Friday, February 28, 2014

No separation

Where Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation chronicled the disintegration of a marriage, The Past, the Iranian writer-director’s follow-up, begins four years after the marriage of its central characters has ended. In the instantly transfixing opening sequence Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) find each other on either side of an immense pane of glass, gesturing, mouthing words, neither of them audible to the other or to us. Ahmad has flown to Paris from Tehran to finalize the divorce. Marie comes to fetch Ahmad from the airport in a borrowed car—borrowed from whom she won’t say, though the dry cleaning dangling in the back is conspicuous. This soon-to-be ex-couple are pleasant with each other, all grievances presumably having lost their venom years ago. Indeed, the complicated yet completely coherent drama about to unfold is generated not from tensions between Ahmad and Marie but from within a larger circle of characters, all of whom, whether children or adults, present or absent, are somehow ensnared in the powerful force that gives the film its title. 

Marie drives Ahmad to her home—his former home—where he finds in her backyard two children, one being the youngest of Marie’s daughters from another relationship, the other being a little boy Ahmad has never met. During the first third or so of The Past Farhadi is careful not to rush exposition, focusing neither on explaining the past or foreshadowing the future, and instead living fully in the moment. He knows that everything to come will carry more weight after we’ve done some of our own detective work, spent time coming to know these characters in a more organic method. Marie’s home, for example, is cluttered and wears layers of varied inhabitants. Messes have meaning, as does the dynamic between she and that temperamental little boy. Let’s not get too precious about spoilers: that boy is the son of Marie’s new partner, Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), who Marie wants to marry, thus the sudden urge to sign papers. Marie hasn’t informed Ahmad of the details of her current situation, though the reasons for her continual withholding grow only more complex as the story continues. Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) disapproves of her mother’s new relationship so vehemently that she refuses to come home. Is this simply a matter of Lucie’s unwillingness to allow an intruder into her already broken family? Is there something more at stake? 

I fear that if I overemphasize the immaculate structuring of The Past I’ll give the impression that it’s been dramaturged within an inch of its life—nothing could be farther from the truth. Farhadi simply excels at character and plot development to a degree that’s extremely rare in adult, intellectually sophisticated, emotionally resonant drama. Some of what’s revealed here is devastating, yet by the time such revelations arise we’ve beheld a boggling geometry of allegiances and have cause to feel such investment in every character that it becomes impossible to delineate who’s supposed to be villain, who hero. This is a moral tale in the most modern sense, by which I mean there’s no moral to be surmised, only recognized, worked through, considered. And while Farhadi’s style is relatively straightforward and chronological, utilizing hard cuts, no score and brilliant naturalistic performances, there is something about his approach to working through moral quandaries that, like the mysterious scenes that open and close The Past, recall the films of Kieślowski. Which is meant as a high compliment. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Release from ideology is a painful experience. That’s why you need someone there to say, Fuck you, put glasses on!” Slavoj Žižek and Sophie Fiennes on The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

We are in an urban Los Angeles alleyway. A muscly man in plaid shirt and mullet tells a muscly man with no hair that he must either put on a pair of sunglasses or start eating from a trashcan. Suddenly a portly bearded man with a heavy accent—something akin to Dracula with a speech impediment—enters the scene. “I am already eating from the trashcan all the time,” he says. “The name of this trashcan is ideology.” This third man is sweaty Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, once famously dubbed “the Elvis of critical theory.” Whether you consider Žižek a truly great thinker or merely a great contrarian, his hyper-attentive, hyperactive, Lacanian approach to film analysis is undeniably compelling and sometimes eerily, uncomfortably persuasive. In the opening sequence of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, director Sophie Fiennes deposits Žižek directly into a scene from John Carpenter’s They Live. As it was with Fiennes and Žižek’s previous collaboration, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, this is the film’s MO: rather than have Žižek sit in front of a library or something and pontificate about movies, insert Žižek, Zelig-like, right into the movies under consideration, whether they be The Sound of Music, Brazil, Titanic or Full Metal Jacket. It’s a great source of cheap laughs. It is also a way of making the viewer’s identification with movies complete—and reminding us exactly how ideology works on our consciousness.

