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Non-Review Review: Barbaric Genius

Barbaric Genius has a fascinating subject. Writer John Healy was responsible for The Grass Arena, generally regarded as one of the most searingly and brutally honest depictions of life on the streets published during the eighties. However, despite the fact that The Grass Arena became a touchstone for an entire generation and that it was so successful that it was developed into a film, Healy faded rather quickly from view. Despite writing consistently over the years that followed, none of Healy’s work was published for more than two decades following the 1988 release of The Grass Arena.

It’s an intriguing mystery, and Barbaric Genius does a thorough job exploring it, but the documentary suffers a bit as it tries to bring its subject into focus, often feeling like director/producer/narrator Paul Duane is having difficulty getting the necessary distance between himself and the film.

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Healy isn’t the easiest of subjects. He frequently clams-up on camera, refusing to answer particular questions. At certain points, he suggests that Duane and his crew turn off the camera if they want an answer. “If you’re going to address this, we’re going to have to address this head on,” Duane bluntly informs his subject at one point. Healy responds playfully (if defensively), “It makes your programme better if I say ‘the mad axe-man.'”

It’s a very delicate situation, and Healy explains himself quite well – he’s wary of committing to anything on film, treating the interview as an interrogation and afraid of being “stitched up.” While it’s entirely understandable, it makes Barbaric Genius an occasionally frustrating experience. At one point, Duane talks about how he has spent five years trying to get to know Healy, only to get frozen out at crucial points in the conversation.

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Barbaric Genius tries to compensate for these lacunas in Healy’s autobiography. We get a lot of talking heads offering insightful accounts of what happened that forced Healy out of the publishing industry. Was it a matter of class? Is it fair to say that elitist publishers “closed ranks on him”? Was it reasonable that one threat – something that the editor on the receiving end dismisses as a “tiny, tiny episode; a minute episode” that is “almost like an urban myth” – should derail an entire career?

These elements are fascinating, and it’s nice that Duane finds a way to offer diverse viewpoints offering unique insight into that key moment. Still, Healy’s reluctance to entirely open up about it keeps the film at a distance. It’s hard to really get a sense of the man beyond his discomfort at being on film. At one point, Duane suggests that the very act of being filmed seems to cause Healy physical discomfort, and the documentary is quick to offer close-ups on his hands flexing and tensing, perhaps to help manage stress.

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In order to fill this gap, Barbaric Genius tries a number of approaches. The exploration of Healy’s background is fascinating stuff, and Duane very cleverly argues for the authenticity of The Grass Arena by visually overlaying the text of Healy’s book as he recalls the details from memory. The book syncs up perfectly with Healy’s memories of life and living rough. He candidly shares insights he has learned over the years, speaking from bitter experience.

At the same time, these segments often feel like they meander a bit, like they take a bit too long to get where they are going. Barbaric Genius barely runs over an hour, but it still feels like a lot of the middle section could have been edited more tightly. Exploring Healy’s spirituality or his love of chess is fascinating, but the problem lies in the handling of that big pivotal confrontation with his publisher. It’s big enough that it feels like the beat that the documentary is building towards – in which case, the documentary feels a little too unfocused. However, it’s small enough that there’s a lot of space left for minutiae.

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The film also has difficulty balancing Duane’s involvement in all this. How active a participant is he in this documentary? There are times when it seems like Duane is moving beyond the role of passive narrator and into something of a protagonist – a few scattered moments when it seems like Barbaric Genius is as much about Duane trying to connect with his subject as it is about Healy himself. “I told myself eventually I’d capture that side of him in the film, if he’d let me,” Paul Duane tells us, as if outlining his own mission statement.

There isn’t anything wrong with this. In fact, a documentary about making a documentary with a reluctant subject with be a fascinatingly self-reflexive piece of cinema. There are moments when Barbaric Genius seems to toy with the idea, as Healy discusses the language of documentaries, and the clichés that he wants to avoid. However, Duane never quite commits to this, tackling it briefly at the start as something of a proviso – a warning about Healy’s reluctance to talk – before delving into the more conventional “this is your life” stuff.

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John Healy is a fascinating subject. The Grass Arena is a powerful piece of prose. There’s a compelling story about the way John Healy was forced out of the publishing industry. Barbaric Genius has a lot working for it. Even though it can’t quite figure out how to get around its most reluctant of subjects, it’s still a fascinating watch.

Barbaric Genius is available on video-on-demand from today. You can pick it up here.

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