Friday, February 03, 2006

Character and Impersonation: Capote

I don't link to Independent Gay Forum often enough, but Steve Miller offers a stinging comment on Philip Seymour Hoffman's acceptance speech at the Golden Globe awards.
I was surprised that Philip Seymour Hoffman, accepting his best-actor award for "Capote," didn't bother to mention much less offer his respects to the brilliant if tortured man whose life he portrayed. Not classy, and in marked distinction to all the kind and deserved tributes the "Walk the Line" folks paid to Johnny and June. It's one reason I wish more gay actors played gay roles (I think they'd get it).

There's at least one charitable explanation for the discrepancy: We know that the actors involved with "Walk the Line" had a chance to meet Johnny and June Carter Cash before they started work on the film. In contrast, Hoffman is too young to have met or known much about Truman Capote. (Let's add, too, that unlike the Cash family, Capote was a case study in alienation, and generally not a nice person.)

Frankly, I don't think Hoffman's performance in Capote ranks with his best work. For one thing, the ursine actor is physically miscast in the role, and director Bennett Miller can't always compensate for the visual mismatch. A more serious problem, perhaps, is the nature of Hoffman's performance, which seems more like an impersonation than a portrait. Hoffman can lisp convincingly, and serves up the author's trademark mannerisms with flair, and this serves the film well enough for its first two acts. (Ironically, the exactness of his impersonation also accentuates his inappropriate physique: It's not easy imagining someone as physically imposing as Hoffman behaving like Truman Capote.) But as the character of Capote disintegrates, Hoffman is less believable in his role: At some point in the third act, he must show us why Capote's breakdown occurs, and for me that basic moment of insight always lies slightly out of Hoffman's reach (and ours). By the end, the real Truman Capote -- such as he was -- seems little more than a prop for Hoffman's method-acting exercises, which he executes with all-too-conspicuous panache.

Hoffman works awfully hard to "do" Capote, he's one of the hardest-working actors in the business, and as he meticulously catalogs Capote's various quirks and tics, one can see the tiny beads of sweat forming on his brow. Perhaps that's why Hoffman is most convincing when he shows Capote at work -- typing manuscripts, doing research, manipulating subjects, giving public readings. It's an aspect of the character Hoffman gets.

Capote, at least in the early phases of his career, was famous for his work ethic, sniffing at the apparent improvisation of Kerouac's On the Road with the snide quip, "That's not writing, that's typing." (Never mind that Kerouac's prose in On the Road took a full decade to perfect; it looked off-the-cuff, and that was something of an affront for Capote.) Hoffman's acting, as mannered and tightly wound as was Capote's prose, seems to rebuke the sort of "invisible" performance one frequently observes in old hands like Paul Newman or the ubiquitous Brian Cox. And to be fair, at their best Capote and Hoffman both display the sort of crystal-clear insight -- as well as an understanding of compulsive behavior -- that comes only with consummate dedication to craft.

But the story of Capote turns on the failure of this work ethic: During the writing of In Cold Blood his story gets the better of him, and Capote's hard work can no longer ensure his emotional disengagement. Eventually he collapses into a haze of booze and parties, always seeking (and spurning) human connection, but never regaining his former ability to concentrate. Music for Chameleons, Capote's only completed work after In Cold Blood, seems to embody the final years of his life as a working author: It has a curiously desultory quality, at once overdone and half-baked. Hoffman travails mightily to convey Capote's fall from grace, but as long as Hoffman's efforts are so clearly visible, we can't quite believe that an implosion has occurred. All of this, I suppose, means that Hoffman has a lock on this year's Oscar for Best Actor, even if the performance doesn't merit one.

Of late, celebrity impersonations have been all the rage at American awards shows: For instance, Jamie Foxx's recent performance as Ray Charles had all the depth of his early work on In Living Color, yet Foxx nabbed every award in sight for his performance. As long as he talked like Ray and moved like Ray, what did it matter that he never seemed to think or feel like Ray? I haven't seen Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, though some years ago I was lucky enough to hear the real Johnny and June Carter Cash in concert. Frankly, I'm reluctant to listen to what sounds suspiciously like an all-star tribute band, and it doesn't help that Johnny Cash's personal style was marked by absolute sincerity and offhand professionalism -- two qualities that are notoriously difficult to fake.

