To Kill Those Who Kill: A Meditation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

When I was in early high school, I impulsively bought a DVD copy of the Bennett Miller film Capote from a Half Price Books store. Shortly after, I watched the film with my father, who found it beautiful and engaging; it was the first time I remember him complimenting a film I had chosen for its important moral and intellectual content.

I eventually returned the same store and bought the book on which the film was based, Capote’s In Cold Blood. Little did I know, it would be close to seven years before I actually read that book, and it wouldn’t even be the same copy. (I ended up lending the book to a friend, who never returned it.)

I finally committed to reading the book this semester. It took close to two months, as I had to force myself to read in the late hours after I had finished poorly composed counterpoint assignments from my music theory class and weekend filming for my senior documentary project, but it did not take long for the book to get me invested in its subject matter and prose.

I am honestly nervous to write about In Cold Blood. It’s already been written about in so many different ways. I’m sure just as many–if not more–conversations have been had about it that have said even more. A short while before I finished the book, I actually had a friend discuss it with me, saying he had read it for a class on crime & punishment (the acts of, not the novel) three years ago.

This essentially is what Capote was writing about. In an quasi-revolutionary way for the time in which the book was written, he humanized men that, in my opinion, we would still find difficult to sympathize with today, if we were as invested in the case as those in the story (and possibly, even if we were not). He questioned the death penalty and asked whether we could truly consider ourselves “the better people” for killing men who had killed.

In this age of social media, I imagine myself scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed and happening upon a short video on the death of the Clutters. I’d watch it momentarily before thinking, How could anyone do such a thing? and continue down the feed, almost forgetting about it before someone else, who had seen the same video, would bring it up to me later that day. We’d talk about it and agree that These were horrible men, and maybe why do they still get to live when that poor family was dead. (Side note: I feel that I should say that I am–and always have been–against the death penalty.)

But from this video, I would have gained as little understanding of the defendants as many of the people who called for their deaths in Kansas. That is not to say anything they did was right, but what Capote wanted, I think, was not to absolve them of their guilt but, rather, to make their accusers understand, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it many years before in The Great Gatsby:

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one’… ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

Despite their crimes, Perry Smith & Richard Hickock were still people. Both of them came from a life that none of the jurors–not even the judge–knew about. Whether or not this information would have made them more sympathetic, I do not know, but Capote argues that without it, they were not in a place to ‘criticize’ (read: ‘judge’) the defendants.

[SORT OF SPOILER ALERT] The part of the book that, in my opinion, most powerfully conveyed this, was the questioning of the psychiatrist Dr. Jones. Limited to answering each question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration, Jones was not allowed to share his more detailed findings, which may have gotten both men out of their death sentences on cases of mental instability. [END OF SPOILER]

I think Capote’s message is timeless. Whether it is deciding someone’s life during a trial or simply treating a person differently  because of your perception of who they might be, we all need to remember that there are facts we will always be missing about that person’s life and where they come from, so we must always question when and if ever it is our place to judge.

Self-Indulgence in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”

A couple nights ago, some of my flatmates and I sat down to watch Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a period piece about the infamous French Queen. We had been shown a clip from the film (below) by our screenwriting teacher as an explanation of the importance of aligning form and content.

While I was aware of the film before my professor showed the clip, I had never read anything about it and never really had the desire to watch it. (Granted, I was only in the 6th grade when the film was first released, so Marie Antoinette [the person] was not high on my interest list.) But one of my flatmates expressed interest in watching the film, so we decided to sit down and have a go at it. Having seen Coppola’s brilliant Lost in Translation before, I had hope that Antoinette would be an equally inspiring film, but boy, was I wrong.

If you know anything about Sofia Coppola, you’ll know that she’s the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather trilogy. She is cousins with Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. She’s basically part of a filmmaking dynasty and has a net worth of $20 million, according to the Internet. So it’s safe to say she is not far removed from the decadent Hollywood lifestyle, which is what her film attempts and fails to critique.

It’s hard to critique something in which you’re so deeply immersed, but it’s not impossible. It’s been done before–my favorite example being F. Scott Fitzgerald and his similar indulgences in the 1920s. Taking part in a lifestyle does not necessarily mean you agree with it; those who face this problem understand that after too many years in certain environments, you become reliant on it. (For example: society & technology today) However, if you’re going to critique it, you have to put a lot of effort into the way your story is told because otherwise, as is the case with Marie Antoinette, your story will fall flat.

There is only plot to Coppola’s film–no story. If you’re a writer, you understand what this means. In short, story is the “what” of a narrative–the thing(s) you are trying to express by telling it–and the plot is the how–the things that progress the elaboration of the “what.”

Most people know general facts about Marie Antoinette–her sexually inept husband, her frivolous lifestyle, and her eventual beheading. There’s also the famous line (most likely) falsely attributed to her: “Let them eat cake,”  which was supposedly uttered when she was told that the peasants had no bread.

