It is basically true (I hope) that the most interesting writers tend to be pudgy misfits, antisocial by temperament and by trade yet desperate for attention, and that the spectrum of their ambitions runs from the reinvention of literature to the evasion of lobotomy by means of winning literary awards. The achievements of stature and excellence always cost them, psychically, but benefit the rest of us greatly. This, at least, is what movies recently have suggested. And they may be laying it on a little thick, as movies do, but they’re not lying.
Of course I’m thinking of Bennett Miller’s Capote, one of the more compelling views of a working literary life to grace the big screen in some time. And of another, very different picture: Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, which adapts three memoirs by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame and has recently become available on Criterion Collection DVD. Take these two together, and you’ve got a hell of a crash course in on-screen literary biography, if not in How to be an Author. Each film is frustrating and magnificent for essentially the same reason: It is fully willing to dramatize what a writer is made of, even if such a venture is inherently doomed or just plain dumb. Each, also, is almost certain to get people reading (which is no small feat for a movie today), and, God help us, to get people writing.
Capote brings to mind that famous opener from Janet Malcolm: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” We can say this for Truman Capote: He wasn’t stupid. Malcolm, in The Journalist and the Murderer, wasn’t explicitly describing the creation of In Cold Blood, which is the narrative framework of Miller’s film, but she nailed it nonetheless. To reduce the matter: Capote, already a successful fiction writer and reporter, befriended and exploited a pair of Kansas killers to make a story out of them, and then had the nerve to write the thing as a masterpiece. He called it a nonfiction novel and let people believe it was formally unprecedented, but that’s not true. (For starters, Daniel Defoe was doing this kind of thing in the early 18th century.) Capote, which was adapted from Gerald Clarke’s book by Dan Futterman and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in a performance of exacting and riveting control, shows almost nothing of what formed the writer, but it has a tight angle on how he worked through his own collision with a great, devouring subject. The movie is cool, stylized and self-adoring. It gets the sense of cultivated narcissism quite right.
An Angel at My Table is broader (and longer) than Capote, and its concept is lower—this is the portrait not of a world-famous writer becoming world-famous through a sensational story, but of a writer who is famous in New Zealand growing up in New Zealand. Importantly, though, it is a portrait not to observe but to live in. Befitting the verdant wilds of her native land, Campion’s film is sprawling, overgrown thing, comprehensive to a fault, devotedly noticing even the most minor of quotidian details, the subtlest textures of girlhood. Its narrative, as structured by screenwriter Laura Jones, is patiently chronological but uniquely paced—here lingering, there abrupt, authentic.
Janet Frame was a journalist only inasmuch as she kept journals. A railway worker’s daughter, she grew up poor and socially phobic, but poetically alert. She lost two sisters to drowning in separate incidents years apart, tried suicide, and was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic. She wrote poems and essays and stories and novels, and of course autobiography, and she called her work poetry and fiction and essay and autobiography. She was, however, quite concerned with whether language, with respect to experience, could ever be true.
Neither film is remotely equivocal about who is its protagonist. Frame is always at the center of things even if she spends most of her movie in social margins; and although played by three actresses of different ages (Kerry Fox most significantly), she’s always easy to spot for her wild swell of fuzzy red hair. Capote, for his part, is always making an entrance, even when he has a scene to himself. But what these protagonists already had in common, aside from a doughy bearing and an inward-aimed dignity (whose combination we relish for its rebuke to the expected movie-star specifications), is a complete defenselessness in the face of their experiences. Their sufferings were nearly pathological: Frame’s, a crippling bashfulness; Capote’s, ambition verging on sociopathy. They’re fortunate to have intrigued such attentive, accepting filmmakers.
“We all feel vulnerable,” Campion says in her commentary, “and unchosen, unlovable, un-cared about in one way or another.” She sounds rather like Hoffman’s Capote goading details from a reticent young witness—strategically self-revealing. But Campion’s empathy, her surety about Frame as a worthy subject, is among her movie’s great comforts and the reasons it succeeds.
Miller’s fondness for Capote, even as he strikes a cautionary, lamenting note, is more disquieting. “If I leave without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster always,” the writer, in the film, tells one of the killers. “I don’t want that.” It’s not a lie, but it is more blackmailing than compassionate. Miller never quite asks us for antipathy, but it’s to his movie’s credit—or my shame—that I’m still able to empathize with Capote when he says, “When I think how good this book can be, I can’t breathe.”
Meanwhile in her movie, Frame first lays eyes on her first book while lying in a psychiatric hospital bed, bleeding from shock-treatment sores and, in spite of having practiced her autograph often as a young woman, feeling utterly confounded by the idea that anyone might want it.
As movies about the writing life come and go, upholding or violating or inaugurating cults of personality, scrambling for authority on the inner lives of authors, the most lasting of them will always underline the simplest vocational truisms: Write what you know, and at your own risk.