Sunday, August 27, 2017

Agee Redux, Part 3

Now available from the University of Tennessee Press in the Works of James Agee series: Complete Film Criticism: Reviews, Essays, and Manuscripts. As I've indicated in a couple of previous posts—click here and here—it's a work with which I'm intimately familiar, having copyedited the manuscript. Perhaps that makes me a bit biased when I sing its praises, but so be it.

There have been collections of Agee's film writings before but none as comprehensive as this. Volume editor Charles Maland secured the help of the archivist at Time, Inc. in identifying every one of Agee's unsigned reviews for the newsmagazine and now all those reviews are available between hard covers for the first time. Previous collections have included only a smattering of the Time reviews, several of which were misattributed to Agee. All of the Nation reviews are here, of course, including Agee's critique of It's a Wonderful Life, inexplicably omitted from previous collections. Included as well are writings that were unpublished during the writer's lifetime along with pieces that appeared in publications other than the two magazines with which he was a most identified as a film critic. All told, it's essential reading for anyone interested 1940s cinema and the very particular perspective on it offered by one of America's most gifted writers.

For more information, check out this description on the UT Press website.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Plausibles and Implausibles

In a recent conversation with an old friend from my film school days, we got to talking about The Third Man, the 1949 classic directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, and starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli. (For those who haven't seen it, the film is a bit too complicated to summarize here; suffice it to say that it's a thriller involving black-market intrigue in postwar Vienna. Also, if you're new to the film, be warned that spoilers follow.)

Near the end, Welles's Harry Lime, the charming villain of the piece, is about to rendezvous with his friend of 20 years, Holly Martins (Cotten), at a café, unaware that he's stepping into a trap. Holly, disgusted with what he's learned of Lime (that the diluted penicillin the latter peddles on the black market has claimed a number of innocent victims, including children), has decided to cooperate with military policeman Calloway (Howard), whose men are gathered in the shadows surrounding the café, ready to nab Lime when he appears. As Lime enters the establishment, he overhears his lover (Valli) denouncing Martins as a police informer. She yells at Lime to run. A memorable chase through the sewers of Vienna ensues and Lime is ultimately shot by Holly.

My friend, who had seen the film many times before (as have I), found that during his most recent viewing, this question suddenly occurred to him: Why does Harry Lime go into that café? Up to this point the film has shown him to be a man of considerable cunning and shrewdness, even faking his own death to elude capture. Why would he expose himself so foolishly at this point? And is this action so implausible as to undermine one's suspension of disbelief and send the film careening off the rails?

With my friend's question in mind, I rewatched the last third of the film again, and it does seem to me that Greene and Reed at least try (perhaps unsuccessfully) to lay the groundwork for the scene in an earlier one in which Lime and Holly meet at Vienna's famous Ferris wheel and have a heart-to-heart chat in one its compartments as it slowly ascends to a dizzying height. The emphasis of this scene is on Lime’s utter venality and disregard for human life. But as ruthless and amoral as he is—he chillingly calls his victims “suckers and mugs” and questions what difference it would make if one of those “dots” on the ground below were to "stop moving forever”—he's also shown to be oddly sentimental about his longtime friendship with Holly. Even after Holly reveals that he has talked to the police and that they “dug up [Lime’s] coffin,” Lime, though clearly shaken, ends up saying Holly remains the only one in the city he can trust. He suggests they meet again, though warning Holly that he’d best not bring the police.

It would seem, then, that Lime (whether plausibly or not) thinks that Holly would never betray him—and indeed it is only after Calloway takes Holly to a hospital to show him some of Lime’s victims that Holly agrees to act as a decoy. Otherwise, he was ready to leave Vienna. And when the climactic meeting finally comes, Reed does show Lime exercising a certain measure of caution: he emerges from the shadows atop a wreckage pile overlooking the street and carefully surveys the scene before approaching the café, which he enters from the side door, not from the street entrance. This demonstrates a deliberate effort on Reed and Greene's part to cover the credibility bases, and there is so much else that is good about the film—from the moral issues it raises to its crisp editing, effective use of chiaroscuro and canted camera angles (perhaps Welles's influence), overall plotting, and memorable performances—that most viewers, at least on one viewing, are likely to overlook the possible gap in logic. And let's face it: the filmmakers were probably counting on most people seeing it only once and not having a second thought about whether Harry Lime's fatal error is really plausible or not. That was how both my friend and I had experienced it even after repeated viewings.

