If nothing else, the criticism of John Simon has kept alive a sense of history. No one writing today has done more to uphold the aesthetic standards of the Third Reich. As film critic for the National Review and theater critic for New York magazine, Simon's specialty is making punching bags out of people whose looks he finds repellent, especially those who don't conform to traditional modes of beauty. (Barbra Streisand has been a favorite target over the years: Early in her career, he said she looked like "a tremulous young borzoi.") If a performer isn't Simon's idea of pinup material, the merits of his or her work are beside the point. It was one of his remarks that once earned him a plate of hot goulash in the face courtesy of actress Sylvia Miles. His prejudices often make him sloppy with the facts. In his review of Razl Ruiz's film of Proust's "Time Regained," he identified Ruiz as "like Proust, a homosexual." As Film Comment pointed out, that should come as some shock to Mrs. Ruiz.
There was a time when Simon at least gave the appearance of trying to be a critic. His book "Ingmar Bergman Directs" includes some lucid writing on the Swedish director. But Simon must have decided that character assassination was an easier way to make a name for himself. And last Thursday, at a New York Film Festival press conference, he gave a vintage performance.
The occasion was a showing of Neil Jordan's "Not I" and Atom Egoyan's "Krapp's Last Tape," the first two movies in a project that aims to film all the plays of Samuel Beckett. Egoyan (appearing with the project's producers) was taking questions from the press when Simon spoke up. "I have seen at least 12 productions of this play," he began, "all more touching than yours. Was this deliberate or just incompetence on your part?" The reaction in the room was pretty evenly divided -- disgust on one hand, and on the other weary laughter that Commandant Simon was once again goose-stepping his way through someone else's work.
Film festival press conferences can turn pretty fawning pretty quickly, so there's nothing wrong with asking a tough question. But just as Simon can't tell the difference between criticism and personal attack, he doesn't distinguish between a tough question and an insult. Basic decency would seem to dictate keeping a civil tongue toward someone who has been invited to present his work, even when asking a critical question. You don't have to like Egoyan's work (and I've disliked more than I've liked) to see he's a serious and thoughtful director. I've never seen Egoyan in an interview or public appearance in which he didn't conduct himself in a gentlemanly manner. (To his credit, he didn't rise to Simon's bait, but gave an eloquent summation of the themes of Beckett's play.)
Simon's behavior was particularly galling coming after Egoyan had spoken of what the play had meant to him for so long, and especially after watching the fine job he has done of filming it. You could quibble with some aspects of John Hurt's performance, but you'd have to be a real piker not to feel that both Hurt and Egoyan have served the text beautifully.
Critics often have to be tough not just toward meretricious work but toward decent people who've done the best they can and fallen short. But cheap shots are the cheap way of calling it like you see it. They are a temptation that all critics have at one time or another succumbed to, out of either anger or frustration, meanness or laziness, and they never serve either the writer or the subject at hand. So, in a way, critics should be grateful to John Simon, at least as an object lesson. Through more than 30 years of writing and behavior, he has shown how easy it is to be a snake.