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.

Dear Scott, Sincerely HL

Dear Scott,

I was looking at my calendar and realized I haven’t read anything written by you or about you since December of last year.  Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have if my reading group facilitator hadn’t chosen The Great Gatsby as the July selection.

So yes, I finally read The Great Gatsby, and I must say a better title would have been Gatsby’s Folly.  My critique is probably going to sound quite harsh when I say I didn’t find anything particularly great about the character of Jay Gatsby or the story in general.  Certainly nothing new or exciting.  While Gatsby is heralded as your most successful novel, it was more of the same themes you wrote about repeatedly in many of your other works.

For this reason, my opinion of your writing hasn’t changed.  If you’re interested to know what those opinions are, because we’ve never discussed them in our correspondence, you may read them.  (Under the Influence & F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories)  If your agent and editor were alive today, they should be fired for letting you get away with this.  Then again, kudos for convincing them and the public that they were reading new material.  Well played, I suppose, but really Scott, you had such potential and could have done better.

Some minor issues I have with the novel include your pet word problem (in this book it was violent), the ridiculous names you assign your characters, the clichéd racist comments and characters, and your overuse of –ly adverbs.  Perhaps the prohibition on –ly adverbs being taught to writers today would surprise you, and we might actually find ourselves on the same side in regards to the issue.

Another way Gatsby is no different from your other works is that right on cue you presented characters that attended Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, played football, were “old money” or “new money,” and pursued the “top girl.”  All things you wanted for yourself.  Quit writing so much of yourself into your novels and short stories.  It comes across like a pathetic, autobiographical cry for help.

To write novels that are supposedly commentaries on the 1920s yet accept no responsibility for the debauchery that took place is imprudent.  You weren’t an innocent bystander, Scott; rather you were a major contributor to the post-war era of exploring new freedoms and sexuality.  We both know if you could have obtained the wealth and power that would have made you equal in the minds of those considered “old money,” you would have jumped at the chance feet first.  If we’re to believe you meant your novels as warnings, then I must ask what kind of person doesn’t heed his own advice?  A fool, I’d say.

On the up side, you may be pleasantly pleased to know that your unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, is being made into a series for television.  Too little, too late, wouldn’t you say?  Still, your name is being kept alive on people’s lips, so at least the fame you always craved is there.

As for the collection of your unpublished short stories, I’d Die for You, I admit that my opinion toward you softened somewhat when I discovered the stories didn’t sell because per Scribner, “Rather than permit changes and sanitising by his contemporary editors, Fitzgerald preferred to let his work remain unpublished, even at a time when he was in great need of money and review attention.”  Finally, you’re standing up for your work and not just trying to turn a quick buck.

But let’s not end on a bitter note, shall we, Scott?  I keep reading your work in the hopes that one piece will redeem you in some fashion if for no other reason than to thumb your nose at Ernest who deserves it.  Besides, I don’t want to keep feeling sorry for you.  I’d like to find a way to extend you some forgiveness for ruining your own career.  With that being said, I’m probably going to buy I’d Die for You.  I fear you shan’t see a penny from the sale.

All my best to Zelda and Scotty.

Sincerely,

HL Gibson

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