Burningbird has started writing about Agee on film, so I thought I might mention some other examples of Agee on film.
Agee Films is an interesting documentary house. Three films in their catalogue are directly about Agee. To Render a Life is an interesting film that seems somewhat “fanboyish” to me, but that doesn’t really undermine its utility. The critique of Agee and Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is punctuated by an appropriation of their method to explore a modern Alabama family (circa 1990). I didn’t find it nearly as compelling as the film on Shelby Lee Adams I mentioned yesterday, but it is certainly worth viewing. Robert Cole’s lectures that punctuate the film reveal the privileging of “documentary art” over documentary that mars this film (and most critical writing for that matter), making it more an exploration of the nature of “art” rather than the core of documentary. It’s a good film, to be sure—but it is more about the aesthetization of poverty than the documentation of poverty itself.
The documentary Agee (1980) is an excellent biography that is a fine way to understand the sheer drive of the man. An Afternoon With Father Flye (1993) explores the relationship between Agee and his boyhood mentor. The filmmaker, Ross Spears, is currently working on a documentary film series about Appalachia.
I’m not sure if the short film that Agee made with Helen Levitt in 1945, In the Street, is available, but it did show up on IFC or Sundance a while back. I can also recommend Agee on Film 2, which includes five scripts by Agee. I was most taken by “Noa Noa,” a script about the life of Gauguin (a fascination that Edwin Rosskam shared). Agee’s mission is placed in a telling perspective by Gauguin’s pronouncement just before his death in Agee’s script:
I may have lost my sanity, at times; and it’s quite clear that I’m losing my sight. I’ve even lost the faith in myself as an artist; and the desire to be one. Some of my work is good; some is very good. Some may change the course of Art, ever so little; some may give a vision of possibility to men who suffer in a time worse than ours. All of it is honest. But beside the vision, it is only a glimmer; and beside the sublime works of art . . . (he smiles and shrugs) And now I am going to lose my life. And yet in all this lifetime’s accounting of losses, I feel a kind of peaceful joy that I never dreamed would exist for me. I’ve always been true to my vocation, come what might. But I begin to realize that—if I could properly use your language—the real effort has always been, simply, to be true to my own soul.
Most telling is the stage directions Agee offers for this scene: “Gauguin talks as much to himself as to Vernier. He ‘learns’ as he talks.”