Sixteen bitchy comments from John Simon’s “Movies Into Film: Criticism 1967-1970”

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“There are several so-called critics—reviewers—who really hate my guts. There is one who slams a door in my face if he happens to pass through it ahead of me. But who cares? It’s wonderful to be hated by idiots.”

  1. Susannah York is unconvincing at everything: lesbianism, childishness, acting…
  2. Paul Simon’s lyrics alternate between nauseating poeticism (“Hello darkness, my old friend … Silence like a cancer grows … The words of the prophet are written on the subway wall … The sound of silence:) and trashy folksiness (“Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson: Jesus loves you more than you can know”), and are set to his and Garfunkel’s music that is not so much rock as rock bottom. Nichols keeps reprising these decompositions, until the soundtrack resembles the streets of New York during the garbage collectors’ strike.
  3. The kids themselves, with the exception of Cathy Burns (Rhoda), are not particularly good actors, and Barbara Hershey (Sandy, and not a kid anymore) looks, regrettably, much better with her bikini top on than off. Miss Burns, on the other hand, is an extremely accomplished little actress, but also insuperably homely — she looks, in fact, like a pink beach ball with a few limbs and features painted on it. There is no excuse for Rhoda’s being a positive freak, and making us feel she is damned lucky to have been raped at all.
  4. Even more unpleasant, though, is Mimsy Farmer’s breathy Marilyn Monroe-Jackie Kennedy English, in which “charcoal,” for instance, is pronounced “chuhkuh,” the uh’s representing gusts of breath. An altogether dispensable girl, this Mimsy, looking and acting like a cross between Sandy Dennis and a young Lizabeth Scott, with added suggestions of Jean Seberg and a death’s-head.
  5. Paul McCartney, a chubbily handsome young man, appears quite pleasant with, or despite, his generation-shaping look. But the others! Particularly grubby are John Lennon and his worse half, Yoko Ono, who sits, smug and possessive, almost always within touching distance of him. Flouting, it would seem, even minimal sanitary measures, their hair looks like a Disneyland for the insect world, and their complexions appear to be portable bacterial cultures.
  6. God only knows where the notion that Miss Lansbury has class originated; perhaps her vestigial lower-middle-class English accent passes for that in our informed show-biz circles. She is, in fact, common; and her mugging, rattling-off or steam-rollering across her lines, and camping around merely make her into that most degraded thing an outré actress can decline into: a fag hag.
  7. Mlle Deneuve can portray a cool clotheshorse with a schoolgirl emotion or two very nicely, as in La Chamade; beyond that her histrionic pittance will not stretch.
  8. Stéphane Audran (Mme Chabrol — which explains a thing or two, though not everything) combines the vacuous, far-off gaze of a blind explorer with a surly, pinched delivery of lines as if they were shoes several sizes too small.
  9. Joanna is played by Geneviève Waite, a piece of fluff with a thinnish sound piped into it (for all our advances in electronics, automata have not yet acquired fully human voices), and sliding whichever way the ground underneath inclines. As her ebony lover, Calvin Lockhart is like beautiful; as her lordly but moribund mentor, Donald Sutherland is nauseating: Toad of Toad Hall’s conception of Oscar Wilde.
  10. The only absolute liability, in fact, is Irina Demick. When she was Darryl Zanuck’s special protegée, no further question was necessary; now that Zanuck’s attention has moved on, one must emphatically ask why Miss Demick remains.
  11. It is regrettable to have both leading ladies in such a dashing film seemingly vie with each other for this year’s Homeliness Award, just as it is misguided to entrust the gallantly swashbuckling lead to David Hemmings, who, besides being a mediocre actor, looks in long shots like something out of Planet of the Apes.
  12. Huston has directed in a bored and lackluster fashion, and his performing of a minor role is deplorably leprechaunish. The ending of the picture is an absolute botch, and there is a perfectly blank, supremely inept performance by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, who has the face of an exhausted gnu, the voice of an unstrung tennis racket, and a figure of no describable shape.
  13. Jean-Marie Patte seems miscast as Louis; he would have been much better as the protagonist of The Blob.
  14. Meyer was equipped with a co-scenarist, the aforementioned Mr. Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and, by all accounts, a rather fey put-on artist.
  15. Miss Hepburn’s quality was and will be that of an offbeat, madcap debutante, and she has now simply entered the emerita division of the same category. Her Aurelia is all huskily doddering sexiness and girlish flutters, senior division. When you think of the great Marguerite Moreno, who created the role, and then look at this performance, exact replicas of which have already earned Miss Hepburn two ill-deserved Oscars, you may wish to forsake the auditorium for the vomitorium.
  16. But just how garish her commonplace accent, squeakily shrill voice, and the childish petulance with which she delivers her lines are, my pen is neither scratchy nor leaky enough to convey. The once pretty face has become coarse, though from a distance it can still look good — but only if it avoids any attempt at expression, as, to be sure, it not infrequently does. Only the bosom keeps implacably marching on — or down, as the case may be — but I do not feel qualified to be the Xenophon of this reverse anabasis.

