Monday, March 07, 2011

An Amateur Among Amateurs: Agee on Film


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:

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.
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."

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.

72 comments:

Andrew said...

Great post on Agee - I feel a sudden urge to get hold of some of his books now. That's why people like me read this blog.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nice post.

Agee is so revered in such a knee-jerk way it's hard for many to get a grip on him. He was always worth reading but as a critic he was wildly inconsistent. Otis Fegueson was a better crtic and Manny Farber (who I knew personally) was a fabulous wild man whose writing on film will be read, admired and chuckled over forever.

I went to high school with Agee's daughter Theresa, who found the revernce everyone had for her father to be a Total Drag.

Nice pic of Alain and Annie in Rocco

Arthur S. said...

The Library of Congress edition of Agee's criticism is available at the local library here too and I really liked his writing on some films. Especially ''Comedy's Greatest Era'' and his three reviews of ''Monsieur Verdoux''. It's not often that critics are remembered for defending artists against the tide especially one as vicious as Chaplin faced, Agee did it both in person and in print. He's also very attuned to the profoundly uncompromising moral nature of the film.

Agee was also a great defender of John Huston, especially his war documentaries. For me his weakest moment is his pieces on Ford. Joseph McBride in his book on Ford even argues for him being an anti-Irish bigot citing a passage where he rails against Ford's Irish supporting cast and themes "making me wish that Cromwell did a more thorough job".

It's very hard to judge critics. Manny Farber is highly and rightly celebrated for his prose style but I disagree with a lot of his judgments. It's fairly interesting that the two most celebrated American film critics were so anti-Ford.

The Siren said...

Andrew, thanks so much. I worked hard on this one.

David, Lopate is onto something with his thoughts about Agee as secular saint. I didn't get into Agee's non-film writing but Lopate has a great deal of warm praise for A Death in the Family, although he didn't get Let Us Now Praise Famous Men at all--I am intensely fond of that book. I also admire Farber and Ferguson; I think what makes me connect to Agee so intensely, aside from just how good his prose can be, is that as Farber said, he's always deep inside the movie, even when he thinks it's tripe. It's interesting to compare Farber on The Southerner with Agee, for example.

I don't blame Theresa at all; I don't know how old she was when he died, but Agee can't be anybody's idea of an ideal father.

As for Rocco, isn't that gorgeous, if I say so myself? I had not seen enough of the wonderful Annie Girardot to write an adequate tribute to her, so that is my attempt. She was magnificent in that movie; broke my heart.

The Siren said...

Arthur, as an Irish American that Cromwell line also made me wince, but I honestly don't ask that a critic agree with me down the line, just that she or he be interesting and write well. Also, and this is important, that the critic address me, as a reader, as someone intelligent, with my own opinions that are also worthwhile. I can't say Agee influenced my philosophy, to the extent that I have one; I owe more to Molly Haskell or even Kael, despite Kael not having a lot of regard for a lot of movies I love.

Farber I knew mostly through his big essays before acquiring the Library of America volume, and he's quite, quite wonderful. He's another one who went back and revised a bunch of opinions, but he tended to do it over a long period of time. Agee would revise himself in the course of a single review, which annoys some people. I find it endearing.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well Phil Lopate is right about Agee's secular sainthood -- and that's the problem. He was an interesting, though erratic writer. As for Manny one hardly reads him to agree with his judgments. He wasn't trying to convince anyone that he was right and they were wrong about any given film. He was trying to lure readers into looking at films in a different -- ore acutely visual -- way.

Haven't seen Phil Lopate in years, but he wrote very amusingly about me in a piece on Warren Sonbert -- our late, great experimental filmmaker friend and bon vivant. WAY back in the day Phil found himself on a party on "New York's smart east side" attended by Warren, me and a number of Warren's pals. Phil was the only straight man there -- a fact he discovered to his horror when the intense flirting that was going on threatened -- in his eyes -- to turn orgiastic. Noting his panic I diverted him with a lengthy conversation about Ozu (which in light of the circumstances was a joke in and of itself.) Can't recall how the evening ended for Phil but I absconded with Tony Baekeland's boyfriend who had been featured in Warren's very first movie, Amphetamine.

