THE REDISCOVERY OF POOL
By Alberta Marlowe
The little group of enthusiastic inter-war intellectuals who called themselves “Pool” were virtually forgotten for more than half a century after they broke up in the mid-1930s. Their progressive and opinionated film journal Close Up (begun as a monthly but later published quarterly) was spoken of reverently by film historians, but rarely read or quoted. Nobody bothered to look out the handful of films they made.
All that has now changed: since the early 80s Pool and its creators have become a favoured subject for academic studies, offering succulent themes for writers on film, poetry, literature, painting, psychoanalysis, feminism, mysticism and sexism. More has been written on them even than they wrote themselves. The latest recommended instalment is an article by François Bovier in 1895, the revue of l’Association française de recherché sur l’histoire du cinema, “En marge de l’avant-garde américain: le groupe Pool.”|
The title reflects a common dual misapprehension regarding the group’s supposed American and avant-garde orientations. This no doubt arises from the fact that the most historically celebrated member of the group (or rather trio), the imagist poet “H.D.”, was American by birth and distinctly avant-garde in her literary output and associations, though practically all her adult life was spent in Europe, mainly Switzerland and Britain. Pool were, in fact, essentially British in origin and temperament, though with a trans-continental breadth and a particular liking for Switzerland.
H.D. (1886-1961) was born Hilda Doolittle in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a professor of astronomy and a musically-inclined mother. While still a school-girl she met Ezra Pound, who encouraged her writing and, in 1913, proposed that she adopt the pseudonym H.D. as a pseudonym under which to publish her first poems in Poetry Magazine. At the same time as the problematic relationship with Pound (they were twice engaged) H.D. was carrying on a love affair with a Pennsylvania woman art student, Frances Josepha Gregg. In London she was a prominent figure in Pound’s avant-garde literary circle, and in 1913 married the British poet Richard Aldington (1892-1962) to whom Pound had introduced her. During Aldington’s war service, they clearly moved apart. In 1919 H.D. had a daughter, Perdita, by the British composer and music critic Cecil Grey (1895-1951).
It was while she was pregnant that she formed an alliance with Winifred Bryher (1894-1983) which was to last until H.D.’s death in 1961. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman, Bryher (the name seems to have been a pure invention) was heiress to a major shipping magnate, and a dedicated patron of artists. Shortly after their meeting, H.D. definitively separated from Aldington, though they were not divorced until 1938 and later in life resumed contact. While H.D. appears to have been bisexual, Bryher was evidently homosexual. Apparently to please her parents’ sense of propriety, in 1921 she married the American homosexual writer Robert McAlmon, who was then in London but soon moved on to Continental Europe.In 1926 (1903-1971), Kenneth Macpherson, a dashing young painter with a passion for film, entered their lives. H.D. seems to have fallen in love with him, though Macpherson was evidently exclusively homosexual, with a particular delight in young black men. In 1927, the now divorced Bryher married Macpherson, and Perdita Aldington (as H.D.’s child was known) was adopted into the ménage à trois.
Not surprisingly, the complexities of these relationships led H.D. to consult the pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis and to develop a deep interest in psychoanalysis: in the thirties she was to be analysed by Freud himself, and her interest deeply marked her poems and other writings, and the Pool group’s only long film, Borderline (1930).Pool was launched in 1927, from Riant Chateau, Territet, Switzerland, where the household was apparently established. The first issue of Close Up appeared in July 1927. Macpherson was editor, Bryher assistant editor, and H.D. a regular contributor: in the first issue she had an article on “Cinema and the Classics” and a poem, “Projector”. The first issue nonchalantly announced that next month’s contributors would be Osbert Sitwell, Havelock Ellis, André Gide, Dorothy Richardson and H.D. Macpherson no doubt designed Pool’s logo, which served as the cover of its catalogue, showing concentric ripples in water. As symbol of the group’s aims, this was explained in their 1929 catalogue of publications:
. . . The expanding ripples from a stone dropped in a pool have become more a symbol for the growth of an idea than a simple matter of hydraulics.
. . . As the stone will cause a spread of ripples to the water’s edge, so ideas once started will go to their unknown boundary.
. . . These concentric expansions are exemplified in POOL, which is the source simply – the stone – the idea.
. . . POOL is seeking to express new trends and new will. Not, as we have said before, to grind any axe, but to make a centre for new ideas and modern thought.
