Movie Review: Genius, directed by Michael Grandage

filmposter

There is a scene towards the end of Michael Grandage’s film Genius where Scott Fitzgerald (played by Guy Pearce) is in Hollywood, drinking Coca-Cola and working hard on The Last Tycoon.  He has failed and given up on screenwriting, he is trying to keep his drinking in check, and he is hopeful for his new work. I mention this because it is the fourth time I have seen (or read about) this moment in the last two months. It is a pivotal point in Fitzgerald’s short life, and Fitzgerald and his world certainly seem to be “trending” these days. (A film version of The Beautiful and Damned is now in production; Z: The Beginning of Everything is airing now on Amazon; and Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset hit the shelves in the spring.)

Genius is about Fitzgerald’s world. He is only a minor figure — borrowing money, taking care of Zelda, scolding Thomas Wolfe for ingratitude.  Hemingway (Dominic West) also puts in a brief appearance and when he does, he seems the most pragmatic of the lot.

But Genius is not the story of these two giants of American letters. It is the story of their editor Max Perkins, and his overlarge, prolix client Thomas Wolfe.

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Colin Firth as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Michael Grandage’s Genius

Genius is based on A. Scott Berg’s book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and concentrates primarily on his relationship with and molding of Thomas Wolfe. And while the book title implies that Perkins was the editor of men of genius, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the film leaves one wondering whether it was Perkins who was the genius after all.

Wolfe (Jude Law) explodes into Perkins’ office at Scribner’s, expecting to have his manuscript rejected by yet another New York publisher. When Perkins (Colin Firth) informs him that they want to publish him, a very close and productive relationship begins.

Wolfe is overlarge in his personality and writing, and Jude Law plays this for all it’s worth, chewing up every scene he is in, which is the majority of the film. His gregarious, boiling over energy is in stark contrast to Perkins whom Colin Firth plays with reflective gravity and business-like rigidity. The contrast seems as if it would sabotage the relationship, but it does not.

There are other issues buried much deeper.

When Wolfe first comes to Scribner’s, he is being supported and promoted by his lover, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who quickly becomes jealous of Perkins’ influence on and success with Wolfe. Perkins’ wife Louise (Laura Linney) also is concerned with the amount of time that her husband is spending with his new client; (He needs to spend time, Wolfe’s second novel is over 5000 pages long when he brings it to Perkins.) She counters his argument that only once in a lifetime comes such a writer as Wolfe with the fact that only once in a lifetime will he have his daughters around him.

His responsibility to Wolfe overrides her logic.

But it is hinted at that there is a deeper foundation to Wolfe and Perkins relationship. For Wolfe, Perkins has become a father-figure, replacing the father that he lost when he was a young man and who he has been writing about ever since through two very large novels. For Perkins, Wolfe was the son he never had.

And like many father-son relationships, there has to come a break, when the son feels he must strike out on his own. When Wolfe makes this break, we know it will not end well.

Genius is a wordy film, as any film about Thomas Wolfe needs to be. It is hampered, perhaps by scenes of writing and editing, scenes that never translate well to the screen, and by the melodrama of Wolfe’s and Bernstein’s affair.

Editing

Perkins and Wolfe (Firth and Law) editing Of Time and the River

But it is an honest film, built on the back of Colin Firth’s nuanced, quiet performance. Allowing Law’s Wolfe to rage and celebrate and orate and revel, Firth’s Perkins builds a quiet portrait of a feeling man, conscientiously doing the job he loves and loving the man who is his job.

 

 

Filmed in a palate of brown and greys (contrasted brightly when Wolfe visits Fitzgerald in Hollywood), it is a film about words not images. About a man of so many, many words, Genius is a tragic view into the blistering comet that was Thomas Wolfe. More importantly, it is the story of Max Perkins, the man who burnished Wolfe’s blazing talent for the world to know and  remember.

 

 

Book Review: West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

Sketches - 296

“American Dreamer” 2016 by jpbohannon

In the May 17th issue of The London Review of Books, the historian Michael Wood asked this question about two current jazz biopics–Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue:

“Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden?”

