Category Archives: film/photography

Janet Malcolm, ‘Capote’ & ‘Infamous’

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

  In Cold Blood created a sensation in America in 1966 hard to imagine today. From the start of the 2005 film Capote we see it is a revisionist look at Truman Capote and, to a degree, his blockbuster. Right away, there’s a character tut-tutting about the writer at work. Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, clearly disapproves when Capote ingratiates himself with the murdered girl’s best friend by telling her that he knows, because of his strange voice and affect, what it’s like to be misunderstood.

Audio book’s cover, from the paperback

Keener plays Lee subtly and brilliantly, but this aspect of her role got on my nerves. What Capote did there was just fine by me—you could view him as being honest and human in the service of his work. He did know what it was like to be seen as strange; he did need to win over the girl in order to deepen the story. A journalist’s allegiance is to his work, if he’s any good, and the work must be worth such commitment. There’s tension, of course, because one must, or should, remember we live first as humans, not as writers.

But journalism is rather like politics and sausage: maybe you don’t want to watch it being made.

Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murder about another case but the same issue Capote faced with his killers; she specifically indicted Joe McGinniss’s queasy relationship with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for Fatal Vision. McGinniss, in interviewing the doctor accused of murdering his family, concluded that MacDonald was guilty, but he pretended otherwise so that MacDonald would continue cooperating.

Malcolm, going somewhat overboard, argues famously:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living. . . .

In the MacDonald-McGinnis case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late that the subject of his book was not up to scratch—not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like . . .  Truman Capote’s Perry Smith, on whom the “non-fiction novel” depends for its life.

Malcolm tars journalists with a devoted brush, begging the question: what about every other human interaction? Do we really mean it when we say good morning or ask someone how it’s going? What about almost everyone who makes nice with a despised coworker or two for the sake of workplace harmony? What of the salesman who loathes his company’s biggest customer but doesn’t let on? The point is that all human interaction involves role playing, often complex, while everyone’s relentless private judgments are hidden. The journalist does withdraw and upon reflection publish his gossip. That’s a difference, perhaps, but if he’s compromised it is a matter of degree, not of kind, by and large, from the rest of us.

(As for McGinniss, he defends himself against Malcolm’s “skewed perception” in an afterword to his best-seller and has reprinted it on his web site.)

Nonetheless, journalism has rightly been called a moral minefield, and Capote depicts Capote wandering way too far into it. The movie’s premise is that Capote sold his soul to write In Cold Blood, and so the case is built from the start that he, already a freak and prima donna artiste, became an utter monster in order to effectuate it. This is a cautionary tale about the journalist’s, if not the writer’s, awkward role and relations, and it appeared to stun my feature writing students.

But the movie is a fictionalized work. In the service of its message, or its vision, it invents, and pushes factual aspects to the breaking point. After accusing Capote of trying to keep the killers alive only for his book, Capote advances a worse condemnation: he managed then to hasten their executions by ignoring their pleas for further legal assistance. Capote makes it appear he could have saved them but needed their deaths for a literary climax—an accusation that also arose when In Cold Blood was published. Kenneth Tynan, writing in The Observer in Britain after the book’s release there in March 1966, said, “It seems to me that the blood in which his book is written is as cold as any in recent literature.”

Biographer Gerald Clarke, from whom I got Tynan’s comment, rebuts:

Tynan’s thesis was based on a sloppy reading of the book and false assumptions about Kansas law, which would not have permitted the psychiatric defense he was suggesting. Truman set him straight in a lengthy reply, during the course of which he charged him with possessing “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly.” The victory was Truman’s, but Tynan’s accusation stung more than it otherwise might have because it hit an exposed nerve. Truman could not have saved Perry and Dick if he had spent one million dollars, or ten million, but Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.