These principles referred specifically to their publications, which ranged from Close Up and other books on film to novels, language tutors (a series called “The Light-Hearted Student”, exemplifying Bryher’s idiosyncratic teaching methods) and novels. Most of the books were by the members of the group which had been expanded by the addition of Oswell Blakeston (né Henry Joseph Hasslacher, 1907-1985) who had started his working life in the cutting rooms at Gaumont British, a contemporary of David Lean, At around 20 a protégé of Macpherson, he went on to a long career as writer and critic. The eclecticism of Close Up is very English, and often baffles more disciplinarian commentators. Its contributors heartily approved much avant-garde work, and had an early enthusiasm for independent and private film-making. Their principal loyalties however were to German cinema, and particularly G.W.Pabst, and to Soviet cinema, outstandingly Eisenstein. At the same time, while dismissing the greater part of British and American film-making as “trash” they also recognised Hollywood’s capacity for better things, and were ready to hail as masterpieces films like Greed and The Big Parade.
In 1930 the Pool Group made their own feature-length film Borderline. It was aggressively avant-garde in style and daring in subject, dealing with inter-racial sexual entanglements, and marked by unmistakeable homo-erotic undertones. Directed by Macpherson, it starred H.D. together with Paul Robeson (already well established as a major star of the legitimate stage and concert platform) and Robeson’s wife Eslanda. Bryher inevitably also had a role. The innovation of the film was to concentrate on the inner psychology of the characters, using a form of montage – dubbed by H.D.”clatter-montage” which had the effect of superimposition. Where the film was not banned by censorship authorities it was unenthusiastically received by the critics, and disappeared for many years. A pristine print exists however in the Cinémathèque Suisse, which has recently issued it in DVD form, together with Véronique Goel’s documentary Kenwin, about the house which H.D., Bryher and Macpherson built at La Tour-de-Peilz.
Close Upceased publication in 1933, and Macpherson seems to have departed from the ménage. In the United States in the 1940s he lived with Peggy Guggenheim, and produced Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944). During the Second World War Bryher devoted her money and energies to helping refugees from Nazi Germany, and Kenwin became an important staging post on the flight. Bryher’s friendship with H.D. lasted to the end. H.D. spent her last years of failing health in a Swiss clinic. Her daughter Perdita moved to the United States where she raised a family, all of whom became writers and appear to have shared her certainty that an upbringing in the Pool household was an ideal foundation for a happy and well-balanced life. She died in 2001.
***Below we reproduce the major part of Kanneth Macpherson’s editorial from the first issue of Close Up. Almot eighty years on, it all still makes sense, particularly his despondent remarks on the British film situation.
From CLOSE UP No 1, July
By the Editor
Fifty odd years hasn’t done so badly in getting an art into the world that fifty more will probably turn into THE art, but now, after somewhat magnificent growth, one feels here is its critical age. Its humble Pier Penny Peep Show beginning is still far too evident, and one sees that in a very short while the thing that people now go to see will have become tradition, and standard, as the past tense in literature, harmony in music, and representative conventions in painting. Public was right enough FOR public when it began by saying “Films are trash”. They went on being trash, but more pompous trash, and the public took to them. It was all purely box office stunts. Art had nothing to do with it. That was all perfectly alright. I went myself solemnly at the age of nine and watched stockades being burned by Indians in one reel, and although I wasn’t sold on what I had gone to look at, I got the mesmerism of the thing, and something quite apart from purely conscious felt, oh yes, this is right, this is apt. This belongs.
The thing was, first of all, to get the medium developed so far as to be FIT for art. Box office stunts meant that one film producer was competing with other film producers, and it was up to them to get in first on anything new, and watch out, and borrow or purloin ideas, to develop and outshine with.
They did this hand over fist for a number of years. And films WERE awful. But they had something to them all the same. Something more than relaxation or dope, or a blurring over of mind. I honestly feel that the people got in some dim way the fact that here was something growing under their eyes, a sense of life and expectancy. They knew better pictures had been painted than anything of their own century, better books written, better plays better acted, better music better composed. Outworn mediums perhaps? Well, the creative thing was still going strong, and here was its channel, of all mediums here was one with fewest limitations. They flocked to the cinemas, not because they particularly cared for somewhat atrocious domestic and wild west dramas, but because of something to do with the old ‘will to power’. This was new, and refreshed. Then the novelty wore off, and things looked up a bit: Problems of lighting and photographic quality gave art a bit of a fillip. How bad, those over-lighted interiors and haloes round heroines! But it meant that ideas were struggling. We said thank god when Germany pulled a wry mouth at all of it and blacked out seven eighths of the arc lamps. And so we looked to Germany with expectant eyes. And again our tails wagged. So much of it was again trash, but there was what we called a quality. Morbid, one said. We said not a bit of it, REAL. And there were moments that made us gulp more or less because we felt that if that level could be sustained we would forget to breathe.
