A Deeper, Wider POOL: Reading Close Up through the Archives of Its Contributors.
Such skewed reading of the archive is, I suggest, influenced by a singular conception of the historical activities of the modernist avant-garde that framed the original scholarship on POOL Group in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Deke Dusinberre's pioneering essay, "The Avant-Garde Attitude in the Thirties," rested on correspondence and interviews with POOL associate Oswell Blakeston, along with analysis of Close Up and British magazines of the later 1930s such as Film Art. (In a republication of the essay in the 1990s, Dusinberre acknowledged the limitations of his original research, describing its observations and conclusions as "intellectually obstetric" . (2)) Dusinberre, however, clearly understood the POOL project in the kind of intellectual framework outlined by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz as characteristic of mid-twentieth-century modernist studies:
for many years modernism was understood as, precisely, a movement by and for a certain kind of high (cultured mandarins) as against a certain kind of low (the masses, variously regarded as duped by the "culture industry," admirably free of elitist self-absorption, or simply awaiting the education that would make the community of cognoscenti a universal one. (738)
Dusinberre sees Close Up--as the product of an alternative film culture that existed largely at the level of criticism rather than production--as "avant-garde" because of its opposition to mass culture.
The term "avant-garde" is intended towards those films (and that film criticism) which seek an alliance with modernism in the other arts, which demand a consistent interrogation of the medium; they challenge the industry not only on the levels of content and of production/distribution/exhibition, but also on the level of the aesthetic/representational postulates on which the industry's commerce is based. (66)
Dusinberre defined that avant-garde activity as a project deriving from literature and fine art, noting that Close Up's "cultural sympathies...are suggested by its publication of contributions from people such as the imagist poet H.D. (who often wrote reviews and criticism and occasional poems), Gertrude Stein [...] and Man Ray" (67). Here Dusinberre activated the operating principle that would subsequently determine Donald, Friedberg & Marcus's approach: the cultural allegiance of avant-garde film is with an existing body of work that is literary, whose aesthetics are incompatible with the rhetorical forms of mass culture (Stein being a particularly good exemplar), and that sits outside and above that culture. Yet to achieve this conclusion Dusinberre had to make an oddly focused analysis of Close Up's contributors that presaged the editorial bias of Donald, Friedberg & Marcus: Stein published just twice, in the second and third issues, whilst Man Ray published just once, in the second issue.
This double move--identifying modernist film activity with contemporary, "vanguard" literature and art and accepting the then-dominant scholarly formulation of that art as formalist and antipathetic to mass-culture--derives from Dusinberre's own position in the 1970s. The self-conscious avant-gardism of the filmmakers and critics working in and around the London Filmmaker's Co-Op saw them search for historical precedents for their own austere, formalist interrogation of their medium's materiality, for their antagonism towards industrial practices and conventions, for their self-affirming insularity. Peter Wollen, in "The Two Avant-Gardes," would understand early modernist experiments with film on the one hand as formalist exercises that challenged the spatial and temporal limitations of painting and on the other as performative attempts deriving from Soviet practice to abolish the division between the artwork and its spectatorship that presaged 1970s experiments in Britain and Europe with "Expanded Cinema." The degree to which contemporary vanguard filmic activities were understood by their practitioners as both belated and in continuity with high-modernist ones was made clear by the Hayward Gallery exhibition Film as Film in 1979. This show provided the critical matrix for the initial recovery of early to mid-century modernist filmmaking and film writing. The first major exhibition devoted to experimental filmmaking, whilst engaging in historical recovery, emphasized continuity between past and present under the same formalist rubric of medium specificity and rhetorical analysis. Dusinberre contributed to this exhibition and used it to foreground his rediscovery of Blakeston's endeavors. The paradigm of formalism, antipathy, and alienation that Wollen mapped onto film could be readily adapted to romanticize, as much as historically ground, the antipathy and alienation of contemporary British structural and materialist filmmakers. Dusinberre thus articulated a clique's imagination of the historical avant-garde as constituted in its own image. In his initial act of historical recovery, Dusinberre does not look at modernist film through a yellow glass; he offers a self-portrait in a convex mirror. Later scholars seem content to adopt the same false perspective.
POOL's founding members in 1927 were Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman, 1894-1983), H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961), and Kenneth Macpherson (1902-1971). Of these, H.D. was the best known, having been part of the Imagist group of poets from 1911 to 1917; subsequently, H.D. would be accorded canonical status in modernist literature; Annette Debo suggests this was partly through Bryher's efforts on her behalf (448).Bryher was also significant, however, not only as a writer--by 1928 she had published two volumes of poetry and four novels--but, through family endowment and eventually inheritance, as a financial patron of modernist literary activities. Amongst the subjects of her benevolence were James Joyce, Edith Sitwell, and Norman Douglas. Kenneth Macpherson, at this point newly and conveniently married to Bryher, was the most prolific contributor to Close Up, writing an editorial for almost all of its fifty-four issues along with numerous reviews. Yet, for their profoundly influential survey Donald, Friedberg & Marcus select just three of these texts, whereas they reproduce all twenty-two essays by the British novelist Dorothy Richardson. Fourteen of those were published in the first fourteen issues of the magazine, to August 1928, and only eight more in the period to December 1933 when Close Up closed; H.D. is similarly privileged, yet she wrote just fourteen feature pieces, including poems, for Close Up, and after the fifteenth issue she contributed only three times in the next five years. In order to achieve their avowed literary emphasis, therefore, Donald, Friedberg & Marcus privilege the first fourteen months of Close Up's existence over the remaining five and a half years. Yet even this skewed survey must be further skewed: the most frequent contributor after Macpherson is Oswell Blakeston (Henry Joseph Hasslacher, 1907-1985). Blakeston first contributes to the second issue and has fourteen articles credited to him by August 1928. Yet there are precisely two essays in the entire Donald, Friedberg & Marcus collection. In his highly influential survey of modernist literary elites and public culture, Lawrence Rainey sees the Bryher circle as exemplifying a type of modernist coterie publishing in which the wealthy patron, Bryher, uses her resources to promote the careers of those affiliated to her by love, family, and intimate friendship. For Rainey, such patronage has the paradoxical effect of stultifying H.D.'s career--at least whilst she lived (Institutions of Modernism 146-68). Donald, Friedberg & Marcus's selection to a considerable degree promulgates the perception of POOL's activities as limited to a clique.
