Friday, March 30, 2007

Clash of the Poison Dwarves


In her book, A Killer Life, producer Christine Vachon expresses astonishment at learning of "the other Capote film", i.e., Capote, and questioning how it could possibly be as good as her project in development, Infamous. Sadly for Vachon and co., Capote came out first, snaffled the reviews and awards and left precious little for Infamous, following on its heels, to recoup.

A recent viewing of Infamous, with Toby Jones in the Capote role, bears comparison to the earlier Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar. Both deal with a turbulent period in the author's life as he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, his breakthrough work, based on the murders of a family in Kansas. Both films chart his relationship with one of the accused killers, Perry Smith, as he works on the book in Kansas, while his friend Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, acts as moral compass. Sulking in the background, left behind in New York working on his own book, is Capote's boyfriend, Jack Dunphy.

Infamous director Doug McGrath has stated that his film shows more of Capote's charm, along with his fierce ambition for his book. Curiously, I found this lacking in the film, feeling he came across just as manipulative and selfish as in Capote. No doubt he could tell a good anecdote, many of which dot Infamous, as he dazzles his society "swans", as well as the small-town locals in Kansas. But all his anecdotes come back to one thing: himself and how clever he is. Sandra Bullock as Lee spends a lot of time looking at her shoes or smiling indulgently at Capote's hubris. Catherine Keener in Capote was a bit sharper and more knowing in her interpretation.

But, for me, Lee comes through as the most intriguing character in both tellings of the story. Along as research assistant for Capote's trip to Holcomb, Kansas, she provides his "passport to normality", as Capote puts it, making a connection with a schoolgirl to get information. In Infamous, she tells Capote to try to "come in under the radar" to reach the townfolk. It is Lee who first hears the alarm bells ringing as Capote becomes obsessive about his book and uses his growing intimacy with Smith to further his ends, to the extent that he tells her that it would be better for the book if the killers are executed.

Whereas Capote traced an ambiguous relationship between Capote and Smith, in which Capote was clearly infatuated, Infamous is much more explicit in its depiction of a mutual attraction and consummation. In Infamous, Daniel Craig is a much hunkier proposition as Smith than Clifton Collins Jnr. and he broods and storms in equal measure. The physicality he brings is brought to the fore, with Smith roughing up Capote and even threatening to rape him.

Once they do reach an understanding, Infamous has the two pursuing something of a courtship, with Smith sending "friend Truman" intimate letters and even music. The scene in which the two killers go to their executions is climactic in both films, leaving onlookers on-screen and off deeply uncomfortable.

Both films recount the irony that whereas In Cold Blood made Capote as a celebrated author, it ruined him as a person, leaving him unable to finish another full-length work and turning him into a parody of himself, a ubiquitous party guest with the next novel forever in progress. In Infamous, Lee comments ruefully that writers die a little with each new work and the next one is so hard. Their trip to Kansas seems to have robbed both her and Capote of some creative vitality, with neither able to produce "what's next".

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