Saturday, August 9, 2014

And Then There Was One

"When people tell me that they're the only ones ever to defend me in various discussions, I always say, Look, if I had a dollar for everyone who has said this to me, I would be, perhaps not rich, but certainly comfortably off."
-John Simon, Paris Interview

As film seems to be drifting further off the radar of art, it's becoming harder than to find a reliably intelligent and disciscriminating film critic. I've written before about some of my favorite film critics, like Vernon Young and Stanley Kauffmann. They, along with Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, were contributors, often very much at odds with one another, to what is now looked on as the Golden - or Heroic (1) - Age of American film criticism in the 1960s. America has always been far luckier with its critics than it has with its films: in the 30s and 40s we had Otis Ferguson and James Agee, brilliant writers as well as astute observers of a film scene that was starved for quality. Robert Warshow contributed a more scholarly approach to film, attributing high seriousness to Hollywood genre products. These critics had the great disadvantage of having the barest minimum of contact with films from abroad. It was only until the 50s that films from Europe and Asia began to be exported routinely in the U.S.,(2) and at the end of the decade and spilling over into the early 60s there was a flood of films from abroad that changed the medium itself and that attracted a much larger audience to films in a foreign language - films by Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, and Bergman.

A few critics responded to the challenge that these extraordinary films and filmmakers presented with some of the finest critical essays available. And though they were writing about films that weren't showing in very many theaters around the country, some of them were writing for higher-circulation periodicals like Esquire and The New Yorker. Even mainstream critics, like Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, were forced to pay attention to films that were clearly beyond their job description. 

I came of age just as this Golden Age was petering out. With a few notable exceptions, it was only thanks to foreign films that I became aware that a film could be a work of art, as deeply moving and edifying as any great novel or symphony. The first book of film criticism by a contemporary critic that I picked up, somewhat fatefully, when I was in my teens was Private Screenings by John Simon.(3) Like the critics mentioned above, Simon paid far more attention to foreign films than to American fare. But, like most of them, he wasn't just a critic of film. He writes about theater and reviews books, and uses his considerable knowledge (he has a Harvard PhD in Comparative Literature) to hold everything he sees, hears or reads up to the highest standards. This has led some less erudite film critics to question his agenda when it comes to film, since he refuses to accept their approach to film as if it were created in a vacuum.

When Andrew Sarris introduced the "auteur theory" to American readers, Simon saw through it right away. It isn't so much a critical approach as it is an evasion of criticism. It's an elaborate system of classification that tries to prove that people like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman (or practically any other prolific film director) were "auteurs" - authors of the films they were contracted by the Hollywood factories to direct. What it doesn't try to do is establish hierarchies among these directors, distinguishing good ones from bad ones. Stephen King and Leo Tolstoy are both authors, but nobody would seriously attempt to equate them. The ultimate response to the auteur theory is, so what if someone can prove that Howard Hawks put his personal stamp on every film he made? It doesn't mean that Only Angels Have Wings or Red River are any more than above-average Hollywood genre films or that Hawks belongs alongside Fellini or Bergman.

He happens to have the most refined - or severe - standards of any other critic. Compared to Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, who always managed to find at least a dozen or so films every year to celebrate, is hopelessly indiscriminate. I followed his film columns through the 1970s, '80s, and into the '90s. When he became the film critic for his friend William F. Buckley's National Review in 1978, I became a subscriber, despite my own left-leaning politics. I even subscribed to New York magazine in the '70s, largely because Simon was its theater critic - despite never finding an opportunity to see any of the productions or performances he wrote about. (New York also employed Tobi Tobias and Peter G. Davis, two more excellent critics who provided me with plenty to think about - and dream about. The New York film critic at the time was the execrable David Denby, who has since moved up to The New Yorker)

Simon has often provoked controversy, both because of the severity of his opinions and the manner with which he expresses them. For instance, he believes that an actor's appearance, his (or, more often, her) physical attributes, are as much targets for a critic as their voices and their talent. This is regarded as grossly unfair by Simon's enemies. He wasn't the originator of the practice. James Agate, the British theater critic, occasionally mentioned an actor's looks. Of an actress who had a particularly large nose he wrote: "Like all good captains, she commands from the bridge." But when Simon feels impelled to inform his readers that the emperor has no clothes on, which is one of the most important duties of every critic, he is indifferent to how much the news might hurt those who might disagree. 

I must admit that he sometimes does go too far. When he wrote in New York that a play (written by a gay man) was "faggot nonsense," and was overheard hoping that gays in the theater "all get AIDS," petitions were submitted to the editors of New York demanding Simon's dismissal. Simon wrote a sort-of apology, but no one believed in his contrition. The dismissal finally took place about thirty years later.

Severe or not, I found myself agreeing with Simon's judgements more often than any other critic's. Even when I disagreed, it wasn't over anything major, and I learned things from him even on those rare occasions. Simon gave up film criticism in 2002. His last essay was a moving tribute to the Heroic Age of which he was a part. He lost his post at New York abruptly in 2005, but has moved on to write about the theater for Bloomberg News. In 2009 he created his own blog, called Uncensored John Simon, in which he writes about everything he pleases. (In his Paris Interview, from the late 1990s, it states: "He has not learned how to use a computer, nor does he want to." Unless he has an amanuensis, Simon figured computers out neatly) He is now 89, the last of that wave of critics that brought the world of film ashore to America.(4) He and his admirers can at the very least take satisfaction from his having the last word.

(1) Michael Powell called it "heroic."
(2) It wasn't until 1954 that AMPAS, that hands out the Oscars, created a category for a Best Film in a Foreign Language.
(3) John Ivan Simon, born in Subotica, Serbia (Yugoslavia) in 1925. Fluent in several languages. When someone complained that he wrote English "as a second language," Simon corrected him. It was his fifth. Something never mentioned in the biographies of him is that he was inducted into the U.S. Air Force in 1944, undergoing basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas.  
(4) Dwight Macdonald died in 1982, Vernon Young in '86, Pauline Kael in 2001, Andrew Sarris in 2012, Stanley Kauffmann died last October. Except for Young, who was 73, they all lived into their eighties or nineties - a break with the tradition of dying before their time begun by Ferguson (dead at 36), Agee (dead at 45), and Warshow (dead at 38). 

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