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Why Criticism: James Agee’s Vision of the American Cinema

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What does it mean to be an American and what is the American cinema? These two questions are deeply intertwined in James Agee’s criticism. His work as a critic was focused on the need to fulfill an obligation to the audience. He never set out to write a manifesto, or even to pontificate on the moral integrity of the screen. Agee himself would go on to work in movies himself, briefly as a documentarian and as a screenwriter on some of the greatest American films ever made. Agee’s tenure at The Nation over the course of the 1940s came at one of the defining points in the American cinema, for better and for worse.

For Agee, it was often easier to define American cinema by what it was not. American cinema was not real, American cinema was not British, it was not Russian, it was not French. American cinema, as he saw it, was deceptive. Agee consistently reflected on the question of his American identity with appropriate seriousness (blending humor and resolve) and an apprehensive nationalism. As he began writing during the American involvement in World War II and continued for years after, the environment of his writing passed through the collective identity of a country at war to a country at peace. Agee himself seemed to know and love that he was unsure as to what it really meant to be an American.

Agee loves cinema as he loves America: he not only doubts and picks at his love like a scab, but he doesn’t trust anyone who tries to sell him an idea of what that means. As his critical career for The Nation began shortly after America joined the war, an image of what being an American meant was been peddled to the masses by Hollywood and the government. Agee resisted both. Unlike many polemicists, Agee sought not only to deconstruct the message but the image, as he laments the condescending tone of most Hollywood productions.

As a critic, Agee was never interested in an American cinema that diagnosed the American Dream or condition (and if he did, he believed Hollywood incapable of meeting the task at hand). But, he was interested in the possibilities of the American cinema. Taking a look at the body of Agee’s critical writing, certain themes emerge which hint at what he imagined as the ideal American cinema.  

The Artificial Landscape

The struggle against artificiality did not mean that Agee upheld realism as the most important element of cinema. He treasured realism so much that if cinema was to be about people, it should in some way reflect that truth. He felt that artificial sets betrayed reality, that most performances were not credibly human and that musical scores were intrusive. It should be no surprise that some of his most favored films of the era were documentaries or productions shot in real locations. He even came up with a term to describe these kinds of films, which he first references in a review for Kiss of Death (1947), as the “locale” film.

Writing about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), a film that Agee half-loved (a strong endorsement from the critic), he explored the pain of watching a film burdened by artificiality saying:

“My heart goes out to the people who reproduced the Brooklyn streets — I could probably lose every other interest in life in the love for just such detail — but try as they will, they only prove, more convincingly because more masterfully than I have seen it proved before, that the best you can do in that way is as dead as an inch-by-inch description or a perfectly naturalistic painting, compared with accepting instead the still scarcely imagined difficulties and the enormous advantages of submerging your actors in the real thing, full of its irreducible present tense and its unpredictable proliferations of energy and beauty.”

Agee was always most harsh on American films in this sense, as many other countries at this time were producing films in real locations. He condemned a number of Hollywood films for looking too “air conditioned” and bemoaned the calculated predictability of working in ready-made environments. The atmosphere was intrusive and removed; he could never believe the reality they presented as anything but a myth.

The root of Agee’s riling against artificial landscapes, not only in terms of sets but performance and music, was that all these elements pointed to a greater lie that Agee clearly felt was being sold to the American people. His anti-authoritarianism, mixed in with a healthy dose of socialism, meant he was apprehensive as to what kind of stories were being peddled to audiences. As someone who grew up in the South, he felt a protective energy around stories about the poor and disenfranchised. In Hollywood cinema, these people were presented more often as caricatures than real human beings. As one of the few critics at the time (and since) who was apprehensive about John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Agee decried the film’s casting: “when there is any pretense whatever of portraying “real” people — as in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and in this film — such actors are painfully out of place.” He used the opportunity to demand a new style of acting on the American screen, which would nullify the existing status quo.

One of the first major champions of non-actors in the American cinema, Agee hoped more filmmakers would opt for real people rather than “fake” actors. This demand, speckled through his work, was often loaded with primitive demand for more healthy representation of minorities on screen. Agee was extremely critical of most depictions of African Americans (though very notably, he was a huge defender of D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation) and Chinese within the American cinema, and he saw one solution being the casting of non-professionals. Moving away from the artifice, in general, meant a more representational cinema in his mind.

