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08 January 2006 — Capote (9)

Some of you think I only complain about movies, or that I only complain about certain types of movies. (For example, Peter Jackson films.) That's not true. I like a lot of films. It's just not as fun to write about the good ones.

Kris and I are woefully behind on our "see all the Oscar best picture nominees before the awards ceremony" tradition. True, the nominations won't be announced until the end of the month, but it's possible for one to make some educated guesses. Most years, we see three or four of the five nominees before they're announced. This year, the only potential nominee we've seen is Crash (and, though we liked it a great deal, it only has a small chance at being nominated). To catch up, we'll probably need to see at least one film each weekend until March.

Today we decided to take in Capote, which has been receiving all sorts of rave reviews. Though I boycott Regal Cinemas out of principle, sometimes the Fox Tower 10 downtown is our only option, as it was this time.

After parallel parking on the left side of the street (a skill analogous to writing with your left hand if you're right-handed: it's do-able, but not prettily), and after being literally ambushed for change by a panhandler, we made our way to the theater. The auditorium was small and already a little crowded. Kris spied four open seats in the back row. I could have sat so that we each had a one-seat buffer, but I decided that I'd be polite and leave two consecutive seats for another couple. This was a smart move: those two seats were soon taken. This was also a dumb move: I sat next to a pathetic movie patron.

The man next to me reeked of cigarettes. ("He smelled like the inside of a smoker's mouth," I told Kris after the movie.) He smelled as if he always wore the same clothes when he smoked and never washed them. The smoking had apparently taken other tolls as well. His breathing was labored. Every few minutes he let out a deep, airy sigh. (A sigh that, of course, smelled like the the foul pits of hell.) His chest rattled with phlegm. During the film he had a few fits of wet coughing. When he became bored (along with the rest of the audience), he began picking at his cuticles, making rhythmic (and loud) click click sounds.

So how was the movie?

Capote is a beautiful, well-crafted film that tells the story of Truman Capote's work on In Cold Blood, his famous "non-fiction novel" of the early sixties. The story follows Capote and Harper Lee (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame) as they research the brutal killings of a family in a small Kansas town.

Unfortunately, the film has no point.

Every aspect of the movie exhibits attention to detail and quality work except the script. The sets and costumes are brilliant, perfectly evoking the world of the early sixties. The acting is top-notch. (Philip Seymour Hoffman ably carries the film as Capote.) The directing is wonderful, slow and measured, patient. The cinematography is beautiful. The script, however, is mundane, even tedious.

Truman Capote is a fundamentally unsympathetic character. The man was a mannered fop, a well-known liar (he told all sorts of tall tales), and blatantly manipulative. In order for a film about him to be effective, we have to care about the other characters, we have to be given a compelling story. That doesn't happen here.

The central relationship in the film is that between Capote and one of the killers, Perry Smith. We don't sympathize with the killer, though, and we're never given any reason to care about their relationship. I was ready to become attached to Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener, whom I always like), but she's really a cypher in this film. Think of it: here are the two real-life people used as the basis for Mockingbird's Dill and Scout, on screen together again: any fan of the book is wholly willing to become emotionally invested in their adult relationship. We're never given a chance.

Instead, the film seems to wander aimlessly. When it has a focus, it is on Capote's relationship with Smith, which is a relationship we just don't care about. We're never given any reason we should care.

Capote is not a bad film, but it's certainly not best picture material. Hoffman could justly win an Oscar for best actor, Bennett Miller (helming his second film) could win for best director, and the cinematography could be honored, but the script, and the film as a whole, don't deserve that sort of praise. You see? It's not just King Kong and its ilk that I find fault with — I even find fault with critically-acclaimed films.

As soon as the film was over, before the credits could even begin to roll, the Smoking Man sprang from his seat and slid down the aisle. He was a small, thin man with a biker's jacket. A million-to-one he was heading outside for a cigarette. Or three.

