Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sylvester, Agee, Bacall

The payoff of the eye-shredding microfilm research I've been doing to research Sylvester's extensive and little-documented broadcasting career, is that it has turned up some wonderful cameos. By chance, I've just come across one of these: a tribute to James Agee's film criticism from 1959. As his first example of Agee's criticism, he quotes from Agee's reviews of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. I use the plural because Agee wrote for both Time and the Nation. In the tributes to Bacall over the last couple of days, many have quoted from one of these reviews, depending on the writer's purpose. To convey the dazzling impact of Bacall's debut, the Time review gets quoted, usually from either the beginning or end of this paragraph (see the Boston Globe or the Express :

'Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn and she burns both ends against an unusually little middle. Her personality is compounded partly of percolated Davis, Garbo, West, Dietrich, Harlow and Glenda Farrell, but more than enough of it is completely new to the screen. She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer's eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness. With those faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence...she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while'.

Other websites like the New York Times and the Telegraph chose to quote from the Nation review instead:

'Whether you like the film will depend I believe almost entirely on whether you like Miss Bacall. I am no  judge. I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her- she has a voice like a chorus by Kid Ory- without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a belly laugh. It has been years since I have seen such amusing pseudo-toughness on the screen'.

The point for Sylvester is that Agee was writing for two publications with different audiences and different requirements:

'In The Nation he was writing for a small, intelligent left-ish audience who, he could assume, shared his values and standards. In Time he was writing for the American people at large, and couldn't take as much for granted...In The Nation, Agee is more expansive, less glittering, more relaxed than in his unsigned piece in Time: he takes the reader into his confidence, he writes about himself: this is his column. In Time he is the brilliant journalist, in The Nation, the evocative, ruminative essayist'.

I haven't quoted from Agee to the extent that Sylvester did, but the difference is still clear, both in style and in judgement. Compare, for example 'the toughest girl...' with 'pseudo-toughness'. And there is a strange echo of Sylvester's point in the obituaries of Bacall, in whether they chose to quote from the safety of the Time review or to risk selecting from the more nuanced Nation piece.

This piece is relevant to me is because Sylvester was in the same situation. At around this time he was writing for various different publications, in the US as well as the UK, and making broadcasts across the Third Programme, Home Service and Light Programme (occasional film reviews on 'Woman's Hour'). I'm often asked, and often ask myself, how much of a difference this made to his writing, and I think this broadcast on Agee is proof that he was very much concerned with the question of readership. It would have been more obvious to just talk about how brilliant Agee was, regardless of who he was writing for, but Sylvester deliberately distinguishes between the outlets Agee was writing for, as if I were to make the same distinction in Sylvester's own work.

The second extract Sylvester chooses to discuss is Agee on Buster Keaton. The quotation is long, again, the length of quotation that goes beyond its illustrative requirement and starts to seem like Sylvester was enjoying the words so much that he didn't want to stop. This is just part of it:

'No other comedian could do as much with the dead pan. He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things: a one-track mind near the track's end of pure insanity' mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances: how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood. Everything that he was and did bore out this rigid face and played laughs against it. When he moved his eyes, it was like seeing them move in a statue. His short-legged body was all sudden, machinelike angles, governed by a daft aplomb. When he swept a semaphorelike arm to point, you could almost hear the electrical impulse in the signal block. When he ran from a cop his transitions from accelerating walk to easy jogtrot to brisk canter to headlong gallop to flogged-piston sprint- always floating, above this frenzy, the untroubled, untouchable face- were as distinct and as soberly in order as an automatic gearshift'.

Sylvester chose this extract to show that as a critic Agee stays on the surface- he doesn't try to establish general principles about cinema, but 'he was a supremely sensitive reactor'. In a reliably brilliant review for Hyperallergic recently, Barry Schwabsky begins:

'I have a habit, when reading a good book of poetry, of looking for the places where the poet seems to be reflecting on his or her own sense of what poetry is'.

I'm a bit like that with Sylvester's broadcasting. In these hundreds of programmes which aren't about art, what I'm hoping for is something that, however obliquely, is going to illuminate the art criticism which I'm primarily focused on. And that's what I get from Sylvester's conclusions about Agee. 'He doesn't try, as Warshow does, to work out general principles about the nature of our experience of the movies. He evokes, he translates the images on the screen into verbal images'. I don't think it would be right to say Sylvester identifies with Agee, and certainly not that he is identifying himself in opposition to him. But he does, at least, show he has formed these categories. Sometimes Sylvester produces verbal images, sometimes he seems to have some general principles, but it's useful to think he was aware of himself drifting between those two poles.

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