For Agee, the problem with artificiality within the American cinema was that it amounted to a big, perpetual lie (perhaps unintentionally) from Hollywood to the American people.

The American Audience

“Self-interested, belated ingratiation embarrasses me, and Disney’s famous cuteness, however richly it may mirror national infantilism, is hard on my stomach.”

Few writers have ever been more concerned for the audience as Agee. In his first column for The Nation, he suggested that he was an “amateur,” a member of the audience rather than part of the elite. This may be true in so far that he seemed more concerned with the politics and effects of the screen than most, though it would be hard to say if Agee represented or spoke for a wider audience, as much as he cared to educate them (a fairly elitist ideal).

As often as he felt that Hollywood and the government were speaking down to Americans, he wondered if audiences were not eating it up. Even so, he always aired on the side of democracy and the public. Agee would often pontificate as he did when writing about The North Star, “I insist, however, that the public must and can be trusted and reached with a kind of honesty difficult, in so mental-hospital a situation, to contrive; impossible, perhaps, among the complicated pressures and self-defensive virtuosities of the great studios.”

Without a doubt, Agee had a level of smugness that he condemned in Hollywood. As he celebrated the newsreels and British cinema, he did not hesitate to explain that he knew what was best for the American audience: “If as a civilian, you feel the importance of experiencing what little you can about the war, you had better avoid practically every foot of fiction film which we have made about it, and you had, of course, better see all the newsreels and war-record films you can. At their weakest, they have things to show which no non-record war films, not even the greatest that might be made, could ever hope to show.”

Part of what Agee was suggesting, however, was that the Hollywood cinema was not serving as a mirror to the American experience but rather a filter: this was the making of lies about what it meant to be an American during this era. Whether you lived in Brooklyn or Tennessee, this world was fictionalized and the experiences of your brothers at war were being dolled up as a tale of pure sanitized heroism. This lie, as Agee saw it, was harmful to the national psyche.

Self-Deceit

“I noticed, uneasily that there were no suffering and dying enemy civilians under all those proud promises of bombs,“ Agee wrote about Victory Through Air Power. “No civilians at all in fact.”

At the heart of Agee’s apprehension over the current state of the American cinema was the long con of self-deceit. Writing largely during America’s involvement in World War II and then Korea, Agee’s deceit of the American cinema lies very much in its vision of the country at war. The self-deceit of the American cinema was also about the American dream, and finally, the self-congratulatory tone the industry took when it tackled “important” subjects.

The danger of this kind of lie is that it happens to be rooted in good intentions. It serves to rile up the crowds for war while allowing them to escape from the burdens of ordinary life. Much of Agee’s writing on these subjects feels pertinent and fresh, and similarly to current writers who bemoan the political immaturity of cinema today, he would sometimes over-praise somewhat sloppily made or unengaging films that broke the spell of mistruths as he saw them.

Political cinema during this era was heavily sanitized in favor of nationalist ideals. Politics were dangerous and to be avoided, perhaps because they confused the message of the American dream. Agee’s reports on a 1943 Ernest Hemingway adaptation, For Whom the Bell Tolls, tackles the surrounding fanfare as the studio drums up support for the film’s bottom line through the controversy that was sanitized right out of the picture. In a movie that doesn’t even dare whisper the word “fascist” (par for course for most films of the era), it somehow drummed up enough bad blood that politicians distanced themselves from it, though Agee can’t see why: “And how this production could possibly have offended anyone politically, except a few million powerless characters who retain some vestige of moral nerve, is beyond any guessing.”

Time and time again, Agee does far more than deconstruct cinema by investigating the industry that surrounds it. For Whom the Bell Tolls was about money and a sanitized version of what may have been an “important” story (though Agee has as much apprehensions about Hemingway as he does Hollywood), as the final product was depoliticized and more offensive for it.

Over at another studio, David O Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944) was busy selling the myth of the “All-American Family.” As Agee wrote about Selznick, “What he has managed, instead, is an immense improvement on a Ladies’ Home Journal story so sticky I couldn’t get through it, which has, as he finishes it, something of the charm of an updated and cellophaned Little Women.” But at its heart, Selznick was selling “the American home if you agree with me that seven out of ten Americans would sell their souls for it.” The reality of these films points to upholding a dangerous capitalist ideal that maybe most Americans could not even hope for. Similarly, in all its guns nationalism, it suggested this is what America looked like or should look like: we’re still feeding into this lie today, and still feeling the shockwaves of its original inception.

