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Peter T Chattaway

John Simon ... and other once-notorious, now-forgotten critics?

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A couple weeks ago, Roger Ebert linked to this article that he wrote in 1972, marking his fifth anniversary as a critic; and in there, there was this bit:

Q. What about John Simon's movie reviews in The New Leader?

A. A pretentious comedian. Strip away all that false pretension and you'll find the real pretension inside. He does a great act, but read his actual reviews and you'll find that he uses intellectual scare tactics to conceal his fundamental lack of sympathy for film. It's not that he's too hard on movies, it's that he doesn't understand them, and understands their audiences even less.

Q. But he said on TV he wasn't writing for today, he was writing for 50 years from now.

A. With a deadline that long, why can't he do any better?

I was intrigued to read this, because I didn't think I had ever heard of the guy before. It got me wondering which critics that seem so controversial, so hotly contested nowadays might be forgotten in another 38 years or so. (Armond White, perhaps?)

And then, the other day, Jeffrey Wells (and others) posted a bunch of old Dick Cavett clips, including this one in which Peter Bogdanovich rants about John Simon a bit (getting applause from the audience, in the process!) and says that a character in his then-new film What's Up Doc? (1972), named "Hugh Simon", was inspired by John Simon:

Incidentally, it turns out John Simon is still alive and has been mentioned twice at A&F, here and here.

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I question the whole premise of this thread. It seems to me John Simon is about as widely remembered as any critic whose career ended at around the time his did, other than Gene Siskel. I admit I have no objective evidence to back this up, but that is my impression.

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The remark about writing for 50 years from now reminds me of an anecdote told by Ian Wallace on the BBC show "My Music." A composition student received his piece back from the professor with the written remark: "This music will be remembered when the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are long forgotten. And not till then."

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Christian wrote:

: Learn all about him.

Heh. I already included that link in the inaugural post.

pmarrack wrote:

: It seems to me John Simon is about as widely remembered as any critic whose career ended at around the time his did, other than Gene Siskel.

Huh?

First of all, Simon's career hasn't "ended"; according to the Wikipedia page that Christian and I linked to, Simon is still quite active, albeit as a THEATRE critic rather than a film critic. (Siskel died in 1998; Simon switched from New York magazine to Bloomberg News in 2005.)

Second, if, as you say, Simon is widely remembered among FILM critics, then why do so many film buffs -- such as, well, me -- have no idea who he is? I mean, we STILL talk about Pauline Kael and the influence that she had on later generations of critics, and she retired in 1991 and died in 2001. But when do we ever talk about Simon?

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Christian wrote:

: Learn all about him.

Heh. I already included that link in the inaugural post.

Ooops. My bad.

I've seen Simon crop up from time to time at National Review, although I've stopped tracking its cultural coverage in recent years. (Ross Douthat reviewed movies for NR for a time, if memory serves, but the magazine's movie coverage seems to have dried up quite a bit, at least the stuff that's available online.) Wikipedia says Simon contributes a monthly column to the Weekly Standard, but I don't remember regular bylines from him there (I'm a subscriber) -- an occasional book review, although if those are monthly, I'd be surprised. His byline seems more infrequent than that.

Edited by Christian

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Nezpop wrote:

: Apparently we did twice so far. :)

Well, not really. In one post, Christian said an article of Simon's reminded him of something else -- we didn't talk ABOUT Simon, per se -- and in the other post, Simon is mentioned not by any A&Fer but only by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who, in an article first published in 1989, lists Simon in passing as one of several critics he routinely ignored back in the '60s "because these same critics tended to disparage the majority of the movies that I cared most about (ranging from Ford and Welles to Godard and Resnais)".

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Back when I was a political conservative in the late 80's to late 90's and subscribed to National Review, I read Simon's columns fairly frequently. He's an entertaining writer, but shed more heat than light, and seemed to dislike or hate (quite often the latter) significantly more often than he loved a film.

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If you want to know how good John Simon is, his reviews of Bergman are terrific.  Also a great example is his highly cultivated review of Lina Wertmueller’s “Seven Beauties”.   Simon wrote a lot of negative reviews because he didn't like evaluating films on their own junky level, but applied high artistic standards, whether you agree with this approach or not (because it is sometimes pointless with respect to most popular schlock culture).  This discriminating standard stemmed from his deep literate and artistic education and training in most of the arts.  This approach works best with great films and the arty pretentious films that he THANKFULLY excoriated.  So, he had little time for Pauline Kael's "thrill of the movies" approach, and couldn't stand the MOVIE BUFF critical approach of movie nerds and directors like Peter Bogdanavich especially (yet Simon's review of his "Last Picture Show" was actually somewhat positive overall). 

For a deeply perceptive NEGATIVE review, look for his critique of “Last Tango in Paris”, which was universally acclaimed by most “important” critics like the ecstatic Pauline Kael and even, perversely, by feminist critics like Molly Haskell.  He demolished the film expertly, and went on to rebuke Kael and Haskell for their questionable and short-sighted enthusiasm.  Today, "Tango" is generally considered self-indulgent, sexist, garish and dated, not helped nowadays by the allegation that director Bertolucci had Brando essentially rape the non-consenting Maria Schneider in one sleazy scene.  Another smart negative review was of "The Deer Hunter", which was lavishly praised by most critics on its release.  Simon was having none of that, and proceeded to question the glaringly obvious flaws in it (Christopher Walken goes on a yearlong winning streak as a "master" Russian roulette player -- REALLY?).  Eventually, everyone started to agree with Simon, but not before the film garnered its undeserved Oscars.

Note, I enjoyed Siskel & Ebert, but they were never near John Simon's standards.  However, most people prefer their more down to earth approach to movie reviews.  For a direct contrast in their styles, see their classic TV debate re: the merits of "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" in 1983.  I dug up this debate on Youtube here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ky9-eIlHzAE

Personally, I still agreed with Simon on this one – he didn’t realize how prophetic he was concerning the gradual dumbing down of children exposed to mass media, and now the internet, social media, video games etc.

Edited by JC Harvard
wording

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Hi JC, thanks for dropping in, and feel free (if you like, not mandatory) to go by the "Introductions" thread and tell us a little bit about yourself. (http://artsandfaith.com/index.php?/topic/83-introductions/page/21/&tab=comments#comment-333392)

I looked at the YouTube link, and one thing that surprised me in a pleasant way is how much Ebert & Siskel, while defending the film, avoid getting bated into a zinger battle or directing their hostility towards Simon. Since this is right after Empire, I'm assuming it's late 70s, early 80s, so it is still pre-Internet. I wish we all did a better job, myself included, at being slow to take up the ad-hominem attacks. (I saw the Mike Wallace documentary at Full Frame this weekend, and I was struck by it beginning with Wallace showing a montage of clips of Bill O'Reilly calling people stupid, idiot, etc.) I appreciated how Siskel, especially, tries to bracket the personal insults (or matters of taste) and engage the claims on their own terms (good of its kind vs. high art, etc.) 

 

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John Simon says "you might just as well be watching a[n] animated cartoon" as though that were a *bad* thing. Ebert's comeback that "These are the sorts of movies the Disney people *should* be making" is, um, interesting, given who owns the Star Wars franchise now. It's also funny how Siskel refers to The Empire Strikes Back at least twice as "Jedi" -- three years before Return of the Jedi came out and "Jedi" became the shorthand title for that film.

But yeah, Simon doesn't come off very well in that interview clip.

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