- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (5/2/2021)
(Reviews of News of the World; The Dig; I'm Your Woman; A Glitch in the Matrix; The Capote Tapes; and Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris)
So, here we remain in Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are closed until mid-February and all releases will be online. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck and stay safe!
NEWS OF THE WORLD.
Having previously teamed on Captain Phillips (2013), Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass reunite on News of the World, an adaptation of a 2016 Paulette Jiles novel that examines the need for truthful sources of news in a divided country. Set on the post-bellum frontier, this may not be the subtlest way of denouncing the peddlers of fake news during the Trump era. But this Netflix saga does its job without excessive smugness, despite showing how little attitudes have changed in the United States since John Ford told a similar story in The Searchers in 1956.
Five years after the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels between Texan towns to give live readings from the local and national newspapers. He charges a dime for admission and tends to focus on stories that will bring people together in a bid to heal the wounds of a divided nation. While on the trail from Wichita Falls, he comes across an overturned wagon, its lynched Black driver and a frightened girl of German stock named Johanna (Helena Zengel). Finding federal documents, Kidd tries to foist Johanna on to a passing Union patrol. However, the officer orders him to deliver her to the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Red River, so that she can be returned to her kinfolk.
On discovering that the agent is on the reservation and won't be back for three months, Kidd takes the advice of shopkeepers Simon (Ray McKinnon) and Doris Boudlin (Mare Winningham) and sets out to escort Johanna on the 400-mile trek to the German settlement at Castroville. Following a reading in Dallas, innkeeper Mrs Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel) manages to use her smattering of Cáuijògà to glean that Johanna has been orphaned twice, as the Kiowas who had killed her parents and renamed her Cicada were themselves butchered. In bed that night, she also implores Kidd to make peace with his estranged wife.
Out in the town, Johanna's blonde hair attracts the attention of Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and his sidekicks (Clay James and Cash Lilley), who refuse to take no for an answer when Kidd declines an offer to sell the girl. Nexr morning, Kidd realises they are being followed across the plain and heads up into the hills to avoid an ambush. Making use of the craggy landscape, he isolates the henchmen before luring Almay into the open for a clear shot and the shootout brings Kidd and Johanna closer together, as they manage to overcome their language barrier when she suggests firing cartridges filled with coins to make them more deadly.
They soon run into trouble again, however, when they encounter Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who has vowed to rid the countryside of dangerous outsiders with the help of his sons, Benjamin (Gabriel Ebert) and Tom (Clint Obenchain). Kidd and Johanna are taken to Farley's mining camp, where they are instructed to read from a self-published paper. However, Kidd defies the order and inspires the indentured workers to rebel against their exploitative boss by telling them about an uprising against a coal mine owner who refused to improve safety standards. Farley is furious and sends his men to dispatch Kidd. But Johanna proves she knows how to shoot and the pair beat a hasty retreat before finding sanctuary with a wagon train, along with John Calley (Fred Hechinger), who has run away after realising how badly Farley had treated the Native Americans, freed slaves and Mexican migrants on his payroll.
On striking out alone, Kidd tries to teach Johanna a few words of English and they are enjoying their chat when the wagon crashes and after a wheel shears off and Kidd has to shoot his horse. They continue on foot and survive a dust storm before Johanna spots the Kiowa party that has been tracking them and persuades them to give her a mount. Eventually, they reach the remote land farmed by Wilhelm (Neil Sandilands) and Anna Leonberger (Winsome Brown) and Johanna receives a cordial welcome from her uncle and aunt. Kidd learns that her parents had ignored advice and gone into hill country, where they were slaughtered. But the Leonbergers refuse to believe that Johanna was well cared for by the Kiowa and Kidd has reservations about leaving her.
Riding to San Antonio, Kidd learns from Lawyer Branholme (Bill Camp) that the wife he had been avoiding seeing had succumbed to cholera in 1865. Leaving a picture locket on her grave, he returns to the farmstead to check on Johanna and finds her tethered to a pole to stop her from running away. Apologising in Kiowa for abandoning her, Kidd invites her to accompany him and a closing scene shows Johanna helping with the sound effects that now make her adopted father's readings all the more dramatic.
Making his first foray into what was once America's favourite genre, Tom Hanks looks every inch the abolitionist Southern gentleman who has seen too many horrors to affect any airs and graces during the Reconstruction. He may lack John Wayne's imposing presence in Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969), but his blend of decency and resourcefulness reassures viewers from the outset that 10 year-old Helena Zengel is in safe hands. A tad more conflict might not have gone amiss, especially during the early exchanges. But, despite having impressed as a problem child in Nora Fingscheidt's System Crasher (2019), Zengel gives a prickly display of mistrustful vulnerability that makes it all the more apparent that there's only one way that the story is destined to end.
