Barbaric Genius is a fascinating film to review in the light of the previous review on this blog: Ballymun Lullaby. In Ballymun Lullaby the potential of children to soak up the right kind of education is clear to see. You approach the teaching of any subject from the right angle and children will devour it hungrily. But this does not end at a fixed point in childhood. In Barbaric Genius, Paul Duane’s powerful documentary, this is clearly also true of adults. For the subject (John Healy), his shot at redemption is at the age of 30. The background to John Healy’s life is the stuff of dreams for a documentarian. The son of Irish parents, Healy started drinking at an early age. This led to a spell of about 11 years as a vagrant, a subject which Healy has a lot to say about. It was this time too that led to various stints in prison. While in prison his interest in chess is piqued by the description of it as akin to stealing. It is this, the most basic of life lessons that changes everything.
But Healy was, and indeed is, no working class cliché. Taught to play chess by a fellow inmate, Healy was not satisfied just to play. Almost becoming a grandmaster, he played in, and won, many tournaments. The drive to become a grandmaster brought him stresses that made him give up chess but also help forge the compulsion to write. His need to put his remarkable energy into something resulted in his memoir, The Grass Arena, (the story of his difficult life). It was an instant sensation and brought with it fame and recognition. But it is the subsequent withdrawal of the book from print which is the main jumping off point for Duane’s film.
Healy is a reluctant interviewee. But it is clear that he has an interesting story to tell. Almost monosyllabic in a formal interview he becomes a warmer and more eloquent presence when he walks the streets that he lived on. In a lot of the shots, it is what he doesn’t say that captures the harshness of a previous life. It is in the close-ups of his hands that betray a life hard life lived: knotted, constantly moving, seemingly on high alert. It is in the distant stare of his eyes as he remembers people who he used to know, some now dead. Duane knows when to hold the camera on his subject, to let the viewer see the effects of Healy’s life on him now. This is subtle filmmaking and other documentarians should take note.
The story of his fall out with his book’s publishers is a fascinating one. Duane uses a classic filmmaker’s device of briefly mentioning it early in the film but not returning to it until later. This drawing out of the story works as there is so much more than that going on, but it is a risky and bold move. Duane uses interviews with various people at the publishing house to try and get at the truth of the falling out. Healy believes that it had to do with class and there is circumstantial evidence to support this theory. The truth is never quite clear but it is a fascinating story that won’t be given away here. Suffice to say that a misunderstanding and a clash of cultures is as good an explanation as there probably is. It would have been interesting to see Duane probe and question Healy a little more, but one imagines Healy says only what he wants to say regardless of the question.
Barbaric Genius is an apt title for this film. There is a sense from Healy that should he turn his mind to practically anything, his drive and dedication would see him try to perfect it. To see The Grass Arena back in print in the Penguin Classics series is a vindication of his life’s work. But this is not the clear triumph to send an audience home happy as it may appear initially. Healy still has financial worries to contend with. One also imagines looking at his eyes in close-up that there may well be some demons left to fight. Duane’s documentary does what all very good documentaries do: namely to give the audience the urge to learn more about the subject. In this case I will endeavour to read all of John Healy’s literary work. There is no finer recommendation for a film than that.