Tuesday, May 7, 2013


The recent, glowing obituaries of Roger Ebert raise the question in my mind about what makes a good critic, which Ebert hardly was. What gives the question some importance is the possible influence of the critic on a certain art, in this case principally drama, though with relevance to all the others.

The perfect critic, obviously, cannot exist. There are too many differences in taste that no single critic, however astute, can subsume and satisfy. Probably preferable is the one who reaches out to educated, but not overeducated, readers. In the past, this would have meant graduates of a respectable institution of higher learning, but even among Ivy League graduates there were striking differences.

Thus a degree in chemistry was and is different from one in literature, but even within the latter, one in Romance languages was very different from one in Slavic languages, to say nothing of English, a sort of omnium gatherum for optimistic future dilettantes.

Still, let us settle on the notion that a good critic would excel at three things: thinking, taste and style in a three-pronged approach—just one or two of which virtues won’t suffice. Let me explain.

Good thinking is the ability to determine whether a play (or novel, or film) makes sense. But sense in a work of art is very different from sense in, say, physics. Or even history, where respectable practitioners will disagree about whether Gladstone of Disraeli was the better prime minister, whether the Athenian or Spartan commanders were better strategists. There is no litmus paper that can incontrovertibly decide.

Good taste is a totally unscientific criterion. A respectable drama critic like the late Clive Barnes preferred Neil Simon’s plays to Bernard Shaw’s. I find that absurd. But how do I prove that, in this instance at least, my taste is better than his? Is preferring the plays of Lanford Wilson more tasteful than preferring those of Sam Shepard? Only in extreme cases  is taste demonstrable; say, in preferring Shakespeare to Tourneur or Massinger.

Now style. The theater critics of the New York Times have manifestly better style than that of reviewers for some marginal provincial publication. But however they may champion (as they sometimes do) some trendy, trumpery nonentity, of what value is their eloquent encomium? No one will dispute hat their style is superior to that of some fellow on the Mudville Clarion, but is that enough?

Yet in America today’s two main drama critics of the Times are the nearest thing to theatrical arbiters, if you discount such TV pundits as the late Roger Ebert. But how does one become a main drama critic at the Times? These chaps know how to write, which is for what the publisher or editor picked them.  But said publisher or editor proceeded on the basis of mere style; it is too much to expect those journalistic powers that be to have personally inspected the garbage crowned by proficient prose or the superior work left unappreciated by labile taste and insufficient thought. But the No. 2 or 3 reviewer is never promoted to No. 1 when that post becomes vacated. The successor is always chosen from among some other successful megalopolitan reviewers, American or British, proving that even style is not as important as imported prestige.

Assuming, though, that style matters over thought and taste, what does this really mean? If I may use a tennis analogy: the stylist is like the player who has a terrific forehand (style), but not much of a backhand (taste), and definitely not much talent for volleying. Yet there are all round tennis players (I’ll throw in even lobs and overheads), but no such all round critics to speak of.

But let us get to the problem of how the best possible critic is made. Orator fit, poeta nascitur, as the old saying has it: the rhetorician is made; the poet is born. Still, even if the critic, like the poet, is innately gifted, there are acquired qualities. What truly develops him is good reading, not only in his field but also in related others. This may be acquired partly through education, but must also feature intellectual curiosity. Responsible reading should encourage not only emulation but also refutation: one learns through both approval and rejection.

Experience, too, matters—enormously. For a drama critic, this means seeing as much theater as possible, but also reading the fine plays, mostly classics, many of which remain unproduced or unrevived. Important, too, is seeing theater in more than one’s own country, which, of course, presupposes knowledge of foreign languages. But it also predicates good, inspiring teachers, and demands, however costly, travel. And it also means good human contacts and intellectual exchanges, and willingness to learn from them. No knowledge of any kind, however seemingly remote, is totally dispensable.

But, clearly, learning from the great critics of the past is of the essence. These may be as universally recognized as Aristotle and Longinus, but may also be best known merely nationally. For English speakers, this means the likes of Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin and Pater, Beerbohm and Shaw. For readers of French, this might include Taine, Lanson and Brunetière, and, more recently, Albert Thibaudet and Paul Valéry. It would certainly include, besides such full-time critics as the great Sainte-Beuve and Rivière, some all-important part-time ones like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Gide, Camus and Sartre. Forgive me for skipping more recent ones, structuralists or semiologists, whom I find unreadable.

