Archive for the 'Film criticism' Category
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
I guess I don’t really like criticism, including my own.
James Agee, 1950
In 1944 a thirty-five year old man wrote about a fourteen-year-old girl he saw in a movie.
She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think she also has a talent, of a sort, in the particular things she can turn on: which are most conspicuously a mock-pastoral kind of simplicity, and two or three speeds of semi-hysterical emotion, such as ecstasy, an odd sort of pre-specific erotic sentience, and the anguish of overstrained hope, imagination, and faith. . . . I think she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.
This review of National Velvet became one of James Agee’s most notorious pieces. That wasn’t because of the mash-note creepiness we sense today, but because it encapsulated, almost parodically, a critical voice that still seems unique. The piece typifies his feverish hyperbole (rapturously, ecstasy, anguish), his back-and-fill qualification (talent, of a sort; mock-pastoral; semi-hysterical), his appeal to noble nouns (simplicity, imagination, faith), and not least his effort to capture the elusive tonalities of an emotional experience. What is overstrained hope? What is erotic sentience when it’s pre-specific? Is the late-phase Henry James writing movie reviews now?
The passage earned a hearty raspberry from Theodore Strauss, who considered it typical of Agee’s notion that a sentence was “the longest distance between two points.” But that was a view from Los Angeles. Agee’s film reviews for The Nation (1942-1948, signed) and for Time (1941-1948, unsigned) won him a cultish reputation in Eastern provinces. He was lionized for his movie columns in a way that he hadn’t been for his poetry or his barely noticed book with Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
Young people buzzed around him. To Alfred Kazin he personified intoxicating brilliance. “He made everything in sight seem equally exciting. . . . He seemed at any time to be all there and primed to go off.” Dwight Macdonald, an early friend and mentor, considered him “the most broadly gifted writer of my generation.”
He exemplified the Bohemian genius. He was addicted to cigarettes, booze, and philandering. He was unkempt, unbathed, and raggedly dressed. He refused to get his bad teeth fixed. Yet all was forgiven when he started to talk. He could raise a party to an exhilarating pitch. His hands writhed and snapped as the words poured out, and his voice held people rapt. John Huston wrote: “He is smiling. It stops raining all over the world.”
Reviewing movies brought him into filmmaking. When Time agreed to send him to Hollywood in 1944, he filed admiring reports on Selznick and other moguls. His impassioned defense of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) won him an acquaintance with Charles Chaplin, who nonetheless declined Agee’s efforts to provide him a screenplay. A Life profile endeared him to John Huston, who brought him on to write The African Queen (1951). By the time Agee died in 1955 he had stopped writing criticism but two major screenplays, African Queen and Night of the Hunter (1955), carried his name. His most lasting literary fame came with the posthumous Pulitzer-Prize novel A Death in the Family (1957) and the reissue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1960, which became relevant to the Other America debate about the nation’s poverty.
The National Velvet review nicely exposes not only Agee’s style but his critical sensibility. He’s trying to swallow up the whole Elizabeth Taylor experience, grappling with ways to convey in mere words the incandescence he finds in her. Instead of delivering a final, fixed judgment in a clever epigram, he shares with us his effort, pushing against the limits of language, always approximating, trying to capture hard outlines by lightning sketching.
The task is that of the congenital Romantic, the artist who knows that every experience, every item in the world, flickers with untapped but felt energies. These the artist tries to convey, usually in vain. The privileged vehicle for this nearly hopeless pursuit is lyric poetry, and Dwight Macdonald considered Agee at bottom a poet. Yet Macdonald also thought that Agee’s greatest love, from the start, was movies.
In 1929, when he was twenty, he read Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Both sculpt Southern literary and rhetorical traditions into self-conscious artistic shapes. I have to think that Agee was obliged to face the fact: What more is there for me to do? Part of his task, I submit, was to discover the possibilities of traditional Romantic expression in the young art of the movies.
This blog entry is part of a series on three great American critics of the 1940s: Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. What most readers want to know, as their readers did then, are each one’s personal tastes. What did the critic like and dislike?
Agee’s preferences are fairly clear. He admired films that have a documentary strain, or at least a realist one, though I’ll try to nuance that judgment shortly. Agee entered the middlebrow debate I mentioned in an earlier entry only obliquely, often by castigating the “suffocating genteelism” that was creeping into Hollywood. He usually disapproved of prestige pictures like Mission to Moscow, The White Cliffs of Dover, and Wilson. He praised many foreign imports, such as Farrebique, Open City, Man’s Fate, and Shoeshine (“one of the most fully alive, fully rational films ever made”). Yet he was also suspicious of “pseudo-simple, sophisticated-earthy things from France.” Like Otis Ferguson before him, he tried to keep watch on self-conscious artiness.
Like Ferguson as well, he regarded the director as the major creator of value in a film (reminding us that the auteur theory isn’t wholly new to the 1960s). Among Americans he admired Hawks, Preston Sturges, Hitchcock, Wilder, Carol Reed, and Walsh, as well as Lang, Minnelli, and Welles to some extent. (Citizen Kane left him feeling old.) David O. Selznick wasn’t a director, but Agee realized he might as well have been, so thoroughly did he control what appeared on the screen. He respected Selznick’s grasp of household routines, weather conditions, and what would move his audience.
Early in his reviewing career Agee deplored the shoddy quality of nearly all American studio pictures. He despaired that this art of potentially Shakespearean range was near to self-destruction. But he cheered up in 1947, noting several pictures of importance, and in 1950 he was positively ebullient: “Most of the really good popular art produced anywhere comes from Hollywood.”
We might speculate that the 1944 trip to the coast showed him a new side of the films, or that his brightening prospects of working with Chaplin and Huston made him more optimistic. In any case, he had the sympathetic intellectuals’ hope that this new art’s potential could be realized by people of talent, even occasionally genius.
We can talk about his likes and dislikes for a long time, but as with Farber and Tyler, I’m interested in the standards and ideas underlying their tastes. I’m also curious to tease out what they thought was valuable about cinema in general, and American cinema of the 1940s in particular.
On the rough wet grass
Central to Agee’s perspective on cinema, I think, was a Romantic conception of art. As a person he seems to have tried to be every Romantic poet rolled into one. Drink (Poe), melancholy (Keats), womanizing (Shelley, Byron), thoughts of suicide (many of the above), consuming ambition laced with self-doubt and self-hatred (ditto)—these thread their way through his life. To round off the pattern, he died young, felled by a heart attack at age forty-five.
Like most Romantics, Agee the artist sought a transcendent beauty in the ordinary world. Each moment, no matter how mundane, hums with a vitality that we can sometimes register, especially in childhood or at moments of calm contemplation. Science can’t measure this burning core of life, but art can reveal it to us. The specificity of each thing, the streaks in a tulip or the wrinkles on a face, is to be noted, captured (however imperfectly), and treasured.
Not that we’re stuck on the surface of things. The artist’s imagination turns concrete reality into symbols—not schematic signs but rich, evocative images that throb with emotion. A Grecian urn, a deserted Abbey, a chimney sweep: each becomes a dense cluster of impressions and implications, never becoming merely an abstract idea. Lyrical poetry, Wordsworth noted, is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The poet tries to capture those elusive feelings, and ideally the poem presents that very struggle as its drama. Keats, writing of the nightingale that awakens him from a numbing stupor, tries to be at one with the bird in his imagination, at once delighting in the prospect and admitting the impossibility of it.
After publishing a book of verse, Agee carried his urgings into lyrical prose. The key example, and probably his most-read work, is “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” As so often in his work and in Romantic writings, the child becomes the privileged point of access to experience, but that response is framed by adult awareness.
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
The memoir starts with exact observation. We get the geography of the neighborhood, the habits of the neighbors, the characteristic activities of children and mothers and fathers. The fathers hose their lawns, the gestures that regulate the water (“in a compromise between distance and tenderness of spray”) being described in considerable detail. Then come the dry rasp of the locusts and “the sweet cold silver noise threenoted” of the crickets. Soon the watering is done and families gather on their porches—talking, watching passersby, listening to the streetcar. The text bursts into one-sentence paragraphs, rendering nightfall as “one blue dew” alive with smells and sounds.
In the back yard, the family gathers together on spread quilts, staring up at the stars. Abruptly the lyrical speaker is given a piercing glimpse of how transient this serenity is, and a prayer becomes an apostrophe.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft, smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
A family’s relaxation on a summer night has come to symbolize questions of mortality and identity, mixing love and fear into a childhood epiphany. Or perhaps the epiphany is constructed afterward, by an adult trying to put into words the exactness of a moment’s memory and the yawning mystery that lies beyond.
Man in Suit Jacket and Seersucker Pants. Photo by Walker Evans.
The struggle to expose the heart of reality without wounding it is dramatized more painfully in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1936 Agee and photographer Walker Evans were sent by Fortune magazine to document the life of Alabama tenant farmers. After living there three weeks, the pair returned with probably the most famous documentation of poverty in American culture. Agee’s article, “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” was rejected by the magazine. An expanded version, with Evans’ plainspoken photographs, was eventually published by Houghton Mifflin and was received with widespread indifference.
One of the most ungainly masterpieces of American literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men shifts from description to meditation to self-laceration with bewildering speed. Declaring at the outset that this book won’t ingratiate itself with any reader, Agee defies the conventions of reportage that had been consolidated in the 1930s. The historian William Stott has shown that Let Us Now tries to galvanize the reader into awareness by refusing all the clichés of Depression documentary: no dramatization of scenes, no effort to report conversations verbatim, no comparison of the tenants to animals, no effort to win the reader’s favor, and no attempt to call for simple reforms. Agee apparently embraces the case-study model so common in the 1930s but as the book unwinds that form is abandoned because he wants to respect the absolute uniqueness of these people.
It’s one thing to recall a childhood evening on a middle-class Knoxville lawn. It’s another for a Harvard-educated journalist to move in with people whose washbasin is a hubcap and whose children sleep alongside rats gnawing the family shoes. Why should a magazine aimed at the wealthy, staffed by reporters who will return to their comfortable lives, so humiliate a harmless and helpless family? The tone swings from heartfelt confession to bitter irony: the book is “written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance.”
Allie Mae Burroughs. Photo by Walker Evans.
Agee is torn in so many directions by the bad faith behind his assignment, and he records his agony in such painful terms, that the book becomes about a man suffering from hatred for himself, his place in the world, and his efforts to accommodate his obscene job to his liking and respect for the families and humanity in general. In sidewinding, often bewildering sentences, Agee tries to get beyond his awareness of something awful behind the mock good intentions of his project and to see the families and his plight in both concrete human terms and cosmic dimensions. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men reads as if Faulkner’s Quentin Compson had set aside his family obsessions and looked straight at the South he lived in.
Judging by the recently published Cotton Tenants Agee’s original version was a compassionate but drily written account of the round of the families’ lives. The last chapter ends with lapidary accounts of death:
Invariably people work as long as they can stand up to it, and this is much out of tradition and pride as of necessity and poverty. It is the same with death. Frank Tingle had seven uncles and every one but one died with his shoes on, and that one had one shoe on and died trying to pull on the other one.
The book-length version expands the inventories and measurements of the households, the rooms and the possessions and decorations, as well as portraits of the families. As in the short version, Agee includes sexual confessions, erections and such, which alone were probably enough to spike the piece back in Manhattan.
The larger, deeply Romantic point is that facts, even close-up details, don’t automatically deliver truth. At the ultimate extreme, the most adequate account of these people’s lives would consist of a galaxy of facts beyond comprehension.
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon, bombarded, pierced, destroyed by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them:
This would be our business, to show them each thus transfixed as between the stars’ trillions of javelins and of each the transfixions: but it is beyond my human power to do. The most I can do—the most I can hope to do—is to make a number of physical entities as plain and vivid as possible, and to make a few guesses, a few conjectures; and to leave to you much of the burden of realizing in each of them what I have wanted to make clear of them as a whole: how each is itself; and how each is a shapener.
This declaration of purpose reads like something out of a preface; actually it comes well into the book. The young man who had admired Proust and Conrad must find a form for his experience. In place of the well-made novel of the early century—Henry James’ circular constructions, with lamps lighting aspects of a single subject—Agee offers a Whitmanesque book that can’t be reduced to geometrical architecture. It’s under revision as you read it, constantly restarting. A first part, listed in the contents but hard to find, gives way to a lengthy Book Two that is a mixture of journal and scrapbook. There are appendices (themselves collages); traditionally placed at the back of the book, here they’re followed by another section, “(On the Porch: 3,” that, like the Knoxville memoir, ends with darkness, nature, and sleep.
The book even rehearses some of the possible ways of organizing it. Addressing the families he has lived among, he writes:
I might suggest, its structure should be globular: or should be eighteen or twenty intersected spheres, the interlockings of bubbles on the face of a stream; one of these globes is each of you.
The heart, nerve, center of each of these, is an individual human life.
