Barbaric Genius* Review

Film Still
  • Barbaric Genius film still


A fascinating film about the cut-throat business of modern publishing concerning John Healy's 1991 memoir 'The Grass Arena'.

In keeping with the spirit of its subject – onetime wino, chess wizard, yoga obsessive and jilted literary celebrity, John Healy – this feisty documentary profile is all the more interesting for the frayed edges it leaves on display.

The central story thread concerns the publishing and subsequent deleting of Healy's savage 1991 memoir, 'The Grass Arena'. The book seemed to mark Healy out as one of the UK’s great, unheralded counter-cultural writers, though his career became blighted by misfortune when he allegedly threatened to decapitate various Faber & Faber editors with an axe if they did not offer him a second print run.

Aside from the clear physical toll of his formative years as a violent alcoholic – the result of, among other things, sleeping rough on the streets of North London and even occasionally partaking in inebriated gladiatorial combat with broken beer bottles – Healy is now seen as a man harboring great sorrow and regret, desperate to attain his critical and commercial dues.

Director Paul Duane, who interviews the understandably shy Healy on camera, demands that his taciturn subject be as truthful as possible in order to set the record straight. Although clearly batting for Healy throughout, Duane also tries to get the other side of the story, and duly interviews ex-Faber editor-in-chief, Robert McCrumb. Bizarrely, he claims to have entirely forgotten about his dealings with Healy, even though he’d written about them, in detail, on numerous occasions.

Even focusing on a single chapter of Healy’s life would’ve been enough to fill numerous feature films, but Duane attempts to offer a curt distillation, meshing together a tale of spiritual and creative renewal which segues into bitterness when his manifold talents are rejected by the establishment.

Beyond a simple biography, this humane and haunting film offers hope to those who have scraped the very doldrums of existence, suggesting inner peace becomes a much more meaningful concept to those whose memories are suffused with darkness.

It’s also a fascinating film about the cut-throat business of modern publishing, a world which is presented as quaint, enclosed and elitist. Poshly-spoken men in frameless glasses continually fawn over the writings of this down-and-dirty sage, but can never actually explain why they were so quick to dump him in the scrapheap.

The question remains: was it Healy’s violent temperament that got him a blanket blackballing from every publishing house in the land? Or was is simply that his various follow-ups to 'The Grass Arena' were just not up to snuff?

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