Hubert Selby Jr: It’ll be Better Tomorrow, is a solid film about a writer I’ve never read but would probably like. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade and became a merchant marine during WWII and therefore a drunk. We’re told that he only turned to writing after narrowly escaping death and being debilitated by TB. Selby’s most famous book was Last Exit to Brooklyn which sold a bunch of copies, largely because of two idiotic obscenity trials. He made a bunch of money and squandered it on drugs before rebuilding his life, continuing to write and becoming a popular teacher at USC. The part of the film that actually sets out to tell his story does so quite well.
However, about a third of the film irritated the fuck out of me, not because of unusual sins, but because of typical ones found in the biographical doc. If you’ve watched any number of “Real Men of Genius” documentaries such as Sketches of Frank Gehry, or Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes; Crazy Sexy Cool you’ve seen the breathless fawning and hyperbole and, depending on the time in which the person lived, the celebrity hob-knobbing and circle-jerks. Look, Henry Rollins has injected himself into the situation in act of self-promotion number 10,000. Here’s Anthony Kiedis for no reason. Selby overcame a drug addiction, so let’s get Robert Downy Jr. to narrate. That’s how good a writer Selby was. Huh?
The truth about greatness is that it’s a matter of increment, rather than orders of magnitude. This is most clear in more objective endeavors like sports. The most commonly cited example is golf, where one stroke separates Tiger from the field and the field from the club pros. I like the example of football though–bear with me you unclean foreigners. Football is a multi-billion dollar industry and meticulously scouted athletes conform to a narrow range of physical attributes. You can rule out 99.99% of the population from a given position just by watching them run ten feet. Yet the differences between the greatest of all time and the home town heroes are so subtle that you could build a team almost exclusively of first tier, all-time greats who weren’t even noticed by college scouts and wound up at barely-known programs. Build an offense around Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Jackie Slater, Larry Allen, Gene Upshaw and a properly sedated Terrell Owens and you’re in pretty good shape. Steve McNair is probably your quarterback and though, he’s “only” a borderline hall of famer, he wasn’t even a Dvision I player and your team would still score 80 points per game. Yet nobody could tell that any of these guys were good enough to play for Iowa.
Within the arts and academics, where success is more subjective, greatness is just as hard to spot and narrowly achieved. You probably know that Confederacy of Dunces was only published under improbable circumstances after the author committed suicide as a failure. There must be hundreds of such books that were never discovered. Marconi and Tesla tied on inventing the radio. Leibniz and Newton tied on inventing calculus. A bunch of other people would have also tied with them, except they died at age seven because they crapped in their drinking water. Only a handful of living filmmakers will be remembered through the centuries, but nobody really has a clue which ones. Will future generations believe that Sokurov is ten times better than Scorsese? Will there be hundreds of professors specializing in “The Simpsons” or “The Wire” who look down their nose at film from this era? Will Hubert Selby Jr. be completely forgotten? It all seems possible.
Again I don’t have a huge problem with the strictly biographical elements of this film and the footage chosen of Selby. Nor is my argument that the great people who are separated by timing, chance and marginally better ability are any less great or interesting because of it. In fact, the things that make up those little differences are far more interesting than the scenario of the typical hagiography, wherein the genius is a comic book hero. If some people just popped out of the womb with IQs of 300 and the ability to throw a 180 MPH fastball, their stories would quickly become boring. Warranted hagiography is fine, but what are the nuances and idiosyncrasies that allowed the subject to shine? Selby talks about his style, but only briefly. There has to be more to say about the man and his work that could be included at the expense of cameos testifying to his freakish genius.
In fact, with rare exceptions, other celebrities should usually be excluded from these films. Anyone who’s ever listened to a DVD commentary knows the mechanism at work here. Celebrities, though usually talented and deserving, have still just scraped past other talented and deserving and people to achieve their status. Insecure and unwilling to face this fact, they establish a tacit contract whereby all parties wildly exaggerate each others ability. Maybe the producers casting the voice of ALF thought it was a coin toss between the guy who got it and the next guy at the time. But now, we can see that he was unbelievably fucking brilliant! I’m not saying that Selby is the same as the ALF guy, but I did want to throw up when an actress from the film of his Requiem For A Dream declared that the chance to give voice to his words was “one of the great gifts of my life.”
The best part of the contract is that even those giving out the blowjobs benefit. Not only is there the understanding that they too will be blown down the line (the guy who did the voice of ALF will talk about the stunning vision of the producers of ALF), there is the implication that they have earned the right to understand and opine on the genius by being brilliant themselves. Why is Richard Price in a film about Selby for like fifteen minutes? So he can say, “Hubert Selby is a Genius. I ought to know… I’m Richard Price.” And Michael Jordan loves Ball Park Franks. They plump when you cook ’em! Obviously Rollins, who is a genius at tricking people into believing he’s not an idiot, is the more gratuitous example. But it’s specifically because I’m fine with Price that I mention him. I know Price deserves a spot on the totem pole that is invisible from my own. But, apart from perhaps a few words on Selby’s influence, that has absolutely nothing to do with Selby the man. Long after it’s explained to we uninitiated why Selby was great and what he did, we still hear from Price and the like. Give me more from his students at USC. His mailman. Hell, maybe the guy himself. There’s a decent amount of footage with Selby, but seeing as he is the subject of the film, maybe he should be in it more than Darren Aronofsky.
Apart from just being fed up with this hagiography approach in general, I think it irked me so much in this particular film because Selby comes across as unbelievably modest and unconcerned with stratification of status. He wasn’t a monk, but it seems like if he knew a film was being made about Robert Downy Jr, it would never even occur to him to involve himself. When he called for a job at USC he wasn’t sure they’d have one for him because he never seemed to realize that, according to one testimony, there should be a wing of the Harvard library named in his honor. So I doubt he’d believe that his legacy is best conveyed via celebrity endorsements.