In Cold Blood, and thoughts on some movies where context matters

I saw Capote at the New York Film Festival, and one of my thoughts on leaving the theater was that I had to read In Cold Blood. I started to print the article version out of The Complete New Yorker that night but fell asleep as my printer seemed to be shooting for overtime pay (it's a flaw with the file format used by The Complete New Yorker).

I could've saved myself some trouble. The New Yorker reprinted part 1 of the 4-part series from 1965. Part I is here, and even without advertisements takes up 40 pages. The version from The Complete New Yorker can only be printed with original ads, and let me tell you, the 1965 version of The New Yorker had a hell of a lot more ads than the 2005 version.

The movie still makes sense without any foreknowledge of Truman Capote or without having read In Cold Blood. Philip Seymour Hoffman is some sort of actor savant, and he pulls off what is a challenging task in portraying Capote. This is one case where the character's voice and mannerisms are critical to the story, to understanding Capote's reception in Holcomb, Kansas, where he goes to research the murder of a wealthy family by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. His rendition will recall Capote, who was a sui generis, but the challenge is to transcend physical and vocal verisimilitude. Hoffman has to show us the gears of the machinery in his head as he grapples between the fame he can taste and his moral integrity. After all, he's a writer, and if writer's didn't write, they wouldn't be nearly as interesting as characters. It's difficult to imagine anyone surpassing Hoffman's performance here, but if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

But without having read In Cold Blood or heard the story around its writing, I was left skeptical of Clifton Collins Jr.'s withdrawn, introspective interpretation of Perry Smith. I didn't understand why this murder, more than others, caught Capote's eye. Moreover, a great deal of Capote's exploitation of Smith, especially, is in the pages of In Cold Blood itself. Much of Capote's psychological journey in this movie takes place in the mind, and though it's no substitute for being Capote, having the "non-fiction novel" in your mind will deepen one's appreciation of Capote's guilt. As it stands, you'll see the dots that connect to the film's on-screen epitaph which tells us that Capote never finished another book after In Cold Blood. But between those dots is a lot of white space.

Capote is one of several movies I've seen recently where an understanding of the context or the history on which the movie is based is necessary to fully appreciate every scene. I've read others who believe that all movies should stand on their own, but that feels like a preference than a rule. Other movies like that: Memories of Murder, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Caché.

Memories of Murder is a Korean serial killer mystery. It wasn't until the on-screen text at the end of the movie that I learned that the movie was based on a true story about serial killings in Korea during the late 1980's. I browsed online to read up on the original case, and only then did some of the seemingly irrelevant scenes and odd tonal shifts begin to make sense. This is a movie, after all, that jump cuts from a nail entering the leg of a policeman deranged with anger and grief to a shot of a beef skewer sizzling on the kitchen grill.

Understood as a scathing social satire and not as your usual serial killer whodunnit, the ambiguous ending and despairing tone make sense. Those in search of the tidy close-ended narrative that is the usual serial killer thriller will be frustrated. The police are so inept it's comical, and then exasperating, but that's the movie's intention. The final shot of the movie, when the main character stares into the camera, and out at the audience, is provocative, but once I had a historical context for the movie, it felt more than clever, it felt like the dismal face of a society's discontent.

Good Night, and Good Luck recounts Edward Murrow's battle against Joseph McCarthy. I wasn't alive for Ed Murrow's heyday at CBS, so I'm only aware of him through brief black-and-white clips, and this movie slots nicely next to those in my memory as it's shot in black-and-white also. Color television hadn't arrived yet, so Clooney's choice is appropriate.

David Straithairn channels Murrow's moral intensity and that voice which managed to be both deadpan and impassioned all at once (hear clips of the real Murrow here). The first time he is about to go on live television in the movie, he's holding a cigarette. I expected him to put it out, but then the cameras began rolling, and Murrow continued to cradle it between his fingers. The same cigarette seems to be in his hand anytime he's on screen; it came as no surprise to hear he died of lung cancer. As the movie unfolds, the cigarette rises in stature; Murrow wields it like a sword of truth.

One of the reasons this movie benefits from a knowledge of its context is that it's shot almost entirely on the lots of CBS, inside the studio where Murrow tapes his show See It Now. Our only glimpses of McCarthy are in archival footage (another good choice by Clooney; rather than have an actor try and portray McCarthy, the ideological boogeyman here, hang him by his own words to remove any suspicion of misrepresentation), and they are brief. The people at CBS are clearly afraid of McCarthy, and that fear is meant to amplify the courage of their decision to go ahead and challenge McCarthy on air anyhow. One character in particular cannot handle the resultant bad press and makes a fateful decision, but this band of reporters feels trapped more because we never see them outside the office. The menace of McCarthy is muted by his lack of presence in the movie.

Those who have read about McCarthy's witch hunt or lived through it can furnish some of the dread he inspired, but the movie, absorbing as it is, feels a few scenes light. An anecdote about a hidden marriage, for example, or Murrow's need to do celebrity interviews with the likes of Liberace add some levity and relate some true episodes, but they don't help to get one's blood flowing the way a movie like this aims to do.

Clooney is a cinephile, and he feels just as strongly in urging the press to use its podium to fight the powers at large. It's no secret how he feels about the current administration, but even if you weren't aware of it, you'd know what his damn point of view is here. Murrow would have applauded that moviemaking motive.

