Take “Jean Genet,” who has been more of a tabloid scandal than an object of serious literary scrutiny for the generation since Sartre’s “adopting” him made Genet the talk of the French intellectual world. The scenario is based on Edmund White’s new biography with Brit literatus Melvyn Bragg as presenter.
The convincing theme of the film is that Genet domesticated the concept of gay love. Before, such liaisons were conducted secretly or at best openly with shame. He showed that such relationships were humanly “natural.” The broadcast is replete with insights from his life that illuminate the reading of both his novels and plays.
For example, he had a mysterious experience on a train during which he felt that the soul of the ugly man sitting across from him had changed places with his. Thenceforth, he accepted the datum of a common human nature, an epistemological change that made his political plays possible. His novels had expressed only his own isolated idiosyncrasies.
His “love” life was a series of disasters. The man with whom he had the longest relationship in his youth recalls that they never actually had “good” sex, neither with him active nor passive. In fact, this lack of sexual pleasure led not to quick estrangement but rather to a long and deepening friendship, a phenomenon the narrator contends is a frequent occurrence in gay love affairs. During a particularly disastrous affair, in which his acrobat lover took a crippling fall from the high wire, Genet broke off the relationship—and the aerialist committed suicide. Genet stopped writing. There is also an early black and white film (which could have made Robert Mapplethorpe blush); it antedates Marlon Riggs’ controversial PBS short by forty years. (It is, to these straight eyes, even more eloquent than Riggs’ powerful statement about the beauty of male to male affection.)
Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Turner International has really given me some insights into the terribly tragic conflicts which plagued F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, his Montgomery belle. I’ve read about the partying that went on in Gerald Murphy’s place in the South of France. But I never felt it until now.
The couple were not only the life of these parties; they were as well the verbal killers of his un-hip guests. The only people to whom Zelda and Scott could be crueler were themselves.
Diving into the pool from their bedroom balcony, and then higher from the roofbeam, simply terrified their more sober dining companions. But when they were at each other’s throats, more and more often as Zelda zigzagged her way into a sanitarium, they thoroughly terrified themselves. It’s a complex web they wove themselves into, and the film gets it, Zelda accusing Scott of raiding her diaries for material, razzing him for stooping to the Saturday Evening Post to support their dizzyingly expensive lifestyle; his countering that she was out to get him.
Poor little Scottie looks on, uncomprehendingly. It is a sad story told with dignity and empathy. It ends, not with Scott’s early death, but with Zelda’s institutionalization, after her failures as a dancer. Let’s hope, for the sake of worldwide Lit Crit, not to forget that LWT and Turner are planning more television this good.