“Where Warshow distinguishes himself from Kracauer and other sociological critics is his reaction to the ‘absorbing immediacy’ of films.”
As Robert Warshow sees it, we are all comprised of our cultural choices: we reveal ourselves by the pattern of our selections from culture, and the impulses we direct toward them. Writing about films in the late ’40s, Warshow had an interest in films as products of a postwar environment, created in response to specific audience demands. The newness of that gesture is still exciting: at a time when neither received serious attention, Warshow wrote about comic books and gangster films in terms of both their aesthetic properties and their emotional impact on viewers. However, where Warshow distinguishes himself from Kracauer and other sociological critics is his reaction to the “absorbing immediacy”1 of films. He reflects that his engagement with films is different from his relationship with the other arts: noticing, in particular, his own desirous attraction toward star power, and the longing to see a certain set of conventions played out. In other words, the anticipation of seeing “Humphrey Bogart or Shelley Winters or Greta Garbo”2 is not the same as the pleasure of visiting a gallery, or embarking on a novel. There’s a special curiosity reserved for films, which is somehow quicker than other forms of attention. (His star choices in themselves suggest three modes of expectation and viewing: Bogart is a signifier of genre, Garbo is a fixed archetype, while Winters represents a more individual presence, a perversely rugged sexuality.) Warshow recognizes that his investment in film is keen and unusually energetic: something unique and in need of decoding.
His writing tracks that anticipation in relation to bodies and movement. Warshow’s main approach is to isolate gestures of power and intensity that register across multiple films, to determine which figures and shapes emerge from many viewings. In recalling the overlapping imagery of films, a dominant sense of form, a brand, becomes evident. In his 1954 article “The Westerner,” Warshow’s first description is not of character or narrative, but of the motif he believes is crucial to the Western: guns and the “postures associated with their use.” The suggestion is that the pose is central, even where the actual gun is absent — it’s as if all alert stances and cocked hands could be connected with the trigger impulse. For Warshow, a genre tends to be built around a certain posture — in this case, a lean, right-angled one — that is the focus and purpose of each movie. Already, this is a highly unusual manner of looking at a film; rather than analyzing the setting, his question is: what stances do we associate with this film? What pose does it assume? Warshow’s definition of the “visual and emotional center” of films refers to his sense of where the point of anticipation lies: the areas of the frame we return to, the direction in which energy flows. There’s the great sense of Warshow flicking through images from many films, in order to work out which lines of the body attract intensity. His depiction of the Western gunfighter comes across as a composite, towering image: we feel as if Warshow is describing a single profile, a giant shadow cast by viewings of multiple films.
Where Kracauer’s early film writing tended to focus on plot summaries, often omitting even film titles, Warshow’s reading of cinema relates much more intimately to tone. While he gives a general outline of a character’s behaviors and functions, his description may simply be an energy impression — in the case of the gangster, it’s an “unceasing, nervous activity.” He finds a way to combine sociology with an intense and specific interest in cinema, so that even very detailed descriptions are discussed in terms of a culture of collective imagery. When he writes that the gangster refutes the “great American ‘yes’ that is stamped so big over our official culture,” he brings together social theory and cinema studies; film forms are created out of even more overwhelming and predominant images of nationhood and society.
This internalized imagery influences the way we watch and recall films. When Warshow (right) mentions the last scene of Scarface (1932), he states that, “if I remember,” a neon sign flashing “The World is Yours” is seen after the death of the gangster, and then he proceeds to draw a correlation between the sign and the fallen man. The key phrase here is “if I remember”: Warshow is comfortable using vagueness as the basis of a definite conclusion. As it turns out, he is accurate in recalling the sign as the final image — but what if he wasn’t? Forgetfulness is a fascinating issue in film criticism, especially in the pre-VHS era, when reviews were often written after a single viewing. Even when a critic does not consciously impose a partial reading on a film, it can be revealing to note how he or she extracts events from a non-linear time frame. If a critic places two scene elements together, with the intervening terms left out, there may be a significance to that forgetting. In drawing two aspects of a film together, a critic shows what he or she considers to be the meaningful connections in a work.
