The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, essay by David Denby, epilogue by Stanley Cavell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 302 pages. $19. BUY NOW


In this, its latest reincarnation, Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience comes as a heavily mediated experience, its textual meat sandwiched by thick slices of editorial bread. The original foreword by editor Sherry Abel and introduction by Lionel Trilling have been supplemented with an essay on Warshow's life and work by David Denby and an epilogue by Stanley Cavell, whoˇto cavil somewhatˇseeks to confirm Warshow's enduring importance while stressing his own ("in the first seminar I offered on the aesthetics of film, at Harvard in 1963 . . ."). And just as old jazz CDs are now reissued with previously unreleased bonus tracks, this new edition includes eight hitherto uncollected essays on Hemingway, Kafka, and others.

Since I'd never heard of the book or its author, this concerted editorial assistance was most welcomeˇeven though it turns out I had read parts of it before. Back in the early '80s (when I wasn't teaching a seminar on the aesthetics of film or anything else), I bought the anthology Film Theory and Criticism (Mast, Cohen, Braudy, eds.), which included an essay on westerns that was one of the most brilliant things I'd ever read on cinema. It was also simultaneously a condensation of my own memories of every cowboy film I'd ever seen (or not seen) and an immensely sophisticated analysis of how those memories were constructed, of what they might mean. The key word here is "simultaneously." The author of "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner" dissolved the gap between the initial experience of these films and the subsequent examination of that experience.

"The Westerner is par excellence a man of leisure. Even when he wears the badge of a marshal or, more rarely, owns a ranch, he appears to be unemployed. We see him standing at a bar, or playing pokerˇa game which expresses perfectly his talent for remaining relaxed in the midst of tensionˇor perhaps camping out on the plains on some extraordinary errand." I annotated that passage with a vertical mark in the margin, but evidently (I have the anthology before me now) I liked the next passage just as much. In fact there was so much to like that each page ended up with an almost uninterrupted line of admiration scrawled down one side.

That same anthology also provided my first glimpse of Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and Walter Benjamin, all of whose work and distinctive styles I soon came to recognize and seek out. But it never happened like that with the author of "The Westerner." There was simply this piece I liked, just as years later in another anthology there was a piece I liked called "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" ("his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality: he hurts people") by someone whose name rang an unheeded bell. My exposure to Warshow's writing was too dispersed to converge around an identifiable body of work.

The work, I now learn, was itself fairly dispersed. Warshow died in 1955, aged thirty-seven, and his essays and reviews were bundled into a book seven years later, with the author's application for a Guggenheim Fellowship coerced into service as a preface in order to give it a semblance of cohesion. That cohesion, inevitably, is diminished still further by the addition of the uncollected items in the latest edition, most of which lie outside the catchment area of its subtitle, Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Preserved within the present volume is the ghost intention of a project to examine the ways that mass and high culture were beginning not so much to encroach on each other (as they would with the advent of postmodernism) as to inform the sensibility of a man equally receptive to both. "I have not brought Henry James to the movies or the movies to Henry James, but I hope I have shown that the man who goes to the movies is the same man who reads James."

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