As for Tony Baekeland I cannot reccomend highly enough Tom Kalin's film of Savage Grace with Eddie Redmayne and the great Julianne Moore.

X. Trapnel said...

Magnificent, Siren. I believe Agee was the most talented American writer of his generation (skeptics are invited to read "Death in the Desert" or "They that Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap" [that sound you hear is the hot air hissing out of Sherwood Anderson's reputation]); he had the emotional amplitude, verbal gift, and critical intelligence for fiction of the highest order (as for self-discipline...) and an imaginative sympathy curiously lacking in so much postwar American fiction. I'm not sure how he's regarded these days. The reverence (except among film folk) seems to have dissipated or transferred itself to the Beats, who being utterly untalented, intellectually null, and aesthetically nugatory deserve it (despite Agee's alarmingly filmable life we should not expect a smug biopic any time soon). I read Agee's criticism as that of a would be director, like te young Truffaut, trying to find a way into the movies. Despite the "patness" of "Best Years" I've always felt that it pointed the way to the kind of lyric realism (dare I say American Renoir) that Agee might have achieved as a director. In my wild fantasies I imagine him saving American film from the shrill, ham-handed, Freudian/Method realism that snuffed beauty out of the movies in the fifties and ever after.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"utterly untalented, intellectually null, and aesthetically nugatory"?

I know someone who got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning!

X. Trapnel said...

David, it's MONDAY ferchrissakes!

DavidEhrenstein said...

True X, but I don't understand this grudge match you've cocktailed up between Agee and the Beats.

Agee and Kerouac were both alcoholics after all.

The Siren said...

XT and David, you're both making me laugh. I wonder if Agee ever went out with the Beats? In a Kerouac vs Agee writing smackdown I think I have made it clear who I'd give the TKO to, but around, over and under the bar, I can't say who'da won.

X. Trapnel said...

Kerouac was undoubtedly the best of the bunch (A. Ginsberg, by contrast a good, clean American boy doing his best to get ahead), but I see the whole Beat phenomenon as part of the Great American Stupid (it comes in all flavors), a turning away from the world toward slurpy self-adoration readily commodified by our corporate overseers.

I could use a drink myself.

Paul Dionne said...

"I don't want to die like James Agee - In the back of some taxi on the run"...
Agee referenced in the woefully under-rated country/folk/R&R song by RB Morris, out of Nashville -
http://www.metropulse.com/dl/songs/91/

X. Trapnel said...

That taxi was probably on its way to pick up Robert Lowell...

DavidEhrenstein said...

Make mine a Vodka Gibson, X.

I wouldn't call Allen a "good clean American boy." He was to much fun for that.

And by the way while we're on drunk literary lights, my fave is Frank O'Hara.

The Siren said...

XT, Agee was on the way to see the doctor. So was my father when he had the coronary that killed him. I actually never thought about that until this moment. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had an honored place on his bookshelves, and it now sits on mine. When I cracked it open after he died, I discovered a clipping Daddy had put inside the front cover, about a British documentary that followed up with the families in Lawrence County, Alabama that the book chronicled, or attempted to, rather.

I'm quite serious about avoiding details of just how bad things got for Agee, but I do admit my connection to him is also personal. Having read LUNPFM in high school, it was no great wonder I found his film writing in my early 20s and said, 'bingo."

X. Trapnel said...

Well, O'Hara was a brainier, more cultivated sort, and funny to boot.
I'm a Philip Larkin man myself, especially at this hour. (I'll have a tumbler of bourbon, then out for a spin in Laura's Mercedes).

Agee was, it must be admitted, a non-starter as a poet, though "Description of Elysium" is beautiful and moving, the source of Samuel Barber's wondrous "Sure, on This Shining Night." And let's not forget the Agee/Barber "Knoxville, Summer 1915."

The Siren said...

