Saturday, December 02, 2006


1. John Simon. A photographer friend of my father noticed my newfound interest in film one evening when I was around 14 and gave me half a dozen books on the subject. One of them was a real life changer. John Simon’s Movies Into Film 1967-1970 opened up a whole new world of erudition to me. Here was an opinionated guy, fluent in a half dozen languages, writing about one of the most seminal periods of film in a prose style that sparkled with wit, knowledge, and wordplay. He made me want to learn about Art just so I could find out whether or not I agreed with him. The first piece I read that night was on Patton and I’ve never been the same since. It was Simon who turned me on to James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Stanley Kaufmann, Pauline Kael (his is still the definitive takedown in my opinion) as well as a whole host of other writers, artists, poets, and of course, filmmakers. I still consult my copy from time to time even though it’s badly dog-eared and mended with duct tape in 3 sections.

2. Sneak Previews. I got instantly hooked on Siskel and Ebert’s review show the first time I saw it on PBS back in 1978 and I’ve been addicted to its various incarnations ever since. It’s the only TV show I intentionally tune into regularly; which is not an easy task considering that our local affiliate here in Oklahoma City has been jacking around with its schedule for over 2 decades now.

3. J. Hoberman. I bought J. Hoberman’s book Vulgar Modernism at the Anarchist Book Store on Haight St. in San Francisco because it had a positive blurb on the back by Martin Scorsese. I’m awfully glad I did. Besides being filled with great writing, Hoberman’s book enlightened me to the world of underground and avant-guard cinema. Without him, I might never have heard of Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and yes, Jack Smith.

4. Mark Steyn. My favorite columnist and one man global content provider is also one of my favorite film critics. His takes on Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (unfortunately not linkable) is one of my all time favorite reviews.

5. Anonymous. Here let me hideously mangle a couple of quotes on film, the sources of which I’ve long since forgotten. “All movies are about 2 faces in closeup that the audience wills into merging on the silver screen” maybe that’s from John Updike; and “There are 3 things in movies that are true in real life: #1. Beautiful women are everywhere.” And #2…well, I forgot the other two, but #1 is true enough.

Wagstaff is a contributor to The House Next Door, Liverputty and Edward Copeland on Film.


Blogger Bilge Ebiri said...

Yeah, what's up with the musical scheduling of the Ebert show? About five or six years ago I actually just gave up trying to figure out when it was coming on -- it changed so much -- and now just catch it when I chance upon it.

Also: You are a brave man for including John Simon up there. A brave, brave man.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Okay, okay, I saw my copy of Simon's Reverse Angle on the bookshelf last night. (How did it not get packed away with almost all of my other film books?) I'll try again... :)

11:51 PM  
Blogger Wagstaff said...

Dennis, I disagree with Simon more often than not (sometimes to an infuriating degree) but his prose style is still one of my favorites. Simon was my gateway to a lot of different critics and artists. This blog-a-thon is already a new gateway for me to discover a lot more prime stuff.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

I also discovered Simon around the same time as Kael -- in the first couple of years of college. I found him bracing at first, for his erudition and also his incredibly caustic, often cruel sense of humor. But I can't praise him as much more than a good writer because he was wrong about so many great movies (except "Badlands," which he got, and explained, better than any of his contemporaries, even those who raved about it). And on top of that, there's a strong misogynist/racist/antisemitic streak running through so much of his work, and he makes fun of performers' looks with such glee that it's as if he hews to the mindset of centuries ago that measured everyone against an established, current standard of beauty, and found those who failed to measure up to be not just defective, but spiritually deformed as well.

Siskel and Ebert, though -- that's another matter. That duo opened up so many horizons for so many people; they were pretty much running a film school on national television, and I think anyone who has anything to say about them, positive or negative, needs to start by recognizing that fact and giving the boys their due.

5:34 PM  
Blogger odienator said...

I remember in the early days of S&E, they used to have the dog of the week. One of the movies they had was (I think) called Screamers. This was the late 70's, and the poster said "you'll see a man turned inside out." S&E showed the poster, which had what looked like inside out dude on it, and said what a piece of shit the movie was. That poster gave me nightmares!

