Sunday, November 27, 2005
First, let me say this. I grew up loving movies, being inspired and altered by the oversized transcendent images on the screen as much as anyone else. But I don't head off to the mall cinemas much anymore. It's expensive and when I do go, I usually leave the theatre disappointed. After reading a four star review, and eagerly taking my seat with a four buck tub of popcorn and a three dollar soda, I end up feeling like I should have waited for the video. Or not bothered at all.
Rarely do I see a movie that causes me to rave like I do over a book, to hound everyone I know about seeing it, or to reflect on it so much (and so loudly) that I drive everyone in my house crazy. But last night, Capote proved an exception. I left the theatre in stunned silence, but by the time I reached the car, I was talking wildly--and I haven't stopped since. It also drove me back to the work of an author who clearly bears rereading.
Not only is this movie powerfully acted (Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely becomes Truman Capote) and dramatically riveting, it is that rare thing: a deep and complex study of character, personal motivation, and morality. And it that weren't enough, it's also about a writer!
"It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front."
Thus, Truman Capote described his relationship with the killer who brutally murdered a Kansas farm family for forty dollars. It would surely have become a forgotten event, except in the small community that was scarred by it, and Perry Smith, another anonymous psychopath, if Capote hadn't written IN COLD BLOOD. The book lifted Perry Smith from the ignominious grave he inhabited after his execution, and made Capote a multi-millionaire, and the "most famous writer in America". The author's hunger for that adulation is the driving force behind both IN COLD BLOOD, and his own demise.
In the film, we see Capote artfully seducing everyone in his path with a combination of charisma and searing intelligence. From the intellectuals of the New York literary scene who gather around him at parties to the dogged FBI agent who wants justice for the victims to the imprisoned killer, Capote exercises his powerful charm to get what he wants. And what he wants is a story--at any cost.
From a writer's perspective, he was also a master of hype. Long before he'd written a word of IN COLD BLOOD, he was trumpeting it as "the work he was born to write." He promised that when it appeared it "would change the way books were written." And when it did come out, reviewers dutifully repeated those words, hailing it as "the first non-fiction novel."
But the film is not about Capote's clever hype. It's not even about the crime described in his exhaustive and masterful account. It's about betrayal--betrayal of a particularly literary nature. After gaining Smith's trust and mining his story, Capote not only abandoned him, he abruptly withdrew any help in fighting Smith's execution. Further stays, it seemed, could only delay publication of his book.
Could Capote have saved the killer's life with his money and his powerful friends? Perhaps, but probably not. Thus, the betrayal was one of the heart more than anything else. And it is in the writer's heart that it festers.
Capote claimed that after working on the book for four years, he merely wanted a resolution. But the film strongly infers that once he had his story, he hoped for a dramatic denouement to his journalistic "novel". A denouement that could only be provided by Perry Smith's hanging.
It wasn't until he got what he wished for that Capote realized that his bond with the dichotomously cold-blooded and sensitive killer ran far deeper than he ever knew. He would never publish another novel. And in the end, the writer's death from alcoholism and spiralling drug abuse was nearly as lonely as that of his most famous subject.