thanks a lot, Bruce, for showing me how rock and roll is jazz,” says an appreciative Natalie, one of the white women, to one of the white men. Enter, swiftly, Alex, one of the black men:

“Bruce? Did you tell her that rock and roll was jazz?”

“Yeah, sure. That’s what I told her. Is there something wrong with that?”

“Bruce, how square can you get? Rock and roll is not jazz. Rock and roll is merely an offspring of rhythm and blues.”


Debate ensues, but Alex ultimately prevails, leaving all races present speechless with his ability to unite the narrative of jazz music with the narrative of the black American experience. We have here less a fiction film or a documentary than a type of heated didactic essay — a cry itself, in some sense — unlike any other motion picture on the subject. “The movie caused an uproar,” writes the New York Times‘ Paul Vitello in Bland’s 2013 obituary. “Notable intellectuals took sides. The novelist Ralph Ellison called it offensive. The poet LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, called it profoundly insightful. An audience discussion after a screening in 1960 in Greenwich Village became so heated that the police were called. The British critic Kenneth Tynan, in a column for The London Observer, wrote that it ‘does not really belong to the history of cinematic art, but it assuredly belongs to history’ as ‘the first film in which the American Negro has issued a direct challenge to the white.'”

Where The Cry of Jazz operates most straightforwardly as a documentary, it captures the era’s extant styles of jazz (whether you consider them living or, as Alex insists, dead) as performed by the composer-bandleader Sun Ra and his Arkestra just a few years before his total self-transformation into a sci-fi pharaoh. This provides a “pulsating track of sound under the narration and serves to punctuate the protagonist’s long, engrossing lecture with appropriate segments of performance footage and musical counterpoint,” writes poet John Sinclair. “Inquisitive viewers may gain immensely from exposure to Bland’s fiercely iconoclastic exposition on the state of African American creative music on the historical cusp of the modern jazz era and the free jazz, avant garde, New Black Music movement of the 1960s.” And on the issue of the death of jazz, I submit for your consideration just four of the albums that would come out the next year: Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. A topic covered in the film, 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz.

Find more great documentaries in our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take Big History: A Free Short Course on 13.8 Billion Years of History, Funded by Bill Gates

Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a long piece called “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …”, which begins with these very words:

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.

Captivated by Dr. Christian’s ability to connect big and complex ideas, Gates thought to himself, “God, everybody should watch this thing!” And, soon enough, the philanthropist contacted the professor and suggested making “Big History” available as a course in high schools across the US (with Bill footing the bill.)

In 2011 the Big History Project, a course with a significant digital component, was piloted in five high schools. Now, a few years later, it’s being made freely available, says the Times, “to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools, from the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York to Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to Gates’s alma mater, Lakeside Upper School in Seattle. And if all goes well, the Big History Project will be introduced in hundreds of more classrooms by next year and hundreds, if not thousands, more the year after that, scaling along toward the vision Gates first experienced on that treadmill.”

Why do I tell you this? Partly because the Big History Project is open to you as well. On the Big History website, you will find a public course, offering a four-to-six hour tour of Big History. It’s an abbreviated introduction to 13.8 billion years of history. I could think of less efficient ways to spend an afternoon.

After you’re done, if you want to fill in a few gaps, don’t miss our collection: 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities. It covers history, biology, physics and all of the rest. Or splurge for the original Big History course from the Great Courses, which inspired the whole Big History Project.

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Photos of Hiroshima by Hiroshima Mon Amour Star Emmanuelle Riva (1958)

hiroshima mon amour pix

Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais’s landmark 1960 meditation on war and memory, was Emmanuelle Riva’s first starring role. She plays a married actress (catch a scene here) who, while making a movie in Japan, has an affair with a Japanese architect played by Eiji Okada. Screenwriter Marguerite Duras chisels away at the actress’s Gallic reserve over the course of the film as memories of the war, not to mention guilt over the affair, overwhelm her. Resnais lingers on Riva’s face as she comes apart. Her performance is as brave as it is exact. French film critic Jean Domarchi once stated, “Hiroshima is a documentary on Emmanuelle Riva.”


As it turns out, Riva was documenting Hiroshima too. While filming on location, she took a series of photographs of everyday life of a city still recovering from the war. They are a fascinating slice of life from a Japan that has long disappeared. The Hiroshima Riva captured was still dominated by dirt roads and wooden buildings. People still regularly wore traditional geta wooden shoes.

hma 3

Children seemed to be a favorite subject for Riva. She photographs a flock of elementary school students walking to school; a pair of boys fishing before the genbaku dome – ground zero for the bomb; and a gaggle of kids staring agog into the lens, no doubt curious at the sight of a stylish French woman with an expensive camera.

hma 4

Years later, Riva’s pictures were collected into a book called Hiroshima 1958, which, sadly, seems to be available only in Japan. Riva, of course, went on to a celebrated acting career, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Michael Haneke’s harrowing love story Amour.

hma 5via RocketNews24

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.