Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2019

Instant Dreams; Be Natural

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:27 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries do justice to two important but neglected figures in photography and motion pictures. “Instant Dreams”, which opens today at the Village East in New York and next Friday at the Laemmle in L.A., is tribute to the Polaroid camera that has been superseded by digital cameras, even if the question of whether newer technology is really superior to an older one artistically. In many ways, despite the convenience of CD’s, vinyl sounds better since analog is closer to the way we actually perceive reality. “Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”, which opens at the Laemmle today and at the IFC in New York next Friday, is a loving and inspired tribute to the first female director in history. Executive produced by Robert Redford and Jodie Foster (who also narrates), it establishes her as a major influence on film art with geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock counting her as an important influence. If you appreciate photographic art and film aesthetics, these two documentaries are well worth your time.

“Instant Dreams” begins with Edward Land, the father of Polaroid technology, walking through a vast warehouse ruminating on the breakthrough his camera represents. Pulling a wallet sized Polaroid camera out of his raincoat, he asserts that this camera will allow you to capture every eventful moment in your daily life. Although it seems rather quaint to hear this now, it must be stressed that a billion Polaroid cameras were sold in their heyday, including to me who appreciated their ability to take photos that could be put immediately into the hands of Nicaraguans.

The film focuses on three people for whom the camera is indispensable, even if the instant film it relies on are growing scarcer and scarcer.

Working at Polaroid from 1977 until the company folded, MIT-educated organic chemist Stephen Herchen worked closely with Edward Land as chief technology officer. When the film begins, he is bidding goodbye to his wife as he sets off to Germany to reverse engineer Polaroid film to make it available again to people who own Polaroid cameras. He is very much the counterpart of people who have launched new boutique vinyl LP companies to satisfy the needs of people like me who own turntables.

Stefanie Schneider is one of the photographers who continues to work with a Polaroid. Indifferent to “leading edge” technology, she actually prefers to use expired Polaroid film since the distortions they impart become part of the art. She refers to a Japanese word for imperfection that has a loaded meaning. It is only by seeing the imperfect that we can develop a true appreciation for perfection. In 2014, she constructed an art piece titled “29 Palm, CA” that explored the dreams and fantasies of people living in a trailer community in the California desert. We see her using her camera taking shots of the desert landscapes around her as well as several ethereally beautiful women who act out their fantasies before her camera.

Finally, there is Christopher Bonanos, the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” who is best equipped as an editor of culture and technology stories at New York Magazine. He has many insights about what made the Polaroid so special, including its ability to create a bond between strangers. When you take a photo of one, there is always that minute or so until the picture emerges when a conversation can crop up.

“Instant Dreams” is the first film made by Willem Baptist, a Dutch director who explained why he made the film in the press notes:

What is it that makes Polaroid photo’s so special? First there is the remarkable process. Then there is the image with its unpredictable colors, unusual frame, the atmosphere of the image. A captured reality that seems more special than real life, and immediately becomes a treasured memory. That there’s only one copy of it enhances the feeling of authenticity. A Polaroid photo is infused with an air of artistry and mystery.

As a filmmaker, I am always searching for that intangible magical feeling. I struggled for a long time with the digital images I had to work with and tried various ways to alter them into something else so they wouldn’t be that digital. Maybe it’s because I have the experience of shooting short films on S16mm celluloid. Gradually I realized that these feelings weren’t some sort of nostalgia or that it was just a filmmaker’s thing. Millions of people give their iPhone photos a filtered look with apps such as Instagram, as if reality just doesn’t speak enough to our imagination.

Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché trained to be a secretary, a job that was deemed suitable for middle-class women at that time. After being hired at Gaumont Studios in Paris by Léon Gaumont, one of the partners of an early film studio that competed with the Lumière brothers, she figured out the film business quickly enough to make a convincing case that she could make them herself. In no time at all, she began making films that were utterly unlike typical fare of those days. To start with, her watchword was “Be Natural”, an instruction that went against the grain of histrionics typical of most silent films. Also, she was an open feminist who had the audacity to make a film titled “The Consequences of Feminism” in 1906 that depicted a world in which women were sexually aggressive and men stayed at home doing housework.

A decade later she made “Shall The Parents Decide” that tackled sexual inequality and reproductive rights. Co-written by Guy-Blaché and activist Rose Pastor Stokes, it was supposed to be screened at the opening of a Margaret Sanger clinic but was preempted by Sanger’s arrest.

The film has generous excerpts from her films that have a particular comic flair that will remind you of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Alice Guy-Blaché was a great genius and director Pamela B. Green deserves applause for rescuing her from obscurity.

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