Writing with Luke Davies, Greengrass seems unconcerned by the clichés and caricatures that he ticks off along the way. After all, there's a time for a Revisionist Western and this isn't necessarily it, even though it follows the Psychological formula of giving the hero a brow-furrowing backstory and plenty of respect to any Native Americans. Even at the height of the Second World War, the Hollywood Western retained its all-American villains and Greengrass falls into line in ensuring that nobody can possibly overlook his allegorical intent.
The support playing is top notch, with Michael Angelo Covino and Thomas Francis Murphy being genuinely menacing baddies. But the focus is firmly on Hanks, Zengel and the landscape, which is photographed (in New Mexico)with big-skied reverence by Dariusz Wolski. William Goldenberg's studied editing also means he captures the pace and feel of life in the towns evocatively designed by David Crank, while James Newton Howard's score underlines points with a symphonic folksiness that avoids lapsing into kitsch. Such precision and polish seems distinctly out of place in 1870s Texas, however, and the failure to scuff things up a bit means this sincere horse opera owes more to Rooster Cogburn than the Man With No Name.
From the moment producer Ellie Wood read John Preston's unpublished novel about Sutton Hoo in 2006, she vowed to bring The Dig to the screen. Having optioned the rights, she entrusted the screenplay to Moira Buffini in 2011 and set about securing a cast. Yet, despite Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett being mentioned for the leads, Woods struggled to mount a production, even after Nicole Kidman replaced her compatriot. Ultimately, a scheduling clash would force Kidman to step down in favour of Carey Mulligan, while Netflix stepped in after BBC Films relinquished its involvement. Most will consider the wait to have been worthwhile, however, especially as this gentle meld of archaeology and family history will evoke memories of Pat O'Connor's poignant adaptation of J,L, Carr's A Month in the Country (1987), which paired those emerging young talents, Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth.
In the summer of 1939, widowed Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) asks local excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to inspect the three large burial mounds on her estate at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, Having been taught archaeology by his father, Brown is excited by the prospect of finding Anglo-Saxon artefacts and accepts Edit's offer to start a dig for £2 a week, which is more than he is currently being paid by the Ipswich Museum to work on a Roman villa. Frustrated by his refusal to remain with their project, Guy Maynard (Peter McDonald) dismisses Brown's theory that this isn't a Viking site and warns Edith that she is making a mistake in entrusting such a venture to an amateur.
Aided by estate workers George Spooner (James Dryden) and John Jacobs (Joe Hurst), Brown is happy to let Edith's son, Robert (Archie Barnes), lend a hand. But the dangers of the task become apparent when a trench wall collapses on him and Edith summons her staff to help dig him out. He learns that she is suffering from a heart condition and accepts the offer of a room at the house and a shepherd's hut on the site so that he doesn't have to cycle long miles back to his wife, May (Monica Dolan). She sends him daily letters that he leaves unread, as he makes steady progress, although the sight of RAF planes flying overhead and the increasingly sombre nature of the nightly news bulletins makes him realise that time may not be on his side.
When Brown finds metal rivets from a ship that lead him to conclude that the burial mound must have belonged to someone of great importance, local archaeologist James Reid Moir (Paul Ready) tries to take control of the dig. However, he is rebuffed by Edith, who invites cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) to take some photographs of the site. However, she is powerless to resist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) from Selwyn College, Cambridge, who recognises the significance of the find and seeks to ease Brown off the scene with an order from the Ministry of Works. Moreover, he descends on Sutton Hoo with an army of acolytes that includes William Grimes (Arsher Ali), John Brailsford (Eamon Farren, Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife, Peggy (Lily James).
Brown returns home, but Robert cycles after him to hold him to his promise to show him the night sky through his telescope and he rejoins the team, even though he resents Phillips looking down on him because he had left school at 12. As they work, it becomes clear that Piggott is a closeted homosexual who is more attracted to Brailsford than Peggy. She has also developed a crush on Lomax, who is sleeping in a tent beside the site, while awaiting his call up by the RAF. When a plane crashes into the River Deben beyond the estate, Lomax dives in to recover the pilot's body and Edith (who has been informed that she is gravely ill by doctor in London) is given a shocking reminder of the suddenness of death and urges her cousin to take care of himself because she has made him Robert's guardian.
