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Thank (or blame) The New Yorker for two movies about writers

In an odd and surely coincidental bit of timing, two new indie films feature writers as protagonists and mass murder as backdrops. Although Bennett Miller's Capote is a much better film than Liev Schreiber's Everything is Illuminated, the differences largely end there.

The writers at the center of the two films are Truman Capote during the period of his work on In Cold Blood, and a character named Jonathan Safran Foer, which also happens to be the name of the young contemporary writer who wrote Everything is Illuminated, last year's It-Novel. The existence of these two movies is due to the literary influence of The New Yorker, but the relative merits of the projects may suggest the decline of the magazine's tastes.

In 1959, Truman Capote persuaded William Shawn, the magazine's greatest editor, to send him and his lifelong pal, Nelle Harper Lee, to report on the random slaughter of a Kansas farm family called the Clutters. Capote, who was then the very embodiment of literary dandydom, had recently published Breakfast at Tiffany's, but he recognized that the horrific massacre of the Clutter family could provide a launching pad for his ideas on creating a "nonfiction novel." The ensuing story told in Capote, that of an author finding his own likeness in a killer and subsequently producing his masterpiece, is well-known in the annals of American letters, and Bennett Miller's film narrates the events in an elegant, researched fashion that is most notable for a tour de force lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

While The New Yorker has every reason to be proud of its sponsorship of Capote's In Cold Blood, the existence of Everything is Illuminated is the inevitable flip side of young authors being touted in their pages. In recent years, The New Yorker has devoted itself to selling its own brand, with self-flattering literary festivals and a fully-stocked online gift store. A few years back, as part of the magazine's ongoing quest for young readers and a hip cachet, Jonathan Safran Foer was featured alongside others in a special issue devoted to young, unpublished authors.

Foer, who as of this writing is still under 30, was photographed in front of a fashionable downtown nightspot while cradling a yippy-looking terrier. As a piece of mythmaking, Foer's fey portrait wasn't quite on a par with the insouciant photo of an earlier New Yorker-anointed prodigy, Truman Capote. That 1948 Harold Halma photo, seen briefly in Capote, featured a reclining, seemingly barely pubescent Capote pouting at the camera. Anticipating Calvin Klein ads a half-century later, the picture is a louche classic that wears well on the subsequent strength of its subject's books. Capote may have been the first and greatest literary celebrity in the age of television, but he could also write like an angel--for a time, anyway.

In fairness, Foer's story was the gaudiest in that young authors issue, telling the story of an American nerd who travels to Ukraine in order to look for evidence of his Jewish ancestors' once-thriving community that vanished in the flames of the Holocaust. Foer's narrative featured two key tricks. The first is an inept Ukrainian hipster named Alex whose book-learned English leads him to use technically accurate but incorrect words, like calling his dog a "seeing-eye bitch." It's a funny enough joke, charming on the page for the length of a sketch, but as a novel-length voice it becomes cloying and implausible: Such a character would surely pick up correct American patois from movies and television, rather than speaking badly from overzealous dictionary study.

The second little gimmick in Foer's tale is his decision to imitate such established satirists as Philip Roth and Martin Amis by naming his American protagonist "Jonathan Safran Foer." Very quickly, my reaction to the New Yorker excerpt moved rapidly from amusement to irritation, and by the end I had no desire to revisit the story in its promised novel-length treatment. Upon the evidence of the movie, I don't regret skipping the novel.

Elijah Wood stars as Jonathan Safran Foer wearing owlish glasses and his hair in a slicked-down part, and his timid, deadpan demeanor evokes cartoons by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. It also puts a very tiny, insignificant character where a star should be, a void that is filled instead by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian immigrant who is best known as the leader of one of the world's best live bands, a gypsy punk outfit called Gogol Bordello. Though he's unfortunately shorn of his handlebar mustache, Hutz nonetheless carries the film as Alex, the tour guide with a blind grandfather-cabbie and that "seeing-eye bitch," cutely named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. While Wood seems to be acting in his own private theater of the absurd, Hutz plays his role--mangled English and all--with an earnestness that gives the movie some badly needed ballast.

Alex and Jonathan, with blind grandfather and dog in tow, venture into the hinterlands to locate what remains of the Foers' ancestral village. There's no denying the silent power of Eastern Europe's redacted landscape, with the absence of a once-thriving Jewish population being evidence of a terrible crime. Still, there's something incurious and hostile in Foer's--and the film's--stereotyping of Ukrainian people. We could have been given a modern, post-Cold War country that is capable of peaceful revolutions and produces artists like Eugene Hutz, who happens to be Jewish. Instead, we're treated to haggard, unkind and dull-witted peasants--just the kind of thugs we would expect to happily dispatch their Jewish neighbors. No doubt such people exist in Ukraine, just as they do everywhere else, but the Jewish nightmare needs more than nightmarish visions to be turned into a complex work of art.

If Everything is Illuminated sags under the weight of the nondescript novelist at the story's center, Capote is nothing if not entertaining, with one of our best actors enacting one of our most colorful writers. The ever-quotable Theodor Adorno once wrote, "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime." This may help explain the phenomenon of writers cozying up to killers, as Capote did (and as Mailer and Vidal have also done), and Adorno puts his finger on why artists create, and why they have such curiosity about the failed lives that wither away on death row, or skid row. Despite its broad, all-encompassing title, the true subject of Capote is the sinister, mutually exploitative bond between creators and destroyers.

Bennett Miller's film, which was co-written with Dan Futterman, is a mostly successful effort to understand the underpinnings of Capote's relationship with a killer, one that has been the subject of unkind and prurient speculation for decades. As the haunted and artistic Perry Smith, Clifton Collins is fine, but he's no match for Robert Blake, who played the role in In Cold Blood. Perhaps as a result, the on-screen chemistry between the killer and his confessor doesn't seem quite as vital as, for example, that of Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's mimicry has received Oscar-mentioning praise, and indeed, he's brilliant in his embodiment of the lisping faun who charmed readers, publishers, movie stars and princesses alike with his élan and impeccably embroidered bons mots. One scarcely notices that Hoffman, a pudgy actor of average height, looks nothing at all like the elfin Capote, who stood some six inches shorter. In the end, it's Capote's own words--in the mouth of Hoffman--that tell the story. "I feel like we grew up in the same house," Capote says of Smith. "But I left through the front door and he left through the back."

In the capable hands of Miller and Hoffman, Capote is the story of a writer who destroyed himself in his pursuit of a masterpiece. It's a reductive thesis, but the fact remains that Capote wrote little of consequence during the dissipated final two decades of his life. His finished books remain his legacy, and Bennett Miller's film should revive interest in his life and career while being a cautionary fable about remorseful killers and remorseless writers.


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