Celebrating Simon

Originally published in New York Press.

In writing about John Simon’s recently published collections of criticism, one hefty tome apiece devoted to his observations on movies, theatre, and classical music, there’s the temptation to go straight for the gold, to quote the most dazzlingly witty of his lapidary insights.

I found it impossible not to read with bemused pleasure, “Merchant and Ivory should have been ivory merchants,” or that Tout les Matin du Monde “exercises a horrible fascination, like…listening to stutterers discussing Wittgenstein.” Or this wry glance at House of the Spirits: “Clara, you see, espoused mutism for twenty years. This may be because, unlike Esteban, she did find time for The Piano, or it may be because mute women are the coming thing in the cinema.”

Even the music book displays Simon’s gift for comedy. In his essay “The Composer as Clown,” he imparts the most outré information in deliciously dry tones, as when he tells us that Erik Satie “for a while set up the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor in his apartment. He proclaimed himself Master of Music and Parcier (whatever that meant), published briefly a broadsheet attacking his enemies… and was, of course, the only worshipper.”

More than this, however, these three volumes luxuriate in Simon’s exquisite, evocative phrasing and his psychological incisiveness, which are often inextricable, as in his note that Tennessee Williams’ Clothes for a Summer Hotel rests on “hindsight-burdened colloquies in limbo between omniscient ghosts,” or that Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother “will do what only the profoundest things—philosophy, religion and art—can do for human beings, which may not be much but is all there is.”

The theater collection smartly begins with praises that, if you’re reading chronologically, establish Simon’s tastes, standards, loves. Then come a spate of knockout blows. In his introduction, the director Jack O’Brien writes: “He was, perhaps, the first of the journalists to step completely outside what was understood as accepted journalistic behavior and, taking aim, just let fly. We were aghast. We were titillated… Whichever way it went, the field was never to be the same again.”

The irony of this is that writers (and bloggers) who benefit, likely without realizing it, from Simon’s path-blazing, pre-eminent debunking of crap are some of his most vocal critics. It seems almost foolish to have to point out that Simon’s reviews were politically incorrect well before the tide began to turn against PC, yet his detractors, who remain determinedly stuck on autopilot, could use a little nudging. The pages of these anthologies reacquaint us with a thinker who goes his own way, not infrequently at odds with cookie-cutter sensibilities, whether of the 1970s or now. When Simon refers to our theater as “alternately prurient and preachy,” he cuts right to the schizoid myopia of our time. What makes it all right for playwrights and performers to revel in ugliness, yet rise in contention if a critic calls them on it?

Simon’s attackers have generally sounded much like the same person; all outraged (ostensibly) in the same manner, they brandish the same projections onto him over and over, even if they have to reach back 30 or 40 years to find their ammunition. The same quotes, used to justify this or that spurious accusation, have been recycled repeatedly, so that the fuming, finger-wagging prudes (David Mamet, anyone?) come across like the Jimmy Cagney and Cary Grant imitators who never progressed beyond, “You dirty rat!” or “Judy! Judy! Judy!”

And Judy, niftily enough, segues into Liza. John Simon on Theater reprints the piece most often cited as evidence of his so-called cruelty: the 1977 review of Liza Minnelli’s The Act, one of the most exhilarating pans in criticism history. Simon reduces the show to cinders; his broadsides are hilariously funny, and how can anyone not find them so? When Liza “announces tremulously that she is now going to sing a very special song,” Simon chases this with, “There are more catches in her voice than in a standard…MGM contract.” What amazes me is that readers, well into this decade, continue (or at least pretend) to take such tweaks literally. Criticism—the best, most worthwhile and memorable criticism—functions as a form of theater in its own right. It infuses a public forum with private judgments; if you don’t believe that, then you always have the blandness of the major dailies to which to turn. Criticism is, as Arlene Croce described it in a not dissimilar context, “a personal act, intimately personal, just as dancing is.” Well, then, what if you have a dance partner you don’t like? The result is a heightened, stylized form of truth telling, one at which Simon is a nonpareil. If anything, the readers who cling fervently to the claim that his reviews offend them should express their gratitude to Simon. He voices what many of them must secretly feel, that a performer’s deficiencies as a singer, a dancer, an actor, what have you, transcend nothing.

Reading on, we find Liza’s opposite number in the British actress Helen Burns, who appeared in István Örkény’s “artistically accomplished and meltingly humane” Catsplay, in which the “small, dumpy Englishwoman, neither young nor pretty…[becomes] immense and beautiful through the sheer power of her performing.” And there you have it.

This series of collections, which span Simon’s critical writing from 1974 to 2005, achieves something more than merely amassing reviews. Cumulatively and individually, these pieces, especially in theater, but also in film, refute the often-stated yet erroneous claim that he is homophobic. That may be the great, accidental legacy of these books—that they smash that falsehood to smithereens.

