CRITICAL THINKING AND CREATIVITY

 

James Agee is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of such novels as A DEATH IN THE FAMILY and non-fiction works as LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN. However, he also wrote movie reviews for many years for TIME, LIFE, and THE NATION and was a screenwriter. The following quotes are from a collection of his reviews (AGEE ON FILM: VOLUME ONE: REVIEWS AND COMMENTS BY JAMES AGEE. A Wideview/Perigree Book: N.Y.: 1983). (Volume Two is a collection of his movie scripts including the one for THE AFRICAN QUEEN one of the greatest films ever made.) The dates preceding the quotes indicate when Agee wrote the review.

May 19, 1945: "The recently released films which show Nazi atrocities are only part of what is rather clearly an ordered and successful effort to condition the people of this country against interfering with, or even questioning, an extremely hard peace against the people of Germany. The simple method is to show things more frightful than most American civilians have ever otherwise seen, and to pin the guilt for these atrocities on the whole German people" (p. 161) What is so remarkable about this review is that it demonstrates Agee's willingness to resist nationalistic propaganda---and in the process to be able to think critically. This was not an easy thing to do in 1945 at the close of World War II, and it never has been easy. One of the things that you need to do is to understand that various people---primarily advertisers and politicians---are constantly distorting events in order for you to think in a way from which they will profit.

EXERCISE: Identify at least one political and one advertising piece of propaganda that you once believed and now realize is a distortion.

May 11, 1946: "John Huston's LET THERE BE LIGHT, a fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers, has been forbidden civilian circulation by the War Department" (p. 200). Censorship is the tool of those who resist the truth and want you to buy their version of the facts, their propaganda. Although censorship in the United States has been more pernicious than it is now, it is still a common part of everyday life.

EXERCISE: Identify at least one instance of censorship that you are aware of in our society.

Movies are often loaded with propaganda. In fact, various advertisers pay movie producers to have their products seen in a particular movie. Also, the producers of movies are often working hard to ensure that no one is offended by their product so that it is accepted by the widest audience possible. Movies usually provide a distorted view of events whether they are based on fact or fiction. Some movies buck the tide of censorship and banality. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is an exception to the above.

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, which is John Huston's adaptation of B. Traven's novel of the same title. February 2, 1948: "It has never been easy, in Hollywood, to make a first rate, out-of-the-routine movie. TREASURE would never have been made, or would have been hopelessly compromised and watered-down, but for several stalwart heroes. Director John Huston, the chief hero, sold the idea of doing the picture to Producer Henry Blanke. Blanke persuaded the leery moguls to buy the screen rights (Traven got a niggardly $5,000). At one point, Bogart saved the picture by refusing, against front-office pressure, to play his role except as Huston had written it...

"During the scripting of TREASURE, Huston was in constant correspondence with its author, the mysterious B. Traven (THE DEATH SHIP, THE BRIDGE IN THE JUNGLE). Novelist Traven has an enormous following in Europe, but nothing is known of him except that he has lived invisibly, somewhere in Mexico, for many years. Many of Traven's suggestions for movie treatment were so intelligent and knowledgeable that Huston was fascinated, and wanted to meet him.

"In Mexico City's Reforma Hotel, one day, a frail little man in faded khaki, his shirt held together with a cheap gold pin, presented to Huston a card: Hal Croves, Translator. Traven, Croves explained, couldn't come; but as Traven's old friend and translator, he, Croves, knew the author and his work better even than Traven himself did. Huston hired Croves at $150 a week as technical adviser. By the time Croves had done his job and disappeared, Huston was pretty certain that uneasy little Mr. Croves was Traven himself" (pp. 399-400).

Of the directors whose work Agee most admired, John Huston was the one he was most drawn to. He wrote a number of favorable reviews of Huston's work and also interviewed him for the following article. Subsequently they worked together on THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

LIFE, September 18, 1950: "John was well into his twenties before anyone could imagine he would ever amount to more than an awfully nice guy to get drunk with. He wandered into his vocation as a writer of movie scripts to prove to a girl he wanted to marry that he amounted to more than a likable bum. He stumbled into his still deeper vocation as a writer-director only when he got sick of seeing what the professional directors did to his scripts...The first movie he directed, THE MALTESE FALCON, is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. SAN PIETRO, his microcosm of the meaning of war in terms of the fight for one hill town, is generally conceded to be the finest of war documentaries. TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, which he developed from B. Traven's sardonic adventure-fable about the corrosive effect of gold on character, is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios...

