Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, November 19, 2005

If only we could all be like Truman Capote

Went to see the biopic on Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood last night. The movie’s gotten uniformly good reviews, and I don’t have any reason to dissent. Philip Seymour Hoffman does an amazing job of convincingly being Capote even though he doesn’t look too much like him, and he does a version of the Capote accent without devolving into impersonation.

The movie concerns itself with the greediness at the heart of art. Capote insinuates himself into the lives of the killers in order to feed the demands of his book. He knows he can write a great book, a groundbreaking book, if he understands the men who killed the family in Kansas. The process of trying to understand the men, one of them in particular, looks like extending himself in friendship. At root Capore’s interest is about providing the material for this book, but it is complicated. He has to be able to empathize as well as analyze, and part of his empathy and his reason for wanting to spend the time writing this story resides in genuine interest. Whatever its motivations, the exchange involved in the writer’s investigations bestows benefits. One wants to feel understood. It also feeds Capote’s subjects own sense of grandeur to be known by a famous person, to be of interest to him.

In the movie, the William Shawn character tells Capote that his book will change the way people write, and this is right. With In Cold Blood Capote found a way to use non-fiction in a novelistic way, a character-driven narrative. Writing that aspires to follow that pattern now constitutes a huge part of literary output. One might argue whether literary non-fiction is a good development, but if you had a measuring system I imagine this genre would come up like most things, responsible for plenty of marginal stuff but capable of producing something worthy as often as any medium.

In the movie, Capote is shown to be aware nearly as soon as he finds the mention of the killings in the newspaper that he can write a great book on this topic, and that it will break ground. This interests me, how Capote could see so clearly that he was on the track of something great. At least as the movie shows him, he was insufferable but right. Does that well-placed self-confidence feel different from self-deluded illusions of grandeur?

The fact of being right about how good this book would be, plays into the big moral dilemma of the movie, whether Capote’s cultivation of a relationship with the killers violated their trust. The film shows Capote alternately agonizing over it and not, and implies the trauma of this experience led to his inability to produce another book in the remaining 20 or so years of his life. But what choice did Capote have, once he became aware of what he could do with this material? He could have kept his distance from the men, leaving himself with missing pieces in the story, or withheld parts of the story, in either case protecting the men’s privacy. With the result of no book or a lesser book. No, it seems the world is significantly richer for In Cold Blood having been written. The author makes a kind of moral self-sacrifice, compromising himself in order to produce something that readers will get more out of. It’s a grandiose idea, every artist as a kind of Christ or scapegoat, but it seems like you can’t really get away from grandiosity when making art. Modesty lends itself better to other enterprises.

A final point about the movie. It shows a time when there was glamour associated with writers. The writers were stars, hung out with movie stars (Arthur Miller marrying Marilyn Monroe), and there was public interest in what they would do next. Maybe the movie overstates it, or maybe there still is this kind of intense interest in NY, but I don’t think so. I doubt it’s any great loss to writing for people to do it outside a celebrity culture. But it is quaintly pleasurable to see it depicted in the movie.

1 Comments:

  • mr. maddox, lovely piece, and you leave out all the homo erotic overtones. not that i miss them, but capote, like wilde had a way of falling for his muses, and could be very cruel. its a strange tale, one fraught with what happened to capote after the blood had coagulated, as twere, as published sensation. the parties, the alcoholism, the chic ladies driven to drink and worse, and over it all trumans shadow. a shadow made in the dark of that house in kansas. manys the career founded on murder. and capote did it on his own, without a rigged ballot box near.
    wl

    By Blogger Agit Spam, at 3:18 PM  

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