Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films
Fritz Lang in America fall)
Polanski: The Filmmaker as Voyeur, a Biography
The word “art” rattles through John Simon’s prose like an old sabre, often accompanied by condescension to the notion of entertainment—“adequate, simple-minded entertainment,” the “tastefully designed bauble,” the “solid bagatelle.” “On occasion everyone appreciates a well-made piece of fluff” (the unhappy italics are Simon’s). Art “leaves us with insights, epiphanies, a climate of elation in which it is easier to breathe in the perennial problems, more possible to live with them according to our individual lights.” Simon believes in “film as art, and in art as a form of humanism”; in a “spiritual aristocracy” dedicated to the “priorities of searching penetrancy and uncompromising effort to express the ineffable.”
This is horribly stuffy and lamentably written, but it doesn’t seem entirely wrong. Art can usually look after itself, but it does need to be defended from time to time. If critics cry greatness whenever they see something they mildly like, we shall not only have no words for the real thing when it shows up, we shall begin to lose our sense of what the real thing is. Perhaps we have begun. Certainly it is easy to fall into exaggerations. I once remarked casually to F. W. Dupee that Robert Rossen’s The Hustler was “a great movie.” Dupee grinned skeptically. “Jesus,” he said, “if The Hustler‘s a great movie, what’s Battleship Potemkin?” I can see too that Simon needs to be categoric: thumping the table a bit in order to be heard.
Reverse Angle brings together ten years’ worth of film reviews. Simon perceives the qualities of Robert Altman’s Nashville and Terrence Malick’s Badlands; he is lucid and honest in his backing away from Sam Peckinpah: “As one who touted and defended The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, I am particularly disheartened: Peckinpah clearly doesn’t lack talent; what he lacks is brains.”
But I am not finally persuaded that the stiffness of Simon’s mind is a fighting strategy, and I cannot see why every hapless work of entertainment needs to be beaten with the big stick of art. “Let’s face it: nothing so simple-minded as your basic western can be a work of art.” The issue is not so clear, and in any case does it matter if a western is not The Brothers Karamazov? Surely the main fact about entertainment is not that it is not art. Simon’s chief failing as a critic is his lack of curiosity about what amuses other people. “I have never been partial to the criminal genre in any medium,” he writes. He is not partial to any genres, has nothing resembling affection even for the pieces of fluff he patronizes. This is consistent enough. “There is no loving of movies,” he sternly says, “only loving of good movies.” “Can you imagine a serious literary critic being asked by lovers of literature whether he really likes books.” The thing is, I can imagine this. It strikes me as a good question, and …