||Genius on Hold
2012 - PG - 91 Mins.
|Director: Gregory Marquette|
|Producer: Diana Ross-Shaw, Walter T. Shaw|
|Written By: Gregory Marquette|
|Starring: Frank Langella |
|Review by: David Rolston
|Official Site: whoiswaltershaw.com/home.html|
The documentary "Genius on Hold" would have been better served to remove its polemic introduction and summary which only serves to delay entry into what is otherwise a fascinating historical treatise on the history of telecommunications in the united states, and in particular the creation and eventual undoing of the AT+T monopoly.
A bright future ahead
It also touches on the post WWII emergence of the electronics industry, by way of the ultimately tragic life of Walter L. Shaw, a largely forgotten inventor who at one time was one of Bell Lab's most exciting telephony engineers. By the time Shaw died, he had been awarded a remarkable 39 patents including circuits and devices that are used at one time or another by every single human being in the modern world. These technologies are commonplace today, which is remarkable considering that most of Shaw's inventions came in the 1960's and 1970's, long before any of these services would become available to the public.
Certainly there is a compelling story in the retelling of how a man like Shaw could invent and be awarded telecommunications patents that are the basis for easily hundreds of billions of dollars of products and services, and somehow die penniless in 1996.
"Genius on Hold" works best when it takes the macro historic view of things, using talking heads that do an excellent job providing history and context, and worst when it attempts to document its titular subject. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that you really don't get much of a sense of who Walter L. Shaw actually was. There is almost no footage and few pictures of the man, so we're left to the meandering recollections of his son and daughter, neither of whom for various reasons, are capable of illuminating the subject or historical context that would make the material interesting.
The film is especially deficient in expert testimony for the inventions themselves, which are clearly the reason we ought to be interested in Shaw in the first place. I couldn't help thinking that the film could have benefitted from the inclusion of actual engineers who could help explain the innovation and "genius" of the Shaw designs. There are only so many times we can watch a tracking shot of a circuit diagram without yearning for someone to talk us through what was novel or exciting or innovative.
This is a man who for example, designed and built a prototype voice-activated speakerphone in his home, would manage the implementation of the "Red Phone" which connected the White House and Kremlin throughout the cold war era, and the touch tone dial pad that would replace the rotary dialer. Just ask a person born in the last two decades what a rotary dial phone is, and expect to find a blank stare. Shaw's inventions have shaped the present, and one can't help but think there was more material that could have been explored.
The problem of course is that Ma Bell was a government endorsed Monopoly protected by law, and ultimately the only game in town for a telecommunications inventor like Shaw. When he had the temerity to expect remuneration, recognition and royalties for his inventions, he quickly found himself on the outside of an industry that controlled every aspect of its infrastructure and brutally repressed anyone who might challenge AT+T's corporate control of telecommunication technology and ultimately any associated profits. Shaw could invent the future, but was prevented from selling or even testing his devices once he left Bell labs.
A significant portion of the film is devoted to Shaw's son Walter T., who eventually would become a notorious mob affiliated burglar. While an interesting story in its own right, it often feels as if the younger Shaw is participating in a doc about his own life rather than one about his father. The twists and turns of Walter L. Shaw's downfall and the retreat of his son into a life of crime, make for some interesting "truth is stranger than fiction" revelations, but do little to retain interest in the main storyline and themes at times when the narrative momentum starts to dissipate.
"Genius on Hold" while disappointing at times, should still provide satisfaction to Documentary enthusiasts and fans of political and technological history. Its early revelations about the world just prior to the emergence of AT+T as a monopoly are surprising and hint at what the film might have been had it widened its lens, and given more time to the historians who have studied and documented the industry.
"Genius on Hold" is far from a top notch Doc, but fans of the genre or subject matter should find it worthwhile viewing, despite its shortcomings.