James Agee

Writing on John Huston for Life magazine on 9/18/1950, James Agee began:

The ant, as every sluggard knows, is a model citizen. His eye is fixed unwaveringly upon Security and Success, and he gets where he is going. The grasshopper, as every maiden ant delights in pointing out, is his reprehensible opposite number: a hedonistic jazz-baby, tangoing along primrose paths to a disreputable end.

To paraphrase David Denby, in his introduction to the Modern Library collection of Agee’s writings on film, ‘Could this really be the start of an article on a movie-maker?’

Actually, that’s a question no one should have to ask, just as Denby should not have had to, writing about Agee’s film reviews. In fact, the very posing of both questions points more to paucity in film writing much more than to any comment about Agee. Most film reviews concentrate on industry questions (‘How well will the movie do, in terms of money and awards?’) or on personalities (‘Can Mel Gibson return as a star performer after all that time behind the camera?’). Worse: most reviewers would rather pose questions than try to answer them, a coward’s way out.

Most ‘serious’ film writing (generally academic writing—there’s little that’s both serious and meant for popular consumption), on the other hand, retreats into either study of film history or promotion of a particular rhetorical stance in relation to film. Different from reviews, certainly, this type of writing is still equally meager.

Agee had no axe to grind, nothing more to do than bring the breadth of his knowledge (he was not, of course, simply a reviewer or a writer on film) to discussion of the movies he had watched. Nor did he care to find agreement in his audience, or even to convince. His goal was to interest, as the end of his two-part review of The Best Years of Our Lives shows:

I can hardly expect that anyone who reads this will like the film as well as I do. It is easy, and true, to say that it suggests the limitations which will be inevitable in any Hollywood film, no matter how skillful and sincere. But it is also a great pleasure, and equally try, to say that it shows what can be done in the factory by people of adequate talent when they get, or manage to make themselves, the chance.

Unlike many more academic film commentators, Agee never walked away from Hollywood and its limitations, but was fascinated what film-makers managed to do despite the limitations they labored under. He also placed film—and Hollywood—squarely within the world, never suggesting that there might be a superior avant-garde somehow attainable but divorced from the kitsch of the movie industry. He criticized the industry, yes, but he did not deny it.

Agee never saw the movies as apart from the world, as world of their own—perhaps because he began writing about movies during World War II, a time when the connection between the movies and the world was clear to just about everyone. No one, at that time, would have made the (to me) ridiculous claim that a movie could be about movies alone, not about the world (the ontology is suspect, at the very least). The world was too much with the movies, if anything (though I don’t think that’s really possible).

What’s most important to me about Agee’s film writing is that he made movies personal. That is, he made his position as audience member and film fan quite clear. As a result, he could bring all of his life to his writing about movies, never separating himself from the movies (or from his writing about them) any more than the movies can be separated from the world.

Today, Agee isn’t well remembered as a writer on film (or as a writer for film, which he did as well), his reputation resting on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family. For me, at least, his film writing is just as important and memorable. If it were not for Agee, I’m not sure I would be able to approach writing about movies with any confidence, for the model, the inspiration that any writer needs, would be absent.

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