It’s easy to mock the DIY indiscipline of this sprawl. But read in your youth, ideally late on a summer night, this roaring and whispering testament, accompanied by Evans’ bone-hard imagery, can make you angry, sorrowful, and drunk with exhilaration. One of the first multi-media experiments, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee tells us, is “a book only by necessity.” That is, it’s struggling to be a film.
Movies on the page
Agee fell in love with film early. Opening sections of the autobiographical A Death in the Family show the boy Rufus (bearing Agee’s middle name and nickname) coming out of a screening of Chaplin and William S. Hart movies. In the late 1920s, Agee was writing to Macdonald praising The Last Laugh, Variety, Greed, Salvation Hunters, and The Battleship Potemkin.
He drafted imaginary screenplays, two of which were published. The House (1937) and a sequence treating a portion of Malraux’s novel Man’s Fate (1939) are exhaustingly virtuoso exercises in prose and film style. Both teem with fancy effects derived from late silent and early sound films, particularly Soviet ones. We get odd angles, fast motion, pulsating cutting, underlighting, looks to the camera, graphically matched dissolves, black frames with sound effects over, rhythmic synchronization of image movement with sound. Dovzhenko is one evident model, and Agee recommends that the cutting for Man’s Fate be like that in Arsenal. When Agee and Farber planned a film in the 1940s, Farber pulled out: “He had so many Russian-type shots he scared me to death.”
Agee’s fussiness is astonishing. In the Man’s Fate scenario, the resonance of a rung bell is expected to match “the rhythm of the grain in the film, as if it produced the sound.” Descriptions of cuts and camera movements in The House go on endlessly and minutely. These texts suggest the world’s most hard-working dilettante, a man playing chess with himself and losing.
Remarkably, Agee’s later Hollywood screenplays often contain the same minute instructions. Here is a comparatively brief instance from The Blue Hotel:
The CAMERA is well toward the front of the room, height of the eyes of the seated men; Scully MEDIUM in r.s., players LONG, down center-to-left.
Scully is half out of his chair at the start of the shot; he stands up fast, his paper floating, forgotten, to his feet making the only SOUND in the room. His spectacles fall from his nose as he gets up but, by a clutch, he saves them in mid-air; the hand grasping them is poised awkwardly near his shoulder. From the moment he is on his feet, a solid two seconds of frozen tableau: the Swede half crouching out of his chair, a huge fist (not shaking) in Johnnie’s face; Johnnie still seated, looking steadily into the blazing orbs of his accuser. The Easterner, gripping the arms of his chair, sits very still and is very pale.
After this 2-second paralysis….
Joseph Mankiewicz is said to have remarked that a director following Agee’s screenplay would have nothing to do. “I think,” Macdonald writes, “he never gave up the dream of becoming a director, of expressing himself with images and rhythm instead of making do at one remove with words.”
Cinema attracted him, I think, because he saw it as a new vehicle for that Romantic vision of life that informed his verse, fiction, and reportage. For an artist in this tradition, all art aspires to the condition of poetry.
Illusions of embodiment
With the Marines at Tawara (1944).
The filmmaker’s problem is the opposite of the one facing the poet. The poet’s words already lean toward the symbolic. Verbal tokens are very good at evoking concepts and emotions. But they are, as Macdonald mentions, “at one remove” from things. The writer’s task, Agee claims, is “to continually bring words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment.” By contrast, thanks to photography, the filmmaker gets that illusion of embodiment delivered automatically. The creative task therefore is to transcend realism, to retain respect for the way things are while showing the fire at the core of the world.
Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique (1946), a documentary on the life of farmers, must have resonated strongly with Agee’s time in Alabama, but he sees the film as more than mere recording. Rouquier
realizes that, scrupulously handled, the camera can do what nothing else in the world can do: can record unaltered reality; and can be made also to perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing and which are in great degree, inevitably and properly, lost to every other kind of artist except the camera artist.
Naturally he was sympathetic to many of the combat documentaries, which had the power to capture moments of truth with a piercing immediacy. With the Marines at Tarawa (1944) contains such a moment. Marines troop back from battle, registering no jubilation at their victory.
One gaunt man, his face drawn with sleeplessness and a sense of death, glances up. His eyes reveal both his lack of essential hostility and his profound, decent resentment of the camera’s intrusion. Just as he leaves the picture he makes a face, as a father might make a face at a child. In his eyes, in his grimace, he looks into the eyes of every civilian and whatever face that civilian is capable of wearing in reply. And in the eyes of the camera, with that salute, he meets the eye of history.
As you’d expect, Agee was encouraged by the semidocumentary impulse that created films like The House on 92nd Street (1945). He collaborated on the independent documentaries In the Street and The Quiet One (both 1948). But Agee also thought a worthwhile realism could be achieved in fiction films.
Just showing a real town instead of a backlot set, or nonactors rather than stars, can endow a film with a greater measure of gravity. More profoundly, Agee notes that after years of laboring under a dead tradition of screen acting, some gifted writers, directors, and actors have begun to show how people behave. They are starting to bring realistic gestures and gaits and glances into fiction films. Jean Vigo’s flights of fantasy in Zero de Conduite are tethered to exact observations of how schoolboys scamper and jostle one another and dream of rebellion. Hitchcock is nobody’s idea of a realist, but in Notorious, Cary Grant captures “the cultivated, clipped puzzled-idealist brutality” of a man Agee knows in a similar job. Lifeboat’s confinement to a tiny space is a gimicky premise, but Hitchcock overcomes it by “an implacable physical and psychological realism.” He squeezes “poetic and symbolic power” out of the situation.
Even on a sound stage the filmmaker can create a fictional world that is faithful to the textures of life, and the camera can capture that faithfulness “in the present tense”—that is, give it an immediacy that literature can’t. But that mission demands that filmmakers need to look steadily at the world. Makers of combat movies should study the documentaries for “the faces and postures and total image of actual warfare.” Agee suggests that Wellman’s Story of GI Joe (1945) has done it.
It not only makes most of its fiction look like fact—and far more intimate and expressive fact than it is possible to record on the spot; it also, without ever inflating or even disturbing the factual quality, as Eisenstein used to, gives fact the constant power and meaning beyond its own which most documentors—and most imaginative artists as well—totally lack feeling for. I don’t insist on the word if you feel it is misleading, but most of this film is good poetry, and some of it is great poetry, and all of its achievements, and even most of its failures, are earned in terms purely of moving pictures. The sudden close-up, for instance, of a soldier’s loaded back, solidly intricate with the life-and-death implements of his trade, as he marches away from his dead captain, is as complete, moving, satisfying, and enduring as the finest lines of poetry I know.
Accuracy, authenticity, vitality: these god-words, in Agee’s columns, signify how film can achieve a balance between concrete and abstract, the illusion of embodiment and the ramifying emotional resonance of things. Film has come to fulfill Shelley’s prophecy that poetry turns all things, no matter how base, to loveliness.
Saint James, and one of two, literally
We live in the age of Internet True Confessions. A movie review may begin with the critic remembering something from childhood, or a first visit to a movie like this one, or, if the writer sits high enough on the food chain, a first meeting with a revered director. Even when things aren’t so autobiographical, we expect our critics to be chatty, quick, and “passionate” in a distinctive way. We want snark and smarm, with a dose of vulgarity to show that the reviewer is as hip as we are. And the review must include the first-person pronoun, abundantly.
When Agee came on the scene, arts journalism wasn’t so flamboyant. Your high-level reviewer of art, literature, and drama was an urbane cosmopolitan with a dry wit who expressed himself (almost always a himself) in the most measured of terms. Even if something was exciting, the reviewer kept his poise. Blame and praise were distributed judiciously. I and me and my were seldom used. If you needed a personal pronoun, we and us and our, conveniently vague, settled reader and writer into adjacent easy chairs at the Club.
Here, for example, is Stark Young in the purportedly radical New Republic, on Philip Barry’s play Without Love (1942).
It should be said that Miss Hepburn belongs to the class of players who can never be set in the standard of their execution of a stage performance of a character; they vary from night to night, now excelling, now fading down. This is one of the reasons why, as she herself doubtless very well knows, Miss Hepburn has so shown a certain happy availability, shall we say, for the films; give her the impression, the key, and she may give it back, in a flash, perhaps, and a flash only, not to be repeated, but with something marvelous in the result, some flower and light that are wonderful theatre and that are treasured by us all.
If you are still awake, I think you’ll agree that this is resolutely unexciting. With reviewing dominated by this sort of droning murmur (Young spent twenty-five years writing like this), it’s not surprising that young people were drawn to a different critic—one who has, “shall we say,” some fire in the belly.
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. I have, then, both to praise and defend it, and to attack it.
I don’t think you can stop reading after a lead like that. You want to know not only what the writer thinks, but you want to know him—a man who enjoys a movie on the first pass, rethinks that experience, and musters his intellectual and rhetorical abilities to both support and question his first impressions. Instead of a settled judgment, we get criticism-in-process, the tug-and-shove of a mind considering the contesting appeals of a movie.
And this opening is tactful compared to Agee’s panegyric to Elizabeth Taylor. There he seems to be gushing like a fan, except that the passage, with its hesitant self-interruptions, has that Agee blur of intoxication and the search for the exact word to embody it. A friend is sharing his excitement.
The struggle enacted in the extended Agee review is double. He wants to do justice to the film and his experience of it; and he wants to convey, in the crosstalk of his sentences and paragraphs, the complicated act of judging anything. This means, of course, that he can come off as a contortionist, sometimes resorting to the halt and stammer that we saw in Stark Young. Writing like this, on The Enchanted Cottage (1945), makes you want to outlaw the comma and the concessive clause.
As well as I could see, however, through fears generated chiefly by helpless rage against myself and my merciless assailant [the film], the movie was done quite well for the delicately vulgar sort of thing it is, especially by Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire. I can hardly imagine, for that matter, being seriously offended by Mr. Young; whatever he does, he is honest and sympathetic beyond offensiveness. Although I am happy to have to respect Miss McGuire’s sensitiveness and proficiency, I can’t help feeling sorry to see her use such coarse, all but village-idiot bids for pity-please as the worst she uses to communicate the heroine in her humbler phase.
Macdonald observed that “Jim was always moderate in an immoderate way.”
No wonder that Farber preferred Agee’s writing for Time, which though larded with Lucespeak (cinemaddict, cinemogul), skipped the waltz of introspection. From a Time review of Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep:
She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness, and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.
It isn’t very specific as a description of Bacall, I think, but at least it flows under some pressure.
Time editors sometimes recast Agee’s drafts, so we can’t judge any of those pieces to be entirely his. So to be fair, let’s also remember how his Nation reviews could squeeze his vacillations of judgment into the sort of verbal double-takes we associate with Farber. On Old Acquaintance: “What perplexes me is that I could sit through it with some interest.” Complaining of the quality of wartime documentaries: “I can only urge you to write your congressman, if he can read.” He can do paradox too, beginning his review of Open City: “Recently I saw a motion picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it.”
Criticism as remake
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Both his windiness and his concision take on poignancy when you realize how compulsively Agee worked. At Fortune, he always overwrote and finished little of what he started. Macdonald, also hostage to Fortune, jotted in 1935: “No interest in his work here and small ability for faking. He spends three times as long on his pieces as he should, and he has a devil of a time with them.” Agee’s work areas were jammed with papers, magazines, clippings, ashtrays, and memorabilia, with whisky and Benzedrine on hand. His abandoned projects filled grocery cartons.
According to his biographer Laurence Bergreen, Agee enjoyed writing for The Nation and was usually on deadline. But turning out ephemeral notices for Time seemed to have been torture. Writing in longhand, he composed as if he were Proust. When Ezra Goodman took over as Time’s reviewer, he made a discovery that was “blood-chilling.” He found over thirty rewritten versions of the opening paragraph of an Agee review, often with only a word or punctuation mark changed.
Long-form prose invited him to exfoliate, as he had with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The novel A Death in the Family was unfinished when he died. On his mass-market think pieces, Agee chronically missed deadlines, and he miscalculated badly when he would be done. He thought he could write his appreciative essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in a few weeks; it took him a year.
Still, I think that journalism kept him comparatively on target. Writing to deadline and format channeled Agee’s volcanic energies. On his screenwriting jobs he seems to have been conscientious. Even then, though, he couldn’t do anything by halves. On the African Queen script he wrote through the night, when Huston thought he was sleeping. The ordeal, wholly self-inflicted, contributed to his first heart attack. It seems that he couldn’t go long without writing.
Agee’s frank subjectivity in the Nation pieces yielded a bracing sense of an actual person talking to you. Instead of supplying a fixed assessment, he dramatized the act of wrestling out a provisional sense of the film’s accomplishment. After seeing four or five films a week, sometimes revisiting certain ones, he would crank out a review that tried to sum up several movies. All the while, his rhetoric projected an exquisite sensibility trying to do justice to the film at hand, to his immediate experience of it, and to that experience as recollected in (relative) tranquility.