As a sidenote, Murrow's willingness to use his journalistic soapbox to protect the truth from the powers who would suppress it makes him particularly relevant now, when news outlets who strive to be nothing but neutral (CNN) seem to lose out in the ratings war to stations who slant to the right or the left. Rush Limbaugh might claim to be a descendant of Murrow; it's a fine line between reporting the news and being the news.

Michael Haneke's Caché closed the New York Film Festival this year. Without historical context, it is still an engrossing suspense thriller. George (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a married couple haunted by surveillance tapes that constantly appear on their doorstep. The footage shows them during various episodes of their daily life. Who is shooting this footage, how are they obtaining it, and why is it being sent to them?

My first instinct was that Haneke was bringing Big Brother to the French upper middle class, but the movie doesn't go down that road, and I've never thought the French to be particularly haunted by the possibility of Orwellian government surveillance. The movie is more specifically grounded than that, and it is focused on topics relevant to Americans: race and imperialism. In this case, the movie uses misdirection to confront the French with their treatment of Algerians.

Two scenes in the movie leap out. One seems to shock every audience into screams and gasps; it was no different with the audience I saw it with. The other is the final shot of the movie, a puzzling one. My interpretation, and if you're going to see the movie, you should probably skip this next that the sons collaborated in the scheme. The newest generation does not share its parents' attitudes, and they wanted to force their parents to confront their suppressed personal demons, to shake them up.

If that sounds a bit contrived, it's no more so than the plot of the movie, but Haneke is a provocateur, and he makes great film festival movies, the type that force the audience to think, to talk outside the theater afterwards. Knowing even a bit about France's long history with Algeria (e.g., see The Battle of Algiers - Criterion Collection) will add a lot to that post-movie conversation on the sidewalk.

Of course, if your only exposure to a topic is through movies and newspapers and books, you're liable to sound like a media parrot. Peter and I caught a late-night screening of Lars Von Trier's Manderlay, the second of his trilogy of American fables. I must confess that though I put in my Netflix queue, Dogville never bubbled to the top before I saw Manderlay.

The story begins with Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over from Nicole Kidman) and her father happening upon a slave plantation some 70 years after the abolition of slavery. Grace is the naive liberal here, and she stays behind to free the slaves and establish a democracy. Her father (Willem Dafoe), a gangster of some sort, is skeptical of her intentions and her prospects, but leaves behind some of his henchmen to help her out.

The set is bare, as in Dogville. Only portions of buildings and a few props appear on a dark soundstage; this is just slightly more suggestive than the set for Waiting for Godot. This minimalism is both liberating and constricting. At times, it frees your imagination, and if all you watch is Hollywood movies, your imagination may be a bit out of shape. At other times, as when Grace stands outside the bathhouse, it distracts from your ability to empathize with Grace, to imagine what she's picturing. Since you see the male slaves inside, your mind doesn't reach out to try to feel Grace's lust. Instead of feeling palpable, it feels comical.

I've heard that after the poor critical reception to Dancer in the Dark, Von Trier set out to make a series of movies that would show the United States just how the rest of the world viewed us. Taken at face value, it's a worthwhile subject. When I travel, I often ask people I encounter what their impression of the U.S. is. It's revealing, like listening to a recording of your own voice.

The irony is that Von Trier is scared of flying (among a whole handful of other phobias) and has never been to the U.S. It shows here. All the ideas about colonialism, race, naive idealism, and imperialism feel like a compendium of the ideological hostilities that have dominated the political landscape of America these past four or five years. The U.S. occupation of Iraq was cited by Howard as a fortunate coincidence in its parallels to the movie's theme of force-feeding ideologies on people, but I find it to be a hindrance. Because the issue is already so front and center in American media now, Manderlay's sting doesn't feel as sharp.

It may be a problem with the format. A fable with humans situated in such a figurative set tends to generalize the morals. If Von Trier wanted this story to break through to an American audience, a story that teaches these morals through the specific and the literal would be far more effective. Or, perhaps if the characters were animals as in Animal Farm or a Pixar movie, so the moralizing would stand out so distinctly against the medium (of course, von Trier stated in The Five Obstructions that he despises animation).

The cinematic court wouldn't be quite as intriguing without Von Trier. He's the gadfly, the court jester, and the ending of Manderlay offers a clever, dark and comic twist, a final turn of the dagger. I couldn't help but chuckle and wish the movie had more such moments. As sanctimonious as he can be, he's also a contrarian through and through, and I have a soft spot for those. His movies are like fiber in the diet, but if he wants it to reach the broadest possible audience, he should tinker with the package, wrap his movies like gelcaps around bitter medicine.

One last movie where context matters, also one I saw the New York Film Festival: The Hidden Blade by Yôji Yamada. In this case, the context is whether or not you've seen Yamada's 2002 film The Twilight Samurai. Both are based on novels by the same author, and both are so similar that if you've seen one, seeing the other can't help but suffer by comparison. The stories both center around samurais struggling against tradition and class strictures, but having traveled this road with Yamada before diminished the suspense of the protagonist's fate in The Hidden Blade. See at least one or the other, though; they demystify the samurai mythology, and the cinematography is beautiful, like looking out on a Japanese diorama through a pane of glass.

One bit of suspense that remained for me in The Hidden Blade was the mystery of the movie's titular hidden blade, a fabled samurai technique. The movie leads you to believe it might be a red herring, but thankfully, the movie does reveal the technique. It's a move more worthy of a ninja than a samurai, and it's a doozy.