In this instance, Warshow has a reason for being satisfied with imprecision. While he uses Scarface as an example, his discussion relates to the entire genre of the crime film. The implication is that, while he may be wrong in this case, his point still stands. Even if Warshow was mistaken about the “World is Yours” sign, that image has been produced: if not by one film, then by many. For him, “The World is Yours” is a message that resonates in all gangster films — it’s a sign that always flickers in the background of the genre, as ubiquitous as the great American “yes.” In the same article, while documenting the changing mood of the Western, Warshow recollects, “It seems to me the horses grow more tired and stumble more often than they did, and that we see them less frequently.” Again, his argument is founded on that “seeming”; Warshow is confident in visual impressions having a symbolic if not literal value. Although his instinct regarding the horses may not be accurate, this feeling that he attributes to livestock could be the result of a reduced dotting and populating of the frame, or a general feeling of waste.
We often get this sense of specific positions and textures of images, grasped over a period of time (Warshow’s writing on Scarface was published 16 years after the film’s release). In his discussion of the gangster archetype in “The Westerner” and the earlier “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” we witness a single figure in its many moods. Portraying this complex character doesn’t just involve noting down a set of traits. Warshow’s account of the gangster is almost like the description of a corporation, an evolving organism with fascinating tics and behavioral kinks. In addition to being a hub of restless energy, the gangster is also an aggressive and elegant “dancer” within his urban environment. The reference to dance feeds into his later description of how the gangster deals with his cohort: he “must reject others violently or draw them violently to him.” This suggests a form of dancing that is nearly avant-garde; the criminal is a turbulent, out-of-control dancer, careening through mise en scène. His way of upsetting people around him is a form of choreography — a vigorous movement that topples and repels objects. After reading Warshow’s descriptions, I re-watched Paul Muni in Scarface, noticing the contrast of his broad, emphatic gestures and the side-to-side loll of his body. He has an odd fumbling play with his associates; there’s a spatial pattern in the way he thrusts people away.
In sizing up the gangster, Warshow brings up a dissonant set of associations. Scarface is someone with nervous energy to burn, yet with his own singular and dancerly style. By introducing this strange view of a familiar archetype, Warshow gives us a new set of imagery with which to process it, contextualize it. In a sense, all film archetypes “dance” — they perform steps we know, with significant variation. However, why is a dance as strange as the gangster’s naturalized in so many films? Warshow draws attention to the fact that we often accept unusual conventions as part of a storytelling framework. In “The Westerner,” he points out that a cowboy generally does nothing — stands around, rarely sleeps — and is locked into very limited, artificial poses. He observes, from a sociological point of view, that money is largely invisible in Westerns; characters are protected from its implications or the indignity of being seen to require it. Money magically circulates, occasionally depositing itself in good or wholesome situations, but without ever making its presence felt. One of Warshow’s roles as a critic is to uncover “elements which have long been understood” to make up a genre — and to question the history of that long understanding. He tries to distinguish between what belongs to the “conventions of the form,” as opposed to what is individual and intense about a particular film. He rarely deals in conventional plot summary, perhaps because a synopsis may not take into account the different weights attached to characters and story elements. For instance, Warshow argues that a prostitute serves a different function — and is almost a different character — in the crime drama and the Western. In the gangster flick, the prostitute is tainted with money and trophy status, while in the Western, she is understood as the hero’s counterpart, a woman of mature experience. Therefore, to simply list a character as a “prostitute” — with all its connotations — in a summary can be misleading; stock characters often serve as counters, objects whose value can only be determined in a given context.
