James Agee and the Need for Film Criticism History


This past year has seen its fair share of celebrity deaths. People like Peter O’Toole, Paul Walker, James Gandolfini, Joan Fontaine, and Julie Harris all lost their lives in 2013 due to various illnesses or tragic events. But the one person that touched me the most was Roger Ebert. He lost his life way back in April, but I am still mourning his loss. He was a major influence on my life. Since I was little, I would watch his movie review shows with my dad. I would parody him and Gene Siskel by miming thumbs up or down at the dinner table or to my stuffed animals when I was feeling feisty. He also came from a town not far from my own hometown. I grew up in the middle of Illinois a mere hour from the Champaign/Urbana area. It was where we would go if we wanted to go to a mall or get into a bar underage. I looked up to him as a local celebrity that everyone knew. I figured that if he was able to get out of the Midwest (and I mean the real Midwest, not the Chicago version of it. The real Midwest is full of corn, churches, and backwards sentiments, not skyscrapers, blues and awesome food.) and become famous, then why can’t I? As I grew older, I began to look up to him more and more. He became the de facto judgement on whether a movie is good or not. He influenced my style of writing and my ambition. This man took the death of his co-star, public television and his vocal chords in stride. He was able to adapt to each circumstance and evolve while still maintaing his love of movies. When he was enthusiastic about a movie he loved, he wasn’t afraid of championing a movie other people disliked (Remember his review for Garfield?) and he was able to eviscerate any movie he felt was unworthy of his time. He was, quite frankly, a great man.

After he passed, I went to my local Barnes and Noble (shh… I was grieving) and bought his autobiography. In his autobiography, he talks about his contemporaries in the industry. People like Pauline Kael. Pauline Kael stopped writing film reviews for the New Yorker when I was three. So I didn’t immediately know who this woman was nor her impact on the industry. But I was intrigued mostly because she was a woman film reviewer, like I am (or at least aspire to be). After reading a little bit about her, I decided to check her biography out at the library. This led me to another name. James Agee. I have no doubt in my mind that you know who Roger Ebert is. You might even know Pauline Kael, but I bet you five dollars that you don’t know who James Agee was. (You can send that five dollars to: 123 I Know More Things Than You Do Drive.)  The reason that you probably don’t know him is simple. He only wrote film criticism for seven years in the forties before film critics were considered celebrities in their own right. Despite his small output, he was monumental in the history of film criticism. He developed a novelistic style that would influence later critics like Les Cahier du Cinema group, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. Through his less academic style, he was able to convey his hatred or enthusiasm for a movie better than his contemporaries. He loved the movies and took his positions at Time and The Nation because of this, not just because he was a journalist in need of a paycheck. This was a new concept in the forties. A journalist wanting to write about movies not just because it would advance his career, but because he adored them? Weird. After he left the Nation, he would go on to influence film itself by writing the screenplays to The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, two really great fifties movies. Therefore he is known to history as a screenwriter that once made money reviewing films as opposed to a film critic who decided to write screenplays.

This gets me to the point of this article. There are countless think pieces or interviews on the internet made by filmmakers, actors and other creative people in the film industry about how little film critics should influence the film going public. One of the most recent examples of this is a youtube video where Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer all talk about how much damage the film criticism community has done to The Lone Ranger. They talk about how most film critics hate on something purely because it is fashionable not just because it is bad. They essentially blame film critics for bombing their movie. While this may or may not be true, I think this example illustrates the film criticism community’s need to reframe their position in the this world. Instead of being the punch bags for these epic failures or a straight nine to five job for mediocre writers which produces subpar reviews that I am sure the people behind the Lone Ranger are talking about, we should expect the reviews to be taken as seriously as someone takes a short story or a poem. What we commit to digital paper should be as well constructed and well thought out as possible. We should draw on the examples of past great film critics and learn from their style of writing. People like Pauline Kael, James Agee, Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Andre Bazin should be well known to a film critic. Their criticism should be easy to find and easy to read. (This may be the case for newer critics, but when I was researching a paper I was writing, I was having a hard time trying to find digital examples of James Agee or even Pauline Kael. Most of their criticism books aren’t even in print anymore, a travesty that needs to be corrected.) Critics should know that Hugo Munsterberg was the first man to write a book dedicated solely to seeing film. People should know the famous examples of movies that otherwise would be unknown if film critics hadn’t championed them. Some very famous filmmakers wouldn’t even have careers if film critics hadn’t seen their first films and praised them enough to get an audience. We should be seen as positive forces in the industry, not curmudgeons that hate everything. Because we don’t hate everything. In this day and age of massive internet noise, a love for movies and writing is a necessary prerequisite to any decision to write about something that thousands of other people have written about and not get paid to do it. In summation we have to elevate film criticism into an art form.

In my opinion art can be anything that is done with a creative mind. Architecture, landscaping, advertisements, and pet grooming can all be considered art if done in such a way that pushes the boundaries of what an ad can be or a lawn is or how a building can stand. So just because film criticism is a form of writing that is dependent on other artworks, doesn’t make it not an art in itself. A turn of phrase, a recall of past criticism, an unique interpretation of the plot of a movie can all be turned into characteristics of an art. Being able to turn film criticism into an art form is going to take time and education. The literature out there on the evolution of the craft is scanty, at best. In a film history course in college, you are lucky if you learn about Les Cahier du Cinema, let alone anything else. This needs to be rectified. It wasn’t until the late forties to mid fifties that film was being bandied about as an art form worth studying. It took the filmmakers and the film critics themselves shouting at the top of their lungs for several years before films and the art of filmmaking was put into the curriculum of the university and films were seen as national treasures that needed to be protected and restored. Because film critics were able to succeed in championing film as art concept, we must also try to succeed in championing film criticism as art. Until then we will continue to get beaten up by studio heads, subpar filmmakers and stars for trashing their trash. We will continue to not be taken seriously. Disposable. Forgotten. And ultimately worthless.


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