In Oliver Stone's Nixon, Anthony Hopkins proved that an actor can take a well-known historical figure and make a fully developed character out of him. Although Hopkins was the wrong body type for the part, couldn't modulate his voice as Nixon did, and displayed none of Nixon's gruff (and much underrated) charm, he managed to create a cold, lonely version of the president that dovetailed nicely with Stone's paranoid fantasies. In a way, Hopkins's portrait of Nixon succeeds precisely because it fails as an impersonation: Hopkins eschewed mimicry, and built his character in the same way that he approaches his fictional personae. (Similar praise could be offered for Catherine Keener in Capote: As author Harper Lee, Keener is as nuanced and natural as Hoffman is superficial and forced. But since audiences know relatively little about Lee, Keener has no incentive to imitate her outright.)

Perhaps an openly Gay actor could have played Capote with less effort and at least somewhat greater credibility (though I'm admittedly hard pressed to name one off the top of my head -- openly Gay actors are not especially common in the American cinema). Perhaps, too, such an actor would be more vocally appreciative of the real-life author whose tragic life served as the basis for this film. But with an openly Gay actor in the lead, Capote would lose its raison d'etre, which is to show off Philip Seymour Hoffman's gift for impersonation. As Caryn James of the New York Times has noted, Capote is a fairly typical specimen of Oscar bait, designed to display Academy voters how well a particular actor can play an individual obviously unlike himself. In particular, James notes that the exotics this year tend to be Gay, Lesbian or Transgendered -- leading to a somewhat rarefied arthouse cinema in which sexual minorities are often discussed, but seldom granted a voice of their (or rather, our) own.

I don't think that "stunt acting" is always a bad thing, as James seems to, and some of the performances James characterizes as stuntwork, like Heath Ledger's work in Brokeback Mountain or Peter Sarsgaard's work in The Dying Gaul, were among last year's best performances. But these performances existed in service to their respective stories, and as such they enabled audiences to understand the inner lives of characters radically different from themselves. Impersonations, in contrast, counteract this narrative drive: No matter how well an impersonation is managed, it must of necessity fail to convince. The audience always remains aware of the performer's efforts, creating an almost Brechtian distance between event and viewer that precludes any genuine empathy for character. Still, as Jean-Luc Godard has repeatedly shown, Brechtian theories "epic theater" can work in the cinema, as long as one is aiming for it -- though few filmmakers other than Godard have ever done it well. That said, if one's intent is epic, then impersonation hardly seems worth the bother. The real intent of recent tours de force of mimicry, as far as I can tell, is to divert audiences away from the story proper and call our attention to the actor's skills. On the whole, it seems a tad crass.

As I've said, Hoffman has turned in better performances before -- in 25th Hour, State and Main, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, for starters. If he does win the Best Actor award for Capote, it would be yet another case of honoring a worthy actor for the wrong film, in the wrong year.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Tony Kushner and the Morality of Munich (spoilers)

Until the day before yesterday, the Steven Spielberg film Munich seemed so ... last year. Ostensibly about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics, it pretended to raise serious questions about the War on Terror, specifically how a nation should respond to an emerging terrorist threat. The film came out, it made a mild stink, conservatives complained, the film went wide, audiences didn't show, and the whole matter was ready to disappear without a trace. Then came the Oscars, which reestablished Munich as a Best Picture contender, and will probably reignite all the controversy as well.

Shortly before the film opened, Jack Engelhard -- the author of Indecent Proposal, whose family fled Europe as the Nazis invaded France -- has wondered "if Steven Spielberg has switched sides, from kosher ... to treyf." A better explanation was that Spielberg went from kosher to Kushner.