David, I love Frank O'Hara.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren I worship Frank O'Hara. Back in my teenage days I used to see him traipsing about the Msueum of Modern Art chatting with all and sundry with a big grin on his face. Brad Gooch's biography City Poet masterfully evokes the man and his era. O'Hara wrote about film frequently, "Poem (Lana Turner has Coppased)" being the most famous, closely followed by "To The Film Industry in Crisis." Back in the pre-video era O'Hara had dinner parties at his place built around TV showings of Astaire and Rodgers musicals. Difficult as it is to believe there was a time when Top Hat, Swgtime and The Gay Divorcee weren't taken seriously by Americna intellectuals. As always O'Hara was WAY ahead of the game. His death in 1966 is one of the signal events of that decade. He'd been loved and admired by "the happy few" in his lifetime but after his death the reputation of this "minor poet" headed straight for the stratosphere.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's the man himself with my favorite of his works -- a tribute to the ballet dancer Vincent Warren, probably the love of his life.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I included that in the Frank O'Hara Day I did over at Dennis Cooper's place.

Dan Callahan said...

A flat-out wonderful appreciation of Agee. Thorough, compassionate, balanced. Reading something as beautifully written as this makes me very happy.

The Siren said...

Aw Dan, THANK YOU. A compliment like that, from you who always writes so well, makes my week. And it's only Monday.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Those "personal" relationships with writers are the best and most long lasting and may come at any time in life (first enthusiasms are shaky; I can't read Hemingway now). Certain writers (artists, in general, including of course directors) touch something in the soul that was ready and waiting for them, create a space, a hunger for the reality that they have transfigured. They constantly bring us back to the world with a quickened apprehension of its possibilities. I can still see so much of Agee's America around me.

Tom Block said...

Siren, that's a seriously great post even if I wouldn't send Phlip Lopate out for sandwiches. (Lopate judging Agee--that's just...wow.) Agee was erratic even within the same work--few books alternately exalt and bore me the way "Famous Men" does--but he was one of those word-drunk guys I've always loved (along with Faulkner, Lowry, and yeah Kerouac, too, and they were all famous drunks the other way, too). Agee held some of the common beliefs of his time (e.g., "Monsieur Verdoux" demanded a deep and special reckoning with) which are mystifying today, but reading him works like verbal Valium for me when my own writing gets screwed up--sitting down and watching him do his level-best to deal honestly with a subject is the fastest cures there is. As for this:

>Agee was, wrote John Leonard, “not to be read on the subject of race without a wince,”

There's at least one major, major exception to this, his unpublished essay "America, Look at Your Shame!" It's an awesome read and ought to be a major part in his reputation, yet it didn't make Sragow's cut for the Library of America edition for some reason.

The Siren said...

Tom, thank you so much. I admire what I've read of Lopate--he's great on Naruse--and I wanted a good, balanced "contra" voice in there somewhere. Tell me, where can I find this unpublished essay? Where did you encounter it? I thought "wince" was le mot juste. Agee is not utterly ghastly on the subject but his lack of comprehension as to what so offended people about Birth of a Nation does prompt that reaction, as does a bit of his review of the Army doc "The Negro Soldier."

Tom Block said...

I can email it to you, (along with the photo it's partly about). Which address should I use? (Also, sorry about the typos, etc., in that other post--the coffee didn't take this morning for some reaosn.)

The Siren said...

campaspe101@yahoo.com will do just fine, and many thanks to you. Was just looking it up, it sounds completely fascinating. And don't worry about the typos; just had to delete one of my own comments for one. I never think anything of typos in comments, it's fast conversation-style, not the SATs!

The Siren said...

Tom, I got the essay (though the photo didn't come through--just as well, I am sure it's disturbing)--and I just wanted to thank you publicly. It's stunning; I will want to re-read it several times. And it's quite something, to spend all weekend crafting an essay about a writer you love, and learn that he was even better than you thought. Thank you for that, very much indeed.

X. Trapnel said...

For Agee on race read "A Death in the Desert"

Vanwall said...

Agee's Volume 1 is one of the great books on film writing, for me - it was like reading something a pal would say about a movie they saw, a pal that was infinitely more gifted then I, and one that wanted me to appreciate it's worth, or worthlessness. I read it before seeing many of the films he wrote about, and had a lot of "Oh, yeah, I see that now." moments...and a few "WTF was he talking about?" as well, which is pretty much the way I'd discuss a film with a friend.

