Movies » Movie Reviews

Documenting an elf in Kansas


Anyone who makes a film about a writer faces the perennial problem of transforming essentially nonvisual material into entertaining moving pictures.

As the history of cinema demonstrates, painters, sculptors, composers, singers, dancers, and musicians provide rich, highly visual subjects for film; writing, on the other hand, offers little in the way of surface attraction for the camera to dwell on. Few writers lead interesting lives, to begin with, and the process of writing itself usually depends upon such uncinematic conditions as solitude and inwardness, which often translate into the dull activities of scratching one's head, pacing the floor, and looking out the window, sometimes accompanied by unmusical groaning.

To tell the story of Truman Capote's composition of In Cold Blood, the book that insured his permanent fame, the makers of Capote necessarily omit most of the actual business of the author at work. Aside from a couple of obligatory scenes of Capote at the typewriter, the film concentrates, in a virtually documentary style, on his encounters with the people and subjects that inspired his examination of a mass murder in a small Kansas town. It also shows, in a relatively orthodox, linear manner, the ways in which the writing of the book transformed the writer's life and art.

Capote discovered his subject by sheer accident, in a brief report in the New York Times of the murder of the Clutters, a prominent farming family in Holcomb, Kansas. For inexplicable reasons, the effete social butterfly, the lapidary stylist of New Yorker stories and profiles, the precious writer of a fey sort of Southern Gothic, resolved to embark on a book about an act of horrible violence. That decision led him, with his friend, the novelist Harper Lee, to the bleak emptiness of Western Kansas, and to a relationship with a pair of murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.

Although Capote must have seemed as strange as any alien invader to the folk of Holcomb and Garden City, his cleverness, his sympathy, and his considerable charm enabled him to become friendly with a number of people involved with the case, including the chief investigator, Alvin Dewey. More important, when the police arrested the killers, Capote also convinced them to confide in him, allowing him to form an intense relationship with Perry Smith and inspiring the most significant work of his life and career.

The film moves back and forth from New York to Kansas, creating some easy contrasts between the chatter and glitter of the New York literary establishment and the narrow lives and unpretentious plainness of the windswept prairies. It also suggests some of the ambiguities inherent in Capote's aims and methods, his awareness of exploiting the tragedies of the Clutters as well as the sadness of the background and psychology that led Perry Smith to murder. With considerable honesty, the movie shows that Capote only reluctantly decided to help the killers with their appeals, since he realized that their hanging would really make the best conclusion for his book.

The performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role naturally must sustain the whole story, and it's a genuine tour de force. In what must have been an exhausting effort, he re-creates exactly the author's appearance, the prissy mannerisms, the high-pitched effeminate voice --- I know, I met the man --- and even, through the magic of the cinema, somehow assumes the diminutive stature of the shortest writer since John Keats abandoned medicine for the chancier and bloodier business of poetry.

At the same time, he gradually reveals the several facets of the writer's character, his combinations of selfishness and generosity, kindness and arrogance, sweetness and crudeness, even the complexities of his ambivalence toward the subjects and the writing of his book.

Even audiences who have never read In Cold Blood or seen the movie version or who may never have heard of Truman Capote should find the picture a fascinating and instructive work of art. It illustrates the truth of Norman Mailer's remark that Capote's relationship with the two killers constituted the central event of his life; moreover, it presented an opportunity few writers ever encounter, one that perhaps only Capote possessed the sensitivity to grasp and the talent, tenacity, and, yes, the courage to exploit.

The filmmakers and their principal actor deserve credit for reflecting the truth and anguish of that endeavor.

Capote (R), directed by Bennett Miller, is showing at Henrietta 18, Little Theatres, Pittsford Plaza