“Is the theater really dead?” asked Simon & Garfunkel once upon a time. Forty-five years later, and at the height of the movies’ annual silly season, one might well ask the same of the cinema. Whither the great American movie? Whither directors of integrity and vision? Whither criticism? These are the questions David Denby poses in his excellent collection Do The Movies Have A Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2012). It’s mostly reprints of his New Yorker articles but reworked and reordered to orbit his central worries. These include so-called “conglomerate aesthetics”, the notion that it’s “not only possibly but increasingly easy to attract audiences by making movies badly”, the loss of lyricism in the rise of digital cinema, and a decline in ethical seriousness in criticism. Sound grim? Worry not: Denby’s no wallower. Alongside sharp critiques of the movie industry as it currently stands are a series of lucid, sometimes rapturous readings of a selection of the greatest recent American movies, including Capote, The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, and (to my mind the best) There Will Be Blood. In the book’s final pages, we even find Denby an unlikely advocate for 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This isn’t stuffy stuff; Denby is a voice of reason in a culture that has come to accept the infantilisation of adult cinema-going tastes.
“The language big movies are made in,” Denby writes early on; “the elements of shooting, editing, storytelling, and characterisation — is disintegrating very rapidly and in ways that prevent the audience from feeling much of anything about what it sees.” This was written in 2001, but his vision of what he calls “conglomerate aesthetics” is truer now than ever. It’s an industrial thing, yes. The marketing of huge, imperial movies to a generation of (mostly) men existing in a state of prolonged adolescence. The obsessive focus on the sure thing at the expense of smaller, “artier” films. The preponderance of superheroes, monsters, and other digital aberrations. But at an elemental level, it’s also a grammatical thing. The way films are shot and cut is self-evidently pivotal to how they’re interpreted, and Denby argues that changes in cinematic method can be harmful.
Take Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and compare it to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (OK, not entirely fair, but doesn’t that speak volumes?) Think specifically of the scenes following the attack on Pearl Harbor and Colonel Kilgore’s orgy of napalm in the Mekong Delta. The images in Pearl Harbor — of “ships torn apart and still burning, ships whose crews, in some cases, remain trapped below the waterline” — are over all too soon, devalued (one feels) by their proximity to their rather more expensive cousins, the explosive money shots of blockbuster cliché that storyboarded the attack itself. Compare this to the formal rigour of Apocalypse Now, which is cut much more slowly. “Everything in the Kilgore scenes matters,” Denby writes, “in part because the helicopters have the weight of real objects.”
The replacement of “action and drama” with “mere movement” is what’s at stake here. Action movies in particular have very little regard now for spatial integrity or the basics of continuity editing. One recalls the total absence of geographical logic at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or the manic, absurd traverses of Metropolis in the climax of last summer’s dismal Man of Steel. Even in movies with budgets under $150 million, almost every post-Bourne fight scene has become little more than a kaleidoscopic flipbook of semi-perceived action.
Alongside these concerns about how films are made are questions about audiences’ relation to them. Young people, Denby suggests, are increasingly “platform agnostic,” as likely to watch a movie on their tablets or phones as they are to see them in a theater. Movie stars aren’t what they once were either, thanks to a celebrity media that operates at a “junior high” level. “The shift from knowing nothing to knowing everything about a star’s private life,” Denby writes, “puts us in an awkward position, since it’s part of our relation to stars to dream of their on-screen characters and their life as in some way unitary.” Nicole Kidman’s rendition of Grace Kelly could become a textbook case in point. But perhaps most importantly for Denby and others seeking a career as a movie reviewer, in the white noise of the internet age it can be extraordinarily difficult to find erudite, partisan criticism. The lack of critical independence is particularly worrying:
It is a period in which a good part of the press — and even many of the bloggers — has been absorbed into the marketing effort for movies, and regard anything that isn’t pop as “elitism,” thereby identifying with corporate interests in the guise of populist fervor.
With moviegoers increasingly subsumed into the marketing process through their social media use, the importance of both dissent and intellectual rigour in criticism cannot be overstated. Denby laments in particular the loss of Pauline Kael, an early mentor and advocate, who remains perhaps the most famous and most important American film critic. (For an excellent collection of her work, check out The Age of Movies.) With Kael, Denby says, “the point was not to write like a lowbrow; the point was to write as an intellectual without closing the top button of your prose and thereby choking a strong, easy breath.” It’s a simple but splendid metaphor, of a kind that permeates the whole book. Elsewhere, he writes of “the flagrancy, the jack-rabbit creativity, and the self-destructive whirl of unhinged pop scholarship” that define the early Coen brothers movies. As an actor Russell Crowe is “like King Kong breaking his chains,” while Paul Dano, in There Will Be Blood, “looks like a mushroom on a long stem.” The Tree of Life is “an art-history Summa Theologica crossed with a summer camp documentary on the wonders of the universe.” Although different in important ways, it’s clear that Denby has inherited a lot that’s admirable about Kael’s style.
The trends may be bad, but as the list of better movies examined here demonstrates, great work continues to be produced. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which I reviewed last week, is a case in point. An institutionally unlikely, conceptually original, emotionally profound movie, one can only hope it’ll prepare the ground for works of equal or even greater imagination and humanity. Just make sure you see that instead of Godzilla.
I’ve never been psychoanalyzed… I’ve never even consulted a psychiatrist… I work out all my problems in my work.
