We all like writers who have a bit of moxy about them, don't we? Hemmingway, Hunter Thompson, Burroughs, Bukowski. Rumour has it that when our own Mike Sheridan writes up a review he goes straight down to the docks to pick a fight.
John Healy is another one. Inspired by years of alcohol abuse while sleeping rough on the streets of London, Healy put pen to paper and produced The Grass Arena, which is now hailed as a masterpiece – a masterpiece that was out of print until 2008. Why? Director Paul Duane investigates. (Apologies if that lead-in sounded a bit TV3).
Duane's documentary follows Healy as he takes us on a tour of London's streets and his struggle with alcohol, to his jail time where a prisoner introduces him to chess, grabbing Healy's attention after liking the game to stealing. Healy takes to the game with relish, becoming a chess master who can conduct several games at once (at one point here he plays up to ten people at once). He's now yoga enthusiast – anything that grabs his attention is never put down until it's perfected. Barbaric Genius goes about dismantling the perceived notion of Healy being aggressive, abrasive and contrarian, albeit a talented one.
Forced by Healy's obvious irritation of formal interviews, Paul Duane opts for a casual vibe. The director is reduced to a free-wheeling style, following Duane around his local stomping ground of Kentish Town, London, where we’re given tips on where and how to sleep on the streets if ever that unfortunate occasion arose, and where Healy witnessed murder in the titular park. In between those street scenes, Duane has to lie in wait in Healy's home and tease out a 'chat' that he can catch on camera. But this informality is what makes Barbaric Genius work. Sitting in a chair in a studio with a light focussed on him, Healy is reluctant to regale us on why Faber & Faber dropped his option so soon after Grass Arena became a sensation, but later, on the streets and in his home, he has no problem in telling all. That incident gives this documentary one half of its title. With interviews with Faber & Faber and other publishing houses, Duane gets both sides of the story but we're never in doubt whose side we're on.
Appealing to anyone fresh to Healy and his work or those familiar of the writer and looking to find out what exactly happened post The Grass Arena should find this interesting.
Review by Gavin Burke | 10:30 | Friday 18th May 2012 | Movie Review