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Robert Warshow: The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre And Other Aspects Of Popular Culture

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In a new epilogue for the latest edition of Robert Warshow's classic 1962 essay anthology The Immediate Experience, Stanley Cavell writes that discovering the book "can create so specific a feeling of personal gratitude for its existence that it's almost a surprise to learn that others know how good it is." Writing for the famed "New York intellectual" journals Commentary and Partisan Review from 1946 through his death in 1955, Warshow spoke with the voice of a leftist shaken by the McCarthy era and a Jew rattled by the Holocaust. But what Cavell responds to is Warshow's keen mind, direct style, and admirable willingness to send piercing barbs where they're deserved. Warshow's most famous quote is "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." The Immediate Experience collects his soul-searching analyses of such topics as gangster movies' function as an outlet for Americans' repressed malice, how Arthur Miller's obsession with universality makes his plays pointlessly vague, the banality of The Rosenbergs, the awkward tonal shifts of the post-war New Yorker, and the post-Nazi flowering of admiration for Judaism. Free from the modern critical tendency to overrate, Warshow also offers tempered appreciation of Krazy Kat, Clifford Odets, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. The book is packed with prime examples of the essay form, but the highlight may be "Paul, The Horror Comics, And Dr. Wertham," which addresses Warshow's intense dislike for the violence, nihilism, and sensationalism of EC Comics (Tales From The Crypt, Mad, and so on) while admitting that his pre-teen son Paul is remarkably well-adjusted for an EC addict. Warshow concludes by rejecting Frederic Wertham's anti-comics screed Seduction Of The Innocent, reasoning that such black-and-white moralism offers nothing less than "a kind of crime comic book for parents." The art of criticism has changed since Warshow's day; none of the 100 pieces in The A List: The National Society Of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films offer any comparable sense of revelation. The work of critiquing the selected 100 Essential Films has been divvied up among 41 of the finest contemporary critics, in a process that probably deserves a book to itself. Most of the reviews contain a polished mix of historical context, artistic analysis, and personal comment, all edited by Jay Carr. Roger Ebert's four contributions exemplify the best qualities of this style, though all four are also available in Ebert's own "100 best" collection, The Great Movies. The value of The A List is in the previously uncollected writings of top-drawer critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman, Rob Nelson, and Terrence Rafferty. It helps that the Top 100 list is nicely balanced between the obvious (Citizen Kane, The Godfather) and the underseen (The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, Ashes And Diamonds), but not every critique was written specifically for The A List, which means that in-context evaluations of classic films sit side-by-side with reviews that ran up to 35 years ago. Of larger concern is how, even at their best, the modern critics seem too far removed from the task of making their work truly relevant. The essays in The Immediate Experience present lucid insights into the intersection of popular culture and everyday life. The essays in The A List are mostly about movies.