30 January 2006

current cinema: Capote


starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., and Chris Cooper
written by: Dan Futterman, from the book by Gerald Clarke
directed by: Bennett Miller
R, 98 min, 2005, USA

A small item in the front section of The New York Times draws the attention of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), famed author[1] and social butterfly. Realizing the potential for an interesting article, he phones editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) and is soon on a train for the heartland with his old friend and research assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). It doesn't take Capote long to realize that a single article won't cover the story, and turns his focus to an entire book, eventually titled In Cold Blood[2], but the process becomes too much for him. Or, as he remarks to Lee, "If they win this appeal, I may have a complete nervous breakdown."

Capote, as the title suggests, is all about Truman Capote. Everything that happens runs through the filter of his experience. For example, the afore-mentioned quote comes from the after-party of the premiere for To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic film adaptation of Lee's best-selling novel. Normally, this is a grand occasion for a film to name-drop people like Gregory Peck and other movie stars of the era, but Capote is in dire straights, having spent the greater part of four years waiting for the story of the Kansas murders to conclude so he can write the ending to his book, and is not in the mood to socialize. So we see just enough of the Hollywood glitz to remind us where we are, and instead focus on Capote getting drunk in the corner. This is a man so self-involved and egotistical that a stay of execution of a man he's grown fond of is greeted as if it were bad news, for it interferes with the planned publicity of the book. Never-mind that a man's life has been spared.

One result of this singular focus is that the film never strays from what Capote himself is experiencing. There are no montages of his friends. The details of the crime are not revealed to us until they are revealed to him. The farthest we physically get from him is the other end of his phone conversations[3]. Therefore we cannot help but sympathize with Capote, for his is the only perspective we know. We see him as a heartless bastard with little regard for the well-being of his friends or subjects, but we also come to understand a little bit of why that is. We do not forgive him for what he did, nor do we condone it, but we can see why he does it. And for that, we can view him as something more than a monster.

Of course, this is one of Capote's stated goals of his book, to show the world that Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and his brother still maintained a piece of their humanity, despite their horrific crimes. Truman Capote never questions if the men are truly guilty, for that will not work for his book, but he attempts to explore why they did what they did, what possessed them to brutally murder a family of four. This is complicated by the affinity he feels for Perry Smith, the sense of brotherhood they share. He is torn between kinship and propriety (or his own twisted brand of journalistic integrity). It is one of the many dilemmas that haunt him.

Read anything about Capote and you'll learn that this is a film that revolves around the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hardly an article has been written that does not praise his performance as a tour de force and far and away the best thing in the film. And while Hoffman's performance is utterly fantastic, it does not overshadow the rest of the film in ways you'd expect. For what is often forgotten in the rush to find new adjectives with which to praise Hoffman is the fact that this is an all-around good film, and very nearly a great one. Catherine Keener and Clifton Collins Jr. both turn in exceptional performances, as does the rest of the supporting cast. Bennett Miller's direction is clean, efficient, and unobtrusive. He does not let misguided stylistic choices interfere with the narrative focus that is the character of Truman Capote. There's a scene late in the film where Capote is in an emotional discussion with Smith and rather than move the camera around or vary his shots, Miller is confident enough in his story to put each actor in a close-up and just let them go, cutting back and forth when necessary. To add a flourish would detract from the moment, so he gets out of the way and allows the scene to develop naturally. To show this much constraint and craft this early in a career is the mark of a talented and intelligent director[4]. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Truman Capote, we learn in the end credits, died in 1984 from complications from alcoholism, and given what we see here, that certainly seems logical, but a large part of that seems to stem from the methods he used to process information. The film presents Capote as a man who viewed everything in terms of how it affected him personally. So, when things were good they were very good, but when they were bad, they could be catastrophic. And even when something good happened (like a stay of execution), it could be catastrophic. Ergo, alcoholism. But the beauty of Capote is that it refuses to pass judgment on that or any other of the things that made up the larger-than-life Truman Capote. It simply presents them as they were, without hesitation or apology, leaving it up to the audience to decide if Capote was something more than a monster.

[1] He had already written the novels Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Glass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), none of which I've read. He also wrote the screenplay to John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953), which I haven't seen.

[2] I haven't read that either.

[3] And occasionally into the other room. We also see how the bodies are discovered, but this is before we meet our hero.

[4] His only previous directing credit is The Cruise (1998), a 76 minute portrait of Tim "Speed" Levitch, a crazy Manhattan tour guide best known as the guy on the bridge in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001).


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