Archive for the 'Film criticism' Category
Parker Tyler, photograph by Maya Deren.
Much that he says will disturb, horrify, enrage: there is no great audience yet prepared for an approach such as his, even to literature or to life, still less to the movies.
Iris Barry, Preface to The Hollywood Hallucination, 1944
Well said the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood no sooner was Karel seated in the Round Table than the impossible happened. There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians. Won’t you join our table? they said in sweet chorus.
When he went over with them he saw the most delightful little tea-pot and a lot of smiling happy faces.
A little girl with hair over one ear got up close and said I hope you won’t be offended but why don’t you dress in girls’ clothes?
The Lesbian said yes your face is so exquisite we thought you were a Lesbian in drag when we first saw you and for two long hours they insisted that he would do better for himself as a girl.
He must have fallen asleep for he awoke with a start and saw a nice fat old bullfrog beckoning to him. . . .
The opening of The Young and Evil, a 1933 novel by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, gives a fair sample of what is to come. Its world is that of Greenwich Village Bohemians and their gay/ straight flirtations, affairs, and emotional double-crosses. The style is softcore Djuna Barnes, with a hint of Gertrude Stein. Ford was only twenty, Tyler was twenty-nine, and they had already made names for themselves on the New York literary scene. The Young and Evil was refused by publishers in America and England and wound up being printed by the Obelisk Press, a Parisian firm known for erotica.
In 1934, Tyler published Modern Things, an anthology of verse by T. S. Eliot and other contemporary writers, including Ford and himself. One of Tyler’s contributions, a free-verse piece called “Hollywood Dream Suite,” ends with the image of box-offices blown up. Tyler declared that his poetry aimed to transmit love through “a dream-convention” and “Rimbaudian hallucination.”
Early on, then, Tyler followed out threads–homosexuality, gender masquerade, dreaming, hallucination, mythology—that would guide his journey through Hollywood movies.
Gore Vidal noticed. In his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge a widow carries forward her husband’s mission to write the definitive book on 1940s American cinema. Myra’s guide is to be Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947). She writes in her diary: “Tyler’s vision (films are the unconscious expression of age-old human myths) is perhaps the only important critical insight this century has produced.”
Vidal’s treatment of Tyler is partly respectful, partly mocking—in other words, a bit camp. Myra was a best-seller (and in salaciousness went far beyond what Ford and Tyler had done), but its public surely had never before heard of Harrison Parker Tyler and his 1940s criticism. Vidal is said to have claimed: “I’ve done for him what Edward Albee did for Virginia Woolf.”
If so, the effect didn’t last. Tyler published essays and books on film, painting, and literature, and he continued to write poetry. My sense is that his fame, given a slight boost by the 1970 reprinting of Magic and Myth and The Hollywood Hallucination (originally 1944), was fading. Early on, he had associated himself with a gay/Surrealist avant-garde by co-founding with Ford the little magazine View. At the same period he endorsed experimental cinema, supporting the efforts of Maya Deren and life-partnering with poet and filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse in 1945. He championed the European classics and the American mythopoetic cinema. But when the New York artworld began celebrating the rise of underground film, sanctified by the presence of superstar artist Andy Warhol, Tyler was dismissive at book length, calling the new films childish. Far ahead of his time in the 1940s, he was felt to be retrograde in the 1960s, at least among my crowd of cinephiles. He died in 1974.
Joining the Rhapsodes
The Glass Key (1943).
He’s still an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries. James Agee and Manny Farber are still celebrated as great critics, most visibly by volumes in the Library of America series, and Otis Ferguson occasionally attracts some minor tributes. I’ve been surprised how many people have written me to say they were unaware of Tyler’s work.
That may be partly because he didn’t straightforwardly accept the premises of what I’ve been sketching as the Otis Ferguson tradition. As a reviewer for The New Republic between 1934 and 1942, Ferguson staked out a defense of Hollywood cinema based on its capacity for focused narrative presentation, driven by graceful movement, smooth continuity, and broad realism. I’ve suggested that James Agee and Manny Farber elaborated this premise by looking for moments invested with vivid emotion, poetic transcendence (Agee’s specialty), and expressive details, either narrative or pictorial (Farber’s).
Tyler tries something different. He’s not a realist but a surrealist. What Agee and Farber praised as “accuracy” or “authenticity” scarcely concerns him. And story–at least, the story the film pretends to be telling–doesn’t matter to him so much. The very first chapter of his first book is titled, “The Play Is Not the Thing.”
Then there’s his language. Reviewers of the time objected to it, which as one put it, “bears only a haunting resemblance to English.” It’s true that phrases like “Hepburnesque Garbotoon” are likely to disturb a New Yorker editor. But it’s partly this hectic prose, far less conventional than his poetic diction, that gets him into my Ecstatics club. He can riff with the best, although in just intonation and with minuet gravitas.
Veronica Lake, for instance, not only plays a ghost but looks like one.
Although she is living, I have found something suggesting fright about her even in those roles in which she pretends to be a usual biological phenomenon. For instance, if there was ever a mannequin gangster, he was Alan Ladd in The Glass Key, and if he ever reached for the upper crust and took down a mannequin moll to load his mannequin gat for him, she was Veronica Lake. What in a less preternatural atmosphere might pass for restraint is in Miss Lake simple lack of animation; one is startled that she can talk.
Here is Tyler on Sinatra’s appeal to the jitterbug.
It somehow partakes of the schoolgirl’s dream that a voice dripping with the most nectarish sauces should originate in a diaphragm over which the suitable screen would seem to be a large school initial surrounded by a sweater.
Or on Chaplin, in a passage published the same year as Agee’s tribute to silent comedy:
How well we know the image of Charlie in flight—turning a corner somewhat like a sailboat, frantically holding onto his hat and pivoting on the immobile axis of one foot, while the other leg, lifted high and bent, poises for the next stride, with the hand holding the cane at arm’s length to maintain balance.
In a passage of simple eloquence that recalls Agee, Tyler meditates that even the fabricated piety of Song of Bernadette may legitimately evoke a world without killing and maiming.
Peace, the normal pace of life, the relaxing rhythm of alternate rest and activity, the ritual embodied by all elaborately arranged movie scenes of sentiment, were these not supernatural indeed in a world paced by war and perpetual social crises? Sometimes the silence in the movie theater seemed fabulously exempt, and, as we snuggled into our seats, feeling that we in American cities were safe from bombs, the sense of some unnatural taboo might well have invaded us. Those actors on the screen, so careful and conscientious, privileged to choose an exact pace, allow an exact pause to dissolve, and never hurry. . . they seemed to have a supernatural leisure, to exist in the fabulous, sublime time of art.
All criticism is performative, but taken with my other Rhapsodes, Tyler makes 40s movie talk a three-ring circus. It’s time to reread him.
The Stranger (1946).
Tyler wasn’t in direct dialogue with Agee and Farber, but his work has a strong connection to one of the intellectual trends of his time (and ours). That is what we might call reflectionism—the idea that popular culture in some manner reflects the state of a society.
If movies are a mirror, what do they reflect? The simplest position is that they, like other mass media, reflect the tastes of their audience. Whether the filmmakers share those tastes, or cynically play to them, Hollywood films’ form and content answer customers’ demands. Usually, the audience’s taste is held to be of surpassing vulgarity. In the 1940s, this view was very common among intellectuals, shaped, as I suggested in an earlier entry, by Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”
A more sophisticated view is that movies reflect something broader—a current Zeitgeist, the spirit of a time, the pervasive mood of the moment. Thus: Americans were feeling ultra-patriotic during World War II, so the moviemakers catered to them with movies that demonized the enemy and sanctified the American Way. Sometimes you get a different Zeitgeist argument: Movies that don’t obviously reflect dominant feelings actually reflect them in their refusal to talk about it. Hollywood offers “escapist” entertainment to make people forget their troubles. As presence or absence, the Zeitgeist is embodied in the films.
Another version of reflectionism holds that films don’t embody passing moods but more enduring features of a society, something like national character. In the other arts, this is a long-standing explanation for certain traits, like the “heaviness” of German composers versus the “lightness” of French ones. Early historians of cinema saw German Expressionist films or Swedish landscape films as reflecting each country’s temperament. From this angle, Hollywood movies can be said “reflect” American optimism, practicality, and reverence for private property, along with more questionable values like the superiority of men to women and whites to other groups. This position was revived in more sophisticated form during the 1940s, when anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and sociologists like David Riesman tried to put the concept of national character on more secure foundations.
During the 1940s, yet another version of reflectionism became salient. Movies didn’t merely embody mass tastes, or current concerns, or national character. What was being reflected was something partly hidden, even denied. (Probably an X-ray machine would have provided a better metaphor than a mirror.) According to this view, a society’s anxieties, concerns, and unresolved problems find their way unwittingly into art.
The criticism associated with this view has come to be called “symptomatic,” because it treats films as involuntary expressions of things that society either ignores or actively represses. What we find are not obvious endorsements of tastes and values but the traces of something more disturbing. The critic needs to decipher those traces.
For example, in 1946 Siegfried Kracauer suggested that Shadow of a Doubt, The Stranger, Dark Corner, and other thrillers betray a fear of the neighbor next door and a fascination with psychological destruction. He infers that “inner disintegration, whatever its stages, has actually become a widespread phenomenon.” However chipper moviegoers might seem on the outside, they are fearful deep inside. Ultimately, Kracauer suggests, they fear the planned economy of the postwar years and associate it with Nazi totalitarianism.
Other instances of symptomatic reading draw more heavily on psychoanalysis. Freud’s influence had been growing in America since the 1910s and influenced literary interpretation, most famously in Ernest Jones’ Hamlet and Oedipus (1910). Freudianism became particularly influential in the 1940s. It furnished both a popular explanation for how nations like Germany could “go mad” and a therapeutic technique that might help troubled people and traumatized veterans. It’s not surprising, then, that books like Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites’ The Movies: A Psychological Study (1950) would hinge their case for recurring character types on the Oedipus complex and other syndromes. Such interpretations are quite different from other forms of reflectionism, for these features wouldn’t be consciously acknowledged by makers or viewers.
By focusing on recurring character types and plot schemes, the symptomatic approach intersects with another trend of a reflectionist tint. Since the early part of the century, anthropologists who studied the myths of different cultures were finding surprising common elements among them. Sir James George Frazer, in his monumental collection of studies The Golden Bough (1890-1915), traced a great many myths, including religious ones, back to fertility rituals. The idea was applied to literature by various scholars in the 1910s, most notably in Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920). Frazer’s cross-cultural search for recurring story patterns gained popularity later in such works as Lord Raglan’s essay “The Hero” (1936) and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).
Maud Bodkin’s book Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) merged myth and psychoanalysis. She tried to explain the recurrence of myths by appeal to Jung’s model of mind. Bodkin saw plot, characterization, and even poetic imagery as presenting symbolic patterns that replay ancient stories and rituals, themselves embodiments of universal psychic processes. Jungians like Bodkin proposed that those patterns were inherited across generations and became embedded in our brains. In a more purely Freudian spirit, the critic and theorist Kenneth Burke believed that archetypes endured because as symbols they satisfied our unconscious appetites. Either way, one could imagine a synthesis of psychoanalysis and mythic interpretation.
As a fellow traveler of avant-garde New York painters and poets, Tyler was ready for such a synthesis. Freudian theory and mythology played a strong role in French Surrealism, and American painters and poets followed suit. View and its contemporary little mag Chimera owed a great deal to the Surrrealist émigrés who poured into New York during the 1930s. Abstract Expressionist painters copied the spontaneous approach to creation that Surrealists had tried with their “automatic writing.”
Tyler thought that psychoanalysis and myth studies could illuminate popular culture, specifically movies. But he embraced no orthodoxy. He refused the patient explication of Jones and Bodkin and the theoretical flights of Burke. Nothing could be further from his project than the systematic method of Wolfenstein and Leites, who canvassed “all the American A-films with a contemporary urban setting which were released in New York City for the year following September 1, 1945.”
Tyler makes no pretense of statistical precision or conceptual rigor. For instance, he appeals to a Freudian premise that I don’t find in most of the reflectionists, the idea that a dream involves displacement of one image or element by another. But then he freely extends the idea of displacement to the audience, to the shifts in camera position, and to other realms. Throughout his work, he stirred intellectually fashionable ideas into a powerful brew that risked tasting like moonshine.
He likewise had no axe to grind. Unlike Kracauer, Barbara Deming, and others, he didn’t tsk-tsk. Tyler the critic liked movies, even when they were wildly distorting the world. Where others saw a grim mirror, he saw a sumptuous mirage.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
For some it will be a tale of a boy and his dog. For others it will be much more.
Rated G for those who think it’s a tale of a boy and his dog, R for those who think it’s much more.