But it was only a glimpse here and there. The Germanic thing was getting across though, curious details, watchfulness, harking on claustrophobia. We filed Germany for future reference and peeped at Vienna. Here again was tripe. Hollywood was better. Italy a shade worse. France tied up in knots on problems of continuity. While England trundled deplorably in wake, the only thing that could be said for it that it didn’t seem to mind being a laughing stock. Then we began to hear from Russia. We had got very sick of Russian novels and Russian plays, and in spite of a recrudescence of Russian influence in art and decoration, there was prejudice. But Potemkin and Aelita put an end to that. Russia was getting its finger on something. And Germany had done Joyless Street, so back we bounced to the Germanic thing. Hollywood .gave The Big Parade, Germany, Metropolis, England it seemed was still being comic, and did Mons, while Italy, having done Quo Vadis churned out the unspeakably atrocious Last Days of Pompei. France had finally somewhat ponderously dished out Victor Hugo and Michel Strogoff, and some perfectly uninspired eighteenth century films more authentic but less suave than Hollywood attempts at the same thing. However it had evolved the best colour process and was hard at: work with experimental stuff.
And this is very roughly, where we have arrived; a fifty fifty pull of good and bad, the time has come to know what it is all about and where it is leading and what one is to expect. Perplexities, debates, arguments. Cinematography has stuck itself in front of the artist, and the artist wants to work his medium straight. His conflict is with the business manager. He also wants HIS medium straight. The thing one sees in consequence is compromise, and the beginning of a problem. As usual there are ways and means, which we will talk about later. I want first of all to cavil a bit in a general way and work in a bit of analysis and criticism.
All this big talk, for instance about an English film revival. It is no good pretending one has any feeling of hope about it. At best it may, if anything does eventually come of it, as one rather doubts, achieve a sort of penny in the slot success for those who are venturesome enough to back it. And I don’t want particularly to be hard on England. Simply as one sees it, the sort of thing England is about to begin trying is the sort of thing Hollywood will have to be about to discard if the popularity of the cinema is to remain. England is going to start, not with any new angle, not with any experiment, to go on trundling in wake, not deplorably perhaps, one hopes efficiently, but with a complete acceptance of the film convention as is. The truth is that the average attitude of England and the English, to art is so wholly nonchalant and clownish that it is quite useless to expect any art to indigenously flower there. Isolated instances may here and there crop up” but REALLY the Englishman can only be roused to enthusiasm on the football field. A cup final will evoke tens of thousands of whooping maniacs. One doesn’t mind that, but in the face of it one does ask WHY attempt art? The preference between the two is so undisputable. One can see that the English revival will be exactly along old lines. They are going to imitate. And unhappily the English thing has neither the weltgeist quality of the German nor the exactness of the American, both of which are fundamentally national. I haven’t found out quite what the English quality is, but having seen all its principal films I hesitate to try to name it.
After all, what CAN you expect? England cannot even turn out a pepful magazine. Take any weekly, and you get the sort of thing I mean, that hugely sterile flimflam decorously and expensively printed on best quality art paper, and an attitude of really awfully indecent arrogance, especially toward anything new or progressive or intelligent.
None the less, England IS going ahead on this revival, and that its sole purpose is the revival of the film INDUSTRY, and not film ART, is no sin at all, because really good art IS commercial, and the mob has a curious nose for what is good, – that is, what is real. We know that an announcement ‘British Film’ outside a movie theatre will chill the hardiest away from its door, and what a pity. Why?
After all, here is England with certain excellent, not to say unsurpassed qualifications for commercial adroitness, in some of its phases, admirable achievement. Turn to films and you get muck. The reason is clear. Where England is efficient you will find there SPECIALISTS. A hard technical training, and long experience back of it. I don’t say you won’t find specialists in the film industry, at least one expects to now in the face of things, but I do happen to know that any specialists there may probably have been living on the dole while the butcher and baker and candlestick maker solemnly were taking matters into their own hands, and making sort of town hall tableaux in a local church bazaar, borrowing sometimes London’s worst and ugliest actors to draw the crowd. .
