Several recent movies have tried to portray the excitement of artistic creation as it occurs. One is Michael Grandage’s Genius, about
the relationship and collaboration between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). Another is Morgan Neville’s The Music of Strangers, a
documentary about Yo-Yo Ma and how he recruited musicians from around the world to join his Silk Road Ensemble, a group dedicated to creating a universal musical language.
Both have points in their favor, but neither is entirely satisfactory.
Based on the biography of Maxwell Perkins by A. Scott Berg (who also has an executive producer’s credit for the film), Genius tells
the story of the combustible relationship between Perkins (Colin Firth) and the author who may well have been the most difficult he ever worked with, Thomas Wolfe (Jude
Law). Considering that the other writers Perkins edited included Ernest Hemingway (played by Dominic West in this film) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Guy Pearce), that
is saying something.
Wolfe burst in to Perkins’ office at Charles Scribner’s Sons one day in 1929 with part of the manuscript of his first novel, O Lost, which
had already been rejected by every other publisher in New York. Unlike the other editors, Perkins sees past Wolfe’s histrionic behavior to discern real talent in the
young man, and asks to see the full manuscript. In due course the manuscript arrives—in two packing crates.
Essentially, Genius is about how Perkins—a legendarily steady, patient and insightful editor—manages for a while to tame
the force of nature named Thomas Wolfe. Armed with cigarettes and glasses of bourbon, Perkins and Wolfe whittle the manuscript of O Lost into publishable length. Over Wolfe’s objections, Perkins suggests a new title: Look
Homeward, Angel. The resulting book becomes a bestseller and makes Thomas Wolfe a household name.
Scholars of Thomas Wolfe have generally been pleased with Genius. They agree that Firth and Law capture the personalities
of the men they play, and that screenwriter John Logan accurately depicts the dynamics of their working relationship and the circumstances under which they eventually became
estranged. They say that certain events in the film, such as Wolfe’s meeting with Fitzgerald in Los Angeles, probably never
happened. (Inventing scenes is common in biopics.) But they also say Perkins’ relationship with his wife Louise (Laura Linney)
is portrayed accurately, as is Wolfe’s volatile relationship with his mistress Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). They do note that
Kidman is vastly better-looking than the historical character she plays. (That too is common to biopics.)
But although Genius is a respectable film, it is not an exciting one. It has momentary bursts—yes, Wolfe really did write
standing at his icebox and toss the pages into a crate on the floor--but Perkins’ editing of Wolfe’s prose is no more scintillating
than similar scenes in a hundred previous films. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, which was released last year, kept us on the edge
of our seats as Brian Wilson (Paul Dano), in a white-hot burst of creativity, produced his greatest album, Pet Sounds. Genius never comes close to this exhilaration, though it does make
Wolfe and Perkins a believable creative team that also believably did not last.
Assisted by Ben Davis’ cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design, Grandage creates a muted, elegiac film that is
a fitting tribute to its protagonists. However, little things about the movie bothered me. In one scene, Wolfe takes Perkins to a
Harlem nightclub with an integrated audience. The first New York nightclub with an integrated audience was Café Society,
which was in Greenwich Village instead of Harlem and did not open until 1938, the year Wolfe died. In another scene, Wolfe
trashes a dinner party at Perkins’ house at which Fitzgerald and Zelda are also in attendance. Vanessa Kirby, the actress playing
the famously blonde Zelda, is a brunette.
There is another thing: of the actors playing these most American of historical characters, Firth, Law and West are
English, and Pearce is Australian. A number of critics have written disapprovingly of Hollywood’s current predilection for
casting British actors as American characters, diluting opportunities for actual Americans. Normally, having British
actors play Americans doesn’t bother me, but although I can’t fault the quality of the acting, the casting does give me pause here.
The Music of Strangers at least can boast of portraying its characters accurately, because they are the real people involved
in the Silk Road Ensemble. The film begins charmingly with Ma playing his cello in a public promenade, joined one by one by the
musical artists who make up the ensemble, all making joyous and invigorating music together.
Ma is one of the most ingratiating people on earth, and he makes a delightful tour guide through the process of creating the Silk
Road Ensemble, which he founded in 1998. Part of his inspiration, he explains, was the dislocation of his own life. A
child prodigy, Ma was given no choice in adopting the lonely, rigorous life of a touring musician. Eventually he found a sort of
salvation in the idea of Leonard Bernstein—with whom he appeared on a Young People’s Concert at age seven—to establish
music as a truly universal language, one that can promote world peace and brotherhood.
