Reflections on “Capote”, after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing

The day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was browsing devices in a Verizon Wireless store. I picked up a random tablet and the first thing that popped into my view was the headline on a news app. Hoffman’s face stared out at me from the glowing screen of the device. “PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN HAS PASSED,” it read. Something snapped inside me. I nearly dropped the tablet.

He was found in his hotel room, surrounded by little bags of heroin with the images of playing cards printed on the outside of them. I never even knew that he had been struggling with drug addiction, and it destroys me inside that someone so accomplished, by all outward appearances, could be tortured in this way. It is horrible to see such a talented performer pass at the hands of the hovering specter that is drug addiction.

It is always a shock when one of your idols dies. But when they die alone in their hotel room, a needle in their arm, surrounded by little envelopes labeled  with images of the Ace of Spades, it becomes so much worse. And I could barely make myself read more deeply into what happened.

I know he relapsed. And I know that he overdosed. And that is all I want to know.

The man was well-respected by nearly everyone I spoke to, and to serious movie fans he was a household name. He took on the difficult roles;  the understated, supporting roles that others wouldn’t.  Seeing him in The Big Lebowski, of course, made me smile, because that has always been among my favorite films. And his appearance in the new Hunger Games movie was a good break for him into the mainstream (I have no idea how they could hope to replace him.) But his real genius lay in lesser-known, more challenging films, such as Doubt and The Master. Here, I am going to focus in one in particular… the classic for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005, Capote.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie, "Capote", for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie “Capote”, for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Capote was the story of the accomplished novelist Truman Capote, who decides to write a true-to-life biography/true crime novel about a pair of grisly murders in rural Kansas. In the process of writing it, Capote struggled with the line between author and subject, and the difficult ethical questions presented by an artist’s attempt to mix reality with fiction techniques in his writing. Hoffman’s portrayal cast a vivid impression of a man of ambition, a gifted writer, and a flamboyant socialite, who became obsessed and deeply involved in the lives of a pair of troubled murderers, and in particular, with the kindred spirit of Perry Smith.

As much as Hoffman was a hero of mine in the world of film, so was Capote a hero of mine in the world of writing. He could draw you in, shock you, fill you with wonder, and transport you with the depth and poignancy of his writing. But when the techniques of fiction blur with the outcomes experienced by real people as a result of a piece of writing, and suddenly lives are on the line, quality fiction just doesn’t cut it. Trenchant reporting, and world-changing writing, must be grounded in a solid understanding of ethics, intentionality, responsibility, and dare I say, consequences. In deepening his relationship with Perry Smith and providing the doomed man and his partner in crime with hope that he could not ultimately fulfill, Capote overstepped the bounds of a responsible writer.

Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was flourishing, nuanced, and ultimately brilliant. He showed a man losing himself to the struggle of what good gonzo writing really is and should be: significant and reflective of reality, while at the same time fascinating, mind-bending and addictive. Capote knew all along that In Cold Blood would be a classic in the canon of modern literature. But the book nearly killed him, and while it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of its genre, it would turn out to be his last book published in full.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman embraced the roles that dismiss the simplicity and shallowness of black-and-white ethics. The great performances of his career reflect a reality that is beyond good and evil, right and wrong, happy and sad. He tussled with the fullness of reality, the world where things are not what they seem and stories don’t always end with the heroes living happily ever after. He tussled with complexity. And he lived the life of an artist, giving us the gift of consistently stellar performances throughout his life.

But his true legacy, which will certainly be colored by the ignominious circumstance of his death, will be the face and voice of the strange and challenging minority. He was not like the others. If there was one thing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t, it was one-dimensional. And perhaps that is part of what tortured him so, and repeatedly led him to the false comfort of hard drugs. He was an outlier, an idiosyncratic face and voice that would be impossible to pin down, and a consistently brilliant actor.

He will be sorely missed.

