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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Interview with Michael Glover Smith, Co-Author of “Flickering Empire (Part 2)

Flickering Empire, Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The following is the second part of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. (You can read part 1 here.)

Question: Oscar Micheaux also was part of Chicago’s film history. In what ways was Chicago important for the development of African-American or “race” movies?

Michael Glover Smith: A lot of the early films dealing with race offer “comical” racial stereotypes that are offensive. Even the first Essanay film, An Awful Skate, features a white actor in blackface makeup. William Foster, an enterprising African-American theater manager, founded the first black-owned film production company in 1910. Foster has been quoted as saying, “Nothing has been done so much to awaken race consciousness of the colored man in the nation as the motion picture. It has made him hungry to see himself.” In addition to the earliest shorts by the Foster Photoplay Company, Chicago was home to many other early “race films,” including Peter P. Jones’s The Slacker in 1917 and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in 1919. The latter, which we discuss at length in our book’s post-script, is the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American. It’s not only a great film, it’s a rare and invaluable document of black American culture from that era.

Q: As you mention in the book, Chicago played a role in the censorship of films. What was the legacy of Major M.L.C. Funkhouser in determining what Americans saw at the movies?

MGS: Learning about the role of Chicago’s censorship board in doing research for the book was really eye-opening. The local censorship board, under the auspices of Funkhouser, was actually stricter than the national censorship board. There are a lot of fascinating and funny stories about the board and so that ended up becoming an entire chapter in our book. Funkhouser was reactionary in harshly censoring sex, violence and political content deemed inflammatory but he was also a politically corrupt hypocrite who would throw parties and screen the naughty bits that he had ordered cut from the films. He also allowed the Chicago Tribune to print descriptions of scenes that had been censored, which resulted in him getting favorable publicity from that particular paper. He was quite a character.

Q: So, what happened? What explains the decline of the Chicago film industry?

MGS: There were a complex combination of factors that resulted in the decline of Chicago’s film empire. But, basically, it can be reduced to: 1) the two major Chicago studios were part of the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (or MPPC), a trust that Edison had established in an attempt to monopolize the industry; this trust was sued and forced to disband by the U.S. Justice Department in 1913, 2) most of the independent (i.e., non-MPPC) filmmakers had fled to southern California in order to make movies as far away from Edison and his patent-enforcing “Goon Squad” as possible and 3) the weather and geography of southern California were ultimately deemed more conducive to year-round shooting than Chicago.


Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of “Flickering Empire”

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of

“A lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of ‘famous firsts’ for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a ‘pie-in-the-face-gag….’”—Michael Glover Smith

The following is part 1 of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

Question: Why does Chicago get left out of the history of early cinema in America?

Michael Glover Smith: The story of American film production begins in New York and New Jersey (where Thomas Edison was headquartered) in the late 19th century. Hollywood didn’t really become the nation’s film-producing capital until about 1915. All official histories are somewhat reductive and I think it’s been convenient for scholars and historians to just skip over the story of Chicago’s contributions to film history, which mainly occurred in in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Even though the contributions of Chicago filmmakers were enormous by any objective standard, it was a fairly narrow window of time when the film industry in Chicago was at its peak and, also, the vast majority of Chicago-made films of that era no longer exist. They’ve been destroyed or lost and it’s never been fashionable to write about films that people can’t see.

Q: How does Chicago’s role in the development change the way we think about the history of movies in America?

MGS: I think a lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of “famous firsts” for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a “pie-in-the-face-gag,” the first films made by African-American directors, etc. We give a rundown in the introduction to the book. It’s entirely possible that movies as we now know them would look very different if not for the contributions of studios like Essanay and Selig-Polyscope and also the independent filmmakers (especially the aforementioned black directors).

Q: What was the role of the 1893 Columbia Exhibit in popularizing film in Chicago and the rest of the country?

MGS: The World’s Fair of 1893 had an enormous influence on the developing film industry. There were several important prototypical movie-exhibition devices that premiered there—including Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Otto Anschutz’s Tachyscope. A lot of the early Chicago filmmakers went to the Fair and were inspired to start making films based on what they saw.


Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Flickering Empire”

This week our featured book is Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Flickering Empire to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 27th at 1:00 pm.

Flickering Empire tells the fascinating yet little-known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of American film production in the years before the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). Flickering Empire illustrates the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures, including Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux, and Orson Welles, are major players in the narrative—in addition to important though forgotten industry titans, such as “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor, and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.


Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Read Excerpts from the Diaries of Hollywood Legend Charles Brackett

It's the Pictures That Got Small

The following are some excerpt from Charles Brackett’s diaries, portions of which have been published in It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Charles Brackett was the longtime writing partner of Billy Wilder. In the following passages he recounts working with Wilder and interactions with a variety of Hollywood notables.

August 18, 1936: Worked with Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating. He has the blasé quality I have missed sadly in dear Frank Partos. He has humor—a kind of humor that sparks with mine.

[At this point, Charles Brackett adds the following note to the typed tran­scription of his diary.]

(It’s time to examine him as he was then: 32 years old, a slim young fellow with a merry face, particularly the upper half of it, the lower half of his face had other implications. But from his brisk nose up it was the face of a naughty cupid. Born some place in Poland [“half-an-hour from Vienna,” he used to say, “by telegraph.”] he has been brought up in Vienna and schooled there, the Lycée—which means he had just about the education of a bright American college graduate. He’d gone to Berlin, worked at various things, among others he’d been a dancer for hire at fashionable restaurants. And he’d written an article about his experiences in that capacity. He’d then become a successful screenwriter: Emil und die Detective [1931] was a delightful and successful picture he wrote.

Because he was Jewish and had an acute instinct for things that were going to happen, he had slipped out of Germany as Hitler began to rise.

In Paris he had written and directed a picture in which Danielle Darrieux played the lead. One great advantage was his: he had cut the teeth of his mind on motion pictures. He knew the great ones as he knew the classic books. He’d been brought to Hollywood by a German producer and set to work on Music in the Air. Music in the Air was a real abortion. After it ap­peared, other writing assignments were not easy to come by.

There was a time when, due to the protective affection of a woman who ran a conservative apartment house on Sunset Boulevard, he was allowed to sleep in the ladies’ room, provided he was out by the time the tenants began to appear.

Discouraged and just about to go back to New York, he called his agent to an­nounce his departure. His agent had been trying to get hold of him for days: he’d sold three stories.

This all sounds improbable, but it was the kind of improbability that was built into Billy Wilder. Before we were joined in collaboration, I’d known him as a jaunty young foreigner who worked on the fourth floor at Paramount, where I worked. He had been a collaborator of Don Hartman’s. Only one anecdote about him at that period sticks in my mind:

I’d gone to meet somebody with whom I was to have dinner in the Holly­wood Brown Derby. While I waited, Billy came in and I asked him to join me for a drink. As we sat together, the swing door was opened on the wintry evening to admit a luminous figure. “Look who’s coming in!” I breathed.

Billy gave a cursory glance over his shoulder. “Marlene!” he snorted. “That excites you?” I admitted that it did. “She’s old hat for us,” he said. “Let me tell you if the waiter were to wheel over a big covered dish with her in it stark naked, I’d say, ‘Not interested,’ and have him wheel her away.”

I was enormously impressed with this world-weary man. It wasn’t for years that I came to know that Marlene had been an idol of his, worshipped since he first saw her.)


Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

What Charles Brackett Tells Us About the Films of Billy Wilder — Anthony Slide

The following essay is by Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. (To save 30% on this book use the discount code SLIITS):

On Sunday, January 11, I introduced a tribute to Charles Brackett, held most appropriately at the Billy Wilder Theatre, located at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The two films screened that night were The Lost Weekend and Five Graves to Cairo, one very well known and and an Academy Award-winner and the other less so.

