Capote, The Libertine, Munich

capoteCapote — not a full biopic, but a film covering the events surrounding the writing of Capote’s most famous book, the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood — I thought was a bit hypocritical. It’s a well-made film, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does an excellent job of pulling off the role of the diminutive, camp-voiced writer with a lot of self-possession. But the film’s attitude to its main character is to say, “Look at the terrible lengths a man will go to in order to achieve his artistic ends, and think of the human cost” — because he won the trust of the murderers Bill Hickock and Perry Smith, and arranged for new lawyers to get them a second hearing and so on, but as soon as he got what he wanted (their side of the story of the murders they’d committed), he pretty much dropped them and waited for them to be executed so he could have an end to his book. And I’m not saying that this is at all excusable behaviour! But, rather than seeing Capote as a driven man, and thus making his descent into selfishness and isolation a tragedy, the film doesn’t really try to get under his skin at all (except in one scene), and so turns itself into a somewhat censorious morality tale, which is never the most satisfying of approaches. A better one is suggested by that scene where we do get some insight into Capote’s character. He’s talking to the murderer Perry Smith and points out how their childhoods were similar, in that both went through periods of abandonment, and so on, thus pointing out the parallel between the murderers (who mercilessly killed their victims for a small amount of money, then were punished by the death sentence) and Capote (who selfishly used his “victims”, the killers, till he’d got his artistic material, then punished himself with a descent into death by alcoholism.)

Another film about a writer is The Libertine, this time starring Johnny Depp as the notorious seventeenth century writer, the Earl of Rochester. The film starts with an in-your-face monologue from Depp, as Rochester, telling you that soon enough you’ll hate him, which I took to be a film-maker’s gambit that we would, of course, love him as the rogue he is. But as the film went on, I felt increasingly indifferent. Perhaps this was partly because the film wasn’t sure whether it was a tragedy (Rochester’s supposed literary genius, of which I wasn’t convinced, never achieving any sort of fulfilment), romance (with the actress Elizabeth Barry, played by Samantha Morton, who doesn’t really fit the role of ultra-ambitious actress), or straight biopic (Rochester’s horrific decline through syphilis). The real core of the character of Rochester, as presented in the film, is that he was too intelligent not to be cynical about everything, but this wasn’t brought out enough till too near the end (and was too easily conflicted in the scenes where he’s coaching Elizabeth Barry), which is a pity as it would have made much more sense of the earlier parts of the film.

Munich, the third of my recent Amazon DVD rentals, was much more of a success. It’s difficult to discuss such a contentious story — the terroristic revenge-killings that followed the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics — particularly in the current climate, and anyway I don’t want to give the plot away, but the film handles the moral questions in a very human way, bringing out the universal, apolitical side of the situation, and pointing out how responding to violence with violence can only ever result in a spiral into paranoia and yet more violence. A little too long, with the early parts riffing too much on the suspense involved in the Israeli’s determination not to harm anyone but their intended victims, it certainly grew on me by the end.

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