The Problem With 'Geniuses' In Movies

The Problem With ‘Geniuses’ In Movies

Why do geniuses in movies always seem so … mundane?


People go to the movies for a variety of reasons: escape, catharsis, inspiration, a date, an air-conditioned room on a muggy Sunday afternoon. Rarely do we go in order to learn something. And we’re okay with that. We sacrifice science and accuracy in the name of entertainment. Hollywood has a hard time getting physics right: do bullets spark when they hit a metal surface? Can a bus traveling at 55 MPH jump a forty-foot gap? And just how long does it take a kid to fall from Niagara Falls, anyway?

But Hollywood has an even harder time depicting genius.

By “genius” I don’t just mean exceptional technical ability or artistic talent. I mean that insane burst of creativity that breaks conventional boundaries. A genius is not just someone smarter than us, but someone so much smarter that we can’t even recognize what they’re doing. The word genius itself, in Latin, refers to a guardian spirit; someone who created a great work was said to be inspired by such an entity. “Talent hits a target no one else can hit,” wrote Schopenhauer. “Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

To put it concretely: every heist movie has its techie guy. Every Bohemian romance has its tortured artist. Every business drama has its self-made billionaire. These people are not geniuses. The fact that we can recognize the tropes they inhabit proves it. Richard Feynman was a genius. Leonardo DaVinci was a genius. Warren Buffett is a genius. And I submit that Hollywood could not produce a satisfactory depiction of them.

Why do I say that? Let’s look at a few examples.

Latrell Walker (DMX, Exit Wounds)

In Exit Wounds, Steven Seagal and DMX team up to take down a posse of crooked cops. Steven Seagal is a Detroit policeman who doesn’t play by the rules, but still gets results (stop me if you’ve heard this one before). He initially suspects DMX of being a crook, since he spots him snooping around some evidence locked up in an off-site facility. But it turns out DMX is actually running a sting on the corrupt badges. Clever of him.

How is DMX bankrolling this sting? Through his wildly successful Internet startup!

The guy’s a computer wiz. Started up a dot com out of Virginia called “Anything you want under $9.99.” And he did great. Lucky bastard cashed out just before the bubble burst. 

Even taking some of the ludicrous successes of the dot-com era for granted, how well would an e-commerce site that specialized in items costing $9.99 or lower do?

The BE operating system: lost in the Struggle.

The BE operating system: lost in the Struggle.

  • Nobody searches for “something that costs below ten dollars.” People search for books, or cheap CDs, or weird little gadgets for around the home. But nobody logs onto the Internet and decides, “I just need to spend $8.75 today” (the success of notwithstanding).
  • Even as early as 2000, already owned a significant chunk of the online retail market, so DMX isn’t likely to have made a significant return on investment.
  • Finally, it doesn’t take a computer wiz, or really any degree of computer savvy at all, to start up an online retail site. It takes a great deal of business acumen and supply-chain management. You’ve got to control inventory, market yourself aggressively and keep an eye on competitors. DMX certainly displays many of these skills in the course of Exit Wounds; you can’t pass yourself off as a drug dealer to corrupt Detroit cops on instinct alone. But none of this lends credence to his being a world-class hacker.

Ultimately, DMX’s character Latrell Walker is not a genius because his get-rich scheme – – is a combination of luck and good branding. Nowhere in his business plan do we see the breakthroughs that characterized the tech bubble’s few successes, like Amazon’s long-tail marketing or Dell’s just-in-time inventory and negative cash-conversion cycle. His business is simultaneously too picayune and too outlandish to be considered genius.

Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg, Star Trek)

Starfleet Engineer Montgomery Scott has been assigned to an uninhabited rock, somewhere near Vulcan, as punishment for testing out his theory of transwarp beaming:

Had a little debate with my instructor on relativistic physics and how it pertains to subspace travel. He seemed to think that the range of transporting something like a… like a grapefruit was limited to about 100 miles. I told him that I could not only beam a grapefruit from one planet to the adjacent planet in the same system – which is easy, by the way – I could do it with a life form. So, I tested it out on Admiral Archer’s prized beagle. 

So apparently he doesn’t have all the kinks worked out.

For the three people who read this site who aren’t familiar with Star Trek, a short recap: starships get from one end of the galaxy to the other by warping, which lets them exceed the speed of light. Starships send people from aboard a ship to a planet’s surface, or to another ship, by beaming: breaking them down into a glittering field of light and reassembling them at the intended target. Transwarp beaming, then, would be a means to beam someone aboard a vessel that is already in warp speed. Not only would this revolutionize space travel, it’s essential for the plot, as Kirk needs to reunite with the Enterprise.

I trust this man with my molecular structure at supraluminal speeds.

I trust this man with my molecular structure at supraluminal speeds.