It was fascinating to watch these films again with the knowledge of what Brackett had to say about them in his diaries. I strongly recommend that anyone reading the diaries should try to revisit the Brackett/Wilder films. Certainly, one views them in a different light. For example, the first shot in The Lost Weekend is an exterior of Don Birnam’s New York apartment, and thanks to Brackett’s diary entry, we know that the apartment is actually a set built on the roof of Hahn’s Warehouse. Or, every time Doris Dowling, who plays Gloria in film, opens her mouth, one can’t help but think of Brackett’s description of her performance as “amateurish.”

The programming staff at the Billy Wilder Theatre had selected the evening’s films as two that had not been screened recently in Los Angeles. Would my choice have been different? Probably yes. One Brackett and Wilder film that is difficult to see on the big screen in 35mm is The Emperor Waltz, their only Technicolor production and their only musical. It is, in reality, not one of their greatest achievements, but if I saw it again—thanks to the diaries—I would have wondered at the couple’s original casting notion: Greta Garbo opposite Bing Crosby. When I suggested this to the audience at the Billy Wilder Theatre, there was laughter, but would it have been such a bad idea? Garbo was actually enthusiastic, claiming admiration for Crosby, but she was too frightened to face the camera again, and so the role went to Joan Fontaine.

It is now 75 years since Brackett and Wilder made Sunset Blvd., their most famous film, and one that is screened too often in the Los Angeles area for it to make it into the Charles Brackett Tribute. If anything makes the Brackett diaries worthy of publication, it is what he writes about Sunset Blvd. There is so much original documentation here. It is fascinating to read of Wilder and his telling of the movie’s plot to Mary Pickford and jointly deciding as they make their pitch that they just don’t want her for Norma Desmond. How incredible it is that the day before shooting the famous “waxworks” scene of the group of silent stars playing bridge, the second female role had not been cast. Both Theda Bara and Jetta Goudal had been in consideration. Both ladies said no, and, having known Miss Goudal, I can well imagine, as Brackett writes, that she spent half-an-hour on the telephone rejecting his casting call. Ultimately, the afternoon before the scene was shot, Brackett thought of Anna Q. Nilsson, a blonde star of the silent era who was working by then as an extra, and she was a perfect match for the role — her sweetness and waning prettiness at odds with the artificiality of Swanson’s aging, heavily made-up beauty.

Regardless, the two films presented that evening went over well, and emphasized that Brackett and Wilder were a team who naturally complemented each other, regardless of their very different backgrounds and often simmering hostility. I would like to believe that they always maintained a healthy respect for each other, long after they parted company. I know that Brackett never criticized Wilder in public, and I was interested to learn from Larry Mirisch, who was in the audience that night, and whose father, Walter, produced more than a dozen of Wilder’s later films, that Billy never said one word about Brackett.

The diaries speak for themselves—and really they speak for both men.

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

An Interview with Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”

The following is an interview with Anthony Slide, the editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. (You can save 30% on “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” by using the coupon code SLIITS when you order from our site.)

“The two were as different as it is possible to be. Brackett was older and wiser. Wilder was young and brash. Wilder was a liberal. Brackett was a conservative—a staunch Republican—American and Episcopalian. Wilder was European and Jewish. And yet they complemented each other so well.” —Anthony Slide

Question: Who Was Charles Brackett?

Anthony Slide: Charles Brackett’s background is both patrician and literary. He came from a wealthy New England family, and in the 1920s he wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, served as drama critic for The New Yorker, and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. In 1932, Charley (as I like to call him after working with him posthumously on his diaries for so many years) came to Hollywood, and at Paramount he had a lengthy relationship, as co-writer and producer, with legendary writer-director Billy Wilder.

Q: Why are his diaries important?

AS: Charley’s diaries, as currently published, cover the years 1932-1949. (There are additional diaries for the period 1950-1962, when he was working at 20th Century-Fox, and I hope one day that they also will be published.) The diaries are unique in film history in that they are the only daily record from the period not only of the social life of a major Hollywood figure, but also the daily working of a major Hollywood studio, Paramount. I like to say that just as Samuel Pepys recorded life in seventeenth-century London, so does Charles Brackett record life in twentieth-century Hollywood.