Yet scrutiny of POOL's projects, and of contributors' archives, reveals a very different picture--one in which the founding trio soon draws upon the expertise of strangers, and which in publishing them draws them into a wider circle of affiliation. Furthermore, these archives show that influence within the circle may derive not from the patron but rather from these new members and that their status with the patron may change over time not as a result of Bryher's decisions or sentiments but in consequence of their own choices about literary and media careers. The simplest biographical analyses of the contributors to Close Up, and the raw data of the frequency and length of their contributions, before even we approach their archives, show that its principal writers were not established literary modernists, even if some aspired to and later followed such a path. Rather, they were mostly professionals in the nascent media industries of the 1920s and '30s, whether critics, directors, screenwriters or studio technicians. One of the most significant enterprises of the "new modernism" as delineated by Mao and Walkowitz has been to reveal the degree to which modernism, far from being antipathetic to and differentiated from mass culture, actively participated in the emerging culture and media industries of industrial-administrative modernity. Certainly this was true of many of POOL's members and Close Up's contributors: whilst they were often critical of the products of the film industry, they very often had direct relationships with that industry. The archives we need to consult to understand this participation are at times not deposited papers; rather they are bodies of writing in trade journals and national newspapers and popular magazines, for a number of these professionals supplemented their income with freelance writing both within the industry and for a general audience. That is, they are texts that are immediately excluded from the conception of an archive by a priori assumptions of separation between high and low culture. Such archives have to be assembled retrospectively, with publications identified through cross-reference in correspondence and by detailed searches and with no certainty that a comprehensive bibliography has been compiled. Thus, in examining the contributions of Robert Herring to Close Up--with which I deal below--one is faced with the destruction of some personal archives and the marginalization of much that survives to the point where it escapes record. The survival of correspondence within the Bryher and Oswell Blakeston papers, however, allows one to identify Herring's activities that have left traces in other surviving archives, such as those of the BBC and the Manchester Guardian, which give a much fuller picture of his significant role in the discourses surrounding film in the 1930s.
The most frequent contributors to Close Up--excluding reviews, where authors are not always identifiable--were Macpherson (59 bylines, either alone or shared), Blakeston (56), Robert Herring (38), Clifford Howard (33), Bryher (26), Harry Potamkin (24), Jean Lenauer (23), Richardson (22), Freddy Chevalley (22), and Andor Kraszna-Krausz (17). Bryher and Richardson aside, these are not significant figures in modernist literature, though Macpherson, Blakeston, and Herring would all write novels that were published by POOL. Once we look at the data rather than at the names highlighted within an established canon, what is clear is that Close Up contributors were not, on the whole, literary modernists. They were mostly individuals closely associated with the commercial film industry either through participation in its productions or commentary on its outputs. Clifford Howard (1868-1942) had worked in the film industry in the USA since 1914, primarily as a screenwriter, with at least twenty-one films to his credit. Most of these films were Hollywood productions. Jean Lenauer (1904-1983) would go on to be a director of some note and technical director of the film department in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but before World War II he was a professional film critic based in Paris and reporting for several French newspapers and magazines on commercial releases. Andor Kraszna-Krausz (1904-1989) was publisher and editor in Germany of the magazine Filmtechnik, which catered for a general readership. Betsy van Schlun has recently argued that Close Up was not a magazine of literary modernism but rather one that was specifically "filmic" (360), and these data on contributors support that claim.
None of POOL's activities, whether filmmaking or the publishing of books and journals, would have been possible without Bryher's financial support. Unlike many modernist publishing projects, however, Bryher's were not examples of unlicensed patronage made possible by wealth and catering only to a cenacle. When first published, with a print run of only 500 and printed by Darantiere in Dijon, which specialized in hand-set type, Close Up seemingly typifies the kind of modernist publication produced for coterie collection (Rainey, "The Cultural Economy of Modernism). Eric Bulson observes that "the little magazine was not a commercial medium" (48). Yet Close Up quickly carried substantial amounts of trade advertising: whilst some pages, and even inserts, might be devoted to cross-marketing of other POOL publications, others promote Gaumont-British cinemas, bookstore, and even A.S. Neill's radical educational project Summerhill School. Furthermore, by March 1928 the print run was 1,500--hardly catering to a coterie--and, as I show below, Bryher sought to promote the journal through mass-media. And for all Bryher's critique of the stultifying effects of Hollywood, most of the writers she paid were imbricated in an economic system that by 1930 had as its mainspring the American film industry.
