Tag Archives: James Agee

Sidewalk 2017

“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”

That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.

I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.

The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.

Two screenings stood out for me.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.

Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.

Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.

“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.

“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.


A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.

45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.

I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).

The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.

One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.

Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.

The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.

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Let Us Now Praise Greensboro, Alabama … (and Randall Curb)

100_3060  Greensboro, Alabama, is about 45 minutes due south of Tuscaloosa in the area referred to as Alabama’s “Black Belt.” The designation “Black Belt” originally referred to the region’s rich dark topsoil but the population of the area is mostly African-American and the designation is so frequently misconstrued to refer to the area’s demographic that “Black Belt” now has different meanings for different people. I stick with the traditional meaning (and frankly find the subsequent meanings to be borderline offensive).

Greensboro is the county seat of Hale County with a population of about 2500. It was a thriving town prior to the Civil War but now the Black Belt is among the economically poorest areas in the United States. Even though the area is poor economically, it is culturally and historically rich and abundant.

Greensboro is off the beaten path but through the years pilgrims of all sorts have come to follow the origins of James Agee and Walker Evans’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee’s epic examination of three sharecropper families in the Black Belt with Evans’s now-iconic photographs. It was on Greensboro’s courthouse square that Agee first met the sharecroppers who lived in nearby Mills Hill and would become the book’s foci. 100_3058

The text which became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men originated as Agee’s commission for an article for Fortune magazine on Southern sharecroppers under the New Deal. Agee brought Evans onto the project to provide the photographs. The resulting essay was more ambitious and sprawling than Fortune could deal with and the magazine never published Agee’s piece. When Agee expanded the article into a book that was published in 1941 the tome famously sold a scant 600 copies.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was rediscovered in the 1960s and has developed followings among each generation ever since. It still serves as a totem and inspiration for writers and a searing portrait of the lives of people who might be forgotten.

Greensboro appears in the book as “Centerboro.” The famous photographs by Evans of the families and the town are enduring images of 20th Century American photography. Greensboro is a quaint town, full of patina and charm. Writers, artists, photographers, architects, and various and sundry “do-gooders” and others show up there to wander around the area or put down stakes. The town’s Main Street looks much like it looked when Evans photographed it; the town wasn’t prosperous enough to deface or demolish the buildings. Houses along Main Street and Tuscaloosa Street stay essentially the same although many of the owners no longer have the means to keep them as pristine and polished as they once were.

The Greensboro area and Hale County are places that are central to the oeuvre of contemporary photographer William Christenberry. Contemporary painter Julyan Davis has used the town and its environs as subject matter over the years. Auburn University’s Rural Studio, conceived by architect Samuel (“Sambo”) Mockbee to provide innovative affordable housing for people who need it, is headquartered in Newbern near Greensboro. Pie Lab, which was envisioned as a place where locals and others might come together to have a piece of pie, a cup of coffee, and discuss solutions to the area’s challenges, is located on Main Street, as is a shop where bicycles are crafted from bamboo. 100_2281

I have traveled to Greensboro all of my life and have had friends there for decades. Many old houses in Greensboro still have names like Glencairn and Magnolia Grove. I have fond memories of traveling from Tuscaloosa to a summer lawn party on the grounds of Glencairn where most of the rambling guests were wearing summer whites and a croquet game was taking place on a flat area of lawn. Costume designer Walter Brown McCord would entertain with lubricated dinner parties at the Queen Anne-style home of his parents, “The Colonel” and Octavia McCord, on Main Street. Walter Brown’s dinners always included his signature Eggs Benedict somewhere on the menu.

100_3073Greensboro holds mostly good memories for me as a visitor. I occasionally have students from Greensboro in my classes. A few years ago when I was telling one of my students that her hometown was one of my favorite places to visit she pondered the idea for a moment and said, “You might not feel that way if you grew up there.”

It is no surprise then that novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux traveled to the Black Belt and to Greensboro for his recently published book Deep South, an ambitious excursion into the lesser-traveled parts of the South. He spends time in rural South Carolina and Georgia near the Savannah River nuclear facility, in Alabama’s Black Belt, in Mississippi’s Delta, and in the hills and hollows of the Arkansas Ozarks, among other detours. 100_3087

It is also no surprise that Janet May, proprietor of Blue Shadows Bed and Breakfast in Greensboro, asked Theroux, in apparent exasperation at his incessant questioning, “Do you know our Randall Curb?”

I have known Greensboro’s Randall Curb since my college days in Tuscaloosa in the 1970s. I had been hearing about him before we met. Mutual acquaintances had assured me that I must know the man one of them referred to as “the blind sage of 12th Avenue.” I finally met Randall when these same acquaintances and Randall were leaving an afternoon screening of Alien at the Tide Theatre on “The Strip” as I was arriving for the next screening.

After that meeting and over time I became a regular at Randall’s house on 12th Avenue, spending many pleasant hours in the closest thing I will probably ever find to the enlightened and civilized salon  of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. There were always good books to discuss, good programs to watch, good music to appreciate, good magazines to skim, and good and erudite company to be had.

Randall has partial vision and is legally blind but that has not stopped him from being one of the most widely-read and discerning readers I have known. He avidly attends movies and theatre when he has the opportunity and has a keen interest in the visual arts. For years, Randall has made numerous trips to England – especially in the summers when he likes to escape the Alabama heat; I have never encountered a more devoted Anglophile. In my personal collection of postcards there are some beautiful ones from Randall detailing his adventures in London, Oxford, and other far-flung English locales.