Q: How did you find the diaries?

AS: In 2007, Jim Moore, who is Brackett’s grandson, donated the diaries, along with many of his grandfather’s papers, to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fortuitously, Jim had heard of my reputation in the field and approached me, initially to place a financial value on the collection. I didn’t have time back then to read all the diaries, but even so it was obvious to me, just from a sampling, that they had tremendous historical importance, and that they deserved to be read by a much wider audience than the few scholars and students who might come across them at the Academy.

Luckily, Jim was more than happy to agree to my editing the diaries, and my only regret is that it has taken an incredible eight years to complete the editing process, find a suitable publisher, and get the finished product into the bookstores. I might add that when I first started, I was scrupulously annotating almost every name and subject, but then I realized that my annotations reduced the amount of space available for Charley’s actual diary entries. I decided, perhaps with a certain amount of regret, that it was better to cut back on the annotations—after all, surely any reader of a book such as this does not need to be told who is Claudette Colbert or Gary Cooper?


Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “‘It’s the Pictures That Got Small’: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age

This week our featured book is “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age edited by Anthony Slide.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, January 23 at 1:00 pm.

“Reading Brackett’s diary entries is like stepping into a time machine. It provides a vivid and valuable account of day-to-day life in the heyday of Hollywood’s studio system–and a bittersweet chronicle of his volatile relationship with Billy Wilder. I couldn’t put the book down.”—Leonard Maltin”

Read Anthony Slide’s introduction to “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

An interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of “Film Worlds”

Film Worlds

The following is an interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema:

Q: How would you situate Film Worlds within film theory and the expanding field of film and philosophy?

A: Over the past few decades there has been a notable turn towards philosophy in disciplinary film studies. One example is the influence of Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema (indebted to Henri Bergson and C.S. Peirce), which film theorists have found productive to engage with; another is the widespread interest in phenomenology – particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s version of it – in relation to perceptual, affective, and ‘embodied’ aspects of films and film viewing. More or less simultaneously, within Anglophone academic philosophy there has been a renewed interest in how some films dramatize philosophical issues and problems, in the question of whether cinema can serve as a medium for philosophical thought and argument, and the relation between films and their experience and issues in the philosophy of perception, cognition, and emotion (as overlapping with cognitive film theory).

In relation to all of the above it is important to distinguish between philosophy in film and the philosophy of film. My interests have been mainly in the latter, and it is here that the long and fascinating tradition of aesthetics and the philosophy of art can be fruitfully brought to bear on certain topics in modern and contemporary film theory. Curiously, in the midst of the aforementioned philosophical turn in film theory and the growing ‘film-philosophy’ movement this is a tradition that many theorists and philosophers alike have tended to bypass, even when discussing cinematic representation, expression, authorship, and other issues that it may illuminate (there are of course notable exceptions). In its exploration of the world-like nature of films and their experience, Film Worlds attempts to show the continued relevance of insights drawn from general aesthetics and the philosophy of art to cinema and to contemporary film theory and the philosophy of film. (more…)

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov

In the following video, Jeremi Szaniawski talks with Dominique Nasta (ULB) about his book The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox:

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Richard Suchenski on the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-hsien, Richard SuchenskiOn Friday, September 12, 2014, the Museum of the Moving Image will launch a retrospective of the films by Taiwan’s celebrated director Hou Hsiao-hsien.

In conjunction with the retrospective, Richard Suchenski, editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien will join Columbia film scholar Richard Peña and acclaimed writer and academic Ian Buruma in a public discussion hosted at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute about Hou’s films on Friday, September 12, 2014, from 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM in Kent Hall 403 on the Columbia University campus.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Richard Suchenski that originally appeared on the Weatherhead East Asian Institute site.

Q: What makes Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmmaking distinctive?

