With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

genius-poster

Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

The Man Who Knew Infinity – a review

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In another life, I might have been a mathematician; in part, because I prefer to contemplate my universe in solitude, but perhaps more importantly, because there is a simplicity and elegance in math that simply cannot be matched by any other discipline.

It is the voice of God. It is the description of all existence and all possibility.

Thus, I greatly look forward to films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, which opened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and this past week on Netflix.

Based on true events, it is much like A Beautiful Mind, in that it tells the story of a man who could see things intuitively that others could not even with the greatest of effort, but in this case, without the mental health issues.

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a poor mathematician living in Madras, India, burdened with an overwhelming fountain of knowledge and understanding of the maths. As one movie character so aptly put it, every positive integer is Ramanujan’s friend.

Frustrated by an oppressive society in India that sees him as an over-reaching Wog, Ramanujan reaches out with the aid of an understanding British diplomat to mathematicians in the United Kingdom. And he eventually catches the notice Cambridge University professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brings Ramanujan to England.

As exciting as this is for the younger man, Ramanujan quickly becomes frustrated with his mentor. Rather than explore the mathematical cosmos, Hardy reins Ramanujan in, forcing him to develop mathematical proofs for his grand visions. Why, the younger man asks, do you need to prove the truth, the very word of the gods?

It is in answering this question that the movie becomes a love story between two driven men. These men change the face of mathematics, their work echoing to this day.

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Jeremy Irons is achingly poignant as mathematician G. H. Hardy

Despite the title of the film, this movie is more about Hardy than it is Ramanujan, who interestingly remains something of a mystery even into the story’s epilogue.

Intellectually brilliant in his own right, Hardy yet has to work to understand the universe, whereas Ramanujan is “given” the answers to great mathematical concepts. And despite any overt signs of jealousy, you have to wonder if this isn’t part of the reason Hardy fights so hard to rein in his mentee.

That said, as their relationship slowly blooms, Hardy risks his own expulsion from the college to push for Ramanujan’s acceptance at Cambridge as a fellow. So again, it is about Hardy’s relationships with his colleagues and the university establishment with Ramanujan as his raison d’etre.

The movie is visually beautiful and the story amazingly told.

Irons continues to be an actor of outstanding elegance no matter how curmudgeonly the character. His portrayal of a man who achingly wants to reach out to touch the face of God and yet cannot, is emotionally wrenching. This is a man who is afraid to believe in anything, but is presented with a glory that comes but once in a lifetime.

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Dev Patel portrays the anguish of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who speaks the voice of the gods only to find ignorance

Patel, likewise, offers a stirring performance. His confusion at the insanity of the world around him is palpable. He knows that he stands upon a great mountain, spouting the wisdoms of heaven, and yet finds himself spat upon and held back. He is very much a Christ figure to Irons’ Saul of Tarsus.

But as beautiful as this film is, I found it lacking in one very big way.

I never felt like I got to understand the titular character Ramanujan.

I have not read the similarly titled book on which the movie is based to know if there is more about Ramanujan there (its subtitle would suggest yes), but the film starts with fully formed Ramanujan scraping mathematical formulas on the stone floor of a temple. In looking for work to support his mother and new bride, he presents his efforts to bureaucrat after bureaucrat, only to be rejected.

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What is never explored or explained, however, is how this supposedly lowly man learned how to write in the language of mathematics, and because of this, I feel like I watched only part two of a much larger story.

There is a beautiful moment late in the film between Ramanujan and Hardy that touches on the divine spark of mathematics, and we see the two men finally express their common love and fears. But for me, this wasn’t enough. It fulfilled an emotional requirement, but not the intellectual. I want to better understand Ramanujan and his gift.

Despite this rather large gap, however, this is a movie that I could watch again and again for its sheer beauty. And I can only hope that it just one of many such films—math-centric or otherwise—to be made in the coming years.

Tank’s – a screenplay (cont’d)

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Our continuing saga (see part one here) of impetuous young Tony and his pursuit of individuality at the possible expense of his life.

When last we left Tony, he had led a nasty caiman on a merry chase, faking it out at the last second.

Tony takes off, leaving the caiman to spit out stones.