"When he was about twelve years old he was so delicate he was hardly expected to live. It was interminably dinned into him that he could never possibly be quite careful enough, and for even closer protection he was put into a sanitarium where every bite he ate and breath he drew could be professionally policed. As a result he became virtually paralyzed by timidity; 'I haven't the slightest doubt,' he still says, 'that if things had gone on like that I'd have died inside a few more months.' His only weapon was a blind desperation of instinct, and by day not even that was any use. Nights, however, when everyone was asleep, he used to sneak out, strip, dive into a steam which sped across the grounds and ride it down quite a steep and stony waterfall, over and over and over. 'The first few times,' he recalls, 'it scared the living hell out of me, but I realized---instinctively anyhow---it was exactly fear I had to get over.' He kept at it until it was the one joy in his life...

EXERCISE: Can you identify the treatment technique that John Huston was using without even knowing that he was engaging in a treatment technique?

"The traits revealed in this incident are central and permanent in Huston's character. Risk, not to say recklessness, are virtual reflexes in him. Action, and the most vivid possible use of the immediate present were his personal salvation; they have remained lifelong habits. Because action also is the natural language of the screen and the instant present is its tense, Huston is a born popular artist. In his life, his dealings and his work as an artist he operates largely by instinct, unencumbered by much reflectiveness or abstract thinking, or any serious self-doubt. Incapable of yesing, apple-polishing or boot-licking, he instantly catches fire in resistance to authority...

"He was born John Marcellus Huston on August 5, 1906 in Nevada, Missouri, a hamlet which his grandfather, a professional gambler, had by the most ambitious version of the family legend acquired in a poker game. John's father, a retired actor, was in charge of power and light and was learning his job, while he earned, via a correspondence course. Before the postman had taught him how to handle such a delicate situation, a fire broke out in town, Walter overstrained the valves in his effort to satisfy the fire department, and the Hustons decided it would be prudent to leave what was left of Nevada before morning. They did not let their shirttails touch their rumps until they hit Weatherford, Texas, another of Grandfather's jackpots. After a breather they moved on to St.Louis (without, however, repeating the scorched-earth policy), and Walter settled down to engineering in dead earnest until a solid man clapped him on the shoulder and told him that with enough stick-to-itiveness he might well become a top-notch engineer, a regular crackerjack. Horrified, Walter instantly returned to the stage. A few years later he and his wife were divorced. From there on out the child's life lacked the stability of those early years.

EXERCISE: If you understood what Agee has just written you laughed. What is the joke? This is an exercise in careful reading.

"John divided his time between his father and mother. With his father, who was still some years short of eminence or even solvency, he shared that bleakly glamorous continuum of three-a-days, scabrous fleabags and the cindery, ambling day coaches between, which used to be so much of the essence of the American theater. John's mother was a newspaperwoman with a mania for travel and horses (she was later to marry a vice-president of the Northern Pacific), and she and her son once pooled their last ten dollars on a 100-to-1 shot---which came in. Now and then she stuck the boy in one school or another, but mostly they traveled---well off the beaten paths.

"After his defeat of death by sliding down the waterfall, there was no holding John. In his teens he became amateur lightweight boxing champion of California. A high-school marriage lasted only briefly. He won twenty-three out of twenty-five fights, many in the professional ring, but he abandoned this promise of a career to join another of his mother's eccentric grand tours. He spent two years in the Mexican cavalry, emerging at twenty-one as a lieutenant. In Mexico he wrote a book, a puppet play about Frankie and Johnny. Receiving, to his astonishment, a $500 advance from a publisher, he promptly entrained for the crap tables of Saratoga where, in one evening, he ran it up to $11,000, which he soon spent or gambled away.