And, oh hell, haven’t you heard enough of that wretched alms-begging attitude, ‘Poor little England, how can it be expected to stand up to America where there is so much money.’ What rot. One hundred pounds will make a film as noble as anything you can wish to see. Money is no excuse. Nothing is any excuse for trying to put over rotten work on the public. The public isn’t a pack of fools. Narrow and illiterate very often, but there are distinct limits beyond which one cannot descend, just as, there are distinct limits beyond which one cannot ascend if one is out to grab its attention. You cannot trick and cheat your way into its favour. That is what the various butchers, bakers, etc would not learn, and what one feels, more in sorrow than in anger, the industry as a whole has yet to learn before it has a dog’s chance. Actually, .as things are, no new country can expect to build up an industry on old lines. Mediocrity has been so utterly perfected in Hollywood mediocrity even flashed across, now and then, with greatness, that it is rather silly to butt in there. Germany has its quality, so has France, Russia might have too, only the Soviet administration has clapped a dog-collar on its chances, and tagged it ‘Slave to Soviet approval’. The point is HAS England a quality? I am rather afraid the English thing is barren, mind and super-mind and the dimensions (the only things which make for greatness) being so taboo. Oh, it’s a mess. And yet one so sincerely wishes them well, but there just doesn’t seem anything to say. Making their films compulsory would be alright if they had some thing to show for them, but unless they scour and ransack and :snap right up in every branch, it will mean only a needless loss for theatres that after all, are usually sufficiently discerning to choose what they feel will bring in money. Anyhow, va bene.
* * *
I want to arrange that people making films, and experimenting in all sorts of ways shall be able to see what others. are doing in the same way. Which means public showing, in Paris and London, one hopes. But it is not possible quite yet to arrange this, not until the rapport is established and people coming forward with films and suggestions. A great deal depends upon this rapport, or support. I hope that people enthusiastic over the idea will write, because it seems to me, the thing to do would be to form some sort of society, with definite plans about performances at fixed dates, each chosen film to go the rounds in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Vienna. This will take time, but one does hope to begin, not too far ahead, with something of the sort. I am going to chew it over during the month, and next month write more fully, as now space is limited. Somehow something must be done to give films their due.
***The first two numbers of Close Up will deal with the film problem as a whole. After that we propose in each issue to deal with special conditions in Europe and the States with numbers on the Negro attitude and problem and on the Far East in their relation to the cinema.
A poem by H.S. from the first issue of Close Up
Light takes new attribute
and yet his old
not this, they say,
lord as he was of the heiratic dance,
of poetry .
master of shrines and gateways and of doors,
and the cross-road
and the street;
but we say otherwise
in new attribute,
reclaims the lost;
in a new blaze of splendour
calls the host
and to readjust
and differings of thought,
all strife and strident bickering
O fair and blest,
he strides forth young and pitiful and strong,
a king of blazing splendour and of gold, and all the evil
and the tyrannous wrong
that beauty suffered
finds its champion,
who is god
He left the place they built him and the halls,
he strode so simply forth,
they knew him not;
no man deceived him,
nor ever will,
with meagre counterfeit
of ancient rite,
he knows all hearts
and all imagining
this measuring of beauty with a rod,
could hold him
and no threat
who is god.
Yet he returns,
0 unrecorded grace,
and through us
the stage is set now
for his mighty rays;
light that batters gloom,
lifts up a fair head
in a lowly place,
he shows his splendour
in a little room;
he says to us,
I have returned
though in an evil day
you crouched despairingly
who had no shrine;
we had no temple and no temple fire
for all these said
and said again;
beauty is an endighter
and is power
and of soldier”
beauty is city
and the state
and dour duty,
beauty is this and this and this dull thing,
forgetting who was king.
Yet still he moves
this serpent creeping
and this shaft of light,
his arrows slay
and still his foot-steps
in the market-place;
and with new vision
to the impotent;
tired feet that never knew a hill-slope
fabulous mountain sides;
sink in soft drift of pine
of balm and fir and myrtle-trees
drift across weary brows
and the sea-foam
marks the sea-path
where no sea ever comes;
islands arise where never islands were,
crowned with the sacred palm
or odorous cedar;
waves sparkle and delight
the weary eyes
that never saw the sun fall in the sea
nor the bright Pleaiads rise.