The Immediate Experience.
Harvard University Press, 2001.
ISBN 0 674 00726 3
US $18.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Harvard University Press)
Uploaded 20 September 2002
Three-quarters into Brian DePalma’s Scarface (1983), an extraordinary moment occurs. A drunk, depressed, and abusive Tony Montana (Al Pacino), after finishing his meal in a swank restaurant and witheringly insulting his wife, turns his contempt onto the other diners:
You’re all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So – what’s that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide . . . how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. . ..
For probably the first and only time in mainstream film, a major passage of dialogue quotes a critic – not in irony but as the summation of the character, the film, and the genre. Pacino’s lines are lifted from Robert Warshow’s now-classic 1948 essay, “The gangster as tragic hero,” then cleaned up – i.e. the elegance and nuance eliminated – and translated into a vernacular suitable for an illiterate brute in a 1980s movie.
Warshow wrote one other now-classic essay on film, “Movie chronicle: The westerner,” in 1954. His best writing is so strong that had he not died young, at 37, he almost certainly would have become a giant among cultural critics. Yet his reputation has also benefited from his early death: he has achieved a kind of sainthood among America’s culture-critical elite. The design of Harvard’s reissue of Warshow’s only book – itself published posthumously – threatens to smother him in encomiums, wrapping the collected pieces (along with Lionel Trilling’s original introduction) front and back with an introductory essay by David Denby and an epilogue by Stanley Cavell. But Warshow escapes.
The key to Warshow’s enduring appeal is summed up in his remark, “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man,” which appears in his preface. Trilling quotes it in his introduction. Denby quotes it in his. Warshow tried to avoid the tendency of some contemporaneous critics to turn to the movies in search of sociology and of others to look for art. He accepted movies as a popular medium but worthy of the most serious investigation. As Denby observes, Warshow was “eager to judge.” But for Warshow the judgement should be based on “the immediate experience” that comes from viewing a movie in a personal relationship to it.
Warshow’s acknowledgement that he “is that man” could be explicit, as in his essay on comic books. It reveals itself implicitly, and more interestingly, in insights such as the reasons the gangster character fascinates us – and why we demand his destruction. It is present in Warshow’s openness to the western hero’s capacity for violence. Various essays that struggle against the corruption of American art and literature by subservience to Stalinism manage to avoid the equally corrosive doctrinaire rejection of anything left or liberal. One gets a sense from reading him that Warshow is indeed trying to respond as an independent, grown-up thinker to the problems he perceives in the cultural forms he loves. There is a calm, unhurried economy to his writing that is hard to find today, perhaps in any day. He doesn’t waste words, but nor does he rush. His prose moves with the leisure necessary for nuance and with a spareness that lets it breathe.
It is a pleasure to read Warshow at his best. It can also challenge one’s own critical judgment. Warshow hates a film I love: William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives (1946), about three veterans returning from World War II. Warshow calls the film “trash,” “greatly overrated,” “a tissue of cheerful platitudes,” “vulgar sentimental optimism,” “visually so shallow.” The film is too obvious for Warshow, its emotions right on the surface. He even – and this was odd, for him – offers a proto-feminist complaint that the three main women in the film all act as caregivers to their men. But Warshow is dead, and therefore even if he is a saint I can win my argument with him, at least privately. The film is not all that cheerful. There are small but disturbing eruptions of ugly undercurrents in American life: a sissy snot-nosed draft-dodger who would humiliate a jobless returning pilot; a Nazi sympathizer who thinks America fought the wrong enemy; a chilly bank official; and a thuggish sleaze-ball who is making money while the ex-pilot flounders. And what is so offensive about the three women caring for their returning men? The men just got back from years at war, one without his hands, another with recurring nightmares, and the third distanced from his children. And finally, what could offer a more immediate experience than a film whose emotions are right on the surface? If the emotions are right on the surface, the reason may be that the film is not so visually shallow after all. Its conservative style, those complex deep-focus shots, the carefully composed wide shots, the often static camera, the purposeful point of view shots, a tense confrontation filmed in a stark two-shot framed with matching over-the-shoulder shots, and so forth, might have something to do with the clarity of the film’s emotions.
Warshow doesn’t make you mad. He makes you think and respond.
He is one of the few film critics of his vintage who still can do that.