Wealth, Race, and Masculinity in “Royals,” by Lorde

Its music video is spare; minimalist; monochromatic; almost anemic. It is a teen drama unfolding obscurely, from the depths of emptiness at the heart of faceless suburbia. Grounded by a solemn, pounding drumbeat that feels as inexorable and imposing as a beating heart, the song itself is repetitive and catchy, like good pop music should be. Layered vocal tracks and pulsing bass lift the arrangement beyond the realm of the ordinary, and it is no wonder the song Royals is such a hit. The song holds the longest reign at No. 1 on the billboard charts for alternative songs, by a female artist.  But there is something more going on. Why is every face you see in this video white? What is with those lyrics, so openly critiquing popular hip-hop? What… exactly… is happening here?

… every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

From the first line of Royals, Lorde sets up her song as a commentary on wealth and its pursuit. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she sings, as she transfixes the camera, and the viewer, with a sweet, venomous and icily subversive blue-eyed glare. Such sweet irony that she speaks of jewelry “in the flesh” as though diamonds were organic, and wedding rings were something to cut your teeth on. As though “ice” could buy success. As though jet planes, islands or tigers on a gold leash could fill an empty, twin-sized bed. As though alcohol, like Grey Goose or Cristal, or a lifestyle of ‘trashing the hotel room,’ were telling of a glamorous and luxurious life well-lived.

As early as the first verse, Lorde rattles off a list of black celebrity cultural touchstones in the music industry. Gold teeth, Cadillacs, Maybach… these bring to mind a kind of wealth and luxury that are decidedly.. not-white. These are phrases and references that bring to mind  Lil’ Wayne, the Dirty South rap movement, Rick Ross, Mike Tyson in “The Hangover…” in other words, mainstream, primarily straight black male, hip-hop culture. A culture that is loud, expressive, aggressive and colorful…. even, at times, intentionally boastful about violence and often unapologetically misogynist, sexist, and homophobic.

Lorde, a 16-year old musical artist from New Zealand, skyrocketed to international fame and renown in late 2013 on the basis of a hit song that directly calls to account the very same hip-hop culture that produced Kanye West, who in his most recent album Yeezus, rapped lyrics as enlightening as “When a real nigga hold you down you supposed to drown” and “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” and Rick Ross, founder of the Maybach Music Group, who last year withdrew  lyrics celebrating rape and apologized publicly for them. Royals, since it came onto the scene, has since been remixed multiple times, including at least one instance with Rick Ross as a featured guest, and has received four nominations for Grammy awards, including for “Song of the Year” for Royals, and “Record of the Year” and “Best Vocal Pop Album” for Pure Heroine, her debut offering. 

The song has received its share of criticism, including being labeled racist by prominent blogger Bayetti Veronica Flores on the website Feministing. Flores’ criticism of the song comes with the context of the difficult history of U.S. race relations, knowledge of which may not necessarily be a safe presumption for a young musician from New Zealand. But Flores’ most basic issue with Royals is that it is directly and openly hostile to hip-hop culture, and more specifically, to black cultural tropes. And that is accurate. What is more, anyone who has traveled can tell you that American pop culture crosses international boundaries, and any discussion of a song at this level of popularity can’t be limited only to its influence or airplay in the U.S., particularly since Lorde herself hails from overseas. If Royals is racist here, it is racist everywhere.

But dismissing the song as simply racist does not touch the full depth of the song. I would argue that Royals, and its companion music video, when taken together, represent a broad critique of the mainstream and primarily American culture of wealth acquisition, masculinity, and their interconnected relationship with issues of racial identity.

The video is a series of images of young white men… thin, muscular, with short brown, red, and blonde hair, white T-shirts and shorts, standing, boxing, and relaxing in an empty, unadorned suburban home, with pale tan curtains and stark geometric lines. The young men are seen eating cereal, boxing in their living room, staring hopelessly at the ceiling of a basketball court, submerged underwater in a swimming pool, and in one powerful image, laughing and bleeding from the mouth. They have the bodies of athletes, probably swimmers, and their imperfections are on display for the world to see: acne, tufts of shaved brown hair falling to the floor when they shave, a close up of an adolescent Adam’s apple. While the song itself openly rejects tropes of black culture and proclaims proudly that “We’ll never be royals,” the video methodically constructs a stripped-down image of white masculinity.

