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Why Criticism: James Agee – From Critic to Filmmaker

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When James Agee began making films, he stopped writing about them. His short film In the Street was made in 1948, the same year he quit his two jobs writing criticism to work as a freelancer. Agee’s short encapsulates many of his passions and preferences: it’s a documentary, it’s a silent film and it depicts things as they are with no imposition of a narrative. Set on the streets of New York in Spanish Harlem, In the Street explores what seems to be a day in the life of the people of the neighborhood. A portrait of a time and a place (filled with poetic energy and a well-worn weariness), the film feels exceptional in many ways. Agee and co-director Helen Levitt refuse to detach themselves from the action they are invested in, specifically a blissful moment as children come rushing towards the camera, smiling and laughing, breaking the fourth wall.

Agee’s greatest legacy in filmmaking, however, was his writing. Assembled in Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts are his screenplays, three of which went unproduced, two of which are considered amongst the greatest American films ever made. The scripts and subsequent adaptations show a sensitivity toward silence and attention towards detail. Agee’s scripts have a poetic edge, humour and emotion that reveal more about the interior experience of the world than the outer one.

Among Agee’s most interesting unproduced screenplays was Noa Noa, a film about Paul Gauguin’s life and work, with a focus on his relationship with Vincent van Gogh. The script runs high on emotions and certainly seems to draw quite a bit from Irving Stone’s novel about the life van Gogh, Lust for Life (1934). Rooting the story in the more grounded Gauguin feels on par with Agee’s own aspirations for ideal filmmaking, focusing on a realist vision of the world, moving away from escapism or fleeting fancies.

Agee’s prose brings familiar moments alive, like this passage describing the moment that van Gogh cuts off his ear:

“We hear him get up suddenly; then a frantic scrabbling of metal and hard objects. Then dead silence. We stop dollying. Silence. Then a queer, shrill little animal cry, of amazement as much as pain. Silence. Another little cry. Silence. Then a much more dreadful cry. Silence. Rattling of paper. Silence. Quick footsteps and fast unbolting of the door and Vincent opens the door, close to us. He holds a towel tightly around his head, scarf-like, with one hand. Between the towel and the right side of his head a rag is caught; even so, the towel is somewhat bloody. His breath shakes almost as if his teeth were chattering. He leans for a moment against the door frame. In his trembling left hand, he carries an envelope which he now brings to his mouth. He licks the flap and presses the somewhat bulky envelope against the door frame to seal it. Then for an instant he seems to catch sight of us, staring at us. He looks quickly away — or even raises the envelope to conceal his face from us — as he hurries from the shot.”

Agee builds up toward the moment as well, drawing on the environmental tension of rain pouring down, foreshadowed earlier in the script by a woman who teases van Gogh for trying to comfort her: “O yes, fine, (she grabs his ears). But all you really are is a goose, with no ears at all.” Agee builds the moment around silence rather than images, and given his hatred of musical scores, this was how he likely intended it to play out. Conversely, the same incident in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) falters largely because of an intrusive and almost deafening score.

During his lifetime, Agee’s most successful film project, The African Queen (1951), was an adaptation of a novel by C.S. Forester and earned him an Academy Award nomination. Agee, who idolized John Huston as the greatest living American filmmaker, collaborated with him on the screenplay. Built around competing soundscapes, the opening scene of the screenplay sets the tone: the mad peddling Rose, singing and playing her organ, and the billowing sound of the African Queen, helmed by the barefooted Allnut. The film beautifully captures a fierce rivalry that has the potential for aching harmony, and it establishes the centrality of the title ship: a character as fierce and stubborn as either Rose or Allnut.

The only other of Agee’s screenplays to land onscreen was his adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter (1955). Agee, who would die at the age of 45 in a taxi cab, never lived to see the film.

In Simon Callow’s BFI Classics book on The Night of the Hunter, he explores the backstory of Agee’s work and collaboration. Agee’s previous success on The African Queen (and his experience writing about childhood in the South) made him a natural choice for the story set in the American South, told from the perspective of two young children. Agee, though, was already knee deep in the alcoholism that would kill him. For years, the haunting disease was used to discredit his involvement in the film, with producer Paul Gregory’s version of events dominating the discussion.

According to Gregory, Agee spent most of the writing period sprawled on the floor in a drunken stupor, though he still managed to produce a behemoth 350-page script (still unpublished), painstakingly recreating the novel with inserted ideas of extended montages built from newsreel footage. Gregory insists the whole thing was a disaster, and the only reason they kept him on was so that director Charles Laughton could have at least a script to shape into something coherent. However, Callow suggests this interpretation of events does not match supported facts that Laughton maintained a steady and cordial relationship through letters and memos, including one where Agee suggests the director be credited as a co-writer. Gregory, who later claimed that Agee was a wreck, responded:

“We do not feel, in any sense, that a change in the credit should be made where you are concerned. We feel that you made a great contribution to The Night of the Hunter. I tell you very honestly if we thought the picture were bad, in order to protect you, we would be more than happy to remove your name, but since we think it is great, we feel that you will be happy and proud that you had something to do with it — and neither Charles nor I feel that under any circumstances you should be embarrassed over the credit.”

One of the biggest points of departure between Agee and Laughton’s vision for the film was the battle between naturalism and fantasy. As clearly established, Agee always preferred a more realist approach. Laughton, however, saw the novel and his film as a disturbed fairy tale. The two were cordial, and Agee apparently spent a lot of time on the set at both Laughton’s and Robert Mitchum’s request. The pair similarly spent time revisiting the works of D.W. Griffith screening at the MoMa before the film went into production, drawing on his style to help build the film’s look and feel. Agee, a great admirer of Griffith, seemed to be swayed towards Laughton’s more expressionistic vision for the film.

In Callow’s opinion, Agee and Laughton were close collaborators on the film and the shooting script used was the product of their collaboration, which is likely why Agee asked for a co-writing credit in the end. He also offers some interesting insight as to the moments in which the film departs from the novel, such as the dialogue:

“Almost all the dialogue in the screenplay is a variant on something in the novel; very often it is verbatim, or slightly tempered to mollify the censor (Lillian Gish is not accused of being the Whore of Babylon). There are two very striking lines, however, that have no origin in the book. Partly because oí the performance of Lillian Gish, and partly because of their place in the film, they have a powerful resonance. “I’ve been bad’, Ruby confesses, tearfully. ‘You was looking for love, child, the only foolish way you knowed how’ Rachel tells Ruby. ‘We all need love..’ Whether it was Laughton or Agee who wrote these lines, we shall never know; but it was a happy day for the film when they did.”

Both Laughton and Huston seemed to have enjoyed working with Agee, with the latter calling him a friend and even writing the introduction to James Agee on Film: Five Scripts. Agee was finding greater success at the point of his death, but most of his reputation was built posthumously. Death in the Family, his autobiographical novel about growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. And The African Queen, a huge success at the time of its release, is still considered among John Huston’s greatest works. The Night of the Hunter, which had a rough reception at the time of its release, has been reconsidered as one of the best films of the decade, if not of all time.

It’s hard to say how much of James Agee’s critical work went into forming his voice as a writer and whether or not he would continue to develop that voice. There are certain strings that follow from his critical writing on American cinema to his involvement with industry productions, as his preference for silence and naturalism comes through. His voice also emerges through certain avatars, like van Gogh or Allnut, while The Night of the Hunter feels like a nightmare spiritual companion to his posthumously awarded Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family. Agee, as both a critic and scriptwriter, changed the face of American cinema. 

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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