"After that Huston took quite a friendly interest in writing. He wrote a short story which his father showed to his friend Ring Lardner, who showed it to his friend H.L. Mencken, who ran it in the MERCURY. He wrote several other stories about horses and boxers before the vein ran out. It was through these stories, with his father's help that he got his first job as a movie writer. He scripted A HOUSE DIVIDED, starring his father, for William Wyler. But movies, at this extravagant stage of Huston's career, were just an incident. At other stages he worked for the New York GRAPHIC ('I was the world's lousiest reporter'), broke ribs riding steeplechase, studied painting in Paris, knocked around with international Bohemians in London and went on the bum in that city when his money ran out and he was too proud to wire his father. At length he beat his way back to New York where, for a time, he tried editing the MIDWEEK PICTORIAL. He was playing Abraham Lincoln in a Chicago WPA production when he met an Irish girl named Leslie Black and within fifteen minutes after their meeting asked her to marry him. When she hesitated he hotfooted it to Hollywood and settled down to earn a solid living as fast as possible. Marrying Leslie was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, in the opinion of Huston's wise friend and studio protector during the years at Warner Brothers, the producer Henry Blanke. Blanke remembers him vividly during the bachelor interlude: 'Just a drunken boy; hopelessly immature. You'd see him at every party, wearing bangs, with a monkey on his shoulder. Charming. Very talented but without an ounce of discipline in his make-up.' Leslie Huston, Blanke is convinced, set her husband the standards and incentives which brought his abilities into focus. They were divorced in 1945, but in relation to his work he has never lost the stability she helped him gain...

"His friendships range from high in the Social Register to low in the animal kingdom, but pretty certainly the friend he liked best in the world was his father, and that was thoroughly reciprocated. It was a rare and heart-warming thing, in this Freud-ridden era, to see a father and son so irrepressibly pleased with each other's company and skill...

"His favorite writers are Joyce, his friend Hemingway (perhaps his closest literary equivalent) and, above all, O'Neill...

"Huston is swiftly stirred by anything which appeals to his sense of justice, magnanimity or courage: he was among the first men to stand up for Lew Ayres as a conscientious objector, he flew to the Washington hearings on Hollywood (which he refers to as 'an obscenity')...'I'm against ANYBODY,' he says, 'who tries to tell anybody else what to do.'...

"A very good screen writer, Huston is an even better director. He has a feeling about telling a story on a screen which sets him apart from most other movie artists and from all nonmovie writers and artists. 'On paper,' he says, 'all you can do is say something happened, and if you say it well enough the reader believes you. In pictures, if you do it right, THE THING HAPPENS, RIGHT THERE ON THE SCREEN.'...

"At his best he makes the story tell itself, makes it seem to happen for the first and last time at the moment of recording. It is almost magically hard to get this to happen. In the TREASURE scene in which the bandits kill Bogart, Huston wanted it to be quiet and mock-casual up to its final burst of violence. He told two of his three killers---one a professional actor, the other two professional criminals---only to stay quiet and close to the ground, and always to move when bogart moved, to keep him surrounded. Then he had everyone play it through, over and over, until they should get the feel of it. At length one of them did a quick scuttling slide down a bank, on his bottom and his busy little hands and feet. A motion as innocent as a child's and as frightening as a centipede's, it makes clear for the first time in the scene that death is absolutely inescapable, and very near. 'When he did that slide,' Huston says, 'I knew they had the feel of it.' He shot it accordingly.

 

 

"Paradoxically in this hyperactive artist of action, the living, breathing texture of his best work is the result of a working method which relies on the utmost possible passiveness. Most serious-minded directors direct too much: 'Now on this work,' Huston has heard one tell an actor, 'I want your voice to break.' Actors accustomed to that kind of 'help' are often uneasy when they start work with Huston. 'Shall I sit down here?' one asked, interrupting a rehearsal. 'I dunno,' Huston repled. 'You tired?' ...

"Most movies are made in the evident assumption that the audience is passive and wants to remain passive; every effort is made to do all the work---the seeing, the explaining, the understanding, even the feeling. Huston is one of the few movie artists who, without thinking twice about it, honors his audience. His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty. They continually open the eye and require it to work vigorously; and through the eye they awaken curiosity and intelligence. That, by any virile standard, is essential to good entertainment. It is unquestionably essential to good art" (pp. 320-330).

EXERCISE: Rent the movie THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and practice your skills of observation and employ and increase your knowledge of human behavior by writing a review of the film explaining what it tells you about human nature.

