“That’s a very long paragraph.” “It started four pages ago.” Genius (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Creativity is as delicate and fragile as a piece of spun glass. The very act of opening your soul and sharing your deepest expression with strangers is one of absolute bravery and complete foolhardiness. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that so astutely captures the death-defying nausea of creative expression as the movie Genius (now on DVD and streaming) does.

Taking its cue from the critically acclaimed autobiography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, the film (directed by Michael Grandage and written by John Logan) details the celebrated, though relatively unknown, editor’s relationship with nascent author Thomas Wolfe, arguably most famous for the roman a clef Look Homeward, Angel. Perkins also worked with acclaimed authors F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by a soulful Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (a cheeky Dominic West), both of whom make appearances in the film as a sort of Ghosts of Christmas Past/Present finger-wagging Greek chorus.

You see, Wolfe, as deftly portrayed by Jude Law (suffering only for being a good foot shorter than the real Wolfe) had an outsized personality, as deep-feeling, purple, and egomaniacal as his prose. Law offers us a Wolfe as lovable as he is insufferable, a bounding puppy dog infatuated with his own observations and the thousands of scribbled pages he cranks out by hand.

Perkins, depicted by Colin Firth in one of his most nuanced and affecting performances to date, is the only editor willing to take a chance on this wild- haired North Carolinian Id. Working for Scribner and Sons, Perkins’ job is to take self-indulgent clay and cajole it into popular art. Perkins’ track record was without compare, including shepherding The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, among other classic works.

Firth gives us a peek into the kind of temperament willing to work within a mental health spectrum that might drive lesser humans to drink. The quiet, eccentric joy he gleans from coaching authors to find their voices in a way that connects with readers is subtle, gracious, and moving. (I suspect Firth could make a movie about stamp-collecting that would be transporting.) At one point, one of Perkins’ daughters peering over her father’s shoulders at Wolfe’s manuscript queries, “That’s a very long paragraph.” He replies dryly, “It started four pages ago.”

Law and Firth are aided and abetted by a supporting cast that includes Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman as their respective partners in life, both of whom have creative ambitions of their own, chiefly in the theater. What the film gives us in this quartet is a foursome at varying stages of acceptance and frustration that no art exists in a vacuum and that our success in life, reaching the broadest audience possible with our ideas, requires painful compromise and the occasional deal with the devil.

I suppose I am acutely sensitive to this fact because, as I get older, I watch my theater company evolve and grow and encompass new, younger talents, and I am potentially displaced. And, professionally, as I leave one job with a beloved set of colleagues this fall for a new opportunity, I am trying to adjust my own outsized personality to a new culture, seeking acceptance for the work I’ve done before and the work I have yet to accomplish. I believe this film will speak to anyone engaged in creative endeavors or working in corporate America or both. The question is whether you see yourself more as Wolfe, an  extroverted sensualist seeking the approval of mankind for the emotions worn so proudly on one’s sleeve? Or are you a Perkins, stifling your own creative ambitions, in servitude to inspiring the best in others, putting life on hold in the off-chance magic will occur through collaboration? I’m still working on that question for myself, but I’m grateful to this film for posing it.

Are you a writer or an editor? I guess that is for each of us to decide.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.