Swans Commentary » swans.com December 5, 2005  



"CAPOTE": How Far Should We Go?


by Charles Marowitz


Film Review



(Swans - December 5, 2005)   What is interesting in Dan Futterman's film "Capote," directed by Bennett Miller, is the sly and persuasive way it recreates for us the wispy, slightly sordid character of Truman Capote himself. But what is fascinating are the moral questions it raises regarding the artist and his subject matter.

The film, bypassing all the more mundane details of Capote's life, concentrates entirely on that period in which the author was hatching his new form of factual non fiction that ultimately became In Cold Blood, his last and most successful novel. We follow Capote's casual interest in the brutal murders of the entire Clutter family in Holycomb, Kansas as the murderers (Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock) are gradually identified, and how that interest turns into an obsession with both the motive of the crime and the men who committed it -- particularly Perry Smith, whom Capote actually tutored and whose personality may well have awakened a certain homosexual paternalism in the gay writer.

Futterman's script, moving with the same kind of slow deliberation with which the murderers stalked their victims, gradually reveals the way in which Capote inveigled himself into the prisoners' confidence in order to obtain the material that would make up the heart of his documentary novel. With an almost parasitic glee, we see him sucking the innards out of his subjects so as to feed his literary appetite. When, as a result of the attention he has brought to their case, it appears that a reprieve might save them, Capote blanches at the idea. That would disturb the finale already being hatched in his writer's imagination. When their fate is sealed and the killers are hanged, the writer experiences a mixture of orgiastic fulfillment and tremulous guilt which finally enables him to complete his book and secure his fame.

The film poses the question: Is it moral for a writer to feed his craft by exploiting the real-life characters that are virtually nourishing his literary creation? In 1966, when In Cold Blood first appeared in England, The Observer's theatre critic Kenneth Tynan publicly castigated Capote for cruelly using the convicts, and the amity he offered them, for his own cold-blooded literary ends. Capote, as I recall, denounced him as a bully and a minor controversy ensued, but Futterman and Miller have put the case in no uncertain terms. Capote emerges from their film as a sniveling, weasely, mendacious scavenger looking to feed off the vitals of two condemned convicts he has personally appropriated. It is impossible not to leave the cinema without a profound sense of smoldering disgust for a writer who would so deliberately take advantage of the misery of two doomed men in order to pursue his craft as a writer.

The nagging question of where the permissible bounds of authorship are to be drawn has arisen time and time again. A few years back, Donald Margulies's Collected Stories dealt with a literary disciple who decides to capitalize on her mentor's abortive affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz, when she, the mentor, finds it too personally painful to treat it as subject matter. There too, one could say the disciple had "crossed the line" in terms of permissible fiction based on fact. One of Margulies's inspirations for Collected Stories was Stephen Spender's contention that novelist David Leavitt had ripped off a personal love affair the Poet Laureate had treated in his 1951 autobiography World Within World. In the late 1990s, Clare Bloom decimated Philip Roth in an autobiography that dealt with their married life, and Roth responded with a mean literary counterblast of his own. And recently, Margaret Salinger in Dream Catcher wrote a devastating memoir of her heartless and idiosyncratic father J.D. Salinger that must have made him weep.

It is difficult to discriminate in such cases without taking into account the underlying attitude of the artists involved. For instance, for me Roman Polansky's palpable relish of the brutality in his award-winning film "The Pianist" sent a strong negative shiver down my spine. I felt that Polansky, who is sadistically inclined, was so thoroughly enjoying the cruelties he was depicting that I was somehow an accomplice in his sadism by "going along" with his film; an impression, paradoxically, I did not get from Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which covered much of the same territory.

But in the case of In Cold Blood, the condemnation of the protagonist (Capote) was predetermined by the film makers. I was being asked to join them in being repelled by Capote's artistic deceit. I was repelled by it but wondered afterward whether that was a legitimate reaction. Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were commonplace, probably psychotic, murderers who were unquestionably guilty of their crime and deserved to hang, whatever mitigating circumstances might lie in their respective childhoods. Capote, a social climber who fawned on the rich and famous and became the poodle of a social set to which he could never legitimately belong, was using the materials at his disposal to recreate a perfectly legitimate slice of life that probed complex motives and revealed deeply-flawed criminal types.

Can one proscribe any form of human experience as off limits? If we can have horrific mementos of the Holocaust and recollections of torture and degradation like those that followed World War II and now issue out of Iraq and Abu Ghraib; if certain kinds of sadomasochistic pornography can gain protection from the law; is there anything that we can positively prohibit? Once upon a time, one would have had to assert that "taste" was the measuring rod; that only vulgarity was truly odious and truly censorable. But with barf-making phenomena like Jerry Springer, Anna Nicole Smith, and a small galaxy of vicious and foul-mouthed rappers now prominent, pernicious, and highly-compensated, even vulgarity has become part of the norm, and in a culture where "anything goes," the tenets of discrimination crumble like the walls of Jericho. In such a climate can one really nit-pick the morality of a film like "Capote" or even begin to explore questions of moral transgression, evil motives, and insidious influences?

It is somehow fitting that in this day and age the only thing we need to know about Truman Capote is that he was a manipulative fag who exploited two helpless prisoners in order to compose an exceptional novel. A point may yet come when all we need know about William Shakespeare is that he was once accused of poaching deer; that what made Christopher Marlowe noteworthy was that he was stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl over a disputed bill; that the most remarkable thing about T.S. Eliot was that he had his wife put away in an insane asylum.

It would be nice to believe that our range of vision may widen in the 21st century, but there's little sign of it at the moment.

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Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/cmarow33.html
Published December 5, 2005