That's Tony Kushner, to be precise. Although he is credited as a mere co-screenwriter of Munich, his fingerprints are frequently visible in the finished product, to the point where he eclipses Spielberg as the true auteur of this film. The Gay Jewish author of the Angels in America cycle -- and, more importantly, of the four-hour Islamist apologia Homebody/Kabul -- had his first success in the mid-1980s with A Bright Room Called Day, a stage drama best known for a side character who shouts "Reagan is Hitler!" at the top of her lungs. Kushner hasn't mellowed over the years, either: Less than two weeks ago, he tag-teamed with E.L. Doctorow for a discussion about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in which Kushner claimed that Ethel Rosenberg was "murdered, basically," and that the Rosenbergs were merely victims of creeping American puritanism. In this same forum, he called the debate over Munich "completely politically overdetermined."

Well, perhaps. But Kushner's politics are as overdetermined as they come. As his stance on the Rosenbergs would indicate, he refuses to deviate from hardcore, old-left orthodoxy, even when (or especially when) all available evidence proves it wrong. Kushner abhors Republicans, capitalism and the War on Terror with all the fervor he can muster, and he's no fan of Israel either. His afterword to Homebody/Kabul, written in 2002, positively drips with anti-Israeli invective: In the following passage he compares two of the people he hates most in the world -- George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon:
People change, I believe deeply in the possibility of people changing, but Bush? Sharon? Eight months have passed and look at the godforsaken mess the feckless blood-spattered plutocrat and the unindicted war criminal have wrought in the Mideast. Change requires as its catalysts and fuel both good faith and decent intention, as well as deep need. Need, not greed; decent intention, not oil profiteering; good faith, not ethnic cleansing and military occupation cloaked in fundamentalist misreading of Scripture. As Margo Channing reminds us, "Everybody has a heart. Except some people."

When Kushner wrote that "some of the world's worst people benefited from 9/11," he wasn't talking about Osama bin Laden, but Rudy Giuliani. That alone should alert viewers to an agenda in Munich. Granted, the film does rein in some of the playwright's more endearing excesses -- there's only one scene in which the characters discuss Marxist theory in German. (Veteran screenwriter Eric Roth, who shares a writing credit with Kushner, must be credited for giving the script at least a semblance of dramatic form.) But the film's political viewpoint belongs to Kushner.

Among conservatives, the general consensus is that Munich plays a dodgy game of moral equivalence, portraying Israeli counterterrorist forces and Palestinian terrorists as equally reprehensible. To some extent, the film encourages this interpretation. Kushner even has Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) respond to news of a Palestinian terrorist attack with a quip: "We are now engaged in a dialogue." On one level, then, terrorism becomes an exchange of tit for tat: Israelis bomb a known terrorist (or a suspected one), and Palestinians respond by blowing up a train platform full of children, or letter-bombing an embassy.

This interpretation gives Kushner too much credit. Like most dyed-in-the-wool Marxists, Kushner is at heart a moralist. In all of Kushner's work, with the possible exception of Homebody/Kabul, the world and the individual soul are positioned precariously between Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, communism and capitalism, virtue and vice. Although Kushner creates some phony ambiguity by depicting Heaven as a ruined kingdom and Hell as a never-ending cocktail hour where his "bitch goddess" Roy Cohn holds court, he leaves no doubt that "good" people -- people he approves, like Communist apparatchiks -- go to Heaven while "bad" people -- like capitalists and anticommunist lawyers, whom he detests -- go to Hell. This observation leads inevitably to Kushner's central failing as a dramatist: For the most part, he's too busy sorting out good and evil to let his characters develop or change.

Equivalence is too hands-off for Kushner: Like a Bible-thumping evangelist, he gains his simulacrum of moral seriousness through an incessant drumbeat of condemnation. But oddly enough, in a film about terrorism, terrorists themselves are never the targets of Kushner's wrath. Palestinians in Munich are all innocent bystanders, or harmless intellectuals, or decent people forced into desperate measures by Israel's inhuman occupation of their land. Even the members of Black September, the Palestinian group that kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, are seen as regular joes, killing out of panic rather than malice. (We can contrast this view with Kevin MacDonald's 1999 documentary One Day in September, in which the sole surviving member of Black September asserts that he was proud to have killed Israelis because it helped the Palestinian cause.)

