Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Truman’s Show

The United States is a country of nothingness.

How else to explain the annoying complaint that “there’s nothing there” when referring to a drive through some desolate area of virtually any state. The only place that doesn’t qualify the “nothing there” statement is New Jersey – and I doubt anyone truly enjoys traversing that wasteland of odd smells and strip malls.

Capote opens with that cliched landscape of Midwest America – an endless stretch of Kansan plains. Capote doesn’t look at this desert as the environment that produced cold-blooded killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, but rather as the America the heretofore brilliant and confident title character has forgotten about. Early in the film, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, beautiful without makeup) asks Truman Capote if he misses Alabama. He sighs, keeps staring out the window and responds with typical cynicism.

One of the great red herrings in American pop mythology is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The 1961 film is some kind of cult fetish for pretentious teenage girls – the natural predecessor to modern quasi-empowering chick flicks. The film is radically different from its source material, Capote’s novella, which is as bitter, charming and sardonic as the man himself.

Capote shows Truman (played with predictable genius by Philip Seymour Hoffman) galavanting around Manhattan cocktail parties, charming guests with his self-centered banter. Part of the film’s considerable virtuosity lies in its assumption that the viewer is some sort of expert on the author. His tumultuous childhood, as well as the bulk of the events constituting the murder that Capote documented so memorably in In Cold Blood, are touched on tangentially; the resulting effect is their immense power – like Truman’s window-gazing or the alarming editing of Smith’s gripping description of the murder. Even more damning is the hinted-at fact that Truman, while an angel of sorts to these men, ultimately helped with their death – especially fascinating is the tenuous relationship between Capote and Sheriff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper, a Kansas City native), who just wants to see two killers put to death so he can move on.

But the masterstroke of Capote is answering the questions I had years ago when I read In Cold Blood (and when I first watched Richard Brooks’ movie, which ranks among my favorite films of all time): How did this funny-talkin’, white-suit wearin’, (gulp) gay man fare in western Kansas? More generally, what happens when the liberal urban intelligentsia ventures into the “real world” for their art? Consider the current cinema odd couple – Irish melodramatist Jim Sheridan directing 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin’. How exactly did that go down?

It becomes evident that Capote isn’t a fish-out-of-water in Kansas, but rather a fish that leapt out of the fishbowl and now wants to drink from it. His two-dimensional relationships with seemingly everyone in New York pale in comparison to his friendship with Smith, which seems to drain him with its authenticity and emotion. He ultimately must abandon Smith – and then condemn him – to write his masterpiece, a book that the film’s end title reminds us was his last completed work. It’s as if the artist can’t co-exist with the subject and Capote’s “non-fiction novel” remains a startling anomaly because of its real-life implications.

The Squid and the Whale is another terrific movie about New York authors that, like Capote, is a treasure trove of indie stars (though, sadly, there’s no Bob Balaban here). Jeff Daniels, of Dumb & Dumber fame, stars as an arrogant, struggling author who divorces his wife, the unattractive Laura Linney, and their children deal with the separation. Writer/director Noah Baumbach, who along with producer Wes Anderson tiptoed the line between base mainstream comedy and hipster cred with last year’s divisive The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is concerned with the perils of intelligent living. After the children learn about Philistines, all the characters are grouped as either sporty jocks or cliche-spouting literary snobs. Daniels’ performance is smug and hairy, and his character is so despicably pretentious that the only sport he follows is tennis and the only team he cares about is the Knicks – making him that much more of an asshole.

The Squid and the Whale is really a drawn-out episode of Freaks and Geeks, with one impossibly awkward and horrifying moment followed by another. It’s also predictably New York-centric, which is something I’ll just never understand. But when Daniels curses his inability to find a street parking spot – and then blames it on whoever is riding with him – I can suddenly empathize. Even in the city where everything happens, there’s still the boring frustration of the plains.4

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Truman’s Show