A critical hunter of perfection

Film Writing and Selected Journalism
June 30, 2006

Fifty-one years after his death, an attempt is being made to inform a British public about James Agee. A couple of months ago, Penguin added to its Modern Classics list Agee's two great books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family . Even in his native US, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold just 600 copies on publication in 1941 before being remaindered. Nowadays, however, Agee is properly regarded as an essential figure in national letters ("the emasculation of acceptance", as Agee once called it, has caught up with him), something confirmed by the appearance under The Library of America's sleek black dust jacket of the two aforementioned titles, and also of this volume, Film Writing and Selected Journalism , devoted to Agee's writings about film.

The bulk of the book consists of a reprint of Agee on Film , first published in 1958 in the wake of the Pulitzer Prize posthumously awarded for A Death in the Family . Also included is Agee's screenplay for The Night of the Hunter , Charles Laughton's bizarre film noir , perhaps the most famous fruit of Agee's spell as a screenwriter after he gave up film criticism. There is some welcome uncollected film writing and an odd assortment of Agee's other journalism: some very lengthy pieces written for the business magazine Fortune in the 1930s, but not, disappointingly, Agee's reaction to the dropping of the atomic bomb, written for Time in 1945.

Film is the core of the book, and the reappearance of Agee's criticism - originally written for Time (1941-48) and The Nation (1942-48), as well as two longer pieces for Life - is simultaneously a reminder of how incisive and conscientious a film critic Agee was, and how debased and otiose the genre has become today.

Agee came of age as a film-goer in the silent era, and one senses that he might have liked things to stay that way. Such was his devotion to the silent comedians - especially Charlie Chaplin, for whom he wrote a screenplay featuring Chaplin's tramp as the sole survivor of a nuclear explosion, documented last year in John Wranovics's Chaplin and Agee - that everything after tended to pale in comparison. Dominating Agee on Film is the feeling that, excepting a few fortunate blips, film was finished. Signing off on 1943, Agee wrote: "The whole business has been dying here, ten years or more. Last year, it seems to me, was the all-time low - so far. And a very good New Year to you, too."

Agee's reverence for D. W. Griffith, "a great primitive poet", crystallises much of what he felt had gone wrong. The era of The Birth of a Nation , he said, "was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience". Since then, creativity had been strangled, audiences corrupted and a false and insane version of reality consistently peddled by the Hollywood studios.

The North Star , a forgotten war film, was representative in showing "the hopeless mistrust in which Hollywood holds its public". Agee went on: "To call this 'commercial' and to talk about lack of intelligence and taste is, I think, wide of the main mark. The attitude is more nearly that of the fatally misguided parent toward the already all but fatally spoiled child.

The result is one long orgy of meeching, sugaring, propitiation... I can only urge you to watch what happens in it: how every attempt to use a reality brings the romantic juice and the annihilation of any possible reality pouring from every gland... the characters are stock, their lines are tinny-literary, their appearance and that of their village is scrubbed behind the ears and 'beautified'; the camera work is nearly all glossy and overcomposed; the proudly complicated action sequences are stale from overtraining..."

Plus ça change . But Agee was ready to celebrate merit where he saw it, although it was a rare picture (unsurprisingly, considering how they are made) that had nothing substantial wrong with it. Typical is the following carefully nuanced opener: " The Miracle of Morgan's Creek , the new Preston Sturges film, seems to me funnier, more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years. Yet the more I think of it, the less I esteem it." Just as frequently, Agee would dismiss a hopelessly flawed piece of film-making and then tell you how much he enjoyed it.

In other hands, such writing could smack of posture - the critic congratulating himself for the niceness of his discrimination, of a mind too subtle wholeheartedly to praise or condemn, of his cleverness in juggling paradoxes. But everything Agee wrote insists that he had a mind that was fine-tuned and calibrated to an exceptional degree and could express in prose shades of feeling that most of us never even approach. The meticulous inventory of mental activity in A Death in the Family confirms it. And so does the forensic examination of the flaws of T he Miracle of Morgan's Creek , and Sturges's art in general.

It was never as simple as awarding five stars out of five, but often Agee was swayed by the overwhelming evidence in a film's favour. Jean Vigo's Zéro de Conduite elicited the nearest thing to unqualified praise, but enthusiasms abound: the work of Huston (who became a friend and collaborator), Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives , Rossellini's Open City , Olivier's Henry V , Hitchcock, Val Lewton's B-movie horrors, Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St Louis , Reed's Odd Man Out , Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux , to which Agee devoted three lengthy columns in The Nation and one in Time . And although dismayed with the skewed reality that characterised most of Hollywood's Second World War films, and deploring the baying for vengeance prevalent in any movie featuring Japanese and Germans, Agee was a passionate admirer of newsreels and army orientation films, whose craftsmanship, taste and honesty were too often lacking in studio films.

If the balance of Agee's reviews was negative, then that is just how the movies were, as of course they still are. But reading Agee is never less than an education and a revelation. Throughout the book shines an unshakeable belief in and respect for people, for film makers and audiences and the characters that films more or less successfully seek to depict, as they struggle against the inhuman forces that have gained ascendancy in the modern world. It remains a duty for anyone who cares about films, about the art of criticism (Agee proved it can be one) and about good writing to read him.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on film.

Film Writing and Selected Journalism

Author - James Agee
Editor - Michael Sragow
Publisher - The Library of America
Pages - 748
Price - $40.00
ISBN - 1 931082 82 0

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