Fortunately, Scott gets a hand from Spock – who comes from a future in which Scott has already discovered the secret of transwarp beaming. Spock copies out the last bits of the transwarp beaming equation. Scott looks at the equation in awe. “Imagine that! Never occurred to me to think of space as the part that’s moving.” He finishes his calculations and beams Kirk and himself aboard the Enterprise (though not before some slapstick ensues).

Is this an example of genius? It’s certainly revolutionary, even by the sci-fi standards of Star Trek. Sadly, though, we must conclude that it’s not for the following reasons:

  • The insight isn’t technically Scott’s – it’s Spock’s. Spock tells Scott how to solve the equation that he started working on. Of course, Spock only knows this equation because he comes from a future in which Scott solved it long ago. So, in one of those confusing temporal headaches that plagues every time-travel story, the breakthrough belongs to neither of them.
  • “Never occurred to me to think of space as the part that’s moving.” Really? Isn’t that fairly standard relativity theory: that motion can only be described in relation to another object? That technically everything’s moving, even the parts that look like they’re hanging there?
  • How many really transcendental breakthroughs hinge on one equation, or even a few lines of equations? If I went back to the Bern patent office in 1904 and wrote e=mc2 in front of a young Albert Einstein, would he look at it and say, “Of course”? Or would the concept of mass-energy equivalence be meaningless to him until he’d done the theoretical work necessary to understand the relativistic mass of objects approaching the speed of light? And if he’d already done all that theoretical work, the equation would be superfluous. Few acts of real genius hinge on formatting.
  • But ultimately, and most importantly, Star Trek takes place in a setting where ships can travel faster than the speed of light, teleport living beings from orbit to atmosphere and create black holes in the centers of planets. Even if such things are possible, the theories required to make them work are so far beyond us that we cannot yet comprehend them. “Transwarp beaming” is a breakthrough in Star Trek only because the characters all call it a breakthrough. If we the audience had been told, “Oh, we’ll simply beam Kirk aboard the Enterprise using transwarp beaming,” we would have no grounds to be shocked. Everything in Star Trek is already handwaved for the sake of plot; calling this latest act of handwaving “genius” does not make it so.

In the world of miracles that Star Trek already inhabits, Engineer Scott’s miracle of transwarp beaming does not quite count as genius.

Yes, fine, you’re saying. But these are very artificial examples of “genius.” What if a movie tackled a type of genius we all recognized?

35 Comments on “The Problem With ‘Geniuses’ In Movies”

  1. Genevieve #

    OK, I’m totally with you on the depiction of *original* genius in film, and I’m personally inclined to go with your “cynical” theory, which I think is just plain logic. If a screenwriter could write a genius-level novel, he’d just write the damn thing, publish it, and the movie would be about HIM, not some character writing the novel in question. As you said, there’s plenty of genius in filmmaking (*cough* Wells *cough*) but that’s genius *filmmaking*, not genius something-else imbedded *into* the films.

    However, I’m going to challenge the notion that historical genius can’t be accurately, or at least meaningfully, portrayed. Yes, OK, A Beautiful Mind fell short… but what about Amadeus? What about Infinity? What about… heh, ok, those are the only two I can think of off the top of my head, but I think they’re worthwhile counter-examples.

    Anyway, I’d like someone more knowledgeable than me to dissect Hackers as a depiction of original genius. I don’t know a lot about computers in general, let alone hacking in particular, but I thought the film didn’t *suck.* I’m guessing it failed in some specific way, though, and I’m curious as to what (if anything) it got wrong.


  2. Neil #

    I think the main hurdle standing in the way of the filmmaker when it comes down to explaining genius on film, is how do you relate it to an average audience? It’s one tack to say “This person is a genius,” and expect the normal level of disbelief to take over. The audience will likely think, “well this person is a genius, I know so because the film told me so.” The given circumstances are established, and you move on from there. An example of this tactic is “Proof” by David Auburn. You’re meant to assume that Catherine is a genius, but you’re never really shown why. The narrative is more important than the specifics. I find “Proof” unsatisfying on that level, because I’m never fully inclined to believe it. I’m given no proof of her “Proof.”

    Nyuk nyuk.

    The other tactic (and the bigger gamble) is to show the audience WHY this person is a genius. I think Genevieve’s example of “Amadeus” is a good example of an admirable attempt to quantify musical genius to those of us who aren’t musical geniuses, i.e., pretty much all of us. But when it comes down to it, how does Peter Shaffer show us Mozart’s genius? He has to translate the music into words, but not just any words… they’re the words of someone who has the capability to RECOGNIZE genius, but is more on the level of us as an audience member. We relate to the musical “genius” of Mozart not through Wolfie himself, but through the point of view of Salieri, a talented enough musician able to put into words what Mozart’s music means to someone less gifted.

