Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

tabloid-cityI enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.

Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.

It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.

Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon-filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.

tabloid-city-2Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.

Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.

Welcome to The Apple Crate

welcome-to-the-apple-crateOne of the most well-known results of Prohibition was the speakeasy. In total rebellion against the laws meant to curb crime and drinking, speakeasies popped up almost everywhere from 1920 to 1933. According to one article I researched while writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, for every legal saloon operating prior to Prohibition, at least six speakeasies opened after Prohibition. With all that temptation, it was understandable that John and his two best friends, Sam and Claude, would end up in one of the illegal establishments pushing the boundaries of youthful adventure.  Here’s what I discovered while creating The Apple Crate, a speakeasy located below a grocery store owned by a gangster of my inventing, Leo Jenkins.

Like legal establishments and today’s clubs, some speakeasies offered entertainment in the form of singing or jazz bands. Entry into the club required knowledge of a password letting the doorman, often the owner or manager of the club, know that you weren’t law enforcement and to keep the government from finding the location. A personal introduction or presenting of a card may also have been required to ensure security against raids.

The term speakeasy came from a bartending term. To speak easy meant to act casually so as not to draw attention to oneself with quick, nervous behavior when purchasing illegal alcohol. Terms used to conceal the identity of bootleg liquor included coffin varnish, monkey rum, white mule, horse liniment, panther sweat, tarantula juice, and rot gut. Not very appealing names for the barely drinkable booze served, but it didn’t keep people from seeking out alcohol every chance they had.

Speakeasies were also known as a blind pig or blind tiger, but these terms were reserved for lower class establishments. There is debatable history surrounding these names. One story claims that entertainment involving pigs resulted in the first name. People supposedly paid to see the pig and a drink was thrown in for free. Blind tiger was purportedly the name used when the identity of the seller was concealed.

While gaining access to a speakeasy required connections, locating one probably wasn’t as difficult. They were everywhere in America and Canada, usually set up in stores and businesses, operating right next to or within legal establishments. Speakeasies were most common in New York where the famed 21 club had the extra security measure of safety switches meant to short circuit and deny access to all the of the doors that contained alcohol.

Because respectable women weren’t welcome in a public bar prior to Prohibition, many started flocking to speakeasies after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. These women, easily recognized as flappers, would dance the night away to music performed by jazz bands.

Gangsters were often associated with speakeasies, the most famous being Al Capone, but luckily John and his friends didn’t encounter any during their night out. Hustling illegal liquor was an extremely profitable venture for gangsters, and many became quite wealthy at it. Unfortunately, many regular people also became rich by supplying the demands of thirsty Americans.

Some of the crazier methods of transport included hip flasks, hot water bottles, false books, garden hoses, carriages with babies placed on top, carpenter’s aprons, coconut shells, and in one interesting case, eggs. Supposedly, a creative soul emptied the eggs of their true contents and refilled them with liquor.

The interior of a speakeasy could range from the extremely elegant to an unsophisticated hole-in-the-wall. Depending on the success of a particular speakeasy, drinks might be served in appropriate barware or from chipped mugs. In either case, people ranging from the famous, wealthy, and artistic to the downtrodden streamed to speakeasies during Prohibition. The only thing that went away with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was the crime involved with selling alcohol. Well, most of it anyways.  (See:  By the Light of the Silvery Moon)

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