1970s cinephile joke
Tyler’s work is distinctive for other reasons. He did review films occasionally, but only for little magazines and literary quarterlies. He had an academic tone, but was not an academic; he was a freelance writer. Apart from writing articles, he wrote books on film–something neither Agee nor Farber did. The chapters develop his ideas unhindered by length limits, and he freely dwells on plot twists and endings. Still, his two major books have a reviewer’s air of contemporary coverage because he develops his ideas almost completely out of 1940s cinema.
The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947), however rambling they may seem, knot around several key ideas. Basic to Tyler’s concerns, I think, is the nature of cinema as an art. High art in any medium, he says, requires that a single person’s vision deliberately control the shape and implications of the work. A few films, mostly made outside America, meet this standard. Hollywood doesn’t. American movies are group products, industrially manufactured and often casual and sloppy.
This view might seem to put Tyler firmly among the intellectuals who disdained mass culture. But he refuses to condemn American film.
Hollywood is a vital, interesting phenomenon, at least as important to the spiritual climate as daily weather to the physical climate. . . . These judges [high-culture critics], unaware of the ritual importance of the screen, its baroque energy and protean symbolism, are unwarrantably summary, basically uneducated in the movie medium.
Hollywood films, aimed at the great public and allowing them a creative role as an audience, amount to something like a modern folk art, though one managed by adroit bureaucrats.
“Protean” is a key word in the passage. In the silent period, a Griffith or De Mille could impose his vision on all of cinema’s appeals, but by the time talkies came in, movies were closer to revue productions. Modern Hollywood, Tyler thinks, is show-offish. Anything—sets, costumes, performances, dialogue, fancy photography, even “realism”—is now a selling point. Dr. Tyler diagnoses Hollywood with an acute case of narcissism. It’s endlessly fascinated by everything it does, and it invites us to enjoy its self-absorption.
Purity of form, in either classic or avant-garde art, must, he says, often slight qualities like “fullness or depth of feeling” and an adventurous use of the medium. These are things that Hollywood is very good at achieving. Hollywood, banal though it usually is, gets so taken up with itself that it’s always looking for something new to conquer, trying out gimmicks for their own sake. In the process, it arouses our emotions and reveals some important capacities of cinema generally.
Take the process of studio production. It’s not perfectly regimented. At each stage, the writers, producers, director, actors, and editors are adding or subtracting elements, sometimes at whim. The result Tyler finds curiously “cubistic,” and a very mixed bag. As the film goes along, details pop out at the expense of the whole, and a scene teems with digressions, loose ends, and momentary attractions. “Many a shot is a kind of three-ring circus, a contest for attention between the make-up man, the dialogue writer, and the star’s personality.”
Hollywood’s narcissism shows up in another way. It’s always replaying its own attitudes and activities in the movies themselves. Dorian Gray’s fate in the film of Wilde’s story is that of every movie leading man, declining from young god to ugly old man. Or consider how the moguls treat the revered art of the stage. As everybody knows, Hollywood grinds up plays to suit its own formulas. Tyler takes as his example the movie adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Here we are invited to enjoy the fun of unmanning the drama-critic protagonist. Bad enough, says Tyler, that he encounters his fear of impotence on his wedding night and so must constantly shoo off his bride. Worse, he’s bound and gagged and must listen to a bad play recited by a would-be playwright, who happens to be a cop.
To top it off, in the original stage version, the critic hates movies. So Hollywood punishes him by trapping him in his worst nightmare: what he’d regard as a bad film, the one we’re watching, and liking. The movie capital exacts its revenge on New York snobs.
Did they or didn’t they?
My Favorite Wife (1940).
Because of its urge to grab and flaunt whatever works, the Hollywood movie, Tyler claims, is a cinema of moments. Adorno thought that popular culture broke down traditional artistic form. Tyler grants the point but then scrutinizes the result: a texture pocked with gaps. The method of production creates “crevices for whatever there be in actor, dialogue, writer, cinematic trick shot, or directorial fantasy to creep through and flower.”
A prime example of a crevice is the way films elide a basic fact: Did they have intercourse or not? He and she are alone together in a parlor or bedroom. If we’re in the lush countryside, perhaps they are caught in the rain and take shelter. Fade or dissolve. Later, they’re dressed as before, but something has happened.
A contemporary film would show us the Act. Thanks to strict censorship, American studio movies of the 1930s and 1940s can’t do that. Yet entire plots can pivot around this Morality of the Single Instance. Can anyone believe that Irene Dunn, marooned on a desert island for seven years with Randolph Scott in My Favorite Wife (1940), didn’t try out the horizontal mambo? Here and in many other films, the couple struggle to dissuade others from thinking they did it. But we can never be sure. You can call this Hollywood’s absurd prudery, but Tyler enjoys it. By having it both ways the movie liberates our imaginations. It’s as if there’s one plot for one audience segment and a second, more obscure one for the spectator who wants more.
The star personas, the camerawork, the music, the twists and inconsistencies of the story all activate “a perverse play of desires,” but these aren’t infinitely open-ended. Tyler believes that there are limits on our recasting of the material we’re given. Among those limits are the fantasies that Hollywood has already woven for us. Our associational field is composed of the other movies we’ve seen, the fan magazines we’ve read, the larger funhouse of mass entertainment.
We submit to all this pinball-game impurity because it arouses some fundamental feelings. A film may lack the unity and power of a genuine work of art, but the illusionistic power of the medium and the hot materials churned together achieve a kind of “super-art.” Anybody can see through Hollywood’s tricks, but it’s harder to recognize that they touch on essential concerns.
It is artifice. But beneath all these incredibly transparent artifices. . . is the ultimate fact of human lives, human desires, human movements, human etiquette.
Sometimes sheer motion releases bursts of feeling, as in the sleigh ride in A Woman’s Face, which kindles terror independent of the story situation. But other ultimate facts go deeper.
The big charade
Pride of the Yankees (1942).
The super-art of Hollywood movies has many “transparent artifices” that we spontaneously embrace. Start with the actors, whom Tyler considers central to the Hollywood hallucination. (He almost never mentions directors.) Are the stars acting? Mostly not. They are playing a charade.
In a charade you’re assigned a word, name, catchphrase, or title. Without using sound you must pantomime clues that lead your team to guess the answer. For Tyler, this is what goes on in a film. We know the actor is really Gary Cooper or Joan Crawford, and we must intuit what’s going on in heart and head on the basis of the performer’s approximate mimicry. A charade depends partly on fixed signs, like tugging your ear to indicating that this clue sounds like the secret word. Actors likewise emit stereotyped signs of emotion—the furrowed brow, the smile that fades.
In a game of charades, when your friend mimics a ballerina or a tennis player, you never forget who he or she is. And the charade-player’s personality will inform the mimicry: a book-lover will try to associate famous novels with the clues. Similarly with movie stars. They pantomime the plot as required, but they often impose their own star personas on the role. Gary Cooper, playing Lou Gehrig as the script demands, sooner or later reduces the ball player to “Gary Cooper again.” But this narrowing of dramatic possibilities (every film character becomes a variant of some star’s persona) is compensated by “the fun, the plain lack of seriousness in the cinema charade.”
There’s more fun in store, because charades depend on associations. The weird, silly guesses that your team members venture are essential to the pleasure. This is what happens when we watch a film, Tyler thinks. Like members of the charade-performer’s team, we engage in “a fluid guessing game.” Hollywood filmmakers coax us to summon up a welter of more or less disconnected meanings and feelings. Once you notice these hovering implications, they can become as amusing as watching your teammate, assigned to pantomime Bangkok, stray into the naughty bits. In fact, straying into the naughty bits, such as the Morality of the Single Instance, is exactly what Tyler expects the wise critic to do.
The idea of the charade extends to voices as well. Close your eyes while watching a movie, and you’ll conjure up “an independent medium of artistic illusion,” he says. This is presumably one reason that American movies became more of a mélange after the coming of sound. The voice not only enhances the star’s “charade silhouette,” but it allows a new realm of accessory pleasures, perhaps veering off from the machinations of the plot.
Sometimes the voice overtakes the actor, as in the case of Frank Sinatra, who at the time was known as The Voice. “The Voice is the ventriloquist; Frank is the glamourized dummy.” For Tyler, Lauren Bacall’s smoky intonation (with its “special, fire-extinguisher kind of charm”) becomes a blend of Dietrich, Garbo, and Mae West, with a dash of jive singer Ella Mae Morse (of Cow Cow Boogie fame). “Here was Miss Morse’s looping contralto lyricism lassoed into tacit, sophisticated prose.”
Tracing out this penumbra of associations is part of the critic’s role in the charade. So is noting that both Bacall’s role and her debut performance in To Have and Have Not perfectly reenacted her audition for a studio part and prefigured her role as the new leading lady in Bogart’s offscreen life. The Hollywood hallucination turns constantly back on itself, so that our imaginations are encouraged to play among other manufactured images, both onscreen and off.
Tyler is prepared to risk a lot, as when he asks of Frankenstein’s monster: “Does he not ghoulishly reappear among us as the physically, mentally, or socially deformed ex-soldier?” But sometimes he is alert to the moment when the crevices open not into the world of movies but into our world. Yet this isn’t authenticity of the sort prized by Agee and Farber.
For instance, he notes that many of the wartime combat films include actors who haven’t yet fashioned a star image. (This reflects the fact that many of the biggest male stars signed up for service and the studios thrust fresh faces before the cameras.) Tyler finds something moving in the way the camera records these beginners’ fear of failure on three levels—as characters facing a mission, as actors trying to prove themselves, and as Los Angeles draft fodder.
Some of the most convincing acting in Hollywood has been by young men in the roles of military novices. . . . These young man, indulging in their waxen make-believe but virtually heroes as yet only in the Madame Tussaud sense, could measure in their imagination the spiritual cost of offering to sacrifice their lives if and/or when called upon for actual fighting. . . . Granted they were ambitious actors, they could intuit an odd parallel in the less familiar and less desirable training of a soldier preparing to go to the front.
Somnambules and Good Villains
I Married a Witch (1942).
The Hollywood charade offers a fairly small repertory of roles, and a good part of Tyler’s first film book is devoted to tracing them out. For men there is the pure Hero, the innocent hick who initiates drama only because of ignorance or lack of worldliness (think again of Cooper, or Fonda). There is the Lover, with his all-too-human faults. There is the Benefactor of Mankind, the inventor or scientist.
Most interesting is the Good Villain, “the sympathetic bad man.” As either a gangster or a beloved rogue like Raffles or Don Juan, he is a vigorous figure who attracts our admiration. He expresses his desires and emotions through direct action. He violates the law, but he can’t understand why he deserves punishment. To some extent neither can we. Tyler thinks that the source of the hero’s flaw is kept vague (bad luck, social conditions), the better to abandon us to our own imaginings.
Then there is the Bad Hero, a rare figure in Hollywood because the need for a happy ending can’t endow him with the stature of the flawed, fated protagonist of classic tragedy. Tyler finds that some films try to create a Bad Hero out of a Good Villain. The roguish Charlie Kane of the early reels becomes the more rigid Charles Foster Kane, a titan facing a purportedly tragic destiny.
Women have their charade roles too. The silent era was dominated by the Vamp and the Canary (the fluttery virgin), but sound cinema brought a new category, the somnambule or sleepwalker. This is the woman who floats through the film in suspended animation, dreamily prepared for sexual consummation. She may be an exotic import, like Garbo (the woman of passion) or Dietrich (the carnal woman). Domestically we have the “neurotic somnambule” in Bette Davis, the showgirl (Hedy Lamarr), and the stripper—the “minimum role” for a somnambule. Mae West, Tyler ingeniously proposes, combines all these and adds a dash of the female impersonator.
Wolfenstein and Leites’s 1950 book proposes blander, sterner stereotypes of movie characters, such as the Good Bad Girl. These play out the Freudian skit of Daddy, Mommy, and Me. Tyler’s repertory of types seems to parody those in advance, while he looks for more cryptic clues and a murkier sexual pathology. The male roles are aggressively masculine, a response, Tyler says, to “female sexual excess.” At the limit, Frankenstein’s monster is a lumbering symbol of rape. Meanwhile, the somnambules are hypnotically prepared by men for sexual surrender. Even the willful Scarlett O’Hara is enraptured by the Technicolor presence of Ashley Wilkes’ clothes, accent, and head.
Tyler’s second book, Magic and Myth of the Movies, adds to the catalogue by considering comedians and clowns. They openly exploit sexual uncertainties. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Danny Kaye play uncertain males who are cowardly and effeminate; yet mysteriously they lust after women. The female clowns in their turn are brashly masculine, as seen in raucous Betty Hutton and homely Martha Raye.
In short, Tyler is no orthodox Freudian, stepping through the Oedipus tango with flat-footed literalness. He takes psychoanalytic ideas poetically, as a way to illuminate the subterranean currents gushing through a movie. He plays with weird possibilities as if constructing his own dream out of them. No quick summary will do justice to his mulitplying fantasies, but suffice it to say that our critic does all he can to expose the crevices.