    So, Shaffer gives us a proxy to recognize the genius, and translates the music to prose. And it’s the closest any of us will likely ever get to experience what musical “genius” means. Is it a perfect tool, no. But is it effective? Much more than “Proof” or “A Beautiful Mind” in my opinion. It actually dares to quantify the magnitude of Mozart’s genius, and without that magnitude, the narrative fails. “Proof” and “A Beautiful Mind” gloss over the details in service of the narrative, and unfortunately it doesn’t work the same way.


  3. Genevieve #

    I think another reason Amadeus works is that it uses genius to describe genius, and I think that very likely might be necessary. It’s not just a film about a genius, it’s genius filmmaking. I think that anything less than that cheapens the subject matter. If Milos Forman weren’t such a phenomenal director, and if Peter Shaffer weren’t so brilliant a playwright, Mozart’s qualities would’ve been muted, diminished. I think many people think that, when writing about genius, the genius will speak for itself – I think A Beautiful Mind suffered from this fallacy. It seemed to think that people would believe that Nash was a genius because, well, he was. The “present the facts and walk away” approach fails, ultimately. It’s like… a child performing Beethoven. No matter how great the material, they can’t on their own elevate the performance above mediocrity. The work can’t ever do justice to itself.

    I like the example of Proof. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the play… and I think it’s useful to contrast it with another play about mathematical genius – Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. We believe in Thomasina’s genius much more than in Catherine’s, because Stoppard, being a genius, *understands* it, and is able to portray it in a more compelling way than Auburn can. In fact, quite a few of Stoppard’s plays deal with geniuses, and the ones I’ve read do so startlingly successfully.

    I wasn’t sure how the other movie I mentioned, Infinity, fit into this concept, until quick research reminded me that it had been based extremely closely on Feynman’s own memoirs. It’s not, perhaps, a perfect example… but adhering to the man’s own insights about his life let it come much closer than some of the other contenders.


  4. Valatan # is still unregistered. Millions of dollars of startup money there, just waiting for some lucky bastard!


  5. perich OTI Staff #

    @Genevieve: Amadeus is an interesting example. Most of the movie depicts Mozart’s contemporaries reacting to him, rather than getting inside his head. However, the very end of the movie – where Mozart is dictating the Dies Irae on his sickbed to Salieri – is a decent example of the consumptive fire of genius.

    Also, regardless of whether or not Hackers sucked (I think it did), the consensus among professionals is that it in no way depicts the capabilities of computers, at that time or at any point since. Even though every protagonist in Hackers is notionally a computer genius, they all fall into the same heist movie tropes: you’ve got the cool leader, the hot chick, the street-smart black guy, the spaz, etc.


  6. Valatan #

    And as far as “Stranger Than Fiction”, Yes, the text of the novel was somewhat uninspiring, but some of why the early scenes of the movie *worked* was that the text of the novel was so generically ‘novel-y’. If Will Farrell had been in a clever, innovative novel like The Catcher in the Rye, we wouldn’t recognize the text of the novel as a novel. The fact that the prose is vaguely Jane Austen-y or whatever is why we recognize what is transpiring.

    However, I think the quality of the actual novel would all depend on the actual book. I could actually see something with that plot having a different point than just ‘we’re all affected by strange random chance.’ Really, I kind of see the theme to be about living for what you live for, and not holding on too strongly, or something along those lines. But regardless, without the non-narrative text, it’s really hard to draw an inference.

    But yes, a writer using the same hook (of a dead main character) over and over is tacky. But then again, that has more to do with advancing the plot of the movie than it has to do with developing Ifill’s character.


  7. stavner #

    What about Gadget from Rescue Rangers? I think she’s autistic.


  8. Gauchar #

    I thought Hollywood’s definition of a genius is someone who can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute.


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Guys, you’re forgetting my favorite scene from Amadeus. Mozart is just arriving in Vienna, and Salieri greets him with a cute little march on the harpsichord. Mozart not only plays it back after hearing it ONCE, he improves it a little. Then he plays it again, faster, adding more embellishment. Then he does it again. Right in front of our eyes, he turns a piece of okay music into a piece of great music, all the time laughing to himself, like it’s a fun little game. That’s what convinced Salieri that Mozart is a true genius, and it certainly sells me too.


  10. Darin #

    I’m with Neil re: relating a genius to the audience.

    “Real Genius” is a good example of this problem. We relate to Val Kilmer’s character Chris Knight because he is mischievous with his intellect.

    Party scene:
    Chris “Look at it this way. Considering the type of people you are and the environment you’re in, you have to admit the strong possibility this may be the only chance you ever have in your entire lives… to have sex”

    He’s witty and charming in a way we can relate to. But the “Real Genius” is Lazlo. Val Kilmer describes him as super crazy smart (OK, maybe not like that). He’s socially inept “Do you want to borrow my pajamas?” and lives in a “cave” playing to our stereotypes.

