review: the capote tapes
A still from Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes (2021)
When George Plimpton wrote his biography of American novelist Truman Capote, he collected hours of taped interviews with Capote himself, as well as “friends, enemies, acquaintances, and detractors.” The tapes feature a who’s who of literary and celebrity circles, the very company Capote both kept and critiqued. The fascinating life and career of Truman Capote gets the biographical doc treatment in The Capote Tapes, which for those such as myself who are mostly unfamiliar with his work, is an enjoyable scattering of memories. Using Plimpton’s never-before-heard audio footage as the backbone, filmmaker Ebs Burnough spans Capote’s tough beginnings, vulnerable circumstances, and meteoric rise to a world among gossiping socialites and literary influences. At the core is the subject’s influence and works, including his final unfinished novel Answered Prayers, widely considered a precursor to reality TV and pop culture gossip. The Capote Tapes is a well-made chronicle of a public figure that, while overwhelming with material, retains plenty of mystery about its subject.
The Capote Tapes weaves through the bustling New York social scene populated by some of America’s most influential public figures. Front and center is Capote: novelist, screenwriter, playwright, actor. His short stories, novels, and plays have seen screen adaptations including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966). The documentary glosses over the immersive research that went into building his novel In Cold Blood, focusing more on the manuscript that would never fully come. Only three chapters of Capote’s sought-after Answered Prayers were posthumously published…excepts of a novel nowhere to be found, or one that doesn’t exist? One of the brightest spots of The Capote Tapes is focusing on this enigmatic piece. Answered Prayers was seen as Truman biting the hand that fed him, but really he was immersed in high society as a writer. The humor in his writing spoke of being near them not because they led particularly interesting lives, but because he could write something from it. Contempt is said to bleed through when he writes about the unhappy rich and famous.
Answered Prayers becomes an interesting facet of this documentary. Capote’s former friends, who are heard earlier speaking very highly of him, then express disappointment and hatred at him because of how he writes about them. The broken trust and feelings of betrayal build to a point of exile in his life. From unraveling on national television, to drinking and drugs at Studio 54, the spectacle of Truman’s life is a subject often touched upon by Ebs Burnough. Even more so than the writer’s career and literary works. While featuring compelling tapes from former friends, high society members, admirers and observers alike, The Capote Tapes suffers from an overwhelming amount of material. The documentary is pulled in so many different directions, moving its center around and lacking a clear focus. The floating heads of family members and friends each have their own piece to say, but ultimately contribute to multiple threads that don’t fully come together. What the documentary does make clear is how enigmatic and interesting Truman Capote’s life was. Similar to his final novel Answered Prayers, The Capote Tapes has unfinished business. The missing pieces are found not from Ebs Burnough’s lens, but live on in the life Capote led, in the works he left behind.
The Capote Tapes opens on VOD/Digital in Canada on October 26 through levelFILM.
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