I re-read it every so often - it was written during parlous times, and Agee still speaks to me as much then if not more now. He re-examined things on the fly, and made honest statements about film and acting, things I do myself, perhaps using a little of his intent as inspiration.

Tucker said...

That's a beautiful post. Thanks.

X. Trapnel said...

Has anyone here seen Agee's turn as the town drunk (of all things) in The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky?

Yojimboen said...

Dear Lady, it may take a while; but years from now you will look back on this day and recognize its magnificence.

(Poor X, not only is it Monday morning for you, it’s Monday morning in New JERSEY! Insert happy face where appropriate.)

What a dazzlingly brilliant essay! Not only in and of itself, but for the singularly exceptional quality of the comments it has wrought.

(Though I take some smarmy pride in the fact that Agee, Farber and Ferguson sit shoulder-to-shoulder half an arm’s length away from my desk) I am but the John Qualen to your Roz Russell; the Zasu Pitts to your Marie Dressler; the Henry Fonda to your Lady Eve!

Simply put, this is the best damn blogsite in all of Christendom!

X. Trapnel said...

Which is the reason, Y, on waking to the fish-grey, monkey-brown light of a New Jersey morn, I turn my parching eyes first thing to the lustrous light of this site

Casey said...

Siren,
Thanks for the post on Agee. His film criticism is wonderful. Sure he slams a lot of movies I love, and I always get ticked off when he knocks Welles. But, as I learned with Kael, it really doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree with a critic. The important thing is that they write honestly, which is what Agee (and Kael) did so well.

The Siren said...

XT, I neglected to thank you for the beautiful comment above; you know the one.

Tucker and Casey, thank you very much. I'm glad this is turning into an Agee love-fest, a clear-eyed one though.

Yojimboen, you make me blush. And you remind me that Ferguson is missing also from my library; I am pretty sure I read a public library copy of him and I should get my own.

Vanwall, Agee really is like sitting down with a garrulous, opinionated, uncommonly intelligent friend. And as you say, a friend is bound to piss you off at some point, too. "What do you mean, Out of the Past is a 'conventional private-eye melodrama', are you NUTS?"

Tom Block said...

Any talk about comma usage OR disagreeing with critics I love would probably make me think of this Farber line on "Liberty Valance", but both together seals the deal:

"In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically casted actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardness, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against a wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin)."

I can't tell you how much time I've spend contemplating that last comma, or how it's supposed to be heard. If "eye" were "eying", or if it were preceded by "and", I wouldn't think twice about it, but putting it the way it is...well, I'm downright hypnotized by its weirdness. (It also kills me for the beauty of "where the cactus was planted last night" and the fact that someone actually found a way to put the words "hipster" and "John Wayne" close together.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Siren knows how to keep young and beautiful, Yojimb.

Tom Carson said...

Siren, far be it from me to dissent even modestly from any of your loves. But Agee's self-dramatization always did put me off. I know how great he was, but the undercurrent of "Movies are important because I, James Agee, am writing about them" prefigured (and may have influenced) the worst of Kael. And no doubt, some of the best, too.

The Siren said...

Tom, your gentlemanly presence is always welcome chez Siren, as is your dissent. It's interesting what you say, because reading the book cover-to-cover as I did actually gives me a far different impression. LIke that elevator ride--I would love to think the other passenger was Manny Farber, by the way. And the way he zigs and zags and reverses himself, week to week. Even in the same review, he tells you everything that's wrong with a movie and then tells you to go see it--like Happy Land. It's full of nationalistic self-pity, but hey, it's worth a trip to the Bjiou! None of this suggests self-importance to me, in fact it suggests some pretty serious insecurity.

Yet, there is something about the style that could read that way, I think. His habit of going off into movie-prompted reveries, even the comma placement that I so love--movies are important because I, James Agee, am bringing this level of prose style, my intellectual, highly literary A-game to them. That I can see.

Yojimboen said...

