My two volumes of Agee on Film went missing when a boyfriend went that-a-way (I lost a lot of good books that way). Afterward I contented myself with just Vol. 1, which covers the writings for The Nation and Time Magazine, and that one disappeared during a move to Toronto. During a recent second-hand book-buying binge I replaced it, and reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: James Agee is my favorite film critic.
In a respectful but clearly dissatisfied review of the Library of America’s collection, Philip Lopate states, correctly, that “while reviewing the film at hand, Agee always seemed to be willing another kind of movie into existence.” Lopate adds that “Agee could never quit bemoaning the sorry state of filmmaking in the Forties, which now looks like a pretty good era in retrospect.” I’m not about to argue with that, either.
It’s true: Nothing is ever good enough for James Agee. Reading his reviews, you wonder not that he racked up three marriages before his death at age 45, but that he ever found a partner acceptable enough to sign documents with in the first place. Even movies he adores, such as Open City, leave some sort of cracker crumb in his bedsheets.
Yet still I treasure Agee, because he writes so well. As he explains why, for example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t good enough, he describes what he does like with breathtaking ardor and accuracy:
There is a shot of the girl hesitant on the curb which has the lovely authenticity of a wild animal startled by a flashbulb--or of the same shot made by a concealed camera in a real street. There is a shot of [James] Dunn, ghastly drunk in his inky waiter’s suit, so painfully malappropriate to daylight, being shoved and shouted along his home street, which is as poetic and individualized an image of a state beneath humiliation as I have seen. There is a shot of Joan Blondell’s bent hustling back, the thin dress propped and ridged through her underwear, as she goes in to help her sister deliver a baby, which is equally successful in its evocation of women in a special and final class and world and predicament.
It’s in such passages, when his intellect, compassion and aesthetics are fused with what’s happening on screen, that I find the Agee I love, and I forgive him those moments when he’s faulting Double Indemnity for not very much, or saying Orson Welles “never was and never will be a genius,” or calling Black Narcissus ”tedious and vulgar.”
He had no lofty opinion of his position, beginning his stint at The Nation with this:
I suspect that I am, far more than not, in your own situation: deeply interested in moving pictures, considerably experienced from childhood on in watching them and thinking and talking about them, and totally, or almost totally, without experience or even much second-hand knowledge of how they are made. If I am broadly right in this assumption, we are on the same ground, and under the same handicaps, and I qualify to be here, if at all, only by two means. It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics. And I will be of use and of interest only in so far as my amateur judgment is sound, stimulating or illuminating.
He remained true to that introduction. Devour this book in sequence and you’ll be struck by how personal Agee’s criticism is, how nearly every Nation column involves him as a living, eating, paycheck-drawing New Yorker, one who struggles to accommodate his moviegoing. He apologizes for not seeing Holy Matrimony, which he’s been told is good; he just saw Monsieur Verdoux, and was so thunderstruck he needs to gather his thoughts. He’s reconsidered his overpraise of Cover Girl, and he realizes he underpraised The Ox-Box Incident. He disappears for a bit, apologizes, and says it’s going to take a couple of weeks to catch up. The pay at The Nation being what it no doubt was and is, Agee gets another job (writing features for Time, although he doesn’t mention that), says the new gig is sapping his time, and adds that’s why his next reviews will be brief, assuming his present bosses let him keep his column.
He says he hates religious cant and admits this colors his review of The Song of Bernadette, then praises the film anyway. Even given his employer, Agee's political asides can be startling in their left-wing candor and contempt for home-front pieties, such as a 1943 review of Happy Land in which he snarls about Americans' "nasty-nationalistic self-pitying self-congratulation." Several times he mentions the opinions of his friend Manny Farber with approval; when Bosley Crowther writes a particularly blockheaded review of Day of Wrath, Agee grinds the Times man into the carpet. He compliments Caesar and Cleopatra one week, then takes an elevator ride with some nameless Manhattanite who tells him Caesar and Cleopatra wasn’t all that. As the elevator descends Agee decides that, well, he probably liked the film because he happens to like Shaw, and Claude Rains really was a bit hammy. The column bumps to an end with, “Ground floor.”
Agee is, in short, quite like a blogger, albeit one with perceptiveness and a prose style most of us would sacrifice virgins to acquire. Tom Shone once wrote of his disappointment in some of the film writing he found online, saying, “What I most crave are voices that sound like your friends dissecting the film in the parking lot afterwards: sparky, conversational, unvarnished.” Last week, as I got so absorbed in Agee on Film that I had to turn around at a subway station in Williamsburg, having mistaken the immensely irritating M train for my own, I thought, “Well Tom, here you go. Except James Agee was doing it sixty years ago, in print.”
