Be Natural Needs to Be Accessible

Review of Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)

Old black and white photo of a sign on wall inside an industrial space that says BE NATURAL.
The sign at Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax Studio in the US. She wanted her actors to remember this guideline in order to avoid the overacting so common in films during the silent era.

 

Six years ago, I made a pledge to a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary Be Natural. There have been some bumps in the road for supporters, which is to be expected for a passion project, I suppose: some of the perks never arrived, some were disappointing, and some have yet to arrive (promised post–home video release). It seems creators Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs had more success in the campaign and developments with the film than they had anticipated. I applaud them. They’ve brought a major project to fruition.

However, when I finally got to see it at one of only three Toronto screenings, I was underwhelmed. This was mostly due to its inaccessibility but also its overall direction. Then I learned more about the premise of Alice being “discovered” by the filmmakers. I’d like to share some thoughts on this film because I’ve yet to see a review online that wasn’t bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, and I think some balance in its reception is merited.

Robert Redford and narrator Jodie Foster are listed as two of the executive producers, which gives it some cachet, I expect. However, direction by Green is problematic. As a backer, I got to see teasers and contacted the production company about issues with the subtitling as it stood then; I did not get a reply. The final product is less than accessible to several groups of people.

The music is far too loud and drowns out other elements, making it hard to follow the extremely fast pace of the doc. There are some interesting ideas for indicating sources—for example, audio tape via a little icon in the corner of the screen—but often these are more cute than necessary, adding clutter to a busy screen; I found it hard to watch such indicators, plus maps, dynamic travel routes, superimposed pictures and image captions, and subtitles. The viewer must be resigned to picking and choosing what information they want to take in, which is a shame because it’s quite interesting.

I wish I could have acted as a consultant for them on the function and form of effective captions and subtitles. In fact, there are no captions at all for the film because of the overcrowded shots, so right off the bat the film is not available to Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing viewers, or any other group who uses captions. Also, the subtitles are full of bad line breaks and inconsistencies. The worst practice is when the text was deemed worthy to highlight, it is often presented in a cursive font in paragraph form across the width of the screen, making it difficult to read, particularly as there is a great deal of figured background used. Also, the reading speed required for the longer excerpts is too high given the font and form. Accessibility to the French audio is therefore very poor through the subtitling.

Black and white still showing 2-line subtitle with far too many characters/words per line

The other unfortunate directorial choice made is the pace of the overall contents. Understandably, the creators wanted to share as much of Alice’s history as possible within the time available, and the story is fascinating. But too much of the search efforts are shown, so that clips from Alice’s films that are highlighted are on-screen for about one second (maybe two seconds) each. In that time, the viewer has to take in the visual and the captioned title and date before they are on to another example; a series of these make it impossible to really learn much about the films Guy-Blaché made, which I would have thought was a major goal of the documentary. So, the information itself is often inaccessible.

This is the type of film that would have benefited from subtitle editing (and captioning), and it could have been done if a director of accessibility and translation had been consulted, as recommended by Pablo Romero-Fresco. As it stands, there are multiple barriers to the documentary.

But that’s only what I gleaned from watching it. I’ve since learned that, in fact, Alice’s history has been under our noses all along. (Note to self: do your homework before backing on Kickstarter.) It turns out that there have been a few documentaries made about her already, including a 1996 Canadian doc and an eponymous 1997 German one. There’s also a book about her, Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan (2003). And there is no lack of knowledge and discussion about her in academia or the blogosphere/internet. So, the hype of discovering Alice is misplaced.

Alice’s life is an interesting topic to cover in a documentary film, to be sure, but Be Natural seems a bit meta, focusing more on Green’s journey to find Alice than being excited to share the story in a well-paced exposition of Alice’s story. I came away feeling I had missed a lot of the audio and visual in it and retained bare bones. Another audience member asked me afterwards if I remembered the location of the Solax studio, and we decided we’d have to google it when we got home. (It was Fort Lee, New Jersey.)

I feel like the film festival and critical hype is due to others not having done their homework, either. It’s a nice film, but it’s not earth-shattering in form or as provenance. Since it’s so hard to find screenings, why not find some clips of her films on YouTube or watch this introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché on Vimeo? The captions here aren’t perfect either, but the video allows you the time to appreciate the creative and technical contributions Alice made in a man’s industry a hundred years ago.