The occasion of Zeitgeist’s release of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology on DVD has finally given me the excuse to run the interview I conducted with Žižek and Fiennes during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. I’d met Žižek once before, and knew that anything resembling conversation with him would be challenging, not only because of his spastic garrulousness, but because it can be difficult to parse out his convictions from statements that sound like sheer, asinine provocation for provocation’s sake—especially those regarding gender, which creates a very odd tension when the other person attempting to interject is a woman. Of course, Fiennes and Žižek are clearly pals, but it’s not so much that these two finish each other’s sentences as that Žižek finishes everyone’s sentences within a two-mile radius. Anyway, I can’t deny that the following conversation was loads of fun.

director Sophie Fiennes

JB: Can I ask how you two first met?

Sophie Fiennes: I just reached into the ass of a cow and there he was.

Slavoj Žižek: It was some conference in London.

SF: It was Cambridge. A lecture. I’d wanted you to do an audio commentary on my film about religion.

SŽ: Unfortunately we couldn’t realize that idea.

SF: Fate had a greater collaboration in store.


SŽ: [To me] Let’s talk about your fellow countryman, James Cameron, the ideal object of ideological analysis today. Superficially his movies can be read as model of Hollywood Marxism. Take Titanic. Upper-class bad, lower-class good. Ridiculous, no? But beneath this leftist surface you find a very reactionary myth sustaining it. It’s even more the case with Avatar. It’s clear that those jerks on that stupid planet are a kind of local indigenous population attacked by industrial American imperialist army, blah, blah. But, of course, you need a white man to save the natives.

SF: It’s an attempt to restore the marines who, even if crippled, will nonetheless win hearts and minds.

SŽ: It’s great that Avatar was up for Best Picture against Cameron’s ex-wife’s movie. Because Hurt Locker is maybe worse, though it has different ideology, one very popular now, this idea of limiting story to a narrow experience of the horrors of war. To make army life acceptable to public you have to remove all context and just focus on personal suffering. But, you know, I don’t want to dismiss Cameron altogether. What’s that one with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, where they go down?

JB: The Abyss.

SŽ: Very nice movie.

JB: You mentioned how the Pervert’s films allow you to illustrate your ideas, but I wonder if the ideas themselves change once placed in this context that favours the visual over the textual.

SŽ: No. I’m very dogmatic. I think alone. I am not engaged. And I am in such a constant panic that I cannot be a cooperative, responsive actor.

SF: I like the purity of Salvoj’s field of thinking. My job is to make it understandable as a movie. That transition from Brief Encounter to Brazil to Last Temptation of Christ, for example, is my attempt to connect Slavoj’s ideas in a way that is specific to the film’s train of thought.


SŽ: Brazil is for me one of the mega-masterpieces. It’s kind of a pre-cog film. It guessed in advance what the new authoritarian society would be not the old-style fascist leader but a cynical and egalitarian society, a Berlusconian society.

JB: Closer to Kafka and the notion of self-regulation.

SŽ: Kafka says that our godless bureaucratic society is the only way to experience the divine. I love this story I recently heard about an old French lady who’s told that her identity card was stolen. She goes to the bureau and says, “There must be a mistake. I have my card here.” And the bureaucrat tells her, “No, your card was proclaimed lost. What you’re holding in your hand is an illegal document. Please destroy it and ask for a new one.” This is divine. This is the whole secret! In France they even have this thing called certificate existence, which means you get a document that confirms that you exist.

SF: Like a birth certificate.

SŽ: No, it’s much more specific! It says not only that you were born. It’s like friend from Greece told me. His father stopped getting retirement money. He wrote to the ministry to ask why he was no longer getting this pension. The reply was, “Sorry, sir, but I regret to inform you that according to our records you are dead. Could you please come to our office to prove that you are alive?”

