Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Better In Your Head?--A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

James Agee

"(N)obody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice."

SPOILER ALERT, somebody dies.

The city, Knoxville. The state, Tennessee. The twentieth century, still in its teens. The family, the Follets. At the head is Jay, thoughtful and resolute; beside him (or rather behind him, given the era) is Mary, a high-strung child of God. Their children, six-year-old Rufus and three-year-old Catherine, are wide-eyed and sweet-natured.

Most things are mostly fine until Jay receives an early morning phone call from his notoriously capricious brother Ralph, passing along the news that their father is breathing shallowly outside death's door. He says goodbye to his wife and drives off into the imminent dawn.

The elder Mr. Follet turns out to not in the grave condition his youngest son promised. Underneath a cloud of prickly relief, Jay heads back home. He has no clue of the lethal malfunction inside the machine pushing him forward, one that will result in a death as flukey as it is instantaneous.

Thereafter, the smaller tragedies visit those left behind, piling upon one another with dizzying haste: a widow's anguish, alleviated through faith; the self-recriminations of a love-starved drunkard, scalding his insides faster than the liquor he guiltily gulps down; and most distressingly, a child's bewilderment and incomprehension.

Mary Follet's reliance on the Good Book, her stout subservience to the sky wizard, has estranged her from her immediate family--emotionally, anyway. Physically, her parents and brother are all too willing to fill her home with their reassuring breaths and palliating gestures. To say nothing of Aunt Hannah and her pragmatic support. Only the arrival of a stolid preacher--the intrusion of a stranger--makes visible the fissures.

Yet it is Mary's determination to keep it together (bolstered by what can only be described as a pep talk by her father, a proud agnostic yet a prouder parent) gives this most desultory of stories the closest to a happy ending it can realistically achieve.

James Agee made his name as a writer of nonfiction both short (film reviews for Time and The Nation) and long (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). He wrote only one novel, and even that was left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 45. The highly autobiographical work would hit shelves two years later, and earn the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Time has been kind to Agee's gift; the tale he tells is a common one, told with uncommon sensitivity. His sentences feed oxygen to tiny flames. The eventual conflagration is at once catastrophic and consolatory.

Imagine Something Happened, with the significant distinction that something actually happened. Or a master of his instrument in the style of Jimi rather than Yngwie.

Or just, um, read the book.

Director-Alex Segal
Writer-Philip Reisman, Jr.

Weird duck, this 'un. Like that one duck what has a rooster head.

The film All the Way Home is based on the play All the Way Home, which was based on A Death in the Family. An adaptation of an adaptation? Sure!

Ninety lachrymose minutes begin possibly auspiciously, as the camera focuses on the framed picture of a young boy, mouth wide from mirth. The shot expands, placing us in the darkened theater house where the little guy and his old man soak in the hijinks of Charlie Chaplin. The trick is used again, but the trip from plaintive reflection to rollicking comic antics did little for me other than want to smack the movie across the chops.

The evening's entertainment over and done, Dad and son walk home, while Steve Lawrence croons a theme tune every bit as indelible as a hiccup. Dad is Jay Follett (Robert Preston), a big ol' boisterous ol' fella who lives every minute for his boy, Rufus (Michael Kearney).

The woman of the house awaits: Mary Follett (Jean Simmons) is a husk of a human who is with child number two but, thanks to all the Catholicism clogging her arteries and blocking the blood flow to her brain, she cannot bring herself to use words like "pregnant" or "stomach," instead telling her son that their "gift" is still "in Heaven" and will arrive on Earth when God decides.

Jay and his wife have a somewhat meaningful argument, then everyone goes to sleep, and the next day it's time to drive out to the Follett family farm alongside Jay's numb-nutted brother Ralph, a blowhard borracho whose jokes barely lift, much less land. Everything is Appalachian and creepy!

