Everyone’s a critic, as the saying goes. To confirm this, one need only surf the universe of Web pages expounding the opinions of budding Roger Eberts. That being said, it may seem impossible to imagine that there was ever a time when the job of a critic was the lofty quest of defining the individual’s relationship to American culture. Robert Warshow’s 1962 collection, “The Immediate Experience,” written at a time when popular culture was an “unresolved problem. . . which has come to be a kind of nagging embarrassment to criticism” occupies that higher realm. The 40th anniversary edition features several previously uncollected essays by the author, who died of a heart attack at age 37, and the whole volume seems simultaneously of its time yet highly relevant to the current climate.
That battle of high art versus low is all but over, with popular culture now America’s biggest export. But Warshow’s was a much different time, the late-’40s to mid-’50s, when television and our status as a superpower were brand new. While he writes of communism, Kafka, comics, and the theatre in these 25 plus works penned for Commentary, The Nation, and other liberal intellectual periodicals, it is the movies which he sees as the center of popular culture.
Warshow articulates the essence of what makes a Western, a gangster movie, a Chaplin picture and an art film function as they do. He distills individual works and entire genres into their most elemental states, inventing much of what is known today as cultural criticism in the process. He does all of this with great intelligence, deceptively simple language, and no shortage of wit. This is uncharted territory Warshow is exploring, elevating the movies to serious art with a minimum of pretension and didacticism. One feels his struggle in these pages, the heartfelt need to engage with mass culture while fighting the banality and alienation it can inflict. Though the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema are often cited as legitimizing the Hollywood film as art in the ’50s, here was a New York intellectual doing it largely under the radar.
Warshow’s writing on Chaplin is perhaps his best. In two essays, he manages to discuss the nature of the creator to his work, the sad irony of comedy, and the personal versus cultural meanings of art. As in most of the pieces in “The Immediate Experience,” Warshow works in seeming contradictions. He completely slams a corny line of dialogue at the end of “Limelight”: Chaplin “thinks it expresses a profound … and poetic truth.” Yet on the same page he also proclaims, “The trouble is that it undeniably does. Has he not shown us over and over a sensibility a hundred times more delicate than our own?” In the end these are not contradictions, but illustrations of Warshow’s ability to see a far more complex mechanism at work. A simple “two thumbs up” is not an option for him.
Warshow died in 1955. He left behind a son, Paul, of whom he writes lovingly in an essay on horror comics. There are few critics whose work truly resonates with a reader — just read the scores of posthumous tributes to Pauline Kael. “The Immediate Experience” provides the most complete record available of the work of just such a critic whose ability to inspire remains fully intact.