Monday, August 4, 2014

Forward into the Past

Capote and Hollywoodland, but especially Capote, have almost renewed my faith that it’s still possible to make  good, serious, unsensational movies for grown-ups in a town that has whole-heartedly taken up the tentpole, so to speak, of the blockbuster. We used to call it the “summer blockbuster” because, in the manner of Star Wars and Jaws, the two single movies that changed Hollywood forever, it was thought these pictures would only perform in the summer when young people are out of school. In fact, they perform well year-round, as Lord of the Rings proved, if it hadn’t been proved already.

I like these big “tentpole” movies and always felt growing up that fantasy and SF were under-utilized genres by Hollywood. There was a time pre-Star Wars and pre-computer when they were simply too expensive to make, and fantasy on the order of The Wizard of Oz was essentially a dead genre. This was the heyday of the little movie and the great auteur directors, and without it people like Woody Allen would never have become the great cinematic heroes that they became. Here’s the thing about Woody Allen: he’s become such a master craftsman that even when he’s working on a completely misguided and wrong-headed piece of tripe like Anything Else (his attempt to pander to the youth audience by re-making Annie Hall in teen drag), he’s still capable of making a movie with a basic level of quality that makes it hard to ignore.

In those days Woody was turning out a classic every year, Lucas released something called American Grafitti (still his best movie, by a long shot, despite a more or less damaging re-cut that he performed on it a few years back), people like Kubrick and Frankenheimer and Altman and Ingmar Bergman and the great, I think under-rated George Roy Hill were still active. Peter Bogdanovitch made a little picture called Paper Moon that was dead-on perfect, easily belonging on any reasonable person’s top-ten list. Even Marty Scorsese took time off from his gangsters and made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of the very few of his movies that I can watch (the other being the dazzling Hugo).

It was a great, great time to be a movie fan, even if you wanted the occasional fantasy now and then.

Now it’s just the opposite, the screen is positively stinking with big budget, serious-minded fantasy pictures, comic-book pictures, and don’t get me wrong, some of them are great. The first Iron Man movie is, I think, the best comic adaptation ever barring Superman I and II, the first Captain America and Thor are right up there, John Carter was a spectacular (and again under-rated) adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs that took something like fifty years to get to the screen. 

But why do we live in a world where everything, absolutely everything has to be either / or? Even the very few “little dramas” that are getting made have some kind of a High Concept behind them, a showy gimmick to draw in the rubes, as if all movies are now sideshow attractions, and the ones I’m going to talk about now are no exception. 

Still, Hollywoodland and Capote somehow made me feel like I was in the ‘seventies again… and for me, that’s a good thing. 

Just about the only thing I didn’t like about Hollywoodland was the bleached dry, parchment paper color scheme that saturates the picture. I know that the filmmakers wanted to convey a sense of the past — but I lived through part of that time period, and I know what it looked like, and it didn’t look like raked sand. 

Which forces me to admit this: although I normally can’t stomach his presence, Ben Afflek actually manages to evoke the manners and presence of George Reeves, the lightweight actor who, much to his own frustration, found success as Superman on television in the late 1950s. He seems to have worked hard to get it right. Even under a fake nose, he looks nothing at all like Reeves, and yet somehow Reeves gets through.

The story of course concerns itself with the circumstances of Reeves’s death by gunshot in the bedroom of his home, during a small party. Was it a lover’s-quarrel accident, a murder or a suicide? — the facts could support any of these; we are shown all three possibilities and allowed to draw our own conclusions (although the picture does draw conclusions of its own). Adrien Brody — who as far as I know has never given a bad performance, even in Peter Jackson’s stink-bomb remake of King Kong, here plays a fictional private detective investigating the case more or less on his own hook, more or less finding his clients as he goes. Diane Lane, always worth watching, plays the wife of a studio enforcer who “kept” Reeves for many years as he tried to find a path into Hollywood, while Bob Hoskins is dirty-down-damn brilliant (and almost unrecognizable) as her not-at-all jealous husband, whose whole approach is “if you make my wife happy, you’re OK, but if you make her cry I’m gonna have you killed.”

The details of Reeves’s later life unfold slowly in flashback form as Brody investigates the case. And the truth is, there’s nothing new or daring about any of this… it’s just a very well-made, well-played little investigative journalist movie, with real sadness at its heart, despite the crazy-goofy-but-true High Concept that it’s hung upon. 

Capote, on the other hand, is on a whole other level of quality. Yes, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman really does seem to channel Truman at times, and gives an oscar-worthy performance if there ever was one, but the entire cast is bang-on perfect here, especially including Chris Cooper, Clifton Collins as Perry, and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee. 

What we see here is Capote’s making and unmaking, both at the same time. He is revealed as a man with a genuine double nature: almost supernaturally caring and empathetic on the one hand (and it’s genuine: not something put on for show, but a real sympathetic connection with and interest in the people he meets from all walks of life) and on the other hand a rapacious snake-in-the-grass who will stop at nothing, including manipulating the events of a murder trial, to get what he wants: and who then who hates himself for having gotten it. 

The Truman Capote of his later life, the man who never finished another book, and who behaved the way he did at parties and on talk shows, who died relatively young of alcohol and drug abuse: the birthing of that man is presented in detail here, and I felt that I understood him for the first time. 

With its lovely, stark camera work and the aloof manner in which it approaches the story, Capote could almost have been directed by Woody Allen in his Interiors phase. The film is treated not as a biopic but as a drama (almost a thriller) with another drama at its heart. I found it haunting, deep and immersive; only the gimmick, the real-life High Concept behind it, differentiates it from the great films of the ‘Seventies. 

— Freder

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