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James Agee's Criterion

by Neil_McGlone

Created 05/12/16

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Inspired by Kent Jones recent Manny Farber list, these comments are drawn from the book "Agee on Film" by the author, journalist, poet and screenwriter, James Agee.

  • In this movie Lloyd demonstrates beautifully his ability to do more than merely milk a gag, but to top it. A proper delaying of the ultra-predictable can of course be just as funny as a properly timed explosion of the unexpected. As Lloyd approaches the end of his horrible hegira up the side of the building in Safety Last, it becomes clear to the audience, but not to him, that if he raises his head another couple of inches he is going to get murderously conked by one of the four arms of a revolving wind gauge. He delays the evil moment almost interminably, with one distraction and another, and every delay is a suspense-tightening laugh; he also gets his foot nicely entangled in a rope, so that when he does get hit, the payoff of one gag sends him careening head downward through the abyss into another. Lloyd was outstanding even among the master craftsmen at setting up a gag clearly, culminating and getting out of it deftly, and linking it smoothly to the next. Harsh experience also taught him a deep and fundamental rule: never try to get "above" the audience.

    If great comedy must involve something beyond laughter, Lloyd was not a great comedian. If plain laughter is any criterion - and it is a healthy counterbalance to the other - few people have equaled him, and nobody has ever beaten him. (1949, Life Magazine)

  • Children of Paradise, which Jacques Prévert wrote and Marcel Carné produced and directed in France during the war, is close to perfection of its kind and I very much like its kind - the highest kind of slum-glamor romanticism about theater people and criminals, done with strong poetic feeling, with rich theatricality, with a great delight and proficiency in style, and with a kind of sophistication which merely cleans and curbs, rather than killing or smirking behind the back of its more powerful and vulgar elements.

    The whole sexuality of the picture, which assumes that the audience knows all about where babies come from and a good deal about how uniquely dangerous the preliminary activities can be, makes one want to forage through Hollywood and various censors' offices as a sort of improved, not to say dedicated, Jack the Ripper. I do suspect that unless you have a considerable weakness for romanticism, which I assume includes a weakness for the best of its ham, this will seem just a very fancy, skilful movie. But if you have that lucky weakness, I think the picture can be guaranteed to make you very happily drunk. (1947, The Nation)

  • Dreyer's lighting, and pace, and sound - including his use of dialogue - I wholly respect. My impression is that, short of absurdity, he wants to work close to their respective absolutes of darkness, stasis, and silence, and never to deviate from these absolutes beyond the minimum that is justified. I don't think this is the only good way to work or necessarily the best; but I suspect for instance that Gluck, and Beethoven, in some of their finest music, were acutely aware of silence. I'm not implying that Dreyer has done anything here to approach their work; I do mean that the style he has worked out for this film has a severe, noble purity which very little else in movies or, so far as I know, in contemporary art can approach, or even tries to. By one seeing, anyhow, I don't think there is a single excess in word or lighting or motion, or a single excessive stopping-down of any of these. Dreyer appears to know and to care more about faces than about anything else; it seems to me a sound preference; and since he is served at worst by very good actors and faces and at best by wonderful ones, the finest things in this film are his close-ups. They are held longer than anyone else except Chaplin could dare or afford to hold them; and as a rule they convey the kind of intricate subtlety, mental and spiritual, which one can ordinarily expect to find only in certain kinds of writing.

    In these long close-ups, as in much else that he does, Dreyer goes against most of the "rules" that are laid down, even by good people, for making genuine and good motion pictures. In a sense I have to admit that he is far out at the edge rather than close to the center of all that I think might be most productive and original. But there is only one rule for movies that I finally care about: that the film interest the eyes, and do its job through the eyes. Few movie-makers do that, few even of those who are generally well esteemed. Dreyer has never failed to, and I cannot imagine that he ever will. For that reason alone, even if I did not also respect him as one of the few moralists, and classicists, and incorruptible artists, in movies, I would regard him as a master and this film is a quiet masterpiece. (1948, The Nation)

  • Of the films I have seen this year Open City is by all odds the best. Open City goes far in what I believe is the best general direction movies might take, now and within the discernible future. By this I don't mean they need be socially or politically hot under the collar - though much of the spirit and grandeur of this film come of that kind of heat. I do mean that the theme or story needs to be passionately felt and intimately understood, and that it should be a theme or story worthy of such knowledge and passion. I also put my deepest hope and faith in the future of movies in their being made on relatively little money, as much at least by gifted amateurs as by professionals, in actual rather than imitated by places, with the binding energy, eye, conviction, and delight in work which are fostered in good-enough people by that predicament and which are best hindered by commercial work in studios.

