ON AIR: The New Classical FM

Two Biopics – Nikola Tesla and Flannery O’Connor

Arts Review2020-8-21By: Marc Glassman

Highlighting two films opening in Toronto, one on Tesla, the creator of the A/C electrical current and the other on the strange and compelling writer, Flannery O’Connor

Michael Almereyda, director and script writer
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Nikola Tesla), Kyle MacLachlan (Thomas Edison) Eve Hewson (Anne Morgan), Jim Gaffigan (George Westinghouse), Rebecca Dayan (Sarah Bernhardt), Donnie Keshawarz (J.P. Morgan)

Many scientists are admired but few have a mystic appeal. Some may be eccentric—Einstein is remembered fondly that way—but their reputation lies in the results they achieved and the clarity of their thought. It’s fair to say that few people associate talk of aliens from outer space or creating death rays with well-known inventors.

Perversely, that may be why Nikola Tesla’s reputation has grown over the years while so many others have faded. Though his reputation may rest on him being truly odd, Tesla jump started his North American career as the most brilliant inventor of the final part of the 19th century thanks to his irascible nature and natural genius. Bettering his first U.S. employer Thomas Edison, who had created the electrical direct current (DC) and refused to pay him properly for his work, Tesla came up with the alternating current motor (AC), which was far easier and safer to use. Working with Edison’s rival George Westinghouse, he created the Tesla coil (a high-voltage transformer), electric oscillators and experimented with X-rays and long-throw radio technology. At Niagara Falls, Tesla made the first power station. But then, gradually, things fell apart.

Director and scriptwriter Michael Almereyda has been obsessed with Tesla for 40 years. That’s when he dropped out of Harvard and came to Hollywood to work on what became a legendary unproduced script on Tesla. Over the decades he’s developed a reputation as an avant-gardist, known for his modern-dress Manhattan based film version of Hamlet, starring the young Ethan Hawke, Sam Shepard and Kyle MacLachlan, a brilliant documentary feature on the decidedly unconventional photographer William Eggleston and Experimenter, a full-length dramatic look at the “hoax” psychologist Stanley Milgram (starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder). His Tesla featuring Hawke as the oddball inventor and MacLachlan as Edison, as well as Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson as multi-millionaire J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, has been a long time coming.

In conception, Tesla doesn’t disappoint. Though the biopic is set up as a drama with a cast led by Hawke and buttressed by MacLachlan, the brilliantly shot period drama is deliberately derailed within minutes as Hewson’s Anne Morgan starts explaining who Tesla and Edison, already established as antagonists, were in history with the injunction, “You can look it up on Google.” Almereyda pitches his film in a post-modern context where you’re not allowed to fully embrace Tesla’s narrative since Anne will inevitably show up to give us the historical perspective on any important scene.

Watching this fictional construct where Anne falls in and out of love with Tesla, you can never be sure what you’re seeing is true or not. Looking things up on Google, as suggested, offers the information that Tesla was celibate, protecting his bodily fluids for scientific discoveries, while Anne eventually came out as a lesbian. An affair with the legendary actor Sarah Bernhardt is offered up as a lovely sequence in the film, although, according to Google, they were only good friends. What’s there to believe in Tesla? Not much.

Of course, that’s likely Almereyda’s intent. He seems to enjoy presenting the enigma of Tesla’s life without fully embracing him or Ethan Hawke’s performance. As the film continues, we see Tesla’s life unravel. Marconi appropriates his inventions for the radio; Tesla watches helplessly as Marconi’s European broadcast to Newfoundland becomes the first intercontinental wireless transmission. (It takes nearly a century for Tesla’s discoveries to be acknowledged.) His experiments on global wireless transmission in Colorado Springs turns into a failure, with his new lighting system also proving to be unsuccessful. It’s in Colorado, where Tesla first exhibits signs of being unhinged, claiming that he may have received communications from Mars.

Possibly through Anne, Tesla meets her father J. P. Morgan, who pays $150,000 ($4,609,800 in present day figures) to buy 51% of his wireless patents. Somehow, Tesla spends all the money without being able to launch transmissions as good as Marconi. With Westinghouse having persuaded Tesla to give him his AC patents in order to keep his company afloat, Tesla becomes destitute while he continues to come up with fascinating but delusional ideas like creating death rays to stop airplanes from dropping bombs. Nothing works out for him but the media and the public continue to respect Tesla, always expecting that he will come up with a brilliant new invention.

