4/17/2006

Lifting the Lid: Capote

(This past week I saw Capote and Inside Man. The latter made me want to be a bank robber; the former is the topic of this post.)

I’ve argued that the writing of fiction is “empathy amplified,” by which I mean that the author makes an attempt to “feel with” a subject in a hypothetical situation, to inhabit a particular (fictional) pathos to an extreme extent. Fiction allows dissociation from the self, the author’s contingent and actual setting, and facilitates identification with the fundamentally different. When Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in the film Capote, decides to merge journalism with the novel—to make his “nonfiction novel”—the subject he most fully inhabits, the murderer Perry Smith, along with each of the other characters he writes, is a real person. Capote is the most profoundly empathic creature imaginable, but in the amplification into art of his human interactions, the empathy becomes exploitative, and, as David Edelstein points out in Slate, the climactic scene, in which Perry tells the story of the night of the bloody murders, is one of emotional “vampirism.”

Here I take one step back for a wider view. The film Capote, as a biopic, suffers from a similar moral ambiguity as Capote the writer, although decidedly more removed. When “Hoffman starts with the physical and works inward to the soul” (David Denby in the New Yorker) or when he “disappears into Capote” (Edelstein again, and no italics), we lose the distinction between persona and person, we forget that Hoffman merely inhabits a role, that the story happened, but not necessarily precisely so; the journalistic and the novelistic have merged once again. When I think of Capote, I will forever see and hear Hoffman.

The final words on the screen tell us that In Cold Blood made Capote the most famous author in America, that he never finished another book, and that he died from complications from alcoholism. They suggest he never recovered from the process of writing his nonfiction novel. Here, years and years of individual life are reduced to denouement. Perry Smith was hanged, but Truman Capote drank himself to death; both provide ends.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writes:

“Early on, we see Capote sneak into a Kansas funeral home and covertly open the caskets of the Clutter family. Later, at a New York reading of the unfinished In Cold Blood, Capote recites the words that turn the reality of that immoral action into transcendent art.”

Is it immoral? If the filmmakers did not lift the metaphorical lid of Capote’s coffin, didn’t the author of the biography from which they took much of their material? And, with Capote, as with In Cold Blood, aren’t we thankful for the view?

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