One afternoon in late August, Brown finds a Merovingian Tremissis and this small gold coin from Late Antiquity convinces Phillips that the contents of the burial chamber could reshape knowledge of Anglo-Saxon society. When he tries to have the treasures moved to the British Museum, however, Edith intervenes and, reasoning that they would be at more risk in the capital if war breaks out, orders Brown to store the boxes under her bed until their ownership is confirmed by a forthcoming inquest. Much to Phillips's frustration, the magistrate finds in Edith's favour and she hosts a garden party so that the villagers can visit the site, along with her butler, Grateley (Danny Webb), chauffeur Lyons (Robert Wilfort) and his cook wife (Ellie Piercy). May also attends and encourages her husband to stay at the house and keep an eye on Edith and Robert because Lomax has received his orders.
His departure is keenly felt by Peggy, who tells Piggott that the marriage is over before he returns to London with Brailsford to conduct some chemical tests on the artefacts. However, she seizes the moment for a night of passion under the stars when he returns in uniform. The following day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declares war on Germany and Edith informs Brown that she has decided to donate the Sutton Hoo treasures to the British Museum. She promises that he will receive full credit for his achievement. But, a closing caption reveals that his name was omitted from the display when the exhibits first went on display to the public in 1951, nine years after Edith's death.
That wrong has since been righted and Australian Simon Stone's film will do much to further raise Brown's profile. Yet many people watching this old school heritage saga won't know what the Sutton Hoo treasure looks like, let alone appreciate its historical significance, and it feels like a mistake not to have closed on contextualising images of the British Museum exhibit. Indeed, a greater emphasis on archaeological methodology and academic speculation would have been a welcome addition at the expense of the entirely fictitious romantic subplot, which is surely only prioritised because Peggy Piggott was John Preston's aunt and because she is being played by Lily James in another tiresome cinematic incidence of a bespectacled bluestocking turning out to be a passionate beauty.
It could be argued that this emphasis on Peggy's sexual expectations has a despicable undercurrent, as it implies that Stuart Piggott was holding her hostage in a loveless marriage that he had contracted solely to disguise the fact that he was gay. In fact, the Piggotts were much closer in age than the casting of Ben Chaplin suggests and remained together until 1954. Even then, didn't divorce for another two years so that Peggy (who used the name Margaret during the latter stages of her distinguished career ) could marry prehistorian Luigi Guido.
Fifty-six also happens to have been Edith Pretty's age in 1939 and more might have been done to make clear that she was actually five years older than Brown, although Carey Mulligan's youthful appearance proves crucial to making Edith's illness seem all the more melodramatically tragic. Similarly, the casting of Johnny Flynn as Lomax feels like a novelettish sop, while the fact he is entrusted with making a photographic record of the dig disrespects the contribution of Mercie Lack and Barbara Wagstaff, the holidaying teachers who took over 400 images of the Sutton Hoo excavation and who would have made far more interesting characters than yet another dashing wannabe flyboy.
None of this is to say that Flynn and James don't perform adequately as part of an estimable ensemble. Ken Stott is amusingly snooty as the Cambridge don trying to appropriate credit, while Monica Dolan is unshowily effective as the wife who stands by her man despite feeling every bit as neglected as Peggy. Playing a character diametrically different to the one in Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman for which she has received a Golden Globe nomination, Mulligan presents the acceptable face of privilege in respectfully supporting the humble Brown against the sharp-elbowed scholars. But the intellectual curiosity that earned Edith the place at the University of London that her father had prevented her from taking is dampened down to allow Buffini and Stone to focus on the nobility of her silent suffering and her preoccupation her son's future (in fact, Robert would be raised by his aunt).
The depiction of Brown as a taciturn son of the soil is also slightly misleading. But, having adopted a Suffolk burr, Ralph Fiennes plays the onetime milkman with a resolute sense of self-worth that enables him to tug his peak at Edith while challenging the credentials of the interloping experts, whose failure to honour Mrs Pretty's promise about Brown's credit cocks a populist snook at the academic establishment while upholding Downtonesque notions of class and deference.
While this emphasis will doutblessly kindle Tory delight, few will relish the inference that Neville Chamberlain's Conservative government was poorly prepared for the inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany. For all its insinuations, however, this is markedly less socio-politically astute than the Merchant-Ivory dramas with which it is being lazily compared. There's no faulting Maria Djurkovic's production design or Alice Babidge's costumes, although editor Jon Harris keeps resorting to the misty dawns and magic-hour dusks captured by cinematographer Mike Eley.