    Imagine a movie starring Laslo with Val Kilmer playing second fiddle. Would lose money and get panned.


  11. perich OTI Staff #

    @Valatan: you raise a good point, re: Stranger Than Fiction. The opening novel is very “novel-y,” which helps us figure out Will Ferrell’s plight.


  12. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Here’s my prime example of the problem you’re talking about. I really wanted to like Studio 60. I really did. But the show is supposed to be about a comedy-writing genius. Matthew Perry’s character supposedly fires his ENTIRE writing staff to write every sketch of the show himself, and of course manages to immeasurably improve it. But the thing is, I never believed he was that funny. Every time we saw one of the show’s sketches, it was just kind of meh. And this was a huge problem. If you don’t believe this guy is really good and he’s creating something special, it’s hard to care.

    (Contrast this with 30 Rock. They rarely mention what’s on the show within the show, and every time they do it’s usually something terrible. Like Tracey Morgan inventing a fart machine. 30 Rock is utterly uninterested in proving that Liz Lemon is a talented writer, and that’s fine. It doesn’t hinge on us believing that.)


  13. perich OTI Staff #

    @Belinkie: that’s a phenomenal example which comes perilously close to invalidating my thesis, but I think ultimately supports it. ;)

    There’s so much that goes into that scene:

    * Mozart playing the music from memory
    * The wordless reaction shots of Emperor Joseph, Salieri and the other courtiers
    * The tension established by Mozart playing perfectly, broken into laughter by the line, “The rest is just the same, isn’t it?” (at 0:49) If that weren’t a laugh line, I don’t know that it’d have the same impact
    * The courtiers looking between Salieri and Mozart as Mozart improves on Salieri’s march (1:20)
    * The scholars coming around the corner to hear Mozart (1:25). This is far enough away that we wouldn’t even recognize it as the same room were it not for the music. The cinematographic implication: Mozart’s music reaches farther than Salieri’s does.
    * Mozart’s giddy sigh at 1:29.
    * The slow zoom on Salieri (at 1:34). We’ve already had some tight reaction shots on him before. So why a slow zoom, from a crowd to a two-button shot? Because Salieri is growing alone. He is being distanced from the court by Mozart’s talent.

    So it takes world-class acting (Jeffrey Jones, Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham), cinematography and directing to accurately depict the genius of one of the all-time great composers. Genius, in film, is really, really hard to depict.

    (note: Genevieve made this same point at 10:58)


  14. stokes OTI Staff #

    Ah, Amadeus. Such a good movie! It gets almost everything about Mozart wrong, and still manages to be fantastic.

    But there are a few important things to note here:
    1) Forman et al had a huge advantage in that there’s nothing stopping them from actually slapping big long chunks of Mozart’s music into the film.
    2) The music that they chose to use gives you a very distorted impression of what Mozart’s music actually sounds like. Asked to represent Don Giovanni, they play the opening of the overture, and not, like, the rest of the overture. Oh, they throw in some of the lighter stuff every now and then, like the Papageno song from The Magic Flute. But we’re meant to understand that that music is not genius – it’s the silly, mundane, human side of Mozart’s character. They only put it in so that they can cut back and forth between it and the Requiem.

    Therefore: the depiction of musical genius supplied by the movie feels satisfying, but it is not a depiction of Mozart’s musical genius.

    And I might follow that up by claiming that the very fact that the depiction of musical genius feels satifying at all should be proof that it’s not an accurate depiction of musical genius. It’s just a depiction of our modern concept of genius, which, incidentally, was very heavily shaped by ideas about Mozart that developed over the hundred years or so following his death.


  15. stokes OTI Staff #

    And check this out: some parts of the requiem that are HEAVILY foregrounded in the movie, were not actually written by Mozart, but rather by his friend Süssmayr, who – while gifted – was nobody’s idea of a genius. I don’t want to take anything away from his completion of the Lacrimosa, which is a brilliant composition no matter who wrote it. But if you know the convoluted history of the requiem the meaning of that scene completely changes. The message is supposed to be “Oh noes! He’s dead! Such a loss! No other composer will ever write music this perfect again!” In fact, the message is “Oh well, he died, but at least other composers are still capable of writing music this perfect.”


  16. mlawski OTI Staff #

    The commenters: Look at Amadeus! Can you see it?
    Perich: I can’t see it.
    The commenters: [violently knocks pieces of Amadeus to the floor] Can you see it now?

    Sorry, John. I just love Searching for Bobby Fischer, that’s all :)

    By the way, Searching for Bobby Fischer proves your point. It doesn’t portray genius as well as it tries to. (Mr. Fenzel may have a different perspective, however. I don’t play chess.)

