Thursday, February 19, 2015
1980's SIMON was the sort of curiosity that prompted 0.0025% of the population to seek it out. Maybe that number went up a decimal place when Warner Archives began listing it on their site. Those old enough to remember SIMON's theatrical and cable releases either don't care or have hazy memories that aren't strong enough to make the effort. The movie is an odd seeming bird, its poster featuring Alan Arkin in some kind of amphibious looking wetsuit, hovering his hand as if in the throes of osteoarthritis.
But being the connoisseur of offbeat cinema that I am, with an unusually good memory for movies (seen or otherwise) of a certain era, I snatched the DVD at my local library and finally gave it a watch. SIMON was quite different than what I was expecting, not the mean spirited black comedy for which it is reputed. It even has a happy ending. Well, for some of the characters.
Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) is a restless, frustrated psychology professor whose attempts at sensory deprivation in a suspension tank prove fruitless (what was it with 1980 movies and those tanks?). Like most shrinks, he has some serious baggage (he was abandoned as a child). Mendelssohn therefore is the perfect subject/target/patsy for the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a group of government funded scientists whose experiments often edge over into the absurd. IAC leader Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton) recruits Simon for what he describes as innovative research. In reality, the group plans to brainwash him into believing he is an alien from outer space.
After preparatory time with Dr. Cynthia Malloy (Madeline Kahn, hilarious as always), Mendelsohn is placed in the tank for one week. When he emerges, he enacts the entire evolution of man, a sequence of superb comic artistry, it must be said. What could have been an embarrassing bit of acting school posturing is rather near genius. Then Simon tries to re-enter the tank, a gag recalling Woody Allen's quip of trying to go back into the womb. SIMON's writer/director is Marshall Brickman, co-scripter of Allen's ANNIE HALL.
SIMON is a generally witty satire on psychology, medicine, science. There are plenty of social barbs, though many are specific to its time. No doubt, viewers born after the early '70s will be baffled. Still, the film is consistently on target, mostly as it skewers television and its sizable cult. Following his escape from the IAC, Simon hijacks a sound truck and begins broadcasting counter messages to the sleepy millions. One of my favorite bits is his feelings on doctors who write diet books, a gag that is even more relevant in 2015 than 1980. I also enjoyed the "low I.Q. gas" and the talking supercomputer which resembles a giant princess telephone (perfect for some 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ribbing). Fred Gwyne has great moments as an Army general who commandeers a mission to retrieve Simon, perceived to be a threat to society.
Late in the film, Simon hides out with a cult of dreamy New Agey hippies who hold church services where the Campbell Soup song of the day is sung like a hymn and the pastor (and former exec for ABC Television) reads from their bible - TV Guide. When asked what she appreciates on T.V., a cult member replies "Eisenestein movies...and disco." Point taken, Mr. Brickman.