In the German Realm, there are Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and the Schlegel brothers, but also some writers better-known for other things, such as Loerke, Benn, Mann, and Brecht. Among  even more recent ones, I mention Hans Egon Holthusen, Berthold Viertel, Friedrich Torberg, and Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

Among the very recent whom I have read with profit, I signal Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, though none of them is that much concerned with drama, but all are very useful all the same.

However all along, as among some of the above, there have been occasional forays into criticism, or even dramatic criticism, by those of whom one might not necessarily think of as so inclined; take, for example, the poet Heinrich Heine, among whose superb prose writings there is much of interest for critics. Or so, currently, with the writings of the brilliant poet-essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

The sad thing is that criticism is considered a minor art, and, to be sure, by some of its current practitioners it is not even that. A real problem is that to be fully appreciated, it requires also some knowledge of it subject. However compelling Jacques Barzun may be about Stendhal, if you haven’t read Stendhal you may not even want to read Barzun’s essay, let alone be able to fully appreciate it. Even the wonderful Walter Pater is remembered more for a few quasi-poetic bravura passages from his book about the Renaissance than for his fine criticism as a whole.

Criticism, admittedly, lacks a certain oomph. Although Oscar Wilde’s critical essays are as dazzling as his plays, if there weren’t for the latter, the former would be paid scant heed. Even the most magnificent modern dramatic criticism—think Kenneth Tynan, who wrote as well as any novelist or playwright, is unlikely to make it into the classrooms alongside of, say, Coleridge or Yeats, and they too more likely for their poems.

I wonder how many of you will bother even reading all of this. After all, it’s only about criticism.


  1. This still stand?


  2. Kael a great critic?


    1. If you have to ask, then you've entirely missed the author's intent.

  3. I read it all, John. And it was informative, provocative, and beautifully written -- with good thinking, good taste, and style all on display. I wonder, though, if you set the bar perhaps a bit too high for one to be a good critic. Your standard may be for perfection in a critic. That standard may be unreachable, but I think that you come as close to reaching it as anyone else.

  4. To the list of those critics Mr. Simon mentions here (excellent essayists one reads for both pleasure and insight), let me add James Agate and Mary McCarthy.

  5. He thinks Ebert wasn't just good but great:


  6. I guess one could call this "critical criticism"; and if a critic then surveyed this type of essay along with other examples of it (like T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood), we would have a tertiary genre -- "critico-critical criticism", etc. Would this process become quickly redundant, or would there be a raison d'être for each subsequent discrete layer of criticism, ad infinitum? If this question only interested Umberto Eco, it probably would bore Mr. Simon; but what if it fascinated Jorge Luis Borges...?

  7. If you're going to be a critic, 'good' isn't good enough, just like good isn't good enough if you're gonna be a professional boxer or ball player. You have to be excellent or great.

    Was Ebert a critic--that is if we define 'critic' as someone who discusses a work at length and in depth--in the first place?
    Generally no, though he did play the role of critic in his 'great movies' series.





    Generally, he was a movie reviewer and reporter in accordance with the newspaper business. Was he good at it? I suppose.
    If Simon had to work for a newspaper and wasn't allowed to discuss films at length--lest it give away too many spoilers and surprises--and had to cover 4 or 5 Hollywood movies per week, would he have been much better?

    1. No one has to do anything,
      Except pay taxes and die---
      Mr. Simon would never take such a job,
      E'en if EBT benefits ran dry.

