First he takes Manhattan

John Simon, Part 2, and other tales from the New York Film Festival.

By Charles Taylor

Published October 1, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

If you invited someone into your home who wiped his feet on the tablecloth and abused your other guests, chances are you wouldn't ask him back. So how does John Simon keep getting invited back to the New York Film Festival? Last year, in Salon's festival coverage, I reported how Simon abused Atom Egoyan during the press conference following the screening of Egoyan's film of Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." Well, the old goose-stepper is at it again. At the press conference for Jacques Rivette's "Va Savoir," Simon pipes up to Rivette's translator, "Were the Italian actors in the Pirandello scenes supposed to be lousy or was it Jacques Rivette's direction that made them lousy? And you may translate 'lousy' as 'degalos.'" That last bit is the Simon touch, a word that translates into French as something considerably stronger than "lousy," chosen for no other reason than to insult Rivette. As usual, when Simon pulls one of his stunts, the familiar ripple of amazement at just what a swine he can be went through the room. But as much as you long for someone to react to Simon in the way he deserves, by busting him in the jaw or at the very least telling him to shut up, it's clear that any public reaction plays into his hands. Wanting to be hated is almost a pathology with Simon; public disapproval obviously delights him.

So I offer a simple solution: The festival's press accreditation committee should ban Simon from the 2002 festival and make clear to him that any future invitations are dependent on his ability to prove he can conduct himself in a civilized manner. Nobody is saying he shouldn't be able to ask tough questions, but tough questions are very different from intentionally insulting ones. If you choose to operate as a character assassin rather than a critic, then you should be expected to take the consequences. Like everyone covering the festival, and like every filmmaker whose work is chosen, Simon is an invited guest. What makes him think he can pee in the soup and still have a place at the table?

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Luckily, Simon didn't deter Rivette. What could? At the press conference for "Va Savoir," accompanied by actresses Jeanne Balibar and Hélàne de Fougerolles, Rivette gave a big hint as to why his movies are so long: He's an epic talker. At times it was easy to forget what question he was responding to. But Rivette was fascinating, revealing the sources for his new film (Renoir's "The Golden Coach" starring Anna Magnani) and talking about the affinity he feels with directors of Hollywood's golden age like George Cukor and Howard Hawks. He suggested both a man who was completely besotted with movies and someone oddly keyed in to life's seemingly inconsequential moments. It was nearly impossible not to notice that Hélàne de Fougerolles' body language and gestures were remarkably like those of her character. Her presence seemed to offer a clue to Rivette's wizardry with actors: an ability to have someone before his camera appear as relaxed as they are in life.

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Once fall rolls around, it's practically a critic's duty to start bitching about what a bad year it's been for movies. So it's nice that the festival selection committee has given us at least one reason (so far) to speculate about what a good year 2002 might be. The Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's "What Time Is It There?" which will be released here in March, is as delicate as one of the timepieces that figure in the movie and as lovely as anything I've seen in the last few years. Crosscutting between a Taiwanese street vendor and the young girl to whom he sells a watch before she journeys to Paris, the film is practically a silent movie. The camera never moves, and there is almost never more than one shot per scene. Tsai uses the faces of his actors to convey the themes of loneliness and urban alienation. The effect is stripped down -- everything unessential has been eliminated -- but also rich. His characters may feel alienated from the world around them, but Tsai never allows us to become alienated from them. This is not a chic celebration of ennui masquerading as moral lesson (à la Antonioni), it's an attempt to do something like transfer the soul of Buster Keaton to the modern global city -- to make us stand in the shoes of every soul trudging through it on their own.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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