Another memorable (for me, at least) S&E moment was when they appeared on the animated show, The Critic, and gave fans like me something I'd been waiting years to see: they had a fistfight.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Wagstaff said...

I guess this brave, brave man will have to defend John Simon. First and foremost I love him as a great writer. He’s good at writing about the films he likes, it just seems that he doesn’t like very many. He is a snobby, aesthetic elitist, and I enjoy that, but it puts people off. Yes, he missed the boat on a lot of great pictures, but that’s not why I read him. There are not many pictures he’s praised that I have disliked (okay, so he liked Space Cowboys.) Incidentally, which critic of the ones mentioned here has the highest percentage of recognizing the good and the great? Was he or she a great writer? Just wondering.

Simon often dismissed things with barely a word that deserved much more attention. Mean Streets? But I wouldn’t trade his negative review of the great Taxi Driver for a more positive one. I’ll leave untouched the charges of racism and anti-Semitism without more specifics. Regardless, I don’t detect any anti-Semitism of the Pat Buchanan variety. In truth, I’ve always been sketchy on Simon’s politics. He was the house critic at National Review for years, yet he despised Nixon, had no use for Reagan or American imperialism, and seemed skeptical of capitalism.

It’s his attitude toward appearances that rubs many of my friends the wrong way. Few critics judged the physicality of casting the way he did. His habit of letting us know which actresses he deemed sexually desirable comes off as unseemly, whereas another writer, someone less snobby, a Joe Bob Briggs maybe, might get away with it. His glee at cutting down a performer’s looks is certainly there, though, if I remember his defense on this, it ran something like “an actor or actress’ body, face and voice are their instrument, whatever the mind and talent behind it, and can be judged accordingly.” It’s often harsh, but I think he only put in print what many of us comment on in the privacy of our living rooms. These stars put themselves on display, after all, and are well compensated.

I recall Simon criticizing Hitchcock's attitude toward women and praising Bergman's, but ironically, I think a decent case could be made the other way around.

I know I’m in the minority in championing Simon, but hey, he was the first life changing critic I ever read. He regularly commented on filmic aspects that others didn’t: costume design, makeup, cinematography, subtitle translations, art direction, editing, music; and he did it through a deep knowledge of the other arts. He goaded me to learn what he was talking about with such authority. His poetry criticism was good too. I couldn’t count the number of other writers and filmmakers that I later pursued after reading them mentioned somewhere in his pages. I can’t say the same for Kael, though I like her too. He became a hard-assed super ego that I chaffed against, rebelled, and finally embraced. Thank you, John Simon.

2:24 AM  
Blogger historyman said...

I came upon this blog and found it very interesting. In my twenties, I read John Simon avidly and learned a great deal. He possessed many excellent qualities as a critic (and still possesses, as I believe he still writes theater and music reviews, even after leaving New York magazine). Cogency in thinking is one such quality. Another is his ability to bring

We have to remember that film criticism is very new, and there have been far many more bad film critics than good ones. What's the difference? The good and perceptive ones tend to know a lot about other arts too, and tend to be critic in one or more established fields (theater, literature, fine arts, etc.) James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann, and Simon would be examples of this category. The other category - too many to count - tends to be starry-eyed with movies and lacking in comparative knowledge to be cogent.

Here's a panel in 1963, with Simon, Macdonald, and Pauline Kael. (In my book, Kael is definitely in the second category of critics, her popularity notwithstanding.) Click on "Part One" and "Part Two" to hear the panel.

Things have improved a lot since those heady Sixties days of film criticism. Slate, for example, carries thoughtful reviews more and more. And Stanley Kauffmann still writes for the New Republic at 90. Amazing!

One more tidbit. Simon is most likely a political liberal, but is a conservative when it comes to taste in the arts. Which was why William Buckley invited him to be film critic at National Review for so long. Sometimes in the late 1980s, NR threw a party for Simon, and Buckley quoted Wilfred Sheed (a once film critic himself) who once said humorously that critics should review movies like pigeons review statues. For better or for worse, Simon embodies that critical spirit the best.

5:10 PM  
Blogger historyman said...

Here's a review of Reverse Angle in 1982.

5:20 PM  

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