Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Capote (2005)

Truman Capote is more mad, bad, and dangerous than the killer he befriends

Hollywood has a long tradition of making films about artists. The combination of their genius, eccentricities, huge ego, self-destructive neuroses and troubled relationships makes for good storytelling, netting acclaim and awards for directors and actors over the years.

The year is 1959. Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an up-and-coming author of popular short stories and captivating conversationalist who rubs shoulders with celebrities, fellow authors, critics and tycoons from New York society and beyond. On 15 November, he chances upon an article in the newspaper: four members of a family in Kansas were brutally murdered. Like Gustav Flaubert reading of a tragic suicide in the papers, Capote smells an opportunity to write something ground-breaking and important. Capote persuades William Shawn, his editor (Bob Balaban) at the New Yorker magazine, to fund a trip to Kansas to research for an article on the murders.

With his natural charm and practical legwork from his friend and assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – yes, the same Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird – Capote wins the trust of the townspeople, the cooperation of the sheriff, and strikes up a close friendship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr) and Dick Hickcock (Mark Pelligreno).

In 1848 a short article appeared in newspapers in Normandy. A 20-year-old woman, disillusioned with her stagnating marriage, runs up huge debts on her shopping bills and begins an affair. Under severe emotional and financial pressure, she commits suicide by swallowing arsenic, leaving behind a daughter and a grieving husband.

Gustav Flaubert reads the article, and unable to shake it off his memory, takes 6 years to write Madame Bovary, the novel that would establish him as the most important French author of his day.

Within 6 years, the murderers will be executed, Capote will publish In Cold Blood, a bestseller that would turn him into a household name. Yet shortly after, Capote would become a withdrawn recluse and slide into alcoholism, never to complete another work. Did Truman Capote profit from the killers, their trial and execution? Did he manipulate, then betray the real-life subjects for his “non-fiction novel”? Was this what haunted the author for the rest of his life?

What is the obligation of the non-fiction writer to his living subjects? Miller takes his time to set up, brick by brick, wall by wall, the ethical dilemma that the eponymous character finds himself trapped in.

Capote the writer is bound by several rules of his enterprise. In order for his book to be well-written and successful, Capote needs to find out everything that happened on the night of 15 November. Newspaper reports being moralistic, sensationalist and unforgiving towards the fallen, Capote feels honour-bound to present the true face of the killers, while resisting the temptation to be their spokesperson and apologist. He tells Perry Smith in a prison visit, “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster.”

Unsympathetic and quick to condemn? If the newspapers had come across these characters, we might not see any redeeming feature in them.

Othello - "Love-crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter"
Madame Bovary - "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Fraud"
Oedipus Rex - "Sex With Mum was Blinding!"

On the other hand, both killers understand their doomed situation. Being published in a best-seller would be a kind of immortality for them, and a chance to speak from their cells and graves.

The negotiation between the author and the killer is deftly executed by Hoffman and Collins. Hoffman’s Capote sees Perry as a victim deserving of pity, and even manages to identity with the killer; their bonding and mutual respect provides solace for both men’s personal problems. Like the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, the prisoner reveals the truth piece by piece, so that Capote would have to return for more.

Keener’s no-nonsense Lee Harper knows Capote much better than the unsuspecting Perry. “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” she asks in a penetrating moment, and the professional writer is defensive: “Well, he’s a gold mine.” Even as Capote’s professional interests begin to affect how he treats the killers, Hoffman portrays the author as an essentially likeable man caught in an ethical and moral struggle, a lonely dandy full of love for himself, yet hungrier for the love of the public.

Having profited – in terms of popularity and acclaim as a groundbreaking writer – from his public readings and sale of In Cold Blood, was Capote a greater monster than Perry? The film offers no easy answers; like how Capote saw Perry Smith, Miller refuses to condemn the author, choosing instead to humanise the flawed man.

First published in incinemas

No comments: