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Agee on film: episode 1

I was introduced to James Agee with the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men but became aware only recently that he was at one time a film critic, as well as a poet, and a screenwriter (he helped adapt The African Queen for the cinema).

I was also unaware that James Agee died so young, at 46. His accomplishments remind me of David Marr (author of Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information), another person who died far too young (at 35 from leukemia) but who still managed to make a lasting impact in his field.

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At the library, I found a book, Agee on Film with a collection of reviews and articles from his tenure as movie reviewer for the Nation. The editor had promised him that he could review any film he wished, and write what he wanted; an offer too good for Agee, who had a passionate love of movies and unrestricted writing.

I’ve enjoyed reading through the book, not only because it’s fun to see a contemporary review of some of the movies we now consider classics; but also because Agee’s reviews were an art form themselves.

Deerslayer on the other hand, can be recommended to anyone who would not feel that an eight-year-old boy that gallops up howling “Wah-wah, I’m an Indian” needs to consult a psychiatrist. I don’t feel that most bad pictures are “bad enough to be funny”; they are bad enough to be fascinating, not to say depressing as hell. But this defenseless and disarming show is the purest dumb delight I have seen in a long time.

Agee wrote his reviews in the midst of World War II, and it is his commentary on the war that stands out for me because the words, though over half a century old, are still as fresh as the mind from which they sprang.

Even the Army Orientation films, through no fault intrinsic to them, carry their load of poison, of failure. You can hear from every sort of soldier from the simplest to the most intricate what a valuable job they are doing. But because they are doing it only for service men they serve inadvertently to widen the abyss between fighters and the civilians who need just as urgently to see them. Civilians, however, get very little chance to learn anything from moving pictures. We are not presumed to be brave enough. And the tragic thing is that after a couple of decades of Hollywood and radio, we are accepting such deprivations and insults quite docilely; often, indeed, we resent anyone who has the daring to try to treat us as if we were human beings.

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For the time, when people in this country were more interested in escapism, Agee’s reviews would stand out for their uncompromising look at the movies. What I found particularly compelling about his writing, though, is that he recognized when his emotions were engaged by a movie, and in a couple of cases, actually held off on reviewing the movie until he had a chance to regain enough objectivity to review the movie effectively.

Recently I saw a moving picture so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it. This was the Italian Open City. For the moment I can say only that I am at once extremely respectful and rather suspicious of it, and that I can recommend it very highly, with a warning, however, to those who are particularly sensitive to scenes of torture. I will probably be unable to report on the film in detail in the next three or four weeks.

Agee ended up reviewing the movie almost a month later, and was able to be critical as well as complimentary.

Agee’s reviews differed enormously in length. Some, like those for Open City went on for pages; others were just a sentence or two. However brief, though, his opinion always came through, loud and clear:

San Diego I love you is a coarse-weft, easygoing little farce about an inventor(Edward Everett Horton), his daughter (Louise Albritton), a girl-shy financier (Jon Hall), and some pleasant comics (notably Buster Keaton). I can’t exactly recommend it, but if you see it by accident if will cause no particular pain.

Tycoon. Several tons of dynamite are set off in this movie; none of it under the right people.

You Were Meant for Me. That’s what you think.

I wonder what Agee would think about our modern movies and movie goers, especially with movies that have caused some controversy. I noticed with Lost in Translation and in particular, Mel Gibson’s Passion that people’s views of the movies are, to a great extent, a reflection of their life experiences, their viewpoint of themselves, and the world around them. There seems to be little room left for appreciation of the movies as craft.

Or is that the ultimate measure of the success of a movie?

Lost in Translation. I haven’t seen it yet, though plan to from all I’ve read. According to reviews of the movies, I gather the story is about a has-been comic in Japan to make commercials, who meets up with another American staying at the same hotel. The movie focuses on them, and the possibility of a relationship between them, all surrounded by Japan: Japanese culture, people, and activities.

Some say that Lost in Translation is racist because of the stereotyping of the Japanese in the movie. Others say that the view of the Japanese in the movie reflects the alienation that the Americans feel, strangers in a strange land. One innovative person said that the movie really demonstrates Japanese stereotyping of American stereotyping of the Japanese–a circular reference I can’t help thinking that Agee would like, if his review of The Lost Weekend is anything to go by.

While I watched the movie, which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett have made out of Charles Jackson’s story about alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, I was pretty consistently gratified and excited. When I began to try to review it, I could not forget what Eisenstein said, years ago, when he was asked what he thought of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. He said he thought it was a good Ph.D thesis. I am afraid that applies to The Lost Weekend, too. I don’t mean that it is stuffy: it is unusually hard, tense, cruel, intelligent, and straightforward. It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound basic commonplaces.

On that scale, of course, excellent things can be done.

Agee’s reviews were fun reading, but it was his award winning article on comedy in the movies that made me take a closer look at Passion.

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Don’t let the door hit you in the butt, Howard

Edited to remove N-word. Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Lots of people want to go in arms about censorship because Howard Sterns was yanked off of Clear Channel radio stations. I would like to join these people, I really would. I believe that censorship should be personal, practiced by turning the channel. But I’m sorry, I am not going to accept Howard Stern as the poster boy of free speech in this country.

Sifrey writes:

Sure, Stern is offensive to women and minorities, but you don’t have to listen to his show.

Mighty white of you, Micah. Takes a big man to say that. So let’s look at some of the Stern bon mots, shall we?

Stern thinks it’s funny to quote KKK comments online, including:

Some N-words around the country say they will boycott Georgia if the flag still flies,but who cares where a N-word boycotts, who cares where they spend their food stamps and their welfare checks . . .

