James Agee’s Cinema
by Zoe Beloff
Not many people today are familiar with the work of James Agee. Perhaps you might have heard of his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration with photographer Walker Evans about white sharecroppers in Alabama during the great depression. He described his approach as “anti-sociology”. It is also testament, a work of advocacy for those who have nothing, and a great modernist work of literature inspired by James Joyce. I have often thought that if I ever got the opportunity to teach an advanced documentary film class, I would love to spend the entire semester thinking about documentary through the lens of this book, which even though it is composed only of words and still photographs, asks profound questions about what a documentary is and what it can be, and how one person can speak for another, and how difficult this is.
Agee loved cinema very much. From 1941 to 1947 he wrote film reviews with the idea that pencil and paper cost less than a feature length motion picture with the corresponding freedom of execution. About this time he did start working on films, mainly as a writer. As I read his essays on cinema, I realized that I loved many of the same films and directors that he did. I felt as though we were having a dialogue, only he was much more articulate, witty, sharp tongued, and perceptive than I will ever be. He had only one rule for movies that he cared about, “that the film interests the eyes, and does its job through the eyes.” Like many left artists in the mid twentieth century, he believed, as I do, that films should both entertain and make people think, and that this is in no way a contradiction. So, I decided to invite him to lead a seminar on film. Here is the syllabus. It contains films he wrote about and films that he worked on.
Even back in the late 1940s, Agee knew that cinema might not last too much longer, and he wanted to keep it alive as a popular art form against what he called “the ghastly gelatinous nirvana of television.” So, I imagine screenings will take place be in a seedy run-down cinema that no longer exists, somewhere in the vicinity of Times Square. This is where he feels most at home. As he puts it, “the West Times Square audience is probably for that matter the finest audience in the country (certainly, over and over it has proved its infinite superiority to the run of the ‘art theater’ devotees, not to mention the quality and conduct of the Museum of Modern Art film audiences). As long as such an audience exists, no one in Hollywood has a right to use the stupidity of the public for an alibi.” After the screenings, we will adjourn for discussion to a favorite dive bar. Agee will drink much more than us, mostly scotch, but he will appear quite sober nonetheless.
You really should read the book Agee on Film if you want to participate. To get us started I have quoted a few of his notes on the films we are going to see.
In the first half of the twentieth century many left artists like Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin loved Chaplin. Agee felt the same way. Chaplin critiqued society with his gags and pratfalls, a language that everyone can understand, the world over.
One A.M., Charlie Chaplin (1916)
“In One A.M., barring one immobile taxi driver, Chaplin plays alone, as a drunk trying to get upstairs and into bed. It is a sort of inspired elaboration on a soft-shoe dance, involving a lazy Susan table, exquisite footwork on a flight of stairs, a contretemps with a huge, ferocious pendulum, and the funniest and most perverse Murphy bed in movie history—and, always made physically lucid, the delicately weird mental processes of a man ethereally sozzled.”
The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin (1920)
“Anyone who has seen Chaplin eat a boiled shoe like a brook trout in The Gold Rush has seen perfection.”
The General, Buster Keaton (1927)
“Keaton was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work, and he brought pure physical comedy to its greatest heights. Beneath his lack of emotion, he was also uninsistently sardonic; deep below that, giving a disturbing tension and grandeur to the foolishness, for those that sensed it, there was in his comedy a freezing whisper not of pathos but of melancholia. With the humor, the craftsmanship, and the action there was often besides, a fine, still, and sometimes dreamlike beauty. Much of the civil war picture The General is with hailing distance of Matthew Brady.”
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, Lev Kuleshov (1924)
I have to confess that James Agee did not choose this film, I did. But I hope he will forgive me. I am really interested to hear what he will have to say because I know he loves both radical Soviet directors and slapstick. In the story, a wealthy American industrialist comes to Moscow with his cowboy sidekick. They are captured by a band of thieves masquerading as counter-revolutionaries.
This screening gives us an opportunity to explore how Lev Kuleshov transplanted his love of American silent cinema to Moscow and made it his own. We would like to hear more of Agee’s thoughts about communism. I know he believes that wealth is a curse and money makes him queasy, which sometimes means he forgets to cash his hard-earned pay checks. He is sympathetic to the idea of communism, but not communism as it actually exists in the real world. Let’s face it, he never wants to fit in with anyone else’s rules.