This message similarly proliferates in how it distinguishes America from the “other,” justifying war atrocities and refusing to hold the government and its agents accountable for war crimes. In putting the blame time and time again on Germany or Japan on a whole, and by suggesting that only American families are suffering due to murdered soldiers, it deepens the war among people. Agee, “as a human being, who would rather be a citizen of the world than of the United States,” was disconcerted by the idea that the only people being killed at war were monsters.

“Since it seems possible that wives and children in England, and in Russia, and in China, and even, conceivably, in Germany and in Japan, are missing their men and cherishing their homes very much as we are, I don’t like to see these phenomena presented as the peculiar glory of one particular country and its one true cause and justification and aim of war.”

The war also saw a rallying cry for “escape” films that sought to help the American people forget for a time that they were at war. Agee saw this was not only a luxury afforded to Americans who were far away from the bombings and fighting, but a kind of dumbing down of the public at large. He suggested, rather than indulging in musicals, to seek out better cinema from England, which he saw as an “escape” in so much that they demonstrate human beings that are worthy of themselves and of each other.

In the post-war period, Agee’s writing shifts — knowingly or not — towards cynicism. While Agee was quick to dismiss critics who described crime melodramas (later renamed film noir) like The Big Sleep (1946) or The Killers (1946) as symptomatic of a new national consciousness, he himself was aware of the shift in politics that was depicted in those kind of films. What he saw was a growing apprehension over challenging works of art or ideas, which brought the moral hammer of condemnation against people like Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman. While he thought of his fellow critics as upholding those trends by suggesting the American psyche was poisoned, he himself believed it as well.

At the same time, “safe” films tried to shift the national narrative left such as Crossfire (1947). While Agee liked the film, he couldn’t help noting, “In a way, it is as embarrassing to see a movie Come Right Out Against Anti-Semitism as it would be to see a movie Come Right Out Against torturing children.” This sort of weary frustration with how the industry operates and views itself was only amplified by his adoration of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which all but rendered Charlie Chaplin an outcast and exile from America.

The gung-ho attitude of the war had strangled the American cinema of its identity and fearlessness. Agee’s critical career would more or less wind down at this point, as his career as a filmmaker and screenwriter would begin.

Conclusion

“When an art is in good health, mediocrity and amorphous energy and commercialism and hostility toward disinterested men become more than forgivable, as lubricants and as stimulants, and the men of skill, or of affable or gentle or charming or for that matter venal talent, are more than welcome to exist, and to be liked and rewarded. When an art is sick unto death, only men of the most murderous creative passion can hope to save it. In either condition, it is general, if by no means always, this dangerous sort of man who does the great work. I wonder whether it is any longer possible, anywhere on earth, for such a man to work in films. I am almost certain it is not possible and is not ever going to be, in this country.”

Agee did not see the American situation as totally hopeless. He had a handful of filmmakers he treasured as upholding the possibility of the American screen future, most notably John Huston, who was still on the first legs of his illustrious career. Agee believed, though he feared most would never live up to their potential, that most of the filmmakers who went to war might return as more mature and seasoned filmmakers. People like John Ford, Frank Capra and Huston might save the American cinema.

But, Agee never saw this as the fault of America or even its filmmakers. The inability to capture what it meant to be an American lied on the country’s youth: “I blame this less on the country than on the fact that few of us have yet learned how to make a camera show what a country is.”

Looking back at Agee’s vision and continually critical takes, the question remains if the American cinema has ever found its voice and what we can learn from his vision of the silver screen. Few writers today capture his apprehension towards the form and politics of cinema in America and beyond, and few inspire the same flawed adoration for the screen as he did.

James Agee’s work endures not because it served as the devil’s advocate in what has now become one of the high points in Hollywood filmmaking, but because it comes from a place of flawed, romantic love. Agee’s criticisms never denigrate America but upheld the country and its possibilities. The lies he saw and perceived were accepted by many as gospel and eventually did more harm than good. Agee’s own films exemplified what was found in his criticism, a mistrust of the current system and a deconstruction of the American national psyche. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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