In Praise of James Agee, Born 100 Years Ago Today

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11/27/2009 10:04 AM |


What kind of person writes movie reviews during a world war? James Agee, born November 27 of 1909 in Knoxvile, Tennessee, performed his greatest service to his country during the 1940s, by reviewing films for Time and writing a column on the movies for the Nation. (His film writing is collected in a marvelous Library of America volume.) He didn’t invent the profession but he might as well have: his work was instrumental in creating an intelligent popular language for talking about the national art form, and those of us who’ve taken up the lead in that conversation since owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. No film scholar, he’s been called a “natural middlebrow,” which is true and only an insult if you think that what the middlebrow mostly is is all that it could ever be.

Agee won a Pulitzer, posthumously, for his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family; it was published in 1957, and reached back across two wars, and decades of excess and deprivation, to portray a threatened nuclear family in rural America in the years before the Great War must have. In one scene, the family of young Rufus (Agee’s middle name, in fact) drives deep into the country to visit an ancient, distant relative, unseen by them for decades; the weathered, half-deaf old relative, frightening to the kids, is a tenuous but resilient bridge between them and the settlers who populated the region. For a country that had just grown into a position of leadership in the world, this must have been a profoundly resonant reminder of how far they’d come.

Agee was one of those prominent youths from the interior of America who were sent to the best schools on the coast and traveled up the ranks into the American ruling class (at Harvard, Agee befriended Robert Fitzgerald and edited the Advocate). In the years that Agee came of age, America was concluding its long transition from many regional to one national culture, a transition enabled in large part by the movies—like the Charlie Chaplin shorts Rufus and his father enjoy, though his pious mother doesn’t—and by the mega-titled national magazines—Time, Fortune, Life—founded by Henry Luce in the 20s and 30s, where Agee along with many other of the best and brightest found work after college.

In his reviews for Time, Agee was writing for a mass audience, though standard journalistic practices allowed plenty of room for hyperbole and exquisite sarcasm (journalists were expected to be witty then, because they were expected to be smarter than everyone else). It was opinion reportage: his job, in talking up films or classifying with faint or measured praise, was to bring his enviably informed sensibility to shape public opinion. He recognized the gifts of foreign auteurs and the pleasures of American Bs but he loved most of all the great, occasionally hokey popular artists—Chaplin above all; also John Huston, whom he befriended and wrote screenplays for in the 50s; and Olivier, for his scholarly, mass-appealing Shakespeare films; he loved Preston Sturges but was disappointed with his noncommittal wit. (Agee, who died of cardiac arrest aged 45, had a heart as big as the world; his prose-poetic close third-person narration in A Death in the Family sometimes overflows with deep, simple, a bit purple feeling.) (It also contains evocations of a rural boyhood, and inhabitations of a child’s consciousness, that are among the finest ever written by an American.) He admired stylization and mastery of the medium but on the whole distrusted excessive style’s capacity for manipulation, preferring photographic naturalism, all-encompassing humanism and the music of chance. (He adapted Davis Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter for Charles Laughton, who significantly edited the screenplay. Agee didn’t live to see the film but it feels in some ways derived from his criticism, getting at the spiritual thread of American life through deft arrangement and highlighting of its natural aspects.) Like most good critics, his more generalized complaints—having primarily to do with artificiality and cynical manipulation—can be cut and pasted into reviews written nowadays and seem even truer than they did then.

During his first years as a film critic, 1942-45, Agee was writing with the awareness that someday this war would end; the question was what kind of country would emerge from it. His most courageous reviews, I think, are the ones in which he criticizes war documentaries for their lack of political and humanistic nuance, and wartime hits for their pandering escapism. If it wasn’t a worthy, strengthened American culture that was going to emerge from this conflict, than what was the point? (Agee traveled across Europe and America in the fall of 1945, and sketched scenes of profound ambivalence, over both the bomb and the uneasy, far from cathartic peace.)

The columns Agee wrote at the same time (1942-1948) for the Nation were, as J. Hoberman said of Jonas Mekas’s Movie Journal in the early days of the Village Voice, practically a blog avant la lettre. He would never waste space with plot summaries, and assumed an audience not just familiar with the same films but predisposed to feel similarly about them. He wrote convoluted backtracking digressing multiclause sentences, and was liberal with his use of the first-person pronoun. When he enjoyed a movie, he would enumerate its minor-key, medium-specific charms before pronouncing its fundamental limits; when he genuinely liked a movie, he would discusses its successes in relation to the medium’s usual flaws and shortsightedness; when he really liked a movie, he would spend a disproportionate amount of his column inches discussing all its miniscule flaws and disappointments. (It’s fun, reading the Library of America volume and leafing back and forth between his formal reviews in Time and his more rambling, gripe-y, probably drunken discussions of the same films in the Nation.)

Agee was a Catholic, and his columns for the Nation were almost confessionals, admissions of his high hopes for cinema, and his fears about its inevitable disappointments—his commitment to the most important new medium for this new country, and the question of whether it (we) would ever fulfill its (our) initial promise.

In Agee’s first column for the Nation, he wrote:

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 start 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 wanted not just to talk but to have real conversation, with a wide audience capable of having it. Those of us who value this conversation often think about the current state of it. And most of us feel about this conversation as Agee did about the movies themselves: that it has potential far beyond what has been realized. And that we love it too much to ever be truly happy with it, or to give up trying to make it better anyway.