1 – The Killing of Sister George [Robert Aldrich], December 1968
2 – The Graduate [Mike Nichols], February 1968
3 – Last Summer [Frank Perry], July 1969
4 – More [Barbet Schroeder], September 1969
5 – Let It Be [Michael Lindsay-Hogg], June 1970
6 – Something for Everyone [Hal Prince], August 1970
7 – Mississippi Mermaid [François Truffaut], April 1970
8 – Les Biches [Claude Chabrol], December 1968
9 – Joanna [Michael Sarne], February 1969
10 – The Sicilian Clan [Henri Verneuil], April 1970
11 – The Charge of the Light Brigade [Tony Richardson], November 1968
12 – A Walk With Love and Death [John Huston], October 1969
13 – The Rise of Louis XIV [Roberto Rossellini], October-November 1967
14 – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [Russ Meyer], July 1970
15 – The Madwoman of Chaillot [Bryan Forbes], November 1969
16 – Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew [Franco Zeffirelli], April 1967

John Simon’s blog

Two decadent monarchs, two distinct outcomes

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I had Vatel make it for you, my dear lady.

I had Vatel make it for you, my dear lady.

Vatel [Roland Joffé, 2000] came out at a time of Miramax backlash. One can understand the resistance to another shallow Miramax crowd-pleaser when watching the trailers on the VHS – advertisements for Serendipity, Chocolat, and Behind The Sun, followed by a triumphant montage of all Miramax’s contributions to the new dawning of cinema. Fragments of scenes from their true classics (Life Is Beautiful, My Left Foot, Like Water For Chocolate, Life Is Beautiful, Strictly Ballroom, Clerks, Smoke, Life Is Beautiful, building to a dizzying whirl of title cards ranging from Happy, Texas to Bounce to Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. The home video release followed a ludicrously extragavant Cannes premiere party seemingly designed to create backlash. [Why is the only source I can find for the details of this the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal? It was covered attentively by Travers, Gleiberman et al. at the time.]

The film’s unloved status is understandable, given how prepared everyone was to be annoyed. It is SO lush, opulent, lavish, whichever adjective you prefer, and SO unchallenging. The “bitter/sweet” dual mandate of the indie drama is entirely “sweet”. I enjoyed it tremendously. It just flew by. That is to say, there were no obvious points to stop the tape, because it’s one of those films that resembles a 100-minute montage. Scenes are all about the same length, a minute or shorter, then a cut to another place, then a cut to another place, then a cut back to the first place. Stretches of vibrantly lovely music [Ennio Morricone] carry through scene after scene after scene, which seem to be unified by consistent panning from left to right. Just about every shot has a crowd of people in it, making special the moments of quiet and solitude. I don’t know anything about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but hopefully this makes sense. Directing and editing orchestrated for a smooth ride.

This editing is characteristic of:
1) Movies about drugs and craziness [e.g. Performance]
2) Movies made by Steven Soderbergh and/or Tony Gilroy [not so dependent on music to stitch these together]
3) Movies about the pleasurable preparation for, and anticipation of, some sort of epochal event. These include Big Night, Rachel Getting Married, and Vatel. It may also be the pleasurable development of an unexpected phenomenon [e.g. Be Kind Rewind]. The stakes are nominally high, but throughout the film you realize that life isn’t about whatever is being built up to, it’s about what happens along the way.

Madame, I see these birds are caged. Rather like you, in a way. Do you see, Madame?

Madame, I see these birds are caged. Rather like you, in a way. Do you see, Madame?

Vatel is Gérard Depardieu. He’s the only man without a wig who ever interacts with the men in wigs. His boss is a prince who’s going to go bust unless he successfully sucks up to Louis Quatorze. Vatel is the head steward and comes up with wondrous spectacles on both small and large scale, surprisingly few of which involve cooking. Vatel is in charge of getting the local merchants to keep extending credit because they’ll all get paid back in spades when the prince becomes a royal favorite. The stakes are low, and they aren’t raised by the looming spectre of war with the Dutch, which is brought up in the form of the king making jokes about the Dutch and how silly it would be to go to war with them. Nor are they raised by the emotional turmoil undergone by the king’s mistress [Uma Thurman – this was also part of the post-Avengers Uma Thurman backlash], who occupies many of the quiet and still moments — with her caged bird, looking out the window, talking in the rare privacy of the woods. The only thing we care about is Vatel demonstrating to everyone in the castle, including the foppish Bourbon courtiers who view him with more sneering amusement than Psychlos view man-animals, that he deserves respect.