Warshow tries to subvert our understanding of genre, by asking why certain characters and attitudes come to seem “organic” in films. Genres like the Western tend to grow out of particular assumptions about behavior, which govern the postures of its stars, however “spontaneous” a performance may appear. Warshow is primarily concerned with the question of how things seem — in this sense, he is less interested in the one-off masterpiece than the conventional film, which successfully naturalizes incongruity. In the Western, “it is always about 1870”; we require history to be held at an indefinite distance, since a more precise timeline lends itself to questions of the specific. An acceptance of the Western legend also depends on how we imagine landscapes, peoples, cities — whether we envision other places as being arid or limitless, or if we think of foreigners as being grouped rather than individual. Warshow performs a kind of cultural reading in highlighting the very specific factors that underlie our enjoyment of a story. When the Westerner lets us know “life is unavoidably serious,” how do we judge that from his expression? How does that accustom us to recognize seriousness, as a performed or learned quality? A Westerner always appears to be in the foreground — and in analyzing the visual aspects of the character, Warshow shows us something about how perception works. By examining our investment in the Westerner’s body (his carriage, the way weight and significance are distributed along his frame and proportions), we see how a person manages to indicate power within the eyeline.
Occasionally, Warshow resembles Kracauer in viewing popular entertainment as a form of transaction, a servicing of particular impulses (for instance, the fact that the gangster’s death “pays” for our fantasies of power), but for the most part, he sees a greater mystery in the way these effects are achieved. Of the female presence in the Western, he says, rather gravely: “Very often this woman is from the East.” His implication is that even if this is not stated or strictly true, the character is sensed to be from the East — that a mental path draws the woman and her values across toward the West. So much of film-watching depends on our understanding and acceptance of an underlying trajectory. In Warshow’s analysis, our internalized map of America allows us to perceive the Western genre as iconic — even though on paper it’s a very peculiar and narrow set of conventions.
Warshow shows us the slow-moving mechanisms behind this apparently organic system. While the Westerner represents a stoic ideal, his image is actually one of the most precarious among film characters. What a hyper-sensitive image this is — how thin and susceptible to tarnishing. When Warshow writes that the Westerner requires a “moral ambiguity that darkens his image,” I literally see this description in terms of photo retouching. The restoration of the image must be exact: every nuance of lighting and placement has implications for the character, and the convergence of narratives he represents. The Westerner’s image has been subtly reshaped over the course of time — he needs adjustments to tone and color as the myth ages, and the heroic profile becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. There has to be just enough allusion to the present, a balance of relevance and timelessness, purity and complexity. Without all this, he’s a wooden soldier. Even a myth needs to be spatially appropriate — it’s as if a slight shift to the left or right might render the image absurd or incoherent. Warshow demonstrates how the alteration of long-held memories causes us to relax or revolt.
In examining any film, Warshow identifies the images that are highlighted with power, or have an implied underscore, such as the line of the Westerner’s gun. The fact that guns are the “visible moral center” of the Western3 suggests that there are certain areas of the frame that continually attract us, where the gaze is “hottest.” (Although he works largely by instinct, I suspect Warshow would be fascinated by today’s neuroimaging techniques. Even the term “visual center” suggests those brain-imaging pictures that show the gaze rolling along certain tracks, or repeatedly pulsing and stabbing at an image.) Warshow’s dissection of power relations within mise en scène seems to be a way of exposing hypocrisy, or at least a lack of self-consciousness, in the construction of myths of morality. Just as money conveniently distributes itself in the Western, so does moral imperative: the gunfighter only kills because “justice and order . . . continually demand his protection.”