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Comments
On 09 January 2006 (08:24 AM), Dave said:

Although I usually agree with your movie reviews (in spirit if not always in specifics), on this one I must disagree. I think that Capote actually had two points. The first is that of a man grappling with conflicting emotions regarding his relationship with a killer. Capote is, I think, simultaneously attracted and repelled by his subject. The repulsion for obvious reasons at first, but for more complex reasons toward the end. The attraction because of Capote's desire for attention, which initially Perry gives him, and then which the rest of the world gives him as a result of his exploitation of Perry. He comes full circle as he realizes how he's using the man and his story to further his own ambitions.

The second point, I believe, is the obvious point regarding the juxtaposition of the violence of the killings with the violence of the death penalty and whether we as a society should engage in that level of violence. The pacing of the film deliberately mirrors those two things. Up until the final 20 minutes, you never really know if Perry Smith participated in the murders or not. You certainly think that he had, but you don't know. Similarly, you don't know if he's going to be executed. You think that he probably should be, but you don't know if he will or will not because the appeal is still up in the air until the very end.

I think that there's an additional factor that plays into this that you and I are of the wrong generation to fully connect with (yes, I know it's grammatically a poor sentence). Truman Capote was a phenomena in the 60's and 70's, especially among the East Coast intelligensia/New Yorker magazine crowd. He published "In Cold Blood" and then basically stopped. This film, I think, also explores a series of potential reasons why he stopped.


On 09 January 2006 (08:57 AM), J.D. said:

Dave: I think that Capote actually had two points. The first is that of a man grappling with conflicting emotions regarding his relationship with a killer. Capote is, I think, simultaneously attracted and repelled by his subject.

I never got the sense that Capote was repelled by Smith. For most of the film, it seems that the only thing that Capote feels toward him is selfish desire: he wants this man's story and will do anything to get it. The most important thing to him is his book. Capote is using Smith, and lies to him and manipulates him in order to get what he wants. He doesn't treat Smith as anything other than an object, a game that must be played and won in order to obtain the desired rewards.

It is true that near the end he seems to reach some degree of attachment toward his subject, but I never felt like I knew why. I also felt like it was never sincere, despite the crocodile tears. If he truly felt some connection to Smith, he would have continued to fun the appeal process. He didn't. As soon as he had what he came for — the story of what happened on the night of the murders — Capote dropped his support. Perhaps this isn't just a script failure, but an acting failure. Perhaps Hoffman didn't do as good a job as I'd like to credit him.

The second point, I believe, is the obvious point regarding the juxtaposition of the violence of the killings with the violence of the death penalty and whether we as a society should engage in that level of violence.

I don't know if this is actually present. The film never engages in this theme explicitly, of course, and I tend to doubt that it exists even on any sort of subtle level. It's true that we never know for sure that Smith and his partner comitted the crimes, but we're never led away from this conclusion even for a single moment. The pair never deny that they shotgunned four people. They never express remorse (except at the bitter end). No other possible suspects exist. Everything in the film points to these two as the murderers, and, in fact, they did kill this family in cold blood. For forty dollars. Perhaps Capote's book explains their motives and backgrounds more fully, but we're never given any of this in the film, and as a result we just don't care about the characters. I didn't sympathize with Smith. He'd had a hand in killing four human beings. Kill the fucker!

Perhaps the film walks on one side of a fine line: perhaps it doesn't want to be in-your-face about its message, and so it keeps it so subtle that brutes like me cannot detect it. (As opposed to last year's Million Dollar Baby, which walks on the other side of the fine line, and puts its message directly in your face so that you cannot possibly miss it.)

I think that there's an additional factor that plays into this that you and I are of the wrong generation to fully connect with (yes, I know it's grammatically a poor sentence). Truman Capote was a phenomena in the 60's and 70's, especially among the East Coast intelligensia/New Yorker magazine crowd.

I think this is an excellent point. The film's final epigraph (is that a contradiction) says something about how Capote became the "most famous writer in America". After the film, I questioned this. I find it difficult to believe. It sounds to me like bald hyperbole. He may have been well-known for a short time, but come on: better known than Hemingway (who, admittedly, killed himself midway during this film's events)? More famous than Steinbeck? More famous than James Thurber? More famous than Harper Lee? I hadn't even heard of Truman Capote until late high school or early college.

Ultimately, I respect your position, Dave, but I just didn't get out of it what you did.


