Posts Tagged ‘James Agee’

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 9/3

September 3, 2009

The relationship between recorded sound and the cinematic image has never been a simple matter. Some directors use sounds in the place of images (Bresson). Some use sounds to undermine or to clash with the images they accompany (Godard). Some use sounds begrudgingly yet majestically (Eisenstein). Some use sounds sparingly (early Fassbinder) or densely (late Fassbinder). Some use sounds to construct cacophonous sonic structures, thereby enhancing the aesthetic complexity of the film as a whole (Altman).

But even more difficult to work out is the question regarding the function that music should have in cinema, which is traditionally conceived as a primarily visual medium: Should music serve to “dress” the image (Lynch) or should music actively compete for the audience’s attention (as it does in a musical)?

I think these questions are particularly pertinent with tomorrow night’s screening of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis at the Cinematheque (7:30 PM @ Vilas Hall, Room 4070). Today’s quote comes from James Agee (taken, of course, from the excellent Agee on Film, Vol. 1); here Agee meditates on what music can do for a film, what music ought to do for a film, and how, in his mind, music can actually diminish the general effectiveness and poetry of a film. Keep in mind that Agee, as I mentioned last week, thought very highly of Meet Me in St. Louis.

Music can be well used in movies. It was wonderfully used in Dovzhenko’s Frontier, for instance; for another kind I like the naïve, excitable, perfectly appropriate score of the soundtracked version of The Birth of a Nation; and indeed I think the greatest possibilities have hardly yet been touched. But music is just as damaging to nearly all fiction films as to nearly all fact films, as it is generally used in both today. Its ability to bind together a succession of images, or to make transitions between blocks of them—not to mention “transitional” and “special-effect” and “montage” passages—inevitably makes for laziness or for slackened imagination in making the images and setting them in order, and in watching them. Still worse, it weakens the emotional imagination both of maker and onlooker, and makes it virtually impossible to communicate or receive ideas. It sells far too cheaply and far too sensually all the things it is the business of the screen itself to present. The rough equivalent might be a poet who could dare to read aloud from his own work only if the lights were dimmed and some Debussy was on, very low. (James Agee, The Nation, May 26, 1945)

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Meeting V.M.

August 27, 2009

A week from tomorrow (September 4th) the Cinematheque will kick off its nine-film Vincente Minnelli retrospective with his iconic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland, which the great James Agee once described as “a musical that even the deaf should enjoy.” Minnelli is an undisputed giant of classical Hollywood, a status which he self-consciously interrogated in his outstanding industry micro-epic The Bad and the Beautiful (1952; playing at the Cinematheque on September 26th). Here, via the invaluable online film journal Senses of Cinema, is a relatively comprehensive profile of Minnelli, loaded with biographical and textual detail.

As far as Meet Me in St. Louis is concerned, I’m going to defer to Agee once again:

Technicolor has seldom been more affectionately used than in its registrations of the sober mahoganies and tender muslins and benign gaslights of the period. […] To the degree that this exciting little episode fails, it is because the Halloween setup, like the film as a whole, is too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistakable for the truth.

In the above quote we get shades of Andrew Sarris’s claim, made many years afterward, that Minnelli, an alleged auteur, “believes more in beauty than in art.” More to come.

Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 8/14

August 14, 2009

Today’s quotation is a double, and the subject of both is the practice of writing, sort of a “how to write” type of deal as delivered by two men who have each had a profound influence on my own writing (or at least I like to think so and actively seek to make so).

Over the past few days I’ve been working my way through James Agee’s Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, and thus far it’s been an incredibly rewarding project. Literary bliss is when a writer articulates a certain chain of thoughts that could easily pass for your own inner monologue. I must admit that my love for Agee’s work is partly born of a kind of narcissism: Agee’s writing often reads like a more perfectly composed version of my own attempts at writing (at least as I perceive my own writing), or if it’s not “perfect,” then at least it’s marked by flaws that are so much more interesting and original than mine are.

“I do as a matter of truth believe I could teach, and teach well; and that is one of the reasons I am so generally sure (to the point twice of avoiding following good chances for good jobs) that it would be very bad for me to teach. As for the badness of the writer teaching, I agree all the way; I also think but am not perfectly sure, that there is no job on earth that is not bad for the writer, including writing; and that he who must earn a living has got to take the disadvantages of any job for granted, and seek what advantages in each he can find. Again, though: every job is bad for him, but floating on blood-money can be even worse; killing. There really is no answer or solution and for want of one must say, live as you can, understand all you can, write when, all and what you can.” (James Agee, ‘New York City, November 26, 1934’, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye)

If Agee’s writing is like a much more convincing and captivating version of my own, then Walter Benjamin’s writing is what I’d like nothing more than to be able to replicate. Each and every phenomenon Benjamin encountered bore within it a universe of things to be said and ideas to be had; every cultural object, no matter how ostensibly banal, contained within it the materials to construct an incredibly delicate structure of thought and perception. Perhaps more than any other writer, Benjamin is the one who I’d love to resurrect and take on a tour of the contemporary world, just to see what he would make of it all, and to see whether he’d be able to process the variety of shocks that constitutes so much of our modern environment. I could go on for hours about Benjamin, but I’ll let his quote stand for itself.

“Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.” (Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, Reflections)

Yes, I just figured out how to use block quotes.