The guys catch up to Tony, applauding. Tony bows.

JUAN

That was totally awesome!

CARLOS

I thought you were a goner.

RICKY

That was–

OLD FIN (O.S.)

Foolhardy.

Tony turns to see OLD FIN.

TONY

Grandfather.

OLD FIN

And dangerous. You must think you’re pretty hot stuff.

TONY

Escaped the jaws of death.

OLD FIN

You escaped an eating machine, son; an unthinking garbage disposal. And you risked everyone’s lives in the process.

TONY

It was just me and the caiman.

OLD FIN

You need to learn about taking responsibility for your actions; caring for the fish around you. Your father—

TONY

What about my father?

RICKY

Tony!

TONY

My father took responsibility for his community, and he got snatched by the Net. Maybe if he’d spent more time with his son and less on everyone else’s problems…

CARLOS

Easy, Tony.

Old Fin waves the boys off.

TONY

He was all about sacrifice, when it meant taking care of others, but when I needed him… You can keep your responsibility.

Old Fin reaches for Tony’s shoulder.

OLD FIN

I miss him, too. He had to be the fish he was destined to be. Just as you have to be the fish you will become.

TONY

That’s… C’mon guys.

The boys swim off.

OLD FIN

Destiny won’t wait, son. It happens whether you’re ready or not.

EXT. FURTHER ALONG THE RIVER – DUSK

Amongst the plants and rocks, four long pink legs extend to the surface. The boys take a wide berth, Tony lagging behind, kicking pebbles.

JUAN

Watch out. Danger from above.

Tony darts around the legs, but then he turns with a grin.

RICKEY

What’re you doing?

TONY

Nothing. Just stretching my fins.

Yawning, he tickles one of the feet.

EXT. ABOVE THE SURFACE – SAME TIME

The legs are attached to two cranes. SIDNEY screams and jumps into SEYMOUR’s wings.

SIDNEY

Something touched my leg!

Seymour angrily drops Sidney into the water.

SEYMOUR

You idiot. Those are just fish.

SIDNEY

Well, they’re cold and wet. It’s nasty.

SEYMOUR

Nasty? Sid, what are we?

Sidney thinks long and hard.

SIDNEY

Cousins?

SEYMOUR

Cranes, Sid.

SIDNEY

We’re not cousins?

SEYMOUR

Focus! What do cranes eat?

Sidney screws up his face, like his head’s about to explode.

SIDNEY

Hamburgers!

SEYMOUR

Fish! We eat fish!

Sidney whips out chopsticks.

SIDNEY

Sushi!

Seymour slaps the chopsticks away and then pushes Sid’s head into the water. Sid steps back, spluttering.

SEYMOUR

And this time, Sid, hold your breath.

Seymour plunges his head into the water, pulling up a fish, which he quickly swallows. The two start looking for dinner.

EXT. BELOW THE SURFACE – SAME TIME

Fish scatter in pandemonium. Clouds of silt explode from the riverbed as enormous bills dart from the surface and stab into the ground, slicing side to side to catch fish.

Plants are uprooted, stones flung in all directions, fish cower in crevices and under large rocks as the river fills with a cacophany of SCREAMS and thrashing EXPLOSIONS of air and water.

Tony and his friends flee, pursued by Seymour.

JUAN

You had to do it, didn’t you?

TONY

They’re gaining on us.

They careen around rocks and weeds as the cranes inch closer.

JUAN

Over there!

INT. OLD BUCKET – CONTINUOUS

Juan, Tony and Ricky dart to the back, breathing heavily.

RICKY

They got Carlos!

Juan dashes for the opening and is bowled over by Carlos.

CARLOS

Aaaaaaaah!

TONY (laughing)

Carlos, the bullet.

The THRASHING outside subsides. The guys float quietly.

CARLOS

Whaddya think?

A beam of light penetrates the darkening water outside of the bucket, which shakes and the floor tilts.

CARLOS (CONT’D)

Earthquake!

They swim for the mouth, which rises, the spotlight getting brighter. Seeing Carlos struggle, Juan and Ricky swim back to help him. Tony waits anxiously.

TONY

Harder!

CARLOS

I’m trying!

