Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 49: 1967(Part 3)

In the last five years, I’ve seen three versions of In Cold Blood and read the book it’s based on. The first was Capote, a film essentially about the making of the book. Shortly thereafter, I saw the 1967 film in a revival at the Film Forum in New York City and not long after I saw Infamous, another take on the making of the film. Two years ago, a friend of mine who hadn’t seen any of the films recommended the book highly and I stumbled across it at a used bookstore in Ohio not long afterwards. I could spend pages comparing and contrasting these, but I just mention it to give my frame of reference. In revisiting the film, I found it even more compelling than the first time, perhaps in part because of my increased knowledge of the material. The book was five years in the making, delayed primarily due to the series of appeals. There was no ending for the book until the killers were put to death. Apparently, Truman Capote, the author of the book, named it In Cold Blood as a double meaning. A family in Kansas was murdered in cold blood. Then the killers were murdered by us in cold blood. Once Capote got his ending, the film came out in short order, only two years after the executions of the killers. Apparently, many of the locations in the film were the actual locations where the events happened including the house where the murders took place. The acting is uniformly good, achieving an almost documentary simplicity. The stark black and white photography is breathtaking and the entire production is underscored by yet another great jazz score by Quincy Jones. The score has all the same strengths as well as some of the weaknesses as The Pawnbroker. Jones seems to have the ability to deliver a traditional score when he’s required to, such as some of the tranquil early scenes with the Clutter family, but he’s always at his best when left to jazz. Ebert wrote reviews of this film both when it was released and in 2002. Both reviews are four stars, the second being inclusion in the Great Movie series. The original review is a little puzzling to me as he almost seems a little dismissive of the storytelling because it actually happened, indicating that the author and screenwriter didn’t have to do much. Having read the book and seen countless “based on a true story” films, I find this characterization unfair. Capote came up with a brilliant structure, switching back and forth between the Clutters and their murderers as they go through their day, then the police investigation and the murderers path. The entire structure of the film comes straight from the book. He does make a good point, however, that the character in the film based on Capote is a little awkward and seems on hand mostly to deliver a message, which doesn’t really work. This is true, but it really didn’t bother me. It’s true also that neither the book nor the film really makes a good anti-death penalty case. I say this as a firm advocate against capital punishment. I think its easy to say that someone deserves to die. It’s a lot harder to say that we deserve to kill someone in cold blood. But that’s not a point that really comes across. Perhaps this is because of Capote’s gift for creating character. He makes the killers(well one of them anyway) as sympathetic as possible, but he does such a good job of doing the same for the Clutter family and the senseless brutality of their murder that its hard to feel too sorry for Dick and Perry when they meet their end. This didn’t leave a great impact on me when I saw it a few years ago, but this revisiting gave me new appreciation for it.

My family was late to the party when it came to getting a VCR. We got our first one in Christmas of 1986. So it must have been sometime shortly after that when I saw The Graduate for the first time. I must have been 18 or 19. 20 years after it first came out. Essentially the same age as Benjamin Braddock, the titular character. I had barely started college. My family wasn’t as well off as the one in the film. The ‘80’s were not the ‘60’s. And yet I recall to this day how I was struck by the timeliness of this story. A young man, drifting through life, who had always done what he was supposed to do. Admittedly, I questioned a bit more, but I felt the basic struggle. He followed the path, went to college, got a degree, and now what? He hadn’t taken the time to figure out his identity. He had never questioned and now he was all about questions but didn’t know which ones to ask. Everyone was always talking at him, but noone was actually listening to him. I could go on. Needless to say, I was really looking forward to seeing this one again and was glad for Justin to join me. This was everything I’d remembered and more. It seemed just as timeless as ever. In part, because it takes place in California in the ‘60’s, in part in Berkeley, but you don’t really see any hippies. Vietnam isn’t mentioned. And yet the undercurrent of unease is there that could easily translate to a college graduate in 2010 going into a shit economy and approaching double digit unemployment. Of course the golden boy who’s always done as he’s been told is apprehensive about what lurks in the real world. Justin and I could barely contain our enthusiasm for this film. It seemed we were constantly pausing to talk about how great a scene or a shot was. I really have to give credit to Mike Nichols for making an amazing transition from the theatre world into film. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was great and well shot, but the director was not as apparent. This film makes it clear that he’s well aware of the camera, how to frame a shot, composition, etc. There’s the obvious one where Dustin Hoffman is shot between Anne Bancroft’s legs, but there’s so much more. Dialogue is sometimes spare, though one of my favorite dialogue heavy scenes is one where Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are in a hotel room engaged in one of their trysts. Benjamin is desperately trying to connect so he can feel. Mrs. Robinson just wants to lose herself in sex so she won’t feel how empty her life is. At various times they both seem on the verge of leaving, but by the end they both stay. And neither of them seems to want to. The best known scene without dialogue has to be the closing shot. Benjamin and Elaine are escaping on the bus. Nichols could have ended on their moment of triumph. But he lingers. And as he does reality starts to creep in. They’re triumphant that they’ve actually done something of their own choosing. But it slowly dawns on them that they have no idea what to do next. This scene was everything I remembered it to be. But another scene really struck me. Benjamin is having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, has started seeing her daughter Elaine, has told Elaine he’s had an affair with an older woman, but has left out the most crucial detail. The scene where she finds out is done with almost no words. And the entire story is told by one expression on Anne Bancroft’s face. That expression not only tells Elaine the horrible story, but allows us the closest glimpse of honesty into her character. Every other moment we see her is a façade of some sort. The seductress, the harpy seeking revenge, etc. But in that one moment we see her pain and desperation, her emotions naked for the first time. I’m so rapturous even in my remembrance that I hesitate to even mention Ebert’s recent review(1997). I just hope that in 15 or so years from now I haven’t changed so much that I agree with him. And I know we have some common ground ahead. Look out 1968.

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