Depardieu is the ideal actor for an everyman with the magic touch. The odd thing is, though, is he an everyman, or does he have the magic touch? He seems like a man of hard work and hard-won knowledge. Basically a chef. If he can keep cracking the whip, everyone will do their jobs and everything will fall into place [see Big Night]. But the script is fascinated by the idea that Vatel will win the king’s favor with ingenious fripperies and awesome spectacles that frankly seem magical. When Vatel makes this his job, he seems like one of those wise fools who in some realms of life are simple and guileless, but in other realms operate on a level untouchable to the common human.

The viewer resists being told at first that Vatel is an average schmoe, and later being hinted that he’s a sort of savant or oddity, and later being told that the king’s mistress [cynical at first, like all these courtesans], is falling for him. The unknowability of the main character means we are more comfortable experiencing the movie as a simple parade of visual pleasures, and baubles of wit courtesy of Tom Stoppard.

Alas, monsieur. Ten o’clock, I have an even more attractive offer. Her Majesty has asked me to delouse her spaniel.

Another seemed apt, and also contained a great archaic word use.

Demaury: More than half the eggs are addled. We can’t make the custard.
Vatel: Watch. (beating batter) The sugar will come out like beaten egg whites. If they ask you what it is, tell them it’s an old recipe from Chantilly.

A lot of this movie is confused as to its purpose, but it has too many great ingredients to be ignored.

Tim Roth is not impressed.

Tim Roth is not impressed.

* * *

Tim Roth plays the most human of the sneering fops in Vatel. He’s good in these period pieces. Never one-note. Never seems to be more knowledgeable than the character he’s playing, though he has the advantage of centuries of perspective.

To Kill A King [Mike Barker, 2003] is a more satisfying historical drama, with Roth in the fascinating role of Oliver Cromwell. In British history the Puritans are a sort of weird eruptive anarchic force. In American history they’re our inspirational forebears, seeking freedom, wanting to be left alone. The heart of this movie is its sympathy for four characters. Cromwell, Charles I [Rupert Everett], Thomas Fairfax [Dougray Scott], and Lady Anne Fairfax [Olivia Williams].

Fairfax is the military leader of the parliamentary revolution. The common people love him. The nobility is still okay with him. He has charisma. He’s a swashbuckler. That’s him on the horse in the highly misleading cover art. This is him bringing good news to the masses.

to-kill-a-king-dougray-scott

Fairfax is the only man Cromwell trusts who isn’t a Puritan. The other Puritans see him more as a tool than as a leader, a tool that fulfilled its duty when the king surrendered and now should be put back in the box. Will he continue to do what Cromwell wants? He’s not the Puritan leader, he’s the parliamentary leader. He’s not a political leader, he’s a military leader. Where are the other parliamentarians who will put together a post-royalist government? Only Cromwell has the imagination to start something new. Everyone else with nominal power is equivocating. This is obviously a simplification of history — Fairfax and Cromwell’s falling out was not over what to do with King Charles but over what to do with Scotland — but the goal is to show historical dynamics on a human scale.

Rupert Everett takes to the role of a fop like a duck to water. Here he’s the king. In a ridiculous wig. But he doesn’t sneer, he doesn’t act like he’s cleverer or handsomer than anyone else. He acts superior, by divine right. He gives orders, he demonstrates immense dignity, he makes it clear that although he has no claim to great leadership skills, his existence is impossible if he’s not in charge. With his posture, his voice, he conveys that there can be no compromise. Going down with the ship, as it were. Is he playing mind games with the hope that the Roundheads aren’t really convinced life is better with an empty throne? Is he hoping for an eleventh-hour rescue by the Scots? Everett doesn’t seem particularly smart, but he never wavers. He doesn’t seem brave, but doesn’t bargain with his captors. Very interesting performance.

Lame-duck king Rupert Everett ponders his options.

Lame-duck king Rupert Everett ponders his options.

Lady Fairfax is a royalist. The king enlists her to persuade her husband. All her friends are counting on her to preserve them from the mob, she hears. She wants to settle down on her family estate. This may be a stereotypical female role in that she doesn’t care who started the fussing and the fighting, she just doesn’t want to see more damage to life and limb, and certainly not more property damage. It’s all so senseless. One of the film’s inspired elements is that Lady Fairfax comes over to King Charles’s house arrest to brighten his days by playing music together. These sessions let her act as a go-between. Olivia Williams is great in the part. No matter who she’s talking to she’s serious in the same way. She’s preoccupied by the uncertainty and can’t relax.

