'The Capote Tapes' Doesn't Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story Directed by Ebs Burnough

'The Capote Tapes' Doesn't Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story Directed by Ebs Burnough
It's difficult to attempt to make a documentary about Truman Capote, a writer who let so much of himself slip through in his work, and who spent so much of his life in the limelight. Surely, in face of all this public knowledge, so many movies and literature, everyone knows his tale? The Capote Tapes is a documentary that recognizes this redundancy. 

Director Ebs Burnough charts the prolific author's humanness, letting the story of his life pool as he follows a particular slice of Capote's life. Using stories told by those who knew and continue to know Capote best, this documentary lets Capote reveal himself as storyteller extraordinaire, in all his perfect fallibility and sore contradictions. The Capote Tapes is a documentary that its subject would likely approve of, as Burnough has a deep understanding of where to find a good story and how to tell it compellingly, just like Capote.

Burnough talks to people who knew Capote, including close friends and journalists, using, where possible, newly discovered tapes containing journalist George Plimpton's interviews with the women of New York's high society who loved and then loathed Capote. The film tells of the time surrounding Capote's writing of In Cold Blood and the mysterious Unanswered Prayers. Out of the stories told by faces and voices (Lauren Bacall's smoky baritone rumbles about her friendship with Capote; Dick Cavett talks of watching Capote deteriorate on his talk show due to his drug dependency), a portrait of Capote emerges: a deeply talented writer who came from meagre beginnings to be a mainstay in New York's high society. He loved gossip, worked at times against much antipathy from the status quo to be his authentic self publicly, and at all times was a person who wanted more than anything to be loved. Unanswered Prayers was a promised book Capote never stopped teasing during his life, even as he published a few chapters in Esquire; these excerpts, comprised heavily of stories of New York's elite — oftentimes stories of embarrassing sex and scandal, thinly veiled by pseudonyms — caused Capote to lose many of the friendships he cherished. Burnough uses his various interviewees to consider why the book was never published, whether Capote even wrote it, and whether its manuscript is floating around somewhere.

It's a rather simple account this film aims to tell, but because it relies entirely on the spoken word of others, buttressed by archival footage and images, it is so rewarding to watch. Burnough doesn't interject, not once throughout the entire film. Interviewees are let to speak their mind, and oftentimes one opinion differs from the next as each remembers their own version of events, what Capote either did or didn't tell them.

But this is not to say that this is a purely objective piece of work, indeed it can't be, on account of it being a story composed of many stories. Furthermore, every choice a filmmaker makes comes from a perspective; every account of events is always going to be a subjective interpretation. This is something Burnough seems to recognize, evident in The Capote Tapes' various contradictions and inflamed personalities, including Capote's own, which make evident Burnough's love, understanding and unbridled care for Capote. Rather, why this documentary works is that it is unabashedly a gossipy story about a man who loved gossip; this is a story as if told by Capote himself. 

The film does have biographical facts about Capote peppered throughout to give us a timeline, provided by friends or Capote himself. What The Capote Tapes says about its makers is that they did their homework, they understood Capote, and chose to pay homage by being deliciously gossipy. Even as Burnough lets his interviewees tell the story about how Capote manipulated many of the stories he told (for example, when writing In Cold Blood, Capote got much too much involved in the lives of the criminals he was writing about), this documentary honours Capote's form and continues to stay out of its own way by letting the moral ambiguity of what Capote did hang in the atmosphere, with a wink and a nudge. After all, the film seems to say, Capote was human. 

This acknowledgement of humanness and fallibility is exactly why Burnough's doc is such an entertaining Capote documentary. The result of being unabashedly and unpretentiously about its subject is that the viewer feels so incredibly close to Capote. Burnough paints a vulnerable and vivid image of a human yearning for love, and, by extension, reveals the bleak truth that it's impossible to experience satisfaction in love when all you know is yearning. We see that Capote, though a mighty and unignorable force to behold, held deep wells of sadness and hurt and loneliness. He wasn't the all-knowing creator we expect writers to be. It's this humanness that this movie brilliantly depicts. 

Capote once said that one mustn't let the truth get in the way of a good story, and The Capote Tapes heeds this advice brilliantly. Burnough, compellingly and without judgement, tells the story of a man as complex and varying as Truman Capote, one arisen from so much smoke and cunning, with so many façades falling off him like masquerade masks. We see all these versions of Capote, and in between their carousel whirl, we catch glimpses of Capote's beating heart in all its grimy, glittering, heartbreaking, hilarious vastness. (Altitude)