SF: This sort of story brings to mind, say, Soviet era bureaucracy, yet something similar exists today, in the cloud, in virtual existence, in the illusion of freedom, the illusion that we have control over our lives when in fact we’ve gleefully hurled ourselves, without overt coercion, into another Kafkaesque network. People are petrified by the possibility that their digital footprint could be erased.


SŽ: Yes and it’s not the simple humanist point of “Oh, we should return to the common sense reality.” We are not just criticising this in a naïve way. The big limitation of 1984, for example, is that fundamentally Orwell says, “Believe your eyes, use common sense, and so on.” You know what for me is the best thing in 1984? Okay, the film version: John Hurt asks Richard Burton, “Tell me, is the Big Brother a myth or does the Big Brother really exist?” And Richard Burton gives him the perfect answer. “It’s not that Big Brother doesn’t exist, what matters is that you don’t exist.” Totally correct answer. You know, I met a guy who wrote a book on George Roy Hill, the director. To make it he visited Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and Redford was all, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have time for you, I have to save the planet.” He told me that Newman was much more friendly.

JB: Huh.

SŽ: But listen, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a reference guide to non-existent operas? That could be a fun sort of film.

JB: Like a Stanislaw Lem novel.


SŽ: Ah, Lem. Take Solaris. I much prefer the novel, because Tarkovsky does spiritual mystification. In Tarkovsky film, the planet Solaris is just a screen for the inner journey of the hero. But in Lem’s novel, the problem is precisely the planet. Is it playing a game with us? It’s a case of how a very materialist, beautiful novel is ruined by this Russian sensibility. It’s maybe the same with Tarkovsky’s best film, Stalker. He pulls the same trick. Going to the Zone means encountering your truth. Whatever. I still think Tarkovsky was brilliant. Yet with Nostalgia he started making “Tarkovsky films,” in the sense of imitating himself a little bit.

SF: I feel like David Lynch is slipping into that.

SŽ: I have such a problem here. I love Lynch. But Inland Empire. Friends are telling me it’s so-so. I bought the DVD, but I’m afraid to watch.

SF: I like it, but it’s sort of falling back on titties.

SŽ: [To me] Do you like David Lynch?

SF: Laura Dern is brilliant.

SŽ: [To Fiennes] That’s a problem. She’s not fuckable for me. I’m a sexist.

JB: Maybe if you see the film you’ll change your mind.

SŽ: Really? Okay! Now we talk men-to-men. Ha, ha.

JB: Well…

SF: I love The Elephant Man.

SŽ: There is this eternal question. Do you dare to tell, a little bit, a film where you cried watching? I’ll tell you where. You remember this scene near the end, where the French freaks help him to go to the boat? Listen, are you a Lynch fan?

JB: Very much so.


SŽ: Let’s test you. Reactionary fascist revisionists claim Twin Peaks is good, but only the first half. No! You have to stick it to the end. Now, Dune. Supposed to be bad, but there is something very naïvely, beautifully powerful here. Let’s not be seduced by liberal propaganda. You have totems like Leader, Discipline, Sacrifice, Common Good. Liberals say, “Oh, this is proto-fascist.” No! There is nothing fascist in the idea of discipline and sacrifice. Fascism is fascism because it includes such notions within a framework of anti-Semitism, certain variations on capitalism, etc. I like Dune. But my friends think that when I praise 300 as progressive, this was going far. My last revisionism: I quite liked—and I know this is the lowest of the lowest—the last two seasons of 24. You have Jack Bauer torturing, blah, blah, and you have Alison Taylor, good liberal president. They both got in the bad luck and break down. It shows very honestly how, within today’s universe, there is no way to be noble.

SF: You make me want to see it now.

SŽ: It’s not that good, I have to tell you. Life is too short. Fuck, even if you count out the publicity, it’s 24 times 45 minutes! Unless you are freak with nothing but time, it’s just too much.

JB: To get back to Lynch, I find it interesting that you’re singling out the productions in which he was working for a major studio. Could we consider that external influence as Lynch’s “Big Other?”

SŽ: But I am here, very concrete, always resisting simple demonization of Hollywood. Take Godfather. I think, unfortunately, that first one is still the best. From there, it goes down because Coppola was given too much freedom. Hollywood, of course, I hate the usual machinery, blah, blah, but listen, how often did they produce wonders? Take one who, I think, after Hitchcock, should be rehabilitated: Ernst Lubitsch.

SF: I love Lubitsch.

JB: Everybody loves Lubitsch. I mean, if they’ve seen his films.

SŽ: But there are no good theories!

SF: Thing is, in the studios now, the blockbuster idea has just so thoroughly taken over everything. I remember back when Ralph [Fiennes, Sophie’s brother] was doing Strange Days.

SŽ: Good film.

SF: Steven Jaffe was the producer. He also produced Ghost

SŽ: I hate Ghost.

SF: I saw Steven again in L.A. about a year ago and he was telling me that the studios won’t fund anything other than huge blockbusters. He’s a real cinephile, and there have traditionally always been such people in Hollywood, but in the last seven years especially there’s just an endless hunt for blockbusters with no middle range left.

The Sweet Hereafter

SŽ: I am naïve, but you ask me great films of the last few decades: Altman Short Cuts, Ang Lee Ice Storm, or here, your guy, Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter.

JB: Really?

SŽ: I like it.

SF: Really?

SŽ: What’s your problem? You ask me as if I am some hoodlum, as if I am saying I only like women over 80.

JB: There is, for example, the romanticization of incest in that film. The barn full of candles.

SŽ: This is for me obvious. What I like is the court scene, this small lie this girl says that ruins everything. I don’t like other Egoyans. As American reactionaries like to say against intellectuals, this Egoyan is “too bright for his own good.” But your other guy…

JB: Cronenberg.

SŽ: Many of his films I don’t like, but you know which one I do. It’s flawed.

JB: Let me guess. M. Butterfly.

M. Butterfly

SŽ: Only now do I get how to read these films, M. Butterfly and The Crying Game. Why do you have this shock when the guy discovers that his sex partner is a man? Because he discovers his own fundamental fantasy. Real heterosexual love, where you truly accept that your partner is a woman: I think this is very rare. Only in true love. Very romantic.

SF: Yes. I find it really interesting in Mulholland Drive, for example, how much men love this woman who looks so much like a transvestite.

SŽ: Not Naomi Watts!?

JB: No, Laura Harring, the Mexican.

Mulholland Drive

SŽ: Naomi Watts, she is really beautiful. I like women when they abandon their goal to act in fatally beautiful roles. Did you see this totally stupid supernatural hero movie, Hancock? Charlize Theron plays an ordinary housewife. She wants to be an ordinary woman, and it makes her so much more attractive. It’s the same with Scarlett Johansson. She was okay in Lost in Translation as ordinary girl. But the moment she wants to become femme fatale, horrible.

SF: Again, it’s this whole thing about a woman that’s a man.

SŽ: Yes, femme fatale is woman that’s a man.

JB: That’s also what made Nicole Kidman’s career so much more interesting, when she broke away from the token sex-pot roles and made films like, say, The Others, in which she can use her iciness and neuroses.

SŽ: Didn’t she make the fourth or fifth version of Invasion of the Boyd Snatchers? It’s not so bad.

JB: There is something about that story’s malleability.

SŽ: [To Fiennes] This is his polite way of saying, “Bullshit!” I like the Philip Kaufman version, with Donald Sutherland. The ending, when the world is already occupied by body snatchers, you remember how the snatchers react when they see still humans? [Imitates Donald Sutherland’s gaping jaw howl] For years it became fashion among my friends to greet each other like this.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

JB: I want to ask you about something the film leaves us with. What does it really mean to “dream differently?”

SŽ: It’s a very Stalinist notion that I took from my friend, Alain Badiou. What really identifies us with a certain ideological field is not just the explicit statements or whatever. True change is change in your dreams. In the case of Seconds, that wonderful film by Frankenheimer, the problem with Rock Hudson is that he didn’t change his dreams. He changed his life, but he remained with old dreams. It can seem relatively easy to break from society, yet you remain trapped in its dreams.

JB: If you want to truly release yourself from ideology you have to accept that you are going to fundamentally, even unconsciously change.

SŽ: Absolutely! That’s the whole point! Which brings us back to They Live. Release from ideology is a painful experience. That’s why you need someone there to say, “Fuck you, put glasses on!” Anti-ideology stories are nearly always about taking the glasses off to see things how they really are. No! You need glasses for ideology! This is why sometimes in psychoanalytic process, just before it ends, you usually have a depression, maybe even want suicide—because you realize that you’re losing your dreams.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967 - 2014

Whether embodying a near shut-in, choking on loneliness, his body collapsing in on itself, or a master communicator and manipulator, drunk on his own Kool-Aid, given to sudden ecstatic gestures and charismatic dance, Philip Seymour Hoffman conveyed a sense of bearing heavy burden like few others could. He was imminently melancholic, weighty, the most corpulent yet full-bodied of actors. He rarely looked comfortable in his body, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t use it, often with tremendous nuance. He was Sisyphian. Which is to say that, no matter how elephantine the burden he carried, he felt it incumbent upon himself to keep going up that hill. He was never not doing something active and compelling, never resigned to playing mere attitude. I’m struck, now, by how often his characters’ burdens involved ingestible vice: bad food, alcohol, drugs. He played a gas-huffer, a heroin addict, Lester Bangs. He perspired need. He was an all-round gifted, hard-working actor, but at this especially he was extraordinary: desperation. I just wish that the way he died didn’t so closely mirror his work.

top: Boogie Nights
bottom: The Big Lebowski

You couldn’t possibly pay the slightest attention to interesting American movies in the past 15 years and not know him. The high forehead, vulnerable, pale, a seawall against which all manner of earthly pressures crashed. That voice, typically nasal, often sounding like he’d dragged it out of bed, the mattress sweaty and half-stripped, before bashing it on the night table on the way up. Those cupping paws that looked like they had to have the cigarettes pushed into them. The eyes—they seemed to change all the time, hard to soft, pinned to orb-like, sometimes sexy. I first saw Hoffman in Hard Eight (1996), Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut. He played an arrogant mullet trying to bend a craps table to his will through sheer bullying. By Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson’s follow-up, I was really paying attention. He was a chubby, anguished pubescent in a man’s body, under-dressed, not easy to cuddle, though he tried to kiss Dirk Diggler with so much closeted passion. A small but memorable role in The Big Lebowski (1998) found him more uptight, nervous and really funny. It made clear that there was no limiting his range; no matter the lack of movie star handsomeness he would break out from the character actor ghetto. In Happiness (1998), this burden I keep thinking about was already fully formed. He was so pathetic yet so watchable, savouring Todd Solondz’s writing, even when its comic despair felt a little cheap.

from top to bottom: The Savages
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Synecdoche New York

As Hoffman’s boyishness fell away, which it did rapidly, he became a go-to guy for a certain anxious weariness, and his work increasingly seemed focused on finding truth in the grotesque, as though the only empathy worth earning was the sort that rose from weakness. In Capote (2005) he gave a precision performance that hinges on his insistence on giving equal attention to the titular character’s fascination with others and his ultimate ruthlessness. Capote won Hoffman the Best Actor Oscar, but that performance was easily bested only a couple of years later in, for example, The Savages (2007), as Laura Linney’s brother, or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), as Ethan Hawke’s brother. We see him shoot heroin in that movie, and we see him die. He played the much-doubted priest in Doubt (2008), who you keep feeling for even when you’re almost sure he really is a pederast. He was the only one who could have starred in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York (2008), in which he’s attacked by his own sink, dates a woman in a burning house, and watches his adult daughter deteriorate before his eyes. He plays a nobody playwright who gets genius grant and decides to make a play about everything. Rehearsals go on for all his life. His character’s art becomes infinite, boundless, beyond the frame. Life itself. The film is unbearably sad, but I’ll be damned if Hoffman doesn’t make every scene feel relevant, forward-moving. It was his most Sisyphian role.

The Master

What I will admire most in this filmography is Hoffman’s mesmerizing, Wellesian convergence of hysteria and colossal confidence in Anderson’s The Master (2012), about a very American longing for self-made religion, and one of the great films of this young century. As L. Ron Hubbard stand-in Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman seemed older than ever, but that fatherliness made him eerily persuasive, repeating questions like a relentlessly applied balm to Joaquin Phoenix’s wounded Freddie, and later, in that strange and haunting final meeting between master and pupil, singing to Freddie about how he wants to get him alone on a slow boat to China. The Master also emphasized how much Hoffman could do with repressed anger, that scene where Dodd is so determined to shame a guy bold enough to confront him publicly by using only wit and a sense of wonder, yet he can’t help but suddenly spit out “Pig fuck!” The rage is always there, but he masks it with playfulness and ambition and that weird bonhomie.

I write all this to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose last weekend at the appallingly young age of 46, leaving behind three kids, his partner, Mimi O’Donnell, and countless colleagues and friends. It is just so sad. He was a prolific actor who I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much time watching, listening to, thinking about, writing about. I interviewed him only once. He could be prickly, and it wasn’t the easiest conversation, but it was rewarding. Our talk ended with the topic of death in Capote, and Hoffman’s last words stick in my mind now. “It’s like Capote has come to bear witness to all these 
deaths,” he said. “And the truth he discovers is that they don’t pass through him 
without leaving marks.” 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering the great Philip Seymour Hoffman: our 2005 interview

Still reeling from the awful news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. Unbelievably sad. I thought of the only time I was able to interview him, for Vue Weekly, back in 2005, about Capote, the film for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. That was before this blog, so I'd never posted the piece before. One small way of remembering this wonderful, prolific, singular actor. Apropos of the film's subject, we wound up talking about death. 

In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, his spell-binding account of a 
senseless murder in a rural community and its aftermath, no single figure
touched by the events, however briefly, passes through without some 
significant establishment of character; no detail regarding the actions,
ideas, feelings or even dreams of the people featured in these pages seem
 beyond the author’s narrative reach. The crystalline detail and flights
 of poetry of In Cold Blood are so rich as to truly substantiate 
Capote’s identifying the book a “non-fiction novel.” Yet 
something conspicuously absent from the book is Capote himself, who exists
only as our phantom guide, netting the dense psychological trauma surrounding 
these murders without leaving so much as a fingerprint in his wake.

Bennett Miller’s Capote, in its evocatively
 compact, largely visual way, also vibrates with novelistic detail, its 
austere framing of the Kansas countryside where the Clutter family met their 
deaths (recalling Bergman’s Winter Light) and the gestures it captures
from its players (especially Chris Cooper and Clifton Collins Jr.) tell us 
volumes about the grief, isolation, anger and trust that haunts the
 characters with impressive economy. Yet here, Capote is no phantom but an
active participant, an urbane, disarmingly effeminate outsider who appears in 
striking contrast to his surroundings.

Adapted by Dan Futterman from Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same
 name, Capote follows Capote as he tries to find In Cold Blood, to coax his 
masterpiece out of the unruly shadows of real life, to almost literally 
distil the book from its source, and in doing so, develop intimate 
relationships—especially with convicted killer Perry Smith—that 
shroud his blatant journalistic ambitions, causing one character to wonder if 
the book’s title is a reference to the murders or to the way Capote
 exploits his subjects. (The obvious third alternative reading of the title
 would be in reference to capital punishment.) A quietly provocative film, 
Capote is a critical portrait of a journalist in an ethical whirlpool, its 
only problem being its title and its closing title card, which inevitably
 reduce Capote to this single, if very powerful, period in his career.

At the film’s heart is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as
 Capote, blending virtuosic technical work—he uncannily speaks 
Capote’s distinctive voice without sounding like a
caricature—with brilliant instinct for playing a delicate scene
forcefully, as well as on a number of other levels. He so fully inhabits his 
role that there’s no niggling sense of his steering us toward
 developing sympathies, antipathies or any one interpretation. Also one of
 Capote’s executive producers, Hoffman has an unusual dual perspective 
on the film and its particular meaning for him. 