While he was talking about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, the subjects of the two films he was reviewing, there are scores of others to whom we can reference.

And probably no greater example is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Always with high ambitions, Fitzgerald burst onto and into the literary scene in 1920 when he was merely 23 years old with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The first printing sold out in three days, but more importantly it allowed him to marry Zelda Sayer–who a year earlier had broken off their engagement when she considered he couldn’t support her in the style she was used to.  They married a week after publication.

The Fitzgeralds’s fame was as pyrotechnic as the ‘twenties themselves.  More than the fact that Fitzgerald’s stories  were regularly appearing  in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s (and were providing Scott with a very handsome income), their lives were the stuff of tabloids and gossip, of excess and extravagance.

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Scott and Zelda on the French Riviera/gettyimages

He was the King of “the Jazz Age” (a term that he coined) and Zelda was the Queen of the Flappers. Their escapades in New York, in Paris, in Rome, in the South of France were the stuff of legend. They burned brightly and largely.

In deed and in myth, the Fitzgeralds put the “roaring” into the “Roarin’ Twenties.”

But then like the decade itself, it all came to a crashing halt. Each of Fitzgerald’s subsequent novels were less and less successful. The Great Gatsby garnered little critical or commercial attention and Tender is the Night even less so. Beset by  financial problems–exacerbated by his alcoholism, deteriorating health, and Zelda’s mental instability–Fitzgerald focused on writing “commercial stories” for the drying-up magazine market. Ultimately he headed to Hollywood, contracted to write screenplays for MGM.

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Cover of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

And it is here, just as he is about to leave for the West Coast, that Stewart O’Nan picks him up in West of Sunset, a poignant re-telling of Fitzgerald’s last three years.

 

It would not be a spoiler to say that the main character–F.Scott Fitzgerald–dies in the end. At 44 years of age. Nor to say that Dorothy Parker has the best lines (e.g. “She’s slept with everyone in Hollywood except Lassie.”) This is all common knowledge or is expected by anyone slightly aware of the literary world of the 20s and 30s.

But what is not commonly realized or considered or witnessed is the emotional pain, the loss of confidence and the genuine anguish that Fitzgerald suffered in those final three years of his life. This we glean from reading West of Sunset.  In O’Nan’s novel we see a Fitzgerald struggling financially–his wife’s sanitarium fees and his daughter’s tuition are constants–as well as struggling with the seeming inanity of Hollywood productions and his own demons. Getting a “screen-credit” is essential and far too often projects are cancelled, rewritten beyond recognition, or given to another writer–writers that a once confident Fitzgerald had looked down upon at the height of his career. (Ultimately, he ended up with only one screen credit.)

At first, I felt that O’Nan was taking the easy road.  Characters such as Hemingway and Bogart, both who enter the story early–are overlarge and don’t need much development. But they get it anyway. Bogart proves to be  a good friend though an enabler to Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. (Despite Fitzgerald’s having split Bogart’s lip in a fight long before the book begins.)  And Hemingway, enters the story early, asks a favor of Fitzgerald, and disappears, though never quite gone from Fitzgerald’s mind. We see the struggling and “washed-up” Fitzgerald, often wondering about Hemingway’s reaction to something he did or did not, to his successes and his screw-ups. The Hemingways and Bogarts, the Shirley Temples and Joan Crawfords, the Selzniks, Mankiewiczes, and Mayers, they are all extras, mere shades flitting by as Fitzgerald battles against the currents of rejection, failure,  physical weakness and his past. Even Sheilah Graham, the strongest and most able of those around him, could not get close enough to save him from himself.

F. Scott Fitgerald and Sheila Graham

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham/Princeton University Library

I anticipated –and enjoyed–the Hollywood gossip and the “inside” view of the golden days of the big studios, but what O’Nan has done so well in West of Sunset was to capture Fitzgerald as he struggled to deal with his wife Zelda’s madness, his daughter’s growing independence, his love affair with Sheilah Graham, and  his debilitating alcoholism. (It seems every time that Fitzgerald leaves Hollywood to visit Zelda back East, he returns either sick or beaten-up as a result of his excesses.)

