Capote: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener set out to right history.
What do this week’s film have in common? A diverse trio of gay men with flavorful stories to tell.
There was something about the back page New York Times article detailing four grisly murders that commanded Truman Capote’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) attention. The author wanted to do more than simply pen a follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany’s; he envisioned a new way of telling a story: a “nonfiction novel” that attempted to elevate Dick (Mark Pelligrino) and Perry (Clifton Collins, Jr.), two nomadic killers, to the realm of humanity. But without an acquittal or a hanging, his book had no ending, and Capote follows the author’s quest to put an “Amen” on In Cold Blood. Confident that we know how this one ends, the filmmakers steer us in the direction of the truth as the proud and haughty Capote saw it. Tagging future To Kill a Mockingbird author Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) as his research assistant/bodyguard, the two embark on a five-year journey that commences in a decidedly Oz-less Kansas.
The pair arrive in hostile Holcomb, a backward town that refuses to stock call girl Holly Golightly’s scandalous misadventures in their public library. As if Bergdorf scarves and camel hair topcoats weren’t enough to warrant dirty looks from the locals, there was also Capote’s peculiar voice to contend with. Those of you old enough to remember his witty, acerbic appearances on late night talk shows will never forget his lazy-tongue lisp. Hoffman captures effortlessly its childlike essence; both he and director Bennet Miller make it a point never to cross the camp barrier. A few well-positioned sideways glances from the men folk tell all we need to know about their barely concealed contempt. The only ones in town familiar with his writing are women, but once they inform their hubbies of the author’s prominence, it is just a matter of time before he charms his way into their confidence.
While Dick is content to spend the day flipping through skin magazines, Perry, with Capote’s backing, mounts his jailhouse defense. But time spent with Perry threatens Capote’s relationship with his lover/fellow novelist Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). The fey author undoubtedly craved the muscular, heavily tattooed Perry, but his obsession transcended mere lust. Through Perry, the author was able to tap into his own dark side, noting, “It was as though we both lived in the same house, only one day he left through the back door and I left through the front.”
Beneath Capote’s frivolous surface beat the heart of a well-oiled (mostly by J&B Scotch) self-promotion machine. Whether he’s tipping a Pullman porter to impress Lee (she calls him on it), playing jet-setting raconteur to countless party guests, or revealing just enough of himself to win over a witness, Capote’s main fascination is Capote. Initially, he lets it slip that bringing the killers to justice is of no concern to him, and later he confesses that their ultimate fate beyond his novel was equally unimportant. Capote wanted them kept alive for anything but humanistic reasons. If Perry died without detailing the motivations behind the slaughter, In Cold Blood might have died with him, and Tru had a publisher and several bartenders to answer to.
Much was written and said (deservedly so) about Hoffman’s performance, but let nothing eclipse the brilliance of Clifton Collins, Jr’s turn as the desperate Perry. Collins first caught my eye in Dead Presidents and he became a permanent fixture in my character actor Rolodex as the ruthless drug dealer in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. He’s a less annoying John Leguizamo, with a broader range and much more talent.
This is the director’s second film and once again he chooses for his subject another self-absorbed, real-life spellbinder. (Remember Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, the annoyingly endearing Gray Line tour guide who commandeered The Cruise?) Shifting with the greatest of ease from urban documentary to period biography, Miller shows an assured sense of space and pace. His serene landscapes, both concrete and wooded, quietly set a stage for the flamboyant Capote to overpower. And when it’s over, do yourself the ultimate favor by checking out the book that started it all.
Sex in Chains (1928)
Of all the directors to work at Warner Brothers in the ‘30’s, only Raoul Walsh came close to William Dieterle’s visual involvement with his subject matter. And although Michael Curtiz gets the lion’s share of the glory, it is fellow German Dieterle, with his undeniable flair for ambitiously illustrative storytelling, who remains the least lauded member of the studio’s directorial roster. In his essential Hollywood Directors, Jean-Pierre Coursodon argues that, “Like Curtiz, his imperfect command of the English language seems to have encouraged him to develop a predominantly visual style of direction.”
Not only does Dieterle act as Sex and Chains’ director, he also stars as Franz Sommer, an unemployed engineer desperate for work. When first we see Helene (Mary Johnson) polishing Franz’s nameplate, it’s uncertain whether she’s his wife or a hard working servant girl. (Back then, was there a difference?) On the surface, everything seems proper — until her father comes to visit and she is forced to cover and make excuses for her out-of-work spouse.
A friend tips Franz to a commission-based door-to-door vacuum salesman gig. It doesn’t pan out, and Helene is forced to accept work as a cigarette girl in order to put food on the table. At the club, Franz clobbers a creepy rival for his wife’s affection and is sent to prison. While awaiting trial, initial hopes that the victim will survive are quickly dashed, and Franz is given a three-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. After her father ignores her, Helene is forced to turn to Steinau, Franz’s wrongly convicted former cellmate, for assistance.