    On another note, I haven’t seen Stranger Than Fiction, but I’d bet the problem wasn’t only with the mediocrity of her in-film novel. Shakespeare in Love was about genius, and the in-movie “genius text” was legitimately great — in this case, bits of Romeo and Juliet. Yet the movie didn’t so much encapsulate Shakespeare’s genius so much as simplify it. It was saying something along the lines of, “Write what you know and you, too, will be like Shakespeare! Plus you’ll get to have fun sexy times with Gwyneth Paltrow!” (Interestingly, the film was written in part by the aforementioned Tom Stoppard.)

    I think the issue is this: no one wants to watch anyone write anything on screen. Writing is not fun to watch. Shakespeare spouting lines from R&J while canoodling with a fine young starlet does not show us what genius actually means, but it is more cinematic.


  17. Rob #

    A minor objection:
    Warren Buffett is not a genius. He is just very, very lucky.
    The stock market is a glorified casino, with millions of people playing it; and given how many investors there are in the world, it is reasonable to estimate that at least one would become as wealthy as Warren Buffett.

    One of our stumbling blocks as a culture is that we assume that anyone who is highly successful must be a genius. But there are many, many, many people out there; and just as some rich people were lucky enough to inherit their wealth, other rich people were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Genius requires a level of insight beyond chance.

    Now, the people at Goldman Sachs who developed Program Trading – they might be considered geniuses; by systematically manipulating asymmetrical information, they have a guaranteed method to make money. But they’re evil geniuses and they violate the spirit of every insider-trading law; and hopefully their method will be recognized as illegal and will be banned.

    Anyway – the point is that genius requires a level of success that is beyond chance. Albert Einstein, yes. Warren Buffett, no.


  18. Rob #

    (I recognize that Buffett doesn’t technically “play the stock market”, but that he effectively plays the market on a much larger scale through his holding company.)


  19. Darin #

    @mlaski et. al: I would pay good money to see a drama sequel to “Searching for Bobby Fischer”

    When I say drama, I mean the real dark side of guy who had MAJOR internal and external conflicts, none of this namby pamby “Beautiful Mind” stuff. Sure, I play chess and I love the warm fuzzy kid movie stuff. But, just once can we get a cute boy genius who grows up into a fucked life.

    The book Forrest Gump has an idiot savant type racist bumbler where Tom Hanks plays a polished lifelong version of an Adam Sandler movie.

    Nobody wants to see Ted Kazinksky become the Unabomber in a movie, but everyone will watch Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting go from a “Southie” to a grown man. Mental popcorn.


  20. Tom #

    @Rob: I don’t think anybody has a level of success that is truly “beyond chance.” For all we know, there are great geniuses throughout the world who, because of the circumstances into which they were born, will never be able to exercise their capabilities.

    (Actually, Warren Buffett makes a similar point in his interviews for the biography of him, “The Snowball.” His argument is that he does have a specific set of very useful and very rare skills, but that those skills would have been totally worthless had he not been born in the time and place in which he was born.)


  21. perich OTI Staff #

    @Rob: See Tom’s comment above.

    Also: the conventional wisdom regarding the stock market is that it’s impossible to beat the return on a broad market index over a period of more than a few years. This conventional wisdom is verifiably true. Burt Malkiel has been saying it for more than thirty years, in successively updated editions of A Random Walk Down Wall Street.

    And yet Warren Buffett has been beating the stock market for more than forty years.

    It’s not mathematically impossible for one man, out of the six billion on the planet, to have a forty year streak of good luck. But if we limit it to the few hundred million who comprise the investor class, “luck” is no longer a satisfactory answer.


  22. callot #

    I think one of the reasons Hackers feels good as a depiction of the behavior and personality of genius is that the screenwriter did his research. Unlike most of the other movies mentioned, Hackers is based on time the writer spent with computer geeks, many of whom consulted on the film. While the technical stuff is far from “right,” the alienation, juvenile antics and sexual anxieties came from direct observation.

    One of the reasons the film seems to draw ridicule from computer people is that the community shown in the film is closer visually and musically to an early-90s NYC club kid culture, which is quite alien to the nerdy, bookish subjects of the original research. The producers spoke in interviews of walking down the street in the East Village, buying costume pieces in vintage shops, getting club pressings off of local DJs, finding background actors at nightclubs like Limelight. If you’ve seen Party Monster, that’s supposed to be what it was like in the Village at the time.

    Consequently, Hackers is gay, gay, gay, which was probably another reason the macho computer culture of the 90s had a problem with it. Renoly Santiago (as Phreak) is surprisingly fey for a main character in an adventure movie, and the film makes no overt mention or reference to his sexuality. Angelina Jolie has a clearly sexual dream about a boy dressed as a girl. The FBI agent receives phone calls about a personal ad that mentions cross-dressing and watersports. That kind of casual acceptance of transgressive sexuality was pretty rare at the time, as Hackers was released during the era of “New Queer Cinema,” when there was a clear divide between independent films intended for mainstream success (Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, etc) and films intended for a niche queer audience (Nowhere, Go Fish, etc).