    Like Open City, The Raider (1944) put amateurs through a reenactment, mainly, of actual events. Like Open City, it triumphantly demonstrates how well that can be done. It is less furiously felt and more honest; its theme, if less grandiose, is nevertheless a fine one. Since I think so highly of both films I should take special care to make clear that this is not because they use non-actors, or are semi-documentary, or are "realistic". It is, rather that they show a livelier aesthetic and moral respect for reality - which "realism" can as readily smother as liberate - than most fictional films, commercial investments in professional reliability, ever manage to. If they are helped to this - as they are - by their concern for actual people and places, that is more than can be said for most documentaries, which by average are as dismally hostile to reality as most fiction films. The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality. (1947, The Nation)

  • Brief Encounter, an expansion of a one-act play by Noel Coward, is a story about two decent middle-class people who fall in love outside their marriages and , beset by guilt and unable to stomach the enforced deceit and humiliation, give each other up. It is my impression that the same story, with fancy variations, is told once or twice in every issue of every magazine for housewives - often with a certain amount of sincerity, almost never with enough insight, detachment, style, or moral courage to make it better than wretched. Here, I must grant, there are several tricks of over-artifice and some of ham. But because in this case the story is written, filmed, and acted with a good deal of the positive qualities I mentioned, the picture is both a pleasure to watch as a well-controlled piece of work, and deeply touching.

    I particularly like the performances of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as the lovers, and the things that are done with their faces and with the various ways they walk, at various stages of the affair. If, in my opinion, the movie at its best suggests merely all that woman's-magazine fiction might be at its own best, that it is not intended as a back-handed compliment. For it seems to me that few writers of supposedly more serious talent even undertake themes as simple and important any more; so that, relatively dinky and sentimental as it is - a sort of vanity-sized Anna Karenina - Brief Encounter is to be thoroughly respected. (1946, The Nation)

  • Monsieur Verdoux has serious shortcomings, both as popular entertainment and as a work of art. But whatever its shortcomings, it is one of the most notable films in years. It is not the finest picture Chaplin ever made, but it is certainly the most fascinating.

    The set pieces of pure slapstick are as skilled and delightful, and as psychologically penetrating, as any Chaplin has ever contrived. The casting (including victim Margaret Hoffman) is excellent and there are a couple of dozen fine pieces of characterization and acting, notably by Isobel Elsom and Martha Raye. Working with a new character, and adapting his old, mute artfulness to a medium new and basically hostile to him, Chaplin still has his sure vrtuosity; his is one of the most beautiful single performances ever put on film. (1947, Time)

  • Odd Man Out is an extraordinarily ambitious movie. Director Carol Reed has a sensitive, often inspired eye for people and for cities, and Robert Krasker is one of the best cameramen alive. For perhaps its first hour, their film has excitement enough to oversupply any dozen merely "good" pictures. An outstanding achievement: the film paints a melancholy, multitudinous portrait of a night city. Yet its beauty is at times so profuse and lovingly planned that it weighs the film down much as over-descriptive prose harms a novel.

    Dostoevskian in conception and design, the story progressively becomes more wildly adventurous, more mystical, more half-baked. But even in its failures, Odd Man Out is admirable. It is a reckless, head-on attempt at greatness, and the attempt frequently succeeds. (1947, Time)

  • Zero de Conduite is a forty-minute movie about a French boys' boarding school. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone with a curious eye and intelligence can fail to be excited by it, for it is one of the most visually eloquent and adventurous movies I have seen.

    There are so many wonderful scenes that I can mention only a few: the silent, mysterious opening, in which two boys in a railway compartment play out the most beautiful white-magic I have ever seen, with toys, tricks, and suggestions of competitive vice; a blood-slowing capture of paralysis of time on a Sunday, and on the carpet of the headmaster's office; a dormitory riot and procession, bearing a crucified teacher through a slow-motion storm of pillow feathers, which combines Catholic and primordial rituals and as an image of millennial, triumphal joy has only been equaled on film, so far as I know, by newsreel shots of the liberation of Paris. Vigo does some beautiful things, too, with subtly slurred rather than slow motion; and the stripped, mean sets and the occasional glimpses of pure naturalistic action are grim and firm as stone outcrops. Maurice Jaubert's score seems good but nothing extraordinary as music, but fitted with the film I like it as we as any outside Dovzhenko's Frontier. (1947, The Nation)

  • Olivier's Henry V frees Shakespeare from such Elizabethan limitations. The film runs two hours and I4 minutes. Seldom during that time does it fudge or fall short of the best that its author gave it. Almost continually, it invests the art of Shakespeare--and the art of cinema as well--with a new spaciousness, a new mobility, a new radiance. Sometimes, by courageous (but never revolutionary) cuts, rearrangements and interpolations, it improves on the original. Yet its brilliance is graceful, never self assertive. It simply subserves, extends, illuminates and liberates Shakespeare’s poem.

