Leave this kind of writing to the professionals.

5 October 2011

Novelist James Agee was famous during the 1940s for his movie reviews in The Nation and Time — indeed, W. H. Auden called those reviews “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” I’m reading some of them now, and they’re so terrific that they prompt me to emit involuntary outbursts of glee. His writing somehow packs all manner of ideas into single sentences without taking on that confusing and bloated quality that one sees in one’s own writing. For example, about the film Out of the Past (above) Agee writes:

In love scenes [Robert Mitchum’s] curious langour, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated on barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency that is not endearing. Jane Greer, on the hand, can best be described, in an ancient idiom, as a hot number.

I can’t even tell you how happy this kind of writing makes me. And how much it makes me need to see Out of the Past again. And how much it makes me warn amateurs against attempting such feats of descriptive gymnastics. (Many thanks to the Unexplained Cinema site, which turned me on to Agee’s collected film writing.)

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12 Responses to “Leave this kind of writing to the professionals.”

  1. Spanish Prof Says:

    Two suggestions:
    1- Serge Daney. Here is an example:
    http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/kapo_daney/

    2- Jonathan Rosenbaum.

    • Didion Says:

      Segre Daney! How did I not know about him?? And this is in translation, too!

      I remember reading and loving Rosenbaum, too, when I lived in Chicago. Somehow he dropped off my radar, which is a tragedy. But I see he has a personal website where he’s posted all of his reviews, including this story from 1957 when he was published at the grand old age of 13.

      • Spanish Prof Says:

        I met him personally at a Film Festival, and he was really nice and goofy. I have a few funny anecdotes that should not be tell in public.

  2. servetus Says:

    Oh the joys of language …

  3. Hattie Says:

    James Mitchem was notoriously no damned good but in a way that would not arouse much interest these days.
    Next time I’m at the library I’ll look up the Agee reviews.

  4. Spanish Prof Says:

    Another suggestion, although in a slightly different vein: Stanley Cavell’s “Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage”. It was not well received among feminist film scholars, but I find it one of the best books I’ve read on one of my favorite genres: screwball comedies. Cavell’s book on Hollywood melodramas from the 40s is very weak, though.

    • Didion Says:

      You loved Cavell’s writing? I loved the ideas, but I found it to be the same kind of reading slog as so much else academic writing. It’s been a while since I read it, but I wouldn’t run back for sheer enjoyment of the prose. I think what I find so delicious about Agee is that it so often seems right AND makes me burble with joy for the pleasure of reading.

      • Spanish Prof Says:

        That’s why I said “in a slightly different vein”. But to answer your question, yes, I do enjoy reading Cavell. Until I took grad classes in film studies, my only connection to film had been as a viewer and reading film criticism (of the Cahiers du Cinema tradition). My shock when I started reading scholarly pieces on film was huge. It was just so dry and boring, regardless of the ideas. All the jargon just drove me mad.

        That same semester, I also read Cavell. For me, the contrast was immense. It wasn’t an easy read, but I found it fascinating (that book in particular). I don’t know if I would go back to it out of sheer enjoyment of the prose (probably not), but I wouldn’t put it at the same level of film studies academic writing.

  5. Spanish Prof Says:

    One further question: can you read Spanish? If so, I have another name for you.

  6. Spanish Prof Says:

    Alejandro Ricagno writing for “El Amante”. “El Amante” is an Argentinean film journal. It is still in print, but its glory days were in the 90s (now it’s a completely different thing). Alejandro wrote for them between 1993 and 1998. You can find PDF copies of the journal on Scribd or similar sites, but you would have to know what you are looking for, since content varied from current releases to retrospectives on Silent Finnish film (this is a joke, but you get the point).


  7. […] this film, and gives it a conceptual drumbeat that makes the film unexpectedly exhilarating. (With sentences like that, can you tell I’ve been reading James Agee’s film reviews?) The terrific fight sequence between Shu Lien and Jen is partly so thrilling because you […]


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