Sunday, November 27, 2016

Two "True Stories" on Film

I watch a lot of movies via Netflix. This week two recent ones, one from 2015, "The Man Who Knew Infinity," is billed as based on a true story; so is the more recent British production of New York publishing, "Genius."

Many viewers might have scant interest in the relation of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and the overblown writer Thomas Wolfe. But being a writer curious about both, and about their relationship, I was intrigued to see British actors capture some of the spirit of New York in the Thirties, even if  many of the scenes are needlessly dark and rainy.

Colin Firth as the quiet, hardworking Perkins asks the key literary question: When does the work of an editor become a collaboration? He is concerned about his role in altering and taking responsibility for the fiction of Wolfe.

Apart from the father-son (or bromantic) relationship of the older editor with the younger, hard-drinking and notoriously wordy Wolfe (Jude Law), both Perkins' wife and Wolfe's mistress resent the time and creative energy that Perkins devotes to shaping and changing the huge piles of words Wolfe produces into the huge novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."  So for me the question is, who is the genius is this movie?

I get no clue to Perkins' inner life from the always reticent Firth, whereas Wolfe is larger than life and easy to understand (in Law's great performance).  How did Perkins manage to deal with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, both difficult, while being obsessed with the obsessive and compulsive Wolfe? And what did he see in Wolfe's undisciplined, unreadable work (so different in style from the other two masters)? I also wonder what point the producers of the movie had in mind--especially for non-writers.

I have no such doubts about the other film, with Dev Patel as a young Indian man, a mathematical genius, who leaves his young wife behind in 1913 to work with England's leading mathematician, played memorably by Jeremy Irons. I like the contrast between the older scholar's skeptical atheism and Patel's mystical belief in intuition: he believes that every equation reflects the mind of God. And Irons's character seems almost persuaded that this might be true.

The story is moving, as "Genius" is not, and sad in ways I won't mention. Having spent a summer at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the action occurs, and having been an academic who clings to religious belief, I naturally gravitate to this story.

How true (historically accurate) these stories are I have no idea; suffice it to say they are based on biographical reality; one of them ("The Man Who") is true to the human heart, which is what counts in the end.

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