Tony swims to help, just as they push Carlos out. Before Tony can escape, however, the bucket breaks the water’s surface.

TONY

Nuts.

Tony races for the bottom and turns to make a break for the surface. As he makes his run, a net appears.

EXT. FLAT-BOTTOMED METAL BOAT – SAME TIME

A hand reaches into the bucket and fishes for Tony, who scurries around trying not to get caught.

TONY

Hey! Watch the scales. Let go!

The hand throws Tony into a clear bag of water.

TONY (CONT’D)

Okay. Now you’ve made me mad!

The hand tosses the bag into a cardboard box.

INSERT: BOX LABEL THAT READS “ECUADOR PET SUPPLIES”.

The lid of the box closes. Everything GOES DARK.

OPENING CREDITS

(to be continued)

Tank’s – a screenplay

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The following is the opening for my first screenplay. Tank’s  is the story of Tony, an impetuous young fish who gets snatched from his tropical homeland and transported to Tank’s, a pet shop in Rochester, NY. There, he quickly falls for Maya, a royal daughter of the salt water community, and runs afoul of the iron-finned rule of an eel named Kang.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission but my sincerest Tank’s.)

 

FADE IN

EXT. AERIAL VIEW OF A RAINFOREST – AFTERNOON

A canopy of trees extends forever to a distant range of mountains, birds swooping in and out. A break in the forest exposes a broad meandering river that empties into the sea.

One bird descends to skirt along the water. Crocodiles slide from the shore, disrupting the peaceful wading of cranes who take to the air.

A thicket of tree roots plunge into the river, large insects crawling along or flying amongst the gnarled roots. A squirt of water shoots up at a dragonfly, which splashes into the water, to be eaten by a large fish.

EXT. BELOW THE SURFACE – SAME TIME

Schools of fish swim among the roots. Larger fish swim alone, oblivious to the schools that scatter and reform.

A cloud of bleary water blooms across the bottom of the river, causing most of the fish to scatter to the clearer upper layers. A few fish swim between the layers, trailing bleary streams.

The serenity is shattered as four sleek black mollies fly by, weaving chaotically through the weeds. TONY, JUAN, RICKY and CARLOS, hyper adolescents, flip a pebble back and forth, while trying to evade tackle.

TONY

Carlos fades back for a long throw…

Chubby Carlos swerves the wrong way, sliding into the mud and being tackled by the others.

Laughing, they slowly climb out of the tangle. Carlos remains on the bottom, dazed.

TONY (CONT’D)

Hey, look! A flat fish.

Tony pumps his tail to reinflate him. Juan looks to the surface, catching the waning sunlight.

JUAN

It’s late. Gotta go help Mom with the brood.

TONY

A hundred and thirty-nine brothers and sisters and you have to help?

RICKY

Me, too. Summer school.

TONY

C’mon. You’re ruining things for Carlos. He can barely speak.

Tony slaps his fin over Carlos’s mouth.

TONY (CONT’D)

Hush, pal. Save your strength.

Tony slowly backs away. The guys follow.

JUAN

Duty calls, Tony.

TONY

Duties come later. Today is for adventure.

Tony grabs Carlos by the gills.

TONY (CONT’D)

Look at this guy. Ready to grab life by the gills and kiss it on the mouth.

Carlos recoils in disgust.

TONY (CONT’D)

We’re young.

Tony swims into a shadow. The guys stare, mouths agape.

TONY (CONT’D)

We have no fear!

JUAN/RICKY/CARLOS (scattering)

Aaaaaaaaaah!

TONY

Hunh?

Tony looks up and comes face to face with a grinning caiman.

TONY (CONT’D)

Oh.

Tony sticks a fin in the caiman’s nostrils, making it sneeze.

Tony flees, pursued by the caiman. As Tony leads the merry chase, other fish scramble to safety.

The caiman gets close but never quite reaches Tony.

TONY (CONT’D)

C’mon, armor-butt.

Tony suddenly favours his left fin.

TONY (CONT’D)

Cramp! Ow, ow!

The caiman pounces. Tony flits aside and the caiman gets a mouthful of gravel.

TONY (CONT’D)

Psych!

Tony takes off, leaving the caiman to spit out stones.

(To be continued.)