    It begins with shots of I7th-Century London and Shakespeare's Globe Theater, where Henry V is being played. The florid acting of Olivier and his prelates and the Elizabethan audience's vociferous reactions are worth volumes of Shakespearean footnotes. For the invasion, the camera, beautifully assisted by the Chorus (Leslie Banks), dissolves in space through a marine backdrop to discover a massive set such as Shakespeare never dreamed of--and dissolve backward in time to the year 1415. Delicately as a photographic print in a chemical bath, there emerges the basic style of Shakespearean cinema.

    Voice and gesture exchange Shakespeare's munificence for subtlety, but remain subtly stylized. Faces, by casting, by close-up and reaction, give Shakespeare's lines a limpid, intimate richness of interpretation which has never been available to the stage. One of the prime joys of the picture is the Springwater freshness and immediacy of the lines, the lack of antiquarian culture-clogging. Especially as spoken by Olivier, the lines constantly combine the power of prose and the glory of poetry. Photographic perspectives are shallow, as in medieval painting. Most depths end in two-dimensional backdrops. Often as not, the brilliant Technicolor is deliberately anti-naturalistic, Voice, word, gesture, human beings, their bearing and costumes retain their dramatic salience and sovereignty. The result is a new cinema style. (1946, Time)

  • The Gold Rush is a revival of Charlie Chaplin's most successful comedy. Printed from the original 1925 negative, it has been modernized by it's producer-director-author-star only to the extent of substituting his own narration for the old subtitles, editing out 1000 feet of film and adding a musical background score. The result is a sight for sore eyes, for old-style Chaplin fans and novitiates alike.

    Although it was another generation's children who promised to be good all week if they could see a Chaplin comedy, the bantam tramp with his flapping shoes, battered derby hat, jaunty bamboo cane, absurd black moustache, shabby, defiant clothes, is not dated. The craftsmanship of his effortless performance - the innocent waddle, the peculiar childlike kick, the desperate elegance, the poignant gallantry - is still high comedy. (1942, Time)

9 comments

  • By Scott B.
    May 20, 2016
    05:08 PM

    I wish I could comment on movies the way you do.I would love to be that well-read,where my vocabulary would allow me to use better words than great,good,magnificent,stellar,or whatever.I own everyone of your picks.They are all masterpieces.If you have not seen the packaging of Red River,you should check it out.The movie is awesome too.What do you think about the incredible tear Criterion has been on this year.Thirty plus films released just this year.I think it shows that more and more people are learning and buying from Criterion,than ever before.I think the company is finally becoming a house hold name,well I want go that far,but the company must be doing well.Email me back with your thoughts.
    Reply
  • By Cinematic Cteve
    May 20, 2016
    10:18 PM

    Really fine idea for a list, populated with Agee observations. What a wonderful writer he could be. I've delved in musty old libraries through way-back issues of The Nation and Time just to read his stuff. Thanks for creating this.
    Reply
  • By Uriah Renzetti
    May 23, 2016
    08:37 PM

    If there's any interest in reading more of Agee's film writing, one can do no better than buy the Library of America edition: https://www.loa.org/books/228-film-writing-and-selected-journalism
    Reply
  • By Stephanie
    May 26, 2016
    09:57 AM

    Excellent list!
    Reply
  • By Mook
    July 19, 2016
    02:56 PM

    Great list. Just curious if you think Night of the Hunter should be in the list since he wrote the screenplay. Although I don't think he wrote about the film (he died the same year it was released).
    Reply
  • By ericgarfield31
    September 26, 2016
    11:58 AM

    Looks good. :)
    Reply
  • By Lee Tintary
    October 29, 2016
    04:18 AM

    Agee described the final scene of Chaplin's City Lights as the greatest acting and scene ever put on film.
    Reply
  • By Lee Tintary
    October 29, 2016
    04:22 AM

    "The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin’s work. He could probably pantomime Bryce’s The American Commonwealth without ever blurring a syllable and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain. At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies." from "Comedy's Greatest Era" in Life Magazine
    Reply
  • By Carl Kruse
    January 17, 2017
    07:38 AM

    Have addded Zéro de Conduite, Brief Encounter and Rome Open City after reading your list. Many thanks. Carl Kruse
    Reply