Richard Suchenski: Salient features of Hou’s cinema include elegantly staged long takes, the precise delineation of quotidian life, and a radically, even vertiginously, elliptical mode of storytelling. His films place unusual demands on the viewer, but their sophistication is understated and their formal innovations are irreducibly bound up with the sympathetic observation of everyday experience. In the book, I argue that by combining multiple forms of tradition with a unique approach to space and time, Hou has created a body of work that, through its stylistic originality and historical gravity, opens up new possibilities for the medium and redefines the relationship between realism and modernism.

One often has the peculiar sensation when watching Hou’s films of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously, continually refining an understanding of preceding scenes even when immersed in the unfolding present. He goes furthest in this direction with The Puppetmaster (1993), but there are already extraordinary examples in his breakthrough film The Boys from Fengkuei (1983).

Q: What inspired you to study Hou’s films?

RS: For a cinephile of my generation, Hou is a key reference point and the new Taiwanese cinema that began in the 1980s has a special status as a cinema that was (and is) in the midst of introducing an innovative sensibility and a fresh perspective. Hou is the most important Taiwanese filmmaker and his sensuous, richly nuanced work is at the heart of everything that is vigorous and genuine in contemporary film culture. This made him an ideal subject for the first integrated book and retrospective project coordinated through the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA).


Friday, May 16th, 2014

Iris Barry, the Askew Salon, and The Museum of Modern Art

Iris Barry

We conclude our week-long feature on Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film with an excerpt from the book.

Iris Barry had made her mark in England as a film critic for The Spectator in the 1920s. She co-founded the innovative London Film Society in 1925 and in the next year published a book, Let’s Go to the Pictures, explaining why film is an art form. Nonetheless, she struggled in New York from her arrival in 1930 until she achieved some measure of stability as the first Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. This reversal of fortune came through meetings at the Askew salon, where she was introduced to the young director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Iris Barry’s connection with Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr came through the Askews. Kirk Askew was a Harvard graduate who worked for the New York office of Durlacher Brothers, a major European art dealership. His wife Constance was much admired as a hostess and became Iris’ life-long friend. The Askew salon comprised a petrie dish of modernism, in which movers and doers in all the arts met to exchange ideas. In his Memoir of an Art Gallery, art dealer Julien Levy recalls that “the best and most culturally fertile salon I was to know in the thirties grew from little Sunday gatherings at Kirk and Constance Askew’s, where many of my Harvard and New York friends gathered. Kirk’s system of invisible manipulation kept the evening both sparkling and under control [and] combined the hidden rigidity of as carefully combed a guest list as any straight and proper social arbiter might arrange, with the frothy addition of the uninhibited of Upper Bohemia, plus, one at a time, to avoid jealousy and sulks, a single real lion. Two were asked together only if they expressed a desire to meet or already knew and liked each other and admired each other’s work. There developed and was maintained a colorful variety of conversations, many fruitful contacts, some light flirting, some sex, and a little matchmaking, with an occasional feud for spice. A small group of regulars came every week and provided the dependably witty core of the parties, so that on rainy or otherwise off nights there still would be no risk of boredom….”

Despite the fact that many members of the Askew salon were homosexual, the rules of conduct of the period discouraged overt activity. As Steven Watson, author of Strange Bedfellows, a study of the sexuality of modernist culture put it, “once a man made a pass at another man, the butler brought him his coat. The rule was, we do not camp in public.”

A second salon Iris sometimes attended, hosted by Muriel Draper, took on a more political tone and had rules of conduct more permissive than the Askews. Muriel Draper had entertained artists in a well-known London salon between 1911 and 1915, and since her return to New York carried on a successful interior design business among the well-to-do. Her leftist leanings later got her into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite her association with left-wing organizations in the 1930s, however, she was apparently not a Communist Party member. Esther Murphy, Paul and Jane Bowles and others in the Draper salon flirted with Communism, but political or, for that matter, sexual orientation made no difference at the Drapers. Virgil Thomson, a frequenter of both salons, referred to the group as “the Little People”, since many there, like Thomson himself, were of short stature. Of the two salons, even the Bowleses preferred the Askew’s. Paul Bowles’ biographer, Gena Dagel Caponi, noted that “despite living separately, Jane and Paul were very much a couple when they socialized. They regularly attended gatherings at the [Askews], who held what Paul called ‘the only regular salon in New York worthy of the name.’ There Paul played the piano and sang his own songs, while Jane visited, sitting first on one man’s lap and then in another’s. omposers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, and Marc Blitzstein could be counted on to be there, as could Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine and their dancers. Several connected with the Museum of Modern Art attended….Poet E.E. Cummings and John Houseman were often there as well. As Europe headed towards war, artists immigrated to New York and to the Askew salon. Among them were surrealists – Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dali — who dominated the intellectual tone of the Askew salon from 1940 on; Paul felt at home with them, but Jane did not.”