Thank you, David; more proof positive (if any were needed) that white men (in black-face) can’t dance.

@Tom Block – the Farber paragraph sort of works (for me) if imagined in a Shakespearean context.

Think of it spoken by Chorus in Henry V .
(The “vasty fields of France” speech):

“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…”

“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them…”

“Linger your patience on…”

“See you, my princes, and my noble peers…”

“…eye a flogging overactor…”

The Siren said...

I think David's post marks the first, the very first mention of Eddie Cantor on this blog.

I am trying to decide how I feel about that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Eddie's a complex subject. I freely admit to being totally besotted with his madness, thansk to exposure to Thank Your Lucky Stars at an early age.

Eddi was primarily projected as Jolsen's heir. But he was quite unlike him in that he actaully liked other people (Jolsen was famous in vaudeville for running the water taps to drown out the sound of other perfomer's applause) and maintain a genuine -- thoughly demented -- "child-like" demeanor. par exemple. . .

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not to mention. . .

Yojimboen said...

With the inimitable Charlotte Greenwood as the object of Eddie's love.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mais bien sur.

And Here's the grand finale from Thank Your Lucky Stars. The sight of Eddie paddling across the clouds in a celestial boat toward Hattie McDaniels seated on a crescent moon is one of the most glorious in all of cinema.

Noel Vera said...

I loved his style. Right or wrong, and I disagree with him as much as agree with him, I loved his style.

I don't think I've read anything that bettered his description of the finale of City Lights--it's worthy of that passage.

And it probably isn't well known, but Agee was a champion of Filipino films--of the films of Manuel Conde, in particular. Agee saw Conde's Genghis Khan, and admired it so much he recommended it to Venice, where it screened, the first Filipino film ever to go to an international festival.

They also wanted to collaborate, it's said, in a film, which Agee was to write, Conde was to direct, United Artists was ti distribute. Not to be, alas.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Agee was at his best as a film critic wehn he really had soemthing he could seek his teeth into -- like Monsieur Verdoux. A lot of the rest of his film writing finds him marking time until something of interest comes along. Often he's quite funny doing this, but you can also sense his disraction and frustration.

Tom Block said...

When I first started reading Agee back in the '70s I used to wonder "What are all these weird fucking movies he's talking about?" Now I'm amazed by how many of them I've seen or at least know something about. One huge debt I owe Agee (the critic): it was his description of "Hail the Conquering Hero" that made me seek it out like a heat-guided missile, and to a lesser degree Huston's "San Pietro". (However I think it was also Agee who said nothing in "Let There Be Light" was staged, which is a simply staggering thing for any sentient being, much less a great critic, especially one with such a great eye for BS, since the fakery in "Light" is painfully obvious for every second of its run time.)

>Agee's self-dramatization always did put me off...the undercurrent of "Movies are important because I, James Agee, am writing about them"

I gotta say, this is a vibe I never once got from the guy.

X. Trapnel said...

Nothing I've ever read by or about Agee would suggest arrogance or self-importance; if anything he had a weakness for hero worship, rather misplaced in the case of John Huston, I think.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well I've got a few heores myself: Patrice Chereau, Jacques Rivette, Peter Watkins, Todd Haynes.

But I wouldn't trust Godard from here to the door, and I admire his work enormously.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Making of "Mildred Pierce"

The Siren said...

David, you are the cream in my comments section's coffee, but all you are doing with these Mildred posts is reminding me that I am Not Fabulous Enough to have gotten a screener set.

Though I suppose it's possible they said, "No, not her, she'll just whine "where's Jack Carson?'"

Yojimboen said...

Don’t fret, hon; we here (in the powdered milk section) didn’t get one either.

normadesmond said...

your hard work showed, a wonderful post, thanks.

Greg said...

I love reading Agee again and again. No disrespect to Agee, but his volumes are in the bathroom at our house because, well, it's some of my reading and the good stuff goes in the bathroom.

His review of Bill and Coo, by the way, is one of my favorites of his capsules. I've wanted to see it ever since.

Greg said...

That should be, "some of my favorite reading..."

DavidEhrenstein said...