Interpreting the POOL project in the terms of the traditional modernist scholarship of the mid-twentieth century elides the productive exchange between modernism and mass-culture that Close Up openly proposed. It also passes over the journal's innovative attempts to examine "cultures of difference," notably its attention to black American cinema and Japanese film (Celena E. Kusch has recently revised this position). Such interpretations similarly fail to acknowledge the full implications of sexual difference and intimacy within the group--what we might term POOL's "queerness." Whilst there have been exemplary revisionist studies here, beginning with Jean Walton's work on the film Borderline and continuing in work by McCabe, Latimer, and Parker, they have often attended only to Bryher and H.D.'s relationship and not fully embraced the challenge to heteronormative sexuality posed by the networks of friendship and patronage that extended beyond the original members. Both of the POOL members I attend to here as examples of industrial professionalism were homosexual men: the collaborative activities within modernism of one of them--Blakeston--were in part conditioned by his then current relationships.
I argue that wider analysis of the archive, attending to these contributors, compels a re-reading of Close Up and the other publishing activities of POOL. The cinematic emphasis in the magazine drew on a technical expertise from such professionals that was otherwise denied to its editors. The expansion of the coterie brought new forms of knowledge and social networks; if some of the newcomers would themselves become intimates in Bryher's circle and benefit from her patronage, they nonetheless changed fundamentally POOL's constitution and discourse. I take two of the industry professionals as my subjects here and use them to interrogate current conceptions and uses of the POOL archives. My first undertaking is to re-read the established archive through the contributions to it of a subaltern figure: Robert Herring (Robert Herring Williams, 1903-1975). Herring was the third most prolific contributor to Close Up; he began writing film reviews after leaving Cambridge in the early 1920s, eventually working for large-circulation national newspapers including the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald, and was a regular contributor of film reviews to J.C. Squire's London Mercury. In 1929 he was amongst the first people employed by the BBC to deliver radio talks on cinema, and the Corporation also used him as a commentator on its early experiments with sound in drama, as in his Radio Times discussion with Michael Murray, "All the World's a Cage." Herring's personal archive was destroyed in a house fire in the mid 1970s that also killed him and his dog. However, a significant proportion of his correspondence with Bryher after the late 1920s is preserved in the Beinecke papers. Although Herring published many poems in little magazines during the 1930s and '40s, anthologizing them in 1945, and also wrote fiction, including an experimental cinenovel, Cactus Coast (1934), there is only one scholarly essay so far devoted to him, by Meic Stephens.
Herring first contributes to Close Up in November 1927, suggesting contact with the magazine soon after its first issue appeared. A letter to Macpherson in the Beinecke Bryher papers, dated 13 January 1928, indicates that he visited Territet in that month (Herring to Macpherson, Box 18, Folder 703). Herring's work on film for other magazines, however, meant that he already undertook frequent trips to European studios and first-release cinemas. His book Films of the Year, 1927-1928 would be advertised in Close Up on its release in March 1928, presumably paid for by its publishers, The Studio, and with its single endorsement, "something new in books on films" coming from a trade paper, Kinematograph Weekly. The correspondence in the Bryher papers begins in late 1927 and reveals how quickly Herring was co-opted by POOL--he moves from addressing Macpherson as "Dear Sir" in September 1927 to "Dear Kenneth" in January 1928. By the end of 1928, he is on nickname terms, as "Buddy," with Bryher, suggesting intimacy. Herring appears to be particularly important to Close Up for his established pan-European connections amongst film production and distribution companies and the networks deriving from his work as a freelance critic, which the magazine could exploit for publicity purposes. Thus, on 2 May 1928 he writes to Bryher, "don't send any copies [presumably of Close Up] to the Yorkshire Weekly Post, or any of the Liverpool or Bristol papers till I come out; as I shall send to some of these" (Herring to Bryher, Box 18, Folder 703). This is significant since it suggests, first, a second visit to Territet in six months and, second, an unusual attention by Bryher to promotion of a limited edition, apparently coterie-produced and orientated avant-garde magazine, seeking publicity not simply from the first tier of national British newspapers but less important regional publications. This correspondence and promotional push come just at the point where Close Up has gone from its original print run of 500 copies all the way to 1,500. Herring also suggests that Bryher might be interested in receiving publicity materials from one of the mainstream London-based production companies: "I get from Fox every week a little newspaper [...] about their films. As they have Murnau, Berger & Borzage, it is often useful" (Herring to Bryher, 19 December 1928, Box 18, Folder 703).This indicates that Herring, as someone with an extensive range of contacts in the British industry, was responding to his editors' receptiveness to films from commercial, rather than avant-garde, sources.
