The movies – and american movies in particular – stand at the center of that unresolved problem of ‘popular culture’ which has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism.”
That is Robert Warshow, then an editor at Commentary and a contributor to The Partisan Review, in 1954. He is arguing, in a Guggenheim Fellowship application, for a reexamination of cinema, proposing a book of film criticism poised between the theoretical and the personal. He never got to write it: Six months later, at 37, he was dead of a heart attack. That essay now serves as the preface to The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, which collects almost all we have of his supple mind. Long out of print, now reissued and expanded, it is likely to reestablish its author as a preeminent observer of American pop.
Note the subtitle; its key word is aspects. ”The movies are part of my culture,” the essay continues, ”and it seems to me that their special power has something to do with their being a kind of ‘pure’ culture, a little like fishing or drinking or playing baseball – a cultural fact, that is, which has not yet fallen altogether under the discipline of art.” In this spirit, Warshow composed long, lucid pieces that look at the movie screen (or the Broadway stage or the funny pages), analyze the audience’s response to it (after, that is, recording his immediate experience), and discover a wide window through which to view American life.
He is dexterous; even while panning a Gertrude Stein book, he makes her arty baby talk accessible. His work is rich with ideas, but never rigidly ideological, and he defines the existential allure of the gangster hero with one juicy epigram: ”[H]e is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” The pieces are intimate, but never egocentric; in ”Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” Warshow marshals the evidence of his 11-year-old son, a card-carrying member of the E.C. Fan-Addict Club, against the insidious anticomics forces.
In reading pop product as the by-product of the ”struggle for status,” he anticipates the electric social analyses of Tom Wolfe. (Incidentally, 18 years before ”Tiny Mummies,” Wolfe’s infamous evisceration of The New Yorker, Warshow made a similar case, noting that the magazine made it possible ”to feel intelligent without thinking.”) And though he rarely gets terribly passionate – unlike, say, Pauline Kael – Warshow is always ready for fun. He writes that the comic strip ”Krazy Kat” expresses some tensions between mass and elite culture, and he also knows that, day in and day out, ”[o]ne thing remains the same: ”Krazy Kat” is about a cat who gets hit on the head with bricks.”
In his introduction to ”The Immediate Experience,” the critic David Denby hails ”A Feeling of Sad Dignity,” Warshow’s long review of Charlie Chaplin’s ”Limelight,” as one of the most beautiful film reviews ever written. It may strike some as odd to hear a review called ”beautiful,” but after reading the piece, it is hard to disagree. Warshow first conjures Chaplin’s effect with enrapturing exactitude, describing how he ”butter[s] us up with his sweet ways and his calculated graceful misadventures…with that honeyed glance he casts at us so often, lips pursed in an outrageous simper, eyebrows and mustache moving in frantic invitation. Love me.” Then the hammer drops: ”Does he love us?” And the author moves, in a sweep of delicate observation, to a rhetorical question made obvious and unsettling: ”What is the Tramp but the greatest of all egotists?” Warshow writes like a spurned lover recalling an affair in clear-eyed retrospect. The warmth of his heart and the cool of his intellect exist in an enticing balance, and in charting the ways and means of one particular star, he illuminates the dark space where actor and audience connect.
Warshow was a pioneer, writing such stuff at a time when almost no one else was and writing it better than few have since. A brilliantly pithy sentence from the preface sums up his aim, states his influence, and points to the force of his prose: ”A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is a man.”