Friday, November 11, 2005

Thoughts on Capote

A couple of years ago my friend Kevin gave me George Plimpton's oral biography of Truman. I've picked it up on several occasions and never let myself get involved in it, partly because it begins with his Alabama upbringing and people telling rather pedestrian stories of passing relationships with him in his youth. I think now I'll skip a chapter or two and get into the meat of his story a little more quickly.

After I saw the movie, I pulled out the book again and flipped to the index so I could find all the passages pertinent to In Cold Blood. What I found there was largely present in the film -- Truman's leading on of Smith, his near-breakdown around the time of the executions, Harper's phone call to the hotel, his last-minute decision to witness their hanging -- all these details were well-recorded by Plimpton and the people who were interviewed. But in these pages I found Truman's humanity, his terror, I really felt how conflicted he was about his relationship to the crimes. I have to say that I found Capote so icy, so mannered, and its Truman so consistently arrogant, deceitful, pompous, and condescending that I felt like I was watching a movie about a man selling his soul when it wasn't worth the change in my pocket. I could register little more than disgust at the fact that the filmmakers were asking us to be moved by his shedding tears as he lies to the killers and says "I did everything I could do." In fact, I never really believed a word the character said, even when he was plainly telling the truth.

Other things bothered me, too, like why in the world would Wallace Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, be taking Truman's calls while the man's lying in bed in his pajamas? I didn't buy that scene for a minute. Upon reading the bio, I discovered that it was Joe Fox, Truman's editor, who played that role; I'm sure the film's Shawn is a compilation of the two historical figures. It makes sense for the storytelling, but it's still hard to swallow. And then there's Harper Lee. I love Catherine Keener dearly, I do, but I wanted more of her. The role seems sadly underwritten.

It's funny; I had this nagging suspicion that I would find Capote problematic. I don't really know why...perhaps it was overexposure, or hearing and reading too much of the filmmakers' approach to the subject matter (which always sounded rather simplistic to me), or just the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman looks so much like Philip Seymour Hoffman trying really hard to do Capote. He is good, and I did get used to his performance far more quickly than I thought I would, but I never felt any kind of connection to the character, a character who happens to be a literary figure that I have a certain affection for. Perhaps I was unprepared for such a dark portrait of him, but I don't really think that's the case. It's not as if I was ignorant of the man's nasty qualities. I didn't even need to leave the movie liking the guy; I just wanted to get a rich, moving sense of his humanity. And I didn't get that.


Hikaru said...

I felt much the same way about the filmm, particularly the scene with Shawn taking Capote's call from Harper.

Part of the problem is the title itself. "Capote" seems to suggest a vivid wide-spanning portrait of Truman Capote, not just his last major hurrah.

sallie said...

"I could register little more than disgust at the fact that the filmmakers were asking us to be moved by his shedding tears as he lies to the killers and says "I did everything I could do.'"

This is interesting... I had the opposite reaction. I thought this scene was moving *because* it disgusted me, and because it's the beginning of Truman's downfall. I thought the line "I did everything I could do" was not a lie, but rather a very sad realization by Capote that he himself was not capable of doing anything else. He knows he *could* do something else, but he doesn't want to try anymore. There were several other moral conflicts throughout the film, which all seemed to resolve this way, with Truman giving into his selfishness, arrogance, and complacency.

At this "I did everything I could do" moment, I finally gave up on Truman, just as he comes to give up on himself. As the execution draws nearer and the ending of the book presents itself, Truman realizes he has become a cold and manipulative ass, and this realization cripples him as writer... Writers are supposed to empathize, above all else, and Truman proves he isn't capable of empathy. Since the goal of a biopic is to enter the mind of its subject, I thought it was appropriate that we couldn't really empathize with Truman and his final decisions. At least I thought all of this was what Futterman was trying to communicate. I could be wrong. I certainly had other problems with the film though...

frank's wild lunch said...

All good points.

I certainly don't think Truman was lying in any kind of calculated fashion, as he does so often in various other scenes in the film. But what he says isn't may be a mollifying lie, an attempt to offer some kind of final gesture to the men, or an attempt to release himself from the burden of their deaths, but it's still a lie. As a result his behavior in the scene struck me as more pathetic than tragic, which is one of the reasons why pitching this film as some kind of great tragedy seems wrong somehow. The other reason is the whole "lack of empathy" issue, which seems a major flaw. I just don't feel like the character that was presented deserved the classical treatment.

sallie said...

Ah, I see, I see... I knew so little about Capote going into it (I hadn't read the biographies, etc, or even the reviews of the film). Since I saw it I've read more about him, and it does seem like he was short-changed. I can still make an argument for the film itself, but as far as the real Capote goes, it seems like something is a little rotten. Maybe Have you Heard? will be a better portrayal.

And yes, btw, Harper Lee was definitely underwritten. And I don't think that having given her more meat would have taken away from Truman's story, which is I bet what the argument was when they cut her scenes down (if she ever had them).