Saturday, November 12, 2005

Writer and subject: symbiotic or parasitic relationship

After seeing Capote today, I confess to some sense of guilt.

You see, the nature of ethics in writing is somewhat fluid within the confines of generally accepted behavior.

Every good interviewer becomes an interviewee's confidante, if only for a day. Comes with the territory. We're built to question, cajole, share confidences, build rapport and establish trust to create the most truthful snapshot of a moment and the human beings in the center.

Done correctly, it's the best of symbiotic relationships: a person gets to tell their story and the writer provides a compelling product.

But it's not "best friends forever." The relationship usually ends with the story. Usually. When it doesn't, as with Capote's work on "In Cold Blood" serving two masters is problematic.

The back story on In Cold Blood goes like this:

When the Clutter family was brutally murdered in their Kansas farmhouse in 1959, Capote decided to write on the horrific impact these killings had on the small community. By the end of the story six years later, Capote had befriended Perry Smith, one of the Clutter family killers, and invented a wholly new writing genre, a fusing of non-fiction and novel -- the grandfather of true crime.

On the way, according to the film Capote, he compromises his integrity, turns personal ethos into pretzel form and nearly loses his soul from torn allegiences to his novel and his bizarre, seemingly real emotional attachment to Smith. For one to thrive the other must fail. He preys on his subject in the same vicious, ruthless manner that Smith employed in murder, becoming voyeur, parasite and a guiding hand in another man's fate.

While Capote was capricious, vain, narcissistic and callous, the road he traveled while in Kansas is a dangerous potential path for any writer.

How does a writer get close enough to their subject to know it without romanticizing or emotionally investing? Then too, at what cost?

I found myself in the awkward position of both recoiling from Capote (wonderfully performed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and understanding his motivation, even recognizing the absolute necessity of such a tightrope walk.

Without a close, personal view of Smith and his partner in crime, Richard Hickok, Capote had no way of providing such a glimpse into the psyche of a murderer. He also had no way of writing what proved to be the most compelling novel of its era, and though he never said so, he knew it.

Thankfully, simple reporting is far less complicated than six years spent compiling research for a book. But the pitfalls exist.

Leaving the theater, my friend and I were discussing this problem, and I mentioned an interview for a recent story centering around a woman with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, named Donna. Donna's friend had initiated the story, calling me at the paper to talk. My friend's co-workers had known me, through her, and knew Donna. So she was aware of the story.

Donna's friend Carol who provided the bulk of background for the story had taken to calling me at home after our meeting, wanting to see article copy before it went to print and to be assured I "got it right."

Mostly, though, she continued to talk about her friend and the ravages of ALS.

During our meeting she'd experienced a catharsis of sorts, discussing openly her fears and hopes. We'd both left the interview teary-eyed, and for the next week or so I was completely enmeshed in details of her friend's life - the illness, her family members, who she was before she contracted the disease. Impossible not to get involved.

She still called, even after it hit the paper. First, just to say she appreciated the article's quality -- later to offer updated information. Eventually we did lose track of each other.

Today my friend told me that Donna, the woman with ALS -- this woman I'd never met, who I felt I knew in some strange, yet intimate, detail, whose life had at one point been my only focus -- had died. And I didn't even know. I didn't even really know her. But I did.

For some reason what flooded my brain at that moment was the vision of Hoffman's Capote as he watches Smith hang: constricted, confused, relieved and distraught all at once.
"How does a writer get close enough to their subject to know it without romanticizing or emotionally investing? Then too, at what cost?"

I could discuss the pros, the cons, the extents, the ratios and whatnot, then draw a synthesis and a conclusion... but no, thanks... I'll be blunt. He doesn't.

You talk about the artist as if there was supposed to be a material distance between him and his subject... There is no such thing... His subject is not someone he observes or directs, it's a connection to life itself. As he writes about or after a real life person, he connects to original fluidity, he accepts to run the risk of the other without the usual mediations (social roles, conventions). He is confronted to a challenge and a danger.

The challenge is to get out of himself. The danger, once he's done that, is to discover that the other - any other - is himself. Don't look too closely at the scum if you want to keep your hatred. Don't look too closely at the saint if you want to keep your religion. And if you are to write about somebody, I don't see how you can do it without meeting him in this no man's land where he's no longer quite himself anymore, and you're no longer quite yourself anymore either. I don't see how you can avoid that trick, or that process, I first saw on the record label of "Some Time in New York City", where you could see a picture of John going to a picture of Yoko through different phases, showing the ontological continuity of being.

I don't see how you can avoid love.

People are often shocked by the "hate" in Fahrenheit 9/11. Me I'm shocked by the love. Here's a portrait of a monster - and because it's true, because it's humane, the monster turns to a simple, all too human failure you don't feel like murdering but just firing, whereas he deserves a thousand deaths.

Can, on the opposite, a terrible subject affect the artist who deals with it ? I don't know. I'd never have the nerve to choose Bush or another mass murderer as my subject - because nerve is what it takes. I would tend to think that he can't, because the artist is the master in the artistic world and he can impose the artistic mode and the artistic relationship. Another safety net is that an artist always has a medium to transform and filter his subject, AFTER taking the direct connection, so the distance can be re-installed after all.

In the end, I would tend to think of writer/subject as a happy and successful relationship - making the subject better and the writer wiser.

On a side note - In this short reflection, I have made no difference between writers and other types of artists. Of course this is a hypothesis in its own right.
Thanks for letting me know via this response existed. You'd said it would, eventually, but I knew you were also quie busy.

Despite how beautifully you explained it, there's real need for a journalist to detach from subject material, for many reasons. The obvious - inherent bias in an article, being swayed (or shall we just call it "Judy Miller'ed" from now on) to write what the interviewee wants at the expense of truth and facts -- and the less obvious: the cost to your soul for unethical, immoral acts.

You're right that a writer must get close enough to understand the person, even so obvious a villain as Bush in F 9/11. Yet they need enough perspective not to be swayed, taken-in or otherwise compromised. The last appears to be what happened to Capote while working on In Cold Blood.

Which, btw, I'm reading. As an elective rather than assigned material, and with the benefit of time, it's a fascinating piece. What's often missed is his gift for word economy with maximum impact. Like your writing, in fact. Each word crafted and polished to perfection, not messily spilling out across a page like mine. :)

But, I digress. Back to the central issue. Moore may have come to understand Bush, even empathize to a degree with Bush's motivations and failures, but he never lost his own sense of ethical clarity: the movie consistently reinforces an overall theme that Bush's actions, if not the man himself, are inherently venal. I know we've wrestled in the past over some of Moore's footage-gathering tactics, set-up as strawmen by his critics and used to point to dishonesty and a lack of integrity. And I've argued that he committed no major wrongs in material gathering, including the "article headline" tempest in a teapot. (Remember that?!?)

It seems the difference between Moore's actions not being comparable to Capote's while pursuing a subject has, for me, one basic premise: whether the end product will serve good or nefarious purpose. With Moore, I've never doubted his goal was a greater good. With Capote, in particular the portrayal of Capote in the film, his goal was simply notoriety and money. His struggle came from serving himself or saving a life, and I suspect in his heart he was rooting for the demise of Hickok and Smith in order to sell more books. That would be the equivalent of Moore rooting for GM to leave Flint, or Bush to indiscriminately attack more countries in order for his own work to succeed.

I find no such comparison exists with Moore in any of his projects.
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