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)

When your mania becomes a MANIA

As many of you patiently know, I am a fan (see “fanatic”) and season seat holder for the Toronto Maple Leafs AHL farm team, the Toronto Marlies. I am also pretty much whack-a-doodle crazy. These two facts are related if not necessarily cause-and-effect.

I make my living with words (several of them, in fact), but I am also a not-terribly-closeted graphic designer wannabe. Thus, when my hockey mania was given a booster shot with the launch of the new AHL season, I took to my lap top and started to play.

My apologies to all those on whom I will inflict my insanity…to the rest of you, enjoy.

Exorcise

(Please note: Demon image used without permission)

Hunting

(Please note: Pond image used without permission)

A collection of my photos and season schedule for fans (available for $20 CDN + postage)

A collection of my photos and season schedule for fans (available for $20 CDN + postage)

Whiplash and soul crushing (a review)

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Good guys not only finish last, but they also end up in tears, sitting in abandoned hallways, facing a life devoid of love ones.

Or at least that’s the moral of the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of a young jazz drummer (Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller) attending a prestigious music school in New York. Neiman’s lone dream is to become the next Buddy Rich.

(Warning: The following contains teasers of spoilers…tried my best.)

While practicing late one night, Neiman finds he is being observed by Terrence Fletcher (played by JK Simmons), the god-like instructor of the school’s top band, which has won both national and international acclaim. The interaction doesn’t go well.

But the erstwhile Svengali sees something in Neiman and eventually invites him to join his class, which is where the student begins to see the master less as a dedicated and willful but nurturing teacher and more as the manipulative, malevolent force striving for an unreachable ideal.

Perfection or death is Fletcher’s creed, and if you’re not willing to kill yourself over your failings, he is willing and eager to do it for you. You are using up valuable oxygen.

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

The beast will be satisfied (JK Simmons, Miles Teller)

Even in the face of this unending physical and emotional torture, which includes an airborne chair, however, Neiman is willing to sacrifice everything to become the Charlie Parker of the drums. And that sacrifice extends to his budding romance as well as his family.

Nothing will stand in the way

Nothing will stand in the way

But even that is not enough for Fletcher and we watch Neiman self-immolate while the monster emotionally fiddles with everyone’s lives. Unsatisfied with Neiman’s ashes, however, the master lures the student back with a siren song of greatness in a move that only the audience can see is designed to destroy Neiman yet again.

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

Perfection is everything (Miles Teller)

But just when Satan achieves his final triumph, he is surprised to learn that his fallen Angel has learned a few things. And this is the ultimate Fall of Man of which we hear in poetry.

The final moments of the film are like watching Luke Skywalker take Darth Vader’s offered hand on the catwalks of Cloud City and unite to rule the Empire, destroying both the Emperor and the Rebellion in one moment.

Throughout the film, the heart palpitates until threatening to arrest from the crushing weight of the increasingly up-tempo music (think frenzied, not dancing) and Fletcher’s relentless pounding on Neiman’s soul. By the end of the movie, you will be exhausted and sated by the ecstasy of what has been achieved.

It will only be later, in the calm aftermath of normal life, that you will begin to understand the dreadful cost of that achievement, not just for Neiman but also for humanity.

If the documentary Blackfish drove people away from marine parks, it wouldn’t surprise me if Whiplash drove parents away from music schools.

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe & SAG

Simmons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (and Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG) for his performance as Fletcher, although as crucial to the story as his role was, it could be argued he was a co-lead. And although I admit to not seeing the films of any other performers in this Oscar category, I am surprised the award was given to Simmons.

The man’s performance was quite good—he played Fletcher so malevolently, I would probably take a swing at Simmons if I saw him—but it didn’t feel like the character required a lot of the veteran actor aside from pushing the portrayal beyond anyone’s comfort zone.

Where the film definitely deserved its Oscar and BAFTA wins was for sound. The music was amazing and despite being constantly interrupted, it still managed to deliver its power and its physical toll on mere flesh and blood. Each piece became its own rush toward a climax that never arrived, pushing you until your body screamed for catharsis and was instead met with a cut to the next scene. (Editing was pretty impressive.)

Again, however, despite all of these wonderful facets, it was the moral Fall of Man in the face of all this magnificent music that bothered me. For if nothing else, it made me question the purity of artistic expression and whether it was worth the exorbitant cost of another human soul.

The moment of our greatest achievement, writer/director Damien Chazelle tells us, is also the moment of our greatest loss. I find that sad.