He also indulges in some fussy cross-cutting during an opening sequence whose atypically propulsive tone is reinforced by the most strident passage in Stefan Gregory's pleasant, but overly emphatic score. Stone eventually becomes attuned to the rhythm of the piece. But, rather like Francis Lee in Ammonite - a forthcoming biopic of 19th-century Dorset paleontologist Mary Anning that reinvents her as a lesbian - Stone settles for producing a picturesque slice of undemanding entertainment when it could have been so much more.
I'M YOUR WOMAN.
Julia Hart's I'm Your Woman is what happens when you apply the logic of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to a bog standard crime saga. Spurred by Hart's curiosity about Diane Keaton and Tuesday Weld's respective fates in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and Michael Mann's Thief (1981), this is an anti-thriller in which the characters divide their time between waiting and responding to events that take place off screen. Until they don't - by which time, the gaps in the main protagonist's backstory are starting to show so glaringly that the viewer's only option is to disregard them and hold on tight for the climactic ride.
At some point in the late 1970s, the unworldly Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is presented with a baby boy by her thief husband, Eddie (Bill Heck). Unable to bear or adopt a child, Jean is forced to come to terms with motherhood just as Eddie disappears after a job goes wrong and she and the infant Harry are whisked away in the night by Jimmy (Jarrod DiGiorgi), who gives her a bag of money before entrusting her to Cal (Arinzé Kene), who drives her to a safe house in the suburbs. He promises to drop in to check she's doing okay, but also warns her not to make any friends in the neighbourhood.
Feeling lonely and frustrated by her inability to cook, Jean accepts the comfort of a stranger (Lynda Marnoni) at the launderette. She also welcomes a hot meal from Evelyn (Marceline Hugot), the elderly widow who lives next door. They also meet up for supper and Jean is suspicious when Evelyn can't remember where the bathroom is when she had supposedly been friendly with the former occupant. However, when she suspects that someone has broken in during the night, Jean goes to Evelyn for help and is appalled to find her bound and gagged by some of Eddie's oppos. Having previously dialled the number that Cal had given her, Jean is relieved when he bursts in and kills the intruders. But he also shoots Evelyn and reminds Jean that she is responsible for the death because she didn't follow orders.
Having taken Jean to a remote cabin, Cal reveals that Eddie is in trouble because he murdered the head of a crime syndicate and has sparked a turf war. Shortly afterwards, Jean is joined by Cal's wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), her son, Paul (Da'mauri Parks), and her father-in-law, Art (Frankie Faison). They show her a hiding hole under the table, while Art teaches Jean how to shoot and warns her that she will only know if she's a good shot when the pressure is on. Paul and Harry strike up a friendship, while Jean realises that Teri is Eddie's first wife.
When Cal fails to keep a rendez-vous, Teri decides to drive to the city and Jean insists on tagging along. They go to a nightclub to find White Mike (James McMenamin), only to be separated during a shootout. Jean tracks Teri down to a backstreet hotel, where she learns that Paul is Eddie's son and that she and Cal had fled to avoid his fury. Despite laying low, however, he had tracked them down and had ordered Cal to protect Jean and Harry as an act of atonement.
Teri sends Jean to meet Cal at a café, while she attends to some business. Cal breaks the news that Eddie is dead and, when a flustered Teri turns up, he recommends that they get back to the cabin as soon as possible. As they drive away, however, they are chased by Mike's henchmen and he abducts Jean at gunpoint. Refusing to believe that Eddie is dead, he demands to know his whereabouts and Jean catches him off guard with the gun that Teri had told her to hide on her person. Teri and Cal are badly injured, but Jean manages to bundle them into a car and head out into the wilds. She finds Art's body beside two thugs in the cabin, but Harry and Paul are safe in the cubby hole and they join their parents for a journey into an uncertain future.
Impeccably designed by Gae S. Buckley to contrast the golden cage in which Jean is trapped with the bolthole in suburbia and the cabin in the woods, this is a film that requires the audience to join a lot of background dots while relatively little is happening in front of Bryce Fortner's camera. Those prepared to play the waiting game will be drawn into Jean's plight. But they may well be disappointed by the sudden eruption of violent action once Jean is lured back into the city that suggests she has the resources to fit right in with the crew that Viola Davis assembled in Steve McQueen's 2018 feature version of Lynda La Plante's Widows (1983-84).
The implication is that women will do whatever it takes once they become mothers, as Jean had been pampered into a state of doting docility prior to Harry's arrival. He is wonderfully played at various points by Barrett Shaffer and Jameson and Justin Charles, with a range of expressions that is denied Rachel Brosnahan, who is unrecognisable from the 1950s stand-up character who won her an Emmy and two Golden Globes in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (2017-). However, her bewildered impassivity and vulnerability contrast with the unsettling desperation of Marceline Hugot's widow and the chilling capability of Marsha Stephanie Blake's reformed moll (whose outfits are also deftly designed by Natalie O'Brien).