Here they are in black and white: the praises Simon sang for Torch Song Trilogy, The Normal Heart, The Laramie Project, The Destiny of Me, William M. Hoffman’s AIDS drama As Is (“timelessly, universally human”). To my surprise, Simon even defends Craig Lucas’ abhorrent chat-room tragedy, The Dying Gaul, from an “unjustly carping” notice in The New York Times.

Consider Simon’s words on the French film Savage Nights, released in the United States in early 1994. The novelist and photographer Cyril Collard wrote, directed, and acted the lead role in this essentially autobiographical movie, a far more graphic work than Jonathan Demme’s tidied-up Philadelphia, which hit screens shortly before Savage Nights. Much like the character he portrayed, Collard lived with and died from AIDS. Simon: “What I found particularly moving is the film’s clenched reluctance to let go. Toward the end, scene after scene looks to be the last, but it isn’t; always there is more. You can feel Collard hanging on, literally, for dear life: as if, as long as he was making his movie, he could not die.”

There’s no way that a homophobe could have written those lines, which betray an uncommon sensitivity. And that, quite possibly, is the quality that lodges in the collective craw of those who would paint Simon one-dimensionally—that he can be as tender as tough, and that both are equally valid, both are inescapably sides of the same coin, the human condition, the intimate dance. True, Simon doesn’t laud every gay-themed work. But to write that Angels in America “goes nowhere” isn’t homophobic; it’s good taste.

It is Simon’s devilish sense of humor that leads unthinking readers astray. Throughout these books, he has wicked fun at the expense of the overrated: Edward Albee, Philip Glass, and JoAnne Akalaitis all receive their share of dunks in the pool. To my regret, the theater book stops in 2003, thereby missing this pearl from the May 31, 2004 issue of New York: “I sometimes wonder whether Tony Kushner’s greatest talent isn’t for marketing. A play with very legitimate concerns about the roles of gays and Jews in American life, called Gays in America or Jews in America, wouldn’t sell half as well as Angels in America, even if the author doesn’t believe in angels.” Bingo!

The film volume, which begins with Warren Beatty’s Reds and ends with Spielberg’s A.I., doesn’t carry quite the same kinetic thrill as the drama critiques. Movies, typically, can’t engage Simon’s energies at the same protean levels as theater or music. The main problem, however, with the film book lies in its quest to be comprehensive; it includes an excess of notices for movies for which the critic finds little enthusiasm, pro or con, and an indifferent Simon isn’t the one we want to preserve for posterity. There are curious omissions, too. In February 1997, Simon wrote, “Plainly put, I find The People vs. Larry Flynt the best and most important American film of the year… a resounding vindication of free speech,” yet the piece—also noteworthy for being the only time that (to my knowledge) Simon praised the director Milos Forman—is nowhere to be found.

Even so, John Simon on Film revives invigorating assessments of A Cry in the Dark, Schindler’s List, Faithless, Running on Empty, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bertrand Tavernier’s four-hour documentary (still unavailable on video) about the aftermath of the French-Algerian conflict, La Guerre sans nom. But my favorite is a rave for a film that I recall disliking more than 20 years ago and haven’t seen since. Simon’s discerningly poetic take on the role of country music in Tender Mercies persuades me to give the movie another chance: “Simplistic as the songs may be, musically and verbally, they mediate between the people and the flat silence of the land, where the only sound is that of cars whooshing by—an uncomforting sound that only emphasizes the elsewhereness of the world.”

The loveliness of this perception carries over into Simon’s guided tours through the more obscure terrains of classical music. The effect of reading him on Tansman, Jongen, Guarnieri (but never, ever, a warhorse by anybody): you want to hear every note, obtain every minor label recording he extols. He makes these unknown concerti and chamber works seem like food, and the more I read, the hungrier I became.

“Unjust neglect is easy to come by in the arts,” Simon writes of the French composer Albéric Magnard, and I can’t help but think that, for the decades Simon has labored, he’s never entirely received his due, as say, his former sparring partner Pauline Kael did, and then some. This particular moment in the American zeitgeist, marked as it is with gutted liberal pieties interspersed amidst traces of disenchantment with formula, would seem in certain ways to be the right time for Simon’s rediscovery and re-evaluation—and treasuring—by a new crop of freethinkers.

December 7, 2005

John Simon on Film: Criticism 1982–2001 Applause, 700 pages, $29.95 John Simon on Theatre: Criticism 1974–2003 Applause, 840 pages, $32.95 John Simon on Music : Criticism 1979–2005 Applause, 504 pages, $27.95