JB: Biopics are frequently infused with this false air of resolution 
and redemption, but Capote takes a highly critical approach of its subject. 
Given your task, was it difficult for you to compartmentalize the 
film’s implications about Capote, your own feelings about Capote and
 your role embodying Capote?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: I didn’t know much about Capote when I first 
took the job, so at the start I was genuinely unbiased. As an actor, I went 
into this always trying to support his angle. That’s my work. But sure,
 looking from the outside I was quite aware of the harsh light that needed to 
be shone on him. I mean, that’s the story of this movie and I think it 
has a lot to say about the subsequent 20 years of Capote’s life.

JB: So when you’re playing Capote, how do you come to terms with the 
precarious way he conducts himself with his subjects?

PSH: I look at it like this: He has this person he’s talking to
who’s murdered an entire family, so if Capote’s withholding
information or lying to this man, there’s justification to be found in 
this very crude fact. Beside that, I think his ambition was burning him up 
inside; he was almost helpless under the blaze of white light he was walking 
toward. And then the other thing is that I think he’s very attracted to
Perry. He becomes close to both Perry and Dick and deals with each
compassionately in his book. So I think he had ways to justify his actions. 
Of course it’s a no-win situation. He can’t have this book and 
this success and have Perry lingering. Perry needs to die for this work to 
come to life.

JB: Reading In Cold Blood after seeing Capote, I was very aware of the erotic
element of Perry and Dick’s characterizations. It contributed to this 
sense of ambiguity regarding Capote’s true feelings: is he really drawn
 to these guys as much as he is repulsed, or is he purely manipulating them 
into false friendship for his own purposes?

PSH: He’s having all of these feelings for these men and is nonetheless
 manipulating them at the same time. That’s what made the script so good. Yet I also think it’s very clear that his objective is always to
get these men to trust him and tell him stuff. In that sense I don’t 
know what you mean by ambiguity.

JB: I suppose it’s just that thing that happens when we’re caught 
up in a movie. For me at least, while in the thick of it, I hope that
 Capote’s compassion or loyalty might run deeper than it does. It was 
only at a point in the last third or so that I could no longer doubt his
 fundamental ruthlessness. Until then, I’m still swayed by him telling
 Harper Lee that he’s in love.

PSH: And he is! He does love him—but he also knows that the book is
 going to be the best thing that ever happened to him. Both things are real.
 And that’s what causes the tragedy. It’s complex, but it’s 
not ambiguous because those feelings are real.

JB: Something that separates Capote distinctly from Capote’s writing is 
how it works on the level of self-reflection. In a sense, it’s a
 fiction about a real person making a fiction about a real event.

PSH: Absolutely. We’re not making a documentary. There needs to be
certain liberties taken in order to… well, in order to still tell the 
truth; the truth as we see it. But that’s the same thing Capote does in 
his book: it’s all factual, but from his angle. He provides a perspective and I think that’s valuable. Otherwise it’s just a 
document. The artistry lends itself to discovering other truths.

JB: Perhaps one of these truths arises from the way the film reveals a 
proliferation of murder, the murder of the family allowing for the murder of 
the murderers. These murders, without superfluous commentary, bookend the 
story, in a way that reminded me of Kieslowski’s A Short Film About
 Killing. Death flows through these films. And this is also alluded to in the 
book, when, near the beginning, Capote writes about “four shotgun 
blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

PSH: You’re quite right, he’s very clear about those numbers and
 their consequences. Yet I have to say that I never thought about that theory 
in making the film because it’s not very actable. Themes aren’t 
things you can think about when you’re acting. Really, I think the film 
is less about the death penalty than it is about compromise and betrayal, and 
is it worth the price you pay? But you’ve hit on something in that,
although it might not seem like it, you do see a lot of death in the movie. 
In a way, it’s like Capote has come to bear witness to all these 
deaths. And the truth he discovers is that they don’t pass through him 
without leaving marks.