Monday, June 30, 2014

New book - Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

I have recently finished reading Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, by Robert Sitton. The 496 page book is out from Columbia University Press. I found this compelling biography to be gracefully written, always interesting, and well researched.

Alas, there is no mention of Louise Brooks, which I find a bit surprising, as an encounter between Brooks and Barry is recounted in the Barry Paris biography. However, other individuals close to Brooks do figure in the book, namely Henri Langlois of the French Cinematheque, and James Card of the George Eastman House. Perhaps Iris Barry's famous rejection of Pandora's Box for inclusion in the collection of the NY Museum of Modern Art had something to do with the antagonistic relationship between herself and Card, who was not only a professional rival, but a surprising political "enemy" as well. (According to Sitton, during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Card may have informed the United States government of Barry's leftist sympathies. This caused her a great deal of trouble, which eventually necessitated the intervention of her longtime friend and supporter, Nelson Rockefeller, the future Vice President of the United States.)

Anyone interested in film history, particularly in the history of film history and film preservation, will want to read this book. Iris Barry is a key figure, and she led a fascinating life.

From the publisher: "Iris Barry (1895--1969) was a pivotal modern figure and one of the first intellectuals to treat film as an art form, appreciating its far-reaching, transformative power. Although she had the bearing of an aristocrat, she was the self-educated daughter of a brass founder and a palm-reader from the Isle of Man. An aspiring poet, Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound and joined a demimonde of Bloomsbury figures, including Ford Maddox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Arthur Waley, Edith Sitwell, and William Butler Yeats. She fell in love with Pound's eccentric fellow Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis, and had two children by him.

In London, Barry pursued a career as a novelist, biographer, and critic of motion pictures. In America, she joined the modernist Askew Salon, where she met Alfred Barr, director of the new Museum of Modern Art. There she founded the museum's film department and became its first curator, assuring film's critical legitimacy. She convinced powerful Hollywood figures to submit their work for exhibition, creating a new respect for film and prompting the founding of the International Federation of Film Archives.

Barry continued to augment MoMA's film library until World War II, when she joined the Office of Strategic Services to develop pro-American films with Orson Welles, Walt Disney, John Huston, and Frank Capra. Yet despite her patriotic efforts, Barry's "foreignness" and association with such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel made her the target of an anticommunist witch hunt. She eventually left for France and died in obscurity. Drawing on letters, memorabilia, and other documentary sources, Robert Sitton reconstructs Barry's phenomenal life and work while recasting the political involvement of artistic institutions in the twentieth century."

PRAISE FOR Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Iris Barry was film's first great archivist and a crucial figure in turning a curious novelty into the most significant new art form of its century. She has long deserved a biography as graceful and expert as the one Robert Sitton has delivered so handsomely. It offers a lively portrait of modernist New York when it was fresh and new and is the better for the richness of its quotations from Barry's stirring writings. It cannot be praised too highly. - Richard Schickel

I confess that I thought of Iris Barry as an English snob who had rejected many exceptional silents as products of the much-despised Hollywood, but she is so much more interesting -- and maddening -- than I ever suspected. Her autobiographical fragments are superb, remarkable descriptions of history as it happened -- a Zeppelin raid on London in World War 1, the Depression in America making the rich richer. As she describes them, these incidents are as evocative as any film, and the book is beautifully illustrated with excellent-quality portraits. Somebody should film it. - Kevin Brownlow, author of The Parade's Gone By…

Robert Sitton's remarkably well researched and evocatively written biography of Iris Barry's hitherto largely unknown position at the forefront of film appreciation is long overdue and most welcome. She led a fascinating private and public life and had an extremely complicated female odyssey in the world of her times, which she profoundly influenced through her writings and cultural actions. That influence still reverberates today. - Peter Bogdanovich

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