Sunday, January 29, 2006

Jacob Have I Loved But Esau Have I Hated

Jan and I got a chance to see "Capote." A pretty remarkable flick.

It's a movie about writing a book. Hard to think of a topic less likely to sell tickets. Definitely not aimed at the adolescent crowd of all ages that keeps the multi-plex flexing.

Anyway, “Capote” tells the story of American author Truman Capote’s effort to write his novel In Cold Blood in the mid 60’s. All of us during my teen and college years read the book to qualify for thinking person status. It was that groundbreaking and important.

Truman Capote

Here’s the stripped down plot.

Brilliant, liberal and gay Truman Capote hears about some brutal murders in Kansas in the late 50’s. He travels there to write an article for The New Yorker about the killings but soon realizes he’s onto the novel of a lifetime. His research assistant is childhood friend and fellow novelist Harper Lee, who published “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the many years Capote struggled to write In Cold Blood.

The back story is that most folks in 50’s Leave it to Beaver America--the more obvious and willfully naïve grandfather of Leave it to Bush America—don't want to recognize that evil has a foothold in America or that the American story is disturbingly human and complicated.

The facts at the heart of the book:

Two drifters--Perry Smith and Dick Hickock--break into the home of an upstanding and religious Kansas family intent on robbing them. They tie up the family and look for anything of value. They come up with about $50.

Though they initially have no intentions of killing the family they end up brutally murdering all of them for no obvious reason.

Capote tries to tell that story and make sense of it.

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock

In the process he ends up befriending one of the killers and puts his fame and influence behind a legal effort to get them a fair trial.

Capote had two motives.

Cynically, he wants to keep them alive long enough to get Smith to tell him the raw details of the killings so he can finish what most people now consider to be the world’s first “non-fiction novel.” Capote wants to be “great” and he knows he’ll go down in history if he can finish the book. He turns out to be right.

He also genuinely comes to care for Perry as he gets to know him and his life story. He recognizes that the two of them are very much alike and that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Both Capote and the killer come out of “red state” broken homes. Both are artistic and creative. Both want to make an impact. Perry has already written a pathetic speech he can give when he does the praiseworthy and valuable thing he believes he's destined to do. Capote loves applause and milks his time in front of a crowd--whether large or small--for all it's worth.

At one point Capote says to Harper Lee, “ Perry and I came out of the same house. He went out the back door and I went out the front.”

Perry eventually tells Capote the details and the truth. Capote then cuts off communication with Perry, publishes his novel, and becomes world famous. Perry gives his speech on the gallows and then he and Hickock are hanged. As a result, Capote falls into a deep depression and never writes another book.

It’s Shakespearian. I'm one of those people who believe real life is normally more interesting than fiction, though I guess sometimes the best fiction does ok as well :^)

Lots of themes in the movie. Sophisticated and supposedly secular urban America (something we're now told to call “blue” America) in contrast with supposedly fundamentalist and traditional "red" America. The moral and personal compromises people make in order to create a career, and in this case, high art. Self absorbed and self-serving journalism--now even more prevalent on the right than the left. The dangerous illusion that evil doesn't exist. The currently unsolvable puzzle of evil--what the New Testament calls "the mystery of iniquity."

But mostly, the mystery of why people turn out the way they do.

Some of the deepest biblical voices believed that the fate of individual people and even nations didn't really rest in their own hands.

"As it is written, 'Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.' What then are we to say? Is God unjust?...For God said to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So it doesn't depend on human desire or effort, but on God who shows mercy." Romans 9:13-16

I don't do many movie reviews, but since the Academy Awards are around the corner and since this particular flick moved me more than any I've seen in a while, I thought I'd give you a heads up. Definitely worth a look.


Blogger jon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:01 PM  
Blogger jon said...

What do you think about Hoffman's best actor chances? (I've heard that Heath Ledger is the main competition.) He's been one of my two favorite character actors for years now (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Talented Mr. Ripley) and I'm glad to see him getting starring roles now.

And to take issue with one statement you made:

"Self absorbed and self-serving journalism--now even more prevalent on the right than the left."

It seems like mostly an unjustified personal opinion. I'm not sure how to measure "self-serving" journalism, vs "how well did they hide their preference?" One professor did do a study on the bias present in major media outlets:

It's interesting to note not only the results of their study, but the other studies they mention on the same topic.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I think he's got a good shot.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Copote is a remarkable movie and I'm very glad that I saw it. It was one of the few movies that I've seen in a long time that left me thinking about bigger issues in life for weeks after seeing it. The death penalty seemed so appropriate for these crimes and yet so very wrong for these two men who seemed to be worthy of saving. They commited the most brutal of murders for no clear reason, but the film exposed their human side and made me feel how difficult it is to sentence someone to death. It is great that some movies still make you think.

4:48 PM  
Blogger jon said...

The LATimes recently gave a different view on the story of Capote:


"Capote" portrays an artist making deep moral compromises in pursuit of his masterpiece. Truman Capote is shown befriending, then betraying Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the murderers at the heart of "In Cold Blood."

Capote offers them legal help, the better to stave off their execution so he can extract a full confession from Smith. Once he has it he cuts off contact, the better to hasten the execution that he needs to finish his book. The historical record, however — including Gerald Clarke's biography, on which the film is based — tells a rather different story.

Capote, as is made clear in one of his letters, had obtained a "private" confession from Smith by the middle of 1960 — shortly after the men's arrest and trial and a full five years before they went to the gallows. There was never any question of manipulating the legal process. As the men's court-appointed attorney told George Plimpton, one of Capote's biographers, it is doubtful anyone could have saved them from execution following their confession to police and entirely orderly trial. Capote never cut off contact with the killers but rather went to extraordinary lengths, including bribery, to circumvent the rules of Kansas' death row so he could visit and write to them from June 1963 until their deaths.

It is true that Capote lied to Smith and Hickock about how much of his book he had written, tried to conceal the title from them so they wouldn't think he was accusing them of premeditated murder — the biggest legal question in the appeals process — and told his friends at the end that he couldn't wait to see them hang. On the day of their deaths, he ignored their entreaties to be with them, cabling them that he was not permitted to, which was not true. He ended up saying the briefest of goodbyes before watching their appointment with the "Big Swing."

These could certainly be regarded as betrayals. But the biggest of those depicted in the film never happened. And yet the movie wants you to believe that these embellishments and inventions were responsible for Capote's descent into drinking and drugs, his failure to ever complete another book.

Of course, "Capote" is a feature film, not a documentary. But there's a difference between changing little things — having Capote use a typewriter, for example, when he typically wrote in longhand — and changing motives and behavior to cast a person in a substantially more negative light.

The distortions matter too, because "Capote" is a film about the spiritual and moral consequences of playing with the truth and with other people's lives. "Capote" looks at the question through the prism of an artist searching for glory. It is worth asking if the filmmakers haven't done a little artistic overreaching of their own.

— Andrew Gumbel is the Los Angeles correspondent for the London newspaper the Independent."

5:45 PM  

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