And throughout it all, we are shown the eyes and voice of Lorde, an unmistakable smile hovering behind her unreadable eyes. She blinks her heavily mascara’d eyes, adjusts her mess of curly hair, visually daring you to question her. She strikes an unreadable, but unmistakably subversive, intelligent demeanor.

The song, to my mind, is less about deconstructing expectations and dreams of people identifying themselves as part of a particular race, than it is about deconstructing  expectations and dreams of everyone. We all, white or black, male or female, dream about diamonds, fancy cars, parties, and the intrinsic feeling of royalty and privilege that we associate with wealth and material success. To say the song is all about race, is to miss the point entirely. The song is about wealth, pop culture, and the difficult relationship that average, hardworking people have with the constant media barrage of decadence and material excess.

Mainstream pop music has pretty recently released a number of songs asserting and rejoicing in the trappings of youth, “We Are Young,” by Janelle Monae, being a prime example of this. For the most part, these songs celebrate the enjoyment and glory of a life of wealth and excess, partying and drinking and knowing that, after all, You Only Live Once. But Royals has a distinctly different agenda.With this song, Lorde is making the case for a new kind of love, “a different kind of buzz,” a kind of youthful ethos where money, wealth, and alcohol are secondary. The young men in the video of Royals are not in it for the money. Their television displays only static. In their alienation from the decadent pulse of mainstream American culture, these young men display a grounding and motivation that come from within, from each other, and not from the diamonds and dollar bills that characterize material success.

Towards the end of the video, there is a shot of one of the young men riding on the train. His head leaning against the cold window, the man, who is hardly an adult, watches out the window as the world passes by him. The image visually mirrors a scene toward the end of the movie “Crash,” from 2004 (nearly ten years ago). The film, an extended meditation on race relations in urban Los Angeles, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Towards the end, the character played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges leaned his head against the window of a bus, public transportation he had sworn he would never use, because, to his mind, the system of public transportation is part and parcel of instutionalized racism in urban America.

Screenshot pulled from the video for Royals, by Lorde, released in 2013 by Universal Music.

Screenshot pulled from the video for Royals, by Lorde, released in 2013 by Universal Music.

In both scenes, lost young men, both presumably from backgrounds of poverty, find themselves on the periphery of mainstream society. The cold glass of the bus window symbolically separates them from a cold exterior world, a world of rough black pavement, cold steel automobiles, and the grinding pursuit of wealth. Houses and buldings pass them by in a blur, and they wonder what it means to come of age, and accept the mantle of an adult male in a capitalistic, wealth-driven society. What does it mean to be successful? Can money bring us happiness? What is this “love” thing everyone keeps talking about? Am I going to be ok? Who do I want to be? What kind of a person am I? What sort of future do I want to create for my children? These are universally difficult questions, for adults of every race, and to my mind, every gender.

This is a song about the pursuit of happiness. This is a song about finding meaning in a media-drenched world whose songs and movies reflect an idealized worldview that doesn’t necessarily match with bitter reality. This is a song about learning who we are, and learning to feel comfortable being ourselves. This is a song about coming of age.

I couldn’t speak to whether Lorde could be considered a feminist, and I couldn’t say whether Royals is, in fact, racist. But I think that Lorde, at the tender age of 16, has produced  a piece of art that effectively challenges and questions the importance we place on wealth in Western society. I think the song, and the video, are attempting to critique the pulse and tenor of modern pop music. And, in my personal opinion, I think the song and artist deserve every bit of renown they have received.