All these highlights of Antoinette’s life were present in the plot of Coppola’s film, but in the film’s attempts to critique the decadence of the French Queen–and indirectly, that of Hollywood–it only succeeded in embracing the self-indulgence rather than rejecting it. For the period piece, Coppola gathered elegant costumes and grandiose filming locations, including the Château de Fontainebleau in France and the Belvedere in Austria. Her budget was estimated at $40 million, which (I am willing to admit) was not excessive for a film made in 2006, but I always feel that the money spent on a film must be justified by the product–and Marie Antoinette did nothing of the sort.

The film feels wrong for many reasons–Antoinette speaks English like an American, the French people are all British, the music jumps between Classical, Ambient and Pop; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But more than anything, what I couldn’t get over was the feeling that Coppola was being as self-indulgent as Antoinette. It feels more like she wanted to create a period piece just for the sake of having created a period piece with much less thought on her critique of decadence. The excessive costumes and locations and props only accentuated this feeling. The only scenes I felt any sort of critique on the lifestyle were the “I Want Candy” scene (above), which is actually diminished by its context in the film, and the “Let Them Eat Cake” line.

Regarding the latter: I think Coppola did a fine job of accentuating Antoinette brushing off the problems of the lower classes as she continues to self-indulge, but the fact is this part of the film is a mere 14 seconds of a 123 minute long film.

The film, as a whole, failed to take the tone of the clip above. Instead, it displayed the decadence in the progression of Marie Antoinette’s life without any sort of opinion on it. None of the characters were interesting, which is amazing considering the world’s wide knowledge of Antoinette as a personality, and as a result, it was impossible to become attached to and hope, follow, and learn from any of the characters.

I spent the whole film harboring a hope that the film might get better–that it might, in one moment, redeem itself. But that hope never came true. If there’s anything I’d take away from Marie Antoinette, it is that if you are going to make a period piece, especially a biopic, it is important to know what you want to say and that you are capable of adequately saying it. There are many films that have accomplished it before and since Coppola’s film was released. I’ve given you some examples below.

Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” States A Problem But Fails to Confront It

It’s not Harper Lee’s fault that her book has been the subject of so much controversy since it came out. As many have said before me, it should not have been published in the first place. It is not clear if Lee, who is so well remembered for her novel To Kill A Mockingbird that effectively addressed the issue of race at the time of its release, had much, if any, say in the publication of her unedited novel, and we may never know the definite facts, especially considering Lee is a more secretive celebrity.

The main complaint concerning Go Set A Watchman revolves around Atticus Finch, known for his almost perfect ideals in support of the black population in his small town of Mobile, Alabama. He was the white savior–although many didn’t think of him this way before contemporary times–in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in GSAW, Finch has become  supporter of segregation, and it seems abandoned many of the principles he held in Lee’s other novel. This change is explained away by Henry, the love interest of Atticus’ infamous daughter Scout, when he asks, “Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” (230)

Scout, as the novel’s subject, has a multitude of issues with the character change in her father, supporting Lee’s well-known anti-segregationist mindset and her disdain toward the racism of the South; however, so much of the novel is focused on Scout’s relationship to Henry and her inability to deal with his and Atticus’ now segregationist attitudes that it avoids discussing the real issues at hand–what creates such a mindset in people and what can be done to combat it?

Especially now, problems of race are especially prevalent. There are discussions about political correctness and the larger issue of blatant racism that still exists in the United States and many places in the world. Unfortunately, the racial tensions of today are much to close to those that existed in Lee’s time. One particularly haunting image of this is the new documentary Welcome to Leith, which looks into the aspirations of White supremacist Craig Cobb, who attempts to convert a town in North Dakota to his more-than-questionable principles.

With stories like this on the rise, the world was not in need of a book that simply told us there was a problem. That is a fact widely known by people with any sort of inclination toward social justice. What we need is someone or something to excite change–active participation in creating a world that does not stand for the widespread prejudice that still exists. Yes, human nature teaches us to be judgmental, but that does not justify our inability to move past our human flaws. Yes, individuals cannot change the world alone but a collection of individuals fighting for the same cause has some effect on the society in which they live. As David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas character Adam Ewing, in response to his father-in-law’s claim that his life “amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean,” so brilliantly responds, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

In Go Set A Watchman, Scout so actively wallows in the pain of her discovery that she teaches Lee’s audience to become numb when the they realize the imperfections of the world, but knowing the active role Atticus takes against racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, this is not something that Lee believes in at all.

Unless she has changed in the way her character Atticus has in the time between To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, I can hardly believe that Harper Lee wanted to publish this “new” novel. There must have been a strong reason she decided not to have it published back when she first wrote it, and I don’t think there’s much evidence to say that she would have changed her mind between then and now. So I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

A woman so well-known for a story that so clearly condemned the prejudice of the South against the population of black citizens who lived there, in my opinion, would not have published a book that so actively avoids telling her audience that they must stand up against the problems of race in the world today. While I believe Go Set A Watchman should not have been published (now or ever), I do not think it is a fault we ought to pin on Harper Lee, a nearly blind 89-year old woman, but rather, we should question the decisions of her publisher and the other forces that worked to get the novel published as their motives may have been less than the best intentioned.