In Of Mice and Men, for example, why not admit that George is Frankenstein, possessing a creature he controls sadistically, while Lennie is the monster who seeks not love but rape? Or that George is the dominant male, Lennie the pliant female in a vaguely homosexual couple? In Double Indemnity, why does Neff record his confession for Keyes? Their friendship has an edge of male rivalry; the plug-ugly Keyes is clearly no gal magnet. As for Phyllis, who breaks up the couple…well, maybe she doesn’t use sex to get the money but rather uses the money to get sex. And why does Mildred Pierce not understand what every audience member does—that her daughter is a spoiled bitch? Is it not best to think of the film as Mildred’s wish-fulfillment dream, expunging a second husband and a wretched child from her life so she can return cleansed to her first husband, whose name she has never surrendered?
Psychiatry pervades 1940s film plots, as if Hollywood were eager to show that even apparently ordinary citizens can nurse murder in their hearts. So Tyler feels warranted in amping up the industry’s narcissism. Unlike the mass-culture scolds, he’s not laying bare the dark soul of American culture. He’s shocking and amusing himself, and us, with all the ways the critic can “reveal a weightier entertainment value in films than Hollywood itself is aware of.”
Barbara Deming was annoyed at such frivolity. Couldn’t Tyler see that his Hollywood heroes “lack a dynamic relation to society”? And that his Single Instance lovers are cut off from a meaningful community? Deming wants to castigate Hollywood for its clichés, but Tyler finds in those clichés something sincere, poetic, and agreeably sinister. By treating interpretation as a game rather than a denunciation, he’s able to suggest of Arsenic and Old Lace: “Itself a spoof of macabre monster movies, this film contains an inner dimension of zany fun within an outer dimension of zany fun.”
Schlemiels, schlimozzels, and other medicine men
The Hollywood Hallucination treats the idea of film as dream both more and less seriously than the academics did. Tyler’s followup book does the same thing with the idea of myth.
From his earliest writing on film he compares stars to the ancient gods and goddesses. This isn’t just because they are worshipped by the multitude. The stars, he claims, fulfill long-lasting needs not met by contemporary religion. People like us, they are somehow immortal. On the screen they live and die and live again. Like the Homeric gods, they disguise themselves to us. They become cowboys or detectives, queens or saloon-girls; but we recognize them every time. They reenact their roles, so that each film becomes a ritual akin to ancient drama. Our gods, symbolically slain or beatified, populate stories that are magical invocations tailored to a modern Christian society.
Myth, Tyler explains, is “a basic, prototypic pattern” that reveals “imaginative truth.” He’s aware of Frazer, and he acknowledges that much of religion has a source in pagan tales and rituals. Like Bodkin and Burke he finds that myth presents archetypes that speak to basic human desires. Speaking to those same desires is Hollywood’s business, so the correspondence is enticing.
So far, so academic. But Tyler can’t leave it at that. A secular society refashions new myths, he claims. The movies give us, for example, the archetype of the absent-minded professor or inventor. The bumbling success of the awkward scientist, mocking efficiency but also proving that even fools can flourish in a democracy, is no less a myth, for Hollywood’s purposes, than is Diana the virgin huntress (often incarnated, incidentally, in Katharine Hepburn).
Tyler’s favorite ancient myth in modern clothes is that of the medicine man. Far, far back the king was the all-powerful figure. Eventually he split into the ruler and two other figures: the medicine man and the fool. Modern clowns share both functions. As fools, they make light of serious matters and seem “immune to normal human feelings.” They behave obtusely, without alertness or social grace. But they also heal us by making serious things bearable. They are scapegoats who take on our vices so that we may laugh at them. And they have emotional depths. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp may wear a constant mask, but he is a real human who suffers like Pagliacci and then can start fresh, with a jaunty shrug and wriggle.
Tyler’s breathless presentation plays loose with comparative mythology studies, but he defends his critique as no less of a farrago than the phenomenon he’s studying—the results onscreen. In his “psychoanalytic-mythological approach,” he explains, “I have only been obeying Hollywood’s own law of fluidity, of open and ingenious invention.” Once more American movies, as both less and more than a traditional art, demand a vision free from rigid doctrine, either Freudian or Frazerian. The films’ dream logic exhibits energies that rework archetypes unpredictably.
Just as 1940s films turned toward presenting psychoanalysis, so did they dabble in magic. Angels, ghosts, witches, and other supernatural creatures flit through the lives of ordinary folks. Why? Partly because these creatures permitted filmmakers to revive the cinema trickery of films’ earliest years, the hallucinations of Méliès et cie, and marry them to current conventions of comedy and melodrama.
Thus Turnabout, derived from the erotico-comic-fantasy mind of Thorne Smith (Topper), allows modern special effects to let a couple swap bodies in a gender masquerade with roots in superstition. The husband “mimics a certain type of homosexual” and the wife becomes “the horsiest variety of female.” Alternatively, the wispy Veronica Lake (again!) in I Married a Witch renders the father-daughter incest plot all the more piquant. When she and her father are vacuumed into separate wine bottles, spirits infused into spirits, modern special effects revive the ancient motif of imprisoned genies.
These fairy tales are perverse but still comic. How does magic slip into more dramatic genres? Tyler’s Exhibit A is The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s based on the ancient superstition that a person’s soul can be captured by an image. In this film Tyler finds a fascinating blend of all his favorite themes. We have Narcissus in Hurd Hatfield’s beautifully vacant face, “a passive, dreaming mask.” Hollywood practices its usual blunt-instrument surgery by turning Wilde’s tale of love as an aesthetic pursuit into a romance between Dorian and “a doll-faced chit.”
But the film compensates by creating “the first male erotic somnambule who is a beauty.” Dorian becomes an image, drifting through his mansion as if a ghost himself. The painted portrait, sensationally tawdry, conjures up the iconography of Dracula and other creatures of the night, while Dorian’s decay sums up the fate of every matinee idol. As ever, Hollywood recruits myths both old and new, magic and superstition from all eras, in order to present a cascade of arresting moments that tease us toward other images, other stories in its treasure house.
From all these sources Hollywood feeds its narcissistic energy. It can tailor myths and superstition to suit its stars and scenarios. But it will curtail the somber side of myth. Imbued with Christian values, in which the Son of God redeems suffering, Hollywood is committed to the happy ending. The drama’s context is social, not cosmic; the conflicts involve not morality and unsettling self-knowledge, but merely law, custom, and proof. Is our hero guilty as charged? Will boy get girl? Who is the real killer? What does “Rosebud” mean? Social harmony outweighs tragic fate.
As a result, the Hollywood ending, fully foretold, doesn’t accumulate much power. Once more, genuine art’s demanding purity of form is replaced by the compulsion to show off. The movie story is just a jumping-off place anyway, so the wrapup can be perfunctory. Films like Suspicion tease us because they force us to ask about the real action, the stuff underneath and between the scenes. (Didn’t Lina deny Johnny her bed when she began to suspect him?). The movies can therefore get by with a phony resolution. “When reality and entertainment are thus held identical, all endings are purely conventional, formal, and often, like the charade, of an infantile logic.”
The man of the self-made myth
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
For critics of the 1940s, including Agee and Farber, Griffith and Chaplin towered over the American silent cinema. When Griffith died in 1948, he was a purely historical figure. But Chaplin was still a public presence. His first two sound films, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) had found wide success and, along with a sound edition of The Gold Rush (1925), still circulated in revival houses. The Great Dictator (1940) split Chaplin into three: the Hitlerian Hynkel, the Jewish barber who resembles him, and Chaplin himself, pleading with his audience for tolerance.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) signaled that the world’s most popular film character was forever gone. The silent era that American critics revered was now definitively over. What, then, to make of a film that turned the Tramp into a cynical killer of lonely women? Farber praised Verdoux in passing, and Agee wrote three long and admiring reviews. The most extended tribute came from Tyler, who devoted an entire book to the actor and his persona. Chaplin: Last of the Clowns (1948) was at the time a paradoxical pendant to Chaplin’s career.
The book offers a more lyrical, diffuse meditation than we get in Hallucination and Magic and Myth. Fragmentary and repetitious, it surrenders to rhetorical questions and the last refuge of the undeveloped idea, the three forlorn dots of ellipsis. I confess myself mystified and bored by several stretches of it. Still, the book is studded with bons mots, and it gives Tyler the chance to expatiate on Charlie the Tramp, Chaplin the comedian, and Charles Spencer Chaplin the man, and the myths they all forged together.
The idea of Chaplin as mythmaker was already in the air, since it was easy to take many of the films as chapters in a continuous saga. Soon after Tyler’s book appeared, another poet, Robert Payne, would publish The Great God Pan (1952), treating Chaplin as a reincarnation of that pagan deity. Tyler, adhering to the idea that myths were both ancient and recent, gave Charlie a more complicated genealogy. He finds that the Tramp blends several varieties of clown.
He is another medicine man, transmuted into a fool who will serve as a scapegoat for all our ills. Like the hunchback or mute jester, he is physically flawed, with big feet and small size. Charlie is also Pierrot, the white-faced clown seeking love but doomed to betrayal. He’s Pagliacci too, the clown who suffers while making us laugh. But thanks to cinema Charlie has gone beyond his predecessors. The others perform in a sacred space, before the tribe or on a stage, but his shoes carry him into Life, our time and place as captured by the camera. Once there, he can disrupt situations we know—a city street, a spa, a roller rink, a theatre performance, or a movie set. To the last of the clowns, cinema offers the world as a stage.
Charlie’s legend is paralleled by Chaplin’s no less mythical life. A biographer tells us that early in life he fell in love with a girl named Hetty, who was carried away from him in a car. This is all Tyler needs to get started. Hetty becomes the first in a long chain of displacements, those beautiful young women who aroused Chaplin’s desire in life and in his stories. Courtesans drive away in limousine comfort in A Woman of Paris and Monsieur Verdoux, but just as often women are destitute, crippled, or abused. In both life and art Chaplin suggests Quixote, who hopelessly idealizes Dulcinea, but his mesmeric control over his leading ladies adds another myth, that of Svengali and Trilby. He adapts his legend and his life to modern times with imagery of the city, of machinery, of industrial capitalism and Nazi dictatorship. Throughout it all, Charlie’s dream of perfect love failed in Chaplin’s private life as well as in his art.
We’ve already ventured into psychoanalytic territory, but Tyler is fearless in finding poetically shaded Freudian scenarios as he pries loose bits from Chaplin’s life and welds them to the films. Young Charlie learned pantomime from his mother, who loved to mimic their neighbors. His father, a failed music-hall performer died a drunkard when the boy was five. “The father-rival had failed in his duty,” and the son would succeed.
Succeed at what? Making a lot of money, attracting admirers worldwide, and conquering women. But it’s all incomplete, Tyler thinks. Gradually Chaplin was forced to scrutinize the dream that Charlie pursued. The Tramp eventually found love, but the artist did not. So in Verdoux Charlie becomes the suave lady-killer, a new version of Pierre in A Woman of Paris and all those Lotharios who stole the girl from the Tramp. Now, instead of losing the woman, Charlie as Verdoux wins her, brutally: “The man of the world enjoys the woman and passes on, leaving her ruined. The ideal becomes the cast-off plaything.”
Alternatively, near the end of the book, Tyler considers reversing chronology and treating Verdoux as not the end but the beginning of the Tramp saga.
Let us presume Verdoux concealed more than one possibility in his dudeish person; let us assume this possible ego was as desperate as Verdoux but that he did not have Verdoux’s vulgar adventurism, that he rejected the idea of victimizing women; that he was constrained to leave home and family, say farewell to the actual dream cottage, and become—not a murderer—but the genesis of Charlie the Immaculate.
I say: Charlie, perhaps, was not born full-blown; that he had a past like anyone else. . . . Verdoux is . . . how Charlie came to be.
The book ends here.
Kracauer was outraged, and in a review called the author a self-indulgent narcissist and the book “disturbingly fictitious.” Tyler might have agreed. The surrealists spoke of “irrationally enlarging” the films they saw. Tyler rummages through his imagination to generate another Chaplin saga, one that satisfies the hunger that the movies have aroused in him and that, not incidentally, lets him demonstrate once more criticism as a performance art.
Mamma’s precious boy
Gung Ho (1943).
The spectator must be a suave and wary guest, one educated in a profound, naïve-sophisticated conspiracy to see as much as he can take away with him.
Parker Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination, 1944
What, finally, do we do in the movie house? Ideally, we join the game, play into the charade. Professional critics are too jaded to take a hand. “We must be the ghosts amid the reality of artistic fantasy.”
Once we play with suavity and wariness, we aren’t wholly at the mercy of the mirage. As in the Chaplin book, Tyler offers himself as evidence. “Yes, I have made up a collective myth of my own, and I confess that in so doing I have plagiarized Hollywood exhaustively.” Let’s take him at his word and track one of his self-made fantasies.
Alongside his 1934 poem “Hollywood Dream Suite” in Modern Things, Tyler published “Address to My Mother.” The brief lyric ends:
you dying, that the earth say so, but/ I, always pausing,/ feeling the weak quiver/ my eyes straight at you//know a, no monument, no/sign, but closed eyes you//having lost your flesh before: live;
This elegiac sentiment is echoed in Magic and Myth, which is dedicated to his father and “the memory of Eva Parker Tyler, my mother.”