As the years went by, he became somewhat more object-centered, aiming for more precise description of what was happening on the screen. He was always shot-conscious and he was sensitive to actors’ performances, but the short reviews usually render very general judgments. In reviews devoted to a single picture, he can quicken details, like the backpack in G. I. Joe, so that the generalities (poetry, dignity, human divinity) get some ballast. Often he needs annoyance to rouse his attention, as when he objects to the arty stylization of The Ox-Bow Incident by pointing to the “phonily gnarled lynching tree” and the sound of “angelic soprani” whenever a black preacher appears.
One of his descriptive strategies, and unique as far as I know at the period, involves redirecting the movie. Objecting to a particular handling in a film under review, he provides a new script. He suggests some better ways to shoot and cut scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls and he wishes that Rouquier had used infra-red film and stop-motion for night scenes in Farrebique. He’s especially pressing on the inadequacies of the treatment of drunkenness in The Lost Weekend. What has Wilder missed? The causes of Birnam’s alcoholism, the many moods of drunkenness, the chronic narcissism, self-loathing, and self-pity, and the “horrible distortions of time” suffered in a hangover.
Agee couldn’t speak with authority about movies showing military strategy, but the drunk’s spectrum of sensation and feeling was vivid for him, and ripe for poetic transmutation. He suggests what might have been done with purely silent pantomime, subjective sound, and other techniques.
Sound and light peculiarities could have been impacted in the film and track by appropriate, dry exaggeration. A knocking radiator, an abrupt auto horn, coupled with the right kind of playing, might have told the audience as much in an instant as an hour of pure objectivity could. The light equivalents of flashing traffic on a sunny autumn day, as Birnam might experience them, might drive an audience moaning from the theatre, unless their exact realism were modified into art.
We are back with the literary scenarios of the 1930s, mental movies stamped onto the page with forbidding specificity.
It’s possible that Agee’s increasing attention to a movie’s look and sound owes something to the influence of his friend and fellow-critic Manny Farber, but just as important was the impact of two filmmakers. Each teased him into the sort of sustained scrutiny that, as I tried to argue in the previous entry in this series, countered critics of mass culture by paying close attention to how a film worked.
Agee considered Charles Chaplin a genius. He felt upon seeing Modern Times “as if Beethoven were living now and had completed another symphony.” Agee began reviewing after The Great Dictator (1940) had come and gone, so his principal encounter with Chaplin’s new work was with Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders (1947). He devoted three Nation installments to it, an unprecedented gesture for him, and he uses the space to show in detail how film artistry can create the sort of large symbolic statement we find in poetry and drama. In short, he interprets the movie.
Monsieur Verdoux tells of a discharged bank clerk who, in order to keep his wife and child secure in their country villa, seduces and murders women for their money. He shuttles from city to country, Paris to the provinces, juggling affairs and assuming different guises—an antique dealer, a sea captain, a construction engineer, a bon vivant. With the police on his trail, he escapes them only to lose his wife and son in the early 1930s. He’s recognized by the family of one of his victims and is arrested, sentenced, and hanged. On his way to the gallows, he is serene, even smug, claiming that he is simply conforming to the world he lives in. Murder is business, and he simply operated on too small a scale. “Wars, conflict—all business. . . . Numbers sanctify.”
Verdoux abandoned the lovable Tramp character, begged sympathy for a briskly severe killer, and seemed to confirm Chaplin’s public persona as a skirt-chaser and Communist sympathizer. The mainstream press mostly hated the film, calling it too preachy and lacking in comedy, but some venues, including the New York Times and left-leaning magazines, praised it. After a largely hostile press conference, at which Agee defended Chaplin, Verdoux was withdrawn. A new publicity campaign failed to ignite public interest, and the film became the biggest debacle of Chaplin’s career.
The first part of Agee’s review defends “this great poet and his great poem” by answering critics who declare the film unfunny, immoral, in bad taste, poorly cast, talky, and creakily old-fashioned in its direction. His rejoinders rest on the assumption that Chaplin is parodying clichés, not recycling them. The apparently casual compositions are a “mock formlessness” that have an integral beauty, as in the garden wedding reception. The churning train wheels depicting Verdoux’s commuting are a well-worn transitional device, but by repeating the image so often, Chaplin makes it funnier each time, while suggesting Verdoux’s growing desperation. And there are some visual jokes harking back to silent tradition, such as the ridiculously distant shot showing the rowboat from which Verdoux plans to jettison Annabella.
Agee advances his interpretation in the second column. The irony of Chaplin’s story is that Verdoux is a model of the responsible paterfamilias, seeking to provide for his family after the market crash of 1929. You can take him as standing for the businessman or the war-monger, but Agee suggests that at bottom he displays the split personality that society forces on modern man. His wife and child represent the good in him, his cycle of murders represents the evil. To protect the good he must “exercise all the worst that is in him.” As the film proceeds, his idyllic private life becomes an illusion that vindicates his crimes.
Compartmentalized, as we would say, Verdoux’s life is poisoned not only by the killings he commits but by his secrecy. At home, he’s playing a role no less deceptive than his masquerades for his victims. The frozen bliss of the household grows ever more perfunctory. The wife, saying she would have been happy to be poor, becomes sad and passive. In locking up wife and child in “a shrine and a jail,” Verdoux destroys the happiness they all might have had. Meanwhile, Agee asserts, Verdoux grows correspondingly monstrous, loving his family’s helplessness and savoring “his true marriage, which is to murder. . . . He is the loneliest character I know of.”
Agee’s last column on the film considers the denouement. There are some mysteries here. Why does Verdoux say he “lost” his family? According to Agee, this is symbolically vague: his loved ones died through “segregation and deceit.” Why does he turn from the Girl, now a rich man’s mistress in a limousine? Because long before this, he spared her life, and this one moment of weakness, granting affection to a person outside the family circle, rebuked his single-minded effort to split his life.
Most critics took Verdoux’s suave courtroom and death-house epigrams as Chaplin’s own critique of modern society. Agee, though, reads against the grain, as we’d now say. He sees Verdoux’s banter as more posturing, another masquerade. Verdoux is still asserting “his dream of himself,” his illusion that what he’s done can be justified. Lacking his original domestic pretext for murder, all he can do is shift the blame from himself to society. The Tramp, a quasi-divinity, has been replaced by a deeply secular bourgeois, the essential “upright man” who refuses to face what he has done. Verdoux’s wit as he strolls to the gallows is the final touch of the film’s characteristically brisk and cold “savage gaiety.”
The young Agee spent one summer listening to I. A. Richards, dean of English “New Criticism,” and he came to maturity when this movement was gaining a foothold in both Academe and the literary and political quarterlies. By the late forties, thematic interpretation based on close technical analysis, usually demonstrating some deep irony within a lyrical voice, was emerging as the dominant strain of literary criticism.
A 1940s writer didn’t have the opportunities to examine films as closely as a scholar could pick apart a poem. Still, some intellectuals made a start at finer-grained criticism. Eric Bentley contributed an inspired essay comparing Verdoux to Pirandello’s plays, while Parker Tyler pursued more wayward paths. Perhaps Agee’s imaginary screenplays are a sort of displacement of New Critical scrutiny: microscopic dissection he can’t exercise on an actual film gets enacted with a virtual one.
In any event, the Monsieur Verdoux columns show that when engaged by an artist he adored, Agee could be a remarkable close reader of films. Whatever its shortcomings as an interpretation, his essay suggests that a film needs to be examined patiently, with all the resources of imagination and sympathy that F. R. Leavis or William Empson brought to literature. Farber called Agee “a fine antidote to the paralyzing plot-sociologists who hit the jackpot during the 1940’s.” In one sustained burst, Agee rebutted the critics of mass culture who simply did not know how to watch a film.
A man’s man
Lionel Barrymore, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, and Humphrey Bogart on the set of Key Largo (1948).
Given the fussy flourishes in Agee’s screenplays, you’d expect him to have dug into the style of the films he reviewed. We’ve seen that he does sometimes mention a close-up or a sound effect, particularly in documentaries, and he’s very attuned to actors’ behavior. On the whole, though, he seldom strives, as Farber does, to convey the visual texture of a movie.
An exception is his profile of John Huston. Agee started writing too late to review The Maltese Falcon (1941), and he didn’t review the two other releases Huston signed before leaving for the war (In This Our Life and Across the Pacific, both 1942). But he was very favorable to “the sullenly beautiful documentary Report from the Aleutians  and the magnificent San Pietro .” Primed and ready to go off, Agee wrote after the 1948 release of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that Huston was, “next only to Chaplin, the most talented man working in American pictures.”
He sold Life on the idea of a profile, and delivered it in 1950, two years later than promised. He grew close to Huston and in September of 1950, they began work on the screenplay for The African Queen. Agee’s first heart attack, suffered during his stay with the director, put him in the hospital, but he continued to contribute to the screenplay, which was finished by Huston and the uncredited Peter Viertel. Despite some attempts, Agee didn’t work with Huston again.
The Life piece is part celebrity profile and part appreciative essay. Much is made of Huston’s roustabout past, his adventures in boxing, the Mexican cavalry, and the minefields he filmed in San Pietro. Agee, like Otis Ferguson, likes his movies and movie makers “virile.” Yet Huston is also an intellectual, reading Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Neill in his spare time. He paints, hunts, shoots, breeds horses, and loves to gamble. The image is of a robust, risk-loving artist at home with both action and ideas.
Agee had some reservations about the director’s work, but it took Huston to rouse him to the sort of exactitude of perception on display in “Knoxville,” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and his essay on silent comedy. The Huston piece was almost the last significant film criticism he wrote, apart from an alert, typically conflicted assessment of Sunset Boulevard published later in 1950.
For Agee Huston’s films reflect his vital professionalism. Huston’s style is immediate, smooth and mostly invisible. It stays, as modern critics would say, in the moment. Yet it can blossom into the sort of poetic implications revered by the Romantic. In We Were Strangers (1949), a student is gunned down at Havana University.
A scene follows which is breath-taking in its surprise and beauty, but storytelling, not beauty, brings it: what seems to be hundreds of young men and women, all in summery whites, throw themselves flat on the marble stairs in a wavelike motion as graceful as the sudden close swooping of so many doves. The shot is already off the screen before one can realize its full meaning. By their trained, quiet unison in falling, these students are used to this. They expect it any average morning. And that suffices, with great efficiency, to suggest the Cuban tyranny.
Like a good poet, Huston discovers both meaning and beauty in the uniqueness of his material, not by imposing abstract ideas. On the set, he offers only a few hints to his performers, letting them find their characters themselves. He suggested that the Mexican bandits in Sierra Madre surround Bogart but stay close to the ground. The result is jittery and fateful, capped by one bandit’s slither to Bogart’s feet in a movement “as innocent as a child’s and as frightening as a centipede’s.”
Huston’s style is versatile, sometimes letting the camera simply run and sometimes using aggressive traveling shots. In close-ups, he huddles characters’ heads to pack the frame; long shots relax the tension. Here are two examples from The Maltese Falcon; next two pairs of examples are also my picks, not from scenes that Agee specifies.
Agee treats Sierra Madre as Huston’s most fully achieved film, where the camera stays in the middle distance and the “clean” and “tight” presentation yields compositions that are well-designed yet seem informal.
Later films are more pictorially ostentatious, but even so each achieves an individual style: sweltering physical confinement to the hotel in Key Largo (1948) and harsh lighting contrasts in We Were Strangers.
At the same moment that Bazin was speaking of Wyler as a director who gave viewers freedom about where to look, Agee celebrates Huston’s ability to arouse the eye. At one moment in Sierra Madre, the three prospectors are compared as men while they discover the corpse of the man who came upon them. The story action—checking Cody’s pockets—continues while the framing supplies a portrait of each man.
Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.
This casually packed composition inspires Agee to invoke, possibly invent, the now-familiar notion of the active viewer.
Huston is one of the few movie artists who, without thinking twice about it, honors his audience. His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.
Henceforth, the idea of the shot as an open field of information, leaving the spectator to assess what’s important, will be part of the critic’s toolkit.
Coached by Agee, you can see Huston’s movies afresh. Returning to The Asphalt Jungle (1950), I was impressed by a moment in which Dix, ushering the Professor in to deliver the plunder to their backer Emmerich, encounters Bob Brannom. After Emmerich greets them, Bob steps into the foreground ominously. He’s the muscle to protect the boss.
Emmerich leads them into the living room, followed by the apprehensive Professor.
Brannom waits for Dix to pass him, but Huston lets Dix stride to frame center and pause. He towers over Brannom in the low camera angle.
In the test of wills, Brannom caves and goes in. Dix starts after him, briefly twisting his mouth a little, as if to say: “Another fake tough guy.”
As Dix brushes out of the shot, he does something reminiscent of the anonymous Marine at Tawara. His tongue slips out, licking his lips as if in anticipation, but also perhaps mocking Brannom as a sissy.