Clarke’s biography, sympathetic to the writer, says that Capote faced “an insoluble moral dilemma,” desiring their deaths for closure while opposing the death penalty and identifying deeply with Perry Smith, the wounded artistic type of the pair. The reality of Capote’s dilemma appears to be the germ from which the movie Capote grew.

Which brings me to the movie’s last contention, that Capote was destroyed by guilt, a wretched creature in the wake of In Cold Blood finished off by alcohol and drugs. Only the latter appears to be unquestionably true. He was the toast of the literary world afterward, and gave his famous black and white ball, and was set for life financially. Some years later his society friends turned against him when he began to serialize a novel that told their secrets and but thinly disguised their identities. I suppose the movie’s vision implies that his later betrayals flowed from having sold his soul for In Cold Blood.

But Clark’s 631- page biography arrives at no such reductive message about the author. Perhaps a biopic can’t be as subtle as a book, even if it wants to be, which Capote doesn’t. The writer had been an unwanted child—the mother who had him at seventeen repeatedly abandoned him; her heart’s desire was to become a New York City society lady. It’s interesting that her son picked up that dream and made it real; even more interesting is that he betrayed that world, in his serialized novel Answered Prayers, and was cast out of it. Surely he was traumatized by his research for In Cold Blood, if only because he befriended Smith. The experience, from Capote’s own statements, seems to have scraped raw deep old psychic wounds. But I don’t think personal guilt over Smith’s death was a factor—just my sense from what I’ve read and seen, and lived as a reporter.

There are many ways to look at all this, including that Capote deserved Capote. If not literally always true, the movie prosecutes its own vision—or it panders to our desire for comeuppance, take your pick—but does crystallize the ambiguities in the journalist-source relationship.

Plimpton’s sunny look influenced ‘Infamous’

A sunnier movie, and one far more sympathetic to Capote, the good but lesser-ranked Infamous, appeared a year later, in 2006. Its screenplay was based on George Plimpton’s oral history Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. I watched Infamous again, too, and though it fictionalized as well, it tries for a balanced view of Capote, his bon vivant lifestyle, and his courage in going after the killers’ story. Less beautifully filmed, less beautifully cast, Infamous finally reaches a similar conclusion—his nonfiction book made him and it destroyed him—but places the cause more on the nature of the work itself rather than on Capote’s guilt for betraying the killers.

Both films need to show him pay in the end for titillating readers with story derived from murder and from consorting with murderers. By going to the dark side. And finally they ask, Have you, would you, sell your soul for success?  

In Cold Blood opened the eyes of journalists to what immersion, scenes, dialogue, structure, plot, and characterization could do, and it impressed other novelists with what journalism could do. But one of the things that makes the book difficult to teach today, in journalism and creative nonfiction classes anyway, are Capote’s inventions. Apparently he created from whole cloth Smith’s apology on the gallows—others didn’t hear Smith say a thing. But Capote wanted others to see Smith sympathetically, hence, Smith’s rather well crafted contrition in In Cold Blood.

The director-screenwriter of Infamous said that Capote proclaimed so often that “every word was true” in the book that he knew the statement must be a lie. Most obviously, Capote invented the book’s ending scene, an elegiac denouement in which investigator Alvin Dewey visits the Clutters’ graves. Long established as a classic and a masterpiece, In Cold Blood would be a scandal for that closing scene alone if published today in the genre it did so much to expand. A genius Capote surely was, but he hadn’t learned old newspapering tricks: he could have called Dewey to the cemetery, had him gaze at the graves, chatted with him. Maybe that would have got Capote off the hook, technically at least. Except he not only put Dewey in the graveyard, he had him run into Nancy Clutter’s best friend there. He gilded the lilly, journalistically, for that coda.

I suppose Capote might tell Oprah, if he could be summoned to her couch for expiation, “If something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Dummy—who could possibly believe such a scene was literally true?”

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Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ revisited

The original cover, 1966.

Here’s the evocative, elegiac opening to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.

