Thursday, June 10, 2010

Film Notes: Capote

The film 'Capote' documents six years in the life of celebrated 20thC American author, Truman Capote, during which he writes his book, "In Cold Blood". The film documents the interactions of a dark and complex man, with a dark and complex unfolding narrative which itself begins with murder and ends with execution.

From the outset, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates the screen with his compelling performance as the effete writer. His version of Capote sees him as a public socialite, camply regaling acolytes with sordid anecdotes of the rich and famous - while privately being vain, envious, morose, brooding and damaged. It is the exploration of the character, and his decline that drives the film, as much as the narrative - and for which Hoffman won several awards.

As an investigative writer, Capote sets out to write the story of the murders, trials and subsequent punishments of a case he reads about in the New York Times. It is the precarious relationship of author and subject, which is explored in the film - and which sends the famous author into his spiral of unproductivity and self-destruction. The crisis in point is the death sentence passed on murderer Perry Smith. As a writer, who needs to complete his masterpiece, Capote desperately needs the death sentence to be carried out. He needs the story to reach its ultimate conclusion to bring his story to a convincing end - or he would be left with an unpublishable cul-de-sac. On the other hand - during his visits to the convict he forms a deep emotional (and possibly sexual too - Capote's homosexuality is not flaunted in the film, simply assumed) attachment to him.

Capote is then torn apart by the inner conflict between his two desires. When he is the cold, detached writer - he refuses to visit Smith, manipulates the condemned man for his research, and pretends to offer to get him a better lawyer to extend his life. When he acts out of his fascination with the young man, he empathises over their respective troubled beginnings to life, and their mutual ability to use people, with an icy detachment that could just as easily lead to murder as betrayal.

When the 'author' wins over the 'friend', and Capote attends the execution, he is shattered by the experience. He has the ending for his book that he so desperately needs, yet the body of a man he loved is swinging on a hangman's noose as the price paid for it. "I couldn't have done anything to save him", Capote protests to Harper Lee at the film's conclusion. "Maybe not Truman", she replies, "But the truth is you didn't want to." The film then ends with a resume of Capote's final days, decline into alcoholism, increasing jealousy of Harper Lee, and early death from alcoholic related illnesses.

Hoffman's performance is remarkable, and the tricky topic of the relationship between author and subject quite exquisitely opened up through this most disturbing story. The central theme that this film burns into the memory however is of the tragedy and talent of Truman Capote. It is hard to think of a central character in a film, played with this depth, who comes across in such an unsympathetic light, so devoid of humanity, warmth, or empathy as this. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers perhaps comes close - but for all his complexity, vulnerability, literary and social extroversion - there remains what one reviewer described as a shard of ice through his heart.

Some people have said that it is the death of a friend - at the hands of the state -that drives Capote into his terminal decline. I think that that is to misread the film, and to see Capote in far more sympathetic terms that the writers intend. Rather, what overwhelms him with a dread that only drink and narcotics could numb, was the realisation that, he looked into the eyes of a psychopathic killer who incoherently veered between sweetness and savagery; and saw himself staring back. The final chilling end to this tale, is that Capote finds no redemption, no forgiveness, no renewal, no hope - just an alcoholic mask to conceal his damaged mind.

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