    Hackers is my favorite movie, so I’ve been thinking about it for a while.


  23. Vlvtjones #

    I agree much with what Rob says above – there are flashes of brilliance, combined with ambition and luck, genetics and geography, that makes one successful. But it can’t necessarily be called Genius.

    I think about people who are in MENSA – they are a) smart enough to score high on a standardized IQ test, b) ambitious enough to apply for membership, and c) economically sound enough to spend $60/year on membership fees. But are they all CEO’s and Professors and Rocket Scientists and doctors and lawyers and other professions “befitting” of the Genius label? Nope. There are also stay-at-home parents, Walmart greeters, gas pumpers, burger flippers, Geek Squad guys at Best Buy, etc. There are plenty of wicked smart people who are collecting unemployment and are about to be evicted, and Genius has nothing to do with it.

    Genius is just another qualifier. It really doesn’t have meaning behind it. Similarly, you can’t say all Blondes are dumb, or all tall people are amazing at basketball. All Geniuses aren’t one set thing, and that makes Hollywood portray them in the thinnest stereotypes available – either socially inept and bumbling, or “cooler than thou” and cynical, or tortured and sad.


  24. Vlvtjones #

    Oh, and disclaimer: I am a Genius, according to MENSA (I am a member). I’m a computer moron. I didn’t even graduate college. Rubik’s cubes are not fun to me.

    While I do really fun work in movies, my life would not make an interesting movie in and of itself.


  25. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Well, now we’re just getting into an argument about what “genius” means. MENSA, as far as I’m aware, bases acceptance on standardized tests, which measure certain types of intelligence, as well as the test-taker’s ability to take a test. It sounds to me like Perich is talking more about Howard Gardner’s definition of “genius,” which can apply to any one of multiple intelligences, including intelligences (like the musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and visual-spatial intelligences) that standardized tests don’t usually test for.

    Some commenters have suggested this already, but I think there’s a big difference between the idea of “flashes of genius” versus the idea of a person who IS a genius. Thomasina from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a good example of a character who is too young and inexperienced to call a genius, but she does have flashes of genius in a certain field. The MENSA mentality (and the mentality of many films) seems to be that certain people are born geniuses and some aren’t. I think part of the greatness of Amadeus lies in the fact that Mozart is portrayed as having flashes of incredible brilliance, while, at other times, he acts like a complete doofus. Do we call Mozart a genius, or do we call him an incredibly talented man who sometimes achieved levels of genius in his work? If Mozart never composed or played any music at all, would he still be a genius?

    This comment isn’t really an argument so much as a question. Perich, when you were talking about “geniuses,” what kind were you talking about?


  26. Neil #

    I disagree that the scene in which Tom Hulce proceeds to better Salieri’s work (thereby disgracing Salieri) shows him to be a genius. That scene propounds the image of Mozart as a very talented ass. It shows him as an excellent technician, and convinces Salieri of both his immaturity and his ability as a sort of “trained monkey.” Is it impressive, of course, but he’s improving upon something that’s already written… Showing his technical skills more than his artistry. The true point of the scene is: “he’s better than Salieri and Salieri will begin to hate him for it.”

    The moment when the genius is understood by Salieri (and by us as the audience) is when Salieri is sight reading the folios one by one, becoming entranced by their perfection, and the voiceover is betraying his thoughts. The moment of genius revealed happens when the genius character himself is not even on screen.

    I do see what you mean, and while the scene is an example of wonderful filmmaking, does not sufficiently convince the audience of Mozart’s genius.


  27. Simber #

    Whoah! I can’t make head or tail of this discussion. Perich assumes a sort of Objective Standard for Genius (OSG anyone?) and then tries to match the movie’s portrayal of it in a art-imitating-life kinda ideology.

    So the commenters start discussing what this OSG can be. But what if there is none? What if ‘genius’ is a social and cultural construction? Is there any objective standard that says Mozart’s music is better than Salieri’s? Is there a scientific reason that we hold Einstein in higher regard than Planck or Faraday?

    Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that some people have made a greater contribution to human knowledge or art than others, but not because we can measure it, but because we have *debated* it. And culture is part of this debate. [Nathalie Heinich wrote an extensive study about this process in the case of Vincent van Gogh.] So is the question ‘how can movies depict genius?’ the right one?

    I think movies show genius by telling you someone is one, by creating myths about the creative process and by showing reactions from other characters (like in the scene from Amadeus – even if you’re completely tone-deaf you know excactly whose music is better). Which is *excactly* how genius is portrayed in real life.

