Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Miscellaneous Drivel: The Sequel
Let's see...
It occured to me that I did an injustice to 2 of the films I mentioned in the last blogs. It's always easy to go on about something that's bad, because the bad and what causes it is usually obvious. What makes something good tends to be more intangible...and besides in the end, it's all subjective anyway. I mean hell, I listen to the Monkees more than the Beatles...*waits for the lightning bolt* At any rate, I'm gonna try to give these movies their due...Like they need my help...


I was never a fan of Truman Capote, probably because my first exposure to him was he had become a casualty of his own success(Hell, for the longest time I didn't even know he was a writer, I only knew of him as the flamboyant, vitriolic troll who showed up on Merv Griffin occasionally. When I did read him, it was confusing. He was good but it seemed that his major work was long gone, and that he was coasting...and as it turned out, I wasn't far from wrong)

"Capote" is not your standard bio pic, rather it picks up the trend of just concentrating on a specific period in the subject's life.("Good Night, and Good Luck" does the same, as does the forthcoming "Walk the Line" ) which to me makes far more sense than trying to cram an entire life into 2 to 3 hours. In this case we're concentrating on the period during which he created his most notorious work "In Cold Blood".

Given his history, a botched robbery which resulted in the wholesale slaughter of a Kansas Farm family might seem an odd choice for the author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's", and indeed most of his friends thought so. Here's the thing. An artist never knows what's going to spark creativity. It can be a word, a musical phrase or, in this case, a buried item in the Times. As an artist, you never know what will speak to you. When asked why this particular story, Capote basically said "Why not?"

It's very hard to make an interesting movie about writers, because what they do isn't all that exciting. They sit in a room with a machine or a pad and pencil, and type or scribble as the case may be. The process isn't that interesting, it's the results that matter. There are exceptions( Adaptation, Throw Mama from the Train,All the President's Men)and Capote is , happily, one of them. You follow our hero(?)as he and his friend Harper Lee (just prior to the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird") investigate the brutal murder of the Clutter family. We see his manipulation of the principals involved in the name of research. The way he invades the psyche of Perry Smith, one of the killers. His frustration because he can't finish the book unless and until...

It's also a warts and all portrait of a complex, manipulative, ambitious, self promoter who will do practically anything (and I mean anything) in the service of his art. The only criticism I have of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Truman Capote is that he's too tall, but I suppose he can't help that(I had a fleeting thought that they could do what they did with the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings,you know, forced perspective and all, but the producers chose not to go that way. Just as well). Once you get past the height thing his performance is flawless. In fact all of the performances in this film are exceptional. Catherine Keener does a complete 180 from anything you've ever seen her in. Her portrayal of Harper Lee is a brilliant counterpoint to Hoffman's Capote.

So why does it work when so many biopics don't? Because the sum of its parts ( and they're pretty great parts. I haven't even talked about the excellence of the direction, screenplay, and particularly the cinematography) adds up to a great cohesive whole. So see Capote, even if you didn't like the man. At the least you'll get some insight into why.

"Good Night and Good Luck"

I find the McCarthy Era fascinating. I think it's amazing that a man waving a piece of paper that nobody ever saw could have such a stranglehold on an entire country. But then that's how it's always done, isn't it? Keep the message simple and scary.

"The Jews are keeping you poor, because they control all the money!"

"I have a list of over 200 names of members of the Communist Party in control of the Government"

"Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction and they're aimed at your house!"

Edward R. Murrow is a journalistic Icon. He represents an integrity that is sadly lacking in today's media with a few exceptions (too few). He also had something that is also lacking in what passes for journalism today, a lot of control over the stories he told, and a minimum of interference by the corporate ownership. Further, he had little or no fear of biting the hand that fed him, and it ended up costing him.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" concentrates on the 5 episodes of Murrow's pioneering news program See It Now, where he took on the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. This was huge, and you can't really compare it to anything in modern times. The Washington Post vs. The Nixon Administration comes close, but even that doesn't quite get it. Why? Murrow had Television. McCarthy had it too, but didn't know how to use it as well. Murrow had something else that McCarthy didn't have. The trust of the American people and the truth...not to mention a pretty much captive audience. Remember...Only 3 Networks.

It is a brilliant movie, and Clooney juggles the 4 jobs of writing, directing, acting, and producing like a master, and it's only his second film . The claustrophobia is palpable as is the all too justified paranoia that runs throughout the movie. "The fear is in this room..." Damn right it is. And Clooney is smart enough to exploit the parallels to today's situation for all they're worth ( Why make it otherwise?)

David Strathairn is another great actor that's been waiting in the wings for a breakout role (like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote)and he nails it (also like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote). He embodies Murrow to such a degree that, despite the fact his voice is slightly higher pitched, if you close your eyes, you think you're listening to Murrow. But don't close your eyes, because it's a truly amazing performance.

The framing device of the movie is a speech Murrow made to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, which has rightly become legend. In it he accurately predicts the future of Televison generally and news in particular. It made him (along with Paddy Chayevsky with "Network", and Budd Schulberg in " A Face in the Crowd) one of the soothsayers of the future of the media. Only I doubt he's cheerfully saying "I told you so". He's probably shaking his head and butting out another cigarette.