Brosnahan's relationship with Arinzé Kene is also intriguing, particularly during the scene in which they are challenged for sleeping while parked at the side of the road by a patrol cop who bristles at the sight of a white woman in the company of a Black man. Hart initially hints at the possibility of a romance before she and co-scribe-cum-producer/spouse Jordan Horowitz take the tale in another direction. Yet, while this proves more satisfying than any rehash of the clichés of the ill-fated noir love story, the `happy ever after' played out to the plaintiff strains of Aska Matsumiya's score feels forced, despite teasingly leaving plenty of questions unanswered.
Such lurches are par for the course, however, in a feature that suggests there's no room for suspense in the midst of a life-and-death situation. Nevertheless, it would be nice if some enterprising UK distributor or streaming platform could unearth Hart's previous pictures, Miss Stevens (2016), Fast Color (2018) and Stargirl (2020), as she clearly has some interesting approaches to storytelling.
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX.
Rodney Ascher has made some fascinating films. In Room 237 (2012), he considered the hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), while The Nightmare (2015) explored the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. He now moves on to the subject of simulation theory in A Glitch in the Matrix and employs a panoply of gimmicky digital imagery to illustrate notions that are espoused by true believers with a conviction that will alienate as many as it convinces.
In the course of his investigation, Ascher utilises clips from Sam Weiss's Plato cartoon, The Cave: A Parable Told By Orson Welles (1973), Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz 1939) and Lana and Lilly Wachowski's The Matrix (1999), as well as footage of a 1977 lecture that sci-fi author Philip K. Dick gave in Metz about the 2-3-74 `recovered memory' experience under the lingering influence of dental sodium pentothal that convinced him of the existence of the parallel universes. We also hear the pensées of René Descartes and see Elon Musk debating simulation theory on a TV chat show and proclaiming that `the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions'. But the `real science' is provided by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, the founding director of the Oxford-based Future of Humanity Institute, whose soberly enunciated ideas contrast with the more breathless testimony provided by Paul Gude, Alex LeVine, Jesse Orion and Brother Laeo Mystwood, who appear in Skype chats as custom-designed avatars in the respective forms of a leonine warrior, an emoji-faced suspended brain, a tuxedo-wearing Anubis and a spacesuited ogre.
No doubt, these participants would be delighted by their representation, even though Ascher is almost certainly using the gambit to cast doubt over their variations on the asserted theme that existence is a computer programme that has been devised by a superior life form. Given that they are claiming to be among the few humans with the intelligence to have realised what's going on, the quartet seem eminently genial and their creation myth surmisings are given degrees of credence by such experts as journalist Emily Pothast, cartoonist Chris Ware and Dick scholar Erik Davis. However, the most chilling contribution comes from Joshua Cooke, who recalls in matter-of-fact detail how his obsession with The Matrix so convinced him that he was living in an alternative reality that he gunned down his parents in the misguided belief that his actions wouldn't necessarily have any `real' world consequences.
The influence of on the evolution of sim theory of computer games as different as Pong and Minecraft is also broached, as Ascher makes copious use of gaming graphics to sustain the sensory overload that never quite manages to disguise the superficiality of what is posited as a deep dive. The weighty references to religion, philosophy, science fiction and technology come with riders about the paranoia to which Dick was prone and the fact that the majority of the theories under discussion continue to be taken seriously because they cannot entirely be disproved. Yet, for all his playful scepticism, Ascher hedges his bets, as there's no point in these days of fake news, Zoom backdrops and QAnon coups of antagonising the very constituency that is going to turn his documentary into a cult hit.
THE CAPOTE TAPES.
More people know Truman Capote from the screen than the page. Their familiarity with the man himself comes from chat show clips, while they take the facts of his life from the impersonations of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005) and Toby Jones in Infamous (2006). Moreover, their knowledge of his characters derives from the portrayals of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) and Robert Blake and Scott Wilson in In Cold Blood (1967), although only the most devoted fan will have seen David Speck playing a variation on Joel Harrison Knox in Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995). Now, first-time documentarist Ebs Burnough offers audiences a chance to gain an intimate insight in The Capote Tapes.
