Stephen Totterdell takes a look at Ruth Barton’s latest book, Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen.
“Had Rex lost his grip on the little grammar and syntax he had learned? What was a ‘broad’? And a ‘cinch’? Did he mean ‘clinch’?”
The story of Rex Ingram could be an emigration story. Born in Rathmines, Ingram fled to the U.S. to work first as a manual laborer, before enrolling in Yale and then becoming, uh, a Hollywood director. Unlike many other Irish artists in America, however, Ingram never played stage-Irish. Instead of a hard-living, hard-drinking, sweater-wearing Irishman, Barton describes an aesthete much more at home in the world of movies than in the bar. Ahead of his time, Ingram traveled in LGBT circles and had a deep interest in sex. Barton speaks of his rumoured bisexuality, but it remains unconfirmed. Certainly in his work one can see undertones of what was probably an actively bisexual life, and his work will be of interest to scholars of Queer Theory.
Ruth Barton is best known as one of the core figures in Film Studies in Ireland. Instead of an academic analysis, however, this book focuses on telling the compelling narrative of Ingram’s life. It could be argued that the book represents the inroads academics have been making for the last few years into public discourse. The notoriously squeezed field of academia has led a number of scholars to pursue what is known as ‘AltAc’, or Alternative Academia. Writers such as Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed, or Slavoj Žižek are two high profile examples. These academics hope to bring theory and research to mainstream audiences, a practice which reminds one of the golden years of public intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin or Jean-Paul Sartre.
With this Rex Ingram biography, Ruth Barton brings an under-represented director to the surface. Well written and – importantly – slim, the book requires little effort to read. It is full of great details about the director. One of the great anecdotes about Rex Ingram is that he was born a Hitchcock, but changed his name in order to break into Hollywood. In contrast with his aesthetic interests, “One of Rex’s peculiarities was his liking to dress like a bum,” and his tyrannical on-set behaviour is in contrast to his charming social persona. Barton describes an eccentric and intriguing man who refuses to be categorised. Perhaps this is why we remember him less than some of the other figures of the period – just what is the Ingram brand?
Certainly that is not something that will be said of Barton. A tireless scholar of Irish cinema, she continues to enrich the field both inside academia and out of it. This biography is insightful, exciting, and – best of all – fun.