Kushner's Israelis, in contrast, are constantly wracked by guilt and doubt, because they are carrying out a mission of simple revenge (as Kushner sees it) -- and mere vengeance, in his moral universe, is never defensible. The film's lead character Avner (played by Eric Bana, once the Hulk) grapples with a sense of personal inadequacy, but also with a growing sense that his "counterterrorism" mission is a ruse: In a dilemma that is meant (I suspect) to remind American audiences of Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction, Avner begins to suspect that his targets have no real terrorist connections at all, and that he's simply eliminating moderate Palestinian leaders.

The most interesting expression of Kushner's position on counterterrorism comes from a supporting character: Robert (played by actor-director Matthieu Kassovitz) is a toymaker by trade, recruited by Israeli intelligence to build explosive devices -- which, of course, never work quite as they should. Even by Kushner's standards, the symbolism around this particular character is ham-handed: A high-school freshman could figure out that Robert's character signifies the Israeli corruption of childlike innocence ("Toys, not bombs"), while the bombs' failure to operate reflects the disturbed conscience of their designer. According to Robert, his attacks on terrorist targets violate his Jewish identity: It is impossible to maintain a sense of "righteousness," he claims, when one is engaged in shadowy attacks on an unknown enemy.

As to Kushner's view of terrorism itself, his afterword to Homebody/Kabul shows that he doesn't condemn the ends, although he may disapprove of the means. Even more important, however, is where he places the blame for terrorist activity:
Technology offers oppressor and oppressed alike efficient and cost-effective means of mass murder, and even acts of expressive dissent, defiance and liberation are changed by the appalling progress of weapons development and the global arms market into suicide bombings, into brutal expressions of indiscriminate nihilistic mayhem.

Kushner is saying that the West (by which he means America and Israel, apparently) is morally responsible for terrorism as well as for our reprisals against it -- because we make and sell the weapons that terrorists use. As political pronouncements go, this is something I'd from a Starbucks barista, not a celebrated dramatist -- unless, of course, the dramatist happens to be Kushner. But the Palestinian radicals of Munich keep carrying out their "acts of expressive dissent, defiance and liberation" in their desperate, misguided, destructive, and -- dare we say -- evil manner.

Kushner's point, it seems, is that one can disapprove of terrorists' methods while still believing that terrorists themselves are right and the people who fight them are wrong. Of course, his position depends on a basic misunderstanding of the Palestinian terrorists' goals. He seems to believe they wish nothing more than statehood and autonomy for themselves, when what they really want (and have stated they want) is something closer to a second Holocaust, a great war in which all Jews are driven into the sea or wiped off the face of the earth. Since Kushner's world view has so far proven impervious to fact, I doubt Hamas's victory in the recent Palestinian election will make much of an impression, or change his mind. Still, those election results effectively invalidate his message with Munich.

It would be misleading, perhaps, to claim that Kushner holds Israelis and Palestinians to different moral standards. Kushner does hold Israelis to a moral standard, one so impossibly strict that it does not even permit self-defense. But he holds Palestinians to no visible moral standard at all. The following passage, again from 2002, practically oozes racist condescension:
I am an American and a Jew, and as such I believe I have a direct responsibility for the behavior of Americans and Jews. I deplore suicide bombings and the enemies of the peace process in the Palestinian territories and in the Arab and Muslim world. I deplore equally the brutal and illegal tactics of the IDF in the occupied territories, I deplore the occupation, the forced evacuations, the settlements, the refugee camps, the whole shameful history of the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people; Jews, of all people, with our history of suffering, should refuse to treat our fellow human beings like that. I deplore the enemies of peace in Israel and in America as well, and to them, inasmuch as they are far more mighty, and already have what the Palestinians seek, statehood, I apportion a greater share of the responsibility for making peace to them.

What share of that responsibility Palestinians might bear, Kushner never bothers to discuss: It's almost as though for Kushner, the Palestinians don't really exist -- or at least, they don't exist as fully cognizant, morally responsible human beings, with souls and consciences of their own to keep. But for those who accuse Kushner of being just another self-hating Jew, that last "money quote" is a much-needed corrective: Kushner is a self-hating American as well. And inasmuch as he defends people who would gladly put him to death for his sexuality, Kushner would even qualify as a self-hating Gay man.