At the Askews Iris sized up Alfred Barr as “a kindred soul…a youngish Wellesley College art professor who was a simple, direct Harvard aesthete whose wanderings about the museums of Europe and the salons of Paris had led him to envision the Museum of Modern Art. If he was a visionary, he was so in the best sense of being an intensely practical one.” Possessed of influential friends, Barr “could think on his feet with the best of them and was, to boot, an elegant parlor orator, attributes which beautifully accompanied his deep and abiding sincerity.”

Iris found that she and Barr “entertained a similar outlook on the motion picture as falling within the Museum’s proper scope of activity.” She promoted herself to Barr as the one to head a film component of the Museum. “No time was lost in pointing out to him that the only noteworthy attempt to make the motion picture known as a living art rather than ephemeral entertainment had come from the Film Society in London,” which had been handicapped “by the lack of any central repository from which important films of the past could be booked at will. The inference was plain; the Museum, by its avowed purpose and very nature as an institution for the study of contemporary art, should logically become that central repository.


Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Griffith, Pickford Rockefeller, and Bunuel: The Life and Relationships of Iris Barry in Photos

The following photos and captions, provided by Robert Sitton, author Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, depict not only Iris Barry but the figures who played an important role in her life and career. From Wyndham Lewis and D. W. Griffith to Nelson Rockefeller and Luis Bunuel, Barry’s life and work as film curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) put her in contact with some of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century:

Iris Barry
Portrait of Iris Barry by Sasha — As a young writer, Iris Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, who read some of her work in Poetry magazine. This resulted in an historic correspondence in which Pound set down many of his ideas about literature

Iris Barry
Wyndham Lewis — Pound’s fellow Vorticist, the novelist and painter became Iris’s lifelong love and the father of her children.

Iris Barry
Pickfair guests — Left to right: Frances Goldwyn, John Abbott, Samuel Goldwyn, Mary Pickford, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd, and Iris Barry on the evening in 1935 when Iris convinced the Hollywood moguls to donate their films to the Museum of Modern Art.

Iris Barry
Iris Barry and John Abbott — Examining film from their 1936 trip to European archives.

Iris Barry
Alfred Barr — the founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art, who hired Iris as the Museum’s first Curator of Film.

Iris Barry
D.W. Griffith — the American film director, subject of Iris’s major catalog and retrospective in 1940, and the source of some of Iris’s troubles at MoMA.


Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Iris Barry at the Movies

As part of our week-long feature Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, we asked the book’s author to discuss A Color Box (dir. Len Lye) and The Last Laugh (dir. F. W. Murnau) some of the key films in Iris Barry’s career as a film curator:

The Last Laugh, directed by F. W. Murnau

Iris Barry appreciated that Emile Jannings was more of an actor than a movie star. As she once put it, “At no time does he play Emile Jannings.” She also viewed cinema as intrinsically realistic, in that the still photographs of which it is composed convey a correspondence with the subject filmed, however fantastic it might be. She nevertheless felt that movies were a form of collective reverie, and urged her audiences to “Ask for better dreams.”

In Murnau’s The Last Laugh she found one: a dream so human as to engage the Freudian principle that sanity is essentially a matter of balancing “love and work.” As a mighty hotel doorman reduced to the status of washroom attendant, Jannings conveys physically and wordlessly the effects of the loss of work on a person. In eleven minutes we watch him become aware of his fate, deny it, struggle against it, and finally succumb. Throughout, the camera participates in the action, and even brings in the hotel itself as a kind of character.

