It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

Philm Dephending Phorum

One of my recent timesinks, because I just can't get enough of them, has been watching archived episodes and clips of Siskel & Ebert's various review programs. Their year-end Stinker episodes are always fantastic because they clearly enjoyed their chance to unload both barrels o' snark at films what really deserved it, and usually one or two you thought were unconscionably included.

Other reviewers were also known for their snark and one such was John Simon, who has served as the national reviewer of film for the National Review (it's just chock-full of national reviewers, isn't it?) and other august publications. Simon gives no quarter when he hates something, but he is so painfully iconoclastic that you can't help but think he's made a 50-year career out of professionally trolling the film industry.

Here is what he wrote in 1980 about The Empire Strikes Back. (I couldn't find the entire thing online, but a Leigh Brackett fan site had it)
[The Empire Strikes Back] is malodorous offal... everything is stale, limp, desperately stretched out, and pretentious.. Harrison Ford (Han) offers loutishness for charm and becomes the epitome of the interstellar drugstore cowboy. Mark Hamill (Luke) is still the talentless Tom Sawyer of outer space - wide-eyed, narrow-minded, strait-laced. Worst of all is Carrie Fisher, whose Leia is a cosmic Shirley Temple but without the slightest acting ability or vestige prettiness.
And we all know how it tanked at the box office. They were lucky to have made a third.

Then, as Return of the Jedi approached in 1983, Ted Koppel invited Mr. Simon onto Nightline to talk about how much he did not like the Star Wars films. For the opposing viewpoint, Mssrs. Siskel & Ebert appeared live from Chicago. And they had a nice little chat.

One thing in particular leapt out at me and hollered as I watched, but I'll paraphrase because it was really loud. Some of Mr. Simon's criticisms--the reliance on special effects leading to dehumanization and the subsequent inability to connect with any of the characters, the terrible dialogue, the hard to follow story--mostly don't apply to the Star Wars films made thirty years ago (okay, the acting has always been kinda wooden) but god damn if George Lucas didn't hit every one of those notes in the prequels. Mr. Simon could not have foreseen Lucas' CGI kick, but that increasing reliance on special effects was certainly one of the big reasons why the prequels were so, so... So there's that. [1] He had some prescient views on what would happen to heavy, special effects-laden films, but who hasn't?

Additionally, the plot summary of Tender Mercies, the film which Mr. Simon admits isn't a kid's movie but nevertheless one he'd be happy to bring his hypothetical children to, begins this way:
"Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a washed up, alcoholic country singer, awakens at a run-down Texas roadside motel and gas station after a night of heavy drinking. He meets the owner, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and offers to work in exchange for a room. Rosa Lee, whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War, is raising her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard), on her own."
It is a testament to the patience and restraint of Siskel & Ebert that we did not hear a single scoff while Simon spoke. Perhaps their mics were muted. Perhaps it's true that the film may be accessible to kids, possibly older ones, and that the child character in the film might very well give kids an excellent, accessible point of view. But how accessible or compelling can a film about repairing adult problems be to a kid? I'm not trying to knock Tender Mercies because I haven't seen it, but I can't imagine a kid dragging their parents into that theater instead of the one showing Return of the Jedi. I'm also having difficulty imagining a parent sitting their kid down in front of this film, but the thought of the kid fidgeting the entire time makes the scenario a little more plausible.

The point Gene and Roger were trying to make was that while Star Wars may be escapism and illusions and popcorn fun, That's Okay! No, Really, It Is! John Simon seems unable to accept that.

I wondered what other startlingly rebellious thoughts John Simon may have had, and found he's still out there writing. In fact, he wrote a piece on the passing of Roger Ebert. I was sure that, while the two may have held mutually incompatible opinions, as a fellow professional he would write at least a decent eulogy. Instead Mr. Simon declares that he's not only here to bury Ebert and not praise him, he also drove up in a cement truck:
I do not wish to minimize the importance of Ebert, who, I gather, wrote 15 books, some extending beyond film criticism to rice cookery and rambles through London. My unawareness of them, and never hearing a reference to them from anyone in my circle, are no proof of unimportance, merely a reason to give us pause.
Oh, look, it's an eloquent variation on the old "I'm not gonna go there, look at this detail of where I'm so not going, aren't you glad I didn't go there?" gag. Classy.

You'll also notice while reading that the man calls escapism "not the most praiseworthy characteristic", which I guess answers the question about the inability to accept certain fundamental truths about cinema. Also, it answers the question over whether or not he is insufferable, a fact which I have been trying to downplay in the interest of fair debate until now:
The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance. To be sure, a failure in medicine is made manifest by the patient’s demise; a failure in architecture, by a collapsed building or a permanent eyesore. For failure in criticism, there is no such manifest evidence. Only time has the last word, but the good critic foreshadows it.

Granted, Ebert knew more about films quantitatively than the average moviegoer, but qualitatively—when it comes to taste and intellect—I very much doubt it.
Oh damn that pesky proletariat and their opinions about stuff! Why can't they see that John Simon has a god-given gift, a GIFT, PEOPLE, which elevates him above the rabble? Why do we not uphold and honor his infallible word?

Okay, yes, I know, he has every right to write whatever the hell he wants. He has a Blog. Look at it. He can say HE DON'T LIKE THING just as much I can say I DON'T LIKE THING. But good god, was this snark piece on the then-recently deceased called for? He wrote it within a month of Ebert's death, for crying out loud. Tilda Swinton's memorial conga line was still going on, practically, and here is this guy just shaking his tiny fist at the Internet imagining all the attaboys he'll receive for his daring contrarian views.

Heck, would the criticism be called for if Roger Ebert were still alive? It would have at least been a lot more fair, because you just know that Ebert's rebuttal would've been pretty goddamn good.

And the thing of it is, it can be fun to disagree with critics. You may have occasionally gotten mad at Siskel &| Ebert for trashing a film you truly loved, but they were engaging. You at least knew why they disliked the film, you could tell where their opinions were coming from and you can respect all of that even if they were so wholly wrong, wrong, wrong about putting Pee-Wee's Big Adventure on their Stinkers of 1986 list. I agree with John Simon that reliance of special effects was bad for the Star Wars franchise, but I disagree with him on a lot of other things. And unlike S&E, who you knew were fun to debate cinema with since you saw them do it every week, John Simon doesn't sound like a fun guy to talk film with. Mostly because he makes it perfectly clear that he's always right and you're not, probably because you're a prole. And where's the fun in that?

Sure, it can be fun to play Devil's Advocate and it can be fun to stir shit up and express views that go against the grain, and I guess it can be fun to-- oh, to hell with it. The guy's a pompous ass, and I'm only sorry it took me so long to come out and say it.

1. I pointed out recently that it seems clear George Lucas has always wanted to have complete artistic control of every single element in a shot, which is precisely what CGI has given him. And if he was still keen on recreating the old Republic serials from Back In The Day, well, some of those oldies had terribly flat dialogue and wooden acting. They couldn't all sparkle with wit. And so here we have it, one happy director who now has created exactly what he wanted all along, right down to the ludicrous performances. Can't blame him for reaching for his rainbows.

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