Conjuring of the Moment
Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener): You lie.
Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman): I don’t lie.
As an actor, you want that thing that’s never happened before the camera to happen now, at least once or twice. That’s what you’re looking for, every day.
—Philip Seymour Hoffman, commentary
“Part of the challenge of this film,” says director Bennett Miller of Capote, “is communicating the complexity of his character. And through isolating the different sides of him, contrasting scene to scene, I think pretty early on one begins to look deeper.” His commentary track-mate, cinematographer Adam Kimmel, agrees, “You keep seeing him bouncing off different elements.” As they watch their Truman Capote (Academy Award-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman) laugh with his best friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) during their first train trip to Kansas, Miller adds, “So far we haven’t seen him uncomfortable, then we cut to… three… two…” Capote stands behind a cold window pane, his Bergdorf’s scarf close around his neck, his face pink and taut. “There he is,” says Kimmel.
As they finish one another’s sentences and demonstrate a charming sort of sync, the artists here suggest how Capote came to be such a tight, complex, and elegant film. Their attention to formal elements and what Miller calls “tone” allows the difficult character of Capote to resonate, not in any reductive way, but in an increasingly layered, discomforting, and challenging way. Capote is less a portrait of Truman Capote than the story of a cultural shift, embodied and perhaps even advanced by Capote. This shift toward self-involved and self-serving journalism, world-shaping as it can be, finds a brilliant new form in Capote’s work. A much lauded novelist by the time the film starts in 1959, he’s also restless and ambitious.
This thorny character forms a difficult center, as underlined in the second commentary track, with Miller and Hoffman, as well as two decent documentaries, the six-minute “Answered Prayers” (featuring footage of the real Capote) and longer documentary, “Making Capote” (divided into two parts, “Concept to Script” and “Defining a Style”). Arrogant and brilliant, Capote in the five years covered in the film (based on Gerald Clarke’s biography) is “forced to “face himself,” according to screenwriter Dan Futterman. “What’s great about the screenplay,” says Hoffman in “Making Capote,” is “A: it’s not a biopic.” Similarly, Miller describes his filmmaking approach as opposite of Hitchcock’s, in that he doesn’t have his project mapped ahead of time (this would be evident in his excellent documentary, The Cruise). Instead of “executing what’s been decided,” he says, “There’s gonna be some kind of mystery, the solutions are gonna be found in the conjuring of the moment.”
The film is full of such conjuring. Its opening images set up the crime in Holcomb, Kansas that inspires Capote’s great nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood. The scene cuts from a lonely, gray farmhouse to the interior, where a neighbor finds the Clutters, butchered. Though the film here shows minimal carnage, you get the idea: the family is blasted by shotguns, knifed, their faces covered with bloody sheets. When Capote spots the news item back in Manhattan and informs his New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) this will be his next project, a study of horrendous brutality in the U.S. heartland.
Here he meets Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper). Their edgy relationship is smoothed over some by the fact that Mrs. Dewey (Amy Ryan) is fond of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Harper Lee, coming along as “research assistant and personal bodyguard,” provides crucial social skills. Capote, meticulous and self-conscious, is most at home among smug, wealthy devotees of his work, who hang on his every word. (These party scenes, Miller reveals, were largely improvised by Hoffman, who adds, “If you improv without purpose or reason, it’s always dumb and bad, but if you improv with purpose and reason, it’s fruitful.”)
As Miller says in the documentary, Capote from childhood sought praise: “He wanted it so badly that he lost sense of the consequences of what he was doing to get it.” As Capote looks on the Clutter bodies, laid out in the funeral home, he cocks his head just a little, and his face flushes. “It comforts me, something so horrifying,” he says afterwards, “Normal life falls away. I was never much for normal life.” (Miller calls this scene, set in a funeral parlor where the draperies provide solemn, gold-colored vertical lines as the coffins gleam grimly, “more tonal,” as a means of granting Capote information, replacing a diner scene where Capote and Harper Lee overheard customers talking; Hoffman adds that here, “You see the writer thinking” as Capote opens a coffin and sees a head swathed in white cloth.)