Kushner's conflation of Israel and America shows the way in which Munich is meant to hit home, at least for Western audiences. If terrorists murder Israeli or American children, the act may be considered "deplorable," but it also constitutes an "expression" of legitimate grievance. After all, both Israel and America are imperial powers, and both conduct military strikes against refugee camps and civilian enclaves (the places, it should be noted, where terrorists hide in the hope of maximizing casualties). Kushner contends that Israel should be ashamed for bringing Palestinians to the point where they have to commit violent acts to be heard; the same goes for America, which keeps electing "blood-spattered plutocrats" like George W. Bush to the frustration of the rest of the world. Yet when Israelis or Americans try to defend themselves against Palestinian terrorism, the defense is worse than the initial act, because it lacks even the expressive purpose.

Small wonder, then, that the protagonist of Munich eventually abandons his home in Israel to live in a rather shabby Brooklyn apartment. Kushner leaves his Avner with no way to justify continued existence in Israel: As the "good Jew," Avner must leave. (Still, the film's final shot of the World Trade Center indicates that his move is strictly lateral: America has a day of reckoning in store, too.) In Brooklyn, Avner's near-psychotic fixation on the Munich Olympics leads to a climactic scene reminiscent of a bad Monty Python sketch. As he has sex with his wife, director Spielberg cuts to flashbacks of the Black September terrorists in Munich. Thanks to the magic of intercutting, Avner achieves orgasm at the precise moment when the Israeli athletes are slaughtered. (Did I mention that Tony Kushner is not known for subtlety?)

Ultimately, Kushner holds Americans and Jews responsible for everything wrong with the world -- a view many Islamist terrorists happen to share -- and he believes that the War on Terror is yet another manifestation of what we've done wrong as the oppressors of the world. His proposed solution, it would seem, involves an overdose of paralyzing liberal guilt: After all, if we're so morally pure (or conflicted) that we can't defend ourselves against even the most heinous terrorist acts, at least we won't hurt anybody but ourselves in the end. And if that means we have to roll over and play dead while terrorists destroy our way of life, well, maybe our way of life had it coming.

Munich isn't a serious exploration of terrorism. It's a blueprint for national suicide.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Buyer's Remorse

The other day, I spotted a car with two bumper stickers placed side-by-side:



I suspect other Virginians who voted for Kaine are beginning to feel the same way.

SOTU: Kaine gives the Democratic response -- and forgets an inconvenient fact

Virginia governor Tim Kaine's entry onto the national stage wasn't as bad as it could have been, though he might have made a better impression if he could have had that perpetually arched left eyebrow lowered -- by surgical means, if necessary.

Still, whatever quibbles one may have about his delivery, his content was much worse. Despite calls for fiscal responsibility, Kaine's domestic agenda was the usual smorgasbord of big-government initiatives. In less than ten minutes, he managed to advocate socialized health care, funding increases for a bloated and failing public school system, and more "public investments" (i.e., subsidies and grants) to support alternative energy. Kaine also wants to penalize oil companies who (he claims) have made too much money, and allow Americans to purchase prescription drugs from countries with socialized health care systems of their own.

With this agenda, one might wonder how Kaine could promise greater "fiscal responsibility" from government. True, he touted Virginia's rating as the "best managed" state in the Union -- from the Government Performance Project, a collective of academics and journalists. That might have convinced a few television viewers that if anyone could bridge the divide between big government and good government, Kaine could. But his account of how Virginia managed such a feat was misleading at best. Kaine said:
Two years ago in Virginia, Democrats and Republicans worked together to reform our budget. By focusing on results, we were able to keep the budget balanced, preserve our strong credit rating and protect the essential services that families rely on: education, health care, law enforcement.

Sounds pretty, doesn't it? But the sad truth is that the General Assembly didn't "reform the budget" or "focus on results." Instead, they passed a large tax increase, which so impressed liberals at the Government Performance Project that our state shot to the top of their chart. (These same people view tax cuts with consistent disdain.)