By writing on two dynamic movie types, the Westerner and the gangster, Warshow focuses on gestures we find serious and convincing: the postures we feel define us (as presumed American readers). However, in his essay on Rossellini’s Paisà (1946, right), he expands on the moral quality of gestures: the ability of a character to inhabit the foreground. Given that Warshow’s talent is in identifying intensity and particularity, Paisà is a film that inverts his expectations — and hence earns his admiration. Rossellini’s soldiers in Sicily are protagonists, but they are presented in terms that would normally mark them as background characters. They are hard to distinguish in their bulky uniforms, and stolid and uninflected in voice. Watching Paisà after reading the piece, I noticed that one of the soldiers had a strange, habitual uptilt of the lip, which could have been dramatically significant but wasn’t. Another man gracelessly chewed the side of his mouth, as a partial echo of the other’s tic — again, for no discernible reason. Their formulaic comments and denaturalized American speech (“I tell you”) seemed hollow. Such gestural “waste” is confusing, when compared with the tight exposition of the Western. To Warshow, films like Paisà highlight a paradox: U.S. films strain to give their protagonists distinctive traits, which only turns them into types. On the other hand, Rossellini’s soldiers have an alarming lack of differentiation, which gives his film the “particularity of real experience.” Rossellini forces us to accept the unmediated bulk of each man as odd and individual, rather than as a mere “type.” The repetitive and tedious dialogue refuses dramatic shaping. These aesthetic choices — of casting, costume, editing, and film form — all have political implications.
That Warshow’s criticism binds all these concerns — philosophical, aesthetic, demographic — makes sense considering the publication he worked for. During its vital period from the late ’30s to early ’60s, Partisan Review showcased an astonishingly broad range of intellectual interests; it combined topical, political commentary and high modernism without apparent contradiction. Despite the occasional frontispiece by Braque, Partisan Review was not a graphically edgy or design-focused magazine, unlike The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. During the ’40s, the writers’ names were simply printed on the cover, without fanfare. Yet the diversity of artists and formats is extraordinary: short fiction, interviews, painting, plays, experimental work by poets such as Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. Partisan Review was able to maintain both a cosmopolitan circuit (Sartre, Gide) and an interest in American popular culture — in Warshow’s case, Americana, since he wrote on comics, childhood hobbies, and the minimalist style of writers such as Hemingway. The magazine’s critical essays focused on ways to depict and interpret a fast-changing American society, as a form of early cultural studies.
Partisan Review deliberately shunned the New Yorker’s pose of amused refinement (suggested even by the latter’s typeface — slim, oblique, seemingly designed to deflect). If The New Yorker house style consisted of a knowing dispatch, then Partisan Review tended to show a deeper engagement with the formal properties of art, given its stable of prominent critics, including Lionel Trilling and Clement Greenberg. Reviews appeared alongside poetic works, given equal weight and prestige — the criticism is rarely dry, and often takes the form of a fictional premise, a moment of arrested curiosity. The issue with “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” contains a William Carlos Williams poem, fiction by Mary McCarthy, and a rumination on Madrid by Saul Bellow; journalism and biography bleed into fiction and verse, without introduction or formality. Spliced between the first two pages of Warshow’s article is a glossy, black and white sheet of Joan Miró’s Les Amoureux devant la Lune. That this playful, dance-like painting — utterly unrelated to Warshow’s argument — is inserted into a film essay shows the kind of editorial flexibility at the time. All kinds of interests are jammed into articles as “asides” — as digressions and tangents, within this diverse modernist circle. It’s a publication of many moods, all captured and rendered in the same sober font.
Warshow explicitly sees his own reviewing style as a form of literature: inventing a story out of experience, the first contact with an unusual or stimulating product. In “The Westerner” and “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” he discusses the broader context of American society, as well as homing in on some element that has the vital quality of seeming one way or another. It’s this switch between partial and fuller readings of a work that marks his criticism — and also mirrors his sense of the way we watch films: a gaze that retracts or deepens as it moves over spots of intensity. The particular gaze we direct toward art is a significant concern for Warshow. In an article on Kafka, he tries to convey the impact of the writer’s style, which he feels has been overly sanitized. As a way of refreshing our point of view, he urges us to “Look once directly at that surface.”4 That could be an exhortation of modernism: it comes close to the dictum of imagist poetry, in its insistence on the primacy of the snapshot. It’s the belief that the surface of a work encodes the secrets of its form, which are sensed, if not totally comprehended, in a flash. Our first contact with a work gives us an immediate structural impression to digest, before returning to a more reflective, second reading. It’s a critical viewing style that involves both short and long looks: preserving the immediacy of a response, before decoding it at leisure.
