In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Opening credit sequences often function as short films of their own, setting the tone for whatever’s to follow. Sometimes it’s an animated précis of an otherwise live-action movie—Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, for instance, features a title sequence that more or less lays out the entire story in cartoon form, revealing the multiple identities Leonardo DiCaprio’s con man will assume. Kyle Cooper’s famous work in Seven, on the other hand, takes a few handcrafted props that were designed to appear briefly in one scene and creates a deranged portrait of a villain who doesn’t actually appear until over an hour later. Crucial to both of those examples, and to most others I can readily think of (including all the Saul Bass classics), is a high degree of abstraction. You’d know that you were watching the credits sequence even if the actual credits were removed, simply by registering the deviations from conventional filmmaking. It’s not as if the director gathered the main actors and devised a mini-narrative that could actually work as a stand-alone short, bearing only a clever and quite subtle thematic connection to the movie as a whole.
Except that’s precisely what happens in the opening title sequence for Infamous, one of the two Truman Capote biopics that came out almost simultaneously a decade ago. Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar in the title role, got considerably more attention, and is the better film overall. Infamous, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, and starring Toby Jones as Capote, suffers from most of the standard biopic problems, and is eminently forgettable… except for the title sequence, which is more potent and provocative than the rest of both films put together, despite having almost nothing to do with Truman Capote at all. (He’s in the scene, but only as an observer.) Contributing to the unusual stand-alone feeling is the presence of a ringer: Gwyneth Paltrow, who appears only in this sequence, and whose presence seems inexplicable (apart from the fact that she was the star of 1996’s Emma, McGrath’s directorial debut) until you really start to analyze the sequence’s purpose and function. In fact, this scene is so great that it practically makes the movie that follows it completely redundant—an amazing feat. If you’ve never seen it before, do watch the clip before reading on, so you can have the full experience.
Before getting into the sequence itself, I should quickly explain what Infamous is about, since that’s at the heart of what McGrath is doing here. Like Capote, the film isn’t a cradle-to-grave account of its subject’s life, but a chronicle of the years Capote spent researching and writing In Cold Blood, his landmark “nonfiction novel” about a 1959 murder committed by two ex-convicts, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Both films focus on the relationship, built over the course of multiple prison interviews, between Capote and Smith, questioning whether it involves journalistic exploitation, genuine friendship, or some tricky combination of the two. Infamous, in particular, traffics heavily in ambiguity regarding Capote’s intentions, which may be somewhat mysterious even to himself. And apparently McGrath decided that he needed to lay out that theme right from the outset, via an unrelated scene that takes place before any of the characters have been introduced. (You wouldn’t even know Jones is playing Capote, at this point, without having been informed of that beforehand; the title Infamous suggests nothing specific.) It’s a risky, unusual gambit, especially given Paltrow’s presence—cameos in the opening scene of a non-sequel are rare.
McGrath needed an actress for this bit part, though, not a singer. After a series of shots that establish the glitzy nightclub—inserts of gloves and tumblers and jewelry that inform us we’re among high society—Capote and his friend Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) are escorted to a table that’s been newly set up just for them. So we know they’re VIPs, at the very least. Then the floor show begins, featuring Paltrow as Kitty Dean, a fictional torch singer whose name and manner are pretty clearly meant to evoke Peggy Lee. For a good three minutes, McGrath pretends that he’s just creating some glamorous atmosphere while supplying the contractually obligatory credits—it’s a fairly innocuous way to kick things off, establishing the era and Capote’s already significant level of fame in economical fashion. Paltrow isn’t a strong enough vocalist to be persuasive as someone who would have this high-profile gig, but we don’t yet know (and won’t know for sure until the movie ends) that this brief scene constitutes her entire appearance, so it’s easy to assume that the character has some larger role to play and suspend one’s very minor disbelief.
So it’s a total surprise—given that we’re still right in the middle of the credits—when Kitty suddenly looks distracted in the middle of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” just as its lyrics turn melancholy, and then undergoes a mood swing so dramatic that her entire orchestra stops dead, causing the nightclub audience to wonder what the hell is happening. A genuine nightclub singer probably could not have conveyed what Paltrow does: that this woman is suddenly actually hearing what she’s singing, and that the words connect powerfully with something that’s happening right this instant in her offstage world. She falters, she loses the rhythm, the band grinds to a halt, and she sings the entire next verse a cappella, in a low, mournful whisper, as if each syllable is causing her tremendous pain. Capote watches, clearly concerned. (Again, we haven’t met this guy yet. We haven’t met anyone yet. This is the first scene.) Then Kitty takes a deep breath, nods at the band, snaps her fingers to set the previous tempo, and they launch back into the song at the original jazzy pace, with Kitty smiling broadly as if nothing ever happened. The audience applauds, with Capote and Paley clearly impressed. The credits end. The movie proper begins.
This sequence works beautifully on its own terms—it genuinely could be airlifted out of Infamous and function as a short of its own, I think, though it would lose some resonance—but it’s also basically the entire film condensed into five minutes. There are two equally compelling interpretations. One is that we’re seeing someone inadvertently become emotionally involved with what was meant to be strictly a professional endeavor, which reflects what may have happened to Capote over the course of writing In Cold Blood and getting to know Hickock and (especially) Smith. More than that, though, it’s not at all clear whether we’ve just witnessed a genuine breakdown or merely the canny simulation of a breakdown—the equivalent of that James Brown routine in which an aide would drape a cape over his shoulders and help him offstage, only to see Brown suddenly throw off the cape and resume the show. There’s no way to know whether Kitty is feeling something or simply manipulating her audience into feeling something, and whether that distinction even matters becomes arguable at a certain point—precisely what Infamous is about. It’s as if a novel were preceded by a poem that achieves everything the novel attempts with a tiny fraction of the words. If you can accomplish that with the poem, is there really any need for the novel?