Mother, coincidentally named Eva, in some sense equals the movies, as we good mythomanes discover. Look at the hypothetical example of guilt Tyler supplies in Magic and Myth: the scenario of a little boy raiding the jam jar when Mom comes in. Recall as well that Tyler saw the wellspring of Chaplin’s pantomimic genius in his urge to imitate, and please, his mother.
Then we come upon the gentlest passage I know in Tyler’s 1940s criticism. It celebrates the moment in Gung Ho! (1943) in which a select platoon of Marines is berthed in a submarine headed to a deadly confrontation with the Japanese. The men sweat and quarrel in the claustrophobic heat. They strip to the waist and stretch on their bunks. Trained to move, they must “sit tight—and simmer.” The situation has, Tyler says, “peculiar and suggestive poetry.”
For as we see the naked, perspiring flesh of these youths, softened by the coincidental presence of their identification tags necklacing their chests, their military mold is visibly relaxed, as though the heat of the closed submarine caused to melt the less resistant metal of war that has becomc part of their bodies even as it has forced them to remove the rigid encrustation of war, their unmelting military paraphernalia. The spirit of war seemed to have reduced them to one substance. . . .
Passive as babies, they begin to show their worry and fear. Each knows that he may die in the battle to come.
They were returned to a state of childhood, and for these boys it was naturally to that state when, depending on their mother’s benevolence, they were accustomed to ask bounty and loving protection from her. So their faces assumed that mask of innocent and pure appeal that little boys wear specifically to attract and compel the good will of their mothers. There is something infinitely calculating and hypocritical about this automatic mask. . . . But the impulse to appeal to something is very strong; hence by the metaphoric bridge of the submarine as a womb they reach their mothers and through their mothers an image of overhanging nature, to which, as the blue sky, warm sunshine, and invigorating air, from which they are now farther away than ever, they make a humble appeal, automatically dictated by the type of innocent guile they practiced on the maternal being—their spontaneous charade of being mamma’s precious boy to whom nothing can be denied.
Above all, I think, we must linger upon Tyler’s account of Mae West. He pays tribute to “the scandalous sway of Miss West’s hips—it reminds me of nothing so much as the motion of a cradle: it is hypnotic, soothing: a finished and flawless equilibrium. . .” Admittedly, Mae is cruel to her offspring. In appropriating the style of the female impersonator, she robs that figure of his comedy, “leaving him only his pathos.” Still, in that gesture Mae also enacts
the one supreme sacrifice of female nature: the mother’s recognition and condonement of the homosexual flaw in her son! This, of course, almost never happens in life; that is why it had to happen at least once in art.
That passage occurs in The Hollywood Hallucination, which bears this dedication:
To the memory of my mother, that golden nature whose image so often illuminated with me this side of the movie screen.
As with Farber, a zesty discussion of Tyler’s contribution to American film criticism is offered by Greg Taylor in Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Neal Pearson offers a detailed publication history of The Young and Evil, along with a biography of Charles Henri Ford, on his site. Tyler recalls Ford and their “naughty novel” in his massive biography The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew (Fleet, 1967).
Tyler’s and Boultenhouse’s papers are housed in the New York Public Library. I have not consulted them, but I hope that someone else will and write a book on Tyler.
My synopsis of Myra Breckinridge is not exactly straight, so to speak, but I tried to avoid spoilers.
The crack about Tyler’s style comes from D. Mosdell’s review of Magic and Myth of the Movies in Canadian Forum 27 (August 1947), 118. “Hollywood’s Terror Films” and “Portrait in Film,” Kracauer’s review of Chaplin: Last of the Clowns, are reprinted in Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture, ed. Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson (University of California Press, 2012), 41-46 and 188-190.
Richard Maltby offers his own treatment of the Single Instance in “‘A Brief Romantic Interlude’: Dick and Jane Go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema,” in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 434-459.
Tyler asked Henry Miller to write the preface to The Hollywood Hallucination, but the publishers (justifiably) rejected it. The text, in which Miller gets the title of Tyler’s book wrong, is still worth seeking out as a rant. See “Original Preface to ‘Hollywood’s Hallucination’,” in Sunday After the War (New Directions, 1944), 39-56.
In support of my suggestion that there are affinities between Kenneth Burke and Parker Tyler, I’d invoke the title essay in Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form (Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 1-137. A good overview of trends in literary criticism of the period is Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision (Knopf, 1948).
Deming’s critique of Tyler’s social irresponsibility comes in “The Close-Up of Love,” Partisan Review 12, 3 (Summer 1945), 393. For a thorough account of Deming’s work, see Albert Moran’s “A Poetics of Film-Audience Reception? Barbara Deming Goes to the Movies,” in Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran, eds., Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie Going, Exhibition, and Reception (Intellect, 2013), 55-68.
Tyler’s source for Chaplin: Last of the Clowns and its psychobiographical musings is Gerith von Ulm’s Charlie Chaplin: King of Tragedy, purportedly based on documents and information supplied by Chaplin’s valet Kono Toraichi. Tyler’s book resembles in some ways Vladimir Nabokov’s great 1944 critical study Nikolai Gogol (New Directions), which Tyler would probably have known. Nabokov’s urge to expand on the images he finds in his author seem to prefigure Tyler’s more extravagant extrapolations. Nabokov’s book ends with a quarrel between himself and his editor and a mischievous timeline peppered with irrelevant, possibly fake events.
I discuss the tradition of symptomatic interpretation in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. I’ve registered my reservations about reflection-based and Zeitgeisty interpretations in Chapter 1 of Poetics of Cinema and here and here.
Stage Fright (1950).
Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
It has been suggested by some that Mr. Farber’s prose style is labyrinthine; they fidget as he picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley. I do not share this view. With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one. Lulled by his Wagnerian rhythms, I snooze in my armchair, confident that the mystique of the talking picture is in capable hands.
S. J. Perelman, 1946
This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The first installments are here, here, here, and here. This is the second devoted to Manny Farber; the first considered his writings on visual art during the 1940s.
As I indicated earlier, Farber’s 1940s work breaks into two phases. First, from 1942 to 1946, he wrote for The New Republic, replacing Otis Ferguson. “Ferguson went off patriotically to war in the Merchant Marine and died. The next day I was asking for a job as movie critic. I was never very sentimental in that period. I was ambitious.” After a couple of years off, he did a stint at The Nation, during which he continued sporadically to review art but concentrated on film. In the second phase, from 1949 to 1954, he moved toward the positions he highlighted in Negative Space. This 1971 collection of essays consolidated his reputation and put in place the critical persona we still associate with him.
What’s fascinating is that the late 1940s-early 1950s pieces cast off many of the commitments he made during his first encounters with cinema. To become our Manny Farber, he had to become a somewhat different Manny Farber than the one who came to New York in late 1941.
The Ferguson legacy
In the previous entry, I suggested that Farber’s art reviews ran in parallel to that of a more famous critic, Clement Greenberg. Film criticism was dominated by another senior figure, James Agee.
The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and a central player in New York literary culture, Agee commanded a following. Farber became friends with him and they socialized frequently. After Agee’s death, Farber would write rather brusquely about him, praising him but also calling him a thoroughgoing middlebrow, “a fall guy,” a master of “verbal stunting,” and a purveyor of “arrogant, omnipotent decisions.” During Agee’s life, Farber never seems to have mentioned him in print, although Agee occasionally mentioned the younger man and arranged for Farber to become his successor at The Nation.
In 1942, when both Farber and Agee started writing about films, both faced the same conventions of journalistic reviewing that are in effect today. The reviewer had to sketch the film’s plot (without revealing the ending); dwell on performances; convey something of the film’s look and feel, perhaps with reference to direction, camerawork, editing, and music; and render a summary judgment. For economy’s sake, the writer typically dealt with these matters through a rhetoric of faults and beauties and a selection of a few vivid moments that counted for good or ill.
The challenge to any writer with pride was to do all these things in subtle, engaging ways. The review had to seem less a checklist than a flowing discourse, a controlled literary essay that happened to take a new movie as its pretext. Agee found ways to refresh these conventions, largely by treating the movie’s overall qualities and its striking moments as harboring the sort of power that Romantic aesthetics attributed to poetry.
Today the ambitious critic will accomplish these tasks so as to project a public persona, a distinct critical identity. I suggested in this entry that it was during the 1940s that the groundwork for this tradition of celebrity film criticism was laid. Agee presented himself as an eloquent but anxious, introspective personality, a stance that also dominates Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber constructed a different persona: the straight-shooting, hard-hitting, cultivated roughneck.
That critical voice wasn’t entirely new, though. It had already been heard a bit in the work of Otis Ferguson, Farber’s predecessor at The New Republic. Agee and Farber tacitly accepted the invitation that Ferguson issued when he went off to war:
More people go to good and bad movies than read good and bad books, and surely the top layer of this vast audience is as discriminating of taste and exacting of standards as the top layer of the reading public. . . . There are plenty of young people growing up to whom the films are so natural that they do not have to play the snob about them.
Agee and Farber had both loved movies since their teen years, and now they had a chance to exercise their love unsnobbishly.
Ferguson left more behind than admonitions. Through the 1930s, he had set out the premises for a defense of the Hollywood movie. Perhaps a younger critic could test these premises within the changing situation of 1940s filmmaking. What progress had been made? Had current filmmakers forgotten the lessons of the traditions recently established by talking pictures?
We find both Agee and Farber accepting, for instance, Ferguson’s general antipathy to arty pictures, talky pictures, “theatrical” pictures. Ferguson had developed the idea, going back at least to Gilbert Seldes, that what made movies art was their dramatic and pictorial organization of motion. But not motion as sheer movement; rather, movement made significant, turned into action.
For Ferguson, a good film flowed. It harnessed image and sound to the clear, vivid presentation of the story. Echoing Hollywood’s own aesthetic, Ferguson insisted that the audience shouldn’t notice the artistry. “Its main problem always is story, story, story—or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand it’s being done?” Ferguson’s adverse comments on Citizen Kane summarized his conception of the Hollywood craft. The italics are his.
The most important thing in the technique of a motion picture–and here director and writer are in varying degrees interdependent–is its construction shot by shot, not for the effect or punch line of any one fragment, but for such devising and spacing as avoid monotony, hold the interest, and lead easily from one thing into another, the devices for illusion being always and necessarily hidden in the natural emergence of the illusion itself.
This straight, clean storytelling is endorsed by Agee, though he’s willing to grant a little room for flourishes. Farber is stricter, pushing Ferguson’s idea of invisible style to a new level. Farber notes:
If the events are arranged to progress as though there were no camera present, if the camera merely watches and records what those events look like, the movie is to my mind the true nature of a movie; that is it is non-theatrical. . . . . The actions and procedures of the event will be seen propelled solely by factors within the event itself, irrespective of the camera.
A good director, says Farber, is always “seeking the idea in the visual world of action and movement, which is the more suitable, and so more emotionally vital, manner for the movies.” Like Agee and Ferguson, Farber held that this quality had been achieved during the silent era; all three held up Griffith, Chaplin, and the rest of the silent-film canon as the sort of thing that sound cinema would have to match.
More importantly, the demand for invisible illusion and narrative continuity ran against the deepest commitments of the Greenbergian modernism that dominated Farber’s gallery-and-museum milieu. Greenberg and his followers declared that painters who accepted the challenge of history would explore anti-illusionistic devices like surface values and spatial contradictions. Storytelling was best left to middlebrows like Norman Rockwell, who had mastered all the tricks of Victorian narrative painting. Modern painting, Greenberg thundered, should not illustrate. But according to Ferguson and company, a movie was at its core an illustration–a story told in action, by means of cinematic technique, made smooth and deft and emotionally absorbing.
Ferguson’s imprint was especially deep on Farber. His later work paid homage to Ferguson frequently, and without his usual acidity. Farber’s classic 1952 piece, “The Gimp,” borrows ideas and phrases from Ferguson’s review of Citizen Kane ten years earlier. As late as 1977 he was referring to “what Ferguson wrote about the iron fence in Citizen Kane,” as if every reader would have known that rather obscure critique.
Manny and you (and me)
Juke Girl (1942).
I think what I set out to do with criticism in the Forties . . . was to set out the movie before the reader’s eye in as much completeness as I could, in that topography. I had to develop a picture which could pull the audience in and give them these sights without their realizing it, and which would divulge the landscape of the film as accurately as I could get it. That involved a lot of color work in the language and in the insights—color work in the sense of decorative quality.
Manny Farber, 1977
Owing so much to Ferguson, running alongside Agee, and facing the constraining conventions of movie reviewing, Farber had to distinguish himself. One tactic came naturally: his style. Ferguson had brought to serious film criticism the tang of Depression newshawk jauntiness. Every paragraph is a freewheeling adventure in slang, mixed metaphors, and yoyo syntax.