Almereyda’s film tells this tragic tale well. What he doesn’t come up with is an understanding of the great inventor’s character. Ethan Hawke is left adrift, projecting an air of arrogance and a bemused awareness of his inability to connect with people. But you never connect with him. Tesla is a film that is as baffling as its protagonist. We never understand who he is and what he hoped to accomplish. This film is an enigma wrapped in a mystery—entertaining, but signifying nothing.

Elizabeth Coffman & Mark Bosco, directors
Featuring: Mary Steenburgen (narrator), Hilton Als, Sally Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzgerald, Robert Giroux, Mary Gordon, Alice McDermott, Alice Walker, Mary Karr, Tommy Lee Jones, Tobias Woolf

Not too many people know who Flannery O’Connor is anymore but those who do embrace her as one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. O’Connor’s reputation stands on an impressive but severely limited body of work. Over the course of her short life—O’Connor died at the age of 39—she produced 32 stories and two novels, all in what was called the Southern Gothic style. That all of it is first rate is universally acknowledged by critics, with some stories and at least one novel being considered as masterpieces. But O’Connor’s life was hardly adventurous and her grandest accomplishments were achieved by diligently writing and rewriting her texts, honing them into precise and often brutal depictions of genuinely upsetting forms of behaviour. When you read O’Connor and consider the hermetic life she led, it’s surprising that anyone would want to turn her into the subject of a biopic.

That Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco decided to tackle O’Connor’s life and work and turn it into a full-length documentary is almost worthy of a film itself. But they’ve not only made a doc on the writer, the duo have created a worthy and formally interesting investigation of Flannery O’Connor and her creative process. Coffman and Bosco have scoured archives, unearthing a long television interview with the author, home movies of her youth and an astonishing film made when O’Connor was a child, showing off her pet chicken, which she had trained to walk backward. They’ve raised the ante, incorporating animation into the film. The teenaged O’Connor had dreamt of drawing ironic illustrations for the New Yorker and she had even developed an epistolary relationship with the magazine’s famous editor and cartoonist Charles Addams. Riffing off her innovative youthful work, Coffman and Bosco use O’Connor’s juvenilia and the work of their animators to bring parts of the writer’s story to life.

O’Connor’s life story is hard to dramatize. She grew up in Georgia as an outsider, a Catholic in a Protestant state, with a somewhat estranged father and mother, who adored her but only saw each other on the weekends. The teenaged Flannery was devastated when her father died of lupus but she persevered, becoming an ace student at Georgia State College for Women before moving on to the soon-to-be legendary literary environment at the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop. There she met the great Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men) and the poet John Crowe Ramsom among others, and her writing was seriously considered for the first time. She went on to the equally famous Yaddo writing community, where she became close with the handsome and brilliant poet Robert Lowell and his wife Elizabeth Hardwicke. When they all left Yaddo, Lowell introduced O’Connor to the literary couple the Fitzgeralds, who took her on as their surrogate daughter as she worked on her first novel Wise Blood.

Then everything except her writing fell apart. Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, which robbed her of mobility—she had to use crutches—and eventually her life. O’Connor returned to the family hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived with her mother, while raising birds on a small family farm, including (and I love this) peacocks. Her first novel, Wise Blood, took years to write and was about a preacher who starts off questioning his faith but ends up dying for it. John Huston made an exceptional movie out of it from a screenplay by the Fitzgerald’s son Michael; like the novel, it was a commercial flop but eventually was recognized as a work of art. The documentary benefits from excerpts of the film, which help to illuminate O’Connor’s harsh but poetic style.

The doc follows Flannery O’Connor’s career, which finally came on track with the publication of her first collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find. Despite her success, she remained lonely, writing to female and male friends, but never finding a partner. Flannery is a brave endeavour, a film about someone great whose creative process is basically interior and whose life was unfairly truncated. It’s terrific that this film was made and one can only hope that it will drive people to read O’Connor’s books. Dark and sardonic, they are more impactful than ever.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean


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