15 January 2006 by Published in: General musings 4 comments

Susan and I went to see the movie Capote tonight. Philip Seymour Hoffman gave one of the most remarkable performances I have ever seen by an actor. He transformed himself into Truman Capote. If he doesn’t win the best actor Oscar, something is dramatically wrong with the system.

You’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with the Civil War. Please be patient. I’ll get there.

I raise it because the focus of the film is how Truman Capote suffered for his art. He wrote what was probably the finest piece of true crime work ever published. He had to wait out two or three stays of execution, waiting for the final act of the drama he was documenting before he could finish his book, and the waiting tore him up, knowing what would happen once the saga did end. It literally brought about a paradigm shift. At the same time, the course of researching and writing this book took a tremendous toll on him, such that he never finished another novel or non-fiction work of any significance again for the nearly 20 years of the rest of his life. He died of alcoholism twenty years after the publication of his greatest work. The ordeal took so much out of him that it rendered him utterly unable to function as he had previously.

Now, I can honestly say that I have never suffered for my art quite like Truman Capote did. While I’ve certainly suffered with the pains and frustrations of what I do, it’s never caused me to lose direction of my entire life, and I sincerely hope that nothing I do ever will. I hope that I never end up a drunken stumblebum who literally becomes a charicature of himself like Capote did toward the end of his life, living on his past glories. Now, in fairness to Capote, he so immersed himself in the research for his book that he attended the hangings of the two killers, and it undboutedly took a heavy toll on him (which is part of the brilliance of Hoffman’s performance–he nailed the transformation of Truman Capote). Obviously, I can’t go back in time and participate in Civil War battles, so I won’t be victimized by that, and I’m not a military veteran (although I regret that I’m not. I’m a child of the 1970’s, and the very LAST thing that any of us wanted to do when I graduated from high school in the Carter Administration was enter the military, something that, with retrospect, I deeply regret today).

As a writer myself–although I would certainly never flatter myself by putting myself in the same category as Truman Capote–I could really appreciate what he went through to get it right. I’m constantly asking myself whether I’ve left some important stone unturned in the course of researching one of my projects, whether there’s something more that I could have done to tell the story better. I understand the struggle to find out how it will end, how it will come out. Sure, we know who won these battles, but the issue here is not so much who won, but how. What factors had to fall into line for things to turn out the way they did. It’s that analysis, understanding how all of that played out, is what presents the problem for me and causes all of the gnashing of teeth. As I sat and watched Hoffman’s/Capote’s ordeal unfold on screen in front of me, I could relate to almost every aspect of it. I found myself as emotionally wrung out as the character did by the end of the movie, carefully relating in my own mind the ordeal of every book I’ve ever written, including the inevitable feeling that it’s NEVER going to be finished. That part of Capote’s ordeal, I really understand and relate to.

I struggle for my art, although certainly not to the extent that Truman Capote did. I think that every writer worth his or her salt does to some extent. In the end, it makes me a better writer. Or so I hope.

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Comments

  1. kelly1863
    Sun 15th Jan 2006 at 6:42 am

    Never read In Cold Blood. My memories of TC are glimpses of this very strange creature fawning and lisping his way thru the treadmill of talk shows. Capote’s “problem” and evil engine of creativity had their source and roots somewhere us averagely sane folk don’t have to wander. There are a lot of creative people who manage to provide value to their chosen form of expression without destroying themselves. By some quirk of human nature, apeish curiosity, we’re fascinated with trainwrecks; even though we intellectually know damned well it’s not good for us. It’s the fundamental musing of what the Greeks considered the pathos of tragedy.

    Considering your hard headed acceptance of the mercantile value of your legal profession as a means to support your writing habit, I don’t think you have to worry too much of images of the consumed artist falling in a narcissitic abyss :).

    Then again, if I hear of a certain lawyer whose gone to wearing a major genral of cavalry’s tunic and tutu, who lives in his basement with his pet horse, I’ll know it’s you….

  2. Dave Kelly
    Sun 15th Jan 2006 at 7:03 am

    I never read In Cold Blood. My memories of TC are of this fawning, lisping creature stumbling thru talk shows. Capote’s problems went deeper than his consumption by a project. The “evil engine” that drove his creativity has some threatening clinical character. Somehow a lawyer who writes about Civl War cavalry operations doesn’t seem to stand on the same psychological quicksand as the unstable, self absorbed poof.

    The pathos of Greek tragedy seems to laugh at a human nature that stands on the brink of sanity or self destruction and with cat like blind fascination throws itself into an enterprise that will consume them. Then we bemoan the absurdity we create for ourselves in epic. The Civil War is such an enigma. Charlotte! Quelle stupid!

    I would think that a creative person sane enough to keep his day job to humor his muse won’t have to suffer the fate of a Capote. On the other hand: if I hear tell of a lawyer gone to wearing a Major General of Cavalry’s tunic and tutu, living in his basement with his favorite horse, spewing 2000 page manus no publisher will touch, well; I’ll figue out what befell one EW…. ROFLMAO.

  3. Sun 15th Jan 2006 at 11:09 am

    Dave,

    Let’s certainly hope that I never reach that point, although I make no guarantees. 🙂

    Eric

  4. Thu 19th Jan 2006 at 12:07 am

    Capote redefined the genre of True Crime and also insisted on importing a realism into non-fiction the effect of which was, in the case of In Cold Blood, simply breathtaking. However, Capote’s legacy has also been a double-edged sword. He transformed the writer from a mere narrator, observer, or interpreter into a plot participant with a defined stake in the outcome. This has initiated (in my opinion) a far less attractive trend, to the detriment of letters generally, but journalism in particular. Within a decade of In Cold Blame came Woodward and Bernstein, and the creation of the celebrity journalist. Journalism also produces a version of “True Crime;” but now, designedly, the journalists became an integral part of the story. That “integral part” soon yielded enormous payoffs–Pulitzer Prizes, Neiman Fellowships, rich honoraria and book contracts. Just as Capote “needed” the killers to die in order to conclude his work, today’s “true crime” types need defined villains and heroes, coverups, scandals, obstructions, spying and so forth, often without regard to nuance and sometimes without regard to reality.

    Today we have a string of fabulists (to name just a few of the most prominent) such as Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair; reporters with eyes on the prize such as Judith Miller; other reporters whose front page stories are suspiciously placed coincidentally with pre-sale trade promotions of forthcoming books, e.g., the NYT’s James Risen.

    I believe it was Emerson who said that the institution is the shadow of a man. The man was Truman Capote; however, his heirs, far less talented, have twisted writer participation to a point where fantasy merges with reality (ala James Frey) and readers are left simply scratching their heads.

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