TOMORROW: My Book World | F. L. Wright's An Autobiography
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Pasternak, Boris. Dr. Zhivago. New York: Signet, 1958.
As a high school youth I saw the film Dr. Zhivago at least twice. Then when I went to college I was required to view it for a humanities class, whose theme for the semester was “creativity.” Among other titles we also read Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art?. The book cost a dollar. One evening early in the semester the entire college, who was required to take humanities, showed up at the local theater to view Dr. Zhivago; the venue was capable of holding all 700 of us. Even out of the three showings all my tender mind could derive from the three-hour film was that Dr. Zhivago simply wished to live his life, free of political wranglings. He had no thoughts of being rich; he merely wanted to live his life creatively—mainly through writing poetry. Through the years I’ve continued to revisit the film, and, as an older man, derive different gifts from it.
Back when I was in college I was not required to read the novel but bought a Signet paperback version (the cover says) for ninety-five cents. I estimate that Dr. Zhivago, the novel, moved with me at least a dozen times from Winfield, Kansas to Dallas to Lubbock, Texas, each time packed up in a box and then placed in its alphabetical niche on various shelves. But only recently did I find the time to pull the yellow-paged copy off the shelf and read it—close to fifty years after I bought it. I’ve not been disappointed in Pasternak’s novel first published in Italy in 1955. It caused a furor both in Russia, where it was officially denounced, and in the Western world, where it was heralded as a realistic account of Tsarist Russia’s shift to communism.
The plot, of course, is only too familiar. Dr. Yuri Zhivago comes from a rather well to do family, and he receives his education with grace and anticipation of living a charmed life. He marries Tonia, and they have a son. At some point he works with Lara, a nurse, and though he is attracted to her, he does not admit it. Years later they are reunited by working in the same hospital, and they fall in love. Zhivago is then swept up in Russian history as he is captured by the partisans, who conscript him as a medical officer. He “serves” with them for a long period, and he never again sees Tonia or his son, Sasha, who have moved to Paris. As an older man he marries and fathers two children, but this part is left out of the film. Unlike the film, which seems to conclude with Yuri’s heart attack on the street, the book ends with a detailed account of the life of Tania, the love child of Yuri and Lara. The film devises a frame by which Zhivago’s brother searches out Tania and the entire book seems to be told as one flashback.
The following passages are but two that indicate how Pasternak seeks to portray the savagery of the war.
“Zhivago had told him how hard he found it to accept the ruthless logic of mutual extermination, to get used to the sight of the wounded, especially to the horror of certain wounds of a new sort, to the mutilation of survivors whom the technique of modern fighting had turned into lumps of disfigured flesh” (99).
I’m glad finally to have read Pasternak’s novel. His words continue to reach out to us, imploring us, worldwide, to find diplomatic solutions to human conflict. War does nothing but separate people, obliterate their lives into something that is forever after incomprehensible. War serves to separate those who might love one another and raise children in relative peace, and that ought to be the least people can expect out of life.
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Ballard, J. G. Empire of the Sun. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, 2007.
The author, born in Shanghai, China, in 1930, explains in the Foreword that this novel is based on his experiences during World War Two, during which he was interned from 1942 to 1945, in his early teens. Indeed, the main character Jim is separated from his parents. The 1987 film by Steven Spielberg makes a big to-do of their separation, but in the book it seems to happen as it might happen to a child. One moment his parents are present, as he is knocked down in a certain melee. The next moment his mother is gone: “Jim’s mother had disappeared, cut off from him by the column of military trucks” (32). Then his father lies down with him, but mysteriously, the next day Jim finds himself alone in a hospital, hoping his parents will come for him soon.
This bright boy must now negotiate the muddy and treacherous waters of wartime virtually on his own. I was inspired by a recent viewing of the film to read the book. I recall many of the movie’s scenes as they unfold on the pages. However, Spielberg takes some liberties, as film directors are wont to do, in order to tell his story. The novel is multi-layered, with countless poignant and sad scenes, but Spielberg turns it into a boy’s adventure story. Both are great, but they are not equally great works.
