Thursday, February 23, 2006

54. Happy

When James Agee decided to discuss what he considered the best films of 1945, I noticed that his position both in terms of history and ideology demanded a stylistic curative. Obviously, his movie world was deeply entrenched in the war. The first two pictures he mentions are documentaries: "Major" John Huston's San Pietro and The True Glory; he grumbles that the former, despite its ample display of "talent, skill and courage"--on the part of the filmmakers, in addition to the soldiers who fought in the battle--was not perceived as favorably as the latter (a sweeping record of the allied invasion of Europe, from Normandy to Berlin), which the "National Board of Review's Committee on Exceptional Films" named the best film of the year. He continues with The Story of G.I. Joe, then gets to a long paragraph in which he runs through twenty-five or so films; ten of them are war-themed--eleven if you count The Three Caballeros, with its almost-postwar Good Neighbor Policy-boosting. 1945 must have been, if I may state the obvious, quite a year.

But Agee is not happy with 1945, movie-wise. He "suppose[s] that it wasn't exactly a bad movie year"; but: "Those who are satisfied with it are welcome to it." The piece ends in a perorative sweat, as he exhorts both critics and artists not to "be satisfied short of perfect liberty, discipline, and achievement." But this Platonic yearning for essences occurs in a fallow period, which Agee estimates as having lasted "the past fifteen years." So there he is, a few years into a movie-reviewing gig in the depths of a pretty bad patch; it's surprising he would take up the trade, given the state of the goods.

To express both his hopes and fears, he consistently employs a rhetorical coping mechanism: the oxymoron. Pride of the Marines is "doggedly humane," Colonel Blimp is "charming but equivocal and overrated," The Way Ahead is "poky yet very able," Val Lewton's Body Snatchers and Isle of the Dead are "pedagogic" but "sensitive," and, best of all, the year-in-the-life documentary of the aircraft carrier Yorktown, Fighting Lady, is compared to "a magnificent box of chocolates filled with plasma." (You could tell he really had to get himself worked up to land on that one.) As I skidded over these rushing waters, I felt his desperate passion to will the movies into an art form, both its practice and criticism, so that it would be free and strong. It is postwar jitters, presaging the anxious, deep cold the war would assume after the mushroom clouds cleared. It almost seems he feels silly to make so much of musical comedies and whodunits, and has to balance them with battle-cinema and entreaty, as he conducts his "open wake," as he puts it in the first sentence of the piece.

Sixty years later, I admit I can still hear the music of that funeral-party. Too many film critics may have come between 1945 and now for me to feel Agee's imploring invocation without some measure of self-conscious silliness as I too implore and invoke. But I'm happy to be embarrassed, happy to try wringing some joy out of the seventh art. And I'm happy to read Agee insist that the first rule of life is freedom; it is a burden I know some movies carry along with me--and one that others should, if only so that my love and honor for them has some chance, some substance.

1 comment:

Chris Todd said...

This is a great blog. Being a movie geek,I have enjoyed your posts!

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