The confrontation isn’t in the novel or the screenplay. Huston’s staging and camera position let the actors fill out the scene through their bodily behaviors, and the shot ends with a fillip that, a little mysteriously, exposes both Dix’s reaction and his personality. This is, I think, what Agee thinks a poet with a camera can do.
It’s terribly easy to be sentimental about Agee, and almost as easy to be hard on him. (Brutality, as Stroheim and Griffith knew, has its sentimental side.) But I think that reading him can do something rare in film criticism: He calls you to your best instincts. His dithering can be frustrating, and he often snaps open too many pipes in the sonorous organ of that style. Perhaps he’s best read in the adolescent window. Met at any time of life, like all good critics, he teaches us to look, listen, and feel more sensitively. As Parker Tyler put it in 1944, the viewer’s obligation is “to see as much as he can take away with him.” Now, seventy years later, Agee can still help us do our job.
Central to my work here, and for anybody who cares about American film and criticism, is the Library of America edition Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism. The editor Michael Sragow has scrupulously enhanced the 1958 Agee on Film collection with more reviews and essays, as well as a detailed biographical chronology and much more information. We should all be grateful. But my job would have been a lot easier if I could have had a searchable Kindle edition too!
I’ve drawn as well from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in my battered 1966 Ballantine edition, but the Kindle edition let me find connections I hadn’t noticed before. (Shoes, for example.) Very recently we’ve been given access to the limpid original, Cotton Tenants: Three Families (The Baffler/Melville House, 2013). Central to my understanding of Agee and Evans’ enterprise is William Stott’s brilliant Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Oxford, 1973). “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is included, perhaps incorrectly, in the standard edition of A Death in the Family.
To round out classic Ageeana, there is of course another paperback that was everywhere in my teen years, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (Bantam, 1963). From the last letter, 11 May 1955: “Nothing much to report. I feel, in general, as if I were dying.”
For Agee’s Hollywood-oriented scripts, see Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts (Obolensky, 1960). His unrealized project for Chaplin, The Tramp’s New World, is included in John Wranovics’ study Chaplin and Agee (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005). The treatments for The House and Man’s Fate are included in Robert Fitzgerald, The Collected Short Prose of James Agee (Calder and Boyars, 1972). Some unpublished treatments are included in Michael A. Lofaro and Hugh Davis, eds., James Agee Rediscovered: The Journals of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Other New Manuscripts (University of Tennessee Press, 2005). Here as well you can find the lacerating text, “America! Look at Your Shame!” On his involvement with Night of the Hunter, see Jeffrey Couchman’s The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film (Northwestern University Press, 2009).
No other American film critic has won so much attention. There are Ph.D. dissertations on all aspects of his work, and scholars have brought out volumes of analysis, historical investigations, and detailed accounts of early drafts, unpublished manuscripts, and other primary documents. (Agee, or his friends and family, apparently kept everything.) I have benefited enormously from Peter H. Ohlin’s Agee (Obolensky, 1966) and Laurence Bergreen’s James Agee: A Life (Dutton, 1984). See as well Neil Sinyard, “The Camera Eye of James Agee” in his Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (Croon Helm, 1986) and Hugh Davis, The Making of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2008). An excellent collection is Agee at 100: Centennial Essays on the Works of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2012), which includes important primary research by John Wranovics and Jeffrey Couchman on Agee’s film work.
Crucial to Agee’s posthumous reputation are two Dwight Macdonald memoirs, the 1957 “James Agee” included in Against the American Grain (Random House, 1962), and the 1967 “Agee and the Movies,” in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969). John Huston recalls working with Agee in An Open Book (Knopf, 1980). Theodore Strauss’s comment on Agee’s style is in “No Jacks, No Giant Killers,” Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 8. I take Ezra Goodman’s recollection of Agee as “an over-meticulous stylist” from his jaunty and jaundiced Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood (Simon and Schuster, 1961).
James Naremore provides a sensitive appreciation of Agee’s career in his recent collection, An Invention without a Future: Essays in Cinema (University of California Press, 2014); more on that book here.
You can see the 1955 compilation of Agee’s 1952 TV program on Abraham Lincoln on this DVD set. He introduces it and performs in it as well.
Although the 1960s canonized Agee as our finest film critic, his reputation has always been contested, probably most aggressively by his friend Manny Farber. (More on this next time.) A plus-and-minus assessment is Phillip Lopate’s “Nobility Overload,” published, with an irony its subject might appreciate, in The Nation.
A good overview of the press reactions to Monsieur Verdoux, both in America and abroad, can be found in Glenn Mitchell, The Chaplin Encyclopedia (Batsford, 1997), 191-198. Charles A. Maland provides a detailed account of the United Artists’ press campaign and critical reaction in Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image (Princeton University Press, 1989). Eric Bentley’s essay “Monsieur Verdoux and Theater” is included in his In Search of Theater (Vintage, 1953). Another influential discussion of the film that reflects the influence of New Criticism is Robert Warshow’s 1947 piece “Monsieur Verdoux,” included in his posthumous collection The Immediate Experience. Yet another contemporary review of interest comes from that reformed surrealist J. B. Brunius in “Monsieur Verdoux,” Horizon (March 1948), 166-178.
When I was first reading the critics of the 1940s, it was impossible to see Monsieur Verdooux. Not until its wide re-release in 1972 did I get a chance to discover what everybody had been talking about. (It had had an earlier re-release in 1964, synchronized with the publication of Chaplin’s autobiography.) You can, however, go straight to the handsome Criterion edition of the film. It contains much material of value, including a documentary on Chaplin’s press problems produced by Abbey Lustgarten and a lively essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
I’m grateful to email correspondence with Kent Jones and Jim Naremore. Portraits of Agee shown here are by Helen Levitt.
And of course you will want to hear this. Maybe Agee should have written opera librettos.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
The Woman in the Window (1944).
O, gentle lady, do not put me to’t,/ For I am nothing, if not critical.
Movie aficionados seem endlessly interested in film criticism—not just in what a writer says about a film, but in the very idea of criticism. I’ve suggested in a recent entry some of the historical reasons for this: the rise of the celebrity reviewer in the 1960s, the surge in interest in foreign and alternative cinemas, the emergence of filmic experiments, from Persona to Memento, that seemed to demand discussion.
With the internet, you can’t turn around without bumping into a film review. Aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic get tens of millions of hits a month. Of course many people are just checking on the range of opinions of a specific release, but I get a sense that many readers are more or less addicted to critical buzz as such. Connoisseurs of sentiment and snark, they still follow favorite reviewers just as we did in the 1960s, and they enjoy reading a critic they don’t agree with because she or he is an enticing writer.
In one corner of my workroom a steadily growing pile of books is no less a tribute to the flourishing of film criticism. Yes, books. I’m a committed Netizen (I’d better be, after three e-books, several web essays and videos, and over 610 blog entries). And for certain purposes, such as word search, I prefer digital versions of texts. But nothing beats a book for reading anywhere you happen to be, thumbing back to check a point, marking up margins with invective, and throwing across a room when you’ve decided the author is a dunce.
Here, though, are some books that won’t become missiles.
One consequence of the 1960s cult of the movie critic was a new genre of book—the anthology of a writer’s reviews, think pieces, and long-form essays, perhaps spiced by an interview or two. Call it a predecessor of a website if you must, but such books were tempting packages to cinephiles who wanted their fix in big gulps, not weekly doses. Then we eagerly read through Agee on Film, Dwight Macdonald on Movies, Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, and many other collections. Some of these are now classics, most are forgotten, but the format still has life in it. Roger Ebert, exceptional in all respects, kept it going for years and crowned it with his Great Movies series. The format passed to academic presses like Wesleyan with Kent Jones’ Physical Evidence (2007) and Chicago with Dave Kehr’s When Movies Mattered (2011).
Like me, James Naremore is a creature of the 1960s, but with his typical discretion he has waited forty years to bring together a collection. Jim’s 1973 Filmguide to Psycho introduced me to his elegant thinking about movies. Since then he has written about a great many subjects, always with wit, steady vision, and deep and unostentatious learning. Now we have An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema (University of California Press).
Every essay here is a polished gift from a master of the literary essay. The book’s first section considers classic topics like adaptation, authorship, and acting. It includes a sharp discussion of the rhetorical dimension of both filmic creation and critical commentary. In the second section we see Naremore the close reader, turning to the classic Hollywood cinema he has done so much to illuminate. He considers Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Huston, Minnelli, and Kubrick—the subjects of earlier writing he’s done, but now refocused through new lenses. One recurring question is: Does cinema, either as a physical medium or a public spectacle or a humanistic art have a future? Although the book’s compass swings constantly to the 1940s through the 1960s, Jim is fully up to date, writing with sensitivity on Shirin, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon.
The latter pieces were among Jim’s efforts at real-time film reviewing at Film Quarterly. Perhaps the sharpest edge of the book comes in the section housing them, called “In Defense of Criticism.” Jim, I think, considers criticism as, say, Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson considered it. Endowed with a tolerant, generous mind, the critic uses all the resources of culture—philosophical and moral ideas, social forces, artistic traditions—to illuminate the unique identity of the artwork.
More deeply, the critic expects the encounter with the artwork to challenge and change us. This to me is one difference between the reviewer and the critic. The reviewer expects the film to live up to his or her solidly entrenched point of view. The critic is open to being shaken, taught, and even transformed by the film. The reviewer projects confidence, the critic displays curiosity.
This ambitious conception of criticism is at risk today from two forces. There is the sheer blather of pop journalism and the Internet, which have pushed film culture from criticism to comments to chat to chatter. At the other end, some professors are allied against film as an art.
Today the humanities are in danger of losing their soul. Academic film studies has tended to focus on formal systems, industrial history, fandom, and identity politics—essential topics without which good criticism can’t be written, but topics that don’t engage directly with questions of art and artists.
Admitting that a certain detachment is valuable for research purposes, Naremore thinks that academics have become somewhat too clinical. Part of his book’s purpose is to draw their attention back to the intellectuals who flourished outside the academy, and for whom quality was worth arguing about.
I nevertheless think that evaluative criticism needs to be encouraged more, and I miss the days before the full-scale development of film studies, when film was made exciting and relevant by virtue of critical writing and debates over value.
So the last section consists of thoughtful essays on James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Jonathan Rosenbaum—those who “had the greatest influence on the development of my taste.”
For my $.02, I’d just add that appraisals of quality shape a lot of academic writing, even in the Cult Studs vein. Showing that a film is racist or classist is surely an exercise in evaluation, employing moral or political criteria. Showing that fans of Twilight aren’t dumb no-hopers often springs from the researcher’s own esteem for the franchise. (Remember one of The Blog’s mottos: We are all nerds now.)
In effect, I think, Jim is pointing out that in a lot of film studies evaluation isn’t framed in specifically artistic terms. On that I’d certainly agree. Jim opens a new conversation by asking academics to look beyond their specializations and learn how the best arts journalists argue about quality. Seriously thought-through yet accessible to all, An Invention without a Future is a bracing, quietly subversive book.
Auteurs: From the ridiculous to the sublime
Jim would find signs of hope in two books dedicated to major directors.
Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger’s Joe Dante, a collection from the enterprising SYNEMA series at the Austrian Film Museum. Dante is just the sort of auteur that cinephiles prize. Working on the fringes of the system in despised genres, he’s a Movie Brat who loves B cinema, noir, and crazy comedy. This thick, square book contains virtually everything you’d ever want to know about the man who could be seen as Spielberg’s demented, funnier alter ego. Dante’s kiddie adventure stories and teen terror pix have celebrated and parodied Americans’ feverish love of war, big business, junk food, and lunatic media.
From The Movie Orgy through Looney Tunes: Back in Action to The Hole (still not released in 3D in the US, as far as I know), Dante has been a paradigmatic case of the termite artist praised by Manny Farber. In this collection John Sayles recalls that for The Howling he and Dante agreed they would center on characters who knew horror-movie conventions and wouldn’t make the typical fatal mistakes. Bill Krohn, J. Hoberman, Christoph Huber, and Michael Almereyda are among the admirers assembled here, and their spirit of amiable, film-geek homage is infectious. There’s also a long interview with Klinger, a detailed chronology, and a filmography zestfully annotated by Howard Prouty.
Dante’s opposite number is Béla Tarr, whose films run the gamut from glum to morose, but they’re no less exhilarating. They find their ideal explication in András Bálint Kovács’ The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes. Kovács scrutinizes all the films, some little-known outside Hungary, and produces careful analyses that balance thematic interpretation with precise examinations of style. As a friend of Tarr’s, András is in a unique position to take us into this filmmaker’s grimy, splendid world.
