James Agee enters the Library of America as a twofer—and, in what seems like an LOA first, one volume is devoted to his “film writing.” A would-be poet and somewhat bohemian journalist, Agee became Time‘s regular, albeit anonymous, movie critic in September 1942; he began reviewing for
The Nation three months later, and kept both jobs through summer 1948.
It was during Agee’s watch that Hollywood peaked and began its precipitous post-World War II slide. Without undue anxiety, Agee noted key trends—the development the French would dub “film noir,” the icky “film blanc” of wartime supernaturalism, the reaction against Roosevelt liberalism, the impending eclipse of the movies. He praised the audience and parsed the popular, dismissing Walt Disney in favor of B-movie producer Val Lewton, satirist Preston Sturges, and, following his colleague Manny Farber’s lead, Bugs Bunny.
Agee declined to decry sensation but, sentimental humanist at heart, he valued John Huston over Orson Welles and placed the straightforward Story of G.I. Joe above the subversive Shadow of a Doubt. He admired Italian neo-realism but his greatest cause was Chaplin’s 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux. As a politically cautious New Dealer, Agee executed an impressive soft-shoe around the scandalous Mission to Moscow—although he elsewhere mocked Warners’ “cuddly-reverential treatment of President Roosevelt” and published a scathing Partisan Review critique of Popular Front sentimentality. As a critic who sometimes wrote two reviews of the same movie for his two, quite different venues, Agee was prone to equivocate and often mealymouthed. Bobbing and weaving before The Best Years of Our Lives, he declared that “William Wyler has always seemed to me an exceedingly sincere and good director; he now seems one of the few great ones.” Similarly, the anti anti-Semitic thriller Crossfire struck him as “the best Hollywood movie in a long time.”
Born in Knoxville, Agee was brought up Catholic and educated at Harvard. Neither a homosexual nor a Jew, and (despite the Marx-Engels quote prefacing his “documentary novel” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) never a communist, Agee was the most “American” of American movie critics. He cut his teeth on silent movies and left his heart in Pickfair. His best piece, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” celebrated slapstick in Life; his Nation swan song was a passionate appreciation of D.W. Griffith that angrily refused to recognize a racial problem in The Birth of a Nation. Agee’s unforced patriotic eloquence was such that Time drafted him to mark the death of Roosevelt and V-J Day. Surely no other critic could have adapted The Night of the Hunter for the movies.
Compared to his generational cohort, Agee was a natural middlebrow. His ideas are less radical than those of surrealist fellow-traveler Parker Tyler; his style is less original than Farber’s. Agee lacked the tough-minded realism of Robert Warshow and polemical fervor of Pauline Kael, who although she did not begin publishing until the early ’50s identified herself with the “Agee alcohol-fueled generation.” Whatever he was, Agee was not our André Bazin—a critic whose journalistic acuity, theoretical relevance, and stylistic lucidity have scarcely dated. He was, however, the first American movie critic to be anthologized.
Agee on Film appeared in 1958, three years after the author’s death at 45. (Agee’s two most distinguished precursors, Harry Alan Potamkin, who wrote for the New Masses in the early ’30s, and Otis Ferguson, the New Republic reviewer from 1934 to 1942, were not collected until the cinephilic ’70s). Indeed, the Library of America does not collect Agee’s criticism so much as it enshrines his original collection, Agee on Film. The book—containing the complete run of Nation reviews, a sampling from Time, and a few longer pieces that appeared elsewhere—is treated as a work in itself. Typos (“Eisentein”) and factual errors (“Franz” Murnau) are preserved along with W.H. Auden’s notorious intro: “I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them,” he notes by way of praising Agee.
Auden bemoans the “sad day” when Agee on Film will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis. Why? As journalism, Agee on Film is relentlessly and necessarily topical. Read as a book, it chronicles the writer’s attempt to make sense of the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events. Quality is incidental. Agee deals with many interesting movies in short paragraphs, while lavishing space on such now-inconsequential bores as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Wilson—as well he might. Agee was not writing the history of cinema but the history of his times.
Although editor Michael Sragow (himself a film critic) annotates Agee’s text, his attempt is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations. If Agee on Film is literature, it’s literature of a particular kind. Call it cultural stream of consciousness. Unless you have the other side of the equation in your head, it’s like reading Pale Fire without the notes.