A Colour Box, directed by Len Lye:

In 1936 Iris and her husband, John Abbott traveled to Europe to find films for their nascent Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art. They visited archives in England, France, Sweden, Poland, and the Soviet Union, seeking to make exchanges facilitated by governmental approval that would exempt films from export duties and transport them as cheaply as possible. They already had the cooperation of American companies, due to their successful appearance at Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s house in Hollywood in 1935.

The prospect of exchanging films with an American archive appealed to the Europeans and their participation was forthcoming, resulting in a study collection that would later become iconic: Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Murnau’s Last Laugh, and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin among them. From England Barry and Abbott picked up Len Lye’s remarkable A Colour Box, a largely hand-made film skillfully coordinating abstract images with a Latin beat. It became one of the works animators worldwide revere as historically essential, as well as an example of how film can be engaging even when it does not tell a story.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

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.


Monday, May 12th, 2014

Book Giveaway!: Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

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

This week our featured book is Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, by Robert Sitton. In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Lady in the Dark to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, May 16 at 3:00 pm.

Here’s what Peter Bogdanovich has to say about the book:

“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.”

For more on the book, you can also listen to Robert Sitton’s discussion of Iris Barry on the Leonard Lopate Show:

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Camcorders, Democracy, Authenticity — from Video Revolutions

Michael Newman, Video Revolutions

In Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman examines the ways in which video has been both valued and denigrated. While some associated it with the low standards of television and contributing to to the decline of the technical and artistic achievements of film, others prized it for its authenticity, its ability to capture the “real,” and its democratization of media:

In the following excerpt from the section “Camcorders, Democracy, and Authenticity,” Newman explains some of these aspects of video:

“The form of video associated with camcorders and citizen media produc­tion was closely tied to ideas about video’s capabilities to capture and document reality in ways that existing media systems had not accomplished.”—Michael Newman

One moment in which this association [with the real] was reasserted occurred on television in the fall of 1980. The FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s had caught state and federal legislators accepting bribes from agents including one pretending to be a wealthy Middle Eastern immi­grant seeking asylum in the United States. Secretly videotaped surveillance footage of acts of political corruption in a hotel room, where elected officials met the agents, proved to be sensational and irrefutable evidence in court, leading toward convictions. Soon after the sting was first made public, these events were parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch spoof­ing The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Bel-Airabs,” reinforcing the linkage between video recording and the real, and videotape’s familiarity as a medium of capturing and documenting actu­ality. After a well-publicized Supreme Court decision allow­ing it, the evidentiary videotape was broadcast on television evening news programs on October 14, 1980, an event marked in popular criticism as a historic occasion for both television and video. The Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales noted the “video vérité” look of the images, and essentially predicted what would later be called reality TV, as surveillance and other forms of taped footage were likely to find their way onto the airwaves in the near future as both news and entertainment. Shales imagined that this would “change the way we look at the tube—and the way it looks at us.” Video cameras had been available to consumers for more than a decade by the time of the Abscam case, but were not widely adopted in comparison to video recorders until the 1980s….

Camcorders also quickly became a way for amateur media products to find their way into professional broadcasts and cable news programs, much as Shales predicted. Some of this video was in the mode of home movies, but the availability of less expensive and easy-to-use new video gear expanded the practice of amateur media production of many varieties. Ama­teur videos were made more famous by the ABC network’s America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFHV), a long-running series based on user-submitted clips, which began as a 1989 special and continued to air more than two decades hence into the 2010s. AFHV and other audience-submission programs such as I Witness Video motivated and encouraged viewers to make and send in a certain kind of videotape, and in the later 1980s and 1990s, shooting camcorder footage was seen as a way for ordinary people to “get on TV” and participate in mass media discourse that had hitherto been closed off to them, claiming a place in the national media conversation…..


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Images from the Video Revolution

In Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman examines how video has been seen in both a utopian and a negative light in terms of its cultural impact.

