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A cold depiction of Capote

spiked-film: Bennett Miller's Capote chastises the author for being ruthlessly ambitious. What's wrong with that?

Emilie Bickerton

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Capote, directed by Bennett Miller, on general release.

‘We live in the dark, we do what we can, the rest is the madness of art’, says a maturing writer in The Middle Years, by Henry James. It is a passage that Truman Capote recalled when he wrote the preface to his final collection of stories, Music for Chameleons (1981). Capote had been gripped, since putting pen to paper at eight years of age, by this strange but enchanting endeavour: ‘I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master.’ During every phase of his career what interested him was the testing of previously established literary rules, which he understood could only be developed by first totally mastering writing techniques. By doing genres and styles so well only then could he transcend them. He would, consequently, always flirt with being marginalised or mocked, or, as Bennett Miller’s new film aims to do, condemned for his actions and the risks he took.

In Cold Blood (1967) was the result of Capote’s biggest gamble: to write a non-fiction novel and create a genre of writing that was journalistic reportage but written up as a novel, so combining one kind of writing with another kind of form. The literary establishment at the time was divided. Capote was supported by the New Yorker editor, who funded the project and published the results, but critics like Norman Mailer condemned the venture as a ‘failure of the imagination’. In the end, Capote won: Mailer would eat his words and try to do the same, and In Cold Blood is Capote’s most famous and successful work.

Miller’s film is not a biopic; it focuses entirely on the six years during which Capote researched and wrote his novel, and the tension he poses in his portrayal is primarily a moral one: did Capote exploit and manipulate his subjects to get his story?

It was an ugly tale from the start: in 1959 Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, in a failed robbery attempt, brutally killed a family in their home in Holcomb, a Kansas village. The Clutter family murders were briefly national news, and an article in the New York Times piqued Capote’s own curiosity. He decided to research the affair for the New Yorker. He was already an established writer, after the success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). The film shows Capote as a respected literary star but also incorrigibly vainglorious. On the journey to Holcomb, for example, with his research assistant (the as yet unknown Harper Lee, who provides the moral counterweight to Capote) he paid a porter to praise him, just for the spectacle to be witnessed by his company. At literary events Capote is shown to be utterly self-absorbed but still charismatic; he talks only about himself, but tells such a good story that he just about gets away with it.

When Capote met Perry Smith – convicted to execution and on death row – he was immediately captivated by him and his discernible sensitivity. He wanted to get at this and combine an informative journalist’s account of the crime while adding a rich exploration of character. ‘I want to bring the humanity back into this story’ was how Capote sold the idea to his editor. The Clutter family’s killers were being written off as monsters. Thus their actions could be ignored, relegated to the unexplainable realm of madness or evil. To see these men as humans – Capote’s aspiration – forced us to think about and rationalise the crime. But crucially Capote saw the challenge in purely literary terms, not, as Miller’s film poses it, a moral endeavour. For Capote he sought to bring out the men’s humanity in his writing. At no point was he preaching to society about how they should treat their murderers.

Miller understands it differently. Capote is so hard on its subject. There is little doubt that we’re being asked to condemn him. The murders – the actual, horrible crime – are glazed over, forgotten from the screen until a few flashbacks at the end. And Perry Smith, whom Capote developed such a close relationship with, is portrayed as a victim – sensitive, wide-eyed and dreamy, always graceful and eloquent. Perhaps he was, but this is never countered with the (thus astonishing) act he also committed. The multifaceted element to the crime is what drives In Cold Blood as a novel, but here, in Miller’s keenness to indict Capote, there is no real subtlety to his depiction of characters.

For Miller, Capote manipulated a broken man, used him to get a story. The director believes Capote himself was left broken. The strongest ‘proof’ of this is Capote’s supposed subsequent demise. As the film concludes, we see Capote increasingly drunken, silenced and finally weeping. And were we in any doubt before, the closing screen provides us with facts that are so transparent in their suggestion: Capote never finished another novel, he died of alcoholism and wrote the following epigraph to an unpublished work: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’

This alludes to Capote’s wish that Perry’s appeal would fail, and he would be executed. ‘I’ll suffer a complete nervous breakdown if he lives’, he tells a disapproving Harper Lee. These are very cheeky snippets to pull from Capote’s biography. The audience is left with a skewered understanding of the writer’s development after 1967. For a start, although he never wrote another novel, he did write many short stories, some of which make up the brilliant Music of Chameleons, which also includes another non-fiction account of an American murder, ‘Handcarved coffins’.

The film is obsessed with its subject, but not in order to understand him. Miller instead always considers Capote coldly. The camera endlessly stares at his face. He writes and all we are shown is his face, he walks into a room and we can only see his expression. There are so many ‘Capote thinking’ scenes that as a viewer, watching Capote thinking, what can we do but ponder: what is he thinking?! But the face-centred style of filming restricts how productive this kind of thought-process can be: we are being encouraged to stare at the man, but given little further insight into him as a person. So, we’re left with a vacant fascination. That is, of course, only if we accept the premise that what Capote did was wrong.

If we don’t, the face-filming at least doesn’t take over. Every credit must go to Miller, a 38-year-old documentary maker, for not suffocating his picture so much with his own opinion that we’re not allowed the space to disagree. On the contrary, Capote is true enough to its character in the basic facts, and rich enough in its visual drama, that we can come to a totally different conclusion than the one Miller is gunning for. It is great to watch: Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fine actor, and in this role (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar on Sunday) he is especially compelling. The movie is elegantly sombre and admirably focused.

The nub of the issue for Miller is the tension posited between morality and art, and he suggests Capote went too far and forgot his humanity in the pursuit of a great story. But the genesis of In Cold Blood simply isn’t beset by this problem. Perry Smith was a dead man before Capote arrived and at no point did the writer owe him anything. What’s more, we see that Capote never kept his interests secret from Perry: ‘[T]he only thing that makes me come back here [the cell on death row] is that night [of the murders].’ That Capote said this vindicates him of any of the white lies he also told over the title and progression of the book.

Moreover, what Capote produced was a new genre for literature to grapple with. What seems to offend Miller was Capote’s dedication to this literary task. The scenes communicating Capote’s wild ambition – his ruthless eye for a good story or weakness in someone’s character and, yes, his manipulative way of getting answers – are all supposed to make the audience tut. And yet they reveal something else: a man willing to put himself on the line, to flail around in the darkness because he thinks he might just rein in the madness of art. Thankfully Capote wasn’t beset by the same cod-morality of Bennett Miller. If he did shed tears over his answered prayers, if he did feel bad for making a friend out of Perry only to walk away towards literary glory, then this doesn’t also mean he regretted writing In Cold Blood.

‘All that a writer has to work with is the material he has gathered as the result of his own endeavour and observations’, Capote wrote long after 1967. ‘He cannot be denied the right to use it. Condemn, but not deny.’ Capote asks us to condemn its subject, but at least by giving a just account of events we can find that unfashionable quality of ruthless ambition admirable rather than despicable.

Emilie Bickerton works for the publishing company, SAGE. She writes on film and literature for a variety of British and American publications.

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In last week’s spiked-film: Brendan O’Neill on Brokeback Mountain.

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