The Capote Tapes · Craig Carton · Baseball Fraud

Two docs and a pod, reviewed, plus looking back at Jim Dwyer

The crime
In theory, the murder of the Clutter family by Dick Hickok and Perry Smith, a case that became required reading in schools across the U.S. in In Cold Blood. The book is a pioneer in the true-crime genre, but it’s been argued that it both made Truman Capote a literary legend, and ruined his life — and while this isn’t the central topic of Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes, the idea does come up.

The story
If, like me, you return to George Plimpton’s Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career often, immersing yourself from time to time in the warm bath not just of the gossip of another era but the piquant insights into Capote’s childhood; prose; self-image; and decline, then you could. not. WAIT for The Capote Tapes to come to a virtual cinema or online film fest near you. And for that reason, The Capote Tapes is not really FOR you. You’ve heard the quotations before, mostly, and the tail ends and exclusive snippets Burnough adds got cut by Plimpton for a reason. The talking-head interviewees are a mix of sources from Plimpton’s book and “new” commentators like Colm Toíbín and Sadie Stein, and while it’s always nice to see Dick Cavett and Jay McInerney does have a good bit about the “curse” of early success that finds the young author “locked into a persona,” I tend to skip Kate Harrington’s portions of the Plimpton for a reason. (Harrington, chyroned here as Capote’s “adopted daughter,” was the teenage daughter of a closeted bank VP Capote was involved with for some years; Capote evidently felt sufficiently guilty about his role in the sundering of that family that he tried to “help” by taking Harrington in and getting her modeling work. That she was present — and sober — during the Studio 54 era of Capote’s public life has its narrative merits, but here and in the book, she does little to clarify the timeline of Capote’s relationship with her father or with his longtime partner, Jack Dunphy.)

And you won’t find new insights into In Cold Blood — the writing of it; the pernicious effects of its success on Capote; the pernicious effects of its ending on Capote, and what role the emotional intimacy with a convicted murderer (whose execution Capote was on record as “needing” to give the book an ending) might have played in his unraveling. Or on crime reporting; I haven’t read The Journalist And The Murderer in a long time, so I can’t recall if Malcolm draws a parallel between the Capote/Smith seduction — whichever direction(s) you think of that as going in — and the MacDonald/McGinniss one. The point is, to live with a murder case as a chronicler has its price, but The Capote Tapes doesn’t take time with that idea…or many other Big Ideas about Capote, with the exception of his status as mid-20th century America’s leading out gay man. TCT comes back more often to what it cost Capote to live as he did, to lean into the biased discomfiture of others, to act as though he turned it to his advantage while getting worn down and corrupted by the performance, than to any other aspect of Capote’s life as a cultural figure — but because its focus is the tapes generally, and not any one slice of Capote’s world specifically, the film can feel somewhat slight.

The Capote Tapes is a pleasant sit. To have even more visuals than those in the Plimpton is a lot of fun; André Leon Talley has good intel about the super-rich; and some of the talk-show footage from Capote’s more sodden days is pitiably striking. In a few of these appearances on Cavett’s show, he’s gasping for breath, struggling to focus his eyes, he looks about 70…and he was 49 years old at the absolute outside. Something broke him and nobody can agree on what it was, and revisiting that essential mystery isn’t a waste of time. But it’s left to the viewer to do. The Capote Tapes isn’t a crime doc or an investigation, and in fact seems to have less to say about the ICB part of Capote’s life and legend than about other aspects. Those less familiar with the source material will enjoy it more, and while I recommend it, I also recommend finding a way not to pay for it. — SDB

Another doc I wasn’t crazy about dropped last night — Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth. Partly it’s that I find its subject, Craig Carton, hard to take, like literally on an aural level; I note in my Primetimer review that Dan and I used to use Boomer & Carton as our clock-radio alarm setting because the show was too annoying to sleep through.

But I also note that the film’s main issue isn’t its subject; it’s that it’s made by friends OF its subject.

The film is an HBO Sports production, not an ESPN one, which is fine. What isn't fine is that it's directed and produced by Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern, who are friends of Carton's, and who don't disclose that fact. I don't require transcript-style objectivity from documentaries; in fact, some of the best true-crime non-fiction films are deeply personal — films like Strong Island and Dear Zachary that aim to investigate and enlighten but also to protest and grieve. But Yance Ford and Kurt Kuenne incorporated their connections to their subjects into their work, whereas Wild Card would have us believe Dunn and McGovern just read Nick Paumgarten's 2019 New Yorker profile of Carton and his downfall and decided to follow up with a film when he was released from prison.

The film wastes no time in centering Carton as its narrator, and not only is he an unreliable one, but it becomes clear not long into Wild Card that whatever the film's directors might have seen as its narrative arc, Carton's aim is to rehabilitate his image, perform change and recovery, and get his ass back behind a microphone. (As of this writing, local news outlets seem sure he'll succeed.)