Capote’s eerie intuition concerning the significance of particulars (he notes the way a killer has turned or covered a face, imagines novelistic motives) vaguely impresses Dewey, but Capote is more in love with his talents than any admirer could be. Plying one young interview subject, he caters to her desire for affirmation: “It’s hard when someone has a notion about you and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. Ever since I was a child, people thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, the way I talk.” But, he says, his voice lilting defiantly, “They were always wrong.”
As coolly as he comes to the project, Capote is pretty much undone by it. A closing note reveals that following the publication of In Cold Blood, six years after Capote begins his work on the New Yorker piece, he became a superstar and never wrote another book. Instead, he essentially drank himself to death at 59. Apparently, this sad end begins in Capote’s creepy relationship with his protagonists, the murderers Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). He develops a not-so-long distance relationship with Perry especially, in the form of mutual crushes, Perry being exceptionally rough trade, despite Capote’s romantic notion that they are alike. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” he tells Lee. “And one day, he got up and went out the back door, and I went out the front.”
Capote’s self-delusion drives the movie, which suggests his ambition becomes a kind of psychic vampirism. At first, he’s thrilled by the attention Perry bestows on him because his young subject is so distrustful of everyone else. Their first, semi-accidental meeting takes place as Capote wanders through the local sheriff’s home, Smith in a cage (the “women’s cell”) in the kitchen. Suffering pain from the scars on his legs, Smith asks Capote for aspirin. The camera peers at Smith through the bars, adopting Capote’s tentative remove, part intrigued, part patronizing, part swooning over Smith’s young-tough affect, Cherokee blood, and strange ingenuousness. Each man looks on one of Capote’s early books, lent to the prisoner by the sheriff’s wife, the pretty, impossibly young face gazing from the dust jacket. It’s as if both men are entranced by the image, and each sees in it some version of himself. “Your picture’s undignified,” says Smith. “People recall first impressions.”
Capote’s sympathy for his subjects is tempered by his won purpose. He has a story in mind, a shape for his climax, and he’s only waiting for it to proceed as he knows it will. (He’s also not a little jealous that Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a huge success, even turned into a prize-winning movie.) Capote visits Smith on death row, bringing him baby food, for he’s gone on a hunger strike. “It’s Truman,” he says, spoon hovering. “It’s your friend.” But Capote doesn’t appear to grasp this concept. Though he shares details of his own life in a kind of exchange for Smith’s story (both had difficult childhoods in abusive households, though Smith’s saga is far more extreme), as Miller notes, these are manipulative moments as much as they are genuinely vulnerable: “He uses that sincerity to manipulate [Smith’s] journals out of him.”
Capote’s early efforts to find “proper” legal representation for Smith and Hickock soon bore him, as he realizes that the longer the case stretches on, the longer he must put off his publication and his stardom. And so he lies to Perry when asked about more raising more funds or even using the manuscript in their defense, saying he’s “hardly written anything,” though he’s been typing away in hotel rooms for months.
Lee sees through much of Capote’s posturing, as does his low-key, generous lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). But their attempts to push him on his own motives, to make him confess his self-interest, tend to “fall away,” as he’s not, after all, much for normal. He tells Lee that Smith is a “gold mine,” but when the camera cuts to her on the pother end of the phone line, her concern underlines the ugliness of Capote’s appropriations, his selfish interests in the story that will make him famous even as Smith is dead.
Still, Capote insists that what he’s doing is more important than any single death by hanging. The film allows glimpses of Capote’s struggles—he self-medicates, resists responsibility for the emotional havoc he’s wreaking, won’t take Perry’s collect calls, and argues with Jack. In a late visit with Smith, he cuts him: Smith suggests that Capote shouldn’t be sending Hickock books that “exacerbate his problem” (porn and trashy novels). When Smith goes on to define “exacerbate,” Capote displays a cruelty he’s held back before: “There’s not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me,” he says, even as he’s been sapping Smith dry of stories and emotional life for years.
Capote’s pain drives him. He seeks praise, salvation, or sustained celebrity, as these become intertwined, in his dazzling book. “If I leave here without understanding you,” he tells Smith during one of their last meetings, the world will see you as a monster. I don’t want that.” But what Capote wants is his story, understanding filtered through his own genius. That story reveals the dangers of journalism in search of authenticity and based in intimacy. It also reveals the monster Capote sees in himself, or more accurately, the monster the movie sees him seeing.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article