Finally, we should note that there is a reciprocity between Herring's writing for other media platforms, especially national newspapers, and editorial decisions at Close Up and acknowledge that those decisions are profoundly influenced by the freelance, industry-based professionals. This is most apparent in the creation of what became Close Up's now celebrated issue on black American film in August 1929 and the involvement of the leading black American actor Paul Robeson in the POOL film production Borderline. In late December 1928, Herring wrote to Bryher:
I have had an unsolicited letter from a negro. To wit, Paul Robeson. You know I did an article on negro films in the Guardian. He liked it and wrote to thank me for doing it. Wrote a very interesting letter, and asked among other things the name of the paper that wanted a negro number. So I sent him, replying, Close-Up. (Herring to Bryher, 21 December 1928, Box 18, Folder 703)
As the letter goes on to make clear, all that Close Up had planned at this point was an issue on censorship, and it is this that Herring both sees Robeson as contributing to and which he tries to adapt into a "negro cinema" issue. A subsequent letter makes it plain that the "negro issue" is very much driven by Herring:
Forgive me butting in--you must sometimes wonder whose paper some of us think it is, but of course, a Negro number! I will guarantee either a Robeson article or interview. Then, may I be reserved for an article roughly on what Negroes have to give and very importantly how we must accept it? (Herring to Bryher, 12 February 1929, Box 18, Folder 704)
Herring goes on to insist that Bryher obtain stills from the films Hallelujah (MGM, 1929) and Hearts in Dixie (Fox, 1929). Here Herring's detailed knowledge of Hollywood production and release schedules is apparent, for both films were still in post-production, with Paul Sloane's for Fox released in the USA in May and King Vidor's for MGM in August. He also provides Bryher with contact addresses for two of the vital journals of the Harlem Renaissance, The Crisis and Opportunity--mentioning that they would advertise in Close Up. (This suggests that Herring was aware that Bryher did not casually subsidize her magazine but rather sought where possible to offset its costs.) Herring continues by listing a number of the important writers Bryher should approach to contribute to the issue, including Rudolf Fisher, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson. Ultimately the magazine would publish White and the journalist Geraldyn Dismond. He concludes, "Forgive, forgive, forgive, but I'll do ANYthing & I'm so afraid a Negro number will fall through and I'm sure it shouldn't." If we are to trace first the inception of POOL's ultimately extensive and productive collaboration with Robeson, it lies with Herring and his December 1928 article on "Negro Films" for the Manchester Guardian, which the newspaper may have commissioned or Herring proposed. (More research remains to be done here in the Guardian archives.) If we are to trace the origins of the "Negro issue" they clearly derive not from Close Up's editors but from Herring, who is remarkably well informed about black American culture, either through his own interest or a very thorough briefing by Robeson. Since it would be Herring who would pursue the issue into the mass media, with his "What Next After the Spirituals?" in September 1929 for the BBC journal The Listener, and continue to press for more attention in Close Up, in the form of a symposium on Hallelujah, we might conclude that the project mattered to him a good deal. (3)
The archive also reveals how Herring understood his initial contact with Close Up as an opportunity for further paid writing and the chance to expand the range of films about which he wrote:
I am indebted to Close Up for making me see Voyage au Congo and Kraft und Schonheit when I was in Paris: now there comes a chance to write for it. I shall be delighted. I have just come back from a visit to the Berlin firms and studios, and so am rather busy for a week or two. I hope that will make no difference? If it does, I could manage to work it in earlier, but I should prefer to get my Mercury and Drawing and Design copy in and be free to write somewhat more generally than is possible in those papers. (Herring to Kenneth Macpherson, 20 September 1927, Box 18, Folder 703)
A 21 December 1928 letter to Bryher shows Herring also used his contact with Bryher to try getting POOL to publish the second volume of Films of the Year--wondering if the price of photographic blocks would put the book beyond them (Box 18, Folder 703). (Films of the Year 1927-1928 had been primarily a picture book with high quality reproductions of film stills accompanied by Herring's analyses, and most of its costs would lie in the block production.) POOL would not publish Films of the Year, nor would anyone else. The association with Bryher in particular was to prove of immense importance to Herring's career, however. Bryher herself, rather than POOL, seems to have subsidized the production of Herring's Cactus Coast in 1934, and in 1935, when Bryher's company Brenwin bought the British literary magazine Life and Letters, she would appoint Herring as its editor. He would occupy that role until the title ceased publication in 1950. Examination of Herring and Bryher's extensive correspondence during the purchase of Life and Letters, the preparation for the first issue in September 1935, and subsequent management of the magazine reveals an on-going professional relationship. There is clear evidence of a determination to transform a moribund title into a publication that is both culturally and politically sensitive in a time of historical crisis. This correspondence reveals, however, that, despite the magazine's improved sales, it was always dependent on Bryher's direct subvention. In 1937 Herring rejects a play submitted by Bryher's friend Gertrude Stein "explaining that we were finding it necessary to be more political, which made demands on space," and in the same letter as he justifies this to Bryher he both asks for a cheque to cover the cost of paying contributors for the September issue and thanks her for an earlier cheque to pay staff bonuses (3 June 1937, Box 19, Folder 726). The archive also shows that by the mid 1930s Herring, in addition to receiving an editorial salary, was the direct beneficiary of monetary gifts from Bryher. A letter of 27 December 1935 thanks her profusely for the transfer of [pounds sterling]100 to his account (Box 19, Folder 716).
