Saturday, March 11, 2006

dysfunction junction

Finally got around to seeing Capote last night, and for discussion purposes it's a good complement to The Squid and the Whale which I saw a couple of weeks ago. Both center on insufferably egotistical New York-based writers, albeit one with a bit more notoriety and success than the other. Both Jeff Daniels's Bernard Berkman and Truman Capote are real people, the Berkman character fictional but apparently not too far removed from the real-life father of Squid writer and director Noah Brumbach (who wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which also deals heavily with paternal-filial relations and egomaniac creative types.

There's not a scene in Squid which isn't uncomfortable to watch. From the screwed up family dynamic that's set up in the first scene on the tennis court, to the pretension and smug stupidity of Berkman and his eldest son, to the mom's philandering, to the youngest son's acting out with alcohol and masturbation (and speaking of uncomfortable, the acts are portrayed fairly graphically, which is cringe-worthy as the kid {played by Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates's son Owen) is all of about 10 years do you direct that without self-consciousness)...the film is one big trip to the therapist's couch for Brumbauch, and entire skeletons are hauled out of the closet for the audience to examine. Plenty of films have dealt with divorce, and many from the point-of-view of the kids...none that I remember have done so in a way that either sparks instant recognition for anyone who's been through some messy family stuff or provides a "there but for the grace of god" moment for people who grew up in happy families. And speaking of child stars, or at least former ones now grown up...Anna Paquin plays a grad student who sleeps with the elder Berkman while she teases his son. Anna Paquin, the little girl from The Piano. When did she grow up?

The real-life Truman Capote doesn't come off very well. He's portrayed as a self-absorbed drama-queen who uses Perry Smith (and to a lesser extent Richard Hickock) to write "In Cold Blood". At first his affection for Smith is apparently genuine, as he thinks Smith and he are both cut from the same cloth, and Smith just had the worse luck and made the poor choices to be weak and a criminal. The worm turns when Capote realizes that Smith is as much using him to get access to lawyers and beat the rap when it's obvious that Smith and Hickock are guilty. A fantastic juxtaposition is the scene where Capote is basking in the adulation from a well-received public reading from the unfinished book while Smith sees a fellow death-row inmate be walked into the hanging warehouse and later wheeled out on a back-hoe, one arm hanging off the lip of the well. Each sees his future played out, the consequences of the murder taking their lives in starkly different directions. In the end Capote can't wait for Smith and Hickock to meet the hangman so that he can finish his book. The depth of Capote's self-absorption comes when longtime friend Harper Lee is celebrating her own success, the film premiere of "To Kill a Mockingbird". Capote can't even be bothered to offer her sincere congratulations, preferring to wallow in his own martini-induced miasma of self-pity, churlishly lamenting that the stays of execution are preventing him from being done with the book.

Regarding the Oscar-worthiness of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance...well, it's always hard to be totally objective after the fact. I mean, I'm watching it knowing he won, how can that not affect my own view? Three of the nominees for Best Actor were for roles where the actors portrayed real people who had plenty of visual evidence left as to their mannerisms. While it's certainly a challenge to portray a real person regardless whether the actor interprets or imitates, I thought Heath Ledger's performance was all the more amazing because he had to create his character out of whole cloth. And his character was much more complex than Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash or PHS's Truman Capote.

1 comment:

C said...

oh my god, the piano was so awful. i was made to see it by an ex girlfriend who owned and loved it. honestly, about half way through i was running scenarios in my head, like what if i killed us both with the remote control? or maybe i could bite one of my fingers off--she would have to stop the movie to take me to the hospital, right?