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

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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)

Lives of love and beauty – Robyn

As 2015 came to a close, I took a few days to highlight some of the amazing people in my life; my 12 Days of Gratitude.

Well, we are counting down the final days of 2016, and I am again feeling…well…feelie…and so want to share with you all some of the amazing people I know who epitomize love and joy and beauty, and who have transformed my life.

For those of you who remembered last year’s list, there will be a few overlaps here, but hey, they are that amazing and this is my list!

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Shirt kind of says it all

Robyn Lawson: mother, daughter, blogger, poet

Through our shared friendship with humourist Ned Hickson, I first met Robyn in the blogosphere and immediately felt my life change.

An Indigenous Canadian, Robyn has a passion to explore and share her Native community and roots in all its glories and horrors, more often than not, laying herself bare through her emotional and lyric poetry.

Check out: October Surprises

Robyn is a beautiful spirit who has touched my life in ways that I cannot yet begin to fathom, and remarkably so given that we have never spoken directly (e.g., phone or Skype) or met physically.

Thank you, Robyn, for sharing yourself and your experiences with me.

 

See also: Blog Woman!!! – Life Uncategorized

Fears and tears

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Tears come unbidden, unwelcome,

Blurring my vision,

But refusing to fall.

It’s the wind.

It’s a cold.

It’s allergies.

Anything but sadness,

Anger, frustration.

Throat clenches;

Chest tightens;

But the scream

Will not come;

Restricted in my lungs,

Blocked by still sealed lips.

So much pain;

So much sorrow.

The pulse quickens.

The mind races.

But legs remain static.

I run away

By running inward;

Afraid to cry

For fear of never stopping.

My silence deafens me;

Acrid saline blinds me;

Anguish deadens my soul;

And yet, I feel it all.

Cormorant (poem)

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Strings of feathered jewels—

Kilometre long, wing-span wide—

Swing their way offshore,

Droplets of former slumbers

Cutting waves that break

A mere metre below.

And yet for all the activity,

All the life in motion,

Air remains calm and silent,

Noises of picine harvests

Forgotten echoes of

Never-ending plunder.

Lines cross lines,

Ballets borne on air,

Eddied whorls tipping

Extended wings askew,

Halting premature end

Of missioned journeys.

Home is the current’s flow,

The wind’s dance;

Time’s of no consequence

When birds take wing.

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