Two years ago, higher taxes seemed like a necessary evil: With tight budgets in Richmond, then-governor Mark Warner -- also a Democrat -- convinced a GOP-controlled General Assembly that a tax increase was the only way for government to provide basic services. Kaine, as Lieutenant Governor, supported the measure wholeheartedly. But an economic upturn in 2004, accompanied by growth in real estate markets, resolved Virginia's budgetary crunch before the Warner/Kaine tax increases could even take effect. The result was two years of large budget surpluses. Predictably, Kaine has said nothing about returning the extra dollars to Virginia voters. In fact, he plans to raise taxes yet again, this time to fund a massive transportation program.

The whole setup should have reminded Virginia taxpayers of Mel Brooks's The Producers (now a Broadway show and a movie musical). In that film, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder bilk the backers of a Broadway musical by raising more money than the show costs to stage. They plan to keep the additional funds for themselves and abscond, but instead end up in jail for fraud. As recent developments have made clear, Mostel and Wilder should have gone into Virginia politics. When Mark Warner and Tim Kaine overcharged Virginia residents for their government, then allowed the commonwealth to pocket the difference, Warner earned the praise of American liberals for "sound fiscal management," and Kaine was elected Governor. Who could ask for anything more?

Perhaps that arched left eyebrow was Kaine's version of "irony quotes" -- a way of informing knowledgeable viewers that even he knows his ideology doesn't work, but it's what Democrats have to say and do in order to win elections. Or perhaps Kaine is slightly surprised and chagrined that he hasn't been found out yet. For my part, I fear these interpretations are far too charitable. It would seem that, unruly brow aside, Kaine honestly believes that higher taxes and bigger government will solve almost any problem. His response to Bush's State of the Union was more proof -- if more were needed -- that as bad as Republicans may be, Democrats are worse.

One other thing: Regular readers of this blog know about Kaine's Clintonesque treatment of Gay and Lesbian supporters. Last night, when Kaine mentioned "fulfilling the principle of equality set out in our Declaration of Independence," I half-expected lightning to strike the Governor's Mansion.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

SOTU: Orwell weeps

From President Bush's State of the Union address:
Every year of my presidency, we've reduced the growth of nonsecurity discretionary spending.

A crafty statement, that. Reducing growth is not the same as cutting spending, and the phrase "nonsecurity discretionary spending" is so nebulous that it can be twisted into any definition the President chooses. For a supposedly inarticulate man, Bush seldom has trouble bending the English language to his will. Still, no matter how closely this statement is parsed, it simply doesn't add up.

In July of 2003, the Cato Institute reported that:
According to the new numbers, defense spending will have risen by about 34 percent since Bush came into office. But, at the same time, non-defense discretionary spending will have skyrocketed by almost 28 percent. Government agencies that Republicans were calling to be abolished less than 10 years ago, such as education and labor, have enjoyed jaw-dropping spending increases under Bush of 70 percent and 65 percent respectively.

That was nearly three years ago. In May of 2005, Stephen Sivlinski, also of the Cato Institute, noted:
Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years. His 2006 budget doesn’t cut enough spending to change his place in history, either. [...] Under Bush, Congress passed budgets that spent a total of $91 billion more than the president requested for domestic programs. Bush signed every one of those bills during his first term. Even if Congress passes Bush’s new budget exactly as proposed, not a single cabinet-level agency will be smaller than when Bush assumed office.

George Orwell once said, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows." Bush is not claiming that two and two make five, but that they make three. Are mainline American conservatives still free to say that he is wrong?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cindy Sheehan's Bad Neighbor Policy

Yesterday, self-described "peace activist" Cindy Sheehan got a friendly hug from Venezuelan "president" Hugo Chavez, one of the biggest supporters of global terrorism in the Western Hemisphere. (The endorsement should boost sales of her new book -- in Venezuela, at least.) The photo op occurred during Chavez's weekly "Alo Presidente" call-in show, where Sheehan praised Chavez for his commitment to "life and peace," and asked him to join her in another campout-protest near Bush's ranch in Texas.

Perhaps Chavez could bring the smores.

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