In the end, the novel is not solely about a famous American artist who burned out and died early. That story is almost hackneyed. (Take your pick, David Foster Wallace, Robert Bolaño, John Kennedy Toole. The list goes on for much too long.)  Instead, it is a moving portrait of a man, a talented man, trying to keep his head above water while the world–and the fading hope of the American Dream– keeps dragging him under.

At times, O’Nan’s prose is evocative of Fitzgerald at his very best. The keen observations,  the golden descriptions, the accurate judgement is richly reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s writing. But O’Nan is no mere parodist, and West of Sunset is not a pastische. It is a wonderful novel–it would have been wonderful even if we didn’t know the protagonist so well.  As the writer George Saunders described the book, it is “one brilliant American writer meditating on another.” And that is very true.  O’Nan’s West of Sunset is intelligent, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a novel that echoes in one’s mind over and over again.

•       •       •       •       •       •       •

This spring I have thought a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have taught Gatsby in three separate courses,  I have read Fitzgerald’s notebooks written during the last years of his life, and I have read Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset. (This all sounds more deliberate than it actually was–more coincidence than good planning.)

So much has Fitzgerald and Zelda and Sheila Graham, and Gatsby and Daisy and Nick Carraway been on my mind these days, that I have come to see our spring itself as a mirror of Fitzgerald’s career. Spring 2016 started out unseasonably warm in March, with records high temps, middled off in April, and has been abysmally cold and wet through most of May. It has followed the arc of Fitzgerald’s life.

However, the exception is that after his death, both he and his works have skyrocketed in estimation and entered the pantheon of American Literature.

Who knows what this summer will bring.

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway as a young man.   illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Hemingway as a young man.
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The most gaping hole in my formal education is a lack of courses in American Literature. In undergraduate and graduate school combined, I had taken only one course in American lit. My understanding is mostly self-directed–and often spurred on by the requirements of teaching American Lit survey courses for many years. Certainly, I know the school classics: The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury.

And as a reader, I have discovered on my own Vonnegut and Pynchon, Heller and Elison, Mailer, Roth and Updike. And from my friends I have learned to love DeLillo, Wallace, and Johnson.  But I know there are gaps.

I took a tour, a few weeks back of Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West. I respect and admire Hemingway’s short stories–and often teach them in writing classes for their craft–and have fond memories of reading The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast,  but I never read much else. Anyway, the tour guide told us that it was here in the Key West house that Hemingway wrote a large portion of his work, in particularly A Farewell to Arms, which he stated is considered Hemingway’s greatest work. (Remember, he is a tour-guide, not a literary critic.)

And so I decided to give it a try. And to be truthful, in the beginning, it was slogging read at times.

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

First Edition of A Farewell to Arms

In brief, the novel is the semi-autobiographical story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, working for the Italian army during World War I, who is wounded, falls in love with his nurse, impregnates her and sneaks across the border with her into neutral Switzerland. There are pieces that are perfect Hemingway: the army’s long retreat, the Swiss countryside in winter, the view from a hotel room. These passages are clear and distinct and one can almost imagine Hemingway speaking them himself.

What one cannot imagine is anyone speaking the dialogue that Hemingway has given his characters to speak. The dialogue among the soldiers is stilted–but I thought perhaps that was intentional as the narrator is an American and the conversation is between him and his Italian comrades. But the conversation between the lovers–between Frederick and Catherine–is downright embarrassing.

Perhaps, it is dated. But I do not believe so. The dialogue in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby published four years earlier in 1925 is not as silly or inane. This can’t be how people talked 75 years ago. Perhaps, Hemingway is trying to capture the coded, playful language that lovers often engage in privately. Well if so, it should have remained private. While Catherine Barkley is a strong woman–a British nurse working in the Italian theater of war–when she speaks she sounds infantile and ditzy, hardly the type that Henry would fall for.

But then, perhaps, it is just me, the reader, far past the ages of the protagonists, a little bit wiser (one hopes) and a little bit more jaded.

