When Library of America published a collection of Pauline Kael’s film writing last year, many of Kael’s admirers fondly recalled her as the first writer to elevate film criticism to literature. But that distinction actually belongs to an earlier LOA author, James Agee.
In 1942, a generation before Kael gained fame for her New Yorker reviews, Agee (pronounced Ay-jee) signed on as a movie critic for both Time and the Nation, penning reviews often more memorable than the movies that inspired them. The Agee style—intensely literary and endlessly alert to the textual nuances of an emerging medium—was a striking departure from the prevailing movie coverage, which often seemed little more than a willing arm of the studio publicity mill. When Agee died in 1955 at the age of forty-five, fans of his film work immediately began clamoring for a book that would preserve his best reviews within covers, and Agee on Film appeared in 1958. The book’s publication affirmed the stature of film criticism as its own art form, creating a standard that subsequent generations of reviewers have tried to match.
Decades after Agee’s passing, the idea of film reviewing as something intellectually valuable seems thoroughly mainstream. But when Agee was making his way as a journalist in the 1930s and 1940s, few editors were interested in devoting “think pieces” to something so seemingly transient as a Hollywood flick. In fighting for film’s place in the pantheon of modern culture, Agee was defying convention, even at the risk of stalling his career.