The movie then expands to other members of the ensemble: Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh; Kayhan Kalhor, Iranian virtuoso
of the kamancheh, a gourd-shaped stringed instrument dating from ancient Persia; Wu Man, considered the world’s greatest
performer on the pipa, China’s version of the lute; and Cristina Pato, bagpiper from Galicia, the Celtic province of Spain.
All of these musicians are household names in their home countries, and all of them are Ma’s equals as virtuosi. From the
excerpts we see and hear of their concerts, it is obvious they love and respect each other, and the music they make is thrilling.
Their life stories are just as compelling, and usually tragic. When we hear of Kalhor being forced to flee Iran more than once
during his lifetime, or of the sufferings of Wu Man’s family during the Cultural Revolution, we are hearing firsthand
testimony of the world’s insane cruelty. We see the Silk Road Ensemble as a group answer to that cruelty. We also see the
musicians’ individual efforts to reach out to victims of war and oppression, especially Azmeh’s visit to a Syrian refugee camp.
All of these people are so fascinating, and their stories so important, that I was dismayed to find myself squirming in my
seat about two-thirds of the way through The Music of Strangers. Morgan Neville simply tries to fit too much into the movie. By
the time he introduced a family of puppeteers in China, my attention span was showing serious signs of wear. A straight
concert film would have been more digestible, or else a straight biography of Ma or any of the Silk Road musicians. Kalhor, a
man of enormous dignity and charisma, or the buoyant and likable Pato would be especially fine subjects for a solo documentary.
From two films about literary and musical artists, we turn to a film that is certifiably a work of cinematic art, although very few
people have heard of it. Remember, a Canadian film directed by Atom Egoyan from a screenplay by Benjamin August, is one of
the best feature films ever made about the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer) and Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) are Auschwitz survivors who escaped to the U.S. At the beginning of Remember, Zev and Max are in an
assisted living facility. The two men are in opposite straits: Max is mentally sharp but confined to a wheelchair and an oxygen
tank; Zev is physically sound, but losing a little more of his memory every day to Alzheimer’s disease.
Zev’s wife Rose has just died, and this prompts Max to remind Zev of the promise he made. Through online research, Max has
uncovered the possible whereabouts of the Auschwitz guard who tortured Zev and Max and killed their families. He has learned
the guard emigrated to the U.S. under the false name Rudy Kurlander, and he has discovered the whereabouts of four Rudy
Kurlanders who came to the U.S. from Germany just after the war.
Zev promised Max that, once Rose had died, he would take a road trip to find the different Rudy Kurlanders, discover which
one was the Auschwitz guard, and kill him. Max has planned Zev’s journey down to the last detail—all his plane and bus
tickets, all his hotel bookings, even where he can buy a gun. He makes out a detailed itinerary and gives it to Zev, who must now
cling to it for dear life as he hunts his enemy.
Zev’s resulting odyssey is breathtakingly suspenseful, for many reasons. Not only does he face different perils at each
destination (especially from a neo-Nazi played ferociously by Dean Norris) but his precarious mental state leaves him
vulnerable to any unexpected problem. Even a spilled cup of coffee can cause catastrophe. (Egoyan has a bit of fun by casting
Bruno Ganz, the screen’s all-time-best Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, as one of the Rudy Kurlanders.) All of
this is made all the more compelling by Plummer’s powerful, subtly nuanced performance, which never lets us forget the dual
meaning of the word “remember” within the context of the film. The concept of remembrance comes especially into play with the
film’s shattering twist ending, which you will not see coming. In many ways Remember reminds me of another excellent
Canadian film, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, which also concerned a tragic journey of discovery, this time regarding the endless bloodletting in the Middle East.
Remember strikes me as a flat-out masterpiece. So why has it
been buried? Released in Canada in October 2015 and in the U.S. in March 2016, the film spent maybe a week in theaters, and the
few reviews it received were mostly tepid. Critics’ lists of the best films of the first half of 2016 have not mentioned it. At very
least it is award-worthy for Plummer’s performance and August’s screenplay, and I would also commend Egoyan’s
direction and the supporting performances of Landau and Norris. In any case, Remember is readily available on DVD and from Netflix, and I urge you to check it out.