In the beginning, the eleven-year-old Jim, intelligent though he is, possesses childish and feckless notions:
“He thought of telling Mr. Maxted that not only had he left the cubs and become an atheist, but he might become a Communist as well. The Communists had an intriguing ability to unsettle everyone, a talent Jim greatly respected” (15).
And like a child he tends to think about things with a limited point of view:
“Jim had little idea of his own future—life in Shanghai was lived wholly within an intense present—but he imagined himself growing up to be like Mr. Maxted” (16).
Early on Jim grasps what death is all about, yet also a certain irony he may not fully understand until later:
“In many ways the skeletons were more live than the peasant farmers who had briefly tenanted their bones. Jim felt his cheeks and jaw, trying to imagine his own skeleton in the sun, lying here in this peaceful field within sight of the deserted aerodrome” (17).
As a child might, Jim feels he is responsible for things that are not really his fault, again, largely because he lacks the full picture that an adult would see.
The novel, like a children’s story, moves from one episode to the next, one scene to the next. I found it hard to follow at first. But then I realized that perhaps Ballard wishes for the reader to experience this daze that Jim is in, the chaotically episodic nature of his life over a period of several years, as he struggles to stay alive. Even though he periodically wonders where his parents are, even wonders what they look like, his main focus is on staying alive. His body suffers malnutrition. He develops pus-laden gums.
In my Kindle I highlighted the word sun, sunlight, and many synonyms for the word. Ballard seems to be saying two things. One, the Japanese empire, whose symbol seems to be that big red sun on its flag, is stretching its domain to include China. The sun also seems to symbolize a brighter day for Jim and the thousands of other refugees of their war. Ballard’s use of it is never heavy-handed; the “sun” just seems to appear as a natural part of this war-torn world.
I’ve read other war (anti-war) novels: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Heller’s Catch-22, and others. This novel captures yet a different war, part of the Pacific theater, but it is seen through the eyes of a boy, who at times perceives things poorly because he is a child, and at the same time grasps what’s happening precisely because his innocence allows him to see the truth. And his point of view often allows him to sidestep the callous or evil actions or adults, even those who profess to be looking out for him. Ballard seems to cast little judgment over this war. It is only where this young man is trapped, alive, yet half dead. Ballard’s last paragraph works as a précis of his entire novel:
“Below the bows of the Arrawa a child’s coffin moved onto the night stream. Its paper flowers were shaken loose by the wash of a landing craft carrying sailors from the American cruiser. The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats, driven once again to the shores of this terrible city” (279).
Jim and his parents are reunited very quietly (unlike the film). Though they return to England, others are not so fortunate. Many, like the child's coffin, are swept back to Shanghai.
NEXT TIME: MORE SHOTS OF BACKYARD BIRDS
I recently received a request from a subscriber friend, Sandra Sanchez, who lives in Denver, and I'd like to help her out by passing on her letter to you. It sounds like a fascinating project.
"I have a favor to ask if it fits with your blog: help us spread the word about a documentary film my daughter has been working on for several years. The Colony Record store in Times Square is closing after sixty-four years, the last family-owned business in Times Square and one of the last record stores in the country. Record stores have been going the way of bookstores apparently for the same reasons. This place was a cultural icon so this is another one of those end of era events. She is trying to raise some money to finish it on a website that filmmakers use to raise money: www.indiegogo.com and the name of her film is Manhattan Lullaby . . . if you think it fits. The specific page link is:http://www.indiegogo.com/manhattanlullaby Thanks if you can help spread the word! Sandy
In 1977 I travel to Hawaii alone. I’ve had a particularly challenging year teaching, and I’m facing another one the next fall, so I borrow $700 from the credit union and spend nearly two weeks on the island of Oahu. There I meet three other gay guys at Hula’s, a fabulous (my first fabulous) dance bar, and we pal around together for the duration. Two of them, Alex and George, are friends from LA, and another guy, Tom, hails from San Francisco. He’s on his way to Australia to take a position he has accepted on faith will be a good one. We meet each day and share a place on Queen's Surf each day, ending up at a bar called the Blowhole. One day we are chummy enough to rent a car and tour the island together; the conversations seem like something out of E.M. Forster. It’s a sad time when our vacations are over and I have to go home to Lubbock. In Lubbock pride is not the same as here.
