‘The Grand Unifed Theory of Howard Bloom’ Treats its Interesting Subject as a Circus Spectacle

Howard Bloom stands in front of a filled bookcase. He is an older man, possibly in his 60s, with wild curly grey hair and a receding hairline. His eyes are brown and he is looking away from camera to his left. He wears a dark poloneck jumper and black shirt.
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It’s difficult to know how to feel about Howard Bloom by the end of Charlie Hoxie’s documentary on the eponymous music-manager-turned-writer. For his part, Hoxie appears to be at once fascinated by Bloom; vexed by him; and, when merely watching Bloom in the wild, captivated by him as one might be by a circus clown.

In all fairness, the fascination and vexation are understandable, given Bloom’s biography. Beginning in the 1970s, Bloom spent nearly two decades being the most ubiquitous music manager in America. In 1988, he developed chronic fatigue syndrome, leaving him housebound for 15 years. In that time, however, Bloom ended up becoming a writer in the fields of science and philosophy, with the publication of books with such suspect titles as The God Principle and The Muhammad Code. By the time of the documentary, he is in the midst of writing what he believes will be his magnum opus: a monstrous book called The Grand Unified Theory of Everything and the Universe Including the Human Soul that clocks in at over 9000 chapters.

What to do with this wayward eccentric, especially as his fascination with these lofty subjects seems not born out of a Jordan Peterson-esque grift, but is totally genuine? Hoxie’s instinct is to show us Bloom’s world as Bloom might see it — a mixture of strict routine and holistic musing on the nature of the universe. So, while we follow Bloom on his peculiar daily routine (like how he sleeps in four-hour blocks both during the night and over lunchtime or does the same walk to the same café for writing every day), we also get cutaways to the wonders of mother nature, or pages flipping in a book.

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The trouble with it all is Hoxie is not an especially great filmmaker. Competent though he is, he mainly uses these cutaways to move the narrative along. They make Bloom a more digestible figure because they visually illustrate his speech, or at least complement them in some way without deepening them. I don’t think that really does justice to Bloom as a character — and oh boy, is he a character — so the effect of it is to play as a particularly amusing TV special with a touch more creativity than that format usually allows.

The footage might otherwise have played as compelling if the audience were allowed to simply watch him talk: no ambient music, no Terrence Malick rip-offs. The ambivalence we feel towards Bloom would have blossomed into a richer ambiguity from Hoxie, who might instead allow his audience to draw their own conclusions about the man. Better yet, it might have allowed for the total opposite: for Hoxie to really establish a point of view, or even to examine, from a respectful distance, his own mixture of feelings on Bloom.

Instead, he and the audience are reduced to spectators, and Bloom’s conflicting qualities are made into extremes for the sake of this very spectacle. It felt as though I was being expected to laugh at his quackery, marvel at his brilliance, and then shrug off his snobbish dismissal of ‘frivolous leisure activities’ and ‘useless’ sporting interests as a symptom of his genius. This isn’t just a boring way to treat an interesting subject— it’s quite off-putting.

The Grand Unifed Theory of Howard Bloom will be available on VOD from July 21st

by Thomas Atkinson

Thomas Atkinson is studying journalism at City University of London, hailing from the New Forest. He has spent much of the past five years watching movies, and some of the past three years writing about them. His favourite films include Beau Travail, Zodiac, Heat, Only Angels Have Wings, Close-Up and Eraserhead. His life-force largely consists of Ted Danson’s bow ties in The Good Place, Pauline Kael’s books, and the intro to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’, which he rightfully claims to be the greatest song ever written. He has Letterboxd.

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