The tapes in question belonged to journalist George Plimpton, who contacted Capote's `friends, enemies, acquaintances, and detractors' in 1997 in order to produce a definitive portrait. Ultimately, they lay on a shelf and are heard here for the first time. But Burnough and co-writer Holly Whiston make cherry picking use of them in assembling an audiovisual scrapbook that feels more thrown together than carefully arranged. Editors Allen Charlton and David Charap actually make a decent job of juxtaposing the archive snaps and snippets, but this gossipy study still feels more like one of Capote's late-life garbled chat show appearances than a considered work with a bedrock thesis.
One of the pivotal failings is the presumption that everyone is readily familiar the members of Capote's inner circle, when many have been out of the spotlight for almost half a century. Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall and Candice Bergen leap out, while cineastes will remember George Axelrod (who wrote the sanitised screenplay for Blake Edwards's Breakfast At Tiffany's) and writer-director Gavin Lambert. Students of journalism may also recognise National Review founder William Buckley, Jr., Interview magazine's Bob Colacello, New Yorker story editor Barbara Lawrence and Vogue fashion editor, Babs Simpson. Furthermore, anyone au fait with the Kennedy Clan will know that Lee Radziwill is the younger sister of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. But longtime partner Jack Dunphy, acquaintances Loel Guinness, Piedy Lumet and Kate Paley and such confidantes as Phoebe Pierce, Nancy Ryan, Marella Agnelli, Leonora Hornblow and Louise Melhado Grunwald will need Googling, along with Slim Keith, although she has another claim to fame as the ex-wife of director Howard Hawks and agent-cum-producer Leland Hayward.
The tapes throw up the odd choice anecdote, with Pierce remembering how she and Capote used to get thrown out of the Pickwick Theatre in New York for loudly suggesting alternative dialogue to the movies on screen, while Mailer recalls seeing Capote with fresh admiration after seeing him hold his own in a working-class Irish bar. But the recordings are often used to corroborate points made by such on-screen contributors as writers Jay McInerney, Dotson Rader and Colm Toibin, Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham, journalist Sally Quinn, critic Sadie Stein, fashionista André Leon Talley, chat show host Dick Cavett, actor John Richardson and Kate Harrington, who is billed as both Capote's `adopted daughter' and the daughter of his alcoholic manager-lover, Jack O'Shea.
Harrington quote's Capote's maxim about never letting the truth get in the way of a good story and this becomes tantamount to the movie's motto, as it picks its way through the known facts, the author's own embellishments and the speculations of the assembled seen and unseen. We hear about his relationship with the mother who committed suicide after failing to crack high society and friendship with neighbour Harper Lee, who immortalised him as Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). However, there's little coverage of the period before the writing of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), while Harold Halma is not credited for the much-discussed jacket picture of a reclining Capote in all his youthful beauty. Indeed, we scarcely learn more about Breakfast At Tiffany's (1958), which is much grittier than the beloved film it spawned.
Burnough lingers longer over In Cold Blood (1965), as not only did Capote take a risk in heading to rural Kansas to investigate the murder of the Clutter family, but he also fell in love with suspect Perry Smith and then agitated for his execution so that he could have an effective ending to his book. This claim was originally made by the British critic Kenneth Tynan in his review in The Observer, but it's voiced here by Mailer, who jokes that this was typical Capote and others concur that the man who devised the `non-fiction novel' and launched the New Journalism was closer to life than the celebrity obsessed caricature he would become.
Slim Keith suggests that Capote affected this persona because he felt dutybound to play the fool in case no one would love him if he didn't. This need to be seen in the company of the rich and famous clearly prompted him to organise the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York on 28 November 1966. Much is made of the fact that the press were kept behind a barrier and that guests were encouraged to mingle and make new friends before the unmasking. But there's a hint of satirical intent about the event, as
Lapham avers in citing Mark Twain's observation that a state of war was inevitable in a society based on vanity and greed.
Yet, while he loathed the powerbroking husbands, Capote considered Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Marella Agnelli, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness and Babe Paley to be his `swans'. They enjoyed having a tame writer to amuse them and squire them to social events, but they tended to treat him like a servant and he sought revenge for their boring him in Answered Prayers, a Proustian roman à clef that may or may not have been completed and/or lost. When he published the chapter. `La Côte Basque', in Esquire in November 1975, however, Capote found himself a pariah and more swans took flight after two more instalments hit the newsstands.
Slim Keith objected to being cast as the tittle-tattling Lady Ina Coolbirth, while Babe Paley took such exception to the description of CBS chief William Paley having sex with his mistress during her period that she ostracised Capote completely. But the most sensational fallout came when former showgirl Ann Woodward committed suicide after Capote included a character who had actually murdered her husband rather than mistaken him for a burglar (as had been the case with Woodward and her banker spouse in 1955).