The next summer I return to LA to spend some time with Alex, one of the guys I meet in 1977. In a whirlwind visit, I see actor Cindy Williams at a restaurant, Louisiana Purchase, and Alex and I boogie on down to a gay disco, Studio One (see slide #5 above), several nights in a row. When I'd made arrangements to visit him, I had no idea that he, a friend of his named Lee, and I would wind up driving to San Francisco together to participate in the 1978 Gay Pride Parade that is to take place Sunday, June 25th. Alex surprises me further by making arrangements for us to stay at the famed St. Francis. To make the setting clear, it is the following autumn that Harvey Milk will be assassinated.
As we tromp up and down San Francisco’s steep hills, I feel like one of the early suffragettes approaching the area where we will view the parade. Of course, there are scores of groups that have signed up to march: gay lawyers, gay teachers, gay doctors. You name it, and they’re there. Marching bands are raring to go. People are carrying signs everywhere, particularly those opposing the Briggs Amendment, which, if it passes, will ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. (A coalition of gay and union activists is formed and later defeats the amendment.) All the groups conduct themselves in a very orderly manner, and, I’m not sure how this comes about, but at some point we are allowed to pick up and join the parade if we wish. And so we jump right in. Someone inches from me yells from the crowd. “Where’d you get that tan?” I grin. What am I to say? I started it in Texas and finished it off in LA. Such superficial considerations, but I’ve turned thirty this summer of 1978, have only been out of the closet for three years, and I want to cherish this moment, not to mention whatever youth I may have left.
What follows are a few remarks I write in my journal after I get home: “I really had misgivings about going [to the parade]. Where are the TV cameras? What about my job? What if I get shot by some crazy? You don’t live through the 60s and not ask yourself these questions as you enter an area in which 250,000+ people are gathering to march” [on behalf of gay rights]. “Yet, as I entered the parade, my paranoia subsided and instead I did begin to feel some sense of pride. Here was my real family—not united by blood, perhaps—but certainly by sweat and tears. Certainly we were united by a distinguished lineage of those who had marched before us.” Lord Byron, Tchaikovsky, da Vinci, and many others. “We were united by a bond that went farther than Gay Rights. Indeed we were marching on behalf of human rights. If those who are striving to take away our rights should win, what or who is next? I was glad to march. Proud. At the moment I didn’t care if a TV camera should by chance catch a glimmer of the smile on my face. I was glad to be where I was doing exactly what I was doing.” We were part of a large underground that no longer had to live under ground.
“From a friendship established that weekend, the three of were invited to spend the night out in the mountains near Los Gatos. It was so beautiful and quiet there: I could have stayed a week.” The parade is something I think about for weeks and months to come. It is the only one, as it turns out, that I have ever marched in.
Okay. It's fun for a moment to take a glimpse of your youthful past, what it meant
. . . means. But now . . . especially as San Francisco gears up for yet another fabulous (my second fabulous) parade . . . what does pride mean for us today?
The other day I viewed a documentary, Beyond Gay: the Politics of Pride (2009), about recent worldwide observances of Gay Pride Week (available now on AT&T U-verse). The narrator, Ken Coolen, is coordinator for the Toronto parade, and he spends an entire year traveling around the world to document what is happening with pride in places like Russia. It brings tears to my eyes to see young gays in Moscow strategize by setting up a fake parade just so they can fool the police and have the actual observance in another part of the city—it lasts about three minutes. They break it up before the press and police have a chance to catch up with them. We in America may complain about not being able to get married and complain that partners who’ve lived together for many years cannot be on the same health plan. And these certainly are goals to work toward, but when I see the young Russians do what they must to stage a “parade,” I see that we’re all in this together—worldwide. It’s no longer a national issue. If it ever was. Perhaps the issue has always been larger. Discos? Gay beaches? They seem like small potatoes by comparison.