On 09 January 2006 (09:30 AM), Janet Eder said:

I have not seen the movie, but I do feel that the person Truman Capote is caught in the generation gap that you mentioned. As a young adult in the 60&70's, Truman Capote was one of the most famous persons in the world. Note I did not say writer. He was a fascinating, out of my world , weirdo that your generation might think of as Howard Stern. He was one of the very first of gay men that hung their sexuality out for all to see, much like Elton John does today. In a world that had never seen this, it was like he was everywhere.

The interesting thing to me is that they named the movie Capote, and he was never Capote. He was always Truman Capote. Until I read the movie synopsis/review, I would never have guessed that the movie was about Truman Capote. And, yes, I do remember this murder very vividly to this day. It was one of the most horrific crimes of the time....and sadly probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow now.


On 09 January 2006 (11:02 AM), Dave said:

JD, I think that part of the attraction between Capote and Perry Smith is a sexual attraction, at least on Capote's part. The lingering looks, the fascination with the captured, caged killer/beast and the occasional gratuitous touch, etc. Granted, Truman Capote's sexuality is never paraded in front of us, but it's extremely clear that he's homosexual.

Another facet of Capote's attraction to Smith is his observation that Smith is Capote. Smith went out the back door while Capote went out the front. They have (according to the movie) similar backgrounds and the like, but their lives took completely different directions. For Capote, looking at Smith is like looking at his darker, mirror image. Both exploit those around them, both appear to have significant intellects, both similar prior history, childhoods, and social backgrounds, yet Capote did something different. Their contrast is in the fact that Capote is the epitome of the modern, urbane, effete, intelligencia, East Coast homosexual. Smith, however, is a throwback to brutality, uncultured and cunning. He's exactly what Capote could have been but didn't become despite the similarities in their backgrounds.

As to the death penalty issue, I think that you're just simply missing the boat here, JD. The whole movie is about death. It starts with death, it ends with death, the middle bits are all about how you get to the beginning and the end. Although you argue that "no other suspects exist" and that you're never pointed in another direction for any time, why should we be? I hope that you're not suggesting that they're guilty simply because they're the only ones that the government accused. In the movie the assumption is that they killed the family, but at no point does the film go into any serious explaination as to their guilt until the very end. Similarly, the appeal is given significant weight as though it may in fact overturn their conviction. Finally, there's the fact that the killers never admit that they were the ones that killed the family. In fact, they deny it until the confession to Capote.

Candidly, the fact that the film does not go into the evidence or mechanics of the killings until the very end tells me something about what the director wanted us to consider prior to that point. He didn't want us to consider the killings. Rather, he wanted us to consider the two men- Capote and Smith- and what their relationship is to each other and the rest of the world. It's not a question of whether Smith killed, or how he killed, it's a question of what factors in his background mean that he could have killed. At what point does he diverge from Capote?

In addition, you claim that you cannot see the parallels. Here's some for you. The confession of Perry Smith is directly juxtaposed to his hanging and the tension inherent in both scenes is created the same way. In his confession he talks about how he (psychologically) tortures the clearly distrought family with the possibility of safety while presenting them with death, then kills them. His death is preceeded by the period where he's clearly distraught, the possibility of reprieve by the Court of Appeals, by the governor or something else all hanging in the balance. His obvious terror (exactly like the family's terror) right before the lever is pulled.

Add to that then, the fact that Smith is clearly conflicted over his actions (after he confesses), just as Capote is clearly conflicted over his own actions. At the end, the thing that separates Capote from Smith is that Smith probably doesn't see the parallel between his actions and the actions of the state in executing him. Capote does, although he may well recognize too that such is the price we pay for living in a civilized society. And it seems to me that in that distinction is the difference between the front and back doors to which Capote refers.


On 09 January 2006 (12:21 PM), J.D. said:

Dave: I think that part of the attraction between Capote and Perry Smith is a sexual attraction, at least on Capote's part.

Interesting. It didn't occur to me while watching the film, but I can see that now, I guess.

Another facet of Capote's attraction to Smith is his observation that Smith is Capote. Smith went out the back door while Capote went out the front.

