Interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

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

The following is an interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film:

Question: Who was Iris Barry?

Robert Sitton: Iris Barry (1895-1969) was the self-educated daughter of a rural British brass founder and a fortune-teller from the Isle of Man. After being kicked out of convent school, she began writing poetry and in 1916 attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, whose correspondence with her contains much of his thinking about literature. Pound introduced her to the Vorticist painter and novelist, Wyndham Lewis, with whom she had two children in 1919 and 1920. Lewis took film seriously, at a time when it was viewed at best as an amusement. Iris immersed herself in the movies and was hired to write film criticism for the Spectator, which under the proprietorship of St. Loe Strachey, was read by many people influential in London culture. With a group of these leaders in 1925 Iris founded the London Film Society, which showed notable films in a context in which they could be discussed and understood—often with the filmmaker present. This provided a model for the film component of the Museum of Modern Art, which Iris co-founded with her husband, John Abbott, in 1935. Barry led MoMA’s film department until 1950.

Q: What is her significance to the art of film?

A: Iris is the architect of the infrastructure of film as an art form, including its needs for preservation, presentation, study and appreciation. She is notable among early film theorists for identifying the differences between film and the other arts, an argument she outlined in her 1926 book, Let’s Go to the Pictures. Others tried to justify film an art by pointing out its similarities to established art forms. She also set the example for establishing film as a cultural resource, by founding the first major museum film program at MoMA, teaching one of the first courses in film with artists present at Columbia University, distributing films to college and university campuses along with study materials, and guaranteeing the preservation of the art form by founding the International Federation of Film Archives in 1938. She served as FIAF’s Life President. Subsequently, the New York Film Festival was dedicated to her in 1962 and in 1967 the American Film Institute was founded on principles exemplified by Barry’s career. Much of what we take for granted about film culture today can be traced back to her.

Q: Given the richness, importance, not to mention drama of Iris Barry’s life, it’s surprising there’s not been a biography of her. What explains the lack of scholarly or biographical attention to her?

A: Iris Barry lived her life in three countries, first in England, then in America, and finally in France. It took travel to all three to find documents of her personal and professional life, distributed among a bewildering variety of sources, from manuscript archives to personal collections.

Iris never returned to live in any of the countries in which she once resided. She did not look back. Nor did she leave an autobiography or any systematic notes. Some of the best sources we have about her came from letters she wrote to people she knew, either charmingly soliciting their assistance, recounting her impressions of people and places, or confiding in them. There are few examples of the latter, since she firmly kept up appearances as a self-contained professional.

Iris’s persona as an educated, articulate English intellectual presents another biographical dilemma. This was the persona she adopted in her professional life, one that led her to describe her aloof moments as those of a “Queen” in the “deep-freeze.” Virtually no one who knew her knew about her past or that she was a self-taught convent dropout. No friend or colleague at MoMA was aware of her humble beginnings or her adventures in Bloomsbury, and even those who helped her did not know they were also assisting two children she had borne with Wyndham Lewis. These things were not mentioned in polite society at the time, and on that custom hangs a feminist lesson. The one person she seemed willing to confide in was the novelist, Edmund Schiddel.

The things Iris chose to keep secret may also have included the fact that she had worked for the government as a spy. When she went abroad in 1936 looking for films for MoMA, the State Department asked her to keep an eye on how Germany was using films in its mobilization effort. Later, after the U.S. entry into the war, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services in support of a propaganda effort to preserve American hegemony in Latin America and facilitated the wartime documentary series, Why We Fight.

All this would seem to be to her credit, except that she found almost any political involvement problematical. Despite her wartime service and her election in 1949 as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, she was interrogated as a suspected Communist by American authorities in Marseilles in the 1950s.

Finally, there is the weight of years since her abrupt departure from New York in 1950. Most of her friends long ago died, and there have been only occasional attempts to reassess her career by scholars. One article in the 1980s was fittingly entitled, “New Light on Iris Barry.” It took me almost thirty years to bring her life into focus, and none of the time was wasted.

Q: So what should Iris Barry mean to us today, in the age of the “death of film”?

RS: First, we should know she would say that film is not dead, but that all films made before the invention of safety film in the 1950s continue to decay and most have been irretrievably lost. Digital transfers from original film stock do not work. Too much information is left out and the luminosity of the transfer cannot duplicate the original. The cinematography of James Wong Howe in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), for example, cannot be digitally preserved. In fact, the term “digitally preserved” is oxymoronic.

This is because film is a chemical medium. Its tonalities of darkness and light, its subtle color hues are only analogized in an electronic medium. Color film has its own set of problems. Its colors tend to fade toward darker hues and end up in a rosy mess. This accounts for the urgency of preserving such films as the Powell-Pressburger Red Shoes (1948).

Q: But don’t we see these films every day on television, on YouTube?

RS: YouTube is not an archive, and television, as we learned from the work of Marshall McLuhan, is a “cool” medium – meaning its objective information content must be filled in subjectively. McLuhan, of course, wrote about TV during its low-definition period, when FCC regulations limited over-the-air signals to a resolution well below the medium’s capabilities.

Q: So haven’t we gotten beyond all this with hi-def?

RS: Thankfully, yes, and despite the fact that we are still dealing with an analogous medium, isn’t it great that there is so much of it? Iris Barry would be delighted. She would be pleased that the number of film festivals approaches the number of Starbucks and she would definitely favor net neutrality. She would encourage our Netflix addiction, and urge us to continue with the collective dream she saw cinema to be. She would only ask that we complete the work that she began and hope a new kind of curatorship emerges from the blogosphere, to help us deal with the abundance of images coming our way. And she would say to us, as she did in 1926, that we should constantly “ask for better dreams.”

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