Literary Conceits

‘THE SQUID AND THE WHALE' & ‘CAPOTE'

A spate of recent movies—films as disparate as Wonder Boys, Adaptation, The Door in the Floor, Sideways, and Sylvia—all share one thing: a failed or troubled writer as protagonist. There are excellent reasons for this. Who wants to accompany, say, John Updike through a day of fervid composition and phone calls from magazine editors offering choice assignments, topped off by the National Book Award ceremony at night? The tormented writer, on the other hand, opens up vistas of agonized drama. His creative dreams crash against the immovable wall of failure, generating violent energies that engulf those around him. The writer played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining attempts to murder his family literally; others do it psychologically and emotionally.

This murderous rage is the subject of Noah Baumbach’s fourth film, The Squid and the Whale. Set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the 1980s, the movie charts the disintegration of the Berkmans, a family headed by not one writer, but two, Bernard and Joan (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). Bernard has done little in the decade since he last published a novel. No publisher wants his current manuscript, and at readings he still performs from a tattered copy of his first book. A writer’s mood tends to curdle with each passing day he isn’t producing, and Bernard isn’t just curdled; he’s solidified into a block of bitterness. At the dinner table he belabors the family with smug literary opinions—dismissing A Tale of Two Cities, for instance, as “minor Dickens.” He’s a tendentious bore, and his wife is sick of him. As her own writing career heats up, she starts a casual affair and demands that Bernard move out. The family’s two sons, sixteen-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and twelve-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), divide up according to their respective sympathies, and a war begins that replicates the tennis doubles match Frank announces to Walt: “Mom and me versus you and Dad.”

Baumbach has created a pithy study in family pathology (the film was shot in twenty-three days on a shoestring budget of $1.5 million). It traces the Berkmans’ miseries to the black hole of Bernard’s seething narcissism. Desperate for the adulation denied him by the literary world, he cultivates it in Walt, and it’s scary to watch him turn the boy into a snob and a fraud, mindlessly spouting Bernard’s own opinions. Indeed, Bernard is such an ogre of selfishness, you wonder when and how he started hating his life. Was he ever a good writer? If so, what happened? Even failed writers (recall Michael Douglas’s character in Wonder Boys) find ways to maintain, alongside disappointment and regret, a quantity of wild joy at having participated in art; and this joy constitutes both their resiliency and their integrity. But Baumbach chooses not to go there, and it’s too bad for his movie. The singlemindedness of Bernard’s anger siphons off the film’s tragic potential and reduces him to a vain, embittered buffoon.

If a failed writer is a kind of monster, Bennett Miller’s Capote reminds us that a successful one can be just as scary. His biopic opens with images that evoke deep rural/urban contrasts in America and in the film’s protagonist himself, novelist Truman Capote, raised in Alabama and New York City. After a shot of trees on a lonely Kansas horizon, we cut to the writer holding forth at a party in a crowded Manhattan apartment, gossipmongering and tossing off wicked, Wildean bons mots. Silence vs. noise, nature vs. artifice, straight vs. gay: Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman work from the opposites reflected in Capote’s 1966 masterpiece of narrative journalism, In Cold Blood, whose terse factuality belied its author’s flamboyance.

Capote’s career mixed triumph and despair in colossal measure across four decades, but Miller’s film limits itself to the five-year period in which Capote worked on his greatest book. Begun as a New Yorker article, In Cold Blood investigated the murder of a Kansas family, the Clutters, by two drifters, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. After reading about the murder in the New York Times, Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) persuades New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) to commission an article. Soon he heads west, taking along his childhood friend and fellow writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) as his “research assistant and personal bodyguard.”

And at first it looks as if he’ll need one. An obviously gay man, sashaying about in camel’s hair overcoat and Bergdorf scarf, Capote in the Kansas of 1959 is radioactive. But he quickly shows himself to be a genius at ingratiation. His strategies for flattery range from the trivial (learning a doorman’s name) to the middling (bribing a sheriff’s wife with a signed book to gain access to the prisoners) to the shameless—peddling stories of his own childhood hardships in order to win the trust of Perry Smith, a young sociopath from a broken home, whose stunted artistic impulses suggest a funhouse-mirror reflection of Capote himself. Capote will use anything on anyone, including (if necessary) an envelope stuffed with cash, to get what he wants.

What he wants is the story. Capote only glancingly engages the horrific crime behind In Cold Blood; Miller and Futterman’s real subject is the writing of the book itself. And from the moment we see a fascinated Capote clipping a small article about the murder from the Times—sensing, in that small single column of print, a whole world—this is as good a film as you will ever see on the subject of how writers work. An early scene reveals Capote alone in the Holcomb, Kansas, funeral parlor, surreptitiously opening the Clutter family’s caskets to peer inside, finding corpses with their faces wrapped in cotton gauze like mummies. Any writer will recognize Capote’s wide-eyed, rapt expression for what it is—not dread, but rather awe at the unforgettable, highly usable image that has just fallen into his lap. The Clutters are material.

This discrepancy between the viewer’s horror and the writer’s excitement forms a baseline irony of the movie. “When I think how good my book can be,” Capote says to his editor, “I can hardly breathe.” All writers know that state of enthrallment, and to a greater or lesser degree will exploit people in order to bring it to the page. In Capote’s case, both his vaulting ambition and his stupendous talent for manipulating people push this exploitation to an extreme. Avid for a firsthand account of the murder to use as his book’s sensational centerpiece, he plays the hapless Smith every which way, badgering, pleading, and lying. “If I leave here without understanding you,” he tells the condemned man, “the world will see you as a monster—always. I don’t want that.” When a hasty death sentence threatens to dispatch the two killers before he can get their story, Capote intervenes, finding them a top-notch lawyer for an appeal. A few years later, though, with those appeals dragging on and delaying the completion of his book, the novelist rages in a fury of narcissistic self-pity. “It’s terrible, what they’re doing to me,” he whines to Harper Lee. “They’re torturing me.” The message is clear and hideous. Hurry up and die, so I can publish my book.

Capote is a field day for Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the rare chameleon actor who can range the spectrum from crassly overbearing (The Talented Mr. Ripley) to tremulously reticent (Boogie Nights), and his channeling of Capote, including the novelist’s signature high-pitched, lisping drawl, is uncanny. With help from Dan Futterman’s smart script, Hoffman presents a tangled and vehement portrayal of mixed motives. It is to the film’s great credit that you can’t separate, finally, the sources of Capote’s interest: his personal, and at some level sympathetic, interest in Smith; his intellectual interest in the case and the small-town America it reveals; his ferocious professional interest in furthering his own career. It’s all part of the package of ambition, passion, curiosity, and brilliance that is Truman Capote, writer.

When Capote confides to Harper Lee that Smith “wants so badly to be held in esteem,” she asks him, “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” After a flustered pause, Capote answers: “Well...he’s a gold mine!” Later on, we see him reading aloud about Smith to a wildly applauding New York audience—as the real Smith sits in his cell on death row, penning desperate letters to his “amigo,” letters that Capote now ignores. It is a rare glimpse into the dark alchemy of literature, wherein the base lead of lives—actual lives—is transmuted into the gleaming gold of a writer’s book, a writer’s career.

Published in the 2005-12-02 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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