First Bio of Iris Barry Out

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Rob Farr
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First Bio of Iris Barry Out

Postby Rob Farr » Fri Oct 17, 2014 10:12 am

I just checked this out of the library and am looking forward to reading it. I'll post a review when I'm finished. Meanwhile, here's a sneak look courtesy of The New Yorker. I've always been of two minds on Barry. On the one hand, she's the mother of the film archive movement (and if Henri Langlois is the father... no, I can't even go there). On the other, she had a very narrow "great man" view of film history that ultimately doomed some critical pieces of the film history puzzle to extinction. On the third hand, thanks to her and MoMA, we have available to us 98% of the films made by D.W. Griffith, Doug Fairbanks and others. More later.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richar ... inema-moma

Iris Barry: The Secret Heroine of the Cinema
By Richard Brody

“If a film, of no matter what type, is to be worth while, it must be entirely dominated by the will of one man and one man only—the director.” François Truffaut, 1954? Andrew Sarris, 1964? No: Iris Barry, 1924, writing in the London Spectator. Barry is one of the secret heroines of the history of cinema—in fact, of the very idea that there is such a thing as a history of cinema. The film historian and curator Robert Sitton has written a terrific new biography of her, “Lady in the Dark” (Columbia University Press). At 7 P.M. tonight, he’ll discuss Barry and introduce a movie program dedicated to her at the Museum of Modern Art, where Barry founded the film department in the early nineteen-thirties.

In his book, which he has been working on for decades (among the interviewees is Roberto Rossellini, who died in 1977), Sitton brings to light an extraordinary story—or, rather, an extraordinary person, who has been languishing unjustly in the shadows (though Jean-Luc Godard did pay tribute to her, by name, in his film “In Praise of Love”). Barry was born in 1895 near Birmingham, England. Returning home from a convent school at seventeen, she began to frequent the movies; she had an instant passion for Charlie Chaplin’s films, which started turning up around 1916, and which helped to determine her life’s work.

Barry moved to London, became friends with Ezra Pound, published poems, had an affair (and two children) with the writer and painter Wyndham Lewis, helped with the release of “Ulysses,” married the American poet Alan Porter—and, in 1924, became the Spectator’s first film critic. Indeed, Ivor Montagu called her the “first film critic on a serious British journal.” (Soon thereafter, she also started writing for the more popular Daily Mail.) Sitton points out the political side to her appointment—the effort to promote the British film industry—and the trouble that this underlying purpose caused Barry, who particularly loved Hollywood movies. (Her remark, quoted above, about the role of the director was inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s first Hollywood film, “The Marriage Circle,” and by Chaplin.)

As much a theoretician as a critic, Barry distinguished the art of the cinema from mere filmed theatre, emphasized the difference between movie acting and stage performance, and insisted that movies—despite their novelty and popularity—had as much artistic value and validity as plays:

ideally, the visual beauty of a film should be the aesthetic alternative to the stage’s poetry. I can conceive of films throughout which pictures of ineffable loveliness should continually melt into each other. There will be such films yet.

Like all great critics, Barry was writing about the future of the art. She also wrote a book, “Let’s Go to the Pictures,” in 1926, in which she expounded her fascinating philosophical ideas about the history, aesthetics, and potential of film. Barry considered movies, by the very fact of their photographic record, to be intrinsically documentary, but considered their informative and factual side to be inseparable from their aesthetic power: “The cinema helps us to live complete lives, in imagination if not in fact. And I cannot help thinking that knowing is the same thing as sympathizing.” She foreshadowed the distinctive modernism of the French New Wave in exalting a cinema of images—“The most beautiful plays are good to listen to: the most beautiful films are good to look at”—that is nonetheless sustained and propelled by “story value.” (Among her paragons of movie art, besides Chaplin, were D. W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, and F. W. Murnau.)

Barry was enthusiastic about early experiments with sound, and she recognized the historic power of talking pictures. As she wrote in 1929: “It is impossible not to speculate already on the possibility of English becoming a world-language through the screen.” But she lost her reviewing jobs—Sitton thinks that her enthusiasm for Hollywood at the expense of British movies had something to do with it—and in 1930 she and her husband moved to New York.

Poor and underemployed, she turned to a new friend here, the architect Philip Johnson, through whom she met Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr believed that the museum should have a place for movies, and he hired Barry to build what was, at first, simply the Film Library—a collection of movies. Her first program premièred in late 1934, with films by Chaplin, Walt Disney, Griffith, and Fritz Lang, as well as “Tabu,” co-directed by Murnau and Robert Flaherty. Sitton writes, “The programs, presented between October 28 and December 30, 1934, were a huge success and led to requests for showings from universities and museums throughout the country. It marked the beginning of the film art movement in the United States.”