    2. He wouldn't take that job,but he'd be a blogger?The bottom of the barrel!

    3. Only if you START as a blogger.

  8. bruce beresford's introduction to JOHN SIMON ON FILM Criticism 1982-2001

    Like most film directors I have a detestation of movie critics, based,
    of course, on their failure to recognise the amazing talent displayed
    in all of my works, while they all too often praise the feeble efforts
    of my contemporaries. Though I've never gone so far as a celebrated
    playwright friend of mine, in Australia, who has actually sought
    out his detractors and physically assaulted them, I have, with effort,
    followed the advice of Raymond Chandler and never responded to
    The numerous readers of this collection of the film criticism of
    John Simon will no doubt attribute this introduction to the fact of
    his favourable reviews of my films Tender Mercies, Driving Miss
    Daisy, Mister Johnson and Black Robe--all found within these pages.
    He is even moderately kind about A Good Man in Africa, which I
    considered disastrous. Not included, though, are his dismissive if
    annoyingly acute reviews of Paradise Road and Bride of the Wind,
    both of which I still irrationally maintain were not all that bad.
    I met John Simon for the first time in 1977 at the Berlin film
    festival. I was there with an Australian film, Don's Party which was
    written by my two-fisted playwright friend, David Williamson. Af-
    ter the screening, I went to one of those desultory drinks parties,
    where lots of people circle one another warily, not being too sure
    of who is associated with the film and who isn't. John, display-
    ing no caution, was at the centre of what seemed to me to be an
    awe-struck crowd. I had no idea who he was. I had never been to
    America at this time and knew virtually nothing of the New York
    critics. I eavesdropped for a while, amused by lohn's precise and
    witty opinions. Being young and hardy, I introduced myself as the
    director of Dons Party. John nodded for a few moments then said
    it was "not without merit."
    A couple of years later I was in New York, promoting Breaker
    Morantthough my major appearance on behalf of that film was
    an interview on an all-nude (except for me) late night talk show,
    which was being transmitted from a sleazy room in an even more
    sleazy building. John had given me his number and I tentatively
    called him, not expecting him to remember me. He did remember,
    though, and we met for lunch. We quickly discovered a mutual
    interest in theatre, as well as film, and a passion for the more ob-
    scure classical composers. For years now, we have jointly ransacked
    Tower records in search of the works of Granville Bantock, Xavier
    Montsalvatge, Lennox Berkeley, Alberic Magnard, Rebecca Clarke,
    Camargo Guarnieri, and others, near-forgotten but gifted.
    By this time I'd read a lot of John's work, not just his film writ-
    ing, but articles on theatre and music. He seemed to me to have
    more knowledge than it was possible to acquire in a lifetime, yet
    he was no pedant. He has a vast range of interests, speaks five or
    six languages fluently, and responds with vigour to everything that
    crosses his path.

    1. The point I am lurching towards is that I find Johns critical writ-
      ing immensely entertaining even when 1m not in agreementand
      who could possibly agree with a critic's views on every film? Mostly,
      I find, I do agree. More importantly, I find his reviews full of in-
      sights and perceptions that make reading a collection of this sort
      as exciting as reading a gripping novel. It is clear to me, too, that
      despites Johns extraordinary erudition his response to each film
      under discussion is fundamentally an emotional one. He is moved
      by the power of cinemaby its stories, its characters, its themes.
      He then has the gift, such a rare one (especially among film crit-
      ics), of being able to analyse the work in question, to be able to say
      why it is that it's so powerful, so touching; or, on the other hand, so
      trite, so meretricious, or so banal. He is, perhaps, rather inclined
      to be more forgiving of the weaknesses of beautiful young actresses
      than he is of actors, writers or directors, but this is a factor I find
      perfectly understandable. I know it isn't politically correct to say
      it.. .but.. .watching beautiful girls can do a lot to relieve tedium.

      John's wit is dazzling and is never displayed for its own sake, but
      to drive home an aspect of the review. Writing about Bergman's
      Fanny and Alexander he says "it is all dismally attitudinising and
      hollow, a sort of cross between Carl Dreyer at his worst and lohn
      Fowles at his best, which is not far removed from his worst." I feel
      he's being a bit tough on Fanny and Alexander, though it is some-
      what sententious, but he couldn't be more on the money with the
      comment on Fowles. Reviewing Candice Bergen's performance in
      Gandhi, he writes, "though she is a bit of a real-life photographer,
      Miss Bergen does not even handle a camera convincingly, albeit this
      is nothing compared to what she does with acting"
      It takes courage (sheer foolhardiness in my case) to speak out
      against widely held views relating to current films. One tends to end
      up being categorised with the man who said Beethoven was a lousy
      composer or that Tolstoy couldn't write. I recall being ostracized at
      dinner parties for my perhaps not too timidly expressed reserva-
      tions about The Piano and The English Patient. It thrills me to read
      the abandon with which lohn Simon tears into a lot of the sacred
      cows of cinema"how long has it been since an American movie
      has garnered a harvest of laurels like the ones being heaped on a
      piece of mindless junk called Blue Velvet" On Kurosawas Ran: "I
      find it an almost total failure by a genius in his old age." His com-
      ment on Fellini must have outraged most of that directors vast
      following, but I feel that time will prove it to be correct: "When he
      made his early, wonderful movies, Fellini was a natural talentper-
      haps the most natural of all. Despite a distinctly autobiographical
      flavour, the films managed to be sufficiently different." He considers
      the best of them to be I Vitelloni and thinks 8 1/2 to be "his last
      to show intermittent strength." What went wrong? "Success and
      egomania, and detachment from the world; withdrawal behind a
      living wall of amateur adulators and professional sycophants." Writ-
      ing about Europa Europa, "the fact that it takes on an important
      subject seems to have guaranteed it good notices from the more
      Pavlovian reviewers." Simon examines, with characteristic logic, the
      many inconsistencies in the plot, finishing with the telling remark
      "what good is all the truth in the world if the work of art cannot
      make it feel true?"