Oswell Blakeston was Close Up's second most prolific contributor. Whilst much of Blakeston's pre-war archive was lost to bomb damage in World War II, a significant part survives along with his later papers in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. My second undertaking is to use this archive to examine Blakeston's wider practice as an industry professional, as both practitioner and journalist, and his sometimes-antagonistic relationship with POOL Group--and especially with Bryher--from the late 1920s onwards. Blakeston would in the 1930s develop a career as a modernist artist through directing a number of experimental films, lost with the exception of Light Rhythms (made with Francis Brugiere in 1930), coupled with magazine editorship, the publication of poetry and an experimental novel (a POOL publication), along with a more lucrative side-line as a writer of detective fiction, working in collaboration with the scriptwriter Roger Burford. Whilst writing and later acting as assistant editor for Close Up, he would remain a prolific correspondent for other magazines, including some, such as Kinematograph Weekly and The Bioscope, that made a specific address to the industry. He would also publish with POOL in 1928 a survey of the techniques of film production, Through a Yellow Glass, that manifests a profound and comprehensive knowledge of industry practices, especially in cinematography. POOL's wider activity, notably its book publication, promulgated the development of filmmaking through a thorough knowledge of technique--a project literary modernists such as H.D. and Bryher were ill-equipped to undertake.
Through a Yellow Glass and Eric Elliott's Anatomy of Motion Picture Art (1928) are amongst POOL's earliest books. The latter is advertised with an insert in the March 1928 issue of Close Up and, whilst it makes reference to Elliott's having written several articles already for the journal (he had actually published only two by spring 1928), the timing of the book and its content is telling. Firstly, the exigencies of book production suggest that Elliot (probably Eric Elliott Cripps) had written most of it by the time Close Up launched in July 1927 and perhaps proposed it to POOL along with his first features for the magazine. POOL offered [pounds sterling]15 for the English rights in late December 1928. Secondly, it is a book that betrays a deep technical knowledge of studio cinematography, manifest for example in Elliott's discussion of the Schufftan process, the travelling matte, and early attempts at what would become in the 1930s the bluescreen technique (28). Finally, it is a book that relies for its examples upon the recent products of the mainstream narrative cinema, including several that had established the feature-film as a model for financially successful production, and stresses continuity editing as the device that enables narrative within them. Elliott makes frequent recourse to the work of D.W. Griffith, citing Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919), Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922), and Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Even allowing for the extravagance of von Stroheim's original conception, these were the productions that established the narrative feature as the economic paradigm that sustained the Hollywood studio system until the Star Wars era. Thus, alongside four works of fiction that betray POOL's adherence to networks of friendship and affiliation--Macpherson's Pool Reflection (1927) and Gaunt Island (1928), E.L. Black's Why Do They Like It? (1927), and Bryher's own Civilians (1928)--the project produces works of technical analysis that are beyond the capacities of the group's founders and written by individuals who are not affiliated with them before that publication. Although he was probably known through social networks, Blakeston did not correspond with Bryher until 1927, and a letter from Bryher reveals they did not meet until after his first publications in Close Up and after the commission of Through a Yellow Glass (25 January 1967, Oswell Blakeston Collection, Box 1, Folder 3). In perhaps the earliest published memoir about Close Up, Blakeston's recollections suggest that he was hired specifically because of his situation within the British film industry:
[...] with the second issue I forged an association with the magazine which lasted until the end. My role was mainly to contribute back-stage stuff about the studios in which I was working. Sometimes I reported on technical innovations [...]. ("Retrospect 14. Close Up" 38)
Through a Yellow Glass followed shortly after Anatomy of Motion Picture Art, and to an even greater extent it emphasizes the technical aspects of commercial, studio production, firstly in his detailed observations on the relationship of types of make-up to types of lighting, and secondly on the impact for set design on the covering range of different types of lenses (16-17, 44). Blakeston's consummate grasp of the technical production of effects meant that whereas many of the literary modernists writing for Close Up were grasping vaguely at technique in their analysis of cinematic language, he understood precisely the complex construction of its effects. Blakeston would not be alone in his capacity for this: for example, Erno Metzner, a hugely experienced production designer and director, in 1933 provided Close Up with a compelling analysis of camera movement and its relationship to set design, "The Traveling Camera." Blakeston, from the outset, was keen to emphasize the degree to which film making was a collective, commercial enterprise, far removed from romantic conceptions of individual endeavor that characterized painting or writing.
From long association some people are apt to confuse any studio with a place in which an artist works. [...] They see the producer lovingly arranging his lights and composing plastic groups with a wave of the hand in place of a wave of the brush. Poor misguided idealists! We call it "the motion picture industry." Our journals are "trade papers." Even in those countries where artistic films are produced, the studios are run on strictly business lines. (Through a Yellow Glass 10)
Blakeston would become a crucial writer for Close Up, supplying copy to almost every issue. He would also assume the kind of "diplomatic" roles that one might expect of an editor. When Sergei Eisenstein visited London in 1929, it would be Blakeston who acted as escort for the Soviet director and representative of the film journal that was doing the most to promote his work in Anglophone culture ("Appointment with X," Box 4, Folder 1-2). In 1933, when Macpherson abandoned both Bryher and his editorial role at Close Up, it might have been reasonable to see Blakeston as his likely successor, since there were no pressing financial reasons for Bryher to close the magazine.