Later that evening (I think), Jay receives a frantic early morning call from Ralph, blubbering over their paw, who is apparently finna clock out any darned minute. Jay drives off to be by his side, even as he rightfully suspects that the alarm is unwarranted. The next day, Jay calls to let his wife know that he's on his way home. The next call she receives is far less jovial, informing Mary that her husband's been in a serious single-car accident. As her brother Andrew goes to see how serious, Mary waits with her aunt Hannah. Two nerve ends masquerading as human women.

Once Andrew arrives, unable to get the words out, clutching his sister and sobbing, All the Way Home basically adheres to the original book, with Mary breaking the horrible news to her children, the phlegmatic preacher, general indicators of bereavement, the viewing of the casket at the Follett home, none of it approaching the intensity and heart of Agee's novel.

The end comes, mercifully, when a distraught Rufus runs out of the house, yelling for the man in the box. Mother Mary follows and some schmaltz ensues, including the revelation that pretty soon Rufus will be a big brother.

Surely this tugged at thousands of heart strings. Certainly I care more about what the new S'mores Swirl Iced Latte from Dunkin Donuts tastes like. Good, I bet.

Robert Preston is fine in the role of the doomed patriarch, even if he was ten years too old for the role as originally written. At least the character's demise kept him from grasping further opportunity to oversell every single thing he did and said on screen, a chance that Jean Simmons (perhaps best known for her portrayal of Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet) wasn't going to let pass by. The woman couldn't even drink "whiskey" without calling attention to her "craftsmanship."

Child actors I can cut some slack. Michael Kearney, for example, was either unable or unwilling to blink while speaking and quite possibly had an adult pressing an icepack against a sensitive body part during his reaction shots.

Kudos for filming near the same neighborhood in Knoxville where James Agee was raised, but would it have cursed the production to have one single actor attempt a Southern accent?

I've not clue one as to even the approximate value of your time, but I promise, watching All the Way Home will lessen it.

In brief, the movie is third-rate Capra corn. The gap in quality between the source and the adaptation is wide, deep and impossible to exaggerate. Alex Segal primarily directed made for television flicks, and whatever sensitivity and artistry he brought to this rare big-screen project was simply (perhaps kindly) insufficient. He leans towards overt preciousness, his blatant goal the wrenching forth of sobs from even the hardest heart. Without the transilluminating abilities of James Agee's words, the moving portrait of a family gathered in grief, tiptoeing around land mines, is hardly ever so.

(Black and white did no favors, either. The tale itself is already dark enough.)

A Death in the Family is a novel that lives inside its own heads, with Agee's prose inhabiting a wealth of unforgettable characters: a deaf old woman whose very presence keeps everyone off-kilter; two agnostic men of varying temperament; a pair of pre-teens who know that their father is dead but struggle to understand that their father is gone; a man indirectly responsible for the passing of his own big brother. The causal relationship between death and religion, especially when the death is judged "premature," is examined believably and brutally. Agee lays bare the oddities and intimacies until the breaking sound drowns out the clucking and clicking.

A movie can capture the rhythm of cricket chirps, of rain drops. But the silver-lined spaces in between words are harder to conjure. A confluence of creative energies powerful enough to crack Earth's crust is required. Alex Segal and cast could barely crack a pie crust. 

Robert Preston is a heavier Jay Follet than I'd envisioned, with shoulders broad enough to land a propjet on. His boundless charisma gives him the aura of an elixir huckster. His chemistry with Jean Simmons is God-like, in that it doesn't exist. The last hour the couple spends together in the book is so exquisitely intimate it feels intrusive. In the movie, Jay gets a call, him and Mary smooch on the porch and share some inexplicable laughter.

Michael Kearney as Rufus is basically a towheaded Teddy Ruxpin minus the creepy charm. The second I admit my inability to care whit one about the central character of a story, is the same second I resent that I have to finish the goddamn movie for the sake of my goddamn blog. (And it was actually closer to eight seconds.)

I am perhaps foolish to expect any visual could equal the splendor of A Death in the Family's prologue. Fine. Caps and bells on. I feel well within my rights to wonder at the wisdom of a director allowing shots to breathe with hyperinflated lungs.

