Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cinema 2005: Capturing the Creative Process Chez Capote

The emotional effects of the 2005 movie "Capote" don't easily wear off. They may not stick with you for seven years but then that might just be a reason for another screening. The film tells how Truman Capote came to write his seminal work "In Cold Blood," which deals with the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959.

The film succeeds by virtue of its unerring exposition. Along the way, “Capote” offers fascinating, if thin, recreations of the Cool Jazz-fueled cocktail circuit of the early 1960s brownstone intelligentsia in New York City, as well as an outsider's view of the more grounded yet aspiring "wheatfield soul" of rural Kansas (played here by Manitoba province in Canada).

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work here, reveals a Capote whose vulnerability has made him tough. Capote’s vibrant, fey demeanor comes across at first as off-putting. But soon he is accepted by dint of his consistency and the gifted intellect he brings to bear upon his subject. Capote is resolute in his struggle to make sense out of a senseless aspect of human existence. It is not always a pretty sight. In order to produce his book Capote manipulates his subjects and the people in his private circle.

Lured out of the halls of The New Yorker by the killings in Kansas, Capote crash lands in an alien sensibility. His fame is his credential, but he demurs in the face of the local sheriff (played with restraint by Chris Cooper), who tells him fiercely, "I care," referring to the capture of the killers. Here are lawmen faced with bringing brutal murderers to justice. Art may be eternal, however, as Capote senses and the sheriff knows for sure, life is short. At the press conference, a duly subdued Capote stands, silent, in the back of the room. He is beginning to assimilate—the first step to getting the real story.

When Capote calls his publisher in New York to ask for more money and for "Dick" Avedon to take pictures of the captured killers, it is the ego of the artist taking over. Without this selfish force, the book could not be created, but it remains a selfish drive to the end, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Capote remains a cruel cut-up. This is his defense mechanism, to keep others from knowing his insecurities, from guessing at his depression. The writing process turns Capote inside out, and there is no way he wants to share that with anyone.

Instead, Capote regales his adulating listeners with name-dropping tales of boozy moments in exotic locales alongside cultural icons. More poignantly, he glibly deprecates the killers he has been cozying up to. Yet Capote’s sincerity is apparent as he attempts to understand their story, which will become his book, and to help their cause as long as it dovetails with his opus.

A "necktie party" is how killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) refers to his own impending execution; in 1965 Kansas still hanged its capital murderers “from a rope until dead.” Does anything emphasize more strongly the link to the Old West, especially as viewed by an arriviste member of the nation’s cultural elite? Capote cleaves to his New York cachet; earlier he had denied that the subtle landscape of Kansas reminded him at all of his youth in the Deep South. He would rather see himself as a product of northeastern intellectualism than a bayou baby brought up in Alabama. But his work on “In Cold Blood” forces him to reconsider his self-image.

We are never truly moved to pity Smith, despite first seeing the accused in a humanizing environment: a kitchen serving as an emergency detention cell. Subsequently, director Bennett Miller alienates the audience from the convicted killer, whom we see behind cell bars, on death row or in the hangman’s harness. The peculiarity of the outbuilding that houses the scaffold, to which the condemned are chauffeured, distracts us from focussing completely on Smith in his most helpless and final hour.

In days of yore, a hangman might shake the condemned man's hand to judge his weight before adjusting the noose. In "Capote," Smith shakes the sheriff's hand before climbing the gallows. The scene reminds us of the sad truth, that it is ultimately a weak man who would, as Smith’s older sister told Capote in an earlier scene, “just as soon kill you as shake your hand.”

Capote came to view murderer Perry Smith as a brother in spirit, and he confided this profound emotional tie to Nelle (Catherine Keener), his friend since childhood. After justice has been meted out in the Kansas barn, it is Nelle who refutes Capote’s personal revisionism that he had tried to stay the execution.

While the victims of the murders are not the focus of “Capote,” the sheer brutality of the crimes is directly depicted in an abrupt flashback, lest we forget why those murderers have been ordered to forfeit their lives.

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