Monday, August 1, 2016

Movie Review: Genius

Who is the genius?

By Jonathan Price

Genius is a movie you’re likely to miss, but shouldn’t. In our little burg it got two stars out of four, an invitation to skip it, and ran for perhaps one week at the local art theatre downtown. It was previewed in advance a number of times, but apparently never made it out of its dim downtown venue, and may have been seen by 300 people – perhaps – in a metropolitan area of one million.
    You’ve already gathered it’s not a blockbuster, and I’m not arguing it should be the next Star Wars or Jason Bourne, which is due to come out this summer. Nevertheless, Genius has an all-star cast, and you should consider seeing it: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce. You might remember that Pearce played Firth’s older brother, the abdicating King of England, in The King’s Speech six years ago, and was scolded by the soon-to-be King George VI for his lethargy and self-indulgence; whereas here the roles are somewhat revered, with Pearce’s F. Scott Fitzgerald remonstrating with Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe for his dissolute and alcoholic lifestyle, which is threatening his art.
    It begins in a train station with repeated shots of a man’s shoes. There is a lot of this sort of deflection, and a care in the movie-making – the avoidance of faces, the sense that details matter, an attention to the mundane, which is somehow also the momentous.
    Nevertheless Genius is about a subject dear to my heart, literature – how it’s made, what it comes out of. In a direct, focused sense, this subject gets little play in its competing medium of film. The affair between Wolfe and his patroness, his first editor and protector, Aline Bernstein, played by Nicole Kidman, appears to help generate his first great novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

Maxwell Perkins
    And we catch Wolfe just as he’s humbly and beguilingly submitting it to Charles Scribner’s Sons, publishers, in the person of its primary editor, Maxwell Perkins. A good chunk of the film’s first part is taken up by Perkins obsessively reading this manuscript, though he has no apparent pre-warning of its or its author’s greatness. We first see him in his office at this desk with his hat on receiving the manuscript; he reads it in his office in Manhattan, his hat still on; he walks to the train, his hat still on, reading the pages as he walks; he sits in the commuter train with his hat still on obsessively looking at the words. He sits at dinner with his hat on home in Connecticut. We see him in various places around his house with his hat on reading the novel. This is a man who is dedicated to his task and who is clearly absorbed by what he is reading. He never takes off his hat for the first two-thirds of the film.

Thomas Wolfe
Gradually we also see Wolfe talking with Perkins, animatedly in conversation with his mistress, and we see Perkins interacting briefly with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose wife Zelda is in a mental institution and who is down on his economic luck. Perkins unreservedly writes him a check. We also see another Perkins protégé, Ernest Hemingway.
    The film’s title is ambiguous or teasing about its referent – is it Wolfe, about whom fewer modern viewers have heard than about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, or is it Perkins? The film title disguises yet further, and amplifies, the ambiguity of its source, Scott Berg’s study of Maxwell Perkins, Editor of Genius.

    So we learn that Perkins has a deep and satisfying family and home life, surrounded by a wife and four daughters, while Wolfe never marries and eventually abandons his devoted mistress and first mentor Bernstein. Yet we also see both men, in parallel scenes, rejecting the pleas of their lovers in order to work together on the novel at hand (rejecting stridently in Wolfe’s case, mutedly and discreetly in Perkins’, as his wife leaves with their daughters for a short road-trip vacation). And Perkins is the full-service editor, as we see him diligently offering his protégé powerful reductions in text, along with much praise and encouragement.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
    The artists are, by contrast, flamboyant – Fitzgerald with his emotional and financial breakdown, Hemingway with his exuberance and deep-sea fishing, Wolfe with his womanizing and drinking. Perkins is that button-down man who cares deeply about literature, shows little emotion, and keeps his hat on.
    Wolfe experiences the exuberance of sudden fame, wealth, and critical admiration with his first novel Look Homeward, Angel. He is that figure who composes tirelessly on the top of refrigerators, preferring them to desks. He is the Harvard graduate who is finally experiencing literary success (it was rumored that Wolfe had read, or attempted to read, all the volumes in Harvard’s Widener library.) This success affects his lifestyle and his writing, as his second novel is far more “exuberant” – or at least abundant – as we see the manuscript of what became Time and the River delivered to Scribner’s offices in multiple deep boxes, and sheaves of paper tied with string. The project looks and was enormous, about the length of the four volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; Perkins’ editing cut it down to a manageable and commercial length.
    Still, in the film, Perkins muses on the role of an editor, who is clearly devoted to creating and improving literature, but who wonders whether he really produces a greater product or just diminishes and obscures true beauty and greatness. (Along these lines, in the year 2000, Matthew Bruccoli, a Fitzgerald scholar, unearthed and published in its entirety O Lost, the original version of Look Homeward, Angel, which “marks nothing less than the restoration of a true masterpiece to the literary canon.” It is also worth considering the effect Raymond Carver’s editor had on his original short stories – for example, truncating one of them to the enigmatic and powerful “Bath,” a quintessence of literary minimalism; yet most readers and anthology editors prefer the original, restored version, “A Small Good Thing.”)