Yes, I liked this imagery, and hoped that the script would explore it further, but it never did. How are they similar? Why does Capote feel that they're like twins? What does it mean to him? We don't get any of that, and I think it would have helped. It's possible to explore this theme more within the subtle, understate nature of the film. I'm not asking for things to be obvious, just not completely oblique.

I hope that you're not suggesting that they're guilty simply because they're the only ones that the government accused.

No, I'm arguing that the film and the story want us to accept their guilt because they never provide us with any other alternative. In fact, everything in the film points to their guilt. We're never given any alternative than to believe that these two committed the murders. That part is never in doubt.

Finally, there's the fact that the killers never admit that they were the ones that killed the family. In fact, they deny it until the confession to Capote.

My memory says that this is incorrect. I can't remember a single instance that the film in any way (including through these characters) tries to cast a shadow of a doubt that they're guilty. I can't recall either character saying that he was innocent. Am I mistaken? (I may very well be.)

Candidly, the fact that the film does not go into the evidence or mechanics of the killings until the very end tells me something about what the director wanted us to consider prior to that point. ... It's not a question of whether Smith killed, or how he killed, it's a question of what factors in his background mean that he could have killed.

If the director wants us to consider this, he does a poor job of leading us in that direction. Or, actually, I feel the screenplay does a poor job. We're given only a few insights into Smith's background, and only a little of Capote's (again, most of my knowledge of his nature is drawn on what I know of Dill in Mockingbird). Based on what you saw in the movie, what factors in Smith's background do you believe led him to kill?

I think your examples of parellelism are stretched, though there is a thread of substance there. (For example, Smith doesn't seem "in obvious terror" before he is to be hanged; he seems calm and accepting. He can't remember what his last words were going to be, but that's it.)

Though your arguments add some to my evaluation of the film, they don't add a great deal. As I said, I thought that most of its components were exceptional, but that the script was lacking. I still feel this way. I wanted to care about the characters and the situations, but I did not.

For the curious, I would give Capote a B (an A+ in everything except script, which gets a C- or so) and King Kong a D. I'd give an A- to Crash, the other film I mentioned above.


On 09 January 2006 (12:44 PM), J.D. said:

I should add that the writer part of me wanted more about the writing process. There's a great deal in this story, and in Capote's concept of the "non-fiction novel", that goes to my delineation between truth and Truth. (Or, to couch it in the curren lingo, the difference between 'factiness' and 'truthiness'.) I wanted to see more of that. I wanted to see more of the hard decisions Capote had to make. I wanted to see more about the 'In Cold Blood' title thing — we get a little bit of it, but when Smith confronts Capote about it, it's dismissed and the film moves on. I think one of the fundamental problems was that Capote was such a renowned liar. This is clearly portrayed in the film, too, and it makes it difficult to discern his actual motives. Is he being honest with Smith? With Nelle Harper? With his editor? With his lover, Jack? Does Capote even know? Without a firmament, our perspective is unsteady.

To help give me additional perspective, I've been reading reviews from Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman, David Denby, and other reviewers.

I guess ultimately what I need is more of the pieces filled in for me. Call me opaque, but I need to know something of Capote's past, or something of his future, in order for this film to be successful.


On 09 January 2006 (12:50 PM), soelo said:

"...parallel parking on the left side of the street (a skill analogous to writing with your left hand if you're right-handed: it's do-able, but not prettily)..."

I love being able to do this, since I live in a neighborhood full of one-way streets. I think left is easier for me than right because I am closer to the two cars that I am trying to avoid hitting.


On 09 January 2006 (03:38 PM), Cat said:

Haven't seen Capote yet. I'm just boggling on the fact that we were probably at the Fox Tower at the same time you were. We saw Brokeback Mountain.


On 15 June 2007 (08:43 AM), shirley a. dissell said:

Both Infamous and Capote leave out the poor murdered family. In the book, the clutters are mentioned often--Nancy and Kenyon with 4-H, baking a pie, in a school play, she has a boyfriend. Mr. Clutter isn't even shown on his ranch doing fieldwork, wheat work, or cattle work. One film