Tarr, Kovács suggests, asks his audience to accept the illusions shaping the narrative world. Yet his structure and technique in the end yield a clearer view of the underlying forces than the characters can achieve—often, forces driven by conspiracy or betrayal. Accordingly, Tarr’s narratives tend to be cyclical, even when the story situation is unchanging, and his camera movements often trace a circular path. Many readers will particularly welcome Andras’ exciting account of Sátántangó, Tarr’s most demanding film. Based on a novel with an intricately circular structure, the film finds its own means to suggest a story swallowing its own tail. Most film books nowadays have pretty good frame illustrations, but these are well-sized to illustrate some of Tarr’s fine points of staging. In all, this book is likely the definitive study of Tarr’s art.
There’s another way to make the case for an auteur’s value: produce a dazzling book that pays tribute with gorgeous illustrations and informed critical commentary. This has been done by Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art in its catalogue King Hu: The Renaissance Man.
The 2012 exhibition it preserves in its pages went beyond the usual regimen of talks and panel discussions. There were children’s events and in-person painting of film billboards. In one display, you could watch Tsui Hark’s calligraphy form a tribute to his master (“The integrity of swordsmanship remains as the spirited rain….”). An installation tableau by Tim Yip presents a modern woman watching King Hu TV appearances while texting, her vacant mind suspended between two spaces.
Open the catalogue and you’re greeted by a large gatefold that sums up King Hu’s career. Thereafter, articles like Edmond Wong’s study of King Hu’s archetypes (derived from legend and theatre) supply the academic ballast, while images of the gallery displays fill up page after page. There are photo essays devoted to each of the films, as well as more gatefolds, illustrating themes such as “The Eight Characteristics of Inns in King Hu’s Films.” Just the hundred pages of King Hu documents—stills, portraits and self-portraits, along with caricatures of Bill Clinton and Princess Di—would be worth our attention. In all, this is the sort of museum show every cinephile dreams of visiting.
Art historian Steven Jacobs, author of The Wrong House, has collaborated with Lisa Colpaert to produce a dream of another sort. Their book invites you into an imaginary exhibition.
Visualize a museum containing all the paintings you find in films of the 1940s and 1950s. Now assume that some diligent scholar has sniffed out the provenance of all of them and provided stylistic and thematic commentary. And now assume that the research is presented as a guide to this virtual museum, using all the paraphernalia of art-historical commentary.
Confused? Here’s the opening of one entry:
[III.9] Portrait of Lady Caroline de Winter
(Unknown Artist, late 18th Century)
This full-length portrait represents Lady Caroline de Winter (1760-1808). The carefully rendered white dress, the column and curtains, and the vista of the landscape are unmistakably reminiscent of the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, for instance his often-reproduced The Honourable Mrs. Graham (1775-1777). The landscape with trees probably stands for Manderley, the de Winter family estate on the Cornwall coast. For more than a century, the portrait was hanging in a long corridor in Manderley’s east wing, which was decorated with ancestral de Winter portraits. In the 1930s, the portrait played an important part in the life of one of Lady Caroline’s descendants, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim’s first wife Rebecca died in mysterious circumstances and once had a copy made of the white dress on the occasion of a masquerade ball at Manderley. . . .
This straight-faced experiment in creative criticism is called The Dark Galleries: A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir, Gothic Melodramas, and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s. All the conventions are there: the scene-setting introduction, the iconographic interpretations (“crimes and clues,” “paintings concealing safes”), and an exhibition guide that takes you from room to room, from Dying Portraits to Ghosts to Modern Portraits and more. They track the ways in which paintings in movies have altered time, refashioned faces, and, if the painting is disturbingly “modern,” signified madness and criminality. As zealous researchers, Steven and Lisa have done what they could to trace the provenance of the actual artifacts too, and they’ve discovered a large number of commercial artists hired by the studios.
A few years back at our summer film school, Steven impressed me when he identified the famously puzzling cubist still life in Suspicion as Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit (1931). The ultimate result of his and Lisa’s efforts is at once charming and deeply serious, enlightening us about a major motif in Hollywood’s “dark cinema.” It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and an ideal gift for the patriarch, matriarch, exotic woman, or mystery man in your life.
Thanks to Lin Wenchi for giving me the King Hu catalogue. I’m unable to find an online source for this book, but when I do I will note it here. In the meantime, the sponsoring museum produced several videos for the exhibition. YouTube supplies a playlist of them. Our entries on this great director are here. I discuss his work in more detail in the books Planet Hong Kong and Poetics of Cinema.
For more exercises in creative criticism, visit Hilde D’haeyere’s website on silent comedy.
F for Fake (1972).
Saul Steinberg, “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow”; Harper’s Magazine, February 1949.
The 1940s was a golden age of American arts journalism. Apart from Edmund Wilson, who had been at it since the 1920s, poets Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and W. H. Auden offered their thoughts on literature to a broad public, and so did the novelist Mary McCarthy. Professional critics included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, and, near the end of the decade, Leslie Fiedler. Clement Greenberg reviewed art for The Nation and Harold Rosenberg did the same for Art News. Virgil Thomson wrote weekly music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune.
Securely anchored in East Coast publications, these critics put on display scathing wit and sibylline prose. Thomson wrote after a concert: “Both theatrical experience and poor eyesight are probably responsible for the Toscanini style.” Mary McCarthy skewered Cocteau’s play The Eagle has Two Heads:
Grandiloquent and lurid in the old-fashioned royalist mode, this story of a poet and a queen suggests that the attic of Cocteau’s mind was never as smart as the downstairs: a schoolgirl was there all along reading romances and trying on costumes.
This waspish, refined intelligence held the arts to high standards. Apart from Barzun’s open admiration for detective stories (but not those brutish tough-guy ones), almost nobody paid attention to mass culture. Indeed, most intellectuals were agreed that it was dangerous.
This wing of the New York intellectuals–made of gays, Greenwich Village Bohemians, immigrant-family Irish and Jews denied access to Ivy League colleges, left-leaning traitors to the upper class–was firmly on the side of modernism and against everything that made the Old Guard, the WASPS with three names like Van Wyck Brooks and Mark Van Doren, nervous. But they still had enough of the genteel tradition in them to treat great art with a stiff solemnity. The byword of Partisan Review, the principal platform of the artistic left, was Seriousness.
Enter James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. They wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.
Neither dead nor red
Stalin at the 18th Party Congress (1939) by Sergei Gerasmov.
In spite of all these defects you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world where the light really never goes out.
Edmund Wilson, 1935
In the 1940s, every intellectual was expected to answer two questions. What do you think of Communism? What do you think of popular culture?
The Depression had convinced many writers and artists that only a version of left-wing politics could overcome the crisis induced by capitalism. The rise of Fascist parties around the world intensified the fear of right-wing dictatorships. To many intellectuals the Soviet Union seemed the best alternative, especially since its apologists assured the world that it was a democracy. But Stalin’s sweeping purge of 1934-1938, highlighted by the murderous charade of the Moscow trials, made many lose faith in the USSR. Soon came the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Russia and Germany, a sign that Stalin was ready to compromise with Nazism.
But dimming faith in the USSR didn’t automatically wipe out socialist ambitions. Apart from the Communists, who followed the Moscow line, there was a daunting array of left parties: Social Democrats, Socialists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party. Fine-grained differences in doctrine led to constant quarreling. Some intellectuals adhered to one line or another, but many hopped around or simply participated casually, agreeing to donate money or attend meetings or write an article without worrying about ideological consistency.
When the US entered World War II in 1941, many intellectuals saw it as a necessary step in destroying Fascism. Now that Russia was an American ally they often quieted their reservations about Stalin’s regime. At the war’s end, however, politicized intellectuals began to believe that history had proven them largely wrong. Business and labor had cooperated to defeat German and Japanese imperialism. Despite Marx’s predictions, capitalism had lifted the living standards of millions of people. The United States was comfortable as never before. American democracy, while imperfect, was still the best chance for mass participation in governance.
Smaller-scale reforms would always be needed, not least the recognition of equality for African Americans; and some form of democratic socialism might still be achieved. But on the whole, the American way of life seemed the best hope for the future. “The chief cultural phenomenon of the decade,” noted the poet John Berryman, “has probably been the intellectuals’ desertion of Marxism.” By 1952, Partisan Review declared that democracy was “not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.”
Defending American democracy, however, didn’t include defending its popular culture.
Mass art as mass delusion
The Homecoming (1945) by Norman Rockwell.
There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting or degrading qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them.
Marshall McLuhan, 1947
Today, when everybody unselfconsciously finds something to like in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the climate seventy years ago. Then there was a Serious debate about whether mass media were simply machines of social control. From Communists to anti-Communists, the intelligentsia was largely united in the belief that “mass culture” was at best a bland source of solace and at worst a cruel manipulator of the desires of an unhappy populace. Many very smart people considered Laura, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Mickey Spillane novels the signs of a society sinking into comfortable degradation.
Already during the 1930s, left intellectuals had worried that mainstream entertainment in the US was corrupt. Not only was the working class victimized by its rulers, but it was fed junk. The most influential articulation of this view was probably Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. According to Greenberg, the great age of modern art, from the 1910s to the early 1930s, had showed the power of self-conscious formal experiment. Cubist painting, the novels of Joyce and Gide, the poetry of Eliot—all had challenged the audience to expand its horizons. But to this avant-garde there was counterposed a rear guard, a debased and easy art that produces “unreflective enjoyment.” Greenberg didn’t spare the Soviet Union from his complaint: Stalin’s Socialist Realism had created its own version of kitsch, in the cinema no less than in other arts.
Greenberg’s article was followed by many others, notably Dwight Macdonald’s 1943 essay “A Theory of ‘Popular Culture.’” The common complaint was that now high art was more threatened than ever before by the rising tide of kitsch. For many intellectuals, it wasn’t just that popular music, comic books, movies, and pulp romances were bad art. They were bad in a dehumanizing way, turning people into more or less mindless consumers of a collective daydream. Mass culture, as it was usually called, was a huge threat to intellectual diversity and political progress. Conseratives and newly anti-Communist liberals turned their firepower on the products of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the magazines and paperbacks filling the corner drugstore. For many, political criticism became cultural criticism, with a strongly moralistic tint.
The all-engulfing flood of mass media required analysis, reflection, and judgment. How best to understand it? Some writers, following Greenberg’s strategy, used arguments about the achievements of the avant-garde to lambaste mass culture. Others drew on psychoanalysis, which was becoming more prominent in American life. Soon writers were claiming that a whole society had a superego and repressed impulses, and the seething roil of a nation’s inner life was reflected in popular culture.
Social scientists began commenting as well. Anthropologists turned their observational technique on American culture, and sociologists sought to use media to understand the group dynamics of wartime and postwar society. Other academics, brandishing the tools of what was emerging as “mass communication research,” tried to sample and measure the collective delusions promoted on the radio or the movie screen. Émigrés associated with the Frankfurt School merged these strategies with large doses of post-Hegelian philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) seemed to propose that American capitalism had turned audiences into chortling morons.
Stuck in the middle with Middlebrow
Harper’s Magazine (August, 1967).
Several of these writers had decided by the mid-1940s that Greenberg’s straightforward opposition avant-garde/ kitsch was too broad. A four-part model seemed more adequate for describing cultural activity.
There was Folk Art, a genuine and spontaneous product of the people. Amish furniture, Appalachian folk songs, and black spirituals would be examples. Some observers included jazz and the blues as well. The Folk artists went about their business unbothered by other trends.
There was Highbrow Art, exemplified by the modernist avant-garde, past (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Stravinsky, Picasso, et al.) and present (perhaps best exemplified in Abstract Expressionist painting).
Then there was Lowbrow art, the anonymous products of the culture industry—radio shows, mystery and romance fiction, pop music, and most movies.
And there was something called Middlebrow Art. The term had become fairly common in the 1930s, and 1940s commentators spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what it described.
Certainly, it involved class. If High Art was consumed by the Bohemians—other artists, museum curators and concert performers, young rebels, and above all college professors and students—Middlebrow Art was aimed at the middle classes, the professional people who aspired to join the sophisticated crowd. The Middlebrows put reproductions of Renoir on their walls, Tchiakovsky symphonies on their turntables, and expensive, unread editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets on their coffee tables alongside Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly.
Most critics agreed that the Middlebrow impulse poached on other realms. There was pseudo-folk Middlebrow art like WPA murals, Carmen Jones, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” More annoyingly, Middlebrow artwork swiped ideas and techniques from High Art, then sanded off the spiky edges in order to attract an untrained audience. Dwight Macdonald invoked Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed Brechtian theatrical techniques to tell a jes’-folks tale, and The Old Man and the Sea, a simplification of Hemingway’s faux-naïve style ready-made for the Book of the Month Club. Middlebrow made crude art smooth, hard art easy.
True, the new media had disseminated the great achievements of the past more widely than ever before. Recordings and broadcasts of classical music, films about painting and theatre, radio and magazine discussions of art and literature were now part of everyday life in America. Faulkner and Joyce were available in cheap editions. But this greater accessibility didn’t guarantee understanding. According to legend, after finishing Fantasia, Disney exclaimed, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” The same film turned Stravinsky’s ritual of virgin sacrifice into a battle of dinosaurs.