Having expended so much care to such effect, [the makers of The Philadelphia Story] might have considered also that it is only brooks in poems that go on forever without somebody’s beginning to yawn, scratch, and wonder seriously whether it is the suspense or just his underwear that is climbing. They might have cut out the boob move of the writer proposing at the wedding and right before his own fiancée . . . . They could, I suppose have extended the very funny business at the expense of Timelife and its prose-bearing oracular baby-talk—though I wonder whether even the keen edge that is present as it is cuts any of the dull butter that must be out there haw-hawing at the performance and trundling up with a ring in its nose to the same newsstand afterward. . . . But there is nothing served in figuring out how to do something after someone has very well proved that it’s done already because he did it.
This is tough to beat. Farber brought some of this élan to his art reviews; maybe he thought that Ferguson had established lithe vernacular as the New Republic house style. In any event, across the 1940s, Farber raises Ferguson’s demotic prose a couple of notches in intensity. For example, masculine values (physical work, comradeship) were central to Ferguson, and both Agee and Farber use “virility” as a term of high praise. But characteristically Farber ups the ante, calling Maya Deren’s films “lesbianish” and warning us against their “pansyish composing and lighting.” (Remember, he was still in his twenties.)
Farber’s inflation of critical rhetoric is most evident when he ransacks the resources of figurative language. Usually it’s recruited for ridicule, but it can add wiseacre humor to anything.
*Hyperbole: Juke Girl is “the most belligerent thing you’ve ever seen.” None But the Lonely Heart is “one of the biggest hodgepodges Hollywood ever constructed.” Val Lewton is “the least commercial film maker in Hollywood by about a hundred miles.” Murder My Sweet is “by all all odds the most incomprehensible movie in years.”
*Metaphor: The protagonist of Open City “reminds you of a wet string.” Bing Crosby “chews gum with jet-propelled jaws.” All-purpose, and a bit mysterious: “Soft-shoe” applied to film direction, usually Howard Hawks.
*Comic personification: Hitchcock “impregnates costume and décor with so much crackling luster, so much tension and latent evil, that the spectator expects a stair corner or tie clasp to start murdering everyone in sight.”
*Comic understatement: The hero of The Razor’s Edge is “deeply distressed by his war experiences.” The hero’s office in A Rage in Heaven is “rather stunted. . . . couldn’t house more than eight or nine trains.”
*Comic overstatement: Ann Blyth is “about eighty years too young for what she is doing.” The home in Since You Went Away contains “several hundred photographs” of the absent father. In We Were Strangers “the tunnel dug in a week by six proletarian heroes is the size of the Holland Tunnel.”
*Burlesque (Gertrude Stein dept.): “But most of all this picture was not very good and was made by MGM and that clinches the argument.”
*Paradox: The Postman Always Rings Twice “is almost too terrible to walk out of.”
Then there’s his gift for paraprosdokian, the sentence with a surprise ending. The most famous example is “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliché-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.” Here’s another: “The attempt seems to be to give the sensation of reading the book rather than looking at a movie, and I think it succeeds to a certain extent, anyway sufficiently to paralyze the movie.”
One of Farber’s most robust rhetorical strategies involves personal pronouns. Agee’s paragraphs are studded with I’s as he reenacts the squirming push-and-pull of arriving at his judgments. Farber, who never enacts the hesitating agonies of appraisal, seldom resorts to I. He is a man for you. In The Big Sleep “you try to decide what motivates the people.” For Open City: “No one opens his mouth or takes a step without reminding you of dozens of other movies.” Farber’s review of North Star is a cascade of you’s, creating a reader who is simultaneously following his prose and watching a virtual movie.
The strategy is shrewd. When the critic’s impressions are transferred to the hypothetical viewer (you), you’re already halfway to agreeing with him. Moreover, the reader is flattered, especially when the critic attributes to you a knowledge of dozens of other movies. This just-pals mind-meld asserts authority while implying equality. Ferguson resorts to the device occasionally, and Pauline Kael lived off it. (I flinch every time I remember her claim that after seeing Roxanne “You want to go to the town; you want to go back to the movie.”)
Forms and feelings
Farber’s rhetorical maneuvers are often aimed at sharpening the sort of detail we find in his art criticism of the same time. In a short review, the critic must fasten on moments. These are typically faults or beauties, and perhaps they quietly signal how attentive the critic’s eye is. Both Agee and Farber followed Ferguson in looking for vitality, authenticity, and well-managed storytelling. Agee went further, seeking in the privileged moments a glimpse of transporting beauty. Farber, no Romantic, looked in cinema for the flares of expressive significance he prized in painting.
So in Casablanca he’s fascinated by Peter Lorre “wrinkling and unwrinkling his forehead faster than ever” or Humphrey Bogart, who “seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.” The Glass Key lets us dwell on the way a character “fondles a bottle he is about to crack over a skull.” Farber mocks implausible neatness, as when five people enter a crowded movie house and conveniently get five seats together. By contrast, Youth Runs Wild plays out “the whole visual vocabulary of a group like [Lewton’s] high-school kids: their stance and gestures playing handball, smoking.” Fresh details are best when casually caught, not studiously inserted. Laboring over striking effects would hurt the sense of action moving along without special concessions to the camera.
Just as we get more concrete evidence in Farber’s art reviews than in Greenberg’s, we get more of it in his film reviews than in Agee’s. For Agee, Counter-Attack (1945) is something of a gimmick film. The movie confines itself mostly to a chiaroscuro-drenched cellar in which two Soviet partisans try to guard seven German soldiers while a battle rages above them. It isn’t really hard, Agee says, to keep a movie alive in a confined space. He praises and criticizes the film in generalities: some formulaic defects, some virtues.
Farber devotes a long column to Counter-Attack, and he too has some objections, typically phrased more pungently than Agee. (Agee: Paul Muni is “too often an over-generalized, stagy embodiment of Russia.” Farber: Muni’s acting “is in a heavy, emphatic style that could be studied in detail from any distance up to a mile.”) But in scrutinizing Counter-Attack, Farber soaks us in minutiae. We learn that the Nazis are seldom seen in close-up or from within their group; that movements away from the group are “given grandeur” by the lighting and a building tension about exactly how far Muni will let an enemy walk toward him; that Muni delivers his orders like a whipcrack; and that the film makes
. . . the magician’s performance of magic a hypnotic, dance-like affair with an insinuating pattern of sound supplied to identify the noise cigarettes make hitting the inside of a helmet as the magician throws them.
Farber also registers current trends in theme, form, and style. He is exceptionally sensitive to the portrayal of African Americans in movies and never misses a chance to observe how stereotypes, even those in earnest problem pictures, abridge their identities. His brother was a psychiatrist, so he can spray mordant humor on the vogue for psychoanalytic mysteries: the doctor goads the patient into “recalling his one trauma—straining like a man lifting the Woolworth building.”
He notices flashbacks (though he usually dislikes them), the emerging conventions of war pictures, and the roles ascribed to the hero. Farber salutes the clever opening of Sturges’ Palm Beach Story as an experiment, a “miniature movie” left hanging until the film’s final shot. One funny essay on the prospect of Hollywood Dada targets a host of clichés: tears welling up, entire meals finished after we’ve seen people eat only a few bites, cigarettes smoked down in a couple of puffs, immaculately handwritten notes executed in fast motion. What the critics of mass culture saw as stultifying mindlessness, Farber treats as a familiar joy in conventions that do neat work and seem silly only when you stop to think about them.
Farber fills out Ferguson’s dicta about flowing continuity with an emphasis on feeling. He worries that Sturges’ films aren’t “emotionally evocative,” and he praises the lovers’ kiss in The Clock as “one of the most awesome and emotionally accurate scenes in years.” Even a weak film like Rage in Heaven can be redeemed by the spasms of fear we notice in Robert Montgomery’s performance. The Dark Mirror gains its emotional truth in a remarkably visual way: the differences among the three main characters are underscored by each one’s distinctive manner of kissing. As with the paintings that Farber prizes, a movie excells when it presents feelings briskly, without leaden emphasis.
Negative space, 2D and 3D
“The dotted tension lines indicate the amount of negative space that exists between the positive volumes. This negative space should be understood as a concrete and essential part of the structure. Emptiness or lack of structural necessity are [sic] certainly not implied” (Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition, 1943).
Is this all? Isn’t Farber’s main contribution to the critical conversation his expertise as an artist and a critic of modern painting? The 1940s criticism has fewer references to painting than we’re used to in the later work. But he does, rather tentatively, start to consider movies pictorially. What’s striking about his angle of approach is that he treats cinema as different from painting.
Most generally, he claims that images are central to artistry in the medium. But although his painting reviews often emphasize the geometry of pictorial composition, in films he cares less about this than he does about the way the filmmaker captures the event with emotional force. In The Stranger, Welles creates excitement with moments that are “shot at an angle that gives you the hardest impact of the action.” Tay Garnett’s The Cross of Lorraine presents combat “with striking pictorial truth, complexity and force. He is always forcing the emotion of an action by getting the clearest, most direct views of it, by cutting his film so that the action continually strikes out at the audience.”
Most 1940s films, Farber maintains, aim at a bland sheen but not purposeful images. When a film is weak, “there is nothing in the people, costuming or acting that will intrigue your eye enough to keep it focused on the story.” Heaven Can Wait is content to set the camera ten to fifteen feet from its actors and center the people squarely and at eye-level. Lost Boundaries, despite a laudable message about black Americans, is pictorially “as spineless as vanilla pudding.”
The photographer’s head evidently comes off if he tries anything but the orthodox, group-portrait composition: central details a little above screen enter, neither close to nor far from the camera.
In Mildred Pierce, “people are arranged for each scene as though at a first rehearsal, all squared off facing the audience.” What would the young Farber have made of Wes Anderson?
For Farber, the most memorable images carry the story’s idea through both framing and staging: the political meeting in The 39 Steps, a scene in The Ox-Bow Incident with cowboys studying a painting over the bar. Mr. Lucky exploits “the position of a person in relation to his environment and the people occupying it with him.” Farber goes on at length about how the scenes in a War Relief office jammed with people and partitions combines “architecture, pantomime and movie devices. . . with almost acrobatic invention.”
The whole sequence “uses all the components of a fluid medium, and the effect is a real movie one, neither theatrical nor literary.”
This fluidity was crucial for Ferguson too, but Farber realizes that it runs athwart the modernist demands about the frame edge. “Having a voice, eyes and legs, [film] is more fluid than any other medium. Like the mind, it is physically unbounded and can paint.” It paints, he implies, not a Mondrian or a Malevich, in which the frame edges create their own dynamic, but something like what we find on an unrolling picture scroll. James Wong Howe’s shots in Air Force reveal a space “uncentered in the old sense taken from painting, so that it seems to spread out in all directions past the boundaries of the screen.” Anticipating Bazin’s conception of the porous frame, Farber finds the unboundedness of cinematic space central to its power.
Accordingly, cinematic space that is too exactly composed seems overbearing, designed to be appreciated. Many 1940s films display tight composition with deep perspectives. But perspective was under suspicion in Manhattan’s 1940s art world. According to Hans Hofmann and other theorists, composition by line (e.g., linear perspective) was less forceful than composition by planes and masses. With these resources, the painter can build up volume through negative space.
The term became a buzzword in the Manhattan artworld of the 1940s, having been emphasized in Hofmann’s lectures and given explicit definition in Earle Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition (1943). For Loran, positive space consists of the masses in the depicted scene. Negative space amounts to the relations in depth among the masses. (See the diagram above.) These spaces should be felt as forces, creating a three-dimensional dynamic, a “push-and-pull,” as Hofmann called it. Parallel to negative 3D space are negative shapes, which are the unfilled portions of the 2D composition.
Farber would use the term broadly and metaphorically in later years, but he explicitly invokes negative space in the narrow sense in 1953, significantly in relation to the enhanced depth of stereoscopic cinema. When 3D films frame the shot through a horse’s legs or wagon wheels, they create “a sort of hole” between the front plane and more distant ones, and the result is “a more exact impression of masses.”
I think Farber applies the idea of negative space earlier, in an important 1946 comment on The Searching Wind. As with Mr. Lucky, it’s not a film he especially likes, but it does provide something quite different from the “stiff, contrived shot” that rules Welles’ films. Although Farber doesn’t spell out the difference, I believe he’s objecting to Welles’ habit of filling every inch of the frame, including pasting a big head in the foreground.
We speak of images like these as deep, but instead of summoning up negative space through tensions between the masses, Welles gives us something closer to a collage. The low angle of the Wellesian shot makes the three-dimensional relations less concrete; different-sized figures and faces seem jigsawed into the frame. There’s less a sense of varying distance (3D negative space) than varying size (2D placement). Moreover, there’s less of negative shape as well, since every inch of the frame seems stuffed with points of interest.
Farber asks us to contrast William Dieterle’s The Searching Wind:
The spaces between people are made concrete and of varying distances so that the movie has not only the three-dimensional but the dispersed look of real life.