In the 1970s I thought the Mattachine Society of the 1950s was passé and that Gay Liberation was what it was all about, man. Today’s young gay men must now look at us with similar disdain. Finding a dude (or dudes) via Grindr (a phone app in which members use GPS to locate local meat) is so much cooler than picking someone up at a bar. The young still go to bars, but I understand they don’t necessarily pick up anyone there. Pity. Even in a dark bar, I think you can get a better idea of what someone is like than by checking out his stats on your phone. The phone simply serves as a screening (oops, a pun) device that, I must say, could certainly be helpful. In the recent past, I've also watched a documentary about Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise for gay fathers and mothers and their families: All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Gay Cruise (2006). I am astounded. The film documents something that I assume can never be possible for gay men and women unless they’re raising children they’ve had with their former spouses in heterosexual relationships. (One can contact r family vacations for information about the latest cruises.) Other celebs like Neal Patrick Harris and his legal husband (in California anyway) are proud fathers of twins, each one sired by sperm from a different dad, birthed by a surrogate mother. Harris sits on a talk show and discusses his relationship with his husband and children in the same manner as a straight actor married to a woman. And the fact that I’m fascinated by this event is almost embarrassing.
It all makes our Gay Liberation of the 1970s look like child’s play. And perhaps that is what we are back then. Children. Children who’ve been denied their true identify. I know I myself go through two adolescent periods. One I experience as a pre-heterosexual boy (so I think), attending sock hops and dancing with girls to songs like “Do You Love Me?” “Be My Baby,” “He’s so Fine.” Fifteen years later I celebrate a second adolescence during which I can’t get enough of disco (or men): “The Hustle,” “That’s the Way I Like it,” “Last Dance,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Perhaps at that time we are in the adolescence of our movement. We can’t get married. Our movement is too young. We can’t have children. They won’t allow us. And besides, who wants kids? How can you have fun 24/7 if children are hanging around your neck all the time?
A lot is happening now. Laws are changing. Society’s thinking is changing, and very quickly, it seems. Polls show increasing support for gay marriage, but like any progressive movement I believe it may take many more years for laws in every state to change, every country on the face of the earth. Am I sorry not to have had any children? No. It has never been on my radar. Nor Ken’s. We’ve had our careers and each other, and these seem to have sustained us. These, our families, and our friends. Our travels. We’re prepared to take care of one another until one of us dies. We’re prepared to be institutionalized in one of these lifecare places because we do not have heirs upon whom we can bestow the honor of overseeing the end of our lives. And we do it in a matter-of-fact manner without sadness or rancor. It is the way things are for us. Liberated, right through to the end.
Revisiting a Book
I was eleven when four members of the Herb Clutter family were murdered in Holcomb, Kansas, November 15, 1959, by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock—two men who cut the Clutters’ telephone lines, entered through an unlocked door, and later left with no more than $60 and the Clutters’ blood on their hands. Residing a little over two hundred miles away, I tried to read the accounts in the Wichita Eagle but usually quit before I was finished. It wasn’t difficult reading, but neither was it very engaging as reportage goes: Just the facts, ma’am. I wanted more than the five W’s delivered on a platter. Yet what made me wish to know why two men had killed an innocent family of good people? And could I ever know the answer?
One thing that brought the story even closer to me was the fact that the Clutters had an older daughter who was away at college when the killings occurred. The institution she'd attended (for two years before transferring to another school) was Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, where my mother had received her degree. I would later matriculate there myself. As a child I felt desperately sorry for that young Clutter woman, who would now have no family. I believe she married her fiancé sooner than they had planned so that she might have some family of her own—so that she would not be utterly alone, so that she and her young husband might experience some joy during that holiday season. The fact that the Clutters were Methodists, as were most of my family, made everything even more poignant—that if something this dreadful had happened to us, they would have been feeling a similar kind of sorrow on our behalf.
Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood—an account of this horrific event—was released in 1965, and since then I’ve read it twice. The first time was early in 1967, when Southwestern College’s a cappella choir conducted a tour of Western Kansas: our jolly bus traveling the same narrow blacktops that the murderers drive as they approach the Clutter farmhouse in Holcomb. The film version of In Cold Blood had just come out, and I’d bought the book to have something to read during the long hauls between towns—where we filled various venues with our youthful yet precise and round tones that, on a good day, made us sound like eight voices (SSAATTBB) instead of forty-four. We’d sung concerts in Dodge City and Garden City, and, to arrive at Ulysses, where our choir was to perform at the high school, we had to pass near the Clutter home. At least it seemed like a coincidence.
