Ever wonder what causes a movie reviewer to become a movie reviewer?
When I was a 10-year-old kid just getting into classic movie comedies, I went to the library and checked out the book Agee on Film solely because it had references to Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields. Thus was my introduction to high-quality film criticism.
James Agee (last name pronounced “AY-gee”) made his reputation writing sterling movie reviews for Time and The Nation magazines in the 1940’s. Among other glories, he wrote a much-heralded essay titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era” that helped to bring silent-comedy icons (most notably Harry Langdon) out of mothballs and caused them to be re-viewed and discussed seriously among film historians. He later went on to work on the screenplays of a couple of gems titled The African Queen and Night of the Hunter.
Unfortunately, many film buffs and readers who revere the critics Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann have either forgotten Agee’s work entirely or have assigned his own work to mothballs. But among the faithful are film director Martin Scorsese, who serves as editor of the “Modern Library: The Movies” series of film books. In 2001, the series reissued Agee on Film, and re-reading Agee’s work (or reading it for the first time, if you’re lucky enough) proves that film criticism can make for reading material as compelling as any fictional novel.
Agee passes the acid test for any film critic: Even if you don’t agree with him, his writing is so lively that you can’t help enjoying it. His work ranges from three separate columns (three weeks’ worth, in print terms) to Chaplin’s much-maligned (at the time) Monsieur Verdoux, to the most concise, funniest review ever: Reviewing a musical potboiler titled You Were Meant for Me, Agee replied in four simple words, “That’s what you think.”
If you want to see what high-caliber movie criticism meant in the pre-Siskel & Ebert days, engross yourself in this sprawling book. It’ll make you appreciate the decades before every newspaper, newsletter, and website had its own minor-league deconstructionist of Hollywood blockbusters.