Also noteworthy are the sins Agee doesn’t commit. He doesn’t use movies to show off his wit, leaving the reader to suspect that he’s slumming, or that he would bring the same zippy style to a discussion of anything from Schubert’s quartets to a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone. You don’t find Agee defending his preferences with Olympian pronouncements about directorial intent, nor does he promote himself as our lone hope for honesty in criticism. Faced with an opinion he wants to revise, he doesn’t shift the place markers fifty feet to the left and declare that this is what he was saying all along, it’s just that we, the readers, failed to understand.
Holden Caulfield described a good book as one that made you want to call the author on the phone; I’d describe a good critic as one whose company you relish. And lord, how I relish Agee’s company. Not for him the movies-are-gussied-up-plays approach of so many 1940s critics. He cared passionately about camerawork, and gave credit, writing of the magnificent opening of The Hard Way that “James Wong Howe’s first few minutes with the camera, in a Pennsylvania mill town, all but floored me with gratitude. “ In assessing The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that was “at its worst...annoying in its patness, its timidity” but that still required two columns to cover adequately, Agee throws quibbles aside for one genius: “I can’t think of a single shot of [Gregg] Toland’s that doesn’t show the amount of will, creative energy, and taste, and doesn’t add with perfect power and modesty its own special kind of expressiveness.”
You never know what’s going to yank Agee upright in his seat. I love to think of him in a cinema watching Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, enthralled with things that are flashing past the rest of the audience:
And I love to imagine Agee cackling as Bugs Bunny careens down a broken Liszt scale in Rhapsody Rabbit: "It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant."
There is a solemnly eager, smoky, foggy ‘possum hunt which may have been studio-faked for all I know; it gets perfectly the mournful, hungry mysteriousness of a Southern country winter. There is an equally good small-town street; I have seldom, in a movie, seen the corner of a brick building look at once so lonely and so highly charged with sadness and fear.
He is alarmingly frank about his interest in some actresses:
Linda Darnell, flashing her eyes and teeth and flexing her glands at both men, is probably the weakest of the three so far as performance goes; but since in general appearance, she is a kind of person I can imagine going on all fours for, especially if I were a provincial judge, I thought her not entirely ill cast. [Summer Storm]
And while he doesn’t use reviewing to amass quotable quips, his dry humor is everywhere. “It may be unforgivably decadent of me, but I cannot get much excited about incest," he says, "nor do I feel that any great victory has been won because a story about incest, [The Strange Affair of] Uncle Harry, has escaped from the Hays office in still fairly recognizable condition.” For the Whom the Bell Tolls finds Agee losing patience, as he often did, with Hollywood’s political timorousness, and remarking, “If you are not careful, you may easily get the impression that Gary Cooper is simply fighting for the Republican Party in a place where the New Deal has got particularly out of hand.” He watches Leave Her to Heaven and throws his sympathy to Gene Tierney, "who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband. Just as it looks possible, she picks up a pair of binoculars and sees his brother, her mother, her adopted cousin and the caretaker approaching by motorboat."
Even his corrections are funny: “Three weeks ago I recommended vivacious roles for Susan Hayward. The word should have been vicious.”
Agee was, wrote John Leonard, “not to be read on the subject of race without a wince,” yet one article in which that flaw is much in evidence--a tribute to D.W. Griffith--also shows Agee’s intense, almost spiritual connection to Griffith’s genius. Silent movies brought out the best in Agee. His essay "Comedy's Greatest Era," published in Life, glows with tenderness. His worship of Chaplin was legendary, but that didn’t mean he lacked admiration for Buster Keaton:
With the humanity, the craftsmanship and the action there was often, besides, a fine, still and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Matthew Brady. And there is a ghostly, unforgettable moment in The Navigator when, on a deserted, softly rolling ship, all the pale doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and, as one, slam shut, in a hair-raising illusion of noise.
Lopate writes that present-day regard for Agee is tied up with his “thanatoptic mystique”--his looks, his recklessness, his alcoholism, his death. In all honesty I can state that this has never been true of me. Once I learned the bare pitiful outline of Agee’s life, I avoided learning more. It is painful enough to read his review of The Lost Weekend, with its bitter joke of a kicker, and wonder that the insight was so piercing, but the will to get better wasn’t there--or, perhaps, never had time to appear.
It becomes, too much of the time, just a virtuoso piece about a handsome, practically unidentified maniac. In one or two scenes you get with some force the terrible humiliation which is one of the drunkard’s experiences; but considering the over-all quality of the film, it is remarkable how much you seem to have been given, and how little you actually get. There is very little appreciation, for instance, of the many and subtle moods possible in drunkenness; almost no registration of the workings of the several minds inside a drinker’s brain; hardly a trace of the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable or of the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable; hardly a hint, except through abrupt action, of the desperation of thirst; no hint at all of the many colorings possible in the desperation.
When he’s wrong, James Agee is forcefully, intelligently wrong. When he’s right, his writing can conjure a pleasure so acute it comes close to watching the movie itself. Ground floor.