By late 1933, however, Blakeston had other ambitions. He had become a modernist writer and cultural agent, achieving this largely through exploiting the conduits opened by POOL Group. There is a considerable body of scholarship since the 1990s showing how young modernist writers fashioned careers within the new media industries of the 1930s. The income would sustain their literary work, and they would often attempt to deploy some of the formal conventions of those new media within it. Keith Williams has traced the migration of British poets and novelists into work for the BBC and the film industry and their attempts to introduce modernist experiments in those contexts. Thomas Strychacz has shown how writers such as John Dos Passos and Nathanael West used the ideas and forms of mass culture but consciously adapted them to esoteric, inaccessible modes of literary expression. There has, to date, been very little attention to a reciprocal process in which modernism's institutional interventions in new media (of which POOL is a prime example) allowed the professionals employed within it to become modernist artists.
In the absence of any biography or comprehensive archive, accounts of Blakeston's career are often hazy. It is believed that he ran away from his middle-class home in his teens, working as a conjuror's assistant in music halls, and as a cinema organist (Buckman n.p.). It is clear, however, that in the late 1920s he was employed principally as a cinematographer; the technical knowledge on show in Through a Yellow Glass suggests this, as does the camera work in Light Rhythms. Furthermore, a letter from Herring in the Bryher papers about an opportunity to direct a project for the Empire Marketing Board reveals that he thinks Blakeston the ideal person to shoot it ([June 1929], Box 19, Folder 706). In the nature of media projects, this enthusiastically floated possibility comes to nothing. In 1927, Blakeston is a freelance journalist for trade papers, providing technical commentary and studio gossip--indeed, the sort of material he was initially expected to provide for Close Up. By 1933 he is firstly an avant-garde filmmaker, his work distributed by Pierre Braunberger's Studio-Film in Paris, the leading world specialist for such material. His first film, I Do Love to be Beside the Seaside (1929) was funded by POOL. (4) Correspondence in the HRC Blakeston Collection shows him collaborating on projects with a well-connected avant-garde photographer (the wealthy American expatriate Francis Bruguiere), other avant-garde filmmakers--the impoverished New Zealander Len Lye--and working with vanguard composers and pioneer sound artists such as Lye's friend Jack Ellit and Edmund Meisel to produce sound-tracks for his films (Jurgen Berger to Blakeston, 25 January 1981, Box 1, Folder 2). (5)
In addition, Blakeston has become a different sort of writer: he is no longer just the author of technical and gossip pieces for the trade. In 1929 he publishes with POOL the fictional work The Extra Passenger, a self-conscious cine-novel that attempts to deploy the rhetorical forms of cinema--in which Blakeston was expert--in a written medium. Again in collaboration with Bruguiere he publishes in 1931 the experimental photo-novel Few are Chosen. Collaborating with the screenwriter Roger Burford (Roger d'Este Burford, 1904-1981) under the pseudonym "Simon," Blakeston publishes three thrillers that receive widespread critical attention and sell well: A Murder Among Friends (1933), Death on the Swim (1934), and The Cat with the Moustache (1935). A fourth such novel would be published in the late 1940s. He has also published two collections of poetry in 1930 and 1932, with the second of these, Death While Swimming, illustrated by Lye. Blakeston's individual poems were also being published regularly in such journals as the Literary Review and New English Weekly, for whom he reviewed extensively. Finally, Blakeston was in considerable demand as a guest editor: he was invited to oversee a special issue of the little magazine Caravel dedicated to film and television (though the magazine folded before this issue was published). Caravel was produced in Majorca by a pair of American expatriates with impeccable modernist credentials--Jean Rivers and Sydney Salt, who combined the magazine with the production of hand-set limited editions of poetry, including Charles Henri Ford's first collection. In London, with Herbert Jones, he finds the funding to produce a little magazine of his own, Seed, which lasts for four issues in 1932-33. In a form of reverse patronage Blakeston and Jones include contributions there by H.D., Bryher, and Herring.
Given Strychacz's thesis of adaption to exclusivity, it is notable that Blakeston develops in parallel a number of different literary styles for different audiences and markets. He continues to write transparent prose on industry topics for trade papers and the national press--even as he becomes an editor at Close Up he is London correspondent for Pour Vous, Cinemagazine, and Educational Screen ("Appointment with X," Box 4, Folder 1-2). With Burford he writes relatively conventional middle-brow prose for a mass-market readership; and he produces self-conscious, experimental forms in both Extra Passenger and Few Are Chosen. (Here we need to note also that Burford is similarly negotiating styles, between screenwriting for mainstream British films such as Cocktails , Invitation to the Waltz , and Dr. Syn , the collaborative prose with Blakeston, and his own highly experimental, modernist poetry.) Thus, although Blakeston is vital to Close Up and uses his POOL affiliations, he quickly moves beyond them. Against Rainey's argument for POOL as a coterie dependent on Bryher, here we have one of Close Up's editors generating his income from different strands of literary production that certainly do not accord with the template of high-modernist revulsion at the expectations of the mass-market whilst also acting independently as an exemplary modernist cultural agent. The precarious nature of freelance work and Blakeston's independence from Bryher are clear from a Herring letter to Bryher of 13 April 1935: "O.B. now has tooth trouble. Plus his usual 'affairs,' and it seems that why it is impossible to see him is that he is financially low. So low, says he, that he has been writing for Health & Strength!" (Box 19, Folder 712). (6) Indeed, the archive reveals a long and complex history in the relationship between Bryher and Blakeston, rather than one of straightforward dependency. When she is re-launching Life and Letters with Herring as editor, less than two years after Close Up has closed and a period in which he has published POOL members in Seed, she approaches Blakeston for material, and his response is both surprisingly cool and suggestive of a desire for financial independence:
O.B., seen yesterday, is antagonistic. I think this is partly because he says he only hears from you when you are leaving for Suisse. But he implies we are vieux jeu. Not explicitly, but definitely. Most effusive in congratulations to me, but implied I had been "bought." [...] I gather he will send and recommend people, but will not send much himself. (Herring to Bryher, [Summer 1935], Box 19, Folder 713)
Yet Blakeston would eventually become one of Bryher's most intimate confidants and a life-long beneficiary of her patronage: his post-war archive contains numerous letters from Bryher that were accompanied by cheques. For Blakeston's fortunes failed as a writer to the point where he and his partner Max Chapman were in penury. Towards the end of her life, Bryher made a legal settlement so that Blakeston would continue to receive money from her estate in the event of her death.
