Kubrick and Agee Walk Into a Bar

And other corrections and amplifications, plus a recommendation

In my column about filmmaking, to emphasize the unusualness of the fact that James Agee is still regarded as relevant to current cinema, 58 years after his death, I stretched one point. I stated that James Agee died before he ever heard of several giants of the second half of the 20th century, including Stanley Kubrick. It seemed a pretty safe assumption: Agee ended his career as a film critic when Kubrick was barely 20 years old. Agee died when Kubrick was just 26, before Kubrick's first full-length feature. Agee certainly never saw any of the films that made Kubrick famous.

Once again, as librarian Tom Mayer pointed out, I underestimated the polymath journalist/novelist/critic who was born in Fort Sanders. According to John Baxter's biography, Kubrick, the director was an admirer of Agee's film criticism. When Kubrick was an aspiring young filmmaker helping with a 1952 Omnibus television dramatization of the life of Abraham Lincoln, he got a chance to meet Agee, even to work with him. Agee wrote the screenplay and even acted a small role in the film.

Kubrick later credited another Agee television script, The Blue Hotel, as an inspiration for The Shining. Seriously. Baxter also implies that an unproduced Agee screenplay about atomic war might have had something to do with inspiring Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

When he was just 24, Kubrick released a 62-minute war film called Fear and Desire. Agee saw it, and was reportedly impressed with parts of it. According to Baxter, Agee, already ill with alcoholism-related heart disease, took Kubrick out for a drink at a Greenwich Village bar and told him, "There are too many good things in the film to call it arty." Baxter ascribes the assessment to Agee's "Southern good manners." Others, eventually including Kubrick himself, hated the film. Embarrassed by this "student work," Kubrick suppressed it almost as soon as it was released. But he was later fond of citing Agee's rare encouragement.

***

I've been writing the text for Shawn Poynter's photographic surveys of different parts of town, and I always get responses. Mostly people obligingly point out the aspects I neglected. In the recent Sutherland Avenue feature, I touched on several points about that complicated place, but left out a great big one. I've written about the textile factory known as Cherokee Textile Mills before, but it was, by some accounts, as important to the old "Marble City" community as the marble industry was. Reader Gail Norwood called to talk about her memories of living near Cherokee in the 1940s.

Marble City was a homey place, she said, where you might wander into anybody's unlocked door. Nobody much had cars, she said; they just walked everywhere they needed to go. There were several groceries located within sight of each other, and her own family ran a couple of them in a friendly rivalry.

She recalls the bootleggers who hung out down along the train tracks, that the gentlemen of the neighborhood would go down and visit for a snort, a quarter a sip. She recalls that sometimes the trains ran over the bootleggers, and that was always disappointing to hear about.

"I was born into the world hearing those looms," she says. The rhythmic sound was like the ocean, the sound of Marble City.

"We couldn't sleep after they stopped."

It stopped around 1955, when Cherokee quit this building and moved to Sevierville. A few Marble Citizens caught the bus to Sevierville. "That got old," she says. And without the mill, the neighborhood she knew began to unravel.

Cherokee's now a very interestingly rehabbed office complex.

Another reader knew something about tenant farmers on Sutherland, near Third Creek. For a street just three miles long, it sure was a complex one, combining multiple factories, tenant farmers, bootleggers, an airport, and a comfortable neighborhood.

I also heard the remarkable Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble, also on Sutherland, is preparing its East Coast Tour, which will include benefits for the traumatized citizens of Newtown, Conn., and for survivors of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey.

***

Have a good look at the current East Tennessee History Center exhibit, "Becoming the Volunteer State: Tennessee in the War of 1812." It's a lonesome war we don't quite know what to do with. When we tell our history, thumbnail style, we tend to skip the 80 years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Our brains are limited, and we must simplify things to keep from going mad.

It was a complicated war, involving not just the U.S. and England, but also Spain, Canada, and several Indian tribes with different alliances and motives. With maps, portraits, and blown-up cartoons, the wall descriptions do a good job of explaining our second war for independence.

There's been much hubbub about the Civil War sesquicentennial, but we don't remember we're in the midst of the actual bicentennial of the War of 1812—which actually lasted until early 1815. A smaller war, certainly, but it played a defining role in the lives of many famous Tennesseans: Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, John Williams, and even one of the war's youngest sailors, David Glasgow Farragut. Along with some Indian heroes you may never have heard of, like Spring Frog.

The exhibit includes some surviving remnants of the era, uniforms and weapons, including a carved souvenir of the USS Constitution and a congratulatory sword inscribed to Jackson—but the one object that made me stand there and gawk is a plainer sword, one dropped by fleeing British at the Battle of New Orleans.

The most prominent object in the room is more of a mystery, an evocation of what I assume is supposed to be a fortification of some sort. Two mannequins in uniform are in defensive positions behind a shiny, golden, oozy thing that looks to me like it's composed of gilded large intestines. The captions offer no clue. If you can figure it out, let me know.

The exhibit's up until May 19. There will be a symposium, "Revisiting the Creek War of 1813," on March 23.


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