29 August 2006

Cinema Corner - Literary Edition

Gutenberg 18 - Year 218 (Positivist)

The weekend after Cropredy, Pixie and I anticipated a Saturday night in--so we hoofed it to the video shop for a rental. We chose Capote, as we've both been wanting to see it for some time.

The story centers around writer Truman Capote (played to near perfection by the impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffmann), who is looking to follow up Breakfast At Tiffany's. The opening scenes of the film concern the brutal murder of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 and the manhunt which follows. Capote is shown at a swank New York writers' party, the toast of his circle of fellow scribblers. This contrast will be returned to often in the film. Nothing is shown of Capote's actual plans for his next book, but I think it was almost expected that he would crank out another sorta light-hearted affair like "..Tiffany's". This all changes as he spots a small article in the paper and clips it out. He phones his agent and tells him he's going to Kansas to write about the murders for a magazine piece.

Capote travels with his friend, writer Harper Lee (played by the also reliable Catherine Keener)--the time-frame of the film takes place before and then after her breakthrough novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is published. They arrive in Kansas and try to get the inside story, but are treated with polite distance. A press conference is held and overseen by local lawman Alvin Dewey (played with downhome panache by Chris Cooper), who is confident that the killers will be found. Within days of the press conference, the killers are apprehended and brought to Kansas to face trial. By this time, Capote has ingratiated himself with the locals, regaling them with tales of Hollywood and his New-Yawk-via-Loosianna wit. He visits the sheriff's house one day and finds one of them, Perry Smith, locked in a cell within the house. The two eye each other warily, but there is a connection made which impacts the outcome of both Capote's life and his work.

Eventually, Smith and Hickock go to trial and are given the death penalty. Capote, realising that he hasn't found out exactly what happened on the night of the murders, tells them that he will find a lawyer to help with their appeal. Clutching his notebooks and early drafts, he heads back to his New York life of parties and notoriety. Some time later, he decides to visit them in Leavenworth prison, partly to be true to his budding friendship with Smith and partly to get more background story for his book (which he's decided to call "In Cold Blood"). These scenes seem to be some of the best in the film to me, as both use their symbiotic relationship to try and gain what each wants the most--Smith his freedom and Capote his story. Smith's attempts are, of course, doomed from the outset, making his cloying pleas to Truman to "find us another lawyer" all the more tragic. There also seems to be an erotic element, as Capote clearly fancies Smith's rugged good looks and "uncouth ways". They also bond over shared stories of rough, disappointing childhoods.

A few years go by and Capote is no closer to finishing his book. There's a nice contrast with Smith's imprisonment in Leavenworth and Capote's imprisonment to the creative process and missed deadlines. He stops answering Smith's letters and retreats to Spain for a time. Just as he fears he is going completely mad, Capote hears that Smith and Hickock's final appeal was turned down and they are to be executed. He makes a few last visits to the prison and on one of these, Smith finally tells him what happened on the night of the murders--which makes for a greusome, violent flashback. It turns out that Smith had caused the carnage--though he hinted throughout the film that it was Hickock who cracked and ordered the family killed. Truman promises to Smith that he will attend the execution--and he does so, in a teary and sober moment--watching Smith's body hang from the gallows in a dreary, warehouse-like building.

Of course, "In Cold Blood", published in 1965, went on to become a literary smash and Capote was feted even more than he had been for "Breakfast At Tiffany's". All this came with a price, though, and he never really recovered from the whole experience. In fact, he never published another full-length novel until his untimely death in 1984. His slow decline in the late 60s and 1970s must have been painful to watch, for his close friends.

I really enjoyed "Capote"--as I didn't know a lot about the man (I confess to never reading anything by him--though I've seen the film of "Breakfast.."--though that doesn't count). He's just one of those famous writers that are canonised, but don't seem to be widely read anymore. Philip Seymour Hoffmann's performance makes the film, as do most of the supporting cast, otherwise it could've well been just a documentary. There's been a slew of "biopics" out of Hollow-wood over the past five to ten years--but I would heartily recommend "Capote", it definitely seems to be one of the better ones to me. I may actually read some of Capote's work as a result of watching this film.


Anonymous said...

You've made me really want to see this. I had hoped to see it in the cinema but it's not really the sort of film Mrs. Bear bothers with so it never happened. I enjoyed 'In Cold Blood' when I read it a few years ago but I've not read anything else by Capote. I'll get down to the video shop asap!

The Purple Gooroo said...

Check it out, my man--it's *well* worth a rental--there's more detail in the story..I left a bunch out of the review, just to make it fairly brief.

Flaming Pixie said...

I bought "In Cold Blood" today for a bit of light holiday reading.