“I think it’s one of the great Adelaide stories,” filmmaker and writer Rob George says of the tale that inspired his documentary Von Loves Her Modernist.

“But we have the problem in Adelaide that we’re a small city and the history tends to get told about the big cities.”

Max Harris – co-founder of the literary journal The Angry Penguins and the SA branch of the Contemporary Art Society, and later, manager and owner of Mary Martin Bookshop ­– hasn’t been written out of history. However, George believes key elements of his story have been forgotten, partly because they were overshadowed by the infamous Ern Malley affair.

He also thinks South Australia should tell its own history.

“In the film, I can’t leave Ern Malley out of it… but I was more interested, particularly when I was interviewing Von [Max’s wife], about where did Max get his ideas from,” George says of the poet dubbed Adelaide’s own “enfant terrible”.

“How did someone living in this remote, very conservative town in the late 1930s hear about modernism? How did he know about it? Now you just go online and find out about anything you want to, but back in 1938-39 we had a lot of censorship of material; [there was] a real limit to the amount of stuff that was coming in.”

George ­was studying Australian literature in 1969 when he first came across Harris and the Ern Malley affair, which erupted in the early 1940s after Angry Penguins published a series of modernist-style poems submitted under the name of Ern that later turned out to be a hoax. In the 1990s, he tried pitching a play to State Theatre Company SA based around Harris’s relationship with Melbourne-based arts patrons John and Sunday Reed, and in 2007 he interviewed Von Harris at her Norwood home as part of a documentary proposal to the ABC.

Neither pitch was successful, but George couldn’t let go of his idea for the documentary. After completing his low-budget sci-fi feature film The Battle for Jericho in 2019, he decided to revive the project that has come to be called Von Loves Her Modernist and will screen as part of the SA History Festival on May 14 at the Mercury Cinema and May 28 at Marino Community Hall.

“In a sense, it’s a love story at the heart of it,” George explains of the title of the film, which includes footage from his 2007 interview with Von.

Filmmaker Rob George interviewing Von in 2007.

Von Hutton and Max Harris met while at high school: she was at St Peter’s Girls and he was at St Peter’s Boys, with Von telling George she first set eyes on the poet at a combined schools service at St Peter’s Cathedral.

“Then she saw him again at a football game and she said he was very different [to other boys she knew] and that was what attracted her to him. They were about 15 or 16 at the time… he was known then as a poet and she describes him as someone who did things differently… and he was obviously very energetic, intellectual, incredibly clever, incredibly well read.”

The young Von and Max. Photo courtesy the Harris family

Von’s parents didn’t initially approve of Max, but the couple reconnected in Melbourne when he was with the Reeds at their Heide property, a gathering place for artists including Sidney Nolan. Von, a dancer and actor, moved to Melbourne to join the Borovansky Ballet. The couple married on their return to Adelaide.

“Von talks a lot about their life at Heide and being part of the modernist art movement in Melbourne at that time,” George says of their interview, which offered insight into the world Max grew up in and the people with whom he associated.

Von Loves Her Modernist ­– which features music by Guy Cundell – also includes interviews with Von and Max’s daughter, journalist and critic Samela Harris; family friend Peter Goers; and literary historians Philip Butterss and Nicholas Jose.

Butterss told George that the young Max would have been influenced by literary figures in Adelaide in the 1930s and ’40s such as J.I.M. Stewart, a novelist and professor of English at the University of Adelaide.

“The other thing I didn’t know about at all was that there was a bookshop in Adelaide called Preece’s Bookshop that ran through until the ’70s,” George says.

“It was in the Beehive Corner on King William Street and they imported a lot of modernist literature and contemporary literature and were very happy for students and interested people just to stand there and read them in the back of the bookshop… they also brought out a literary magazine that they used to publish and Max was involved with that.

“There was this quite interesting, you could almost call it an underbelly, of cultural activity in conservative old Adelaide going on at that time.”

They were, however, conservative times, and after the Ern Malley affair Max Harris faced an obscenity trial as a result of what authorities deemed lewd lines in some of the poems. Despite the saga, he remained a promoter of modernism and got back on his feet as a bookseller and publisher.

George’s documentary includes some of the transcripts from the trial and sees Max’s grandson, Ryder Grindle, channel Max with readings from his poems and excerpts from his experimental novel, The Vegetative Eye.

Ryder Grindle reads excepts from his grandfather Max’s writings in Von Loves Her Modernist.

Helping to paint the picture of Adelaide in the early years of World War II are excerpts from the diary of Carys Harding Browne, who was 17 in 1940 and had a relationship with Donald Beviss “Sam” Kerr, Max’s co-editor of Angry Penguins. Her writing was published in Carys: Diary of a Young Girl, Adelaide 1940-42, parts of which are read by her daughter Ann Barson in Von Loves Her Modernist.

“The diary creates a lovely picture of the extraordinary cultural activity that was going on in Adelaide at that time… in Carys’s diary she seems to go to a film, a play, a ballet, an orchestral concert virtually every night of the week,” George says.

This Saturday’s screening of Von Loves Her Modernist at the Mercury Cinema will be followed by a Q&A session with Rob George and other participants in the documentary, including Samela Harris, Nicholas Jose and Philip Butterss.

The filmmaker acknowledges the 65-minute documentary, made on a shoestring budget, will appeal to a niche audience, but he hopes it will find a life beyond the History Festival: “I think there will be other screenings of it. In what context, who knows?”

Details of the Mercury Cinema and Marino Community Hall screenings of Von Loves Her Modernist can be found here.

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