New Years in Wonky Haus

I am blown away by Wonky Haus, and the world I have found myself with, and the people that I find myself with. I love this place so much, and I can’t even describe how lucky I am to be here. Wonky Haus is a place where you can feel enthusiastic about life, and intrigued about the possibilities of creative expression and pursuit, and not feel like you are the exception to the rule, or that you are betraying some unspoken rule, or that you must project your superiority at all times. I don’t feel self-conscious here, and that is a gift that cannot be measured. It is a new year, and I felt obliged to reflect on this. Happy New Year!!!

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Thanksgiving Travels

This Thanksgiving, I was fortunate enough to travel north to Chicago and visit my family in the suburbs of Evanston and Skokie. The northern suburbs of Chicago were beautiful but the weather was bitter cold. It was a day-long, shotgun, last-minute journey, one that I barely managed to schedule with Spirit Airlines when a pair of other bookings fell through. I literally was not sure until the very last moment that I was going to make it. But I did, and it was so worth it.

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In the air between Dallas and Georgia

As I was in the air over Dallas, I looked down at the earth below me. “What magic,” I thought to myself. What a miracle that we simply spend $300-$400 dollars, and suddenly have access to any place in the continental U.S. We live in an age of miracles, and we often forget that, I thought to myself, as I looked down at the fields and highways far below me.

Unfortunately, my time with the community newspaper in Clarkston has ended, and I had to seek other work. I learned a lot from my time with The Broadway, and I put my all into it, speaking to some fascinating people and cementing my love and respect for the people of Clarkston. I was unemployed for a brief and miserable two weeks, but I finally found a position as a valet at a historic hotel in downtown Atlanta. It is an amazing and interesting job, and I am learning a lot about the hotel business and about life and urban economy. I work mostly for tips, and I park beautiful, marvelous cars for a living. I come home exhausted but satisfied from long but legitimate work.

It is not the dream job of meaningful writing that I am ultimately looking for, but it is life sustaining and it is comfortable and reliable. I am learning that the journey often contains surprises, and it is the best we can do to maintain an even emotional keel, and to keep a handle on what is most important: our relationship with our friends, family, and loved ones, and our habits of self-care and self-respect. As I looked down on the earth from 30,000 miles, I couldn’t help but thank God for my health, and my loving family in Chicago, and my community of friends here in Atlanta, the place I am coming to think of as my home.

An Afternoon in Wonky Haus

As this October day drags on, I am enjoying the fact that this portfolio is still here! It’s been an eventful year. Quaker Voluntary Service wrapped up, and I said farewell to some dear, close friends. I am now settled into a new intentional community in Atlanta that we have taken to calling Wonky Haus.

I’ve been working for a community newspaper in Clarkston, a project that I feel very passionately about. I think I put my best into it, and who knows, maybe something will emerge in the future as a result of that hard work! But in the meantime I am searching the Atlanta area for an employer willing to pay a living wage for what I can offer.

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View overlooking the Historic Old 4th Ward Park.

I enjoy writing, and I like to see that platforms which I establish for myself, generally are not erased as time passes. I will keep working at it, and I know that my efforts will blossom with consistent, nurturing care.

Hello Again!

It’s been two and a half years, and it’s past time I attend to this site. I’m a Quaker Voluntary Service Fellow now, placed at the Clarkston Development Foundation, just outside Atlanta, as a Communications Associate. I have the opportunity to meet interesting people all the time, and I write for our newsletter about the things that I experience.

The transition to Atlanta was exciting, and the rush of the first few months here was overwhelming. It is good to be in the professional saddle again, and I’m looking to flesh out my portfolio and keep the streak alive.

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As for tonight, I’m looking forward to some sweet potato latkes, and I can’t wait to watch game two of the World Series! 🙂

Welcome to My Portfolio

On this page, I intend to chronicle any additions to my professional portfolio, and curate all developments and additions related to my writerly aspirations. Today, I added several pages, including my reporting, editing, video, and audio. Looks like the dream is nearly realized!

summer

But, at the moment, priority one is to study for impending finals. My semester is less than 24 hours from being over. Summer is nearly here. Let the good times roll!