Bright Lights Film Journal

Bennett Miller’s Capote: Flatter Than Kansas, and Almost as Boring

Life is earnest, sure, but why does art have to be?

“No one got further in history with less intellectual baggage than Cicero,”1 as Freddie Binkard Artz2 liked to say. Truman Capote hasn’t been in the grave quite as long as M. Tulli, but it won’t take many more movies like Bennett Miller’s Capote before Tru is giving the novus homo from Arpinum a run for his money.

Capote’s one claim to serious literary achievement was his over-praised and over-written “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, a book that has the slight demerit of being not terribly accurate (the touching final chapter, for example is entirely fiction, rather than nonfiction).3In Cold Blood told the story of two small-time criminals, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith, who met in the Kansas State Penitentiary. Hickok, a bitter, vicious man made more bitter and vicious by imprisonment, was dreaming of a big score when he got out, a big score with “no witnesses.” He settled on Smith as a potential accomplice after hearing that Smith had once killed a man, a lie that Smith made up to give himself a rep. For both men, the thought of causing some serious suffering, rather than the dream of big money, was probably the true motive for the crime.

Bennett Miller’s film picks up on Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) just before he learns of Hickok and Smith’s big score. Tru is holding forth in the Gilded Solon of Manhattan’s Upper East Side circa 1959, the one place in America where you can say anything, even joke about a black man fucking a white man, if you’ve got the panache to pull it off.4 In the morning, Capote reads about a family of four, the Clutters, being found murdered in the small Kansas town of Holcomb. This, he decides, is his next book.

Capote’s choice would set him off on a six-year odyssey that would make him the best-known writer in the United States, and heap him with so much fame that he would collapse beneath the weight. Miller tells the story in a series of ponderously stark, undramatic vignettes that “darken” as the film reaches its conclusion, to the point that we are encouraged to believe that Capote is somehow responsible for the execution of the two men.5 But why did he have a duty to save the lives of two men guilty of cruel, gratuitous murders? Weren’t Hickok and Smith the ones responsible for their own executions?

The flip side of the film’s condemnation of Capote’s “betrayal” of the two men is the notion that we are seeing “great art” (or at least “art”) being created,6 that In Cold Blood takes us “into the mind of the murderer.” The mind of a murderer, however, is rarely if ever an interesting place to be. Murderers, and violent criminals generally, are almost invariably stupid, selfish, and cruel, with much less humanity, or even “passion,” than the people they prey upon.7

Miller’s method is strikingly similar to the famous “no affect” New Yorker prose that makes an enormous pretense of simply laying out the facts with no comment, while in fact the writer is always working to control what the reader will think and feel by determining the selection and presentation of the facts the reader is allowed to know.8 We see endless shots of snowy landscapes, and endless shots of men in dark suits and white shirts. I never made it to Kansas in the fifties, but I’m guessing that what we’re shown is fairly accurate. Can we go somewhere else, please?

If Capote were alive today, I imagine he’d have mixed feelings about Capote. He would be pleased, if unsurprised, that a film could and would be marketed that simply bore his last name, but he would certainly hate the fact that the film makes look older and fatter than he was when he was writing the book.

Afterwords

In Cold Blood was made into a well-reviewed film back in the sixties, starring (of course) Robert Blake as Perry Smith. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), more or less the last gasp of the fifties Manhattan glamour that Capote fitfully portrays, is more enjoyable than the fitfully entertaining but often pulpy and smutty novella that Capote actually wrote.9 Capote himself wrote the screenplay for Beat the Devil (1954), which has an extremely funny first half, but stumbles at the conclusion. All three films are available on DVD. A second Capote film, starring Toby Jones as Capote, originally titled Have You Heard? but now apparently untitled, is due out next year.

A newly discovered novella by Capote, Summer Crossing, has just been released, picking up a seriously bitchy review from Michiko Kakutani.10 Gerald Clarke’s fat 1988 bio makes fascinating reading even in the unlikely event that your opinion of Capote’s talents is lower than mine.

  1. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman consul in the year 63 B.C., was considered for centuries to be one of the greatest orators and writers who ever lived. Though not exactly forgotten today, Tully’s star has diminished considerably. []
  2. Dr. Artz taught me the intellectual history of Europe from St. Augustine to Marx back in the day at Oberlin College, somewhere east of Cleveland. I never really appreciated Freddie at the time, but his book Reaction and Revolution: Europe 1813-1832 has been in print for more than 70 years. Not bad for a kid from the stix drunk on French poetry! []
  3. Capote became famous for his short stories, published in magazines like Vogue and Mademoiselle, when he was still a teenager. Despite an almost complete lack of creative imagination — he could do no more than write the same “symbolic” story over and over — Capote had a remarkable knack for meeting the educated reading public’s expectations for “fine writing.” His best work, which shows off his real abilities as a stylist, is his collection of travel pieces bearing the Capotesque title Local Color. If he had felt comfortable writing about his real subject, being young and gay in Manhattan, he might have had more to say. []
  4. For my money, a film devoted entirely to this Park Avenue bad boy would be far more enjoyable than the one we get. []
  5. Among other things, we hear Capote complaining of the “torture” of waiting for the executions to come through. But we all make snide, unfeeling comments from time to time, don’t we? Particularly if we’re alcoholic, self-dramatizing narcissists with a book to sell. []
  6. Among other things, we get the well-established cliché of Capote earnestly pecking away at a manual typewriter, even though, as he frequently said, he always wrote in long-hand, with a number two pencil. []
  7. The mind of a murderer is commonplace not least because killing comes quite naturally to humans. A prison warden told my grandmother that his model prisoners — the ones he trusted — were all murderers. They all had someone they wanted to kill, and once they did so they were at peace with themselves and the world. Soldiers, particularly elites like fighter pilots, often say that war is the best place a young man can be. Being paid to kill! Can’t beat it with a stick! []
  8. Capote himself was a famous practitioner of the New Yorker method of execution. His 1957 interview of Marlon Brando, published as “The Duke in His Own Domain,” made Marlon look like “public ass number one,” as Pauline Kael put it. While Marlon could be his own worst enemy, describing his plans for a diet while demolishing an enormous meal, the main crime of which Capote convicts him — disloyalty to Broadway — was hardly a hanging offense. []
  9. But look out for Mickey Rooney’s screamingly racist portrayal of Holly Golightly’s porno-minded neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. Robert Ito put the wood to Mickey and many other Hollywood sinners in his classic BL piece on tinseltown Asian caricatures, “A Certain Slant,” available here. []
  10. Kakutani is so mean to poor Truman that I almost feel embarrassed for pissing on the little schmuck’s grave. The republic of letters is seldom a happy place. []