Genius is the kind of film literary buffs may like a lot more than we should. One reason for this, I’m guessing, is the rarity of the subject matter for a Hollywood production: literary lives. Specifically, the dynamic between editor and novelist. Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe are the central characters, with cameos from Fitgerald and Hemingway, two (more famous) authors Perkins also helped usher into world renown.
Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, with Jude Law as Wolfe, Laura Linney as Louise Perkins and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s patroness and lover. It may seem odd that most of the leads are British or Australian, and that the New York scenes were mostly filmed in Manchester and Liverpool, UK. Especially strange, perhaps, because Wolfe, the Asheville, North Carolina native, was quintessentially American, an important precursor for artistic movements like the Beats. They who lusted so for the “real America.” But it works. It works. And it’s funny at times, too, like when Wolfe’s second manuscript is hauled into Perkins’ office, a dozen or so piles of highly stacked hand-written pages, waiting for his no doubt tired eyes. Luckily for both Wolfe and Perkins, Scribners had a large staff of secretaries who worked tirelessly to change the hand-written pages into typed works, ready for the editor’s pen.
I liked that it showed how possessed with words Wolfe was, how he just couldn’t stop writing, couldn’t stop the flow of words, couldn’t sleep. It reminded me of Picasso and his manic painting, sculpting, myth-making, driven as if by demons to always make art. Wolfe died far too young, at the age of 37, to experience the fall off from that high, from the feeling that you can’t not make art. So he will always be for us at the pinnacle of that fever. All 6’5″ of him. It never broke for Wolfe. He likely never experienced the frozen emptiness of searching for a lost muse. But some of us have lived long enough for that, for the end of fevers and staying up all night, thrashing around inside our heads and hearts to focus the chaos and bring it out, reshaped, into the world.
For decades, it was conventional wisdom that Maxwell Perkins shaped Wolfe’s best (and first) novel, Look Homeward, Angel, into something coherent, accessible, a work of genius. But in recent times, some scholars have countered this by saying that the conservative Perkins cut far too much, and not always for valid reasons of aesthetics. If he thought something was offensive on religious grounds, or wasn’t patriotic enough, or might offend sports lovers, he cut it out. Which led a couple of scholars to bring out Wolfe’s original manuscript, with its original title, back in 2000. I haven’t read O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, yet, but it’s on my list. So I don’t really know if those scholars have a solid case against what Perkins did. The movie doesn’t take that angle, of course, being more concerned with giving Perkins his due. The argument seems strong that it’s time for this. Like a river flowing back to its (parental) source. It doesn’t have to be either/or, when it comes to art.