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Million Dollar Movie

You guys know that I’m a Pauline Kael junkie, but if I had to choose just one book of film criticism I just might go with this:

Agee has two great long pieces in this collection–”Undirectable Director,” on John Huston, and another one, written for Life, on the golden age of silent comedy. But what I really love, are the brief reviews Agee did for The Nation and Time. Doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen most of the movies or even if I agree with his take. Agee is just a pleasure to read.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Million Dollar Movie

Tags:  agee on film  james agee

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One comment

1 Dockside Courtesies   ~  Aug 28, 2010 12:44 am

I acquired a palpable dislike for Kael from my adolescent reading of her Kane/Orson Welles critique (offhand, I don't recall the name of the famous piece), which I thought was almost entirely wrongheaded, vaguely mean-spirited, and highly vexing to me as a youthful worshipper of Welles.

Some years later I discovered Agee's book of criticism, and was caught by the very first review, which begins with a longish, awkward introduction of himself as the new Nation critic, makes a few somewhat random observations, and then offers a brief but penetrating analysis of "kitsch": "kitsch takes the place of that depth of heart and mind from which a first-rate artist works; and taste, tricks, detail, a dancer's delight in form, are the deft and of themselves respectable substitutes for a first-rate artist's perfecting of his perception."

Well, that was an eye-opener for me, and Agee became my touchstone for balanced, astute critical judgment; the one person, if any, who might have a fair claim to be dubbed the final arbiter of taste.

I no longer hold him in such high esteem -- he has his missteps and stumbles, and sometimes seems very wrong indeed. But I don't know of anyone better at film criticism than Agee at his best.

Some years ago, a film critic for the LA Weekly wrote a review which used, without attribution, the phrase "unpredictable proliferations of energy and beauty," which was plainly lifted from Agee's review of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I wrote a letter to editor complaining of the plagiarism, and explained how the use of that precise phrase could in no way have been accidental. They printed half my letter, but left out my pre-emptive strike against the predictable defense that the borrowing was inadvertent. And indeed the critic explained away the pilferage on those grounds. Sigh; it still irks me after 20 years.

It seems to me that Kael took a great deal from Agee, although she certainly developed her own distinctive voice and style. Brilliant, penetrating, and a delightful prose stylist at her best, but I often disagree with her conclusions and judgment. I found Paul Schrader's article about his relationship with her delightful and moving, and have overcome my youthful grudge against her Welles polemic, but never acquired a taste for her writing.

Friday night fragments stirred up by your mention of Agee.

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