PS: I did have to laugh at one clip that was shown long enough to take in. In the 1913 A House Divided, about a separated couple living together, there’s some acrimony. Plus ça change…

 


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Cinema Gets Heritage Status

 

I'm sharing this good news as posted. I worked at these theatres (as did my dad as projectionist) with Dawn and Dan's father Peter.

 

City grants Mt. Pleasant theatre heritage status

Davisville landmarks opened in the ’20s and continue to show films today

 

 

Published: 

 

Councillor Josh Matlow stands outside Mount Pleasant Theatre

Councillor Josh Matlow stands outside Mount Pleasant Theatre

The Regent Theatre and Mount Pleasant Theatre have both been a prominent part of Davisville village since the 1920s. Now, thanks to a motion put forward by councillor Josh Matlow of Ward 22, St. Paul’s, both buildings will stay that way. The two theatres were granted heritage status by the Toronto and East York Community Council in May.

“These movie houses are iconic institutions in our Midtown neighbourhood,” said Matlow. “When you come to the Davisville village, they stand out. They tell you where you are and give you a sense of identity and a story in the community. This is clearly linked to the architectural and cultural story of our community.”

The designation comes at an important time as several historic buildings in Midtown have been torn down in recent years, including the century-old Bank of Montreal building at Yonge Street and Roselawn Avenue and the Stollerys building at Yonge and Bloor Street.

“These movie houses are iconic institutions in our Midtown neighbourhood.”

Mount Pleasant Theatre, at 675 Mt Pleasant Rd., opened in 1926 and is one of Toronto’s oldest surviving movie theatres.

Regent Theatre, at 551 Mount Pleasant Rd., opened in 1927 as the Belsize Theatre. The marquee on the building facade and the architectural styling of the building represent the work of architect Murray Brown, who was well-known for designing movie theatres across Canada.

Both theatres are currently owned by Dawn and Dan Sorokolit. While a heritage designation is widely considered an honour that ensures a building will remain a part of Toronto’s history, it’s possible the theatres’ owners might not be happy about the designation. Moving forward, any plans to demolish or build overtop of either property will be subject to further approval from Heritage Preservation Services.

Post City reached out to the owners about the designation, however neither was available for comment.

“The theatres really are important to the landscape and the streetscape along Mount Pleasant Road.… They were both built at a time when the city was really expanding northward,” said Kaitlin Wainwright, director of programming at Heritage Toronto. “They really are touchstones in a way that hearkens back to that period of change.”

Although community theatres across Toronto have largely been replaced by big multiplexes, like the Scotiabank Theatre, Mount Pleasant and Regent theatres both continue to show films today.

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Four Generations of Projectionists

The window from the small dark room into the large dark room had a sill depth of about eight inches, or so I remember it. I would perch on the high metal stool—but carefully because there was no back—and peer as far into the view port as I could with my knees pressed against the wall. I was six, and I was watching Oliver! from the projection booth at the Mt. Pleasant Theatre in Toronto. I was riveted but terrified of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes: it was the first murder I had ever encountered. But I knew I was safe because my dad was the projectionist, and he was beside me.

 

Our family trade was film projection, although Wells Bros. Amusements had started out as a general entertainment venture in 1908, Carol C. Wells (pictured right) and brother Sam I. Wells being about 20 years old. Soon, they had a travelling Wild West Show that went from the CNE on to the fair circuit in southern Ontario. That same year, they had the idea to expand upon the wildly popular motion-picture industry by having a travelling motion-picture show and, with the purchase of a projector and portable booth, the family trade was born. My grandfather was responsible for creating safer booths that became the provincial occupational standard, so that the heat and chemical dangers of projection were lessened. Their letterhead explains the work their partnership undertook. Fortunately, a written account of their business remains.

Later, my dad, his brothers Howard and Gordon, his brother-in-law Richard, my cousin Charles and his son Andrew took up the apprenticeship of movie projection. My cousin and his son, like so many others, lost their work to technological developments, namely the digitization of film projection.

