Much has been made of the declining box-office receipts this year, but the concerns of movie folk have nothing on the bookish. The decline in book culture in our country and the rise in the consumption of moving images (be they on computer, video or television) as can be seen as both a blessing as a curse; sure, people may not be reading hard-bound texts with the frequency of old, but more information is immediately accessible today to more people than at any time in human history. That said, there is some cause for concern in this environment; yes, people can access facts and ideas with greater ease, but where does the creative process, the act of making art, fall in the digital age? I am suspicious of computer art (that is, art that exists only in an on-line context) as a form not because it isn’t art, but because of my uncertainty as to how it may be preserved for future enjoyment and analysis. Say what you will about good old-fashioned books, painting, or photography, but the analog, tactile reality of an object brings me greater pleasure than any virtual experience ever could. There is a comforting sense physical presence that comes from holding, inspecting, touching, or feeling proximity to the detail of an object; a sense that you and the thing are there, together, in the world. Living in a city like New York, I have been spoiled by the relative popularity of books and art. Here, like most cities, there are lovely moments of consumptive communion; spotting strangers on public transportation holding a book you recently finished and feeling a sense of kinship, running into friends at museums or bookstores (and especially cinemas). Without art, I am not sure from where my feelings of connection with my fellow citizens, however fleeting, might spring.
I guess I am feeling sentimental about the power of creative work because I have just seen Bennett Miller’s Capote, a film that essentially describes the passionate pursuit of artistic creation as a torrid, fucked-up love triangle between an artist, his subjects, and his labor-intensive work. Philip Seymour Hoffman once again puts in an incredible, deeply affecting performance, this time as the writer Truman Capote, as idiosyncratic a character as Hoffman has ever played. The film is thankfully not an exploration of the “womb to tomb” chronology of Capote’s life, but instead a representation of the crucial five-year period in the middle of Capote’s life, from his decision to explore a murder case in Kansas to the ultimate completion of his now classic ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood. The story of the book is well known to anyone who took a literature class in high school; Capote traveled to Kansas to chronicle the investigation of the Clutter family murder of 1959. The investigation later proved that two paroled felons, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, in search of an illusory $10,000, murdered the family of four in their farmhouse before fleeing to Mexico and the West Coast, leaving a trail of bad checks that lead to their ultimate arrest in Las Vegas. After receiving the death penalty, Hickock and Smith (with Capote’s help) appealed their conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case, allowing Kansas to execute the pair in 1965. In Cold Blood, with its deeply affecting humanization of the criminals balanced beautifully with its acknowledgement of the depth of their crimes, became a smash hit and virtually invented the practice of novelizing current and historic events.
Writer’s Block: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote
Unlike most films about artists and the creative process, which feature long, navel-gazing moments of crisis and struggle as the individual artist tries to overcome his demons, Hoffman’s Capote is an established artist at the height of his powers and fame; there is no question that the writer will be able to complete the book. What stands in Capote’s way, and is the central crisis of the film, is the continued survival of the Smith and Hickock; they are at once Capote’s confidants and, because of their continued appeals of their convictions, the bane of his novel’s existence. Without their execution, In Cold Blood cannot be finished. Director Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman understand the implicit conflict at play inside of Capote the artist; he has real feeling for the killers (especially the orphaned Perry Smith) but his overriding concern for his own creative masterpiece makes Capote into a terrible puppeteer of the killer’s lives. As the appeals mount, Capote works harder than ever to simultaneously get more information from Smith and reject the man’s lonely appeals for support in prison in order to hasten his impending demise. Capote’s conflict between doing what is best for his book and his underlying guilt at his complicity in the killers executions comes to a head on the night of the execution; Hoffman perfectly modulates the scene and we see his Capote lying to Smith and Hickock in the name of his book while boiling over with grief for his own horrible manipulations.
Unlike so many celebrity biopics that strike a reverent, heroic pose when analyzing the lives of their subjects, Miller’s film recognizes the deeply flawed character that is central to his story and rightfully exposes the ethical conflict at play in Capote’s work. This conflict alone is enough to make Capote more than your average biography, but grouped with Hoffman’s awe-inspiring central performance (as well as solid, understated work from Catherine Keener as Harper Lee and Chris Cooper as Police Chief Alvin Dewey), the sumptuous gray-infused cinematography of Adam Kimmel, and excellent direction by Miller make for an outstanding movie. Of course, in the end, In Cold Blood endures as a masterpiece despite the machinations of its writer to create it. In so much as it outlines the conflict at the heart of the Capote’s process, Capote serves less as a historical corrective than an illumination of the stakes required to make great art. Certainly Truman Capote was guilty of manipulation, but in the end, the humanism of his art is the real triumph; without In Cold Blood, the victims and the condemned may have been lost to us forever. Immortality has its price.