ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
GENIUS IN FILM
Oct. 16, 1998
The term "genius" is tossed around regarding filmmakers as though filmmaking were an obvious and logical route for geniuses to pursue. It is applied to Steven Spielberg so frequently, it might as well be his middle name. If we accept the definition of genius as: "Extraordinary intellectual power" (as per Webster), then I’d say without any hesitation that Mr. Spielberg is not only not a genius, he’s not an intellect of any kind. He is, however, quite adept at the technical aspects of filmmaking, and he’s made a lot of money. In this day and age success seems to masquerade as genius, but it’s not and never will be.
The only real geniuses to ever work in motion pictures (in my humble, though thoughtful, opinion), people who changed the medium they were working in, were: Thomas Edison, D. W. Griffith and Orson Welles, and I’d honestly say that that’s it. The history of cinema can be seen in its entirety from "Fred Ott’s Sneeze," the first copyrighted motion picture made by Edison in 1894, through "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, wherein D. W. Griffith invented the entire language of cinema, to "Citizen Kane" in 1941 and "The Magnificent Ambersons" in 1942, where Welles took the concept of visual, intelligent, cinematic storytelling as far as anyone has taken it so far. Since then, movies have gotten bigger, wider, longer and louder, but they haven’t gotten any better.
Nobody will argue that Edison was a genius, since he was able to conceive ideas that no one else on this planet had ever come up with. He was much more of a practical genius than an intellectual one, which is not to take anything away from his astounding accomplishments. However, as Nikola Tesla said of Edison after being employed by him for one year (1882-83), "If Edison has a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search." (I believe this was said with utter disdain by a man who was himself a genius, and was probably thinking about alternating current powering a giant electromagnet to find that needle.)
D.W. Griffith was of exactly the same ilk as Edison, a practical genius, although certainly not in Edison’s league. Griffith was never considered an intellect by anyone who ever knew him. He was obviously a very bright, ambitious man, with highly questionable politics, who cranked out innumerable movies for about 20 years as both a director and a producer. However, somewhere in 1914-15, Griffith was hit with a lightning bolt of genius during the making of "Birth of a Nation." Griffith both conceived and executed nearly everything we know about modern filmmaking in that one film. All filmmaking before "Birth of a Nation" is one thing and all filmmaking after it is another. All films made today owe something to D. W. Griffith and "Birth of a Nation." No other film as yet has had that kind of impact. Strangely, Griffith, just like Edison before him, could not stay up with the progress that was the immediate result of their inventions. Edison would not give up phonograph cylinders for flat discs until it was too late, nor would he give up on DC current for AC. By 1906 Edison gave up on the film business entirely, which was absolutely booming around him, because he could not function within it. Likewise, by 1920 D. W. Griffith was considered an old-fashioned filmmaker who was out of step with modern methods, and by 1930 his career was completely over. He was 55 year old.
Orson Welles’ inability to keep his career going is legendary. Welles was almost completely washed-up by the age of 26.
Apparently, true genius is a volatile and destructive commodity. Luckily for Edison, his genius was so vast that when one of his ideas crapped out on him, he would just move right on to the next one, from telegraphy to light bulbs to phonographs to motion pictures to electric batteries, on and on. Sadly for both Griffith and Welles, once movies crapped out on them, that was the end of their careers.
Charlie Chaplin got stuck with the "genius" moniker fairly early in his career, when he signed a deal that made him the highest paid salaried employee in the world, but I don’t think it’s true; most of his movies just don’t hold up very well anymore and there is nothing innovative about them. His technique was simple-minded, his use of pathos heavy-handed, and most of his mincing around just isn’t funny. I am particularly fond of his Essany shorts in 1916, where the genius label began, but all of his films after that are definitely hit or miss. By "The Great Dictator" in 1940, Charlie Chaplin the filmmaker had become unwatchable.
The next purported film geniuses were Erich von Stroheim and Sergei Eisenstein, both of whose movies are now, in my humble opinion, also unwatchable. Their cinematic technique is so stodgy and their storytelling abilities so limited that I’ll easily put any Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd film from the same period against them, for both technique and sheer lasting entertainment value.
Then there’s a bunch of German directors that were and are put forth as geniuses: Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, and F. W. Murnau. It’s all nonsense. Lang made one great film, "M," and many other interesting to unmemorable films. Murnau made "Sunrise" and Pabst made "Pandora’s Box," both of which are interesting curios at this point and little else.
By the late 1920s and into the 30s and 40s, film directors were no longer considered geniuses. What makes this funny is this is the period when film directors were at their very best and there were the most good directors around: Ford, Wyler, Zinneman, Hitchcock, Lean, Hawks, Wilder, Curtiz, Kazan, etc. But were all of these guys really geniuses? I’d say no, they were just damn good directors.