Tim Roth’s Cromwell is the live wire. He’s basically a villain, which ruins the movie for some people. But it’s the sober, Michael Corleone sort of villain — with every decision he makes, you think “Given that he needs to adhere to basic principles of trust and loyalty, what else can he do?” Only Puritans trust him. He walks into parliament; sees people who look down on him as a simple-minded ideologue; and he resolves not to let them win, even though they have no particular goals. He goes back to his brethren; sees people who have spent their lives putting him in power and are on alert for signs that he’s being corrupted by that power; and he resolves to make them proud. Cromwell’s advisors show signs of group polarization, as every question boils down to “Is it what the King wants?”, which implies “Is it what the King wants, or what God wants?”, which means better be safe than sorry. No consensus will be reached with the parliament. And speaking of Michael Corleone, it helps that Roth is the smallest man in every room.

to-kill-a-king-tim-roth

Lord Protector Tim Roth, flanked by enforcers

Aside from Sight & Sound‘s extensive assessment, most reviews seem to come out of Britain where the production was notoriously laden with semi-comical errors, none of which are evident in the resulting product. Unless you know the budget and compare it to what you see on screen, with a lot of low lighting, dependence on a few sets, a single character [Lord Denzil Holles, played by James Bolam] representing all the multifarious forms of political venality and corruption that required a dozen actors in a more sweeping film like Amazing Grace. To Kill a King starts with a battle scene, which in limited-budget style is really a post-battle scene, characters stepping over corpses, looking exhausted and having discussions in tents. There’s one action set piece later on, critical to the descent of Cromwell’s rationality, involving the pursuit and persecution of simple folk who are selling royal relics. And eventually, back to the historical record — for the scaffold scene.

Age Convergence: The Rolling Stones and the Supreme Court

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With the Rolling Stones playing a few special concerts this winter with walk-on appearances by Bill Wyman, Twitter is abuzz with the factoid that the Rolling Stones are now older, on average, than the US Supreme Court.

Does this claim hold water? It does. I calculated the age of each institution at the end of each calendar year from 1962 to the present. The US Supreme Court is older now than at any time from 1962 to 1978, but for the last 60 years it has nearly always been between 60 and 70. The peak is in 1985 thanks to Brennan, Marshall, Burger, Blackmun and Powell all being over 76, and the low point is also the Stones’ low point, 1962, when the oldest justice was Warren at 71. A local minimum was reached in 1994 with Blackmun’s replacement by Breyer, the sixth new justice in a decade.

In contrast to the stable age profile of the Supreme  Court, the Rolling Stones have increased in age nearly every year from 1962 to the present. My system for determining who is and is not a Rolling Stone is fairly stringent, with everyone who may be considered to have “joined” the Stones since 1975 being better described as a sideman. As such, Stones personnel changes have been as follows:

1963 – pianist Ian Stewart (25) demoted to roadie/sideman
1969 – death of guitarist Brian Jones (27), replacement by Mick Taylor (20)
1974 – departure of Taylor (25)
1975 – addition of guitarist Ronnie Wood (28)
1992 – departure of bassist Bill Wyman (56)

Based on my statistics, the Rolling Stones are now older than the Supreme Court, but this is not a new phenomenon, as the Stones have comprised the same four individuals for years, while the last change to the US Supreme Court was the replacement of John Paul Stevens by the 40-years-younger Elena Kagan on August 7, 2010. With Kagan’s appointment, the Supremes averaged 64.4 years of age at the end of 2010, while the Stones averaged 66.5. They have each aged since then at a rate of 1 year per year, as seen in the parallel trajectories in the above graph.

However, there has long been some “wiggle room” in determining which individuals can be considered Rolling Stones. In 1993 the band appointed a new bassist, Darryl Jones (born 1961). If Jones were considered a true replacement for Wyman, the band’s mean age would at this point drop substabtially and even as of mid-2012 would be lower than that of the Supreme Court. To my mind this is a fallacious notion. Despite his consistent role in Stones performances since then, Jones is described by Wikipedia as a “salaried employee”, who is largely anonymous onstage, does not receive an equal share of touring proceeds, and appears to fulfill a “sideman” role similar to that of the keyboard guy and the saxophone guy.

If Jones is to be considered a Rolling Stone, in recognition of his years of devoted service, we can then say that on November 25th, 2012 the Stones finally became older than the Supreme Court, with the return of Bill Wyman (age 76) for “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (But I Like It)” during their set at London’s O2 Arena. However, it follows that during any future concerts at which Wyman is not present, the band’s age will again drop to below that of the Supreme Court. This state of uncertainty is suboptimal and we hope the recent results from CERN, which seem likely to deal a death blow to supersymmetric string theory, also resolve the issue of whether the Rolling Stones contain one, two, or (as I conclude) zero bassists.