Nervous about falling out of style, the Middlebrow mind tried to keep up with the contemporary avant-garde. A Lowbrow magazine would simply ignore Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or (if it was Mad) satirize them. By contrast, Life’s famous 1949 profile of the artist anxiously responds to the challenge of Highbrow taste. Pollock is “a shining new phenomenon of American art” and may become “the greatest American painter of the century.” Yet there’s no attempt to explain why his work is significant. The work’s value is appraised in cash terms (one painting is worth $100 a foot) and the results are mocked, timidly. Against the critics’ praise is set the verdict of the common man. “He has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesmen as an aerial view of Siberia.” Life has hedged its bets (he might be great) while allowing a reader to say, “Aw, hell, my kid could paint that.”
For such reasons, many intellectuals decided that while Lowbrow culture was a danger, the real foe was Middlebrow culture. The 1952 Partisan Review symposium identified the threat: “Do you think that American middlebrow culture has grown more powerful in this decade? In what relation does this middlebrow tendency stand to serious writing—does it threaten it or bolster it?” If Lowbrow culture ignores High Art, the Middlebrow betrays it.
There were obvious problems with conceiving Mass Culture as a united front of Lowbrow and Middlebrow. What about the great popular arts of earlier eras? Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy, Twain, and many others taken as High Artists today wrote for popular audiences. What in our age prevented a widely beloved play or painting or novel from being good, even great? Then there was the issue of bad faith, as Auden noted: “Whenever the word Masses is used, we must read the words ‘myself in weaker moments.’”
Hollywood: The worst of Low and Middle
Rainbow (1944): The Nazi invader threatens to kill Olga’s baby.
At the core of mass culture lay Hollywood movies. T. S. Eliot had already denounced “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema,” and by the 1940s no American could ignore films.
They were everywhere. Although Hollywood cut back production somewhat during the war years, many shows were double features, and most theatres changed their bills twice a week. Hits were revived and recirculated. In cities energized by war work, some theatres ran twenty-four hours a day. Now that people had more money to spend, attendance hit new levels. In this age before television, 85 to 90 million Americans, about 60 % of the population, went to the movies each week. Today, it’s around 25 million per week, out of a much bigger population.
The mass media carried synergy and recycling to a new level. A novel (published in hardback, reprinted in paperback) could become a movie (promoted in magazines, with product tie-ins), then a radio show. The cult of stars grew, with popular actors constantly visible on billboards and in magazine ads. After Gone with the Wind, a bestseller like The Robe or Forever Amber stirred frantic anticipation of the movie to come. Producers bought books before publication, and studios commissioned books and plays to be written so they could be turned into movies.
What was a poor intellectual to do? Back in the 1920s the critic Gilbert Seldes had championed slapstick comedy as a mixture of Folk Art and quasi-avant-garde challenges to genteel taste. But that was before Hollywood had turned filmmaking into a factory driven by finance capital and pumping out formulaic stories. After Griffith, Chaplin, and von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. The foreign film had provided Caligari, other fine German films, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but the rise of Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses. At the end of the 1930s, Dwight Macdonald had denounced Stalin’s cinema as a form of kitsch at least as sinister as Hollywood’s.
Western intellectuals had no access to production in the Axis or Axis-dominated countries, and they were hard pressed to find much to admire in current American cinema. Some tried to study the Hollywood film as a reflection of the American character or social anxieties or certain persistent myths of romance and getting rich. But with few exceptions, the product of the studios was unrewarding as art. What wasn’t Lowbrow belonged firmly to the Middle (Wilson, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives).
After the war, André Bazin and other French critics would start to forge an aesthetic of the Hollywood sound cinema, but American writers did not think so abstractly. Agee, Farber, and Tyler worked more pragmatically to search out cinematic creativity in their time. All shared a trust in the Standard Story of the evolution of film art, from Griffith through the silent masters to René Clair in the early sound era. Yet they weren’t hobbled by nostalgia; they reacted with immediacy to the cinema of their moment.
They set themselves apart from the larger debates of their age by shrewd flanking strategies. For a start, they by and large avoided declaring political allegiance. Agee once declared himself a Communist “by sympathy and temperament” but in the next breath attacked the worker-idolatry of Soviet propaganda. Farber had, according to reports, tried to sign up in the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he doesn’t seem to have joined the print polemics on any side. Tyler seems to have been non-aligned as well, although he indulged in occasional caustic asides about Hollywood’s social commitment. He noted of Meet John Doe‘s purported celebration of democracy, “At this point in planetary affairs, American democracy becomes the theoretical right to hold a job and vote every four years for a new president.”
Although Agee and Farber wrote for left-liberal publications, they often went out of their way to support films that would be considered retrograde. In a famous review, at the height of American solidarity with the Soviet defense of the homeland, Farber charged the Russian war film The Rainbow (1944) with naked cruelty. He also declared Birth of a Nation, despite its prejudices, the greatest film yet made.
Likewise, all three detoured almost completely around the Mass Culture controversy. You can find some snobbish asides about Middlebrow culture here and there (later Farber charged that Agee was a middlebrow critic), and Agee and Tyler did flirt with calling some Hollywood films folk art. Basically, though, they didn’t fight on that terrain. Agee spoke out against the “priggishness” of social scientists’ critiques of thrillers like The Big Sleep. Perhaps these movies did “mirror” society, he admitted, but denunciation of American cinema as social symptoms missed the fact that such films were “relatively intelligent, accurate at least to something in the world, and entertaining.”
I realize also that on its most careful level, as practiced by Dr. Siegfried Kracauer or Barbara Deming, this sort of analysis is of interest and value, dubious as I am about a good deal of it. But to me the most sinister thing that happened during the movie year  was just this kind of analysis.
He was worried that these bleak cultural diagnoses were being seized upon by “club women and the nastier kinds of church pressure groups.” On all the evidence I’ve seen, Farber and Tyler would have agreed.
Culture in the totally administered society
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
If under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is keep apart and refuse its favors.
Philip Rahv, 1952
More generally, all three critics seemed to understand that the best way to show that American cinema had artistic dimensions was to present their case in precise, urgent, sometimes giddy prose. They were connoisseurs, making distinctions and discriminations of fine degree. And they found God, or the Devil, in details. In mounting those lines of defense, they risked condemnation by the most intellectually intimidating critic of the culture industry, Theodor W. Adorno.
Adorno believed that in modern times, true art could only present itself as opposed to easy reception. As a Marxist, he held that economic processes—the division of labor, the obliteration of use value by exchange value, among other factors—made the harmony sought by classic art impossible. For hundreds of years art works participated in a market system, and even the very greatest achievements could bear the traces of social strain. (One Adorno article is titled “Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Alienated Masterpiece.”) Traditionally, an artwork aimed for totality, but today the true artist can express only the inability to achieve harmony. Art’s value lies “in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.” The formal dissonance of the artwork reveals its refusal to reconcile itself to capitalist demands. Some modernist art, such as Schoenberg’s atonal pieces and Kafka’s novels, achieved this refusal, but even much avant-garde music, painting, and literature fell short of registering the strains of contemporary life.
The culture industry, as characterized in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, becomes the ultimate expression of capitalist rationality. As companies crank out commodities, Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley pump out synthetic art works. Mass art’s smooth surfaces are a grotesque parody of the unity struggled for by the great artists of the past. Form and content are harmonized in an ersatz, conformist way. Neither avant-garde nor classic art, the standardized mass-marketed products offer no resistance to easy pickup. The music “does the listening for the listener.” Virtually by definition, the entertainment industry couldn’t create art of value.
This is too brief an account of the culture-industry thesis, but two points are especially relevant to our film critics. Adorno argues that the popular artwork concentrates not on the whole but the part. Classic artists struggled to find a unity specific to each piece, but mass culture has made overall formats—the three-act play, the formulaic movie plot, the pop song—so generic that the only strong effects arise from isolated moments. An arresting plot twist or a sudden chord change stands out and has a brief impact. But by slotting itself into the set pattern, the little jolt simply confirms the validity of the prefabricated format.
But surely there are major differences among these products? No two pop songs or movie melodramas are identical, and new styles or formats emerge from time to time. Here comes the second point. Adorno claims that the differences we detect are fake. Each product of mass culture is “pseudo-individualized.”
For one thing, the innovations are still very limited; jazz, Adorno wrote in 1941, is confined by its harmonic and metric schemes. Moreover, even innovation tends to confirm the standardized format. “The constant need to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions.” He suggests that in jazz, a “wrong” note is registered momentarily as a fresh detail but the listener’s ear immediately corrects it. As for film:
Orson Welles is forgiven all his offences against the usages of the craft because, as calculated rudeness, they confirm the validity of the system all the more zealously.
There’s no escape. Just as an automobile or a breakfast cereal uses trivial differences to stand out from the competition, so too do songs and stories. Forms are formulas, novelties are minor and fleeting, and any deviations confirm the norm. Our three critics, by distinguishing subtly between this film and that, often on the basis of scenes or details, have fallen into the mass-culture trap.
It’s easy to call this position humorless (no gags in genuine art) and elitist (“Everyone’s a sucker but me”) and to insist that those who write favorably about mass culture are on the side of right, i.e., the People. But this is just labeling. What if Adorno and Horkheimer’s diagnosis is correct?
In my experience, there’s no arguing with Culture-Industry accounts like this on their own terms. Point to a film that exhibits what you take to be rich form, and the skeptic will say: “Call that complex? It’s just a variant on the same old thing.” Point to a ripe detail in a scene, and you’ll be told it’s just pseudo-differentiation. If Ulysses and Schoenberg’s Erwartung are your prime examples of valid art, His Girl Friday isn’t going to measure up—let alone Rhapsody Rabbit.
Going further, Kristin and Janet Staiger and I tried to show in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that film production can’t be standardized to the degree that high-output manufacture is. It’s an error to consider Hollywood an “assembly-line” system. No two movies are as much alike as two Fords rolling off the line at River Rouge. Hollywood employs an artisanal mode of production, in which each worker adds something distinctive to the result, and the “product” is a complex blend of overlapping and crisscrossing contributions. Marx called this mode of production “serial manufacture.” Instead of rigid standardization, differentiation in various degrees is at the base of the system, and all of those differences aren’t blueprinted via central command.
Another difficulty comes, I think, when we recognize just how stringent are Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s standards for valuable art. The bar is set excruciatingly high. “Telling a story,” Adorno noted in 1954, “means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness.” So fresh and authentic stories are impossible? Most of us aren’t prepared to narrow our experience so drastically.
More theoretically, Adorno’s insistence that the true modern artwork must be sui generis, related to tradition only in labyrinthine dialectical ways, seems to me implausible. It puts him close to Croce’s view that each artwork is irreducibly unique. By contrast, I’d argue that art works good or bad, classic or avant-garde, owe a great deal, and quite openly, to norms, styles, genres, and other traditions. It doesn’t take anything away from modernism’s bold innovations to recognize that in many cases artists like Joyce, Picasso, Woolf, Conrad, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg “took the next step” beyond the state of play at the time. Where does radical change shade off into pseudo-differentiation?
It will also come as news to Orson Welles that Hollywood “forgave all his offenses.”
Toward a criticism of popular art
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
If you like to keep warm in your neighborhood theatre these days or have to review movies for a living, you can find something good in any film.
Manny Farber, 1946
Did Agee, Farber, or Tyler read Adorno or Horkheimer? Dialectic of Enlightenment wasn’t translated into English until 1972, but the Frankfurt School’s ideas were circulating in their milieu. (Adorno’s 1941 piece on popular music influenced Macdonald’s “Theory of ‘Popular Culture’” essay.) In any case, my three critics outflanked the mass-culture debates through simply diving, quite self-consciously, into popular material—something very few intellectuals were willing to do. Their sensitivity to nuance and detail carried a force that we seldom find in the Frankfurt School writers.
Plunging into the material had a particular importance at this moment. During the 1940s, criticism became technical to a degree never seen before. I haven’t found any piece by Adorno and Horkheimer that troubles to analyze closely a single product of the culture industry. Writing on Mahler or Berg, Adorno gets more concrete, but he never dismantles a simple jitterbug tune. As “social philosophers” rather than critics, he works at a level of generality that exempts him from looking closely. This refusal stands out in contrast to what was happening in the American artworld of the time.
Most apparent was the flourishing of the New Criticism in literary studies. During the 1930s Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others in America had picked up ideas of “close reading” from England. Those ideas were disseminated to universities across America in Brooks and Warren’s 1938 textbook Understanding Poetry and its successor Understanding Fiction (1943). Literary history, the survey of authors and their times, was being displaced by the scrutiny of a single poem or story as an isolated work. In calling his time “an age of criticism,” Randall Jarrell complained that this craze for technical analysis was sapping the energies of both poets and critics, but it has maintained its hold as a model of how to understand literature.