But then, instead of the directors now being held out as geniuses, suddenly studio executives were being put forth as the real geniuses. Men like Irving Thalberg, Walt Disney, Louis Mayer and Darryl Zanuck. Well, now I must laugh as I think we’ve strayed entirely from the actual definition of a genius. If Thalberg, Disney, Mayer and Zanuck are geniuses, why not Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohn and Jack Warner? Why not Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky? Why not William Fox and Carl Laemmle? It’s either all or none, and I’d say none. This is simply P.R. cooked up by the "moguls" themselves. These guys were plant managers with big egos and their own full-time publicity departments. I don’t think MGM made one legitimately good picture under Thalberg’s aegis. MGM’s grand achievements under Thalberg were "Grand Hotel" and "Mutiny on the Bounty," hardly milestones in cinema. A lot of these moguls had very good taste, something that’s almost entirely lacking in the film industry today, but that is still not genius. Then, somehow or other Orson Welles slipped through the cracks for about a year, before being destroyed by the ersatz geniuses who could not stand the sight of an actual genius. Orson Welles spent months trying to set up a picture with Walt Disney in the 40s before Disney had him thrown out of the studio, saying, "This lot isn’t big enough for two geniuses!" Of course, had he stayed there would have only been one.
Orson Welles was not of the practical ilk of genius, he was the real thing. For about six years Welles displayed an extraordinary intellectual power at telling stories, whether they were on stage, radio or the screen. In 1938 Welles set the unprecedented record of producing and directing five hit shows in New York at the same time (you can’t say on Broadway because his all-black version of "Macbeth" was running up in Harlem), as well as producing, directing and starring in the single most influential radio broadcast of all-time, "The War of the Worlds." Orson Welles then came out to Hollywood and in very short order made two of the greatest films of all-time. Whether his genius was used up at that point or his luck simply ran out doesn’t really matter. When the run is over, sadly, it’s just over.
Elia Kazan was considered the genius of the stage and screen in the 1950s. He certainly had excellent taste and made a lot of hits, once again with somewhat questionable politics, but I don’t think he brought anything new to the stage or the screen. Kazan didn’t even bring his own stage discovery, Marlon Brando, to the screen (Fred Zinneman and Stanley Kramer did with "The Men"). Elia Kazan is a damn good director who aligned himself with three great writers (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge) and directed a lot of their stuff. I’d say that’s very smart, but not genius.
Then along came a cadre of giddy French boys growing up in post-war Paris who were all completely obsessed movie freaks, collectively known as the Nouvelle Vague. With their magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, they informed the rest of the world that the real geniuses of cinema were those damn good Hollywood directors from the 30s and 40s (like Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock), who didn’t consider themselves to be geniuses at all, just good craftsmen, but that’s why they actually were geniuses.
The next thing you know, these very same giddy French movie freaks all became film directors, and now they too were considered geniuses by the critics who took over after them (some of whom are still at work today). And thus we were now in an age where we were being told who the geniuses were by the press and seemingly accepting it.
Then film geniuses began to fly at us from all parts of the globe: Italy, Sweden, Japan, Poland, all over the damn place. Film festivals began to proliferate, as did all kinds of film awards like Palm D’ors and Golden Bears. And now every year we get a new genius all wrapped up in goofy looks and bad hair. And we just keep buying it.
I’m going to amend my initial contention and say that there actually has been another genius to dabble in motion pictures: Stanley Kubrick. Although I think he reached levels of brilliance in many of his films, from "The Killing" to "Dr. Strangelove," his real stroke of genius was making "2001: A Space Odyssey," which has had an enormous impact on many (although not all by any means) of the films that have come since. Kubrick’s genius, beyond applying motion picture special effects differently than they had previously been used, was that no one has been able to surpass his use of those effects in 30 years. As an actual force in filmmaking, however, Kubrick had one more film in him after "2001," which was "A Clockwork Orange." Since then he has seemingly retired, and now makes the occasional insignificant picture to keep his health care and pension going. Francis Coppola was certainly being touted as a genius for a while there. He did have a great short run of films for four years, from "Patton" in 1970 to "The Godfather Part 2" in 1974. Sadly, when he emerged from the Philippine jungles five years later with "Apocalypse Now," whatever genius he may have had he left behind, with the trashed sets, the napalmed foliage and his deviated septum.
So what film geniuses have we got now? Spielberg? Tarantino? Cameron? Well, I’m not impressed. I don’t believe that any of their films so far have any real lasting value. These guys are just today’s successful filmmakers, and success is not the same thing as genius and never will be.