And yet, having said all that, the slogging read and the cloying dialogue are more than made up for in the last chapter. It is here that Hemingway elevates the novel to something different, something larger. It succeeds not merely because of the drama–which in lesser hands would have become melodrama–but because of  the craft. The language is pared down–like Joyce had taught him–and there is simply life, death, man and woman. It doesn’t get more basic than that. In the end we admire Frederic Henry more than before–I found him hard to like or take seriously throughout much of the book– and we admire Hemingway too. We admire what he is doing and we understand how this novel placed Hemingway in the pantheon of American authors.

Hemingway famously once claimed that he rewrote that last chapter 39 times. Well, then it is a good advertisement for revision, for it is so superior to everything else.

The novel was an instant–and huge–success.  Within a year of its publication a dramatization was staged and in 1932 Hollywood released a major film of the novel, featuring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.  In 1957, a second film was made, this time starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.

I have seen neither, and I won’t search for them. It is Hemingway’s language and style that is the star of A Farewell to Arms, not the story.  And much of that would be lost in film.

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1932 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

Movie Poster for 1957 film

The Hemingway House, Key West

Hemingway House, Key West Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway House, Key West
Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

I have always had a love/hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For a long time, all the machismo got in my way: the big game hunting, the bull fighting, the boxing, the boasting, the egoism, all seemed to be compensating for something, a sense of insecurity perhaps, to put it in simplest terms.

And yet, I love his writing. It is pure and clean and powerful and elemental. I can still feel the the visceral punch in  “Indian Camp” when the father removed the blanket from the young husband in the upper bunk. Or, the pared-down, gradual dawning of realization in reading “Hills Like White Elephants” or the existential abyss yawning at the end of a “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

It’s been a while since I read one of the novels. I remember A Sun Also Rises fondly. The damaged romanticism of  Jake Barnes, the alluring aloofness of Brett Ashley, the thirsty landscape of Spain are all still vivid in my mind despite how long ago I last read it. And while critics claim A Farewell to Arms to be the better written novel, The Sun Also Rises remains more important to me.  (A colleague just last month called it the worst novel written in English! Oh well.)

And so, with this ambivalence about Hemingway, I visited his home while in Key West in early June.

The home is extraordinary–and rich in story and history.

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The front of the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street in Key West. Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

In the 1930s, Hemingway moved to Key West with his second wife–Pauline Pfeiffer–whose uncle purchased the house on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. And although, Hemingway claimed that he was “restless” in Key West, at this house he wrote a great deal of what would be his most important work.

The house is a two level structure built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a successful architect and salvager, and the Hemingways bought it in 1931.  Today, the home is an Historic Site and remains filled with the Hemingways’ furniture and artifacts.  Throughout each room are both original furnishings and memorabilia–posters of movies made from his novels, photos of Hemingway at various stages of his life, of his family, and of various celebrities and writers. The bed in the master bedroom is actually two double beds that Hemingway wired together and the headboard is a gate made of Spanish mahogany that Hemingway and his wife had seen in a monastery in Spain.  A bench in the foyer is from the same monastery.

Hemingway's Writing Studio in Key West Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway’s Writing Studio in Key West
Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Behind the main house is a “carriage house” in which Hemingway had built a writing studio on the second floor.  In order to ensure his privacy, Hemingway had a wrought-iron catwalk stretched across the patio from the bedroom to his studio.  This was the only means in and out.  Today, the catwalk has been taken down and there is a narrow stairway from the patio to the studio door.  It is an ideal working space.

The house also has a large pool–the first ever in Key West.  Hemingway and Pauline had wanted to build a pool, but cost was prohibitive.  They had bought the house for $8000 dollars, but building a pool in the remote Keys was expensive. Instead, Hemingway built a regulation sized boxing ring. Much to Pauline’s dismay, her dream of lounging poolside had given way to a ring side seat to her husband’s sparring bouts.

However, Pauline got her way (and ultimately the house itself).  Hemingway had started an affair with the writer Martha Gelhorn, and the two of them had met up in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War.  When Pauline caught wind of the tryst, she promptly had a over-sized pool built–at the cost of $20,000, two and half times the cost of the house.