OTHER NOTES FROM AGEE (SOME OF WHICH MIGHT HELP YOU THINK OF SCREENPLAYS TO WRITE)

May 5, 1947: "MONSIEUR VERDOUX (United Artists), Charles Spencer Chaplin's first film since THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), is the story of a middle-aged French bank clerk who loses his job during a depression. Tenderly devoted to his invalid wife, his little boy, and their security, and disastrously ill-equipped to fend for them in a prolapsed economy, he nevertheless manages to set up in business for himself. The business: murder.

"His victims are stupid, wealthy women. His difficult task is to woo them, marry them, pry their money loose, murder them, dispose of the corpses, and invest his take. He is exceedingly hard-working, skillful and, in his way, ethical at his job; he takes the least possible emotional advantage of his victims, and he is careful to kill them painlessly.

"He gets a certain esthetic pleasure out of his work, but on the whole it is distasteful and tiring; whenever he can, which is all too rarely, he escapes from the hurly-burly of breadwinning and relaxes at the lovely home his efforts secure...

"Long after he has lost his family and, heartbroken, has retired from 'business,' he does get caught. By this time he is firmly convinced that good and evil are inextricably mingled---and has come to believe that he is not more essentially evil than good.

"Chaplin has remarked that Verdoux paraphrases Clausewitz' idea that the logical extension of diplomacy is war. Verdoux's version: 'The logical extension of business is murder.' War, he tells the court which condemns him, is merely a grandiose multiplication of the crime he is dying for. But wholesale murder is condoned by the state. 'Numbers...' (of killed men), he tells the fat-mouthed journalist who interviews him in his death cell, 'numbers sanctify.' An earnest priest, his last offices rejected, murmurs solemnly, 'May God have mercy on your soul.' 'Why not?' replies M. Verdoux. 'After all, it belongs to Him'---and walks out to be guillotined, away from the camera, down that straight road where most Chaplin movies end" (pp. 370-1).

November 9, 1946: "THE DARK MIRROR is a smooth and agreeable melodrama about twin sisters (Olivia de Havilland, sweet and dry), and a psychiatrist (Lew Ayres) and a detective (Thomas Mitchell) who find out which one is an insane murderess" (pp. 226-7).

Flaherty's NANOOK OF THE NORTH

 

 

 

D.W. GRIFFITH

August 2, 1948: "Hollywood was his invention. Charlie Chaplin said, 'The whole industry owes its existence to him.' Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eagle-beaked man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he sat drinking quietly, his sharp eyes panning the room for a glimpse of familiar faces, most of them long gone. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there was nobody quite like him afterwards.

"It was a long stretch from the genteel poverty of the Kentucky farm where D.W. Griffith was born in 1875 to the international renown he achieved. He had wanted to be a writer, but all that he wrote floundered and failed. In the beginning he was ashamed to be an entertainer: he toured with road shows as Lawrence Griffith. He was stranded in tank towns, fired, overworked and underfed. Between roles, he did slob labor.

"Griffith tried writing for pictures, but the Edison Co. rejected his scenarios. When (in 1907) they hired him as an actor, to wrestle with a stuffed eagle in an old-fashioned cliffhanger, he attached himself to the movies and never, voluntarily, left them again. But until his third contract as a director with Biograph, his pride would not permit him to sign himself David Griffith.

"As a director, Griffith hit the picture business like a tornado. Before he walked on the set, motion pictures had been, in actuality, static. At a respectful distance, the camera snapped a series of whole scenes clustered in the groupings of the stage play. Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that while a theater audience listened a movie audience watched. 'Above all...I am trying to make you see,' Griffith said...

"THE BIRTH OF A NATION, a story of the civil War, the Reconstruction and the first Ku Klux Klan, the cinema had its first 'colossal.' But on the heels of the picture came race riots and cries of racial bigotry...

"In his lifetime, Griffith made 432 movies. They grossed about $60 million, some $25 million of it clear profit for Griffith and his associates. "When he died last week at 73 of a cerebral hemorrhage, in the Hollywood hotel where he lived alone, his lawyer said that the estate would not exceed $50,000. Of this, $20,000 had been found in a safe some years ago during the audit of an ancient hotel. It was wrapped in brown paper and marked 'D.W. Griffith---Person.' D.W., his mind on the remote intangibles of a lifetime, had forgotten all about it" (pp. 396-8).