    So not only do movies show genius convincingly, they also reenforce the existing construction: Mozart’s reputation was further cemented by Amadeus by strengthening the ideas we already had of him (the playful, childlike genius) in a strong (and very well made) narrative.)

    I’m just wondering: did John Nash’s reputation suffer because the film made of him sucked so bad (and misrepresented his theory to add injury to insult)?


  28. James T. #

    Stoppard is interesting. I never considered Shakespeare in Love to be a serious attempt at depicting a genius at work; Stoppard, a brilliant playwright in his own right, knows full well that elegant text doesn’t just pop out of thin air when you’re lying in bed with your sweetie; a well-crafted speech takes work, dozens of drafts, countless rewrites, meticulous word-choice; stuff that is rather boring to depict on film. I’m not sure what the point of Shakespeare in Love is – it seems primarily to be a sort of whimsical “what if” project – but it’s more of a love story that happens to involve a genius than a story about a genius who happens to be in love.

    Arcadia is a bit different – it’s important to the plot that we in the audience believe Thomasina to be a genius, and since the theme of the play revolves in part around the question “what is genius?” the type of “handwaving” that works in Star Trek just won’t do. But Stoppard is cheating here – Thomasina seems brighter than she would otherwise because we have the benefit of hindsight; the things she discovers baffle her tutor but are familiar to us. Take Thomasina out of her context and put her in a modern postgraduate Calculus program and she wouldn’t stand out. But we don’t care, because what we need to understand about her is linked to the context, to the story, which is what we’re sitting in the theatre for in the first place.

    Same thing with Proof – we don’t need to see any feats of genius, because that’s not what the play’s about. The play is about trust, and the fact that Catherine wrote an amazing proof is just a dramatic device. It could be a recipe for delicious cake, and the characters could all be bakers, and it wouldn’t change the story one bit, except that a mathematical proof – or rather, the lack thereof, is a handy metaphor for the sort of leap of faith a romantic relationship requires.

    I think a true depiction of genius is besides the point, except as it serves the needs of the story. In Amadeus, Schaffer spends time establishing Mozart’s genius, but, as in perich’s analysis of a scene from the film up there, it’s all encoded in the dramatic action. I think any competent playwright that has a passable understanding of his or her subject has the tools to portray genius, if that is what he or she needs. (Not to suggest that Schaffer is merely a competent playwright – he’s very good, even great. But he no more needs to be a true artistic prodigy to dramatize Mozart’s life than he needs to blind six horses in order to tell a compelling story about that).

    Yes, I know, I’ve steered the discussion onto the stage when the original question was about Hollywood. The problem is that Hollywood, in general, isn’t in the habit of employing even competent writers. The Beautiful Mind scene about the girl is a great example of that – it’s a reasonably well-crafted dramatic scene that is supposed to get across Nash’s genius, but it fell short for reasons already described. This could have been solved with a little more work. If someone on board had said “wait, that’s a poor example of Game Theory,” it would probably be a much better scene (or, more likely, a different scene that serves the same dramatic purpose). Same with the thing. Of course, bad writing, careless editing, and just plain sloppiness is not a problem unique to movies about genius…


  29. Lara #

    How about Doc Brown from Back to the Future? Where does he fit in?

    Having not seen the movie in a very long time, I may be way off target here… but surely all geniuses are eccentric people with crazy hair!


  30. perich OTI Staff #

    @vlvtjones, Simber and Mlawski: “genius” is someone who lies three or more standard deviations from the norm on the aptitude test of your choice – the top 0.1% of their field.

    “Genius” is also a matter of being acclaimed as a genius, so that adds the subjective element you were alluding to.


  31. Valatan #

    This conversation about ‘flashes of genius’ is reminding me of the Platonic dialogues with the artists–Socrates basically goes around talking to poets and musicians who create works that have profound insight into the the world that the authors, in turn, don’t really understand.

    If you’ve watched interviews with great artists, it actually rings pretty true–they have this thing in them that demands getting out, but they really don’t get what it is beyond some sort of vague idea. Same with a lot of scientists. Einstein only had a glimmer of the consequences of his theories of relativity or the photoelectirc effect. That has been stuff that has been worked out in the many years since.


  32. Rob #

    I’m not saying Warren Buffett isn’t smart, driven, or skilled at his work. He is all those things. But so are lots of people. Those personal attributes, while necessary, are not sufficient to achieve financial success on that scale, nor are they unique attributes in combination – nor even particularly rare. His investment strategies aren’t particularly unique, either; he was just in the right place at the right time such that his holding company did well early on, and things took off from there. Luck of circumstance, and not any particular insight, is the determining factor in reaching Buffett’s level of success.

    More broadly, I was objecting to the implicit argument that financial success through investing can represent an example of genius.