When Hemingway returned he was none too pleased.  In one gesture of comeuppance, he dragged a urinal from what was then Sloppy Joe’s (and is now Captain Tony’s) which had been thrown curbside during renovations, and brought it home as a watering trough for his many cats. As he told his wife, “you have your pool, and now I have mine.”

And it is the cats that retain their residency.  Hemingway loved cats, particularly 6-fingered, “polydactyl” cats. He believed them to be good luck. There are countless photos of Hemingway with them–while he wrote and while he lounged. (Apparently, they were the only others who had access to his studio.) Today, all of the 48 or so cats on the property are descendants of Hemingway’s cats–and all of them carry the gene for the polydactyl mutation.

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property. photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property.
photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

But after the cats and the pools and the writing studios, after the womanizing, the wives, and the bluster, after the houses and the legends and the suicide, what we are left with in the end is the writing.  As I said earlier, it is pristine and clear and purposeful.  Hemingway was a great reviser, mostly paring down and paring down to the very essence of what he wanted to say. As he famously told an interviewer, the hardest part is getting the words right:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)

Beware of Maya: Illusion, Cary Grant, Wes Anderson and Owen in Paris

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Towards the end of Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the elderly Moustafa (played by F. Murray Abrahams) says this about his mentor, the concierge M. Gustav H.:

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”

And this reminded me of Cary Grant.

I saw three movies this week. And oddly–and not purposefully– they dovetailed into a similar theme.  I was sick as a dog in the beginning of the week and so, lazing around, I  watched two films on television.

The first was To Catch a Thief.  How gloriously campy it now seems.  Cary Grant’s ascots alone are only outdone by the sweet innuendos that he and Grace Kelly ad-libbed with Hitchcock’s permission.

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

It is all pure fantasy. Pure illusion.

One time, when Cary Grant was told by an interviewer that countless men would love to be “like Cary Grant,” he replied that so would he.  For he knew it was all illusion: the sophisticated banter, the artless seductions, the calm equanimity.  It was his job, being Cary Grant.  In the end, Grant ultimately left the movie business when the illusion gave way to reality. His type of character–as unreal as it was–was no longer in fashion in the gritty, realism of modern cinema.

A few days later I watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The entire movie is built on illusion, one that we all suffer from. The plot deals with the idea that we all believe that an earlier time was more exciting, more inspiring, more fulfilling.  The fallacy of the belief is wonderfully depicted, as Owen Wilson’s character–Gil Pender–returns to the 1920s and falls in love with a beautiful woman whose dream is to live in the 1890s. Even in the presence of his literary and artistic idols, Wilson’s character comes to realize that the past is painted with gold dust and that our image of that past is greatly unreal.

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Owen Wilson with Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

And in the end, it is all illusion. Many of us believe that another time was better than the one we live in. And some believe that, if only, they had been born at a different time their lives would be so much different–and better. (At this point read, E. A. Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” which is referenced in the film as well.)

And so, I finally go out and go to the movies and I see Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Grand Hotel.  It is a beautiful movie to look at and the performances of Ralph Fiennes and his young protege, Tony Revolori, are extraordinary.  But it too is all illusion. The world it describes is long gone, if it ever existed at all. And the heroism of the film–if it can be called such–is that Fiennes’ character maintains the illusion that that world still exists, still matters. And we are even more removed from it than he.

And after all that is what movie making is about.  Sixty years ago, Cary Grant left movie making because he believed the magic had left, that hard-nosed grittiness had blown the magic away.

But that is not the case.  Most of the time, we still go to the movies for the magic. Whether it is the unreal pleasures of the moneyed classes in Monte Carlo or the time-tripping adventures of a sincere romantic in Paris, the movies still provide a good dollop of magic. And in The Grand Budapest Hotel all that magic comes full circle. For not only is the set and the landscape and the costumes and the cartoonish villainy not part of our real world, but even the characters themselves are clinging to an illusion, to a world that has longed passed, but which in our “Golden Age” memories is a thing of refinement, class and excitement…more civilized world than the one we know.