Editor's Choice September 2005

He Found It at the Movies

What to read this month—and what not to
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With this two-volume, 1,550-plus-page collection the Library of America has canonized James Agee—poet, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and critic—whom his friend Dwight Macdonald pronounced "the most copiously talented writer of my generation." It's an eccentric choice for this assemblage of the most important American writers, because Agee's obvious talent went largely unrealized, thanks to his prodigality (Macdonald aptly judged him "a shameless inopportunist") and consequent death at age forty-five. Agee of course left behind some stunning if flawed monuments, among them A Death in the Family, an incomplete, posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that lyrically evoked his Knoxville, Tennessee, childhood, and the more frequently admired than read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a novelistic documentary portrait of three families of Alabama tenant farmers in the 1930s, which paired Walker Evans's moving photography with Agee's often spot-on reportage and just as often self-consciously poetic meanderings. But it's the second volume, of his film writing, that encompasses Agee's most sustained and serious passion. Since watching silent films as a teenager he recognized, as Macdonald observed, that movies were "the great, new twentieth-century art form," and as the film reviewer for The Nation and Time from 1941 to 1948, he was more or less the first writer to make the movies respectable to American intellectuals. W. H. Auden, who didn't much care for pictures, nevertheless declared Agee's Nation column "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism." Agee's precise and lovely 1949 Life article reassessing "comedy's greatest era" provoked one of the most favorable responses in the magazine's history, awakened Americans' esteem for their silent-movie heritage (his was probably the most influential appreciation of the silent era until Kevin Brownlow's seminal 1968 book The Parade's Gone By), and single-handedly revived Buster Keaton's fame. Until Pauline Kael's sassy, headlong reviews, it was Agee on Film, a two-volume collection published after his death (dog-eared paperback copies were a campus fixture for a generation), that taught Americans how to think about and—most important—look at movies. Agee had a surer and more subtle and sophisticated grasp of the technical and visual aspects of filmmaking than any other movie critic ever. His scripts (with John Huston he wrote The African Queen; his screenplay for The Night of the Hunter, the only movie Charles Laughton directed, is included here) were notorious for minutely specific photographic and technical instructions that all but obviated the director. From at least his years as a lonely and precocious cineaste at Exeter in the 1920s, when he was writing to Macdonald about the motion-picture camera's "marvelous pliance" as it caught "the beauty of swaying, blending lights and shadows," Agee was singularly alive to the relationship between technique and aesthetics in cinema. (Alas, the volumes' editor, Michael Sragow, the film reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, hasn't included any of the decades-long correspondence between those two brilliant critics, whose "liveliest common interest," as Macdonald noted, wasn't books or writing but the movies.) And in his reviews Agee unobtrusively conveyed to his readers—in assessing everything from set decoration to camera movements—a sensitivity to the formal and stylistic elements of what he recognized as a uniquely virile art form.

Appearing weekly, Agee's reviews were no doubt a marvel, but envelop them in LOA's solemn black dust jacket and print them on its for-the-ages acid-free stock and his blind spots and shortcomings become glaring. Although Agee was remarkably astute in his dissection of visual comedy, the slangy yet sophisticated fast-talking comedies—among the greatest triumphs and perhaps the quintessential achievement of American cinema—were obviously lost on him. As was, criminally, Orson Welles's artistry. He aptly characterized Double Indemnity as "smart and crisp and cruel," but he utterly missed it for the masterpiece it is, and all he could say of Fred MacMurray's performance—one of the best in the history of American film—was that Billy Wilder's casting of him was "perceptive." Indeed, Agee was as abstract and vague in his analysis of acting as he was concrete in his technical assessments (in all his writing he struggled against a tendency toward the gaseous). Typically, in his famously daring two-part review of The Best Years of Our Lives (he exposed the movie's egregious faults in the first week, and then explained why it was nevertheless a triumph in the second) he described a scene between Walter Baldwin and Harold Russell as "quietly perfect"—but how so? And he declared Teresa Wright's performance "one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years," because she used her "translucent face with delicate and exciting talent"—whatever that means. Even when on the nail in defining a theme (he rightly identified "the real love story" in Meet Me in St. Louis as "between a happy family and a way of living") or a character (of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's jaunty yet deeply, shimmeringly romantic I Know Where I'm Going, he observed shrewdly, "Before she is capable of love, the heroine has come of age by learning how much better a woman she is than she had ever realized"), he was oblivious of performance (in the latter case Wendy Hiller's striking ability to appear at once winsome and sexually intense)—and film is as much a performing art as a visual one. I looked forward to rereading many of the pieces herein, and in the case of Agee's uncollected film pieces, to reading them for the first time. But a heavy dose of Agee shows the ephemeral and limited nature of all but the greatest criticism. Agee is only the third author whose critical works LOA has published; Poe's reviews deserve inclusion, but for all their historical significance neither Agee's nor Henry James's do. (James's are often just plain mushy.) On those very rare occasions when criticism itself can be considered a literary art, the reader must be propelled by style and mesmerized by a sensibility at work. So here's hoping that LOA soon brings out the critical works of its intellectual father, Edmund Wilson, and of the greatest film writer this country has produced, the swaggering Kael, who, all will acknowledge, was often wrongheaded, but whom readers will happily follow anywhere.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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