The evidence is that Blakeston, in the 1920s an industry technician, used the networks and opportunities afforded by his association with POOL to help fashion an independent career as a modernist writer and filmmaker and did so with considerable brio. Indeed, there is some evidence that, perhaps as a consequence of his career as a freelance writer and cinematographer, Blakeston understands and employs the modern apparatuses of self-promotion and advertising rather better than most established modernist writers. Even as quasi-governmental agencies in Britain are experimenting with the techniques of marketing and public relations (Anthony), Blakeston is trying them out as an individual. Surviving examples of promotional material in the Harry Ransom archive suggest he becomes a model for a certain kind of entrepreneurship in the new culture industries that moves easily between high and middlebrow-art. That cultural agency with publishers includes acting as a facilitator for other artists and writers: in an unpublished and incomplete autobiographical memoir written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blakeston claims to have helped place Silvia Dobson's The Happy Philistine (Duckworth, 1937), Olive Moore's The Apple is Bitten Again (Wishart, 1934), and Dallas Bower's Plan for Cinema (Dent, 1936) ("Appointment with X"). When we investigate Dobson's papers in Yale we discover the relational tags to include Bryher, H.D. (with whom she was friends), and Macpherson. Blakeston is not mentioned. Yet it is Blakeston who seems to possess here a cultural agency that the influential members of POOL Group lack. Furthermore, we might note firstly Blakeston's support for similar kinds of cultural producers to himself: Moore--under her state-registered name Constance Vaughan--was a journalist on the Daily Sketch newspaper, writing accessible features on a wide variety of topics that contrasted profoundly with the complex structures and prose of her fiction; and Bower, who had begun as a studio technician in the 1920s, would become a prolific writer on film and television, closely associated with both Bryher and Herring, and a producer/director at the BBC, both pre-war in its nascent television service and during the war responsible for such experimental sound epics as Louis MacNeice's Christopher Columbus (1942). (7) Secondly, if we add Blakeston's support for Mary Butts to that for Dobson and Moore, there is an unusual privileging of women writers working in experimental, modernist modes. Blakeston's support seems to parallel that of Bryher--with her backing of H.D. and Richardson--but to deploy other forms of cultural agency than financial largesse.
After reappraising the archives, I argue that the trio of intimates understood to constitute POOL was complemented by others, notably Herring and Blakeston, who were not literary modernists but industry professionals. Given the speed and extent with which these professionals were integrated into the group, it is possible that POOL Group never envisioned itself as an exclusive trio, even if that is how subsequent criticism has defined it. If first Dusinberre and later Donald et al. understand POOL as constituted in terms of exclusivity, esotericism, and oppositionality, I show that these professionals brought to the group technical expertise and networks of communication within the mass-media that were otherwise unavailable to the modernist intellectuals who started the project and that they were desired attributes. These affiliates quickly came to be on the closest of terms with H.D., Macpherson, and Bryher: in Cactus Coast, Herring fictionalizes a trip to Monte Carlo made with H.D. and Macpherson; within months of his first writing for Close Up, he is part of Bryher's circle of nicknamed friends (an intimacy never extended to Blakeston).
These professionals also became beneficiaries of Bryher's patronage at different points in their lives, manifested in different ways, however. Certainly in Blakeston's case it was at times refused as he sought to develop his own cultural agency and only manifested itself as life-long financial support long after POOL had ceased to exist. Whilst he is one of Bryher's most trusted collaborators for almost twenty years by the time of his death, Herring seems to have been almost entirely alienated from the surviving members of the group. This opening of networks in high modernist culture was initially used to develop these professionals' own artistic careers. This exchange of expertise amongst contributors, and the ability of Bryher in particular to harness it, manifests itself in the extended activities of POOL, which do not end when Close Up ceases publication in December 1933. In 1935 Bryher buys the British literary journal Life and Letters. With Herring as editor, Life and Letters To-day both integrates film into an established cultural matrix and employs technical experts as authors to critique and endorse technical and aesthetic developments in industrial media practices. Thus, rather than being a project in which established literary modernists intervened in film criticism and absorbed elements of vanguard filmic styles and forms within their textual practices, POOL group was on the one hand an enterprise that supported the development of new writers--often deploying "cinematic" techniques--who had first experienced these techniques as media professionals. On the other, it used those professionals to negotiate critical relationships with different forms of film production, including its industrial, mass-cultural manifestations, across a variety of media activities. There is, therefore, a far more complex network of affiliation, knowledge exchange, and intimacy within POOL than has to date been recognized. This network is not constituted within literary modernism, but rather represents the reciprocal intercalation of modernism within the media industry and the media industry within modernism.