Given the impact these extracts had on Capote's remaining years, it seems odd that Burnough doesn't spend more time analysing his motives for biting the hand that had fed him. He makes a jovial reference to the fact that Capote played the victim in Robert Moore's Neil Simon-scripted Murder By Death (1976), but hastens on to drool over the `candied tarantula' phase that sparked a fascination with gay bars and Studio 54. Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger are name-checked in a segment that feels inspired by Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books. Now addicted to prescription drugs, Capote ceased to be a working writer and became a professional chat show guest. Dick Cavett laments one appearance after an all-night bender before the 59 year-old's story fizzles out on 25 August 1984.
In many ways, Burnough has been the victim of his own ambition, as he has tried to provide a potted history when the surfeit of fascinating material really requires a mini-series to do it justice. Indeed, Capote's literary legacy, his chat show highlights and his brush with high society and its aftermath would all merit documentaries of their own. But Burnough (a former PR consultant and deputy social secretary to Michelle Obama) doesn't help himself with his rattlebag approach that prevents any aspect of Capote's life and career from being examined in requisite detail.
Moreover, while the rare images on show are compelling, the tapes feel akin to a MacGuffin, as they serve solely as a source for soundbites and are not crucial to the narrative, as was the case with Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon , Kent Jones's Hitchcock/Truffaut (both 2015), James Erskine's Billie and Caroline Catz's Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes (both 2020). But there are too many tabloid titbits along the lines of Principessa Luciana Pignatell and the jewel she wore to the Black and White Ball and not enough scholastic scrutiny or psychological insight for this to anything more than a watchably lively recap of a familiar story.
MEETING THE MAN: JAMES BALDWIN IN PARIS.
In 1971, British documentarist Terence Dixon hopped across the Channel to make Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris. Clearly nurturing romantic ideas of artistic exile derived from what he thought he knew about the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, Dixon sought to make African American author James Baldwin accessible to white, educated, liberal audiences by seeking to divorce his literary output from his political convictions. To this end, Dixon tried to coax Baldwin into sitting outside such celebrated Left Bank cafés as Les Deux Magots and insisted on taking him to task in front of Jack Hazan's camera when he started dictating the terms of engagement.
Half a century on, Dixon's patrician, post-colonial petulance, as he loses control of his unthinking bid to tell a Black story from a white perspective makes for excruciating viewing. Despite only having a clutch of BBC arts credits on his CV, Dixon feels he has the right to dictate terms to his august subject, almost to the point of challenging him on the very need for his exile and making the insulting intimation that he couldn't have chosen a lovelier place than Paris from which to comment from a safe distance on events happening in his homeland.
In the preamble, Dixon's plummily explains that he has come to the French capital to profile Baldwin the writer rather than the revolutionary. He and Hazan film the 46 year-old strolling beside the Seine and through the nearby streets while explaining in voiceover that he had been forced to flee the United States for his life on 11 November 1948. With only $40 in his pocket, Baldwin had been reduced to selling his typewriter and his clothes in order to survive. But he had found kindred spirits within the Algerian community and he informs Dixon that he would prefer to be filmed in this milieu (which Dixon dubs `the Harlem of Paris') than in photogenic tourist traps like Café Flore, where he had once worked and become acquainted with Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
Somewhat peevishly, Dixon agrees to meet Baldwin at the Place de la Bastille and is audibly frustrated when he shows up in the company of Carl, a younger Black man who is volubly prepared to argue the toss when the director demands to know why Baldwin feels the need to call the shots on his film. Dixon doesn't have the courtesy to identify Carl, whom he calls a `student'. However, a note on the Lincoln Center website accompanying the New York Film Festival screening contains Hazan's jaw-droppingly dismissive recollection of the incident: `Things don't go to plan for him and the film crew when a couple of young Black Vietnam draft dodgers impose themselves on the American. Baldwin wrestles with being a role model to the Black youths, denouncing Western colonialism and crimes against African Americans while at the same time demonstrating his mastery and understanding of the culture he supposedly despises.'
Aware that he is `one of the very few dark people in the world who has a voice', Baldwin decides to use it to counter Dixon's efforts to manipulate him. He avers that he considers himself to be more of a citizen than a writer and invokes the names of Bobby Seale and Angela Davis in trying to explain that it's impossible for him to divorce his novels and essays from his duty to bear witness to what is happening in the United States. When Dixon demands to know what he has done to alienate Baldwin, Carl intervenes and accuses him of not asking an agreed question on why the Bastille is the most popular monument in France.