The more open compositions of The Searching Wind create a naturalistic array of figures and lay out the sort of axes of tension seen in Loran’s diagram above. The people have room to breathe, with well-articulated negative shapes of varying sizes spacing them out. They gain the volume proper to distinct compositional masses. “Garmes’ photography,” Farber adds, “makes the people seem bulky.”
He goes on to another important point. A Searching Wind shot also “gives you the feeling that you’re in the room where the action is taking place.” To the naturalism of spatial arrangement is added a sense of our presence. We look at the scene in a non-theatrical, plausibly offhand way. But Welles’s compositions makes sense only when seen from a single vantage point; the shot is designed around our eye.
Shift the camera a little to left or right in my Welles illustrations, and the composition collapses. Shift the Searching Wind camera, and the action would still cohere. This is an example, I think, of what Farber suggests when he claims that an event can be presented in such a way that we believe it would unfold with the same force if the camera had not captured it.
In sum, Farber accepted that it was legitimate for contemporary painting to insist on the picture plane, to refuse illustration and illusion, and to recognize the active role of the frame edges. But at this point in his career he saw cinema as bound up with storytelling. That demands an art that hides art.
Farber had a stronger pictorial sensibility than either Agee or Tyler. His gifted eye sized up cinema’s visual possibilities. But he didn’t see those possibilities as akin to modernist painting. Cinema was a new medium of pictorial artistry, with its own demands—demands for story, illusion, incisive action, indefinite boundaries, loosely composed figures—all those pictorial considerations that the Manhattan gallery scene found suspect. Cinema was at its best when it blended authenticity and feeling with vivid but subtle visual form. Hollywood cinema, a popular art, could flourish through expressive naturalism.
The movies go modern
A Place in the Sun (1951).
Farber left The New Republic when Henry Wallace, having been fired from Truman’s cabinet, became editor. After over two years away from film reviewing, Farber returned to writing in 1949. His work for The Nation demands intensive study and appreciation in its own right, but I want here just to indicate how it displays a sharp shift in Farber’s aesthetic and in his attitude toward what happened in the 1940s.
During the 1940s, as I’ve mentioned, many American filmmakers began to stage and shoot their scenes in various degrees of depth. If Kane did not start the trend, it provided a vivid demo. Very soon after its release many films—The Maltese Falcon, Kings Row, The Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, and others—displayed big foregrounds, steep diagonals, and several planes of action in more or less sharp focus. These techniques became salient features of black-and-white Hollywood dramas, and many color ones, into the 1960s.
What’s striking, however, is that few American critics of the time bore witness to this as it was happening. Welles’ technical innovations were well-covered in the press, so most reviews mentioned what Toland had done, but as far as I can tell the widespread adoption of the style went almost completely unnoticed in film reviews. Even Farber’s New Republic pieces refer to depth staging in the oblique ways I’ve just mentioned, and he doesn’t go into lens length, film stocks, lighting, and other matters that were fairly common in the technical journals of the day.
By the early 1950s, however, Farber had time to register what happened to the Hollywood style he had celebrated. Not only were movies becoming more middlebrow, with prestigious projects trying to bring back the audience. Not only were acting styles becoming more extroverted, even neurotic. Movies were also becoming more stylistically aggressive—more, in a way, like modern art.
1950: American film-makers have suddenly learned how to make movies work as plastically as Mondrian paintings, using bizarre means and gaucherie.
1950: Directors, by flattening the screen, discarding framing and centered action, and looming the importance of actors—have made the movie come out and hit the audience with almost personal savagery.
The bland, stolid style he deplored in the 40s kept the camera far back, but now filmmakers had gone to the other extreme.
1951: The new close-up style of camera work . . . is evidently aimed at fetishists who like to study pores.
1951: [My Son John works] powerfully in the new style of close-ups, disembodied faces, and immobilized groupings.
1953: [In Member of the Wedding] you are practically on top of the human figure when, trapped in the most intense motion and feeling, it is cut off from the surrounding things that make life seem ordinary and fairly secure.
Certainly several directors used extreme close-ups in the 1950s, but then so did several directors in the 1940s, particularly in B films. A look today at My Son John doesn’t back up the sense that it’s full of close-ups and disembodied faces. The occasional big faces in A Place in the Sun are a bit more blatant, but most of the film is shot in the normal range of distances, and one long-take scene employs a distant high-angle recalling Mizoguchi. In all, I think that Farber is after something more general concerning the stylistics of space.
It sounds odd to say that the deep-focus style of the early 1950s yields flat and shallow images. But the big foregrounds and background figures squeezed into a locked-in frame seemed to Farber a legacy of Welles’s “stiff” shots. Directors were abandoning the spacious, dispersed framings of The Searching Wind and other films that balanced figures and landscape in a harmonious flow, that created solid masses and expressive tensions in the negative space. And the frames are so crowded that there are scarcely any negative shapes to offset the areas covered by the figures.
In sum, the recent films brought home to him a stylistic change that had been gathering force under his nose earlier. In 1952, he offers some complementary historical accounts. From one angle, he suggests that there was a kind of lag in picking up the excesses of Citizen Kane. He claims that Welles’ film initially made little impact on veteran directors. Only now, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun, People Will Talk, and other Gimp movies has “straight storytelling” lost out to an overbearing style, with shallow perspectives, “low intimate views,” rigid staging, and always faces in our faces—“huge, florid, eccentric, and somewhat sinister.”
From another angle, Farber senses that the decay wasn’t delayed but rather was setting in very early, at the start of the 1940s. There were filmmakers like Lewton who always respected the balance between his characters and the scenery, along with non-intellectuals (Walsh, Hawks) who at their best conveyed “the truth of American life and the excitement of American movement.” (Again Farber echoes Ferguson, who pledged Hollywood cinema to “the truth of life and the excitement of movement.”)
But, Farber insists, early 1940s Hollywood also played host to Times Square intellectuals fed on left-wing theatre and fiction. Their films pushed symbolism, political criticism, and fragmentary form. In this version, Welles isn’t the only culprit; there are Sturges (The Great McGinty), Kanin (A Man to Remember), and Huston’s Maltese Falcon. All displayed “very close, snarling presentation which put the actors practically in a nose-to-nose relationship with the movie spectator.” And now we had William Wyler’s Carrie, with its shallow space, “the actors arranged parallel-fashion and statically on the front pane of the scene.” Paradoxical as it may sound, American cinema had achieved the pictorial flatness Greenberg prized in painting.
Years later, in the introduction to Negative Space, Farber would add a few data points to this little history, looking backward to What Price Glory? (1927) and its “illustrational” style, “scaled in human terms for the space of the screen.” The Big Sleep (1946) is more compact and parsimonious in its coordinates, but it’s still worlds away from Touch of Evil’s “disorienting, illogical, allegorical” space—“prismatic and a quagmire at the same time.”
In the 1950s, on the whole, American movies had become worse than ever. There were, of course, the exceptions that he became identified with. A mild advocate for B films during the 1940s, Farber now found them preferable to bloated prestige pictures. White Tower (1950), Union Station (1951), and Kansas City Confidential (1952) maintained “present tense-realism through low-budgeted, off-the-cuff, on-location technique.” Later he would look back at the masters of the studio action picture and discuss them in the painterly terms—e.g., cubistic lapels and hat brims—that would dominate his writing in later years.
Manny and the Man
We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1948).
Farber’s 1950s denunciation of much 1940s cinema made for contradictions that he didn’t confront. In 1943 he had praised Kane highly, finding it a challenge to the “visual sterility” of most Hollywood films: it made each scene “a vigorous new visual experience.” No trace there of the Times Square leftist influence. The Story of GI Joe carried its point with “real cinematic strength” in 1945, but in 1957 Farber considers it flat, sentimental, and merely a MoMA classic. In 1943 he greeted Hitchcock as “producing movies of high quality,” but eight years later the director became the master of “cheap, glossy, mechanically perfect shocks” whose “only really punchy Hollywood job was ‘Lifeboat.’”
Sometimes the shift is startling. Upon release in 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives earned about the most consistent praise Farber lavished on any film of the decade. It was “far and away the least sentimental, most human of current films . . . an extreme sensitive and poignant study of life like your own.” A decade later, however, it became “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz,” one of those “solemn goiters” that get by because “they bear the label of ART in every inch of their reelage.” Critics can of course change their minds, but it’s a disconcerting when praise and criticism are pressed with equally vehement confidence, and the critic castigates his fellows for not looking “straight backward” to reappraise the films he too elevated.
Looking straight backward at Farber’s comments on John Huston, we find him declaring that “The Maltese Falcon is a good story which director John Huston told brilliantly on the screen” (1942). San Pietro has “breathtaking reality, fullness of detail and sharp effect from shot to shot” (1945). Yet by the time he returned to reviewing he found Huston wanting.
Agee, as I indicated in the previous entry in this series, found in Huston a rare level of excellence. His review of Treasure (1948) is purely in the Ferguson spirit:
There is not a shot-for-shot’s-sake in the picture, or one too prepared-looking, or dwelt on too long. The camera is always where it ought to be, never imposes on or exploits or over-dramatizes its subject, never for an instant shoves beauty or special meaning at you. . . . His style is practically invisible as well as practically universal in its possible good uses; it is the most virile movie style I know of; and it is the purest style in contemporary movies, here or abroad.
At this point Agee was hoping to get into moviemaking, with either Chaplin or Huston, and more than one observer has speculated that Agee’s genuine admiration for Monsieur Verdoux and Sierra Madre was reinforced by personal ambition.
It seems likely that Agee’s praise for Sierra Madre triggered Farber’s demolition job on Huston. Farber was between jobs when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) was released, but soon after he was hired on to The Nation, he seized upon We Were Strangers (1949) as an occasion to dismantle the director’s whole career. He redoubled his assault when The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was released.
Taken together, the two pieces set out to refute Agee point for point. Huston’s characters are oversimplified, the stories are moralizing, and his vision of life comes down to the futile quest for money. Far from having an invisible style, Huston has an aggressive one. “The texture of a Panama hat is emphasized to the point where you feel Huston is trying to stamp its price tag on your retina.”
More broadly, Farber revisits a leitmotif of his early work, the idea that the best Hollywood cinema rested upon the “unbroken action sequence” that presents a balance of figures and environment. The classic filmmaker viewed life “from a comfortable vantage point, one that is so unobtrusive that the audience is seldom conscious of the fact that a camera had anything to do with it.” By contrast, Huston is confining and static, relying on pyramidal compositions and “close three-figured shots.” Often his staging leaves his actors little room to move. I offer these examples from We Were Strangers and The Asphalt Jungle.
Here’s another passage Farber doesn’t cite, but he might have. One shot from Key Largo (1948) presents actors sliding into slots to create a “stiff” composition reminiscent of Welles.
The critics (Agee included, presumably) consider Huston “Hollywood’s fair-haired boy,” but he is merely “a vitaminized photographer.”
Putting aside Farber’s objections to Huston’s recurring themes, what Farber dislikes in Huston’s visuals is already there latently in some of the pre-Sierra Madre films, such as In This Our Life (1942) and Across the Pacific (1942).
At times, The Maltese Falcon is as bold a depth-oriented film as Citizen Kane, and it dares some strange asymmetries that Welles doesn’t.
Huston may like pyramidal layouts, but in the second shot above, it’s fairly audacious to make the recumbent Falcon and Joel Cairo form such a low-lying base. In shots like these, Huston can provide subtler push-and-pull dynamics than Farber allows.
Huston does have a fondness for aggressive compositions, but I see that as a more general tendency of the deep-focus aesthetic, from Anthony Mann’s in-your-face foregrounds (Raw Deal, 1948) to pictures with no tony ambitions like Jungle Patrol (1948). The latter’s framing, like the Key Largo shot above, leaves its actors no room to move.
Even a problematic film like We Were Strangers can create tense compositions in a shootout that takes place in nearly total darkness, adding some percussive abstract shots of sparks and bullet spatters.
Moreover, Huston had plenty of competition for outré images. Many memorable ones were given us by John Alton, cinematographer for The Crooked Way (1949), or William Cameron Menzies, production designer (Kings Row, 1941).
Oddly, Farber had praised Rudolph Maté’s shooting in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). “With Maté, an expressive shot is never one that whams you over the head.” But this comment ignores Menzies’ eccentric shot designs (discussed in more detail here and here). If any images seem either airlessly clenched or preciously arty, it would be shots like these.
It may be that some Hollywood filmmakers pushed mannerist visuals further during Farber’s 1947-1949 leave, so that when he returned to reviewing he was more aware of these devices. Nonetheless, I think that Farber considered Huston’s crowded frames more unusual than they were.
Agee’s 1950 Life profile of Huston came out after both of Farber’s pieces. Rebutted in advance, Agee appears to have conceded some of his adversarial friend’s points. Although he reiterates his praise (Huston’s framing is “simple and spontaneous”), he does admit that the recent films show him to have become “more of a ‘camera’ man,” with the result that the camera sometimes imposes on the story, the lighting becomes nearly arty, and “the screen at times becomes rigid, over-stylized.”