Blakeston, Oswell. "Retrospect 14. Close Up." Ambit, vol. 22, 1964-65, p. 38.
--. Through a Yellow Glass. Territet, POOL, 1928.
Bryher Papers. Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 18 GEN MSS 97, No.1, Bryher Correspondence, Folders 703-704, Herring, Robert, 1927-28.
Buckman, David. "Obituary: Max Chapman, 1911-1999." Independent, 30 Nov. 1999.
Bulson, Eric. Little Magazine, World Form. Columbia UP, 2016.
Donald, James, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus. Close Up, 1927-1933. Cinema and Modernism. Princeton UP, 1998.
Dusinberre, Deke. "The Avant-Garde Attitude in the Thirties." Traditions of Independence: British Cinema in the Thirties, edited by Don MacPherson, BFI, 1980, pp. 34-50. Rpt. in The British Avant-Garde Film, 1926 to 1995: An Anthology of Writings, edited by Michael O'Pray, U of Luton P, 1996, pp. 65-85.
Elliot, Eric. Anatomy of Motion Picture Art. Territet, POOL, 1928.
Herring, Robert. "The Week on the Screen: Negro Films." The Manchester Guardian, 15 Dec. 1928, p. 11.
--. "What Next After the Spirituals?" The Listener, vol. 2, no. 36, 1929, pp. 376-77.
Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca Walkowitz. "The New Modernist Studies." PMLA, vol. 123, no. 3, 2008, pp. 737-48.
Oswell Blakeston Collection. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, Series I, Correspondence, Boxes 1-3.
Rainey, Lawrence. "The Cultural Economy of Modernism." The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, edited by Michael Levenson, Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 33-69.
--. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. Yale UP, 1998.
van Schlun, Betsy. The POOL Group and the Quest for Anthropological Universality. De Gruyter, 2017.
Wollen, Peter. "The Two Avant-Gardes." Studio International, vol. 190, no. 978, 1975, pp. 171-75.
Anthony, Scott. Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain. Manchester UP, 2012.
Debo, Annette. "Norman Holmes Pearson, Canon Maker." Modernism/Modernity, vol. 23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 443-62.
Kusch, Celena E. "Modernism, Egyptian Nationalism, and 'Other Disorders of a Revolutionary Character': H.D., Bryher, and Tutankhamun." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, 2017, pp. 99-127.
Latimer, Triza T. "Queer Situations: Behind the Scenes of Borderline." English Language Notes, vol. 45, no. 2, 2007, pp. 33-47.
McCabe, Susan. Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film. Cambridge UP, 2005.
Metzner, Erno. "The Traveling Camera." Close Up, vol. 10, no. 2, 1933, pp. 182-87.
Murray, Michael, and Robert Herring. "All the World's a Cage. A Discussion on Monotony (with special reference to The Squirrel's Cage)." Radio Times, 6 Sept. 1929, p. 473.
Parker, Sarah. The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930. Pickering & Chatto, 2013.
Stephens, Meic. "The Third Man: Robert Herring and Life and Letters Today." Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, vol. 3, 1997, pp. 157-69.
Strychacz, Thomas. Modernism, Mass Culture and Professionalism. Cambridge UP, 1993.
Walton, Jean. "White Neurotics, Black Primitives, and the Queer Matrix of Borderline." Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, edited by Ellis Hanson, Duke UP, 1999, pp. 243-70.
Williams, Keith. British Writers and the Media, 1930-45. Macmillan, 1996.
(1) Bryher Papers, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 97, Boxes 1-191.
(2) When Dusinberre began his research, few of the films made under POOL's aegis were identified or thought extant, nor could he use the Bryher/H.D. papers.
(3) Essays in The Listener were almost invariably edited transcriptions of broadcasts, but search of the Radio Times has not yet produced a broadcast date. See also Herring to Bryher, undated but probably early 1930, Bryher Papers, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 19 GEN MSS 97, No.1, Bryher Correspondence, Folder 707, Herring, Robert, 1930.
(4) Close Up, IV, No. 6 (June 1929) facing 48. The caption to two stills from the film describes it as "a new POOL satire."
(5) Berger, a curator at Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt am Main, bought an autograph fragment of Meisel's music for I Do Love to be Beside the Seaside (1929), for 100 pounds. See also Fiona Ford (2011), "The Film Music of Edmund Meisel (1894-1930)," PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, 243-45.
(6) The contribution to Health & Strength may have been under one of Blakeston's many pseudonyms.
(7) Given Bower's undoubted facility for experiments with recorded sound (he later claimed to have been responsible for the sound on Hitchcock's ground-breaking Blackmail ) we might consider much of the innovation within Christopher Columbus to have been achieved through his input.
Christopher Townsend is Professor of the History of avantgarde Film and Head of Department in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London. His research examines the way in which artists corrode the boundaries between media, particularly within modernism in the early twentieth century, or use new technologies to extend the analysis of art's formal rhetoric and the boundaries of subjective experience within flm, photography, and writing. His current research attends to the inter-war period, examining the relationships between the avant-garde and new media industries. A second strand of investigation is concerned with modernism's conceptions of nature, transport technologies, and landscape in the wake of the First World War. He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Henry Moore Institute.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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