Iris Barry Gave so Much to the World

[12 May 2014]

By Jon Lisi

For years, the name Iris Barry has been known solely to cinema studies scholars who credit Barry with founding the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. Haidee Wasson, Peter Decherney, and others have argued Barry’s significance within the context of film history, but never before has a historian provided an in-depth exploration of Barry’s life.

Robert Sitton’s exceptional biography Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and The Art of Film arrives to change all of that. This is a meticulously researched, lovingly written book that confirms Barry’s importance as one of the first cultural enthusiasts to treat film as an art form. Moreover, the book suggests that Barry’s passions and accomplishments are far-reaching and extend beyond the realm of cinema, thereby painting a fuller portrait of Barry than previous historians have attempted.

Sitton opens with an acknowledgment of Barry’s contribution to cinema, as he writes, “When the American Film Institute was created in 1967, it derived its structure from a Stanford Research Institute report recommending that AFI undertake the same preservation, exhibition, education, and distribution functions Iris pioneered” (9). Therefore, Sitton claims, “the world of film is Barry’s monument” (Ibid.). What a treat it is, then, to travel back in time and see how a girl from Birmingham, England would become one of film history’s most essential figures.

At an early age, we get a sense that Barry was a unique, opinionated individual who saw the world a little differently. After the divorce of her parents and trying to fit in at numerous schools, Barry was sent to live in a convent in Verviers, Belgium at age 11. Sitton writes that Barry “chaffed at convent life”, and that its strict rules and regulations felt stifling to her individuality (12). After the head nun found illicit books under Iris’ pillow (the books belonged to a friend but Barry wouldn’t tattle), she was kicked out of the convent and sent back home to her grandparents.

This early dissatisfaction gave rise to Barry’s interest in the written word. She began to write poetry as teenager, and Sitton provides a number of Barry’s early published poems in the book, such as “The Fledgling”. In the poem, Barry writes, “I am here, unhappy, Longing to leave the hearth, Longing to escape from the home, The others are asleep, but I am here, unhappy” (14).

Barry’s poems are beautifully written, and they paint a portrait of a young girl’s unfulfilled soul. Barry’s longing to escape her mundane existence in “The Fledgling” in many ways hints at her future interest in cinema and its ability to tap into her dreams.

The following chapters detail Barry’s encounters with fellow intellectuals Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Elliot, Edmond Dulac, Edgar Jepson, and others in post-Victorian London, described by Barry as “The Ezra Pound Period” of her life (39). It’s a fascinating description of a particular literati, and I, for one, am envious of Barry’s association with this group.

Sitton continues with Barry’s tumultuous love affair with Wyndham Lewis, the birth of their two children, the dismantling of their relationship, and the emergence of Alan Porter, a literary editor to whom she would eventually marry in 1923. In many ways, this relationship changed her life, as she became the film critic for Porter’s magazine Spectator, which Sitton says “began Iris’ long and consequential association with film and film criticism” (84).

While writing for Spectator, Barry began to champion the art of cinema, and acknowledged the brilliance of such filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim. In fact, it may surprise readers to find that Barry was in the audience for the first screening of Stroheim’s Greed in 1925. Of the film, Barry noted, “It is a magnificent piece of realism, and nothing like it has been seen before” (102). The fact that Greed remains a classic, must-see film at the very least demonstrates Barry’s astute taste in the kind of cinema that mattered.

Next, Sitton gives great attention to Barry’s migration to America, her relationship with the Hollywood elite, her contribution to MOMA and the establishment of the film department, and her association with filmmaker Luis Buñuel that made her a target of an anti-communist witch hunt. All of this caused Barry to leave the United States for France and ultimately die in obscurity in 1969.

Sitton draws on letters, memorabilia, and other primary sources to create a rich account of Barry’s life, and there’s enough interesting information and fascinating anecdotes in here to make even the avid biography reader satisfied.

Like most people, Barry’s life unfolded spontaneously, and when she was a little girl rebelling in a convent in Belgium, it’s doubtful that she imagined she’d be living in America as one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century. Such is the surprise and delight of life. However, there is also the sadness, as Barry spent her last days battling cancer.

Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film is a must-read biography for film scholars, as well as any curious individuals who want to learn about an elusive, complicated individual who gave so much to the world despite receiving very little in return.

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