Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) going over the manuscripts together
Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and Georgette (Julianne Moore) plotting to trick John (Ethan Hawke) to go to a conference with Georgette (where Zizek is speaking! — John’s favorite) – two women plotting over worthless man
Dear readers and friends,
Reviews of Michael Grandage’s Genius (script Joshua Logan) haven’t been exactly ecstatic (come to think of it an embarrassing title); like the reviews of Rebecca Miller and Maggie’s Plan, we are told to rejoice that this is not another senseless alpha male action-adventure, or Marvel cartoon.
In her Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller has given us 2nd rate Woodie Allen (3rd rate is closer to the mark but would be unkind) from a story by Karen Rinaldi. It’s good-natured — mostly from the warmth and awareness Gert Getwig endowed her generous (all-giving) heroine with, but tepid in its unwillingness to make it clear what a self-indulgent narcissistic male is Ethan Hawke’s thankless John, whom the two women were supporting, giving themselves bodily to and fighting over. What did occur that revealed this (and other aspects of their lives) was then made nonsense of by a tacked-on sudden switch to your happy ending, nostalgic music to the fore, no not a wedding, but everyone happily ice-skating in Central Park. Maggie’s core is that of a woman’s film, the dream of a single woman to have a child without having to marry a man since she is not inclined to stay “in love” with anyone she meets, and the great joke that after all the prowess of John did not impregnate Maggie, some artificially inseminated sperm from a pickle dealer (Travis Fimmel) did. Critics have been unduly kind, though Roger Ebert’s continuing blog recognized tired romance.
Your falling in love scene
I concede it did not aggress at me, and there was occasionally some wry wisdom on display (Julie Delpy’s feminization of Allen, Two Days in Paris, was actually witty). At his best and in his prime Allen’s films made serious statements about American mores and culture (and recently he did one about British culture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). This movie represents an off-day, a retreat from her career thus far That Miller is daughter to Arthur Miller and his long-time photographer wife, Inge Morath, and her previous work might account for the critical “delight” in Maggie’s Plan. Maybe we are not meant to find the film pleasant but probably we are.
Genius (a seeming team effort) reminded me of Trumbo: a fine idea turned into a mainstream film where the character preach to one another in ways no one would in life, so that the audience can understand some subtle unusual ideas, ending in an inspirational moment: here after Wolfe’s death, a letter by Wolfe reaches Perkins where Wolfe thanks him. Suffragettes suffered from having been turned into a ratcheted up chase thriller. Two ostensibly art movies I’ve seen this summer (which will go unnamed) were insufferably pompous, over-produced, literally hard-to-follow, and sexed up in an misguided attempt to make them widely appealing commodities. The result: no one is pleased. Love and Friendship (click for my review), the third endurable film still playing at my local “better” movie theater, is a disappointing timid period drama. Women are going and men accompanying them because it’s billed as a Jane Austen film and looks and feels like what’s expected. It’s what PBS is not doing any more.
In Genius, there are no women authors even to be heard of. The mid-20th century is an era replete with great women writers. Perhaps Perkins didn’t edit any of them, but I can’t believe Scribner’s didn’t publish any. Not to mention even one in passing gives the falsity of the picture of publishing away. It’s a curiously empty story, as if the production people had insisted on few characters in order to have few actors to pay. The second woman in the film would not pass the Bechtel movie test either: no woman talks to another, and Nicole Kidman is another brittle possessive woman who has given all her to her man, including leaving her husband, and children and supporting him (as the women in Maggie’s Plan support their shared man). Prestige pandering (like the two supposed art films I saw earlier this season) is what Rolling Stone magazine accused this film of? But I see an insistent erasure of women which is unreal today.
Both films have spirited performances (as does Love and Friendship), Moore as the erudite professor:
Firth as usual scrupulously not over-acting a character presented as reserved without vicariously enacting, living out the passion he reads and crosses out (though his accent was not quite American)
with Laura Linney as his long-suffering, half-neglected but convincingly loving loyal wife (who writes plays which he seems not to publish)
Genius does have something more and so I recommend going (though don’t drive major distances) before it disappears (rapidly I fear) from theaters. What you will see are characters genuinely concerned to make good books. No small thing. The film-makers dare to make the process of revision of a gargantuan text to a recognizable “classic” central to the plot-design. Logan’s script make the inner psychology of authors however simplified the story –cameo appearances of a depressed Scott Fitzgerald, desperately woebegone Zelda, Hemingway as the apparently firm male icon whose self-control doesn’t require editing. the story.
The relationship of Wolfe with the famed editor, Maxwell Perkins is proverbial (I suppose that’s why the film was dared in the first place): Perkins was far more ambitious and driving than appears in the film (though we see how beautifully paid he is by the mansion he lives in, and well-educated comfortable lives he is providing for seven daughters), while Wolfe’s madly self-enthusiastic fits (as enacted by Jude Law) are said to have happened: he would burst from his apartment, wild with pleasure from something he had written, and run downstairs to the street to tell passers-by of his joy, maybe share the passage. The profit motive is there: Perkins is cutting and shaping Wolfe’s manuscripts so they will be coherent and sell, but he is not re-making them, not demanding they be other than they are, say another genre, in a different mood, with language smoothed out to be easy — which is what editors demand of authors before they will even accept a script for consideration that a film whose aesthetic core is a belief in the effectiveness and staying power of beautifully written, (we have to take this on credit) visionary poetic prose is not to be overlooked. And Firth and Linney were convincing as a couple who understood why they were living the way they did and valued high literary careers and considerate behavior to other people and one another. I felt uplift and cheered in a way Maggie’s Plan failed at (though Maggie’s Plan was trying ever so hard as Genius was not) and finally not disappointed.
I went home and read for the first time the chapter in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds [on American prose writers of the 20th century, one chapter only on women] about Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the first of whom I’ve never read and Faulkner I dislike very much (violent, like Flannery O’Connor something mean-spirited there). I took a course in American literary naturalism and the 1920s and as a result since then have read and liked Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Elinor Wylie, Ambrose Bierce. I felt Hemingway all about broken American males and not much more, though “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is a story which hits centrally at American myths; Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby also, but over-assigned to students and read because it’s so slender. Jim did not read much American literature: I remember him reading e.e. cummings, Truman Capote, American historians and contemporary essayists; mostly he turned to British and European writers. So I have in my house only a few books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and of Wolfe only an old copy of a old-fashioned 50 cent paperback (New American Library, Signet) of Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously by Harper, with another editor shaping and cutting).
I found this: Kazin says like other male American writers he admires so much: as did Henry Miller (this appallingly bad writer is discussed seriously by Kazin), Melville, Whitman, Saul Bellow (Kazin’s chapter on two American women writers shows he has little use for them as they are apolitical — he does not understand Ellen Glasgow or Willa Cather), “Just so did Wolfe burn himself out trying to bring all the rivers, sights, sounds, pleasures, torments, books in America within a single compass of the long long novel he wrote all his life. Just so did he express his final contempt in You Can’t Go Home Again, for ‘the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool mockery, fool-stylism, and fool hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten and a fool'” (468). The world is the enemy. Genius left out Wolfe’s frantic critique and self-ironic disillusionment: all we were told (by one of the two women. perhaps Linney as Mrs Perkins) is Wolfe is searching for a father, and Perkins a son (pop psychology).
Several things are going badly wrong with better films in the movie-houses this summer. In the three mentioned disrespect for the audience (at least 50% women), failures of nerve, and a curious indifference to the very matter (Wolfe’s text, Maggie and her baby, Lady Susan’s inhumanity) chosen to be filmed.