Farber didn’t let up, poking at Huston again and again for years. Almost capriciously, he turned generous, calling The Asphalt Jungle “visually interesting and emotionally complex,” and he found much to praise in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), which has its share of wide-angle depth (below left). Another hiatus from writing seems to have kept him from reviewing Beat the Devil (1954), whose low-slung and intense close-up staging (below right) might have brought forth some entertaining invective.
In any case, Huston’s films had already provoked Farber to expose the depredations of the new Hollywood. His 1949 and 1950 pieces on one offending director started his revaluation of the 1940s and put him on the scent of White Elephant Art.
For all his brawling energy, Farber didn’t achieve the renown of Agee at the period. An artist yet to break out on the gallery scene, Farber worked as a carpenter and picked up other casual writing jobs. But he did distinguish his critical voice enough to become a minority taste in the 1940s and 1950s. Later he would be recognized by a public ready for his pungent provocations. That recognition was helped by his eagerness to write about contemporary European and avant-garde cinema for art mavens (in Artforum) and cinephiles (Film Culture, Film Comment).
What can we learn about 1940s film aesthetics from all this? The split decision on Huston opens up a problem in the Ferguson legacy. If two sensitive critics with so much in common can’t agree when a director is doing smooth, straight work and when he is showboating, how can we understand the distinctive features of American filmic storytelling? Was Hollywood cinema of the 1940s an era of expressive naturalism, integrating details with unassuming fluency, or was it an era of over-fancy filigree?
Both, I think. In every era Hollywood swings between plain style (whose norms shift somewhat) and self-congratulatory virtuosity (ditto). With Agee and Farber we have, for the first time, critics carefully charting the arc swinging between forms of realism and forms of artifice. Just as important, Farber’s exacting eye and bebop prose complemented Agee’s moody lyricism in registering the power of Hollywood’s exuberant creative ferment—a ferment that remained invisible to the Partisan Review critics of “mass culture.”
On the other hand, who says we have to respect the Ferguson legacy anyhow? Maybe we should give up authenticity and naturalism and “continuity” and fluidity and all the rest? Parker Tyler gives that option a try.
Thanks once again to Kent Jones and Jim Naremore for exceptionally generous email correspondence. Kent has been indispensable in helping me think about Farber’s achievement. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this blog series.
Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce photographs of Farber in the course of this series.
Again I must express gratitude to Robert Polito’s Library of America collection Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. It’s particularly precious for including all of Farber’s earliest work, as well as identifying what Time reviews he probably wrote. (Following Farber’s wishes, those reviews aren’t included in the anthology.) Thanks to this compendium, along with the detailed timeline, Polito’s wide-ranging introduction, and the massive index, we can take Farber’s measure as never before. If only a digital edition were available for us scholar-squirrels to search!
Farber’s death in 2008 triggered a new wave of affectionate appreciation that has not subsided. David Hudson tracked the responses on Green Cine Daily. Especially important is “The Adventure of Perception,” two interviews with Kent Jones conducted by Eric Hynes on the occasion of a 2008 homage to Farber. Noel King’s interview with Robert Walsh of 2001 furnishes valuable information; see for fuller thoughts Walsh’s introduction to the 1998 reedition of Negative Space. Richard Corliss wrote, as is his wont, a sparkling appraisal for Time.
I’ve benefited as well from Donald Phelps’ early and prescient appreciation, “Critic Going Everywhere,” in Covering Ground: Essays for Now (Croton, 1969), 115-121. Phelps’ little magazine, For Now, published a Farber collection in issue no. 9 (1968); several of his art reviews are included. Also invaluable is Greg Taylor’s lively Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999). Farber’s unattributed borrowing from Ferguson’s Kane essay is discussed by Colin Burnett here. Most recently, we have James Naremore’s compact, discerning essay on Farber in An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema (University of California Press, 2014), 264-274.
On negative space, see Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition (University of California Press, orig. 1943). The 1950 edition of Loran’s book thanks Hans Hofmann’s lectures and writings for helping him formulate his ideas. Hofmann’s ideas, which seem to owe a good deal to Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane (orig. 1926), are condensed in Search for the Real (1948). It’s likely that Farber, a fervent admirer of Cézanne in his youth, knew Loran’s book, and Hofmann’s teachings were circulating throughout the Manhattan art world of Farber’s day.
Incidentally, it seems that over the years the term “negative space” has become equated with what Loran calls negative shape–a two-dimensional graphic phenomenon, as in the Gestalt figure/ground flipping we see here. For Loran, negative space creates plastic, three-dimensional relations, and Hofmann agrees: “Space discloses itself to us through volumes. ‘Objects’ are positive space. Negative space results from the relation of objects. Negative space is as concrete to the artist as is objective-positive space, and possesses an equal three dimensional effectiveness” (Search for the Real, 66-67). Farber’s introduction to Negative Space would expand the term to indicate “the command of experience which an artist can set resonating through a film, a sense of terrain.” Still, even this metaphorical broadening suggests not empty areas but rather relationships.
There are affinities between Ferguson’s aesthetic, which I’ve sketched here, and Monroe Stahr’s advice to a screenwriter here. The history of deep-focus cinematography, with some emphasis on the 1940s, is considered in Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema, as well as in my On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. See also Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir.
My epigraph comes from S. J. Perelman’s satire on Farber and location-based movies, “Hell in the Gabardines,” Keep It Crisp (Random House, 1946), 3-14.
P.S. 24 March 2014: Through simple forgetfulness, I neglected to mention Jonathan Rosenbaum’s acute memoir-appreciation of Farber in Placing Movies, now reprinted with revisions on his website. Jonathan traces important contrasts among Farber, Sarris, and Kael, while interweaving recollections of his encounters with Farber. In his online introduction, he points to other useful items, including his review of Farber on Film and an online version of Donald Phelps’ For Now collection.
P.P.S. 24 March 2014: Adrian Martin has written to tell me that his online journal Rouge published a Farber dossier in 2009, which included the Donald Phelps essay I mention above, as well as memoirs and appreciations by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Bill Krohn, Patrick Amos, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Adrian himself, as well as a Farber piece on late-night radio. I regret not knowing about this dossier when I composed this entry, but it certainly merits the attention of every Farber-phile.
The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The earlier installments are here, here, here, and here. Because of the complexity of Farber’s career, I’ll devote a second entry to him shortly.
Emanuel Farber is the most currently celebrated critic of my three Rhapsodes of the 1940s. He is the cinephiles’ favorite, and his tastes, his ideas, and his prose have had enormous influence. His collected writings, edited by Robert Polito in a bulky Library of America edition, come festooned with praise from Scorsese, Schickel, Corliss, Wolcott, Sragow, Rosenbaum, and William Gibson. “The liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced,” notes Susan Sontag.
Out of many candidates, here’s a specimen of how Farber carried the controlled ecstasy of the 1940s critics into the 1960s. A 1969 essay on Hawks describes His Girl Friday:
Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty labels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, outmaneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.
The outpouring of words, the piling up of adjectives and modifying phrases, the ellipsis (no time to spare for ands, let alone periods), and the sideswipe reference to modern painting all bear the signature of a critic who knows how to make enthusiasm infectious. Even the repetition of bravado within the same sentence, which looks like an amateur gaffe, rings with its own—well, bravado.
He’s no less adept at the honorable American craft of hilarious grousing. Where Agee gave us elegant, if sometimes tormented, efforts to be fair to all, Farber can be fed up in the Mencken mode. He picks Larry Rivers, Dave Brubeck, and Twelve Angry Men as examples of the new middlebrow confidence man.
The figure who is engineering this middle-class blitz has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful nonconforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation. The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks and skills to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief. Avant-gardism has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist.
In all, Farber bequeathed us thirty-five years of good dirty fun. But his keen intelligence was launched during the era that preoccupies me at the moment: America in the 1940s.
Farber’s career falls, almost too neatly, into periods. From early 1942 through 1946, he reviewed films for The New Republic and published occasional art criticism there and elsewhere. Then he stopped writing for over two years. In early 1949 he signed on at The Nation, taking over after James Agee left. (“He made sure I got the job and I made sure I lost it.”) He reviewed film and some visual art until January 1954. For other venues he wrote longer pieces, many of them now famous. After another hiatus (1954-1957) he resumed writing film criticism, often with Patricia Patterson, before stopping altogether in 1977.
His most influential work starts in the Nation phase, from around 1950 on. He began to celebrate B-level crime films and hard-guy studio directors (Hawks, Walsh, Fuller, Siegel). As his purview expanded, he came up with labels like “Underground Film” and “White Elephant Art” and “Termite Art.” Then came his dense appreciations of Godard, Fassbinder, Michael Snow, and other 1960s and 1970s filmmakers, as well as extended essays revisiting action directors of the classic era.
The dominant image of Farber’s tastes didn’t arise by accident. When he compiled his essay collection Negative Space (1971), he included only two pieces from the 1940s proper and a few from 1950. In at least one case (“John Huston,” a portmanteau piece from 1949 and 1950 reviews), he revised what he had originally published to reflect his rethinking of Huston’s value. The anthology relied heavily on recently published pieces. His longer-form pieces like “The Gimp” (1952) and “Underground Films” (1957) set the tone and framework for the collection.
The writing he selected for Negative Space reinforces another aspect of Farber’s image: the aesthete cowboy. Farber had played football and baseball in high school and, instead of turning his painting skills to commercial illustration, he became a carpenter, a trade that sustained him for decades. He seems to have been at home in the pugilistic Abstract Expressionist circles of the 1950s. Clement Greenberg claims to have bested Farber in a fistfight, although Farber scared him. (“He could have beaten me up. . . . He had big hands.”) Years later Andrew Sarris reported that Farber nearly clobbered John Simon at a critics’ meeting.
In print, Farber punched at all weight levels and liked to work in close. He said that Agee “paid out tribute like a public-address system.” He called Sarris “a boneless Soupy Sales,” and found Susan Sontag “catlike” and possessed of “a confidence that her knowledge is all-purpose (if contracted, she’d show up in Vietnam).” The man who admired tough noirs declared Rock Hudson a Mother’s Boy and confessed: “I don’t understand the belt people get out of overwrought feminine pictures.”
Like anybody who cares about classic or modern films, I’ve learned a lot from Farber. In this and the next entry I want to put him in the context I’ve been sketching in the previous three entries in this series. I want, through him and Agee and Tyler, to grasp some possibilities of American film culture in the 1940s. In their usually tireless denunciations of the weekly fodder, what did these smart people think film had been, was, could be? What, to put it abstractly, were the aesthetic prospects of Hollywood cinema?
That means focusing on his early career. Rather than pinpointing traces of what would come later, a task admirably executed in Polito’s introduction to the Library of America volume, I pretend for most of these two entries that late Farber never happened. That is, I’m considering a very young man trying to make his way in the New York scene at a moment of cultural ferment.
We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
Piet Mondrian. New York Boogie Woogie (1941).
Farber had trained at art schools in California before he married another art student, Janet Terrace. After living for a while with Farber’s brother in Washington, D. C., the couple moved moved to Greenwich Village. In January 1942 Farber’s first art review for The New Republic appeared. When Otis Ferguson left the magazine for the Merchant Marine, Farber took his place as film reviewer. He had just turned twenty-five.
Once ensconced, he found himself alongside two of the most formidable critics on the cultural scene. Clement Greenberg and James Agee, both born in 1909, were only eight years older than Farber, but they had a big head start. They overshadowed him, both at the time and for decades afterward.
Farber was reviewing visual art for The New Republic before Greenberg began doing the same at The Nation, but Greenberg was far more famous. He had published two major essays in Partisan Review, then the Bible of the progressive literati. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) had kicked off the mass-culture debate that would surge through the next two decades. Showing the same knack for sharp-edged synthesis, Greenberg’s 1940 essay, “For a New Laocöon,” made a strident case for abstract art as the culmination of ambitious western painting.
Greenberg asserted that painting had for centuries been dominated by other arts, notably literature. Modern art had lifted the veil and revealed painting’s unique conditions of existence. From Courbet and the Impressionists to Cézanne and the cubists, painters had come to recognize that painting’s power lay not in telling stories (“illustration”) or portraying the world as photography could capture it (“illusion”). At last the painter, secure in knowledge of “the opacity of the medium,” could create new visual experiences solely through line, color, and form. Purism was the painter’s duty.
Greenberg benefited from a vacuum in America’s popular and elite press. While abstract art was widely accepted in Europe, most American critics were ignorant, hostile, or both. Many major magazines had no art critics on their rosters. Academics focused on earlier eras, and journalists either ignored or mocked abstraction and the other major movement of the period, surrealism.
