Friday, 20 April 2007
Tomorrow David Grollman and I head for San Francisco to have burritos at Taqueria Cancun. Um, and play some gigs also.
I was hoping to have finished James Agee's Agee on Film before I left, but I'm only halfway through with it. I won't bring it with me as the books I am bringing have one-way tickets only. It's a very mild form of spring cleaning.
But what about Agee on Film? It collects all of the film reviews Agee wrote for The Nation and a few other pieces. I was interested in reading it both because Pauline Kael cited it as an influence and because it covered the 1940s, an interesting time for movies.
I can only guess what Kael might have admired specifically about Agee's writing. She was very analytical whereas Agee was very impressionistic. Kael struck me as knowing much more about the way movies are actually made and she appeared to pay more attention to films' soundtracks. So far, Agee has yet to mention Bernard Herrmann even though he has reviewed at least two movies with very fine Herrmann scores (Jane Eyre and Hangover Square). I prefer Kael to Agee in just about every way.
There are some very good things about Agee, but I'd like to complain about him a bit more before getting to them. His writing style is hard going. Twenty or thirty pages into this book, I started wondering if he got paid by the comma. After reading some more, I began to suspect that he was a favorite film critic of people who don't like movies.
This suspicion is supported by a piece of evidence which has been included proudly in the front of this book, a letter to the editors of The Nation from W. H. Auden, who praises Agee's "astonishing excellence". Auden begins with clumsy and obnoxious (to say the least) praise: "In the good old days before pseudo-science and feminism ruined her, it was considered rude to congratulate one's hostess on her meals, since praise would imply that they could have been bad, and by the same rule of courtesy it should be unnecessary to write grateful letters to editors."
I wonder when those "good old days" were exactly. Auden then goes on to satisfy me that I shouldn't care at all what he thinks about Agee's or anybody's movie reviews. "I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love." He goes on to write that "What [Agee] says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible — to me, rather unimportant — subject..."
So there you have it. James Agee is the film critic for people who don't like film or criticism. This reminds me of Pauline Kael's review of West Side Story: "When a really attractive Easterner said to me, 'I don't generally like musicals, but have you seen West Side Story? It's really great,' I felt a kind of gnawing discomfort. I love musicals and so I couldn't help being suspicious of the greatness of a musical that would be so overwhelming to somebody who didn't like musicals." Kael's article on West Side Story is one of her best pieces of writing. "Well, it's a great musical for people who don't like musicals", she says.
Agee is going to be hard to read for anybody who bristled at Auden's comment about feminism above. Just yesterday I groaned as I read Agee's mention of a song performed in a movie by "Sinatra and a colored singer". This is typical.
Also typical is the following bizarre passage. This is one of many examples of Agee using a lot of words to say nothing at all. Go ahead and try to guess, if you can, what movie Agee is writing about. I'll give you a hint. The year is 1944.
"The makers of the film had an all but ideal movie: A nominally very simple story, expressing itself abundantly in visual and active terms, which inclosed and might have illuminated almost endless recessions and inter-reverberations of emotion and meaning into religious and sexual psychology and into naturalistic legend."
Agee is at his best when looking at the war films, from the most to least propagandistic. He objects to the dehumanization of the human beings on the "other" side of the conflict. On this and related subjects he is almost as good to read as Orwell. I'll dig up some quotes for that when I get back from the Boise Experimental Music Festival.
Agee does have some good movie sense. He loved Hitchcock and Val Lewton, and spotted Robert Mitchum as a great talent right away. Some of his more surprising remarks reveal that he didn't care for Casablanca and didn't think Orson Welles was so great.
National Velvet was the movie. And you thought it was about a couple of kids and a horse!
I've just read W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden or The British Agent. It's considered a novel but is more a series of short stories based on Maugham's experiences as a spy during WWI. With the exception of a few casually bigoted sentences, it doesn't seem dated at all. The book's main strengths are its lovely prose style and its vivid depiction of the stupidity of war, revolution, violent conflict — history itself.
In one story, Ashenden plays a sort of cat-and-mouse game with a British traitor and his German wife. When Ashenden wins this particular game he feels no triumph, only regret. While they couldn't have been more on the side of the enemy, they were real people with both good and bad qualities, with unique experiences, thoughts and feelings, many of which Ashenden found admirable and touching. The man's death and the woman's sorrow show merely that war is an affliction with which we curse ourselves.
Another story involves an Indian terrorist who has been setting off bombs and killing innocent bystanders in an attempt to cause as much trouble as possible for the British occupation forces in India. Ashenden expresses approval of the man's courage at which point his chief, R., admonishes him not to forget that they're talking about a dangerous criminal. Ashenden has this to say, somewhat startling to read in 2007: "I don't suppose he'd use bombs if he could command a few batteries and half a dozen battalions. He uses what weapons he can. You can hardly blame him for that. After all, he's aiming at nothing for himself, is he? He's aiming at freedom for his country. On the face of it it looks as though he were justified in his actions."
In another story Ashenden has to decide whether to give an order to blow up a German munitions plant in Austria. It will aid the war effort but kill many Polish workers in the plant. Ashenden has been advised by Polish resistance fighters to give the order if necessary, but only if absolutely necessary, as they do not want to sacrifice their own people if they don't have to. Ashenden doesn't know what to do and has no more time to think about it. He has this exchange with his contact, a Polish agent:
Perhaps you can guess how this story ends if I tell you that its title is "The Flip of a Coin".
I've heard that Ashenden was an influence on Ian Fleming's Bond novels. There are some definite similarities, the strongest being between Fleming's Bond short story "A Quantum of Solace" and the Maugham chapters — particularly "His Excellency" — that relate Ashenden's encounter with a British ambassador in a city called "X".
Ashenden was sort of made into a movie by Hitchcock in the 1930s. The film was based on a play that was based — loosely, if the movie is any indication — on the book. I really liked the movie before I read the book but now I find the movie worth watching only for Peter Lorre's performance — particularly the tantrum he throws in Ashenden's bathroom — and for Hitchcock's wildly enthusiastic use of sound: the church organ and bells, the agitated dog, the Swiss chorus and the excitingly symphonic chocolate-factory scene.
One difference between the book and the movie involves an agent called the "Hairless Mexican". In both book and film Ashenden asks R. why he calls this character the Hairless Mexican. R.'s answer in the book is, "Because he's hairless and because he's a Mexican." His answer in the movie is that it's because he's got a lot of curly hair and because he's not a Mexican.