Monday, February 13, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the Second: Whether Truman Is Human

I DID IT! I have now officially seen all five films nominated for Best Picture, a feat I'm not certain I've ever achieved before. With this particular list it makes me feel tremendously accomplished.

Today's film: Capote.

In some ways, the review of this film comes down to one sentence: Philip Seymour Hoffman is a superhero. He deserves every award that can be heaped upon him for this performance. A day away from viewing the film, I'm more ambivalent about it than I was when I emerged from the theater, but Hoffman's performance is honestly magical.

I wouldn't say he's a chameleon, which is what my friend Sarah said; he doesn't disappear inside the role, and nor do I, postmodern viewer that I am, exactly want an actor to do so. Hoffman's individuality gives Capote as a character what he needs for the movie to succeed. It is his individual screen presence that makes the character of Truman Capote somebody that we want to follow, in spite of his abysmal behavior, the lack of humanity with which he treats the people around him, confusing to those who have read the deep humanity in his writing.

But this is a story about teetering on the edge of inhumanity. Its contempt for the literary life in the late 1950s and early 1960s is, to say the least, open; its portrayals of the murders limned in In Cold Blood are harshly and delicately done, showing perfectly the extremes of the character of Perry Smith as played by Clifton Collins Jr., and the hanging is exactly as chilling as it has to be. Every aspect of the filmmaking--the script, the cinematography, the music--is slightly, deliberately distant. Even Truman Capote's interactions with those he's close to--his friend Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, or his lover Jack Dunphy, played by Bruce Greenwood--must be viewed from a greater distance when we see that his interactions with murderer Perry Smith have much more intensity and focus than those with Lee or Dunphy. We have to ask ourselves, then, if Truman Capote is really shallow, and what shallowness then means in the face of his art and artistry. Is art inextricable from the "artist's life," as it was in bohemian literary circles in Capote's time or as it is now? How does one account for Harper Lee not being the asshole that Capote is, even when writing a novel with a social conscience catapulted her into the exact same parties? Can he have a full-scale emotional experience without attempting to write it? Witnessing an execution, appearing deeply moved, in the next shot we see him on the telephone with Harper Lee, "It was a horrifying experience and I will never forget it." In the small, nasal, flaming voice that Hoffman has given the character, this line sounds even more trite than it does written, and yet we've the sense he's saying it knowing that Lee will see through him.

It is Hoffman who keeps the film from being heavy-handed. It does go on too long (the same could be said of all the nominated films besides Good Night, and Good Luck), Capote's desire for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to be executed already mingling with our own, and thus Miller and screenwriter Futterman end up hitting us over the head (if lightly) with their teasing questions and confusions about Capote's sincerity. Granted, this is better than hitting us over the head with a closed-ended point (such as "racism makes people do horrible things," see previous post), but it's still a little too much. If it weren't for Hoffman, we would already have heard everything we needed to hear about these contrasts, but in each scene, based solely on his acting, one honestly learns something new about the character. Because we are following Capote the entire time, the questions genuinely come to us through him, rather than being foisted upon us.

Hoffman pointed out in an interview on Slate, and I agree, that the film avoids the standard dramaturgical problems of a biopic by not being a biopic. It's a film about a character who really existed, and it depicts events that in some form actually happened, but it's not trying to tell the story of Truman Capote's life. The failure of most biopics is the assumption that all of life is one cohesive journey; Miller and Futterman don't make such a mistake. It is perhaps a biopic of the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, if such a thing is possible, but it's the character's journey surrounding this one particular book.

There's much more to say on the questions Capote raises, but not, I've found, much more to say about the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a superhero, and he allows all of the questions on the ethics of art and the art of ethics to permeate us without knocking us unconscious.


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