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Literary Lives On Screen

The films <i>Capote</i> and An <i>Angel at My Table</i> feature authors as the protagonists—to great effect

It is basically true that the most interesting writers tend to be pudgy misfits, antisocial by temperament and by trade and yet desperate for attention. The spectrum of their ambition runs from the reinvention of literature to the evasion of lobotomy by means of winning literary awards, and while their achievements of stature and excellence always cost them psychically, they benefit the rest of us greatly. This at least is what movies have suggested recently, and while they may be laying it on a little thick—as movies do— they’re not lying.

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 which has recently become available on Criterion Collection DVD. Take these two together, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a crash course in onscreen literary biographies, if not on “How to Be an Author.” These two films are frustrating and magnificent for essentially the same reasons: they are fully committed to dramatizing what a writer is made of—even if such a venture is inherently doomed or just plain dumb—and they are almost certain to get people reading (no small feat for a movie today) or, God help us, to get them writing.

Capote brings to mind the famous opening from Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer: “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.” You can say one thing for Truman Capote—he wasn’t stupid. Malcolm‘s quote wasn’t explicitly describing Capote's experience of writing In Cold Blood, which provides the narrative framework of Miller’s film, but she nailed it nonetheless. To summarize: In 1959, Capote, already a successful fiction writer and reporter, befriended and exploited a pair of Kansas killers to get a story out of them, and then had the nerve to claim the thing was a masterpiece. He called it a nonfiction novel and let people believe it was formally unprecedented (which isn’t true—Daniel Defoe was doing this kind of thing in the early eighteenth century). The film Capote, which writer Dan Futterman adapted from Gerald Clarke’s biography which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in a performance of riveting control, shows almost nothing of what formed the writer but focusses instead on how he worked through his collision with a great and devouring subject. The movie is cool, stylized and self-adoring. It gets its sense of cultivated narcissism quite right.

An Angel at My Table is broader (and longer) than Capote, and its concept is lower-scale—this is not a portrait of a world-famous writer becoming even more world-famous through a sensational story, but of a writer famous in New Zealand who is growing up in New Zealand. Importantly though, this portrait of Janet Frame is meant not to observed but to be lived in. Befitting the verdant wilds of her native land, Campion’s film is a sprawling, overgrown thing; comprehensive to a fault, devoted to the most minor of quotidian details and the most subtle textures of girlhood. Janet Frame was a journalist only insofar as she was one who 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, tried suicide and was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic. Though she wrote poems, essays, stories, novels and, of course, an autobiography, she was quite concerned with whether language could ever be true to the experiences it described. The narrative, as structured by screenwriter Laura Jones, is patiently chronological but uniquely paced—here lingering, there abrupt, always authentic.

Neither film is remotely equivocal about who is its protagonist. Though she spends most of An Angel at My Table being socially marginalized, Frame is always the center of the scenes—although she’s 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 introspective dignity (a combination we can relish as a rebuke to expected movie-star specifications), is a complete defencelessness in the face of their experiences. Their sufferings were nearly pathological: Frame’s, a crippling bashfulness; Capote’s, an ambition verging on sociopathy. These figures were fortunate to have intrigued such attentive, accepting filmmakers.

“We all feel vulnerable,” Campion says in her DVD commentary, “and unchosen, unlovable, uncared-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, and her surety about Frame as a worthy subject, are among the movie’s great comforts and part of the reason it succeeds.

Miller’s fondness for Capote, even as he strikes a cautionary note, is more disquieting. “If I leave without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster always,” Capote tells one of the killers in the film. “I don’t want that.” It’s not a lie, but it is more blackmail than compassion. Miller never quite asks for antipathy, but it’s to his movie’s credit—or my shame—that I’m able to empathize with Capote when he says, “When I think how good this book can be, I can’t breathe.”

In An Angel at My Table, Frame lays eyes on her first book while lying in a psychiatric hospital bed, bleeding from shock-treatment sores and, in spite of having practised her autograph often as a young woman, feeling utterly confounded by the idea that anyone might want it. As movies about the writing life attempt to uphold, violate or inaugurate cults of personality and scramble 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.

Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve’s film flâneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.