Barry initially imagined that the library would be used to spark the creation of film-history courses in universities, modelled on art-history programs. When she went to Hollywood, in 1935, to seek donations of film prints from producers, filmmakers, and stars, she set forth her detailed outline of a cinema-studies curriculum that would include their work. (In 1938, she also co-founded, with Henri Langlois, Frank Hensel, and Olwen Vaughan—a Frenchman, a German, and a Briton—the International Federation of Film Archives). Soon, however, MOMA became more than a repository of films, more than a lending library of prints—it became, in 1939, a movie museum where those films were shown, and Barry was its programmer.

There’s a lot more to Barry’s story (read the book): her troubles with Griffith; the Red-baiting that MOMA’s employment of Jay Leyda, a Soviet film expert, and Luis Buñuel earned her; Nelson Rockefeller’s role in conscripting her and her department for the propaganda battles of the Second World War (Orson Welles’s unfinished film “It’s All True” turns up here as a sidebar); the department’s difficulties in the immediate postwar period; Barry’s personal struggles, including a bout with cancer in 1949; her separation from the museum and twenty-year decrescendo; her death, in 1969.

But MOMA, thanks to Barry, proved to be a crucial influence in the history of cinema—in the very idea of the history of cinema—and in the story of filmmaking itself. In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française was the key place where the future filmmakers of the French New Wave learned about movies by watching movies—where the romance of cinematic neoclassicism was born. That role was played here mainly by MOMA, where, in the early nineteen-sixties, retrospectives of the films of Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock—programmed by Peter Bogdanovich, who was in his early twenties—inspired a new generation of critics and filmmakers.

It’s apt that tonight’s tribute to Barry coincides with the New York Film Festival. Barry was the guest of honor at the first N.Y.F.F., in 1963—which also held screenings at MOMA. She is, so to speak, the primordial author of the notion of the auteur. Robert Sitton has done a great thing by bringing her out from behind the screen. What’s needed next is a collection of her critical writings.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller. He writes about movies in his blog for newyorker.com.
Rob Farr
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Gary Johnson
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Re: First Bio of Iris Barry Out

Postby Gary Johnson » Fri Oct 17, 2014 10:34 am

I believe anyone who has even a limited knowledge of Barry comes to the same conclusion as Rob. She helped lead the way to preserving film but allowed so many titles to turn to dust because she didn't feel the titles deemed worthy.
I guess we can't have everything in life....

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Re: First Bio of Iris Barry Out

Postby Richard M Roberts » Fri Oct 17, 2014 5:47 pm

Gary Johnson wrote:I believe anyone who has even a limited knowledge of Barry comes to the same conclusion as Rob. She helped lead the way to preserving film but allowed so many titles to turn to dust because she didn't feel the titles deemed worthy.
I guess we can't have everything in life....



All of the early archivists had their plusses and minuses (really hasn't changed over the years come to think of it), and Barry certainly was a major film snob, but her deliberate destruction and ignorance of what she considered "unworthy of preservation" titles led to many like MIlton Menell, who was filching 35mm nitrate prints of short comedies out of MOMA's garbage bins and preserving them himself (now the Menell Collection at LOC and the great Mar-Lu Telefilms 16mm prints that circulate in collectors hands) or James Card, who definitely created the Eastman House Collection as a sort of backlash against the MOMA upturned nose policy (though he had his idiosyncracies as well).

It basically boils down to the same idea one has when someone tries to stand up for the likes of Raymond Rohauer as being responsible for preserving this stuff, and that is someone else would have done it sooner of later if they hadn't, and it might have been done better or it might have not, but they were there at the right time, and had some gumption and perseverance to fight the naysayers and get the ball rolling. Yet Barry and Card had their enemies, including each other, as anyone with a mission to get something done will accumulate as time goes by, and can we indeed say todays curators are major improvements over what has come before?



RICHARD M ROBERTS

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Re: First Bio of Iris Barry Out

Postby Gary Johnson » Fri Oct 17, 2014 9:39 pm

I love tales of films being rescued from trash bins. It seems so apropos -- "Hey, I found a discarded Reelcraft!!"

James Card's memoir, "Seductive Cinema", had a lot of tales of Ms Barry and Card butting heads. He made her out to be quite a brittle person.
Despite his idiosyncrasies, I was always impressed with Cards philosophy to 'save everything'. He and Langlois were kindred spirits in that regard.

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Re: First Bio of Iris Barry Out

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sat Oct 18, 2014 1:10 am

Gary Johnson wrote:I love tales of films being rescued from trash bins. It seems so apropos -- "Hey, I found a discarded Reelcraft!!"

James Card's memoir, "Seductive Cinema", had a lot of tales of Ms Barry and Card butting heads. He made her out to be quite a brittle person.
Despite his idiosyncrasies, I was always impressed with Cards philosophy to 'save everything'. He and Langlois were kindred spirits in that regard.



Well, except Langois lost as much as he saved, and couldn't blame it all on the War either. Langois is also the one mainly responsible for this stupid European attitude of running silent films too slow (he wouldn't run them with music either).


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