Greenberg, an amateur painter, had no scholarly training in art. Most of what he had to say was old news to painters and scholars in the modernist camp. He derived most of his ideas about technique from lectures by the influential émigré Hans Hofmann. But Greenberg told a good story, and he treated modern art as initiating a new epoch in the history of visual expression. The progress of painting, loosely tied to changes in social structure, led inevitably to the defiant austerity of abstraction. As a subtle reader, brilliant polemicist, and shrewd packager, Greenberg managed to get the intelligentsia excited about one major wing of new art.
The readership of Partisan Review numbered only about eight thousand, but they were the right eight thousand. In late 1942, Greenberg expanded his campaign to the pages of The Nation. There, as the magazine’s first art critic, he ceaselessly promoted “the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great.” By the end of the decade, the painters Greenberg came to champion—Pollock, de Kooning, and a few others—would be recognized as modern masters, and he would be hailed as a prophet.
Farber’s views were partly in harmony with Greenberg’s. Like most critics, he took abstract art and surrealism to be the primary trends of the moment, and he valued the emerging Abstract Expressionists highly. He saw problems with “illustration,” especially that which was as melodramatic as Thomas Hart Benton’s. He could talk about picture planes and fidelity to materials with the best of them. But his criteria were pluralistic and his analytical categories surprisingly traditional.
Contra Greenberg, Farber’s reviews discuss pictures in relation to their subjects as well as their techniques. He analyzes compositions with art-school finesse, pointing up triangular designs and strategic symmetries. He doesn’t concentrate wholly on abstract art, and he respects representational masters like Max Weber and Utrillo (in a startlingly gushy review). Above all, Farber values feeling. Where Greenberg asks if a painting falls into step with the march toward purism, Farber looks for emotional expression.
In several passages we can read a covert dialogue with Greenberg, but they also represent Farber’s distinct aesthetic. Snippets from his 1942 reviews add up to a manifesto pleading for the importance of emotion—that of the artist, and that of the viewer.
The really important part of the painting—the feeling that the artist wanted.
The essential function of painting [is] the honest individual emotion put down forthrightly without too much regard to the weight of centuries of painting already done, and conventions already explored.
The artist is supposed to react emotionally to his environment in color and line, if his audience is ever to.
Weber [The Rabbi, 1940, right] always pushes a gesture, a stance, or simple area of color to its fullest emotional presence. There is never any doubt of what you feel from any spot in his canvas.
Extreme morbidity dominates John Flannagan’s sculptures.
[Tchelitchew] manages to convey his gloom no matter how badly he paints. . . . There’s a place for a wider scope of emotion in painting, and this Russian artist shows how moving and universal extreme introspection can be in painting.
[Chagall’s] greatness is in expressing himself completely and freely into everything he paints.
I have yet to see a painting which reminds me of [picture] planes, and I’m sure that Rousseau wasn’t feeling planes when he painted tigers.
By 1945, Farber has become perfectly explicit.
The purist argument inevitably starts by narrowing painting down to a matter of designed line and color on a flat surface instead of showing that design is constantly driven, controlled, and ordered by the expression.
Art criticism had always sought a balance between analysis of the painter’s craft and a consideration of how the craft conveyed meaning and feeling. The result gives evidence of the artist’s personality. Farber’s adherence to this traditional view didn’t block him from appreciating new art. It simply allowed him to treat all art as potentially exciting.
In order to appraise how well artists achieved expressive form, Farber mobilized his unique gifts as a writer. His style, alternately probing and slangy, could make subject, theme, design, and emotion come alive. In a Fletcher Martin picture “a horse tosses a cowboy sky high, but the painting is done with ease and no weight thrown around. The wise handling of rhythmic line and feathery color is enough for this artist to get across the action.” As for Goya:
When his pictures were allegorical, Goya moved from naturalism to supernaturalism, to goats, donkey-people, chinchilla rats, and the witches and brownies (nice witches), and in either approach there is the definite human imprint, the unmistakeable earmark of man. It is a matter of detail, of his driving deeper and harder into the idiosyncratic detail, so that it is realized at its most knobby, crooked, or bent likeness.
And, not for nothing, there is sheer representational skill: “Goya could draw a bull out of this world.”
But when an overblown concept created chaotic form, as with Benton’s war series “Year of Peril,” Farber called foul.
His painting now is apt to be Jesus on the cross, being harpooned from the ground by fascist goons and from the air by the light of a Messerschmidt. . . . There are a dozen different dominant colors in this painting and no relationship between any of them. They cross each other out. The conception is one of disunity since each form is dissociated from the others in the picture.
In German, a Farber is a dyemaster, and Farber lived up to his name in being especially sensitive to color’s contribution to the viewer’s response. Greenberg famously misunderstood Mondrian’s theories and ascribed to New York Boogie Woogie colors it didn’t have. By contrast, Farber licks his lips when he tells of Chagall’s lemon suns and raspberry patches of ice. The “testicle-like fruit” in a painting glows like gold velvet, and Farber often notes “color rhythms,” the ways in which a single hue varies in shade. In one painting Milton Avery expands “the vividness of the main color—the St. Patrick’s Day green of the wall—by a scaled off series of dulled, almost dried greens.” When an artist fails at color, as most watercolorists do, Farber calls the results anemic “for both pictorial and emotional reasons.”
Greenberg, implacable foe of mass culture, denigrated certain painters as “comic-strippers.” But if like Farber you’re looking for feeling in art, why not try the comics? After all, cartoons are designed to elicit a laugh. If they’re really good, they’re not just reliant on the dialogue or the caption; they have to be drawn funny. Just as Agee brings to Monsieur Verdoux analytical techniques characteristic of literary criticism of his day, Farber tries out traditional art-historical perspectives on the most vulgar form of popular imagery.
His virtuoso 1944 column on comics displays a connoisseur’s delight. As with film, comics’ age had given way to mediocrity—even as a youth Farber was looking grumpily back at the old days—but while deploring the current adventure and soap-opera strips, he finds time to praise Bushmiller’s Nancy (with its characters bearing “identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names”), The Bungles Family (with their memorable noses), and the almost completely forgotten Silly Milly.
Silly Milly is drawn in typical McGovern style, as though by a wind current, and has a prehistoric animal for a hair-do, a very expressive, giant-size eye, and a perfectly oval profile. It is one of those comics with animated décor, like “Smoky Stover,” with adjoining family portraits shaking hands, and one that tries for laughs in every part of the box. . . . It is one of the most sophisticated of comics, smart-alecky, corny, sloppy and half unlikable, but produces its eyedropper of humor each day, without fail.
Another form of popular illustration is practiced by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Clement Greenberg calls him limited in talent but fairly skillful, chiefly because he sensed the power of black and white “as sheer color.” Farber, the practiced artist, explains the starkness of Posada’s design as partly necessitated by scale (the bigger pictures are “the size of a slice of bread”) and method (cutting in type metal leads to “closed, mean forms” and “staccato movement”). He doesn’t forget subject matter either, offering a casual inventory of Posada’s lurid scenes.
He was especially interested in showing executions and murders, which he depicted at the moment when the murderer’s knife was on its way through the victim’s throat, or just as the firing squad had emptied their guns. But he also leaned heavily on fires, collisions, accidental deaths, and he did two good illustrations of what the end of the world might look like.
Lyonel Feininger was one of the few serious painters who took up comic-strip art, and perhaps that knowledge led Greenberg to dismiss him in a few lines. In the same amount of space, Farber conjures up the unique Feininger look:
A make-believe world like that of a little boy’s fairy story, with its scratch-lined, bug-like people, scalloped bridges, Toonerville trains, streets and houses like those in the movie “Dr. Caligari,” four-masted schooners (than which there are none more wondrous) in candy green seas under the inevitable yellow moon like a child’s scissor cutout of the letter C.
In exactitude Farber outpaces Greenberg. Whenever the two reviewed the same shows and books, comparison favors Farber’s lively, funny analyses. Greenberg predictably yields up gaseous generalizations and stern pronouncements about the inevitable future of painting or, more ominously, the historical fate awaiting the painter he’s reviewing. Consider the two men’s handling of William Steig’s morose little book The Lonely Ones. Steig was later known as a cartoonist and author of children’s stories, but in the mid-1940s he was making a reputation as a satiric artist along the lines of Saul Steinberg.
Greenberg takes Steig’s drawings as capturing the way that modern people use personal confession as a weapon. They admit their loneliness but also seek pity in a self-aggrandizing way. Although Greenberg praises Steig for conveying ideas sharply, he concludes that what Steig gives us are cartoons, and thus “not quite art.” His drawings rely on stereotyped imagery and don’t meet modernist criteria. Line “is not felt for its own sake”; everything is given in comic-strip symbols, like raised eyebrows for surprise. Accordingly, Greenberg doesn’t bother to analyze Steig’s technique.
Farber drills deeper. He diagnoses Steig’s first book, about neurosis, as less disturbing than this new volume, which teeters toward psychosis. Farber grants that Steig sometimes falls back on comics technique, but in his best work his line has expressive qualities. It “defines sharply and cold-bloodedly the very crux of a crushing moment, the core of a disturbed personality.” Even when he’s not portraying people, his work is shot through with anxiety. There could hardly be a more unpromising picture than this.
But Farber explains:
In the rendition of Nerves (a ball balancing precariously on the edge of a table) perspective, tilt of the table, light and line all contribute to the fact that the ball will surely fall off, but when? In this particular drawing it is interesting to notice the details, which are so few and so unobtrusive as to go usually unnoticed—the conception of the unnaturally shaped shadow under the table is highly erratic and sprawling in contour, recalling the loose, watery, uncoordinated state of the nervous breakdown. This is in contrast to the sharp, ordered, concrete world of the table. Steig shows you the eerie, unsubstantial level to which the ball is about to plunge. The drawing of the table is equally interesting, because it carries, despite its unswerving realism, the feeling of the underprivileged little people that infuses everything that Steig draws.
You won’t find, I think, anything as fine-grained in Greenberg’s 1940s reviews. Farber the practicing artist finds emotional qualities in what Greenberg discusses, vaguely, as style and concept. Farber agrees that Steig’s line isn’t “felt for its own sake”; it’s felt for feeling’s sake. If he can get this much out of this simple drawing, you can imagine what he can do with Cézanne, Mondrian, and Robert Motherwell.
Farber’s unpretentious emphasis on feeling as carried by form allowed him to do what the other Rhapsodes managed in their own fashion: to simply sidestep the mass culture debate and face popular art straightforwardly. Farber’s blunt acceptance of images, high or low, on their own terms is given great force by his style, a world away from the inflations of Greenberg and the obiter dicta of the Partisan Review cohort. Farber’s colorful commentary—form plus feeling, scrutiny of detail, combustible diction—would become even more stirring when he moved to film reviewing.
This series continues here.
I owe immense thanks to Kent Jones for expansive email conversations about Farber (and Agee). Thanks as well to Jim Naremore for corresponding with me on some particular points, and to my long-time friend and colleague J. J. Murphy, who helped me understand the 1940s art scene. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this entry and the whole blog series.
Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce the photograph of Farber surmounting this entry.
Indispensable to anyone writing about Farber, or film, is the superb Library of America collection edited by Robert Polito, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. His art reviews remain uncollected. A bibliography is available in the catalogue Manny Farber (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1985), n.p. I’m grateful to Eric Dienstfrey for his help in rounding up these items.
I’ll supply some more references and links for Farber’s film criticism in the next installment. Here, though, I must signal the vivid memoir written by Janet Richards, Farber’s first wife. Common Soldiers: A Self-Portrait and Other Portraits (Archer Press, 1979) includes recollections of their years in New York and their time with Farber’s family.
Useful surveys of American abstraction and its context are Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting (Praeger, 1970) and Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (University of California Press, orig. 1972). The major player in that game was Clement Greenberg. “Towards a New Laocöon” is included in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-38. My quotation about the necessary direction of pictorial art is from “Review of an Exhibition of Andre Masson,” 99, and the observations on William Steig come from “Steig’s Gallery: The Lonely Ones,” 137-138.
On Greenberg, the standard biography is Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg (Scribners, 1997); Greenberg’s report on vanquishing Farber is on p. 82. (“He was so neurotic. He could’ve beaten me up.”) A less adulatory account is Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2006). Greenberg’s “New Laocöon” essay implicitly draws on sources including Sheldon Cheney, A Primer of Modern Art (Boni and Liveright, 1924) and Expressionism in Art (Liveright, 1934) and James Johnson Sweeney, Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1934). A primary influence on Greenberg was the teaching of Hans Hoffman, sampled in Search for the Real, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr (Addison Gallery, 1948).
One last note. Janet Richards records in her autobiography the couple’s trip from California across the country. Driving through Wisconsin, they stopped by my home town.
We thought then we would live in Madison, a lovely small college city. We even rented a room with a stove and a sink in it. But after Manny had been to the Labor Council and discovered that the wages in Wisconsin for second year carpenter’s apprentices were too small even to pay our rent, we left Madison.
If Madison’s 1939 wages had been higher, the fate of American film criticism would have been very different.
Lyonel Feininger, Angler with Blue Fish II (1912).
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.
This series continues here.
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).