When Warshow asks, “Why does the Western movie especially have such a hold on our imagination?,” he’s trying to work out why certain snapshots persist for us. Even it wasn’t connected to a mythical America, this genre would be of interest to Warshow as a complete aesthetic system whose slightest variation and flux is meaningful to the audience. Another way of putting Warshow’s enquiry might be: why is anything of lingering interest? The determining feature of the Westerner is that, in general, he “looks right” — and when he doesn’t, all our cultural and genre assumptions are at stake. For all his strangeness, the gunfighter has a way of commanding attention and eluding incredulity. For Warshow, anything that looks right has some reason for being in our gaze: some kind of mathematical integrity, a proportional correctness.
By the late ’40s, Hollywood reached a level of perfection in most of its genres, so that significance has an exact relation to style: nothing much protrudes out of the image. Gangster and Western movies look right — why do they? On the other hand, comic books, still in their early stages of development, don’t yet seem right — why don’t they? When he writes of images that fall into “pleasing and significant” arrangements, this is a tautology; for Warshow, what is pleasing and instinctively correct is significant, and therefore an object for critical analysis. The task is to decode the values that determine that “rightness”: the way each film creates its own, consistent implication of depth. Unlike pastiches, real archetypes look right — Shane (1953, above), for instance, is not “right” for many reasons, but that structural contradiction manifests itself in a sense of visual discontinuity, which Warshow instantly recognizes before slowly puzzling out the causes. Such are the moral consequences of not being right, or right-looking: things that seem wrong must be taken apart, made to reveal the narrative inconsistencies that flawed their surface.
By this reckoning, most movie stars are “right”; Warshow reflects without campness on the intensity of our focus on stars, in observing that films can be rejuvenated by the differences “above all, between one actor and another.” This way of exploring the gaze can be extended to many areas of study. If, for Warshow, a gunfighter would be important simply because of “the way he holds our eyes,” then so might anything. Warshow creates a sense of our gaze as powerful: as audiences, consumers and electors, as well as critics. More than a validation of popular culture, what he proposes is an investigation of the ubiquitous image: whether it be a political brand, a landmark, or a star image. If something “holds,” how does it adhere? Does it stab or smear? This emphasis on image composition may be the reason for Warshow’s continuing relevance to film and visual culture, half a century after his death, with only twelve completed essays on film. The fact that Warshow sees any kind of visual command as deserving and necessary of explication appeals to us as viewers of advertising and TV, but most of all, of cinema, because for Warshow, it’s film that provides the strongest, closest holds.
With film, Warshow has faith in the ability of the gaze to instinctively single out a new or incongruous element — for instance, the fact that children are a “little too much in evidence” imbalances the form of the Western. If the gunfighter violates the code of his genre by moving too much or seeming impatient, the eye realizes there is a “problem” before it identifies the cause. In the apprehension of each new object, our task is to work out what registers with intensity, and how it is brought forth within the frame. In this sense, our personal preferences are seen as defining: what we focus on, forget, or pass over with glancing interest. Warshow investigates perceptual intensity, not necessarily to break or demystify that hold, but to comprehend why the eye and ear pick out certain features for special attention. His understanding is that strangeness and immediacy have their reasons, which will soon be revealed.
- Robert Warshow. Preface, The Immediate Experience (New York: Atheneum, 1972), p. 28. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Part of the shock of the ending of Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) may be due to the fact that Westerns generally work by using guns as an implied moral centre. In this film, the implied focus becomes the actual, material focus of the frame: the gun performs a direct address to centre, uselessly blowing off ammunition, thus killing off both character and genre. [↩]
- Robert Warshow. “Kafka’s Failure,” The Immediate Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 255. [↩]