Me on Agee

I’ve been reading a lot lately. “Books, Jerry.” One book I keep plugging away at is Agee on Film, the collection of James Agee’s film writings in The Nation and elsewhere. I checked it out of the library (in this case the Library of America binding which includes much more of his work than the original compendium of his columns) knowing that it was unlikely I would read it cover to cover. As I wrote a month ago: “Instead of sweating what movies Agee is talking about, I’m simply reading to see how he talks about them.”

Two things about Agee’s column stick out to my modern, critical eye:

  • He wrote about any film he preferred, whether or not it was new or available to the public
  • Limited by column inches, he was careful only to cover just as much as he could fit; if a film deserved more inches, he would tell the reader to come back next week

One example is his column on August 25th, 1945, is devoted to three films, each getting its own paragraph: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Over 21, and Bewitched. The final paragraph is an apology.

I must apologize for postponing even the attempt to review The Story of G.I. Joe; the secondary radiations of the atomic bomb render me still unfit to consider a piece of work I so deeply admire.

Three weeks later he makes up for it, devoting his next column entirely to The Story of G.I. Joe under the headline “A GREAT FILM.”

Now, film releases, publicity and publishing have changed a lot since the 1940s when Agee was writing. But it’s hard, as a modern writer, not to be a bit jealous of the way Agee wrote about cinema. Today we have unlimited space, so we can devote untold “inches” to each and every film. This is more a blessing than a curse, I would say, since we now have available so much amazing writing on each and every film. Yet as a writer it can fast become overwhelming. Unlimited space on the web doesn’t necessarily free up space in my mind.

It’s been a long time since I tried to keep up with reviewing weekly releases. Part of the reason I let myself drift away from it1 was because sitting down to review a movie stopped interesting me. I had a basic formula, and I had to push myself to work through the full piece. I’d go to edit them and realize I had gone through the motions and delivered X, Y or Z paragraphs, as I had for other films.

My mistake was thinking about movies atomically. Here’s a film I need to review, and so I will do so in a relative vacuum.2 Weekly reviews of single films is vital work, both in the moment and for posterity. Contemporaneous reviews of films are vital to our understanding of the state of the art.

And yet, there’s something so alluring about Agee’s method of sharing all that he’d seen. It’s closer to the sort of film writing I’d like to publish here. I’m not going to promise I’ll do it, since my archives are littered with promises never kept for turning this site into something more than it is. But I’d certainly like to try.

I’ve spent some time pondering: what would this sort of writing look like? Would it have a headline? Should I limit the length of the articles? Those are (somewhat) important considerations, but they’re pointless if I don’t just start publishing the writing. In the end it’s no one article that makes a film critic reliable, or have a style; it’s the body of work. People came to Agee’s column because they liked his writing. And maybe they encountered a film they’d like to see because of it.

So far this year I’ve seen (at last count) twenty-seven films, only one of which was actually released this year (Hail, Caesar!). That shouldn’t stop me from writing about what I’ve been watching, but it has. With SXSW upon us, it’s a perfect opportunity for me to crack my knuckles and stretch out the old writing muscles. Check back in the coming days to see if I follow through.

  1. There are many, many reasons, starting with this not being a job that pays the bills. ↩︎

  2. To be clear, I’m talking about something that hampers me. There are so many critics who do amazing weekly writing that overcomes what I’m talking about here, whose voices and personalities come through given the weekly churn of releases. ↩︎