Monday, November 25, 2019

European Formalism

John Simon, who died yesterday at age 94, had one of the two or three most unremittingly independent voices in criticism. Advertisers and editors probably tried to control his signature vitriol or his devastating judgments, but it's obvious they failed.

The most striking thing about his body of work (from Acid Test in 1964 and Movies into Film in 1971 to Something to Declare in 1984 and The Sheep from the Goats in 1987) is its autonomy and singularity (in fact, his 1975 anthology of long theater essays—on Peer Gynt, on The Wild Duck—is called Singularities). Aside from Edmund Wilson, there was nobody else in American letters quite like Simon, a critic by innate temperament who combined academic formalism with a journalist’s impulse for influencing the collective taste of educated readers (many of whom undoubtedly didn’t much care for movies anyway). Dwight Macdonald could cut the spindly legs out from under mass culture with equal ease and spirit, but Macdonald had a jokey, teasing quality which Simon completely lacked. Macdonald hated garbage as vehemently as Simon (read Macdonald’s takedown of the Hollywood biblical epics in the 1969 On Movies), but he didn’t give you the impression, despite all his masscult and midcult categorizing, that he himself was an inaccessible, displaced alien of superiority, passing judgment on a hopeless demotic culture, as Simon always did. Maybe that difference was the innate extension of Simon’s Old World pedantry (he was the sort to correct you on your use of polymath when you really meant polyhistor).

An ace polemicist, Simon was praised and reviled just about equally throughout his career. One anecdote should suffice: In 1969–70, Simon was a recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (voted on by the Cornell, Princeton, and Yale English department faculty), and that same year the New York Drama Critics’ Circle voted to keep him out of that august body.

Simon in interviews encouraged his notoriety as a harsh, nearly unpleasable critic with a mandarin disdain for pop and ersatz in the arts. I always thought this was unfortunate because that reputation ossified around him like a crust until it obscured his clarion voice in print. He was almost always described as the “Count Dracula of film critics” or “the skunk at the party” (not to mention the endless agitated charges of sexism, homophobia, and misanthropy), and his funny descriptions of the physiognomies and various protuberances of Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand invariably appeared, way up top, in virtually everything ever written about him. It was his fault: his frequent apologia—that film was a gesamptkunstwerk in which every element, designed or not, played an important part in the viewer’s experience—was never very convincing. He just loved skewering ugliness, whether of a costume, a speaking voice, a set backdrop, or a receding chin.

Compared with his contemporaries—other critics in his league—Simon used a prose style that was indistinguishable from the opinions themselves. The singular force of his judgment was his style, whereas his colleagues—Macdonald, Vernon Young, Robert Bentley, Stanley Kauffmann, and so on—had more idiosyncratic styles with a rhetorical lightness that shaped their opinions. When he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Simon was a starch-collared, stentorian writer who was inclined to announce that he was about to be witty right before being so (although he was often genuinely so—“As Marge, Frances McDormand verges on the cutesy but manages in the nick of time to pull herself back from the verge”). His other recurring weakness was the stringing out of lengthy tropes until you felt as if you were watching money compound in the bank (“A similar visual fakery has the gifted but often excessive cinematographer Allen Daviau bedizen the movie with every sort of unearned visual opulence as further aid in audience-besotting”). Typically, he lines up his perfectly poised, well-structured phrases in a nagging, anal-retentive way that saps his point of some of its energy: “The trouble with JFK is that whereas it solicits a second seeing to unscramble it, it does not offer enough aesthetic compensation to warrant the effort of reimmersion.” Think of how much pithier Rossini was about Wagner, saying the same thing.

Simon’s voice felt far more authoritative—and inquisitive—when he was writing about European movies and plays. He seemed more at home with European sensibilities. In the introduction to Something to Declare, his anthology of foreign film reviews, Simon admitted that he rejected that view, but it was always true. The art films of early Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Ozu, Troell, and the like were his true purview. In writing about them, he delved more deeply and described more acutely than he did with American studio films, whose messiness and market exigencies probably occupied only a fourth of Simon’s analytic ability and his interest. (He almost never discussed seriously or at length a movie’s financial battles or its box office.) It’s his writing on European movies—on their explorations of sexual politics, their intimacy and reflection, their avant garde rhetoric, and their literary symbolism—that will stay in the memory of Simon’s close readers. Let the rest of the world keep their Count Dracula.

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