Critical Digressions: Thanksgiving, Drama, or Turkey and Capote

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

A_turkey We celebrated Thanksgiving with traditional fervor and gaiety in the American capital. Being an expatriate, we have coveted invitations to native Thanksgiving dinners in years past but recently have been able to manage something on our own; Turkey, drunkenness, familial tension. It really is a wonderful sort of holiday as we all thank our Gods or each other for being where we are, kind of like that song that goes, “It’s not where you’re from/ It’s where you’re at.”

Thanksgiving produces great drama: there’s drama in the way the turkey is pulled out from the oven, arrives on the table, and in the way the knife is held in abeyance over the large bird, typically with the largest hands of a particular clan. And the inevitably drunk patriarch may rise up after the meal, bang his belly against the edge of table, and make slurred pronouncements causing bottles to fall, faces to redden. Some run out to sniffle or smoke. Others, in attempting to steady the old man, take elbows in the jaw. You get the picture.

Through this weekend, we watched several movies including “Capote” – all critically feted, none dramatic. Capote, the New York Review of Books notes, “might have been about anything…a bittersweet coming-of-age story with a triumphantly happy ending…[or of the] genre of celebrity decline” but it is instead the “story of how Capote came to write and publish In Cold Blood.” And strangely, we were underwhelmed (and find ourselves not only in the minority but in the company of the cantankerous octogenarian, Stanley Kauffmann). The problem is that a writer writing about something, anything, is not dramatic – even a flamboyant, voluble writer writing about a couple of grisly murders.

So how does a director, even one as able as Bennett Miller, depict a series of writerly crises on screen? Facial twitches? No. Falling bottles? Perhaps. Facial twitches and falling bottles? More likely. It is, to be fair, a tall order. Bottles do fall and knives are held in abeyance in films that feature writers including “Barfly and “Misery but neither is attempting to transcribe a writer’s inner life. In fact, the only comparable project that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink, another pretty, flat film. Joel may tell you that drama was not his ambition but acknowledging the lack of drama doesn’t make it okay.

Dellilo, for instance, has attempted the lack of drama as an aesthetic project. The following is characteristic the prose in Cosmopolis, a pretty, flat, generally poorly reviewed novel: “He didn’t know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.” Not only is there no drama in the narrative trajectory of the book – man gets haircut – but there’s no drama syntactically; read together, the effect of the sentences is of briskness and there is no drama in sustained briskness.

Capote_boozing On the other hand, there is more drama in Updike’s prose (even though Updike is not known to be a great dramatist): “With an effort of spatial imagination he perceived that a mirror does not reverse our motion, though it does transpose our ears, and gives our mouth a tweak, so that the face even of a loved one looks familiar and ugly when seen in a mirror, the way she – queer thought! – always sees it. He saw that a mirror poised in its midst would not affect the motion of an army…and often half a reflected cloud matched the half of another beyond the building’s edge, moving as one, pierced by a jet trail as though by Cupid’s arrow.” You will, of course, notice that the rich, sonorous cadence of the coupled sentences is broken by the short, comma-less, next sentence: “The disaster sat light on the city’s heart.” This is drama.

So if you’ve had enough drama this weekend, lie on the couch, arms dangling, reading Cosmopolis, watching Capote. On the other hand, if your old man didn’t get up, drop things and yell at everybody, pick up Franzen’s Corrections – a dramatic book that ends with Thanksgiving dinner – and watch the Oscar nominated “Affliction” – a character study in a bleak setting that beats “Capote” hands down. For more pointers, pontification, and of course, dramatic digressions, ladies and gentlemen, remain tuned. Right here.

Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)
Literary Pugilists, Underground Men
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan