Sunday, April 02, 2006

Reading Capote

Putting my thoughts together for a review of Capote. One thing to say right off the bat: It's a movie that asks its audience to think like readers. By that I mean that it doesn't always make connections between one scene and the next. Scenes play out as vignettes, seemingly self-contained micro-movies within the larger film, and a scene will end with a finality---the moment's over, the anecdote's been told. The next scene begins a new vignette. It's apparently a non-sequitur. That's a deception. There is a narrative connection, but the audience is left to make it on their own. We have to think about what we're watching, then think back to what went before to explain it to ourselves. No character says to another, "Remember what I was saying in the last scene?" or exclaims, "My God! This is just like what happened to Bob a minute ago!"

An example:

Capote's at a party, surrounded, of course. People are hanging on his every word. He's entertaining, showing off, telling a probably embellished if not invented anecdote about a conversation he had with James Baldwin about the novel Baldwin's planning. The scene's set in 1959. Baldwin didn't publish a novel that year or for a few years after that. The novel Capote describes sounds like it might be Another Country, which wasn't published until 1962. That's just a bit of trivia and is neither here nor there. In the movie Capote says that Baldwin told him the plot of his new book and, according to Truman, Baldwin was worried about the novel's subject matter. He didn't want to it to be a "problem novel."

Capote says he replied to Baldwin, "Jimmy, your novel's about a Negro homosexual who's in love with a Jew! Wouldn't you call that a problem?"

Capote goes on to make a joke of Baldwin's supposed naivete about his own work, implying that Baldwin had consciously chosen to write about a controversial subject but was pretending not to know he was being controversial. The way Philip Seymour Hoffman plays it, Capote, although on the surface just having a little fun at Baldwin's expense, is criticizing the other writer for, first, being dishonest about what he was up to, but, second, and more damning, being deliberately provocative in his writing. Choosing to write about a subject because it is controversial is an act of self-betrayal.

Someone in the crowd suggests that Capote is guilty of the latter himself. Capote denies it, with a laugh, but with a bit of indignation too. "I'm not nearly that controversial," he says. Everybody laughs knowingly. His last book was Breakfast at Tiffany's, a novel about a call girl and a gay writer who makes money on the side as a gigolo. Capote insists on the point. He's not like Baldwin. He isn't controversial. "I'm not! I'm not!"

The next scene begins in silence with Capote at home alone in his apartment, reading The New York Times. It continues in silence as he comes across the story of the murder of the Clutter family and carefully cuts it from the paper. Finally there's some dialogue when he gets on the phone to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker. He tells Shawn that he thinks he wants to write about the killings. We don't hear what Shawn is saying on the other end. But there's a note in Hoffman's voice that tells us that what Capote's telling Shawn is the answer to a question that's been left open between them for some time.

Capote's been looking for a subject and has felt under the gun. Either he's been pressuring himself or Shawn's been pressuring him to turn out something new. Writers at Capote's stage in his career---he was 35 in 1959---aren't typically at a loss for subject matter, although they may feel blocked in other ways. If anything they might feel overwhelmed by having too much material to choose from.

So what's Capote's problem? Why does he need an assignment? There is, by the way, no Eureka moment as Hoffman/Capote reads about the Clutters. There's nothing in Hoffman's eyes or expression or posture to suggest he's been struck by the muse. His imagination hasn't been set on fire. In fact, reading backwards from the phone call to Shawn it becomes clear that Capote was studying the newspaper in search of somthing to write about and he picked the story of the murders because it fit some criteria he'd set for himself when he sat down to read the paper.

What criteria though?

Then you remember the previous scene, the anecdote about Baldwin. Controversy!

Capote's looking for a subject that will be more controversial than anything he's written so far. Or anything James Baldwin's written.

Reading backwards, the previous scene illuminates the next. There is a narrative thread, after all. But when reading backwards you carry the present into the past, so to speak. The thread runs backwards too. The second scene explains the first. Capote's jealous of Baldwin! He feels a professional rivalry. A controversial book is a book people are talking about. Capote wants to be talked about. He wants to be more talked about than James Baldwin with his little gay melodramas.

What beats sex for getting people talking?


I'm pretty sure that's all there for everybody to read in those scenes. I read something more into them that's based on my own feelings about Capote's writing and that may not be there.

I'm not a fan of Truman Capote's fiction. I think it's immature. Not in execution. In its view of the world, in what it presents of life, in what it shows of how the author sees people and sees himself, I think Capote's novels and stories are the work of a man obsessed with recreating himself as a child.

It's late and I don't think I can explain this very well. I'll try though. I don't mean that Capote wanted to re-create the world of his childhood, although he did that beautifully in many of his stories. I mean that I think Capote was trying to make the narrator of his stories child-like as a way of keeping himself child-like as well.

It's like his speaking voice, to my mind's ear. I have no idea if Capote's twittery falsetto was natural or put on. I'm sure he exaggerated it. I've heard that there are some men who unconsciously keep their voices high, as if their voices never changed in puberty. Maybe that was the case with Capote. Whatever the cause, it always struck me as the voice of a man who had given himself permission not to grow up. And I hear the same permission being given in the narrative voice of his fiction.

Now Baldwin's voice was quite definitely the voice of a grown-up, and what I read into those two scenes is Capote's own disillusion with himself. I see him as having grown tired of his protracted childhood and wanting to be a grown-up and to write as a grown-up---and to be recognized and applauded for it too, a truly childish desire and demand: Reward me lavishly for doing what everybody else does as a matter of course. Now I'm reading forward into the movie which shows Capote incapable of accepting the consequences and responsibilities of his new grown-up style.

To write as a grown-up, Capote needed a new subject matter, something entirely outside of himself and his experience, and he needed a new style.

As the movie has it, Capote was undone as a writer, and a person, by his guilt. He exploited the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, and then, if he didn't actively contrive to lose them their last appeal, felt as if he had, because he had wanted them to lose it. He needed them dead, both because their hanging provided a good dramatic climax for his book, and because he wanted to be shed of them, Smith especially. He did not want their friendship, which he had manipulated them into bestowing upon him, but as long as they were alive he would feel he owed them.

But my reading of it, Capote's downfall, is that he wasn't up it. Adulthood, as a writer and a man, was beyond him. It's just that once you leave Neverland, you can't ever go back.

Now Playing at Other Cinemas Near You: For real adult writing about movies, check out the Self-Styled Siren, particularly her review of William Wyler's Dodsworth.


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