Friday, July 24, 2009

A Less Than Wonderful Life

I suppose I should wait a few months to post this, and maybe I will post it again then, but I can't wait until then to share it: James Agee's 1947 review of It's A Wonderful Life.

For one thing, it's pure Agee, who besides beng one of the great American writers of the 20th Century was also one of its smartest viewers, and one of its most precise. Reading Agee on Film a few years ago, the first thing I noticed was that he was not necessarily a long form writer. He was not usually the kind of writer who would deliver 4,000-some words in an effort to nail the Next Big Thing (although he certainly could when his thoughts demanded it).

Agee was marvelously perceptive. He stalked through conventionally "good" films and found gaping holes, founds moments of interest and intelligence in movies others dismissed, and in either case could reveal something about what art is and why it works, even if (as was usually the case with most of what he saw) it was art for mass consumption.

In this review of a movie he kinda, but on second thought not really, likes, he gets to the heart of the matter quickly:

One important function of good art or entertainment is to unite and illuminate the heart and the mind, to cause each to learn from, and to enhance, the experience of the other. Bad art and entertainment misinform and disunite them. Much too often this movie appeals to the heart at the expense of the mind, at other times it urgently demands of the heart that it treat with contempt the mind's efforts to keep its integrity; at still other times the heart is simply used, on the mind, as a truncheon. The movie does all this so proficiently, and with so much genuine warmth, that I wasn't able to get reasonably straight about it for quite a while.

In his reviews as in his journalism and novels, Agee wrestles a thing into focus.

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