As expected, there are many visually enthralling, satirically sharp-eyed touches scattered throughout. A foreboding white cat hisses danger at Franz’s first house call. Franz’s dour boss insists that the salesman keep smiling. A hungry and penniless Franz pretends to eat a serving knife gifted by his father-in-law in order to prove he needs money and not cutlery to avoid famine. On the downside, there are one too many hand-held, swish-pan dialogue scenes that add wobble instead of immediacy.
You’ll find a parade of pre-code breaches to satisfy your curiosity, but those expecting to get their kink on from the lurid title will be sadly disappointed. In a fit of romantic longing for his wife, Franz dreams of himself at home in their marital bed. It doesn’t help when a fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.” Convicts form table scraps in the shape of a nude woman. When a sex-crazed inmate complains to the prison doctor, the advice he gets is, “Simulator!”
Franz isn’t the only one suffering the effects of desire. If there is one point the film gets across quite well, it’s the sexual longing between convicts and their other halves. Dissolves that punctuate Franz and Helene’s dreams are breathtakingly executed. Sadly, they are as illusory as the couple’s thoughts of romance while he is in prison. Even as Franz discovers the pros of loving a con, Helene is finding comfort in the arms of old pal Steinau. Even though Franz and Helene are eventually allowed a booty call (the warden and his family take their tea in the other room to give the couple their privacy), it is all for naught. Guilt has plunged Helene to her emotional lowest and made it equally impossible for Franz to perform.
Still, when all is said and done, this is nothing more than a well-intentioned message picture with isolated bursts of visual brilliance. It starts to falter about two-thirds of the way through, thanks to a bombardment of significant speeches. “Is it not to weep when millions are spent to help horses, cats and dogs, and so little for the betterment of men?” Please. These guys are not in prison for stealing flies from blind spiders. And while the film ultimately endorses conjugal visits with wives over inter-prisoner contact, it’s daring enough to mention the unmentionable: when you cage a bunch of men and deny them women, love happens.
Will Steinau convince Franz to release Helene from his heart? Will Franz and Helene ever have a “normal” relationship, or was being taught the language of love by a group of burly convicts too much for Franz’s libido to endure? Put it on your Netflix queue and find out.
Bear Cub (2004)
With a title like this, one half-expected live-action Disney or Jean-Jacques Annaud’s follow-up on little Youk’s life. Instead, we have a film that at first glance files in the face of everything I hold dear about cinema. First, it falls into that most loathsomely predictable (and manipulative) genre: the set-‘em-up-to-watch-‘em-die. Young Bernardo (David Castillo) is left with his uncle Pedro (Jose Luis Garcia Perez) while his mother Violeta (Elvira Lindo) goes to India on “business.” For reels, I sat, waiting for the hand of fate to advance the narrative: but no plane crash, no CG-enhanced terrorist bombing, nor fiery car wreck intervened. What keeps Bernardo and his uncle together is not death, but that other dependable pusher of plots – drugs. Violeta is imprisoned for smuggling, and director Miguel Albaladejo wisely spares us the Midnight Express torture route and heavy-handed moralizing.
Any one of the film’s numerous subplots could be expanded into a 90-minute, made-for-TV, crisis-of-the-week melodrama. Grandparents ought to have visitation rights, gays make loving parents, dentists with HIV deserve to make a living, HIV is not a death sentence, etc. And instead of transcribing yet another culture clash between gays and straights, each character is presented with depth, dimensionality, and a revitalizing lack of sentiment. The true villain (and victim) in the piece is Bernardo’s paternal grandmother Teresa (Empar Ferrer). Teresa would want time with her grandson no matter what Pedro’s sexuality. But were his condom-strewn, drug-soaked, sexually free-for-all ways centered on heterosexuality, grandma would have still found ways to blackmail. And not since Edith Massey’s prayers that her son grow up queer in John Water’s Female Trouble has a cinematic mother so desired a gay offspring. Violeta’s constant reassurance of her young son’s homosexuality even wobbles Pedro’s lascivious leanings. Infectiously despised by Violeta, Bernardo refuses to visit with her, and Pedro respects his wishes until she blackmails him with photographic evidence of a nasty “tunnel bunny” tryst.
As in any good ‘30s programmer, crime and/or promiscuous behavior does not pay and the guilty must be punished. We learn that Pedro is HIV positive. (Thankfully he is allowed to live.) It is particularly gratifying to leave a film that manages to transcend material that in less-qualified hands would have been a ten-hankie male weepy. The director’s honest approach continually keeps the film from caving in under the weight of its own implications.
Throw all the topical messages aside, for this is as much a film about lost love as Citizen Kane. We exit the proceedings locked inside Teresa’s gated burial grounds, watching as an older Pedro and Bernardo leave her funeral. Death and imprisonment separate Bernardo from the two women in his life. Violeta and Pedro have come to terms with the impact she made on Bernardo’s life, and it is only fitting that the last gaze before the final fade belongs to Teresa.