Here’s how he puts it: “I am most certainly ‘for’ an ‘intelligent’ ‘communism’; no other form or theory of government seems to me conceivable; but even this is only a part of much more, and a means to an end; and in every concession to a means, the end is put in danger of all but certain death. I feel a violent enmity and contempt toward all factions and all joiners. I ‘conceive of’ my work as an effort to be faithful to my perceptions. I am not interested in ‘expressing’ ‘myself’ as an ‘individual’ except when it is suggested that I ‘express’ someone else.” I know what he is talking about. I feel the same way.
Additional reading: Viktor Shlovsky’s Journey to the Land of the Movies (1926), a book for children about a Soviet Boy who goes to Hollywood to learn how to make movies.
Zero de Conduit, Jean Vigo (1933)
In the spirit of ‘not joining in’ let’s watch this amazing anarchist film about a few boys who spark a wild rebellion at a French boarding school. Here’s what Agee writes: “I happen to share a good deal of Vigo’s peculiar kind of obsession for liberty and against authority, and can feel this in particularly clear emotional focus, as he does, in terms of the children and masters in a school. So the spirit of this film, its fierceness and gaiety, the total absence of well-constructed ‘constructive’ diagnosis and proscription, the enormous liberating force of its quasi-nihilism, its humor, directness, kindliness, criminality, and guile, forms for me as satisfying a revolutionary expression as I know.”
Nightmare Alley, Edmund Goulding (1947)
This movie is nothing fancy, not art, just Hollywood entertainment but one that’s stayed with me for decades. It got under Agee’s skin too. Here’s how he summarizes the plot: “Nightmare Alley is the story of a cold young criminal (Tyrone Power) who starts as a carnival ‘mentalist’, moves on to a Chicago night club, and is on the verge of the big time (pseudo-religious, with prospects of a personal temple and radio station) when two women he has used gum up his act…. This kind of wit and meanness is so rare in the movies today that I had the added special pleasure of thinking, ‘oh no they won’t have the guts to do that” but they do, and as long as they have any nerve at all, they have quite a lot.”
The Curse of the Cat People, Robert Wise (1944)
“Masquerading as a routine case of Grade B horrors—and it does very well at that job—the picture is in fact a brave, sensitive, and admirable little psychological melodrama about a lonely six-year-old girl, her inadequate parents, a pair of recluses in a neighboring house, and the child’s dead insane mother, who becomes the friend and playmate of her imagination… I wish that the makers of the film and RKO might be given some special award for the whole conception and performance of the family servant, who is one of the most unpretentiously sympathetic, intelligent, anti-traditionalist, and individualized Negro characters I have ever seen presented on the screen.”
In the Street, Helen Levitt (1948)
This is an observational documentary of street life in Spanish Harlem focusing on children’s games. Helen Levitt was a photographer, she had been taking photographs in Harlem when she came up with the idea of making a film. Agee agreed to shoot it with a little Cine-Kodak home-movie camera. He had never picked up a movie camera before but you will see he has an amazing eye. As his friend Manny Farber put it, “The people who wound up in this movie probably thought the camera-wielder was a stray citizen having trouble with the lock of a small black case that could contain anything from a piccolo to a tiny machine gun.” You can watch the film here but honestly it looks so much better on 16mm: https://www.loc.gov/item/mbrs01863585/
The Quiet One, Sidney Myers (1948)
A documentary drama about a tormented and desperately poor African American boy who is sent to a school in the country where he meets councilors who can begin to help him. It is an extraordinary portrait of a child who has been emotionally abandoned and feels that he has no place in this world. Like In the Street it is a fascinating view of street life in Harlem in the 1940s. Even in this horribly degraded version on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcwS0wNvouQ) one can image how amazing it must have looked.
The film was made as a work of advocacy for the Witwyck School. Agee wrote the commentary. It begins like this: “To keep open a place of healing, courage, and hope, for as many as we can afford to care for, among the thousands of those children who are sleeping tonight in impoverished little rooms and in poor fugitive derelict holes in the rotten depths of the city: Whom poverty, bewilderment, hunger, pride, fear, lovelessness, may drive into sickness, into crime. And who in a world which disfigures them cannot be cared for, and are not wanted.”
The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton (1955)
This was the only film directed by the actor Charles Laughton. Agee wrote the screenplay based on a book by Davis Grubb. Having seen this series of films, let us discuss how the films he loved breathed through the film. It is also about children. The dreamlike atmosphere of the midnight journey down the river that return us to the world of German expressionism but also horror films like The Curse of the Cat People. The presence of Lillian Gish, now an old lady yet still beautiful, recalling her luminous presence as a young girl in the films of D. W. Griffith, the director whom Agee credited with “inventing Hollywood.”
Let’s hope for a good 35mm print!