Most businesses would rather N-words stay away anyhow . . .

N-words cause flies to swarm anywhere they show up . . .

He might as well put a monkey on the high court because

they’re about the same qualifications . . .

N-words have destroyed most of our public schools already . . .

N-words carry their dope to schools . . . N-words carry guns to schools . . .

N-words carry AIDS to school . . .

N-words stink up the whole classroom . .

He has such a great sense of humor. He also plays a game called “What’s my color”, and encourages his listeners to call in with ‘N-word’ jokes. Ha! Ha! What a laugh, Micah.

But let’s not forget his legendary sexism. First, there was the question about why the Littleton killers didn’t rape any of the victims first. In case you don’t know what Littleton is, that’s Columbine High School. Stern said:

There were some really good-looking girls running out with their hands over their heads. Did those kids try to have sex with any of the good-looking girls? They didn’t even do that? At least if you’re going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn’t you have some sex? If I was going to kill some people, I’d take them out with sex.

I’m sure he was just kidding. But the Canadian Broadcast Standards System doesn’t think he’s all that funny. I don’t know, what do you think?

Howard Stern: Do you want to talk to a woman who was raped by a psychic?

Robin Quivers: Oh, geez.

Howard Stern: Jillian?

Jillian: Ah, yes, is this Howard?

Howard Stern: Yes, hi, how are you doing?

Jillian: Pretty good.

Howard Stern: So how were you raped by a psychic?

Jillian: It’s not quite that simple. I was dating a –

Howard Stern: Are you good looking, by the way? I mean, just so we have some background, not that it’s relevant.

Howard Stern: But you’re just very blessed with a gorgeous body.

Jillian: Right.

Howard Stern: And your ass is like super firm?

Jillian: Ah, ah, yes.

Howard Stern: Okay, all right. I just wanted to know who I’m dealing with, that’s all. Not that has any relevance on –

Robin Quivers: Not to rape.

Howard Stern: Not to rape, but, you know.

Howard Stern: Would it be rude of me to ask for a nude picture of her?

Robin Quivers: Yes.

Howard Stern: It would?

Robin Quivers: Under these circumstances.

Howard Stern: She sounds really odd. Would you mind? Could you send me some bikini shots?

In response, the following was said on Stern’s behalf from a radio station carrying him:

Howard Stern has made it clear on a number of occasions that he is a comedian and entertainer by trade and reputation. He has also made it clear that his material should not be treated as the social or political commentary of a politician or journalist. He is not a news/trained journalist or talk host dealing with the issues of the day in a traditional open line style of talk programming. Indeed he has never held himself out to be one and is well known to the public as a performer, not a serious commentator.

But the Canadian government has a little regulation about what can be aired. It goes like the following:

A licensee shall not broadcast abusive comment that, when taken in context, tends or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Does this block ‘free speech’? Sure it does. Am I going to huff and puff and blow this down? Not a bit of it. You want to be free to indulge in hate speech and make fun of rape? Accept the consequences, then.

Not following along with the gang in supporting Stern does generate some internal conflict. I believe that each of us has the right to say what we want to say, even if what we say is offensive to others. But at the same time, I would hope that any free speech I defend is based on honesty, not marketing hype.

Howard Stern is an entertainer, and I use that term loosely, who deliberately uses the most offensive racist and sexist and bigoted material in order to—deliberately to, I want to emphasize this—generate publicity and an audience. He doesn’t do so to make a political point, to fight for a cause, or even because he believes it. He does so, deliberately, to generate actions like that those that happened with Clear Channel.

“Please fire me for my speech’, his actions state. “I haven’t been talked about for the longest time. You all have been talking about Janet Jackson. I want that talk! That’s my talk! That’s my buzz!”

Some say the firing was because Howard Stern talked about reading Al Franken’s book, and saying, “If you read this book, you’ll never vote for George Bush”. After all, Clear Channel stations are known to be very pro-Bush. Aside from the fact that Clear Channel had just been hit with a hefty fine because of another broadcaster and obscene content, and was probably hypersensitive about the contents of the programs it covers, when you have a shock jock like Stern as a hero of the cause, you can never differentiate when the man has been canned because he made a political comment, or because he’s being who he is—Howard Stern, the man who made millions by finding the quickest way to the rawest level of pain within people, and then making it into a joke for the lowest common denominator that is typified by a Howard Stern audience.

No offense Jeff and Adam and Tony and Micah, but your idea and mine about what makes a ‘hero’ differs. A lot.

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Great Day!

It’s a great day today, with temps warming into the 40’s and snow melting. I’m going to go find a place where I can go for a genuine walk. A real live, genuine walk, not a careful shuffle across ice. And I’m going to listen to my Bette Midler does Rosemary Clooney songs CD on the way.

I really like this CD, especially “Come On-A My House”, which makes you want to toe tap your way through the produce department (which I did Sunday). Bette isn’t Rosemay and she doesn’t try to be, preferring to showcase the music as she interprets it. I actually prefer Bette’s version of “This Ole House” over Rosemary’s, but no one does “Hey There” like the original. I love that song.

I need to add this CD to my collection. And then there’s the new Norah Jones, Feels Like Home.

Wonderful, wonderful music. And a fine day in which to listen to it.

Come on-a my house, my house, I’m-a gonna give you candy.
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m-a gonna give you
apple and a plum and an apricot or two, ah!

Come on-a my house, my house come on.
Come on-a my house, my house-a come on.
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m-a gonna give you
figs and dates and grapes and a cake, ah!

Come on-a my house, my house-a come on.
Come on-a my house, my house come on.
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m-a gonna give you candy.
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m-a gonna give you everything.

Doo da doo, doo da doo da!