JOHN SIMON's importance as a film critic has always
exceeded his prominence. He is not who he is because
he is the regular reviewer for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Los Angeles Times; nor because he has a funny mustache and does painfully punful, though blessedly brief, movie commentaries for the enlightenment of the millions who watch The Today Show. No, he is who he is because of his critical opinions and the strong style in which he expresses them.
And who is John Simon, anyway? Certainly more than any other film critic writing today he has created a specific role for himself. He is the man with standards, the critic who will not be conned, the great nay-sayer. He is so noted for his harsh, negative views, so much the villain of the reviewing corps, that it became fashionable about a decade ago to distinguish him from John Simon, the New York book editor, by calling him John Simon, the Bad; the book editor, of course, was John Simon, the Good.
Reading through a long collection like this, one can assess, among much else, just how "bad" (in the sense of disapproving) he really is. I had a particular interest in Something to Declare, for within the "Twelve Years of Films from Abroad" that it treats are the five years that I spent as film reviewer for the old National Observer. In general, the films of that period that I did not like Simon simply blasted; but most of those that I cared for --and some of them quite deeply--he also panned. This is not to say that I was right and he was wrong (or vice versa), but simply that he does not find in favor of many movies. This brings to mind the Hollywood judgment on Pauline Kael, who has heaped some heavy loads of contumely in her time, too. The film professionals allow that this is true, but they add, "Yes, but she really likes movies." The feeling about John Simon is that he does not.
In any collection by him there is evidence that this is not so. In Something to Declare, devoted as it is to foreign films, that evidence to the contrary is especially strong, for the few filmmakers to whom Simon gives wholehearted respect--Ingmar Bergman and Lina Wertmuller--are, of course, Swedish and Italian, respectively. And, in general, he seems to feel far more free to offer unstinting praise to imports than to domestic products. For confirmation of this, check this volume against his last, Reverse Angle, which covers roughly the same period in American filmmaking.
What's that? You think John Simon doesn't have it in him to give unstinting praise? Just see how he begins his rave review of Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity: "It is not often that I get to write about a great film, and I wish the typography or the color of the printer's ink-- or at least my style--could change to mark the solemnity of the occasion. There being little hope for the first two, I shall have to try to make my words convey to you the splendor and the importance of The Sorrow and the Pity." And there are a number of other instances in which he is about as strong in his praise, although not quite as directly quotable--films like Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, Jan Troell's The Emigrants and The New Land, Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant.
So it is not that given the right opportunity he can't go overboard just as completely as, say, Rex Reed; it's just that it doesn't happen all that often. Even his favorites are given a few knocks here. Only one Ingmar Bergman film during this period receives his complete approval--and that, oddly enough, is that rather tedious soap opera which the great Swedish director did for television, Scenes from a Marriage. (This was one of the few times in reading through Something to Declare that I found that he thought more of a movie than I did.) He says many good things about Cries and Whispers but finds that it "attempts to do too much." And The Serpent's Egg he sees as a barely mitigated failure. And Lina Wertmuller? He is genuinely enthusiastic for Love and Anarchy and The Seduction of Mimi and ecstatic about Seven Beauties but has little good to say about her other films.
He has, in fact, so little good to say about so many worthy films that you begin to wonder if, during more than two decades of reviewing, he may not have lost the simple capacity to enjoy. He looks with such grumpy displeasure on movies that are more or less just fun, such as Diva and Truffaut's Day for Night and Small Change, that there is good reason to suspect he has in him a strong streak of artistic puritanism. That he can damn with faint praise a film as honestly affecting as Claude Sautet's Vincent, Francois, Paul, and the Others says that he must have had his mind made up beforehand (on the basis of the director's previous films) not to like what was up there on the screen in front of him.
He is not awed by reputations--and this in itself is good--but in his vicious dismissal of Bernardo Bertolucci and Fellini he goes a little beyond the mark. Bertolucci he seems to revile because of the homosexual sensibility he sees evidenced in his films. (Simon is very persuasive, though, on Last Tango in Paris; he almost has me convinced that it was not quite the fine film I thought it to be the first three times I saw it.) And what about Fellini? According to Simon, he has done nothing worthwhile since 81/2, and even that was "overloaded, posturing, and intellectually confused." This harsh verdict is handed down in the course of a long essay-review of Fellini's Amarcord, a film of some rough charm that Simon simply savages here. To it he has the utter chutzpah to raise this objection: "Yet the worst thing about Amarcord and its immediate predecessors is that the chief joke is human ugliness."
This! This from the critic who has made a career of offering gratuitous physical insults to actors and actresses (chiefly the latter) who are unfortunate enough not to meet his standard of bodily beauty. Some samples? Glenda Jackson: "everything about her, including her walk, is just a little too ugly for my taste. And is it in her contract that every film she appears in must feature that wretched bosom of hers?" Helen Mirren: "I find her singularly ungifted and unappetizing. But at least in this film . . . she unveils only four-fifths of her remarkably gross body." Corinne Clery: "quite the prettiest young woman I have seen in such a film, even if she is rather swaybacked and has breasts lacking in absolute firmness." And what about that standard of his? It is obviously incarnated in Francoise Fabian, a French actress with wonderful charm and a luminous mature beauty (she was Maud in My Night at Maud's) to whom he devotes a page-long gush. But because he happens to be right about her, does this give him license to attack the rest?
But give John Simon his due. In an age when writers seem to know less and less, he shows a great command of culture and learning. Without parading his knowledge or posturing he makes relevant references to literature, art, music, and history that give real dimension to his reviews. He understands film and can discuss shots, sequences, and the rhythm of a film with the best of them. He has a sharp eye for pretension and deals with it harshly.
And then there is the matter of his style. It is a curious mixture in which recondite terms culled from his amateur researches in philology ("pleonasm," "hyoptaxis," "parataxis") and archaic fussy-formal words ("vouchsafed," "aforementioned") jostle with some of the most strained journalistic wordplay ever committed to print ("loose chanteuse," "Korngold at his goldenly corniest"). But strangely, it works. And the proof of that is right here between the covers of Something to Declare. How many other film critics are there whom you could stand to read through 442 pages? Certainly only a few. He may sometimes seem arch, arrogant, stuffy, and cruel--yet he is always readable. And he plays the role of John Simon, the Bad, with such relish and authority that he is one of the very few who deserve to be read. CAPTION: Picture 1, From "Seven Beauties" created by Lina Wermuller and starring Grannini. Picture 2, From Federico Fellini's "Amarcord" Photograph of John Simon, Copyright (c) 1982, by Frank Livsk