Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 11, 2016 5:21 am 
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Lterary bromance

Who is the "genius" in this movie? Whether it's the famous editor, Scribner's Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), his most untrammeled writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), or the latter plus Perkins' other famous proteges, Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) - or all of the above, is unclear. Problems with the title follow on concern, or perhaps just Yank jealousy, at seeing another American story taken over by Brits. Except for Laura Linney, playing Perkins' wife, all principal cast members are English (Firth and Law) or Australian (Pearce and Nicole Kidman, who plays Wolfe's rich married lover Aline Bernstein). But the real obstacle, for many, though I adjusted to it and despite reservations enjoyed the movie, is the swooshing, gestural performance of Jude Law, which one reviewer has called the worst of his career. He overdoes the Ashville, North Carolina drawl, which would work better if more understated in what is bound to seem an overblown performance. Wolfe after all was 6'6", a grandiose personality, a massively over-productive writer. His second manuscript, delivered to Perkins in his office after the moderate success of his first one, was 5,000 pages long. This was why the story is to be told: Wolfe and Perkins had to develop a symbiotic relationship that was to be as complex and dubious as the later one between short story writer Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Director Grandage is a notable man of the British theater. This film is in many ways theatrical more than cinematic. Besides the parings-down of factual detail common to movies made from history, one can imagine a lot of the scenes here working more logically from the distance of the stage.

There are scenes with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, which feel a bit spliced in, just to show Perkins did have important relationships with them too. What's left out, as has been pointed out by Richard Brody, who's dipped into the Berg biography, are more specific details (not so surprising) and the more collective nature of Wolfe's editorship at Scribner's (not so excusable). Clearly Wolfe was in many ways not a nice man. Brody points out his enthusiasm for Hitler was left out (also not so surprising; he might come out as a monster, out of historical context). Clearly Perkins was uptight (he never takes off his hat), and dismissive toward his wife's literary accomplishments, as Wolfe was toward his lover's; and Wolfe used up and discarded people, though he has a touching final moment of regret. All this may pass by too swiftly.

But it's good to have a pretty exciting movie about something so arcane, yet so crucial to cultural life, as the relationship between an editor and his writer. And what are we to make of Thomas Wolfe? Shouldn't we go back and read him, and not just the much-admired biography of Perkins by A. Scott Berg that inspired this film? I have never read Thomas Wolfe, passing over his four big novels on my parents' shelves as a youth. Too big; and he was already overshadowed by Hemingway, Faulkner, of course Fitzgerald, and others by then. But though neglected and undervalued today, Thomas Wolfe was not a literary star in the Thirties and Forties for nothing. He is clearly a massively exciting writer. His sensibility has been compared to Walt Whitman's. Should he be rediscovered? If this question excites you, see this movie and it may inspire you to look for Wolfe's grand autobiographical novels, Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River, edited during the passionate relationship between Perkins and Wolfe that mixed elements of deep friendship, mentoring, and fatherhood; and The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, edited posthumously by Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers.

Genius, 104 mins., debuted at the Berlinale, Feb. 2016; US theatrical release 10 June 2016. French release coming 27 June. UK release?

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