I can't remember whether our bus driver actually drove us by the house, where it sat not far from the road, or if I'm recalling a scene from the film. In any case, elms grew on each side of the road leading to the house (an allée), protecting the property from the razor-sharp winds of the cold flat plains. The dwelling, designed by Mr. Clutter and completed in 1948, seems to be a prototype of the American ranch house (3,700 square feet), not as sprawling, yet with a second story and basement—a cheerful combination of clapboards and limestone. Three picture windows face the front yard in a welcoming and open manner, though the rest of the windows, by comparison, seem small, as if to claim a privacy for the rooms they harbor.
Capote’s “non-fiction novel” read, to an eighteen-year-old, like a sensational piece of literature—something right off the newsstands, yet with much more to offer, if only, as a callow youth I might have been able to discern its finer qualities. I’d seen nothing of Truman Capote’s writings prior to that. I had no idea who he was, what he had accomplished (in his early forties by then)—didn’t realize as many others wouldn’t, that the best part of his career was over. I read from ICB every chance I got. Other choristers talked and laughed, seeking, at times, to engage me, but each time we re-boarded our bus I continued to travel with Capote as he crisscrossed the state, the nation, as he traveled from New York to Kansas and back. Reading the account is like witnessing a train wreck in utter slow motion, from its very departure until the murderers are hanged. That paperback is one of the few books of that time period to get away from me. I can't imagine where it went to.
The second time I read In Cold Blood was after I’d located a first edition in a used bookstore. One night in 2003—after having retired from teaching and my father had come to live near me—I couldn’t sleep, worried about his medical problems, as well as unresolved issues between us. When I’d bought the paperback in 1967 my father had declared, I don’t know why you’d want to read that, the papers were full of it back then. I remembered trying, as a child, to read them. Yes, I’d wanted to understand. I pulled the beige and black hardback off the shelf and was once again drawn into Capote’s barren landscape: his desire to apply the techniques of fiction to a non-fiction subject. Though I read it with more of a critical eye than the first time—and more jaded, as well, for in the 1960s I’d lived through three assassinations and later read of countless other murders—I found myself mesmerized. I didn’t read it in one sitting. I tired finally and went to bed—finishing it in the days to follow.
I had read Gerald Clark’s biography Capote in 1988, so I knew how attached Capote becomes to killer Perry Smith. One of the more vivid scenes in Capote’s book, aside from the events of the murders themselves, takes place in the Finney County Jail, where the killers are first incarcerated. In the four-story building, almost as if it is another character, Perry is held in a cell adjacent to the caretaker’s quarters. It is perhaps more like a free-standing cage, one that normally serves as a cell for women prisoners. From an open window Perry feeds a pet squirrel, yet, by stark contrast and by his own account, he has killed at least two of the four Clutters. The irony is almost too obvious, and I’m not sure Capote ever verbalizes it. Can only someone this feral in nature coax a squirrel through a jail window to eat a few crumbs each day, as Capote himself coaxes Smith to confess his story? I was not as enthralled with this reading as I was the first one in 1967. I’m not sure the non-fiction novel has ever caught on, and that would be all right with Capote, who felt he’d created something quite unique. Ultimately, I find it difficult to tell what is actual and what is surmised on the part of Mr. Capote—almost negating the validity of either genre.
Revisiting the Cinema
In 2006, two films depicting Truman Capote’s life are released, and I see them both. Each one is a fine work, and it is sad, in a way, that each appears at about the same time—because, separately, each casts new light on its subject. Capote premiers early in the year—to much commercial fanfare, boasting a commercially viable cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote; Catherine Keener as his friend and compatriot (Nelle) Harper Lee (Pulitzer Prize winning writer of To Kill A Mockingbird); and Bruce Greenwood as Capote’s lover Jack Dunphy. Infamous, which may be the better of the two films, opens very quietly in November of that year (I become aware of it through a New Yorker review), Sandra Bullock playing a subdued and dowdy Harper Lee. Both accounts portray Lee at the typewriter as Capote dictates to her his daily notes, which must make it true. Isabella Rossellini, Jeff Daniels, and Daniel Craig (as Perry Smith) round out the list of well-knowns in Infamous. Brit Toby Jones, the actor portraying Truman Capote, uncannily becomes the man; you think he may never work in film again unless he can somehow separate himself visually and verbally from his knockout punch performance in this film—which, happily, he has gone on to do, playing in W and Frost/Nixon, among others.