LOL, Siren.

James leGros is the "designated Jack Carson" in this version.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's James with Gus Van Sant's ex D.J.
As I trust you recall James was part of Matt Dillon's gang in Gus' Drugstore Cowboy and the most sympathetic of the environmental illness patients at "Wrenwood" in Todd's Safe.

The Raymarkers is a techno-pop group run by my friend Lance Rock. D.J.(who directed the "Making of" video in the DVD of Gus' Psycho) dumped Gus for Lance. Now they've broken up and Lance is a major cable star on the WILD Kiddie show Hey Gabba Gabba!.

As you can see, keeping up with the ever-expanding Van Sant family is a full time job.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Lance on Yo Gabba-Gabba!

bitter69uk said...

Re the photo of Alain Delon and Annie Giradot. Sadly, Giradot had Alzheimers towards the end of her life. So apparently does Monica Vitta -- thinking of which makes me feel overwhelmingly sad.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Monica too? I was wonderign why there was no comment from her after Antonioni died.A friend of mine who lives in Italy has struck up a friendship with Valentina Cortese. While she's wheelchair-bound he says her mind is lively as ever.

Annie Giradot was married to Renato Salvatore -- who played her murderer in Rocco. A great, great actor he never won the world-wide fame of a Mastroianni or a Gassman. But he took on roles they couldn't have gone near if theyed tried.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: Fait Diver: Homage a Annie Girardot

Yojimboen said...

This film sequence
makes me yearn for Monica Vitti (or Alain Delon, depending on one’s proclivities) more than any other.
And she’s not even in it.

I remember when I saw l’Eclisse at the London Festival the audience cheered the raw audacity of the ending.

(SPOILER ALERT if you want to watch the above link later.)

Delon and Vitti make a date to meet – we, the audience get there, wait for almost eight minutes – looking at things, stuff, people, like you would, waiting for someone who’s late.
But, they don’t show up.

Later I saw it again at the Academy Oxford St. (no mean cinema), last show Saturday night, and was equally outraged and delighted that the projectionist cut it off after two minutes and put the house-lights up. (Maybe he wanted to make a statement, or his bus.)

Those audiences who did see the full version were largely annoyed by Antonioni’s “cheek” at forcing them to watch nearly ten minutes of…? Nothing really. How dare he? (A view shared by more than one BritCrit.)
It was as if they had been personally stood up by Monica (or Alain).

Yojimboen said...

Sorry, working link.

gmoke said...

Re David Ehrenstein's Homage a Annie:

Saw the Korean film "Poetry" the other day. It also concerns a group of boys who repeatedly rape a young girl. The day after, saw a piece in globalvoicesonline about the suicide of a young Korean actress because she was repeatedly forced into sexual acts to get work (http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/03/09/south-korea-suicide-actresss-memoirs-claim-sex-exploitation/). Later, I saw blog commentary on the NYTimes story about the 11 year old girl who was gang-raped and had the same reaction you did.

I am sick to my stomach and sick at heart on this day after International Women's Day.

bitter69uk said...

DavidEhrensein and Yojimb: I really wondered too why when Antonioni died there was not a single quote or interview with Monica Vitti, which felt so strange. And I have Italian friends who'd say, She hasn't been seen in public in years and is ill. But then finally I was Googling her for some reason and one of the first suggestions Google gave was "Monica Vitti Alzheimers" and my heart sank! Someone from the company who reissued L'Eclisse on DVD a few years ago said they wanted to interview Vitti as a bonus on the DVD and were advised it's way too late now for that. Very, very sad.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Monica Vitti as I prefer to recall her.

Matthew said...

Great post, marred only by your senseless attack on the city's finest train line - the 'M'...

JBW said...

Regarding Agee's racial attitudes: note the several passages in the Father Flye letters extolling the Mitchell Christian Singers, a North Carolina gospel quartet whose recorded work he argued showed-up more celebrated gospel music as show-biz schtick.

Groggy Dundee said...

Excellent post. I haven't read much of Agee's stuff but most of what I have is interesting. He's almost the Addison de Witt of film critics.