This paragraph bears a resemblance to the first paragraph of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published almost twenty years before, when he was in his early twenties:

Now a traveler must make his way to Noon City by the best means he can, for there are no buses or trains heading in that direction, though six days a week a truck from the Chuberry Turpentine Company collects mail and supplies in the next-door town of Paradise Chapel: occasionally a person bound for Noon City can catch a ride with the driver of the truck, Sam Radclif. It’s a rough trip no matter how you come, for these washboard roads will loosen up even brandnew cars pretty fast; and hitchhikers always find the going bad. Also, this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.

Whew, three long, flowing, gorgeous sentences. I was rereading Other Voices, Other Rooms even before I assigned my feature writing class this quarter to read the first section of In Cold Blood, still available to anyone on the web site of The New Yorker, which serialized the book in the fall of 1965 (it was published in January 1966).

Like Noon City, Holcomb isn’t only hard to get to and emotionally affecting, it isn’t much to look at: “an aimless congregation of buildings”; “a haphazard hamlet” with “streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved” that “turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud”; a town where “dancing has ceased.” And Holcomb Bank, which “failed in 1933” has been turned into apartments; it doesn’t have any money in its safe, one of my students pointed out, just like the doomed Herbert Clutter, whose throat was cut and his family likewise slaughtered over a rumor of a hidden safe at his farmhouse. All that melancholy setting—those quotes from the second paragraph alone—to also make the point that Holcomb isn’t what it appears: many of its wheat farmers are, like Herb Clutter, wealthy. They are hard-working, sober, law abiding, and into their midst come avatars of another America: down at the heels, broken, and mean.

I didn’t realize, when I uploaded the book’s first act to Blackboard and assigned my students to read it, that it’s about seventy pages. Nor, not having read In Cold Blood for several years, did I remember—if I’d ever noticed—that it is divided into four acts of equal length. The book, which took Capote about six years to write and report, is built. It still creeps me out to read it; I have both my mother’s original hardback and a newer paperback. The latter has a cover tied in to the 2005 movie Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. I’d seen the movie at least once before, but when I showed it in class, having just read the first act of the book, I was alarmed by the movie’s inventions.

What shot me bolt upright, watching Capote with my students, was this: in the movie, Capote tries desperately to keep the two killers alive on death row by hiring them a good lawyer—because he hasn’t yet gotten their stories of what actually happened in the Clutter house. Then, alive due only to Capote’s self interest, the killer he’s closest to, Perry Smith, doesn’t want to talk about that night. Smith stalls, and Capote resorts to bullying and manipulation. Three-fourths of the way into Capote, Smith finally spills his guts—and now Capote wants him dead, so he can end his book.

As in the movie, In Cold Blood also recreates the murders exactly three-quarters into the story. Structurally it’s a great emphasis point; and it fulfills the writer’s implicit promise, made in the first section when the murders were summarized, to give readers the crime’s gory, harrowing details. But the confession in the book appears to be based solely upon what Smith told investigators, the lead one of whom, Alvin Dewey, had become Capote’s friend.

The bio consulted for the movie 'Capote'

There’s no indication whatsoever that Capote lacked for the killers’ statements. He may have sweetened his third-act climax with details from them, but he had a powerful climax already from their confessions to lawmen alone. And he recreates the crime only in the context of Smith’s formal admission of guilt. The book that the movie flows from, Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke, doesn’t mention this as an issue. It acknowledges the writer’s moral dilemmas in reporting In Cold Blood, while being sympathetic.

Capote prosecutes its own vision; it isn’t a documentary. Maybe I’m the one straining at gnats. But, just maybe, Capote wasn’t tormented to death by In Cold Blood, as Capote has it. Maybe we need to make meanings like that, for sins to be paid, but his decline may simply have been from alcoholism and drugs, self medications for a mortal wound suffered in a sad childhood.

Next: The writer’s moral dilemmas and whether Capote deserves Capote.

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Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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