Film

A History of Film at MoMA, as Told by Its Original Curator

As part of its reopening slate, a film series at the museum pays tribute to the foundational programming of its influential film curator Iris Barry.

Maria Falconetti (as Jeanne d’Arc) in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), dir. Carl Dreyer (courtesy PhotoFest)

Since at least 1929 when it opened with a Motion Picture Department but sans a permanent collection, the Museum of Modern Art has been a strategic battleground in cinema’s push for legitimacy. Iris Barry’s History of Film looks back at the establishment of the Film Library, the first circulating collection of its kind in the US, in 1935 under the guidance of its first curator. With its lineup of Cinema Studies 101 titles that Barry herself selected as the Film Library’s earliest acquisitions, the survey suggests that Iris Barry’s History of Film is the history of film as we study it in the U.S. today. 

“One of the challenges to the curators involved in organizing programs for the October 2019 re-opening of the Museum, was to use only collection-based works,” Associate Curator of Film Anne Morra, who organized the exhibition, explained via email. “The Film Department considered various ‘histories’ amongst them, unauthorized, hidden, alternative, etc… It seemed only logical for me to dive into the authorized history that was created by the founding Film department curator.”

Iris Barry (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Morra used Film Notes, a textual accompaniment to the first film programs made available for dissemination by MoMA, as her guidepost in putting together a series representative of the Film Library’s formative ethos. (You can find an example from 1970 in full here). Morra’s selections include classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). On the surface, it seems a safe entry in the museum’s ongoing Modern Matinees series. But a closer examination of Barry’s curatorial rationale (evinced in Film Notes and excerpted in MoMA’s online write-ups for each screening) illuminates the unique cultural climate of the 1930s that Barry navigated in developing the Film Library.

When MoMA opened the Library in 1935, it did so with a sense of urgency. “Some films have been lost and others completely destroyed,” the introduction of Film Notes warns, reading like a manifesto. “Unless something is done to restore and preserve outstanding films of the past, the motion picture from 1894 onwards will be as irrecoverably lost as the Commedia del Arte or the dancing of Nijinsky.” The Barry-penned prose that follows tactically details early acquisitions — the “building blocks of MoMA’s collection,” as the museum refers to them. 

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1920), dir. Robert Wiene (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Barry’s writing in Film Notes is confident and candid, precursive of critic Pauline Kael’s notoriously droll tone. Her background as a newspaper critic is evident, nowhere more so than in her assessment of The Jazz Singer (1927). “Though so few years have elapsed since The Jazz Singer was made, it is difficult today to understand the sensation which it created,” she begins, before landing a blow: “Even at the time, it is doubtful if anyone thought it a good film.” Nonetheless, Barry advocates for The Jazz Singer’s inclusion in MoMA’s collection. In Al Jolson’s singing performance of “Mammy,” (performed in blackface) she locates a pathos that foretold sound as “the means to a fuller expression of certain moods than the silent films appeared capable of registering.” Whether or not it was a “good film” was immaterial. Its revolutionary technical feat, Barry argued, earned it admission to the canon. 

Whether The Jazz Singer was racist was an argument (followed by a foregone conclusion) predating Barry’s tenure at MoMA. But elsewhere in Film Notes (in 1935), Barry offhandedly acknowledges that conversations surrounding onscreen representation were happening at the time of publication and had been since at least 1913, when D.W. Griffith released his anti-Black, pro-KKK epic The Birth of a Nation to “opposition and censure, especially north of the Mason and Dixon line.” Barry praises D.W. Griffith’s film with an earnestness not seen in her evaluation of The Jazz Singer: “It earned for the cinema as a whole a status hitherto denied it, compelled the acceptance of the film as art.” With early defenders such as Barry, it should come as less of a surprise that the film still lingers on college course syllabi more than a century after its embattled debut. 

Intolerance (1916), dir. D.W. Griffith (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Curiously, The Birth of A Nation does not appear as an official entry in FIlm Notes, and Barry offers no explanation for the omission (afterall, this was a text that lobbied for the inclusion of numerous other films in MoMA’s collection). She makes mention of it to foreground Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance (1916), which she did select for the library, resting her case on the film’s inventive use of editing techniques. Reading between the lines, one can’t help but wonder if this was meant to be a “safer” choice. 

Less controversially, the introduction of Film Notes offers that pop-cultural influence will be another criteria for appraisal: “…especial attention will be given to those films which conspicuously affected the fashions, the speech, or the behavior of the large public.” In her take on A Fool There Was (1914), Barry cites the film’s coinage of the term “vamp” as a sign of its lasting cultural import. The presence of actress Theda Bara, a silent-era siren who courted controversy with a manufactured, gothic persona, was another enticement. 

A Fool There Was (1914), dir. Frank Powell (courtesy the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Barry also demonstrates a willingness to campaign on behalf of cinema as an art form in Film Notes. In his 2014 historical text From Ephemera to Art: The Birth of Film Preservation and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Justin McKinney concludes that ultimately, the creation of the Film Library  “…was contingent on the establishment of film as an art form.” Barry’s notes on The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) brim with coded references to the then-prevalent sentiment among the museum’s traditionalists that cinema was inferior to other mediums housed in MoMA. She slyly dismisses the mindset: “It should be recalled that in 1928,” she wrote in 1935, “the notion had not been dispelled that in order to be excellent a motion picture should in some way or another possess qualities reminiscent of “real” art, that is to say of painting, sculpture, miniatures, or the like.” She goes on to favorably compare Danish director Carl Dreyer’s use of extreme close-ups as bearing a resemblance to classical portraiture and religious iconography. 

In October, shortly before the museum’s reopening, The New York Times reported with curiosity that MoMA’s films were appearing in some unusual places. For one, “the hallowed prewar galleries,” where a 1905 reel trailing a New York City subway car can now be seen looping next to contemporaneous photographs, one room over from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It’s a victory for the Department of Film and the field of Cinema Studies at large. But the news also begs the question of why it’s taken so long for 2D filmic works to be exhibited in proximity to paintings and photographs. (In the same article, chief curator of film Rajendra Roy recalls his appointment in 2007: “When I arrived, curators would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about film. Could I walk in and say, ‘I don’t know anything about painting?’ I could never!”)

Over 80 years after the Department of Film’s founding, moviegoers (Martin Scorsese chiefly among them) are still arguing over what makes a film “good.” A tribute to the woman who not only weighed in on the topic, but also provided a framework for how such arguments are even hashed out, is at once perfectly timed and perennially overdue. 

Iris Barry’s History of Film continues through December 31 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown). 

comments (0)