— Truman Capote
By the time Capote died, at the age of fifty-nine in 1984, years of substance abuse had shrunk his brain. His last completed book was In Cold Blood eighteen years previously. A heavily trailed follow-up, Answered Prayers, appeared in fragments so poisonous that the Park Avenue ladies whose adoration he’d cultivated for so long made a mass exodus from Mount Truman. His later years were characterised, in the words of William Todd Schultz, by “Studio 54, cocaine, prescription pills, Stoli vodka in an unmarked glass”. In a disastrous and notorious TV interview with Stanley Siegel, an evidently fried Capote confessed that his problems with alcohol and drugs would mean that “eventually I’ll kill myself… without meaning to…” Shortly before his death, he bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, knowing that his time was short. He died in the arms of his friend Joanne Carson. Schultz’s psychobiographical Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers (Oxford University Press, 2011) puts Capote’s spectacular implosion under the microscope, finding in his early life the blueprint for his early death.
Answered Prayers was in many ways a lifelong project. Near the start of Douglas McGrath’s 2006 movie Infamous, we see Toby Jones’s Capote — in the 1950s — writing the title at the top of a blank page, although for the time being he gets no further. At around that time, he wrote to his editor, Bennett Cerf, of
a large novel, my magnum opus, a book about which I must be very silent, so as not [to] alarm my “sitters” and which I think will really arouse you when I outline it (only you must never mention it to a soul). The novel is called, “Answered Prayers”; and, if all goes well, I think it will answer mine.
Schultz sees in Answered Prayers and its fallout a synthesis of the metanarratives of Capote’s life. The hooks he hangs his theory on are based in formative early experiences, what he calls “the life story writ small”.
Tiny Terror (OUP, 2011)
As an adult, Capote often told tales of being abandoned in his childhood. There’s little reason to doubt these: his father, Arch Persons, really did up sticks, while his mother, Lillie Mae (later known as Nina), left him for long periods of time in the care of aunts. These experiences left the young Truman with a lifelong dread of abandonment and suspicion of attachment. They’re traits shared by Joel Knox in Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), who craves the love of a long-absent father who turns out to be incapable of loving him back. Joel is clearly a stand-in for Truman, a precocious adolescent (“I’m thirteen, and you’d be surprised how much I know”) with a deep, unsatisfied need for affection. At one point he prays, “Let me be loved”. But he suffers rejection on all sides, not least from his father, who listens dully when Joel reads to him. Even his words — “his métier” — fail to excite the man before him. “Other Voices was Capote’s father-dirge,” writes Schultz; “ten years later came Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the mother side of the coin.” Indeed, as Schultz points out, Holly Golightly’s real name, Lulamae, is a near-exact match of Capote’s mother’s (Lillie Mae). Holly is an altogether more complex figure, though, than Joel. She combines Lillie Mae’s “naïveté, her narcissism, her smarts, her phoniness” with much that she shares with her creator: the father-complex, the inventiveness, the “mean reds”. Her adamant rejection of meaningful attachment is all Truman, whose lifelong approach to interpersonal relations was to try to be “as invulnerable as possible”.
The second key scene in Capote’s early life was the publication (or perhaps not — so much with Truman is possibly apocryphal) of a story entitled “Old Mr. Busybody”. Capote was a resilient, thick-skinned child — and needed to be. His comportment and voice were so unlike other children’s that he was forced to develop numerous ways to deflect the unpleasantness aimed at him. One method was to turn the tables, and “Busybody” did just that: it’s a thinly veiled account of backbiting in Truman’s hometown, his neighbours his subjects. And such casual, toxic indiscretion was upsetting to the denizens of Mobile, Alabama, in much the same way that Answered Prayers would later nuke a much more powerful crowd.
“I can’t understand why everybody’s so upset,” Capote would say after the publication of excerpts from his “magnum opus” in 1975. “What do they think they had around them, a court jester? They had a writer.” More, perhaps, they had a sneak. Capote spent the ’60s and ’70s researching Answered Prayers through the cultivation of friendships with the great and good. Infamous showcases Truman in action:
But what his “sitters” didn’t know was that he planned to use their confidences for his own ends. They thought they were dealing with “a Pekinese perched on a pillow — cute, combed, pint-sized, letting out cranky yelps now and then”; in fact, he was the serpent under’t. The publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965” in Esquire was a cataclysmic event. Much more vulgar than his earlier work (though, it must be said, extremely enjoyable), it tore to pieces figures including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Peggy Guggenheim and Tennessee Williams. Gloria Vanderbilt remarked afterwards that if she ever saw Truman again she’d spit on him. There was even a literal casualty: Ann Woodward, who, seeing herself in the caricaturish Ann Hopkins, a socialite who kills her husband (as Woodward had indeed done, however acquitted she might have been), actually committed suicide. The so-called “café society” Capote had apparently longed to belong to dropped him overnight.
Why did he do it? Motives are “more chorus than solo”, says Schultz. Answered Prayers was perhaps primarily defensive, a bizarro strategy of “preemptive abandonment. He set café society on fire in order not to get burned.” It might also have been cathartic. Schultz suggests that he used the novel to burn his mother, the source of so much of his anxiety, “in effigy”. After all, the Park Avenue set he skewered was the same set Nina Capote had so craved admission to. Or maybe Truman, who never fit in anywhere, had committed the ultimate act of “class warfare”. Whatever it was, it backfired. Despite his defiant protestations, the response to the first chapters of Answered Prayers depressed Truman deeply. His lifestyle, already chronically unhealthy, deteriorated. He stopped writing. In the end it turned out to be one of the greatest self-immolations in literary history.
Schultz’s book takes proud place alongside Gerald Clarke’s biography and George Plimpton’s oral history on the shelf marked Capote. His “pursuit of the smoking gun” is both hugely entertaining and largely convincing. The only real unanswered question (and prayer?) left concerns the mystery of how much more of Answered Prayers‘ unfinished manuscript there might be out there…