Something comparable was happening in criticism of the visual arts with vivacious descriptions of painters’ strategies. Earle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943), for example, revealed large-scale principles of design underlying paintings that sometimes seemed a jumble of colors and planes. In the context of weekly reviewing, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and others probed details of color and paint handling. Farber, in his guise as art critic, can be positively fussy in anatomizing the layout of a Léger and the candy-box spectrum of a Chagall.
Musicology, long geared to rigorous analysis, was finding new layers of patterning in both classic and modern works. Heinrich Schenker’s formalism of earlier decades provided a basis for this inquiry. The rise of various musical avant-gardes employing complex compositional procedures, as in serialism, demanded ever more sharply focused studies of form. While Adorno and Hanns Eisler were denouncing kitsch music in film soundtracks, musicologists were dissecting Objective Burma!, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Best Years of Our Lives, and other scores.
I’m not arguing that our three critics conducted such microscopic analysis of movies, though Tyler, operating at a book-length stretch, probably comes closest. But they do burrow into the fine grain of American films to an unprecedented degree. For example, Agee, when he started writing his Nation column in 1942, declared that he would “feel no apology for whatever my eyes tell me.” Here he is praising Huston for a moment in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Treasure’s intruder is killed by bandits; the three prospectors come to identify the man they themselves were on the verge of shooting. Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.
Thanks to steady looking, Agee can argue that the film has a novelistic power to delineate character, but without words, just through framing and physical action—in other words, through the “clean, direct” expression that Otis Ferguson had thought characterized American studio cinema. That conciseness finds its echo in Agee’s style, which packs characterizing details into adjectives and homely metaphors; one phrase, “a boy who used to go to church,” sketches a man’s life history.
Just as the New Critics punctured gas-filled generalizations about poetry by exposing the nuances of syntax and metaphor, Agee, Farber, and Tyler provide, in a roundabout way, an answer to the critics of mass culture. Through their precision of observation and the contagious enthusiasm of their rhetoric, they showed that blanket denunciations of entertainment missed areas of vitality and creativity, tendencies toward expressive form and emotional force. Sometimes those accomplishments fit the canons of high art, sometimes not. And at moments these critics trace an aesthetic specific to the Hollywood sound cinema.
Not all intellectuals condemned the culture industry utterly. The sociologist David Riesman argued that modern mass culture housed a great many levels, each with its own criteria and artistic ambitions. He dared to claim that there was good art at every level. Moreover, he suggested, the audience was often more aware of the qualities on display than the critics were. In a gesture that anticipates today’s academic study of fandom, Riesman proposed:
The various mass audiences are not so manipulated as often supposed: they fight back, by refusing to “understand,” by selective interpretation, by apathy. Conformity there surely is, but we cannot assume its existence from the standardization of the commodities themselves (in many instances a steadily diminishing standardization) without knowledge of how individuals and groups interpret the commodities and endow them with meanings.
Individuals and groups used media products in a variety of ways, Riesman claimed. The individual’s peer groups might even set up taste structures that could run against the ones offered by media industries. Jazz aficionados, both amateurs and critics, discerned styles and genres not acknowledged by the record companies. In a quiet knock on the High Art standards of literary academics, he suggests that “taste exchange” among fans and critics constitute “the Newer Criticism.” He might almost have been talking about the Internet.
Or, in another way, about my three writers. If we think of Agee, Farber, and Tyler scooping out of mass art something that they could defend, we might consider each a “peer group” of one. They undertook to test their own personal histories and “taste structures” against the churn of commercial cinema. What they devised, suitably sharpened by the pressure of their writing styles, were three idiosyncratic versions of a Newer Criticism.
(To be continued.)
In preparing this entry, I’ve benefited from conversations with my colleague Jeff Smith and my long-time friend Noël Carroll, whose Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998) reviews many of the issues here.
A good introduction to the “cultural left” of the 1930s and 1940s is James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Modernism in America (Columbia University Press, 1993). My Edmund Wilson epigraph comes from page 88. In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Paul R. Gorman traces trends of 1930s and 1940s cultural critique back to earlier decades. Macdonald’s 1938-39 attack on Stalinist cinema is reprinted, with strategic alterations, in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 191-249.
I’ve emphasized what we might call the Partisan Review cohort of New York intellectuals, but there were others. Peter Decherney (in Hollywood and the Culture Elite) and Dana Polan (Scenes of Instruction) have documented the emergence of a more academic, largely East Coast, film culture during the 1920s and 1930s.
Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is available online here, and in printed form in Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. Dwight Macdonald’s essay on mass culture was revised and expanded twice, but the one I refer to is the original, “A Theory of ‘Popular culture,’” Politics 1, 1 (February 1944), 20-23. An earlier and seminal defense of popular culture is Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts (Dover, 2001). (I discuss him here.) My quotation of McLuhan comes in “Inside Blake and Hollywood,” Sewanee Review 55, 4 (October-December 1947), 715.
A widely-read satiric account of the Brows is Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, 2 (February 1949), 19-28. The Saul Steinberg illustration up top prefaces that essay. Lynes offered a followup in “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow Reconsidered,” Harper’s Monthly 216, 8 (August 1967), 16-20; I’ve taken the other cartoon illustration from that piece. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Free Press, 1957) remains a useful collection of 1940s pieces. Interestingly, a 1945 article by Theodore Strauss declared both Agee and Farber highbrow critics writing “over-complicated” prose. See “No Jacks, No Giant-Killers,” The Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 7; here.
The quotations from Adorno come from Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Englightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 2002), 102, 103; Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 17-48; and Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press 1991), 31. See also Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 290-304; Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947).
For one example of the painter acting as “producer” heading a studio of craftsmen, see Peter van den Brink, ed., Brueghel Enterprises (Ludion, 2001). Glancing through the ten variants of Breughel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs that were churned out by his son’s studio (pp. 59-79), the reader might ask how to distinguish this process from the “pseudo-differentiation” Adorno and Horkheimer attribute to the modern culture industry. Remarkably, it seems likely that the son never saw the father’s original work but rather worked from a sketch the father left behind–a shooting script, we might say.
Not all Marxist philosophers of art were as stringent as Adorno. See, for example, Arnold Hauser, “Can Movies Be ‘Profound’?” Partisan Review 15, 1 (January 1948), 69-73. Hauser says yes.
Randall Jarrell’s objections to the technical bent of New Criticism are formulated in his 1952 essay, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age (Vintage, 1953), 63-86. For an influential example of the sort of analysis that arose from new compositional procedures in music, see René Liebowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (Philosophical Library, 1949). Analyses of film scores include Lawrence Morton, “The Music of ‘Objective Burma’,” Hollywood Quarterly 1, 4 (July 1946), 378-395; Frederick Sternfeld’s “The Strange Music of Martha Ivers,” Hollywood Quarterly 2, 3 (April 1947), 242-251 and “Music and the Feature Films,” Musical Quarterly 33, 4 (October 1947), 517-532, on The Best Years of Our Lives.
Nearly all material I’ve mentioned by James Agee and Manny Farber comes from their Library of America collections (here and here). Agee’s remark about being sort of a Communist is made in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ballantine Books, 1960), 225. I’d also recommend Agee’s “Pseudo-Folk,” Partisan Review 11, 2 (Spring 1944), 219-222. Incidentally, the sooner The Nation, The New Leader, The New Republic, and Partisan Review are digitized, the better for understanding American cultural history. My quotation from Tyler about democracy and Meet John Doe is in The Hollywood Hallucination, 185.
The gods of Irony have a good time. Norman Rockwell, the very embodiment of kitsch for the 1940s mass-culture critics, has enjoyed a rehabilitation as a “serious” artist. The most recent sally is Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Christopher Bentley provides an enlightening review.
For an account of the theory of sound cinema developed by Bazin and his peers, see Chapter 3 of my On the History of Film Style.
Life (8 August 1949).
Today what a film critic hollered, or murmured, or didn’t say at all, at an awards dinner can get more publicity than the prizes the directors and stars won on the occasion. The very top critics can become media celebrities. They hang out with filmmakers, curate at museums, sit on festival juries, teach at universities, and get interviewed on TV and the Net. When they die, they may get cloudbursts of appreciation; Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert received more elegies and memoirs than most departed filmmakers do. Few film critics probably count as “public intellectuals,” but most have greater visibility outside their sphere of expertise than, say, critics of painting or music do. And filmwise people read critics not to find out about this or that movie, but to enjoy a “personal voice.”
It wasn’t always so.
The film critic as superstar
Movie criticism ascended definitively into the world of letters during the 1960s. In earlier decades, writers like Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Graham Greene had tried their hand at film pieces, but their fame was already established in other domains. In the 1960s, though, Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and a host of others treated film reviewing as not merely a report on current releases but an occasion for a display of the writer’s sensibility. Still others, like Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Susan Sontag, wrote about the arts generally, but their fame depended heavily on what they said about movies.
“I read X,” people started to say, “not because I care much about current films but because s/he is such a good writer, such an interesting person.” (Bosley Crowther, eternal Straw Man who wrote for the Times, did not come off as a charismatic dynamo.) A new picture’s release became less the object of judgment than the springboard for critical high dives, weekly or monthly or quarterly performances of verbal bravado and conceptual risk-taking. Film criticism began to host a cult of personality, even a kind of elite branding.
There’s no denying that in all the spite, vanity, teacup tempests, and conceptual confusions of the era there were still some long-lasting critical achievements. I suggest a couple of them here and here. My point is just that these 1960s writers showed that journalistic film criticism could be as idiosyncratic and intimate as the writing of, say, Bernard Shaw on music and theatre. And you could gain fans and fame solely as a critic; you wouldn’t have to write Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
If I had to pick one pivot-point for the beginning of this new age, I’d choose 16 May 1955. On that day James Agee had a fatal heart attack in a New York cab. Two years later A Death in the Family was published. Despite being unfinished, the novel won enormous praise and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Agee’s renewed fame led to the publication of Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments in 1958. The collection revealed that a man of letters who was largely unappreciated by the literary establishment during his lifetime had spent precious creative years, week in and week out, reviewing movies for both a highbrow liberal weekly, The Nation, and, more surprisingly, Time (anonymously).
Suddenly people recognized that a magazine column passing judgment on the week’s releases could conceivably display graceful style and probing thought. The book boasted a 1944 blurb in which W. H. Auden called Agee’s column “newspaper work of permanent literary value” and “the most remarkable regular event in journalism today.” A review of Agee on Film in the New York Times declared that Agee’s fierce love for cinema “gave him a deeper insight into the nature of the movie medium, in esse and in posse, than any other American with the possible exception of Gilbert Seldes.” The Saturday Review reached higher. “He was the best movie critic this country has ever had.”
There’s no knowing how many teenagers and twentysomethings read and reread that fat paperback with its blaring red cover. We wolfed it down without knowing most of the movies Agee discussed. We were held, I think, by the rolling lyricism of the sentences, the pawky humor, and the stylistic finish of certain pieces—the three-part essay on Monsieur Verdoux, the Life piece “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” the John Huston profile “Undirectable Director.” The adolescent fretfulness that put some critics off didn’t give us qualms; after all, we were unashamedly reading Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, and Salinger too. Some of us probably wished that we could some day write this way, and this well.
The timing of the collection was good. The status of film criticism in the 1960s was being boosted by intellectuals’ interest in movies. More people were going to college, and some of them were drawn to foreign imports (Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard et al.) and young American cinema (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, etc.). Such unusual movies demanded commentary, even debate. This was the moment that made the movie review or the longish think-piece into a vehicle of serious writing and thinking. Agee on Film became the model for similar collections by Kael (I Lost It at the Movies, 1965, made her reputation), Sarris, Simon, Macdonald, Kauffmann, and many more writers. Published by trade presses in surprising bulk, these items now sell online for prices of $.01 and somewhat above.
The shock of the old
That steady stream of cut-and-paste collections swept two other 1940s pioneers back into view. Parker Tyler had been writing voluminously throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and he published a collection in the wake of Agee’s: The Three Faces of the Film (1960). There followed another gathering, Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (1969). More important was the 1970 reprinting of Tyler’s first two movie books: The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947).
Like Tyler, Mannny Farber had continued writing about film after the war years, and he gathered several pieces from that later period into Negative Space (1971). Neither Tyler nor Farber would probably have returned to fame without the canonization, in at least two senses, of Agee. Their honored predecessor, Otis Ferguson, had been killed in the war, but the film book boom revived his reputation as well, with his collected reviews appearing in 1971.
These anthologies revealed that these writers had done great things. In 1940 Agee was thirty-one and Farber was twenty-four. Their youth, I think, made them plucky enough to try to think boldly about commercial cinema in America. Tyler, the oldest, was thirty-six, but he had not lost the impertience that made him call himself, during his earliest days in New York, The Beautiful Poet Parker Tyler.