We stayed in touch and I have visited regularly since Randall returned to Greensboro and I left Tuscaloosa for good. On most visits, I am treated to food and desserts prepared by Maxie Curb, Randall’s gentle and soft-spoken mother who lives nearby and usually joins us for a time during my visits. She is one of the great Southern home cooks, always astounding with her kitchen skills and culinary insight.

Despite Greensboro’s relative isolation, it seems much of the world comes to Randall’s door. During the years I have known him he has been a friend and correspondent of writers, painters, photographers, and all kinds of other interesting people. He is a particularly perceptive and generous critic and some of his impressive correspondences were started by the subject’s response to things Randall wrote. Throughout our friendship I have been constantly amazed at the people Randall just happens to know. Of the dozens of photographs on display throughout Randall’s house, one of my favorites is the one of a young dapper Randall standing alongside Eudora Welty.

So it seems inevitable that Paul Theroux ended up at Randall’s door and writes about him at length throughout his book and during his travels in Greensboro and the Black Belt. After reading Deep South, I’m convinced that Theroux may think Randall is the only Southern man who reads books and listens to classical music.

It is through Randall that Theroux met the nonagenarian Alabama short story writer Mary Ward Brown. He writes fondly of his time with her and Randall at her home near Marion. As it turns out, she passed away just weeks after their meeting.

Traveling the back roads of Theroux’s ambitious book, it is nice to occasionally run across familiar places and old friends. They bring back memories of past pleasures and a wanderlust to find new roads to explore and to return to Greensboro before too long.100_3150(The photograph above was taken in Newbern, Alabama, of Randall Curb and Maxie Curb.  The other photographs in this essay are taken in Greensboro. All photographs were taken by the author of the essay.)

On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

Christenberry: Bearing Witness

IMG_0838  I have had a couple of opportunities to hear artist William Christenberry speak and on each occasion he recounted how his mother worried that, based on his work, people would think that Alabama was just some “rusted out, worn down, bullet-ridden place.”

Christenberry’s work focuses on memories of a fading South and his photographs capture buildings and landscapes in decay. He often photographs the same places year after year and documents how places evolve or disappear or ultimately break down completely.

One such sequence, the “Palmist Building” series begun in 1961, is among Christenberry’s iconic images. The earliest photographs of the building show an abandoned and dilapidated wooden structure. A sign advertising a palmist has been placed upside down in a broken window as protection from the weather. Subsequent images over years show the progression of the building’s decay amidst growing vegetation. In the later images, the building is completely gone, and trees, vegetation, wire fencing, and a utility pole stand beside a lonely road. Similar photographic series include “Church, Sprott, Alabama,” “Green Warehouse,” and “Coleman Café.”

I have never shared Mrs. Christenberry’s concern about her son’s work, but she addresses a basic misunderstanding of the South by people who don’t really know the place. By capturing fade and decay, Christenberry is preserving images of a South that is disappearing … has largely disappeared. His predilection for finding and recording old buildings, abandoned places, overgrown landscapes – a predilection I share and which makes Christenberry’s work special to me – is driven by a need to bear witness rather than by nostalgia. Christenberry focuses on rural landscapes but the impulse seems to me to be the same as my attraction to rust and industrial decay found in urban environments. Some misinterpret these images as representations of what the South is today but Christenberry captures and honors them as a rapidly disappearing landscape.

William Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa and left Alabama in 1961 to live and work in New York, Memphis, and finally Washington, D.C. where he has lived and taught at the Corcoran since 1968. Still, his preferred landscape for his art focuses on the environs of Alabama’s “Black Belt,” an area of rich black soil that cuts through the center of the state, where both sets of his grandparents resided. Hale County, “ground zero” for Christenberry’s art, was also the location for James Agee and Walker Evans’s iconic Depression-era book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a hypnotic and microscopic examination of the lives of three Alabama tenant farm families.

Occasionally, as I drive around the Black Belt in west Alabama, I will accidentally stumble across a place that Christenberry has photographed. I am startled at the discovery, stunned at the recognition, and often feel like I have witnessed some elusive ancient treasure.

Christenberry’s art encompasses painting and drawing, sculpture, and assemblage but he is primarily known for his photography. It was photographer Walker Evans himself who became a sort of mentor to Christenberry when they met in New York in the early 1960s after Christenberry finished his M.F.A. at Alabama. Evans steered Christenberry along the path of a concentration on photography after viewing snapshots Christenberry had made with a cheap Brownie camera as studies for expressionist paintings.

Often, in his sculptures, Christenberry takes the same buildings he has photographed and does three-dimensional reproductions of them, often resting on an authentic bed of Alabama red clay in a shallow box. Over time, these more realistic depictions have given way to solid white “dream buildings” and ghostly structures drawn from memory and iconographic imagery – ladders, gourds, signs, structures on stilts. Christenberry’s evocative art never tells the viewer what to think; he presents it and allows one to ponder and meditate on it, to explore the implications.

There are many books of Christenberry’s art available. These would be of interest to the uninitiated as well as those who already know the artist’s work. A couple of my favorites are Trudy Wilner Stack’s Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry (1996) and William Christenberry (2006) with thoughtful essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox.

My articles about William Christenberry and Walker Evans with several multimedia links may be found at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org.