Saturday, February 11, 2006

Oscar Evaluation: Capote

The first we see of Truman Capote is him at a party of some sort. He's sharing an anecdote with several people who are laughing and, more importantly, focused on him. We quickly learn that this is precisely where Capote wants to be: at the center of everyone's attention.

As the film begins, Truman is already an established member of New York's literary cognoscenti. He's published a number of successful novels including Breakfast and Tiffany's which has already been made into a movie, meaning that he's not only well connected in the writing establishment but he also has in-roads into the world of Hollywood which, in that era, was a still considered a thing of glamour. His best friend is Harper Lee who would eventually become famous in her own right for "To Kill a Mockingbird" (someone asks her about "that bird book" she's working on and asks if it's a children's story).

Our first impression of him is of a small, wispish man with a manner of speech that is so odd that it seems like it must be affected (although, later, he does claim that people used to make fun of the way he talks). He is gay in an era well before even the idea of gay liberation was on the horizon, but he travels through circles where no one gives a damned about that. Indeed, he lives in a rather rarefied world. In some ways, he reminds me of a rare tropical plant. Not a beautiful Polynesian flower, but something that would seem uninteresting and even ugly if it simply weren't so far out of the ordinary.

A pivotal moment comes when he reads about a multiple murder in a small Kansas town. He quickly informs his publisher of his plans and drags his friend Harper out to the middle of nowhere so that she can help him interact with the natives. (Ultimately, Harper will get a credit in the resulting book – as his secretary). His initial plan is to write a story on the impact of the violence. He really doesn't care whether or not the people who did it are caught; a fact that he shares with the sheriff of the town while asking him when he can arrange a personal interview with him. The sheriff acidly informs Truman that, even though Truman doesn't care, he cares quite a bit whether they get caught. Truman is forced to accept mere attendance at a press conference.

Eventually Harper manages to smooth some ruffled feathers and get Truman access to the Sheriff via the Sheriffs wife, who's a fan of Truman's and, more importantly, dazzled by his fame. Once again, Truman finds himself at the focus of someone's attention and he's able to use that focus to his advantage to charm the sheriff's wife and even to put the sheriff, himself, at enough ease that he let's Truman see the crime photos. Up to this point, the audience could be forgiven for wondering whether there was anything that actually made Capote special but, in this scene, we see that behind the affectations and preening, there is a genuinely brilliant mind. He wonders why the killer took the time to wrap a blanket around on the victims, and to put a pillow under the head of the other. Even the sheriff seems impressed by these insights.

Ultimately, two men are caught. One seems to be something or an artist while the other is more eloquent. Truman sits through the initial trial and manages to get some slight contact with the more eloquent of the duo via his association with the Sheriff's wife. He becomes intrigued by them. They are quickly found guilty, not least because their public defender doesn't do a very competent job of defending them. Capote quickly arranges to get them a better lawyer who launches an appeal based upon the incompetence of their original defense.

It's important to take a moment to understand why he does this. If this were an ordinary movie, it would be because the protagonist is offended at the lack of good due process. It would have been very easy to make this a movie about civil rights and the ethics of capital punishment. Truman, however, isn't really interested in such things. In these men he sees a story and he needs the time to properly research and write it. He simply doesn't want them to get killed too quickly.

The remainder of the movie Truman develops a closer relationship with the killers (there really isn't any question that they committed the crime), but it is a complex relationship. His closest contact is with Perry Smith, the more eloquent of the two. It's a relationship ship built on hesitant trusts and mutual manipulation. Perry is a smart but largely amoral person who, never the less, as intriguing depths. Indeed, the very same can be said of Capote.

His initial idea was simply a magazine article but he sees, in these two, the potential for an entirely new form of writing: the non-fiction novel. Indeed, when he gives an initial reading (once again displaying actual genius), he is met to thunderous applause (to his immense delight). The assignment, however, becomes complicated. In spite of himself, he begins to experience genuine feelings of sympathy and even empathy towards Perry. Harper tells him that he's falling in love (which isn't fair given that he already has a lover).

These feelings make Truman very uncomfortable, not because of who they are directed towards but because he's having them at all. Actual love is something alien to him. It's also frightening because love demands a shift in focus away from ourselves and towards the ones we love. Truman's position in his own private spot-light is jeopardized by these feelings, which terrifies him and compels him to do some rather despicable things.

Good biographies, of course, won't try to whitewash their subjects, but it’s typical, and not surprising, that they do tend to celebrate them. Capote is a rather unusual biopic. It's less of a celebration than a study. In is, I believe, the story of a flawed, emotionally stunted man who is forced, against his will, to experience moral growth. In a typical movie, such characters eventually achieve a breakthrough that lets to achieve maturity. Truman Capote does not. In fact, the effort and strain breaks him. In the end he is left saddened, confused, and worse off than before precisely because he only ever manages to grow half of a soul – enough to feel guilt and shame, but not enough to achieve epiphany.

Of the five nominees, Capote is my least favorite. It is important that I qualify that, however, by pointing out that this year's nominees represent a season of giants. It is a brilliant, challenging and remarkable film and well worth seeing. Part of the reason I liked it less than the others is that it has those precise qualities. It it is more difficult to love a movie where the main character is so utterly unlikable, so thoroughly pitiable, and so perfectly frustrating. The effort, never the less, is worth it.

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