Truth to tell, I don’t think a lot of movies in a somewhat realistic vein such as this one (musicals, horror, fantasy, and  science fiction films, and most comedies and action movies are another matter altogether) would withstand the plausibility test if you examine them closely enough. And even when logical lapses are pretty obvious, it becomes a question of whether enough virtues remain to compensate for them. The typical film, especially a heavily plot-driven one, is such a compressed form of storytelling that resorting to shortcuts and a certain amount of narrative sleight of hand is almost inevitable.

Hitchcock, not surprisingly, was particularly disdainful of those he called “our friends, the plausible-ists.” And indeed, his films abound in improbabilities that most viewers (except for the plausible-ists, of course) are more than willing to forgive or overlook. My own favorite bit of Hitchcockian illogic comes near the end of Strangers on a Train, when the tennis-player hero, Guy Haines, struggles to win a match quickly so that he’ll have time to intercept the villain, Bruno Anthony, before the latter can plant an incriminating cigarette lighter and frame Guy for the murder of his wife. If time is of the essence, why does Guy try so hard to win the match? Wouldn’t it be more logical for him to throw the match and let his opponent win? That would get it over with in a hurry. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have that great sequence in which Guy’s battle on the tennis court is intercut with Bruno’s desperate efforts to retrieve the dropped lighter from a storm drain.

Critic Molly Haskell touches on this issue a bit in the new Film Comment. In an otherwise appreciative essay on Robert DeNiro, she talks about how little of Taxi Driver makes sense to her: “Why would smirky princess Betsy go on a date with creepy cabbie Travis in the first place? And why would he take her to a porn film? And then be shocked when she walks out on it and him? And then be shocked when she rejects it and him?” After mentioning a few more flaws—the sexlessness of Travis Bickle, the farcical ending, the film’s “indigestible melding of Ford and Bresson"—she concludes: “But despite all this,Travis Bickle lives, and thanks to the untethered nature of DeNiro’s instinctive performance, breathes, flourishes, threatens, as myth: the savage male underbelly endlessly renewable and terrifying." In short, while Taxi Driver is clearly not Haskell's idea of a masterpiece, it contains at least one transcendent element—DeNiro's powerful presence—that makes it worthwhile.

The Third Man may not be a masterpiece either. But in my view it comes pretty damn close, even when Harry Lime's questionable final decision is taken into account.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Agee Redux, Part 2

A little over a year ago, I noted the forthcoming publication of two new volumes (both of which I copyedited) in the Works of James Agee series by the University of Tennessee Press. I'm happy to announce that one of those, The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter: First and Final Screenplays, has just become available. One could call it a heavy tome in both the literal and figurative senses. It comes in at more than 900 pages and lists for $90. Loaded with annotations and supplementary materials (including variant scenes, correspondence, and Agee's notes), it features the first-draft screenplays and shooting scripts for both movies. The editing of Prof. Jeffrey Couchman (College of Staten Island) represents film scholarship at its best. If you're a serious cinephile interested in Hollywood history and the complex, collaborative processes through which words on a page become images on the screen, the book is one I can't recommend highly enough. Click here for more information.

Due out later this spring is the definitive edition of Agee's film criticism, edited by Prof. Charles Maland (University of Tennessee). It's a superb work as well, presenting a panoramic view of 1940s cinema through the eyes of one of the first film critics to command respectful attention. And this volume will be the first to include all of Agee's unsigned reviews for Time.

To be sure, my involvement with these two books makes me biased. But that doesn't make my praise here any less sincere.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Great Oscars Screw-Up . . . My (Conspiracy) Theory

I think Trump did it.

I believe that the tangerine Twitter tot, knowing he would get a lot of dissing at the Oscars ceremony, had one of his minions (probably someone who knew Steve Bannon from his Hollywood days) mix up the envelopes that led to La La Land being mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight. That way, the headlines would all be about the epic flub that ended the show, not all the digs that our so-called president received over the course of the evening. I also suspect that Steve Harvey, who made a similar flub at the Miss Universe pageant (once owned by Trump, BTW!), came up with the idea and passed it along during his visit to Trump Tower a while back. See, it all makes sense.

You heard it here first, and that's all I'll say about the Oscars this year.