Neither highbrow nor lowbrow (nor middlebrow), neither pure journalists nor Algonquin intellectuals, they created a daredevil criticism that remains audacious and dazzling. We have here three guys who smuggled themselves into the literati without becoming pale versions of Edmund Wilson.
Each of the trio displayed a fine intelligence trained in the high arts, particularly modernist trends. Yet each detoured around the current debates on mass culture and plunged directly into the stuff itself, unashamed. Each man taught his readers to see things in movies that more serious intellectuals missed. Each cultivated a writing style that evoked a sharply etched personality. And each strategically lapsed into rhapsodic, occasionally nutty outbursts unlike anything on offer from their staid contemporaries.
Tyler started earliest, with a 1940 review of Rebecca and Blondie on a Budget for the Surrealist View, and he kept going there and in other magazines and in three books. In late 1941 Agee wrote his first review for Time, and he became a regular contributor in 1942; later that year he began his stint at The Nation. In 1942 as well Farber started covering film for The New Republic. Both continued through the decade. By the time Agee died he had largely given up film criticism, but Farber and Tyler kept publishing into the 1970s.
Agee and Farber were high-end journalists, while Tyler practiced belles lettres in the pages of art journals and little magazines. Their styles were sharply different, as were their tastes. Agee and Farber had a butch swagger (“virile” and “tough” recur), while Tyler offered what he called later “the straight face of high camp” and wrote “tongue stiff in cheek.” But they had a lot in common too.
For one thing, all were polymaths. Agee was a poet, novelist, screenwriter, and author of one of the landmark books of the 1940s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber, while writing reviews and working as a carpenter, eventually made a career as a painter. Tyler wrote poetry, a scandalous experimental novel about gay life, and essays and books on the arts.
At the same time, all were cinephiles from their earliest years. They knew the Standard Story of film history, recently traced at length in Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939). Their canon was, by today’s standards, very cramped. Always the same Museum of Modern Art touchstones and Manhattan revival fodder: Griffith (for some shorts and Birth of a Nation), the silent clowns (Chaplin above all), Caligari, Potemkin (sometimes Earth), and René Clair’s Italian Straw Hat and his early sound pictures. Yet the critics agreed that however great the classics remained, and however terrible contemporary Hollywood could be, there were extraordinary things to be found in new releases.
Beauty, in flashes
The Story of G. I. Joe (1945).
What sorts of things? Beautiful things. These critics seem to me aesthetes pursuing modern beauty, though from various angles. Agee was a Romantic, Farber a post-Cezanne modernist, Tyler an avant-garde dandy in the Wilde-Cocteau tradition. Their attitudes had been well-established in the sacred precincts of literature and painting but hadn’t made their way to the criticism of mass art.
Moreover, the three critics understood that movies stretched the standards and premises of high art. Most critics thought that you couldn’t talk about Cary Grant in aesthetic terms; these three understood that you could, if you favored criteria like liveliness, poignancy, force, and arresting details. Most intellectuals couldn’t recognize art in mass-market movies because Hollywood had redefined what artistry was. In some cases it had taken creativity beyond art, into a realm that Tyler called “hallucination.”
The beauty that these three disclosed was often merely glimpsed. All believed that parts sometimes superseded wholes. Most movies lacked the formal unity of expression of classic art. Instead of finding this worrisome, they found it exhilarating. Each one was alert to momentary diversions, odd spots, places where something unpredictable seemed to leak in around the cracks.
The idea that Hollywood movies sometimes yielded fugitive moments of truth wasn’t uncommon in the period. Barbara Deming, looking for symptoms of American malaise, suggested that actors “scuffed in” a tangible reality of behavior and voice that couldn’t be manufactured, and Dwight Macdonald conceded that the system sometimes turned out films with moments of “vitality.”
Vitality was precious to my threesome too, but they probed further. They suggested that a good part of the artistry, or at least the fascination, of popular movies lies exactly in those details or plot turns or performance bits or throwaway compositions. The vagrant items might enrich the action, or detour it. They might, Farber and Agee thought, be willed by the directors and actors, yielding flashes of diversion or glimpses of real life.
These actors produce some light, whimsical effects which are generally minor as far as making the plot any more significant, but they are the most intriguing parts of the film and were generally intended by the director (Farber on The Mask of Dimitrios).
[The film includes] purely “meaningless” bits—such as a shot in which Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) sits by the road while some soldiers straggle past—which have as great meaning as anything could have, being as immediate and as unlimited by thought or prejudice as what the eye might see on the spot, in a casual glance (Agee on The Story of G. I. Joe).
For Tyler, the blooming pleasures could also be inadvertent.
The voice [is] an independent actor, an element that, as with all Hollywood components, refuses to be completely absorbed into the artistic mesh and creates a little theater of its own.
He thought that most films lurched from moment to striking moment, leaving piquant dissonances behind. “Crevices,” he called them.
Faults = beauties
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
These critics accordingly recast one of the conventions of film reviewing: the rhetoric of faults and beauties. Everybody knows the trick. This moment is rather nice, but that one falls flat…. The dullness of the affair is alleviated by a flash of comedy by a young woman we hope to see more of….Brilliant as it is, the film suffers from a certain stiffness… Unless you’re writing a hatchet job, you must dose your praise with some vinegar, and you must dilute your severity with a few compliments.
Our three critics turn faults-and-beauties criticism to fresh purposes. Agee uses it to whip himself into loops of intemperate indecision. Writing up Till the Clouds Roll By he suggests that the story is feeble, but the players are “nice people” and the songs are by Jerome Kern. He can give and take away in a single phrase.
If, as I do, you like a good deal of his graceful, nacreous music, the picture is pleasantly, if rather stupefyingly, worth all the bother. The songs are nearly all sung with care and affection, though not one that I have heard before is done here quite as well as I have heard it elsewhere.
Farber likewise crosscuts his praise and blame. On the “well-played and punchy” Home of the Brave, which Farber declares “a clattering, virile movie with deeply affecting moments,” we also get:
The script is so basically theatrical that it has to be acted almost entirely from seated or reclining positions, but the director works more variations on those two positions than can be found in a Turkish bath. The actors talk as though they were trying to drill the words into one another’s skulls; this savage portentousness not only forces your interest but is alarming in that the soldiers are usually surrounded by Japs and every word can obviously be heard in Tokyo.
If Agee is Hamlet, Farber plays Hotspur. Agee keeps turning his other cheek; Farber turns yours, from side to side, lightly slapping.
Tyler marks out faults and beauties more cleanly. But since the pleasure of thinking about Hollywood movies consists partly in quickening their clichés with jolts of your imagination, the faults become valuable points of interest and, perversely, blossom into virtues. Such is the portrait of Dorian Gray in Albert Lewin’s film. The degenerate image, revealed in a screen-filling shriek, is doubtless vulgar in its execution by Ivan Albright and in its garish Technicolor. Both Agee and Farber complained that they wanted to see the painting deteriorate in stages, but Tyler finds its shock-cut revelation as morbidly appealing as a flowering Nightshade.
It is proof of Hollywood’s commendably alert, albeit limited imagination. . . . Although art is implicitly offended, one cannot help reacting with a certain thrill. It is the way one usually reacts to zombies and werewolves from the jungles adjacent to Sunset Boulevard. Ivan Le Loraine Albright has given us in his portrait of Dorian the wicked, a compelling version of the American moral jungle from which fundamentally all famous creeps must be said to crepitate.
Even flagrant errors of taste, Tyler suggests, can create provocative crevices for the critic’s imagination.
Speaking in tongues
The standard images have endured. Agee is the sensitive and sentimental humanist, Farber the poolroom wiseacre who reads The Art News, Tyler the hyperintellectual camp follower who does a couch job on the movies. But this lineup does them a discredit. Basically, all three function as performers.
Writing about movies allows them to do the police in different voices, to spread out American idioms like magicians fanning a fistful of cards. The sheen and pulse of the prose carry us through mixed metaphors, dropped conjunctions, and ricocheting associations. Ferguson had jiggled and snapped a sentence like a lariat, but these boys get really carried away. They become pop-culture rhapsodes, writing in a divine frenzy.
These bards aren’t kissed by the gods, though. They’re carried away by having found a subject–movies–that triggers a controlled ecstasy. The result is usually comic, sometimes dramatic, but often sensuously arousing. An orgy of words, after all, is still an orgy.
Farber, of course, is celebrated for his baroque firepower, fueled by paradox and hyperbole. The sentences seem to veer out of control before ending with a wisecrack that’s sometimes a capper and sometimes just weird but always unpredictable.
The movie, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” is almost too terrible to walk out of. . . . The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables, going for moonlight swims, dancing stylish rhumbas with the hobo. I think the best bobby-sox touches are the white turban that Cora wears to wash dishes, the love scenes which show Cora in a yum-yum pose and outfit, looking like a frozen popsicle, with Frank ogling her at six paces—and probably the director, in the background, swooning over a hamburger.
Want something more refined but no less gaga? Here is Tyler, in one of my favorite passages of American film criticism, on Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
I was still transfixed by the conundrum of her voice, almost without inflection, low and lazily paced, with a pleasant burr of the Dietrich sort but not classifiable as to its true sources. . . . That she approached Hollywood with a certain Machiavellianism, I think, is shown by the mild Mephistophelian peaks of her eyebrows. Yet all of us are human; the most sensational military plans, even if the army wins, sometimes go kerflooey. Miss Bacall had evidently intended her voice to give notice that she was a Garbo to the gizzard, hard to get, and not going to let Humphrey triumph at the first shot.
I don’t think Mephistophelianism has ever been juxtaposed with kerflooey so effectively.
Agee, taken by many today as a gentle soul who leaned too much on his lyrical gifts, proves ready to spin us into orbit in reviewing the Warners cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs Bunny as a concert pianist gives “a cut but definitive performance” of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.
The best part of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before. I could hardly illustrate without musical quotation; but there is a passage in which the music goes up with an arrogant wrenching of slammed chords—Ronk, Ronk, RONK (G-B-E)—then prisses downward on a broken scale—which Bugs takes (a) with all four feet, charging madly, scowling like a rockinghorse late for a date at stud, (b) friskily tiptoe, proudly smirking, like a dog toe-dancing through his own misdemeanor or the return of an I-Was-There journalist, a man above fear or favor who knows precisely which sleeping dogs to lie about. It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant.
The longer you look at this, the more outrageous it gets. A rockinghorse put out to stud? A dog’s “misdemeanor”–i.e., pissing on the carpet? And can you imagine Fido with a proud smirk? What’s the on-the-spot journalist doing here? And was the travesty of the “sleeping dogs lie” cliché suggested by association with the balletic, emptied-bladder dog? On many occasions Agee, no less than his peers, was touched with benign madness. But of course the craftsman wasn’t sleeping: all the parallel clauses are set into balance by stately semicolons.
Such virtuosity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two entire shelves of my university library are filled with books on Agee. Farber Studies, already teeming with admiring short reviews and memoirs and tributes to his painting, can be expected to swell too. Admittedly, Tyler, no less a dazzler in his way, remains less acknowledged. Even gay critics seem not to have pushed his cause as much as they might. Still, becoming a phantom presiding over Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (published, be it noted, in 1968) grants its own sort of immortality.
I’m captivated by all three. None holds me hostage, though; I write as an enthusiast but not a promoter. What attracts me now, in tandem with the book I’m writing on Hollywood in the 1940s, is what they did in their first decade. Although many readers didn’t notice, these three made writing about American film exuberant and important. They raised it to a level of frenzied acuity that it had never enjoyed before. They helped create, by the delayed action I sketched earlier, the modern institution of movie criticism, with all its virtues and excesses. In the process, they forged some original ways of thinking about American cinema.
This series of entries continues here.
This series of entries began as a lecture for “Narrative Theory and 1940s Hollywood,” a seminar that I co-taught with Jeff Smith in the fall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Thanks to Jeff and all the members of the seminar for an enjoyable semester. I also want to thank Kent Jones and Jim Naremore, considerable critics both, for email discussions of these writers.
For a wide-ranging survey of the US scene, see American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (Library of America, 2006), ed. Phillip Lopate.
I’ve taken my Agee and Farber quotations from the Library of America collections of their work (available here and here). Quotations from Tyler come from The Hollywood Hallucination (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1947).
Barbara Deming writes of “scuffed-in” meanings in her article, “The Library of Congress Film Project: Exposition of a Method,” The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 2, 1 (1944), 10. Albert Moran discusses this and other passages in Deming’s piece in “Film and Psychology: Notes on the ‘Psychological’ Film Criticism of the 1940s,” First Australian History & Film Conference Proceedings, ed. Ann Hutton (National Library of Canberra, 1982), 123-124.
The indispensable book on Farber, Tyler, and their milieu is Greg Taylor’s Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Rhapsody Rabbit is currently available for viewing on Vimeo.
P.S. 27 January: The earliest version of this entry shaved ten years off Parker Tyler’s age! He was born in 1904. The error has been corrected.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).