The critic, who died Sunday at 94, worried that critical indifference would give rise to more of it.
On the jacket of my copy of “Acid Test,” a 1963 collection of essays by John Simon, a blurb reads: “When Simon writes about a book, you will want to read it or you will not need to read it.” Praise for a culture critic doesn’t get much higher than that.
Simon died Sunday at the age of 94. We met once, briefly, almost 20 years ago, but I didn’t know him. At the time he was still writing for National Review, among other publications, and I was moonlighting as a film critic for the New York Sun. I enjoyed reading film criticism almost as much as I enjoyed watching films, and Simon was far and away my favorite—not because I necessarily agreed with his opinions but because he made me reflect on my own.
English was Simon’s fifth language, and his knowledge of art, poetry and literature was at least as deep as his knowledge of film. But it wasn’t simply erudition and versatility that distinguished his writing in the 1960s and ’70s, a period widely regarded as the heyday of film criticism. It was also his approach to criticism itself, which included unfailingly high standards and a brutal honesty that wasn’t always appreciated by actors and filmmakers, never mind his fellow critics.
Simon argued that film criticism was much like any other kind of criticism. His job was not to indulge the people who make films or even the people who watch them. “It is not for the critic to do the reader’s thinking for him; it is for the critic to do his own thinking for the reader’s benefit,” he wrote. He often was accused of being overly harsh in his assessments, but to his mind it was his fellow critics who were overly generous. Long before Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert helped reduce film criticism to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” Simon was sounding the alarm. His worry was that critical indifference to bad art, or insufficient opposition to it, would “give rise to further bad art and drive out the good.”
Simon sometimes reviewed not only the movie but other reviews of the movie. A good example is his take on Brian DePalma’s 1980 film, “Dressed to Kill,” which was popular with critics and audiences alike. Simon was having none of it.
He begins his review by citing what he considered excessive praise of the film from the likes of Pauline Kael, who wrote, “It is hardly possible to find a point at which you could tear yourself away from this picture.” Next, Simon notes the long lines outside cinemas that were showing the movie, which disappointed him. Finally, we get his own summary of the movie, which offers up little more than “sophomoric soft-core pornography, vulgar manipulation of the emotions for more sensation, salacious but inept dialogue that is a cross between comic-strip Freudianism and sniggering double entendres, and a plot line so full of holes as to be at best a dotted line.” And that’s just the first paragraph.
Simon’s uncompromising judgments translated into a ton of negative reviews of movies and performances, and in a career that spanned more than five decades it’s hardly surprising that some of them don’t hold up very well. For better or worse, society’s tastes have proven to be more malleable than Simon’s. He dismissed “The Godfather” as “one of the sleazier films to achieve overwhelming public, and considerable critical, success.” He described Diane Keaton as “supremely untalented.” And he had no use for “The Graduate,” bristling at its “oversimplification, overelaboration, inconsistency, eclecticism, obviousness, pretentiousness” and “rock bottom” soundtrack. Somewhere, Simon and Garfunkel are probably still laughing at that one.
According to the New York Times, his 1972 collection, “Reverse Angle,” discusses 245 films and recommends 15 of them. But then, cultural criticism for Simon was never a popularity contest. As he put it: “Critics are after something far more elusive: pursuing their own reactions down to the rock bottom of their subjectivity and expressing them with utmost artistry, so that what will always elude the test of objective truth will at least become a kind of art: the art of illumination, persuasion, and good thinking and writing.”
Simon was still writing to the end. His final post on his blog is dated Oct. 27, and there’s no indication that he’d gone soft in his dotage. “One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot,” he wrote. “I myself prefer being considered a creep, but that is what you get for having what Vladimir Nabokov called ‘Strong Opinions.’ ”
Fortunately, we still have other cultural critics— Kyle Smith, Armond White, Bruce Bawer, James Bowman, Stanley Crouch —who share Simon’s willingness to go it alone, come what may. Unfortunately, we have lost the leader of the pack.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
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