    Americans are a bit too quick to conclude that folks who have made lots of money must have done so because of unique, personal attributes or insight. Perhaps this tendency comes from the Calvinist notion of the “Elect” – that you can recognize those who are meritorious in God’s eyes by their material success – but given how volatile markets are, and how quickly fortunes can disappear, that idea seems to imply that God is moody (or Moody’s?).

    Along with the assumption that personal attributes determine wealth comes the assumption that one person’s “strategy” for making money is reproducible by other people. There’s an entire industry of “How-To” and “Self-Help” books that cater to this notion; yet an investment/business strategy is only as reproducible as the circumstances are identical. And most of the time, circumstances aren’t identical.

    Back on the subject of what genius is – theoretically I could accept the “objective” measure that Perich describes; but are there really standardized tests that are well enough designed to quantify aptitude in creative fields like visual art or musical composition or poetry or science? I like the argument of Mlawski et al. that genius can manifest in many different types of intelligence, and that we should distinguish between the work-of-genius and the person-who-is-a-genius – the distinction being that the person-who-is-a-genius produces multiple works-of-genius.

    Like, when Francis Crick postulated the existence and function of tRNA years before the chemical species had been isolated – that was a work of genius. Or when Santiago Ramon y Cajal figured out much of how the nervous system develops and functions based simply on his microscopic observations of fixed neuroanatomic structures – that was a work of genius. And both of those individuals made several important contributions to science, so I’d consider them both geniuses. By contrast, Jim Watson contributed intellectually to just one major advance and spent the rest of his career as more of an administrator. So I wouldn’t call Watson a scientific genius (although I would call him a douchebag).

    How do we acclaim something a work of genius? It’s depends on how well an individual reader / viewer / listener / etc. knows or respects the work. So it depends on individual taste or esteem. But it also depends, as Perich states, on the work’s fame. A lot of people would call the Kanon in D by Pachelbel a work of genius, while I would consider it tripe, especially when compared to the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s second Violin Partita. Additionally, individual works are more widely acclaimed when the artist is better known. Was Planck’s initial work on quantization really less impressive than Einstein’s application of this theory to describe the photoelectric effect? (Thomas Kuhn thinks so.) But while Americans do not consider Planck to be as famous as Einstein, Germans have all heard of him – they even named their national scientific society the Max Planck Gesellschaft. (“Max Planck” is also Shechner’s porn alias.) So perhaps we just ignore Planck because he never lived in America.

    Similarly, far fewer people know Schubert’s piano works than Beethoven’s. Each was original and novel; the difference is that Schubert didn’t have the same level of patronage that Beethoven did – it’s like Beethoven was on a major label and Schubert was just on underground mixtapes.

    Finally, I’m surprised this thread has continued this long without acknowledging that Hollywood’s best shot at accurately portraying a “flash of genius” will be if someone can convince the GZA to make an Auto Bio pic.
    Fenzel should reiterate his offer of Mint Milanos.


  33. POWinCA #

    You missed the best genius movie of all: Good Will Hunting.

    Matt Damon plays some Southie genius/bruiser with an eidetic memory and superior reasoning skills. Instead of being smart, he’s a smart ass.

    Aside from solving some whiz-bang math problem on a blackboard while working as a janitor, he enthralls the leading lady with a glib dressing-down of a sweatered grad student in a bar with his knowledge of history. Of course, Damon reverts to The People’s History of the United States; Damon was an admirer and close friend of Howard Zinn.

    The biggest reason silver screen “geniuses” are so unconvincing is that their characters are written by Hollywood writers who are anything BUT geniuses.

    The most famous (and politically outspoken) actors and actresses are mostly high school and college dropouts. Those who did graduate college were mostly Theater majors. Theater departments have some of the lowest entrance requirements for college.

    One could name some notable exceptions to the rule of ignorant, uneducated actors, but the evidence would be anecdotal. Hollywood artists are mostly morons. If they demonstrate any intellect, it’s only because Hollywood writers contrived it.


  34. donn #

    I think you are misrepresenting what Warren Buffett does. He isn’t just a lucky investor – he acquires substantial stakes in companies that he thinks are underperforming/can grow significantly in their sector, then cleans up the management and puts people in place who can improve the performance of said companies. Obviously luck is a factor in most things, but it’s hard to totally discount his insight/judgment.

    My personal favorite, most believable movie genius is Professor Falken/Fredkin from War Games, even though he didn’t do anything brilliant during the course of the movie.


  35. Mads Ejstrup #

    Well about that’s is a great scene in showing the “mechanics” of genius, but it’s is also a bit of a cheat since the march composed by Sallierie is so boring that it’s easy to make sound better. Also Amadeus invents a conflict between to composers wich never existed, it invents a world where Mozart is misunderstood (he was en fact looked upon as an important composer). Also it has to show Salierie as a very bad composer when he was infact an magnificant composer. The movie/play onlu sels Mozarts genius because whe don’t really hear any other music in the film.


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