One both adores and despises Capote’s character at times, as he worms his way into the hearts of others and then exploits them or their words to create his work. In Infamous—based on George Plimpton’s Truman Capote and directed by Douglas McGrath—much is made of Capote’s relationships with New York’s chic society of matrons and patrons. Bennett Cerf is portrayed, replete with his Long Island lockjaw dialect, by actor/director Peter Bogdanovich. The film is a labor of love for many, providing a slender voluptuous Gwyneth Paltrow, as "Kitty Dean," an opportunity to croon “What Is This Thing Called Love?” before a nightclub audience where Capote and his friend, Sigourney Weaver’s Babe Paley, swill drinks (always plural when Capote is in the room). Tears appear in Paltrow’s eyes, and the orchestra halts when her head droops and she ceases to sing, only to be resurrected a few seconds later as she concludes the song and her apparent meltdown. Yet the film is flawed in small ways that perhaps only a native Kansan would notice. When Capote and Lee are finally invited into the home of one of Garden City's finest families—Alvin Dewey, district attorney (Jeff Daniels), and his wife—we find ourselves on their front porch Christmas Day. The lawn has green patches; in fact, there is a potted plant, still alive, on the porch. In Finney County, Kansas, in late December, I can assure you there isn’t a blade of green grass to be seen anywhere. I suspect, as I later examine the credits, the scene is shot in winter time Austin, Texas in a house, the camera reveals, on the 4200 block of some street located there. No small town street in America, as Garden City is, has a "forty-two hundred block." When the film surmises what the harrowing murder scene at the Clutter house is like, the camera pans Herb and Bonnie’s bedroom. A wooden crucifix centered over the head of the bed goes almost unnoticed, until, as a Kansan, you realize the Clutters are staunch Methodists. That Christ arose from the dead is a major sticking point with the Methodists, and yet the crucifix appears in this film, as if it is the truth. And if it is, I find it hard to believe; I remember not reading of any such Catholicism in Capote’s book. The garishly red Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe cars move away from a forlorn “Holcomb” sign sadly in need of paint. The camera doesn’t show at all what is pulling the cars away from the platform for there is no station. Indeed, the signs of a low bud pic?
Still, I’m drawn into Infamous, the calamity that is Capote’s life: the gossipy tongues that wag in New York giving Capote something to write about (most assuredly in his unfinished book Answered Prayers) until murder in Kansas calls to him; the two wardrobes of mid-century America, one for Manhattan and one for the heartland; the breathless relationship between Capote and Smith, in which the latter realizes he loves Capote and declares it and Capote reciprocates; Capote’s insistence on burying himself in the lives of these people; the rigors that the writing of this book requires in concert with his Olympian efforts to consume drink, so that he can produce the greatest book of his career. And yet we know he never writes anything of significance again. He drinks himself to a hauntingly premature death, almost in salute to his inability to write. By contrast, Harper Lee, two years younger, still lives at this writing. Capote knows what it would take to top himself and he has nothing left to give. When a writer cannot write, it is like experiencing death. Capote only wants to make it official, and yet, as his character claims, “Alcohol is the coward’s way out.” He cannot end his life swiftly. He must mock it, taunt it, tease it, draw it to a close as only some alcoholics can: with great drama and a habit that cannot be broken, for if it is, he will have to face the truths of his life.
In the other film, Capote, based on Gerald Clarke’s book, the narrative is more staid. Thankfully, no re-creation of the murders exists except by way of Perry’s confession. This version would have it that Perry does not reveal to Truman what happens in the Clutter home until the very end of their relationship, when Capote is trying to end the book. Much is made of Capote’s ability to find the boys a better lawyer—which I come to see as a stalling tactic that allows him more time to write. Again, I both love and hate this character played by Oscar-winning Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Someone sends Perry a newspaper account of Capote’s New York reading, in which the author recites segments of the first three parts of the book and reveals the title In Cold Blood, one supposes, to build interest, so that when the book finally appears, it will inspire sales. Today, we would call such a process “building a platform.” Later, when a knowing Perry asks Truman what the title of his book will be, Capote lies through his teeth: “I really have no idea, Perry.” He constantly placates Perry and assures him of his sincerity, yet one isn’t sure it’s real, not even, I think, Capote himself.
