Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rosenbaum and Agee

Let us now take a brief break from the bitter business of personal canon formation to praise this 1980 piece on an Agee documentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I've noted in the past that Rosenbaum has become too strident for my taste in recent years, at times sounding like a parody of himself, but this piece, about a negligible 1980 documentary on the great writer James Agee, shows Rosenbaum at the near-peak of his expressive powers. Check out the passage where he slides in his requisite jab at Republican Presidents: "[Carter] wasn't a bit like...Ronald Reagan leaking sincerity and integrity like a reptilian wallet in his old General Electric TV spots." Beyond the self-affirmatory proclamation of his liberal bona fides, the line gets across a great simile (the wallet a nasty-easy-smart evocation of liberal disgust at Republican avarice), and a funny piece of trivia. The language gives the swipe an afterlife beyond the peevish impulses of its moment, something I'm not confident can be said of Rosenbaum's recent writing. Smart prose pervades the piece, and it offers a particularly bracing engagement between a writer and his literary model. Read it as if your peace of mind depended upon it.