    2. Its been said to me, of lohn Simons reviews in general, that he
      is merely iconoclastic, that virtually nothing has his approbation.
      The comment seems a bizarre one, as even the most cursory ex-
      amination of this book will reveal enthusiasm for a huge number
      of films. It is much easier to write scathing reviews than adulatory
      ones, but Simon expresses praise as fluently and entertainingly as
      his dislikes. He begins a review of Bille Augusts wonderful Pelle the
      Conqueror with "it won the Golden Palm in Cannes and the Oscar
      for best foreign film of 19 8 8. The remarkable thing is that, despite
      these awards, it is a very good film." Nor does he ignore or auto-
      matically dismiss mainstream cinema, even if he consistently shows
      a preference for the undoubtedly more personal products of the
      independents. He quickly dismisses both Gladiator and Titanic but
      finds Scorsese's Goodfellas "the most original and assured piece of
      American mainline cinema since--it's been so long, I've forgotten
      what." He considers Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father "a great
      film... it is something with which to bolster audiences: fill em up
      with pity and terror, with laughter, sadness, and rage. And perhaps
      eventhe hardest reaction to elicit from moviegoersthought."
      It was exciting for me to read through this collection and see
      such warm praise for so many films that I feel have been unjustly ig-
      nored, or which have had only limited screenings--Zhang Yimous
      Not One Less, Gillies MacKinnons Regeneration, Cedric Klapischs
      When the Cats Away, Robert Bentons Nobody's Fool, Pavel Chukh-
      rais The Thief, lames Ivory's Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Francesco Rosi's
      The Truce. There are many others. Now, with the ubiquity of DVD,
      readers can rush out and rent or buy nearly all of the films John Si-
      mon is enthusiastic about. They are not going to be disappointed.
      It is refreshing, too, to read a reviewer who is aware of the con-
      tributions made to a film by people other than the director and
      actors. These reviews often mention and discuss the work of cam-
      eramen, set designers, editors, costume designers and composers.
      The latter, whose contribution has assumed greater prominence in
      films because of developments in sound reproduction, come in for
      a broadside more often than not"hack composers provide ram-
      paging scores that tautologically hammer in obvious pointsor,
      worse yet, blurt out that big moments are ahead...." Cameramen
      fare much better. Writing about Faithless, a superb film written by
      Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann, Simon says, "one
      of the films remarkable features is the preponderance of scenes
      tightly confined within four walls, yet such is [Jorgen] Persson's
      artistry with light and shadow and shades of colour that his cin-
      ematography contributes as much emotion as some filmmakers'
      entire movies."

      How do we know if its a great film? I think John Simons recommended
      test is infallible. In an aside from a review of Erick Zoncas
      brilliant Dreamlife of Angels he notes, "the surest way of testing a
      movie's greatness is seeing it a second time. If it is just as good, it
      a good film. If it gets better in the fineness and fullness of its
      it is great."
      Bruce Beresford

  9. I think John Simon is one of the great critics of all time. Certainly, other great critics are as insightful and brilliant in given areas. But how many of them can discuss nearly all the arts in most of the languages of Europe? Overall, I don't think he has an equal and it probably takes a while to think of his second. Tom Parker, DC

    1. Yes, he's sui generis,
      Not to mention swee' generous.

  10. God, I loved Bruce Beresford's Black Robe; and I found A Good Man in Africa (and another one set in Africa, Mister Johnson) quite entertaining -- all three films noteworthy for being remarkably incorrect (politically). And Mr. Simon, of course, had the good sense and taste to like them.

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