Newman also includes a variety of images that detail how video was depicted in popular culture and advertising as something that would revolutionize the way we consumed culture. Below are some example and for more images, you can also visit the book’s Pinterest page:

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Sony’s campaign sold the Betamax video recorder as a device for time-shifting programs taped off the air. By placing the product boldly in the foreground with the TV set in the background, Sony emphasized video’s value as a technology improving on television.

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Illustration by Doris Ettlinger for the article, “For Many, TV Tape Means Watching More—and Loving It,” New York Times, August 27, 1977, using the most popular movie of the day to represent the appeals of home video.

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Newsweek‘s cover on August 6, 1984, announced The Video Revolution, picturing a VCR as a movie theater.


Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Live Video, Then and Now — Michael Z. Newman

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, by Michael Z. Newman

The following post is by Michael Z. Newman, author of Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium:

“The non-linearity of videotape, digital recording, and services like Netflix and its rivals also speak to a long-standing fantasy, of media that satisfy personal desires for unconstrained agency.”—Michael Newman

Today there are two contrary trends in media temporality, which are also two competing visions for the future of entertainment. On one hand is the persistence of broadcast television, the most popular and profitable electronic media format ever. Many people and corporations would love for this kind of TV to go on unchanged forever. On the other hand is what Netflix calls non-linear TV, which follows no schedule. Think thirteen House of Cards episodes dropping all at once. The techies who speak in phrases like “disruptive innovation” are betting their venture capital that non-linear is going to be a live TV killer.

Since I have no time machine, I shouldn’t say which future is around the corner. But having looked at the history leading up to this moment in Video Revolutions, I do have some thoughts on how the past might help us to make sense of the present, and to recognize that the temporalities of both options have historically been invested with cultural value. Since ideas about technology tend to be much slower to change than technologies themselves, it seems like a good bet that the value of mediated liveness will endure.

When television was new, it was often distinguished by its capability for live broadcasting gathering audiences together, despite their physical separation, in communal experiences of performances and events of historical import. TV was to transport you from your comfortable chair at home to the stage or the ballpark, from your town to midtown Manhattan. This capability for immediacy and simultaneity made TV into the object of fantasies of improved communication. It also distinguished television from the most dominant mass medium of the first half of the twentieth century: the movies.

Liveness was an advantage broadcasting boasted over filmed news and entertainment, an advantage the commercial American networks used in setting the terms of their control of the airwaves under the sanction of the state. This might seem hard to believe today, but in the 1940s and 50s, movies were often held to be contemptible mass media trash, while the new medium of television promised to rise above them by offering a distinguished alternative.

This idealization of television and its close identification with liveness changed as TV’s cultural status declined and cinema’s improved. In part this was a function of TV’s adoption of recorded rather than live formats, though live production has never gone away. It was also a function of many other developments, including television’s quiz show scandals and more generally its reputation for fraudulence, and its close association with feminized and lower class audiences. When television’s reputation was that of a “vast wasteland,” sometimes the liveness of its early years, now considered a “Golden Age,” offered a contrast to the more culturally degraded kinds of programming that dominated in the 1960s and after.

In the early days of TV, video was a synonym for television, but the introduction of videotape in the 1950s began to change that. When video became a name for new forms and technologies, including video art and videocassettes for consumers, it was typically understood as a way of improving on television and ameliorating the problems associated with it, such as negative social effects and wasted cultural opportunity. This was often presented to the public as a solution to the problem of television’s control by the commercial networks who program a broadcast schedule of shows appealing most broadly, to satisfy sponsors and avoid trouble with them or the federal regulator. Video recording for the home, for instance, was presented as the liberation of ordinary viewers from the hegemony of the network programmer. Advertisements encouraged TV viewers: “make your own schedule” and “watch whatever whenever.” These were slogans for Sony’s Betamax in the mid-1970s. This notorious commercial for TiVo, which CBS refused to air a generation later (in 2000), makes the exact same appeal. You throw the network programmer out of the window and take his place as the one in control of your own viewing.