”The Movies” is a must-read for film buffs
It had been a long week of watching less-than-transporting movies when I opened Agee on Film at random and found this: ”Few things pay off better in prestige and hard cash — granted you present it in an entertaining way — than safe fearlessness.” Suddenly, Hollywood was in perspective again, and all because of a comment more than half a century old. This remarkable collection of James Agee’s incisive, agile writing as a movie reviewer for TIME and a columnist for The Nation in the 1940s had been out of print before Modern Library brought it back, one of four excellently chosen books in a smartly designed edition, the full title of which is Modern Library: The Movies, edited by Martin Scorsese.
Taken together, the quartet — which also includes The Art of the Moving Picture by Vachel Lindsay (originally published in 1915 and revised in 1922), Memo From David O. Selznick, selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer (first published in 1972), and the paperback original, The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, selected by Stephanie Schwam — constitutes a concise history of the medium and its power, from the earliest days of ”the moving picture” through the odyssey of Stanley Kubrick. It’s also a tonic reminder that grades, stars, and thumbs are all grabby ways of quantifying responses, but good writing about movies tells as much, as deeply, about the world in which those films exist as about the thumb position of the author.
In his own introduction, which precedes context supplied by various well-known critics, Scorsese explains that two of the books are by a literary journalist and a poet, while the other two are a collection of memos and firsthand testimony. I’d thumb-wrestle with the omnivorous cinemaphile only to argue that all four, really, are firsthand testimony, from people trying to make sense of a medium that so frequently defies words (a certain high point of perplexity being the initial critical reviews of 2001), or rules (the terrifying maker and breaker of which was Selznick). When Lindsay, a Modernist poet born near the end of the 19th century who wrote odes to early-20th-century movie stars, analyzes early films, he’s really laying down the first tracks of cinema studies. With the eye of the painter he once was, he posits that ”Pictures of Action, Intimacy, and Splendor are the foundation colors in the photoplay, as red, blue, and yellow are the basis of the rainbow.” The language of The Art of the Moving Picture may be professorially poetic, but the thought is rigorous.
And that rigor gives way to zing and passion in Agee on Film — the original, it becomes clear, on which the influential Pauline Kael, her professional heirs, and her heirs’ heirs base their vocabulary, their rhythm, and their confrontational enthusiasm to this day. Many of Agee’s opinions may not stand the test of time; often he’s more effective at positioning himself in contrast to what he’s watching; but always, he swings.
And paired with Memo From David O. Selznick — many of the notes written during the same decade in which Agee was reviewing — there’s no more exciting one-two punch evoking the power, the magic, and the business of the movies. Selznick, the titanic producer of Gone With the Wind, was as articulate an autocrat as Hollywood has ever seen, and he sought to impose his will on every detail. Whether trying to control Ingrid Bergman’s height (”I note Bergman is 69 1/2 inches tall. Is it possible she is actually this high, and do you think we will have to use stepladders with Leslie Howard?”) or complaining to Henry Luce about an unfavorable review in TIME (”Your men have been very friendly and helpful in the way of space on our pictures…. And the only reason for this squawk is to ask whether, for the sake of my stockholders and your readers, you won’t ask someone to cover my pictures who will sense the news values in them, and have some fair conception of their entertainment values as well, and who has no scenario-writing ambitions”), Selznick writes with fabulous, monomaniacal intensity.
Modern Library intends The Movies to be a renewable resource, as will other savvy packages now under way, including an exploration collection edited by Jon Krakauer and a humor series edited by Steve Martin. But for a kicker to the first movie quartet, The Making of 2001 is just right, a recognition of a modern moment in which everything about the moving picture — from directorial control to technological possibilities to the relationship between journalist and subject — had changed. An assemblage of reminiscences, reviews, and interviews, the book concludes with a complete Kubrick filmography right up through Eyes Wide Shut. It is of no small interest that in his introduction, critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks writes of how he started reporting on the making of 2001 as a journalist and became an insider, a friend to ”Marty” and ”Stanley.” This, too, is the lure of Modern Library: The Movies: It makes every reader an insider, too. All four books: A