When a patently agitated Dixon poses that question to Baldwin, he struggles to understand why he isn't interested in `Jimmy Baldwin's Paris' because he would much rather discuss the fact that he is a survivor of the entitlement and bigotry that has made him a prisoner and has put his life at risk simply because of the colour of his skin. Stung by Baldwin's assertion that he's a `dark stranger' who is `not at all what you think I am,' Dixon again tries to justify himself and his annoyance with Carl interfering with his film. Instead, he blurts out that he wouldn't be in Paris unless Baldwin had written some influential books and feels entitled to some answers. Torn between despair and pity, Baldwin tells Dixon that, for all his protestations of civility, he is part of the problem because he doesn't understand that his status and value system mean he can't possibly appreciate what it feels like to be oppressed or live in fear. They also prevent him from recognising why white men who tear down prisons are hailed as liberators, while black men rebelling are branded savages. He wishes Dixon could grasp the gravity of the situation and comprehend the enormity of the change that's going to come. But he's too busy being affronted by the challenge to his authority on his own shoot to listen.
Realising that the adversarial approach can only end in deadlock, Baldwin suggests that Dixon films him talking to someone other than himself and everyone decamps to the studio of Beauford Delaney, the artist to whom Baldwin had dedicated his 1965 short story collection, Going to Meet the Man (is Dixon aware of the significance of `The Man' to Baldwin in latching on to this for his own title?). Either way, he opts not to identify the three men and one woman sitting at Baldwin's feet with Carl, but he has the sense to shut up and let the conversation flow. Curiously, however, he claims in voiceover that the encounter made it readily apparent that Baldwin had once been a junior minister in Harlem. He actually attended a Pentecostal church and not a Baptist one, as Dixon states. But if this mention of his religious past is an assertion that Baldwin is more comfortable preaching to the converted, it says much about Dixon's own inability to empathise with Baldwin and the message he is trying to convey.
Pleased to see that the young people are on his wavelength, Baldwin jokes that he never thought he would live long enough to get their love. But he concedes that he has had a hard life and bitterly regrets that African Americans are still having to flee the United States under President Richard Nixon for the same reasons that he left under Harry Truman. Yet, he would hate to be white and have to live with the burden of the lies that have been told to bolster the US social system and the democracy it sustains. Moreover, he has grown tired of the efforts of the white, liberal, Christian West to save him because he isn't the one in need of salvation. He denounces the criminal nature of Catholicism in declaring that existing institutions will be swept away. In the meantime, he will continue to mess with the minds of those who don't realise that the party is over.
Dixon leaves this scene of `group witness' for what he hopes will be a one-to-one interview about Baldwin the writer. They discuss whether Baldwin is a revolutionary writer and whether his fiction has more of an impact than his essays. But he refuses to respond to leading questions and challenges the assumptions Dixon makes, such as the fact that everyone has been in love. They agree that the price of love is the price of life, but Baldwin denies that he writes primarily for a white audience because Black people don't read his books. He shoots back that they steal them and trade them in bars before stating that he writes for all people because he doesn't believe in the current divisions between races.
When Dixon asks why he doesn't distance himself from the background noise and focus on his work, Baldwin retorts that he is better than that. He reminds Dixon that writing between the assassinations of close friends has been difficult and that it's harder than he might imagine for a Black man to find a place to escape in the modern world. Furthermore, he suggests that changing it is more difficult than one might imagine because `love has never been a popular movement' even though `the world is held together by the love and passion of a very few people'. In such circumstances, it would be easy to despair. Yet, while it will take a conscious shift in personal emphasis by everyone, Baldwin fervently believes that freedom is coming.
There's almost too much to take in while watching a 27-minute profile that is almost critic-proof because its intrinsic value comes from its ineptitude. Despite the eloquence and potency of the points that Baldwin is seeking to make, it would be easy to be distracted by Dixon's artistic arrogance, intellectual entrenchment, thin-skinned hostility and complacent ignorance. It would be fascinating to know what hit the cutting room floor, as editor Richard Key has clearly shaped the material to conform to Dixon's hijack narrative. But enough remains for Baldwin to impose himself and his views and, consequently, this should be an essential companion to Raoul Peck's exceptional I Am Not Your Negro (2016).
What's so dismaying is how little has changed over the last five decades and how much four years of Donald Trump has done to set things back. Crucially, however, this shattering metatextual short confirms how vital it is for patronising white film-makers to park their much-vaunted good intentions and stop trying to appropriate Black stories that they have no right or reason to tell.