How we use and abuse the word genius.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 9 2009 3:17 PM

Who Are You Calling Genius?

It's time to retire the term.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

I've been thinking about the question of genius lately. I received an invite to an early screening of Richard Linklater's new film, Me and Orson Welles, which is in one sense a meditation on genius. It re-creates a turning point in Welles' rise to genius-dom: his triumphant struggle to put his sensationally received Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar— done in modern dress, as if set in Mussolini's Rome—on Broadway in 1937.

And then, by chance, just before I saw the film, I'd found myself reading a curious—or anyway contrarian—take on genius in Lionel Trilling's 1952 introduction to Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, which argues that we should admire Orwell precisely because he's not a genius.

Orwell, Orson Welles—one fighting fascists in Catalonia, the other putting fascists onstage in New York the same year: freaky.

And then there's director Richard Linklater. One of the great satisfactions of my writing life is that my essay on his film Slacker is included in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion boxed DVD set of that offhandedly brilliant, deceptively philosophical (or is it philosophically deceptive) work of … genius? Do I think it's a work of genius? By a genius? It's not totally clear who we consider genius, these days.

Has the term been applied somewhat—or wildly (Tarantino?)—indiscriminately of late? And have the prerogatives of genius too often been used to excuse transgressions or mediocrity? ("Not his best work, but he's a genius!")

Those are precisely the questions—the nature of genius, the profligacy of genius, the questionable allowances made for genius—that are at the heart of Me and Orson Welles, which is perhaps Linklater's most ambitious film and is scheduled to be released this Thanksgiving. I think it will cause a stir. Oh, let's not be restrained: When I saw it, I found it amazing and moving.

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Chiefly because of Welles, his genius and his tragedy. The film celebrates the triumph of Welles' genius, but it also gives us a Welles who abuses the prerogatives of genius in ways we know will eventually cost him. The future casts a melancholy shadow over the proceedings.

Linklater's film, which is a loose adaptation of a fact-based novel about Welles by Robert Kaplow, is the rare piece of cinema that centers on a Grecian urn of the sort that inspired Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." (Linklater gets respect for that alone.) But I think the film suggests a relationship between Keats and his urn that's parallel to the one between Welles and Shakespeare. Welles (in his version of Caesar) and Keats (in his ode) celebrate Shakespeare and the urn, respectively: genius celebrating genius. Does that mean there is such a thing as primary and secondary genius? Though I can't see Keats as secondary in any way. The whole thing is complicated.

But that Keatsian urn shouldn't give you the wrong impression of Linklater's achievement. The movie is a full-blown, full-blooded, skillfully, noisily executed carnivalesque reincarnation of '30s New York. Linklater brings to this frenetic chaos an almost seamless sense of complex, multilevel storytelling. And it's an important story, not just for Welles but for theater and for Shakespeare.

Welles was on a mission. One senses he wanted to shake the world's theatergoers by the shoulders and make them aware of how urgent, how unimaginable, Shakespeare's genius was. One of the questions I asked in both my Hitler and Shakespeare books was the "exceptionalist question," which is at the heart of the genius question: On whom do we bestow the name? How profoundly must a "genius" transform our world?

Was Shakespeare on the continuum of other great writers, just at the furthest extreme of ordinary genius? Or was he in a realm of genius all his own that transcended the accomplishments of others? Was Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers, again on the extreme? Or did he occupy a hellish category of his own? Did he deserve the title "evil genius" for his satanic sculpting of history? I've sometimes thought that what separates the genius from the merely brilliant is just that: the creation of a realm apart.

But you could also argue that true geniuses transform the realm we live in. We never see the same way again after we see Picasso. How he creates, or re-creates, the world like a god.

Linklater's Welles flatters his actors by telling them, "You're a God-created actor." (One suspects the god he was referring to was as much himself as any Big Guy in the Sky.)

I was ready to concede Welles' genius the first time I saw it. I make the argument in my book that his production of Chimes at Midnight, his conflation of the two Henry IV plays (in which he plays Falstaff with a melancholy, Lear-like overtone), exemplifies how filmed Shakespeare can, anachronistically, in the hands of a genius, be more Shakespearean than most staged Shakespeare.

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