Wolfe is seen in bars and carousing at parties; occasionally Perkins joins him, but draws the line when offered a prostitute. However, Perkins does greet Wolfe exuberantly when the writer returns aboard ship from Europe. Perkins not only meets him at the pier, but they also go drinking together, and it is the editor who throws the rock through the window to enter Wolfe’s abandoned first apartment, where he had composed his magnum opus.
    But it seems inevitable that this friendship, bordering on family, should deteriorate: Wolfe is the son and companion Perkins had longed for, Perkins the second father and mentor succeeding Wolfe’s own father’s early death. Wolfe begins to disregard Perkins’ advice, threatens to leave for another publisher, and travels to Hollywood, where, ironically and poignantly, a clearly ruined but firm Fitzgerald gives him pointed advice about how disloyal and pathetic his treatment of Perkins is. This scene itself is a kind of ironic reversal of roles for Guy Pearce, from his character in The King’s Speech, where he played opposite Colin Firth, who played his younger brother and the future kind of England. Here Pearce as Fitzgerald remonstrates with Jude Law as Wolfe, as Firth had remonstrated with Pearce in the earlier film, about his lack of direction and the general dissoluteness of his life.
    Wolfe’s career and energy dissipating, we see him in a scene collapsing suddenly on the beach. Within weeks, the writer is dead at 37, of what now seems like a strange and inexplicable disease, tuberculosis of the brain.

Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Price


  1. What a great review Jonathan! You've made me anxious to see this film AND read up a little more on the authors. Thanks so much for all the insightful detail.

  2. hmmm...i will add to my "to see" list...ever longer

  3. It's on my list too! Thank you, Jon. You do a GREAT SERVICE by your professional-level reviews.

  4. Within weeks, the writer is dead at 37, of what now seems like a strange and inexplicable disease, tuberculosis of the brain.

    I guess this is real? I've never heard of such a thing. Good review and interesting.

    1. Yes, it's real - Wolfe's fatal disease - and I remember reading about it (in what book, I don't remember) quite a few years ago. Wikipedia's entry on Wolfe says: "In July, Wolfe became ill with pneumonia while visiting Seattle, spending three weeks in the hospital there. His sister Mabel closed her boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. and went to Seattle to care for him. Complications arose, and Wolfe was eventually diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis of the brain."
          I looked up "miliary tuberculosis": "Miliary tuberculosis is a form of tuberculosis that is characterized by a wide dissemination into the human body and by the tiny size of the lesions (1–5 mm). Its name comes from a distinctive pattern seen on a chest radiograph of many tiny spots distributed throughout the lung fields with the appearance similar to millet seeds—thus the term "miliary" tuberculosis. Miliary TB may infect any number of organs, including the lungs, liver, and spleen. Miliary tuberculosis is present in about 2% of all reported cases of tuberculosis and accounts for up to 20% of all extra-pulmonary tuberculosis cases."
          Since the brain isn't mentioned, I guess we are to infer that miliary tuberculosis of the brain is very rare

  5. I looked it up and now I know.

    eHow Health Conditions & Treatments Infectious Diseases What Is Tuberculosis of the Brain?
    What Is Tuberculosis of the Brain?
    By Faith Davies
    eHow Contributor




    Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs, but has the potential to affect other parts of the body. When tuberculosis infects the brain, it results in inflammation of the tissues that cover the brain and is called meningitis tuberculosis.

    1. Ha, you beat me to it with your own research! Thanks.