Lois Weber: Interviews - Book Review
How is Lois Weber not a widely recognised pioneer of early cinema? That is question that kept coming back to me whilst reading this latest release in the Conversations with Filmmakers Series. Through a plethora of interviews spanning her entire career, what emerges is a portrait of an astonishing woman of great fortitude, skill and passion for the art of filmmaking. Even considering the male dominance that took over Hollywood once the big studios' monopoly took hold, Weber's relegation to the footnotes of early cinema seems baffling. To read the interviews and articles is to see a portrait of woman at the top of her artform during the formative years of cinema. That alone should have cemented her place in the history of cinema.
Silent cinema is a strange beast. So much of silent cinema has been lost forever (between 75 - 90% of all silent films have been lost) that an accurate history probably remains forever out of reach. But certain elements, and certain personalities do, and will remain forever part of the narrative of early cinema. Lois Weber should be a key part of this history, and thanks to this insightful and delightful collection of interviews, her importance is on its way to being reassessed.
Like a lot of early silent cinema much of the work she directed is most likely lost. But enough of her work survives to allow for revisiting and reappraisal, and if this book has achieved one thing, its to inspire me to seek out as many of her films as possible to watch them. This is achieved through the passionate, dedicated and committed personality that emerges from these interviews.
I won't use this space to recount her life story, as many of the interviews cover this ground, but I will say that she found herself acting, then writing and finally directing films in early Hollywood. From there she built herself a immense and incredible career in which she made hundreds of films, from one reelers to feature length films. She is fact, the first woman ever to direct a feature film. And as many of the interviews claim, not only was one of the only woman directors in Hollywood, she was perhaps its best. A claim attested to over and over again in this book, and through the firsts she achieved as a women. It's impossible to know just how much her films influenced her peers, and as such shaped the face of cinema. So much of the language of cinema we see today was formed and defined in the earliest days of cinema. So how much Weber should tower over cinema is impossible to quantify. Her contemporary, D.W. Griffith is widely regarded as the Godfather of cinema and credited with bringing together and formalising so much of the language of cinema used today. But her place is the history of cinema clearly should be beyond dispute. And yet, prior to picking up this book I knew little of her, and nothing of her work.
What is most striking about the interviews is just how engaged with the art form she was; how progressive and forward thinking. To her mind, the potential of cinema was endless. She was curious about stereoscopy (3D), sound, colour, the importance of cinema in areas of life such as education and war. She speaks eloquently about censorship, and the challenges the lack of standardisation caused. She saw cinema as a platform, not to preach, but to educate, inform and inspire. She speaks at length, and with great passion about the storytelling, how to write a perfect narrative that explores simply and elegantly challenges and circumstances to which the audience will respond.
One of the resounding qualities that emerges was her focus on controversial, yet vital, social justice subject matter for her films. Something which regularly brought her to the attention of censors. One such example was Hypocrites, the first film to feature full frontal nudity. But Weber wasn't interested in titillation. The inclusion of a naked women in the film served a narrative purpose - she was the naked truth revealing hypocrisy to the clergyman who is the films protagonist. She was a true progressive, both in terms of pushing forward the technology of cinema, but also, the narratives and stories films told.
Weber was the first women to make a feature film, the first women to have her own studio, she pioneered the use of split-screen in cinema, she experimented with sound, she can be described as one of cinemas first auteur, taking a interest and ownership of all elements of production (she wrote, starred and directed in most of her films, and even edited and labelled the film reels). She was also an advocate and supporter of female talent in the industry, particularly in front of the camera. She had a rare talent for developing and making the careers of a number of silent female actors.
As with so many women filmmakers her career ended abruptly. One of the curious aspects of this collection of interviews and articles are what the book doesn't cover. As you reach the end of the collection, there is a notable jump in time, and the articles become less frequent. What's missing is what happened to Weber from the end of her career in the teens and her re-emergence on the twenties. Disappearing from the scene, her career cut short by divorce from her long-term partner and collaborator, Phillips Smalley, resulting in a possible nervous breakdown, and the changing attitudes of society in the post-war period. Weber came back in the 1920s and made her last film, now lost, in the 1930s.
Lois Weber: Interviews feels like a vital collection of interviews, collated for the first time, about one of the greatest artists of early cinema. It's fascinating and a revelation to read about Weber. She is an inspiring figure and one who should be championed. I'll leave you with a quote from her. One of many considered, passionate and illuminating thoughts from one of cinemas true pioneers.
"I like to direct, because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of."