But I spent my childhood in movie theatres: initially in the booths, later working at the candy bars of the Crest and Mt. Pleasant Theatres on Mt. Pleasant Rd. in Toronto. I loved this job because I got to see free movies, and I was welcome to free popcorn and pop: Orange Crush and buttered corn for me, in those days. Sometimes my boss, theatre-owner Peter Sorok, would give me stills or posters once the movie was finished its run: my Chariots of Fire poster was a prized possession for many years. If I haunted the theatres my relatives were working in, I’d always get a pass for myself and a friend. It was a pretty sweet perk.

I had a polyester smock that zipped up and had pockets—I think it was red, with white trim—that I wore behind the candy bar. My friend Cameron, an usher, often had to help me out at intermission between double bills: the restrictive area behind the popcorn and pop machines often lent itself to us blushing, trying to jockey around each other and serve dozens (hundreds?) of customers ASAP.

In between candy-bar rushes, we would sweep the carpet or refill supplies or check the neatness of the bathrooms. Usually, if I were working without an usher, I would sit on one of the lobby chairs and do my Latin homework under the cast iron, Italianate wall sconces. The best part about the theatre then, either as a viewer or candy bar girl, was that you could smoke there. The last six rows of the mezzanine and the balcony were smoking areas! You’d just throw your butt on the floor, and the usher would sweep it up later. Amazing!

I saw iconic movies there: Apocalypse Now; The Rose; Chariots of Fire. I probably saw some flops. But I could watch them over and over, to my heart’s content.

When I got older, I was allowed to start working the box office at the Crest; in 1980, this involved some cash in a drawer and a hand-torn ticket.

I remember some patrons. There was one man who underestimated the arc of the large, glass entrance door and its force when swung open, and he was knocked to the ground by it, his nose broken and bleeding like crazy. He said he had been so excited to get there just on time that he didn’t really watch what he was doing.

There was a lady who would come for weekend double bills and only order a small plain popcorn at intermission—in those days, probably about a 12 ounce container: she told us she had lost over a hundred pounds, and that was her one cheat that she allowed herself in celebration and as part of her diet maintenance.

It was there that I learned that newspaper and vinegar were excellent materials for cleaning windows without streaks.

And it was to be the last job I had that would not charge me income tax. I think my little brown pay envelope contained earnings at a rate of about $2.35/hr by the time I left. I would walk the mile and a half home in my cool leather clogs and boho clothes, feeling independent and excited by film. If my dad was the projectionist that night, I wouldn’t stay til the end of the movie for a ride home, but I would’ve had a lift to the theatre as we started at the same time.

Nowadays, I go to the movies in three different ways. My number one choice is always the local, independent cinema, because they don’t tend to play the kinds of movies that require pre-show games, noise and flashing lights like the big chains offer. Sometimes I fork out for the Varsity VIP: the seats are roomy and the price usually discourages audience types who text or talk through the movie. Finally, I go to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for more "serious" film experiences. Those soundproof auditoriums do wonders. But always, I go at least a half hour early to be the first in to get the end seat of the back row. If I can’t do that, I won’t go. At home, I don't have TV, but I watch Netflix on my computer.

Recently at TIFF, I looked up into the lit projection booth where there were aluminum ducts and other unfamiliar machinery parts visible. I also spotted a computer screen. If my dad were still alive, he wouldn’t know how to run a movie today.

But sitting in the booth with him was like magic. He’d spool film onto reels, prepare the jump, fire up the second projector, and start rewinding the played reel for the next show. He taught me how to assess a good jump at the cue dot.

I know most nights he would drink coffee and read novels during down times, but I think he did this second job (on top of telecine at CBC) because he had drunk the movie Kool-Aid, too. He’d grown up in an era of motion picture madness and in a family that ate, drank and breathed "show business."

I didn’t go into film studies or production or theatre management. I would have made a great continuity girl, I’ve been told. My mother-in-law has won Geminis for her movie-costume designs. Somehow my connection has remained fairly common: a movie lover who experiences the medium on large screens, on DVD or online. But I do feel an affinity for the whole area of movies and cinemas, both as art and as social gauge.

Mostly, though, I treasure my memories of peering through the view port into the auditorium. It was a sacred space to me, and it planted a seed that grew into my love of the movies.

~ FIN ~

 

Epilogue: For an update on the Mt. Pleasant and Regent (Crest) Theatres, click here to read some good news!

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