There’s a difference between “subjective” and “compromised”; Wild Card is hoping we don’t notice it’s the second thing. You could argue that this is the price you pay for access, but I would counter that in Wild Card’s case the price is too high. (Remember my parenthetical in Eve’s segment on the CJR piece about “good television over sound reporting” in the true-crime genre?) — SDB

That Sports Illustrated podcast on the Houston Astros cheating scandal hit podcast platforms yesterday. When the pod was announced earlier this year, I wrote that the involvement of SI writer Ben “Astrodamus” Reiter, who famously predicted the then-awful team’s 2017 championship and just as famously missed the sign-stealing advantage they were taking of opponents,

could make an interesting subplot for the proposed podcast: what Reiter knew, whether he faced pressure not to include it in his writing, and how that relates to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s…reluctance, let’s say? to confront the players (or more to the point, their union) with any kind of directness about the way they compromised multiple championships.

Based on the first episode, it seems like Reiter himself agrees. Should you listen?

The crime
The Houston Astros used video cameras to steal signs during their championship season in 2017. (Specifically, cameras mounted in center field caught the signs opposing pitchers and catchers used to talk to each other about which pitches to throw, and the Astro hitters used that information during at-bats.) And probably before that, and probably after that. This is not exactly “illegal” even within baseball, but it’s severely frowned upon, particularly the use of tech to do it — and it does seem on its face like the perpetration of a fraud.

Draft Kings; Mike Bolsinger, a pitcher who got notoriously hammered by the Houston lineup in the summer of 2017, to the point where his MLB career functionally ended; and season-ticket holders all agree that it’s actionable in some way, as all these entities and others have filed suit against the ballclub.

The story
I mean, there’s a whole story in the fact that the Astros are back in the postseason as of this writing, and currently playing a team for whom the guy who ratted them to the sporting press, Mike Fiers, now pitches…but I’m here to discuss the actual podcast, and the actual podcast is okay, but should be better than it is. (You may recall that Slow Burn’s Leon Neyfakh and Andrew Parsons are producing.)

Reiter is okay as a host — a little stiff, but passable. He’s also writing The Edge, and here’s where he runs into trouble in my opinion, because the writing is also fine, but I don’t think it’s making the right choices vis-a-vis who the podcast is for. It’s about 11 minutes into the first episode before we get the first mention of the literal mechanism by which the stolen signs got to the Astros batters, and then we get the audio equivalent of a “Four Years Earlier” chyron, so the pacing feels off to me here in terms of a premiere ep grabbing an undecided listener quickly. Related to that, the journey into the story is not uninteresting, to me, but I’m a huge fan of the game — so some of the backstory seems superfluous, and yet at the same time I don’t know if it gets the job done locating a more casual fan, or a true-crime fan who isn’t familiar at all. I get that Everything Else Going On Right Now means narrative histories might have to take more pains recapping events that didn’t happen all that long ago in linear time, but whatever its primary demo target, baseball or true crime, The Edge needs to light a fire under it. The two available episodes (I only listened to one) clock in at nearly an hour each, and again, this isn’t a disagreeable listen. But for people who don’t remember the story, “here’s what happened and why you should give a shit” needs to happen in the first 90 seconds.

Reiter gets good access to people close to the team and the story, like former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Contemporary news footage and game calls are used judiciously. A lot of that opening 11 minutes is spent with Mike Bolsinger, who’s good on the mic. And Reiter does seem not just prepared but eager to look at why this story wasn’t a story, especially for him, until a whistleblower came forward. Look, no property with several minutes devoted to the Butt-Slide Incident is a total waste. I am intrigued…but it’s less than a month until a presidential election, in The Year Of COVID, and the fans like me who would usually make time for The Edge have a postseason to watch right now, so maybe the issue isn’t the podcast itself but the timing. I would like to see where it goes, and it’s only six episodes — but I’m going to wait to keep listening until the whole thing has dropped, and I’d recommend you do the same.

But if you do start it now, let me know what you think, especially if you’re not a baseball fan. Is it clear? Does it hold your attention? — SDB

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NYC reporter Jim Dwyer passed away this morning. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (pictured above at my alma mater, where he had a visiting-lecturer gig in 2018), Dwyer landed at the New York Times in 2001 after “storied” stints at The Daily News and New York Newsday. Dwyer’s family has asked that donations in the About New York columnist’s memory go to the Innocence Project; you can have a look at his Times archive here. Much of his recent Times work concerned the pandemic, but other column topics in the last year included the Central Park Five case’s relationship to the murder of Barnard student Tessa Majors; Giuliani’s legal advising of Trump; and a couple pieces on the execution of Sedley Allen. His arch report on my district’s former state senator, vehicular manslaughterer and serial speed-zone violator Marty “Not So” Golden, is a particular joy.

A couple of Dwyer’s books are also relevant to us here, including Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted, and the interactive False Conviction. I’ve not read either, but I tore through Subway Lives when it came out; Twitter is not exaggerating what a loss this is for the field, and for readers. Rest well, sir. — SDB

Friday on Best Evidence: We might hop in our time machines; y’all should come.

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