All the Way Home tells the story of A Death in the Family in a manner similar to mother Mary explaining death to her children. Diluted rather than distilled, hokey rather than honest. Damn shame, really. 

James Agee left behind a wife and four children--and an estate worth a mere $450. Family friend and editor David McDowell searched through Agee's personal papers and found an incomplete, untitled manuscript. Desperate to provide for the kids, McDowell went to work, assembling what he judged a book suitable for publication. A Death in the Family went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and make several "Best Novels of the 20th Century" lists. It's impact and influence is felt to this very day.

McDowell claimed, from the first, that the novel as published had not been altered from Agee's original writings. Thirty years later, that declaration would be proven false.

In 1988, the son of David McDowell approached the University of Tennessee about selling some of his father's papers. English professor Michael Lofaro sifted through the materials and found something quite interesting: Agee's incomplete manuscript for what would become A Death in the Family, including notes, outlines, and previously unpublished chapters. Scrutiny revealed that David McDowell had done rather a number on Agee's work: replacing the intended opening chapter with a more light-hearted, previously published piece titled "Knoxville: Summer of 1915"; altering the chronology with the insertion of nebulous flashback interludes; and turning 44 short chapters into 20 longer ones.

Lofaro's plan to publish a new version of an American classic, one truer to the author's intent, hit a snag when the James Agee Trust sued to recover the relevant papers sold to the university. The suit was unsuccessful, and after the appointment of a new trustee, the family expressed interest in supporting Lofaro. In 2008--twenty years after first being called to appraise David McDowell's papers--Michael Lofaro published A Death in the Family, with the subtitle "A Restoration of the Author's Text."

The additional chapters that McDowell felt didn't belong come before the accident. There's more interaction between father and son, which only makes the former's fate even more terrible, so thanks for that. This extra text further provides a fuller understanding of Jay Follet, a man who worked to extricate himself from the flat lands of Appalachia to build a new life, one that includes living residences with more than one floor. Lofaro's decision to do away entirely with the flashbacks and add new chapters helps with narrative flow; the interludes are doubtlessly grand poetry under the guise of prose, but they are also momentum killers.

Lofaro's painstaking efforts may indeed be closer to the author's overall vision for "the story of my relation with my father," but claiming it to be the definitive version of the novel is speculative and foolhardy. Pore over all the pages, decipher all the scribble, bottom line remains: James Agee died mid-sentence. The argument could be made (and probably has been) that David McDowell's decision to publish what he found under false pretenses was a violation of the artist's posthumous right to privacy--but thank the gods he did. I will argue (unoriginally) that Michael Lofaro's re-creation was, at best, utterly unnecessary. Consider: James Agee's linguistic virtuosity and David McDowell's editorial instincts produced a masterpiece. Even allowing that the expanded edition is an improvement, nothing changes that initial fact.

As it is, the reality of two versions of one amazing novel out in the public both intrigues and infuriates me.

Poor Rufus. No bogeyman matches up to the hellish misfortunes to be endured in the daylight. Poor us.

Jay Follet was a hard-worker, a decent family man, and while the good don't always die young, doing so is the only way to assure they'll stay good.

My second novel features a scene of the protagonist viewing her father's open casket. I thought of A Death in the Family during the writing process, driven by the acute realization that it was not Agee's skill I had to measure up to, but instead, his honesty.

Poor Mary. She berates herself for any independent thought that enters her head, just like a good Catholic lady should. I pity such people, though I know that I shouldn't. If cherry-picking in an orchard 73 trees strong helps a person swallow down their daily bowl of oatmeal….

Yessir, Abe Lincoln indeed arrived in the world within the four walls of a log cabin. Know who else did likewise? The very same log cabin, in fact? Ivy K. Davenport. You can watch the episode of I've Got a Secret that aired on February 11, 1963 and see for self, if you doubt me. Wait, you can't. YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion--thanks for not-a-thing. The Christina Chubbuck footage will be uploaded before that I've Got a Secret eppy.

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