Before Capote witnesses Perry’s hanging, he is allowed to visit both killers one more time under crowded supervision—at least four other prison officials are present—and the tenor of the conversation is jovial on the part of the killers trying to keep a façade of bravado up to the last. Capote is flummoxed by them, the situation, unable to get beyond superficial speech. He exits, saying several times that he is sorry, that if he could save them he would—almost as if his leaving the room will cause their demise. He’s already tried more than any other human being to “save” them— although life imprisonment would hardly seem like salvation. Had they been allowed to live out their lives in prison, they might still be alive.
In most ways, Capote is the quieter film, though I don’t remember it that way before my recent viewings. There exist minor but strange discrepancies between the two versions, based, according to film credits, on the two previously mentioned biographies. In Capote, Harper Lee chauffeurs Truman around Finney County, Kansas in a 1955 Chevrolet, a rather old rental for the early 1960s. In Infamous, she drives a 1959 model. This scenario is more likely if the car is indeed a rental and not a loaner. And which one of the locals would lend them a car? In Infamous, Bennett Cerf accompanies Capote to the hanging in Kansas; in Capote, it is Mr. Shawn, Capote’s editor. I don’t believe both can be correct unless both men are present. There exist pictures of the actual Clutter house on the internet. Neither dwelling in either film comes close to matching the original in architecture or its forlorn, isolated character on the plains of western Kansas, somewhat more treeless (except for the shelter belts) than the Canadian landscape where Capote is filmed.
I thought I would be able to say definitively, after viewing both again, which is the better film, but I find that an impossible task. Each is a work of art, brought to life by different directors, conceived and underwritten by the support of different producers. In the Infamous portrayal of Harper Lee, Sandra Bullock is quieter, her range as a character not fully explored—though it is a fine attempt by a major talent to reach beyond her commercial fare. As the other Harper Lee in Capote, Catherine Keener seems more fully realized, a true friend to Capote, and, in the role, more capable of telling Truman the harshest truths about himself. She is, for example, able to walk away from him when he insults her on the eve of To Kill A Mockingbird’s film release in New York. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Capote says, slurring his words and sipping what one can assume is his umpteenth Martini. Hoffman’s Capote knows what the fuss is about; he must be wondering if his book will stand up to the success of Lee’s. Will he, too, receive a movie deal? And so Harper Lee, instead of taking the bait, sails back into the happy maelstrom of her post-premier party, to enjoy it to the hilt because even she may realize it will be her first and only film premier.
Because Hoffman has created so many fine roles including a macho homophobe in The Talented Mr. Ripley, his performance as Truman Capote is perhaps the most difficult to accept, whereas Toby Jones is so unfamiliar to American audiences that his portrayal seems, at times, to outquirk Hoffman’s. And yet Hoffman’s interpretation may have the greatest depth, if only by degree. There exists in his performance a playful arrogance missing in Jones’s youthful wistfulness, a sense of humanity that seems to grow as the film progresses—whether the scenes are shot in this order or not. In good fiction, in good film, both, I expect a character to grow in some manner, and it is Hoffman’s Truman that appears to grow the most.
Either way, I am left with my original curiosity about the murders. How can anyone kill four innocent people? Further, why can’t Richard Hickock and Perry Smith enter the house in masks, and, finding that there is no large sum of money to be had, leave the Clutters bound and gagged for the night—alive—so that when Nancy Clutter’s friend discovers them the next morning, the two men might only be sixty dollars richer and perhaps hundreds of miles away, free to rob once again and face a different flirtation with death? The tale of robbery would otherwise remain a family narrative, a short story the Clutter people tell their children on dark, cold nights when the wind blows across the plains like a knife shearing anything in its way.
In 1978 I marched in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade. I will review what the experience--near the beginning of Gay Liberation--meant to me then. And what it means to me now. How far we've come, baby!
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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