Yikes! It’s high time that I update this thing. My "stats" have been out of control lately for some bizarre reason – it’s probably because it has been on some tag or referral (I’m a luddite when it comes to these things) (s)hit-list or get indexed a lot or whatever. Anyways, I’ve appreciated the sweet notes from new readers. Hell, I barely pay attention to this thing myself. Obviously, given the lack of updates. But it always makes me happy when folks get interested and excited about new things I guess.
Unfortunately, nothing much is new in terms of developments in my world lately. I’ve been cash-poor and pre-occupied, and just been questioning everything in general – which doesn’t make for enticing or particularly original blog material. Oh, we finally got rain and it rained for a while and now it is colder. I still want to play outside. No better time to go the cinema, so I finally caught Capote.
I was approaching the picture with some trepidation because, on top of being somewhat of a Truman Capote completist, bipoics generally don’t make for great film and also I was worried that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance would be a total caricature… and that I would get really annoyed by the whole thing. Well, my fears were unfounded.
Hoffman was brilliant and entirely engaging throughout the whole piece, and turned in a performance which was completely credible. Audiences see an amazing balancing act at play; somehow the actor manages to channel a well-documented figure and make it not seem like liked a studied impression. At the same time, just when the audience his about to dismiss his character as opportunist and corrupted by fame, we are sympathetic. And it is a testament to the actor’s gifts that we are never once distracted by mannerisms which would otherwise seem forced -Capote himself was over-the-top. Hoffman totally carries the film and will probably be taking home many awards as well.
Biopics – cinematic adaptations of a biographical figure’s history and achievements - tend to fall into the trap of rehashing a historical figure’s life and achievement through various vignettes. I can hardly blame the filmmakers because usually the subjects are so interesting and lead such far-ranging and full lives that it would seem a disservice to eliminate any details. A complete life does not always make a good film, however. Although I admired Jamie Foxx’s performance and Taylor Hackford as a director, I felt the Ray Charles pic was swimming in some murky TV miniseries waters and did not think it was that good of a film. "Schematic" is the word methinks. For that reason, I’m also kind of of wary of Walk the Line, the soon-to-be-released treatment of my musical hero Johnny Cash. I’m hoping, rather than try to cram all the biographic points in, that the film will focus on his love story with June Carter. Because, after all, that is real turning point and crux of the performer’s mythos. Or at least it makes for a more engaging yarn.
This brings me to why I appreciated the narrative of Capote so much. By focusing on the few years of Truman Capote’s life when he was preparing, researching and writing his tour-de-force In Cold Blood, filmmaker, director Bennett Miller illuminates his subject’s life much more effectively than a blow-by-blow rehashing of a rough childhood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, famous ball, talk shows, alcoholic decline… pla pla pla. I’m hoping a series of well-deserved best screenplay nods will rescue screenwriter, actor Dan Futterman, from more Judging Amy and Will & Grace supporting parts, because he really nailed it with Capote! The filmmakers have been exceptionally good editors. The publishing of In Cold Blood was the turning point in Capote’s career – he essentially sold his soul – as the film effectively illustrates - and whatever came before and certainly the rest of life was ultimately and inextricably affected by its success in our cultural memory. Film biographies are a tricky medium…
Artist turned cinematic auteur Julian Schnabel has mastered the form through his portraits of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cuban poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls; maybe its because he is attuned to the process of his decidedly creative and flamboyant subjects - and was acquainted with the personalities, or at least tangently with their scenes. Both films are examples of vivid film biographies that don't lay it all on. I think it takes a certain highly selective control,and a deft shorthand to capsulize the highly dynamic in cinematic form effectively. In this over-saturized age, that kind of modern mythologizing takes some flair. And editing. Schnabel’s got two more biopics in the works: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with Johnny Depp as paralyzed fashion-editor editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, and The Lonely Doll, about eccentric children's author Dare Wright. I can’t wait!
I must admit to falling asleep briefly during the denouement of Capote. Blame it on the lingering rain and the comfortable empty theater on a weekday afternoon and the somewhat solemn, chamber movement qualities of the film. At any rate, I was awakened by gun shots. Of course I’ve read In Cold Blood, and seeing the first cinematic adaptation – with Robert Blake as one of the killers - on Japanese television as a kid (for some reason the programmers were really into slasher/murder/exorcism flicks in providing English-language fare at the time) gave me nightmares. And I’ve read Capote by Gerald Clarke, which the film is based upon. So I didn’t need to fill in the blanks.
My grandmother and I used to get such a kick out of discussing the veracity and wickedly brilliant self-mythologizing of Truman Capote and his contemporaries like Lillian Hellman. I was one of those strange kids who was well-versed in such figures before I even turned legal and I’m hoping that the Capote film might turn the younger generations towards such pleasures. What a rich and colorful literary scene – and full of intrigue! Capote has the added boon of Catherine Keener as Harper Lee; The New Yorker’s William Shawn figures prominently – Richard Avedon, too - and my fave James Baldwin other figures are alluded to. That generation produced some great reads of course; the extent to which some of these writers twisted the facts and created their own histories within in their lifetimes is fascinating. In many ways, their kind of self-aggrandizing is not dissimilar to what we are experiencing with the blogging phenomena. Only in those days, correspondence was delivered by post. And getting published was a triumph experienced by few. In these high-speed days of Paris Hilton, the notion of everyone talking about a work of “literary non-fiction” is especially refreshing.