Story versus Storyteller (Or Why I’m Mad at Gus Van Sant)

why i'm mad at Gus Van Sant

Story versus Storyteller (Or Why I’m Mad at Gus Van Sant)

Photo by Clara Tuma (© 2024).

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I know I shouldn’t be mad at Gus Van Sant. I don’t know the guy, for starters. To be honest until recently I was familiar with him only from his direction of Good Will Hunting, a film I quite enjoyed. It gave me a certain idea of his storytelling abilities and sensibilities, and what I’d seen I liked.

So when I found out he was directing the second season of Feud on FX, this season dealing with Truman Capote’s legendary estrangement from his “swans,” the upper-echelon socialites of the 1960s and 70s New York money-and-power scene, I was intrigued.

The hubs and I very much enjoyed the first season of the show, which depicted the delicious Mean Girls battle royale between actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I expected Van Sant to work similar magic with the juicy story of Truman Capote’s betrayal of his socialite friends with the publication of a thinly disguised tell-all short story in Esquire magazine, an excerpt from Capote’s unpublished story Unanswered Prayers, which resulted in his surgical excision from the all-access pass he’d formerly enjoyed in the highest levels of Manhattan social circles, and complete estrangement from all but one of his swans.

The director certainly had a powerhouse cast with which to do so, led by a luminous Naomi Watts, with Jessica Lange, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Demi Moore, Calista Flockhart, Treat Williams, Molly Ringwald, and the spectacular Tom Hollander as Capote, an actor who dazzled as the leader of the charming, deadly passel of gay men intent on killing Jennifer Coolidge’s character in the second season of The White Lotus.

Read more: “Why We Can’t Look Away from White Lotus

And yet despite an intriguing beginning in the first episode, where we’re introduced to the swans and Capote’s friendship with them, I quickly found the show progressively slower and less engaging with each successive installment.

I’m not mad because I didn’t find this story to be effective or deeply engaging, or even because based on Van Sant’s track record I expected it to be better. Everyone has misfires. Every artist can stumble

Van Sant plays fast and loose with the timeline from the very beginning, but early in the series it makes sense in order to ground readers in context, create scope, and raise stakes. As the series progresses, though, the timeline jumps so often and so erratically, viewers may have a hard time keeping up with what happens when, or piecing together a sense of the story’s throughline (a confusion not helped by an entire episode that features what seems to be a hallucination of author James Baldwin).

We’re given little context or background on Capote’s troubled swans beyond broad strokes of detail on their current lives that risk portraying them in a single stereotyped dimension: alcoholic, appearance-obsessed, neglectful-mother and wronged-wife Babe Paley (Naomi Watts); possibly murderous, innocence-maintaining, alternately proud and pleading Ann Woodward (Demi Moore); Capote’s drunken, narcissistic, overbearing and critical mother (Jessica Lange).

The actors playing these roles are uniformly excellent and attempt to transcend the story’s limitations, but it’s awfully hard while delivering clunky lines that heavy-handedly spell out motivations and themes: “Perhaps it was a subconscious final gift to your mother. And to yourself for never feeling as if you truly belonged,” the ghost of Truman’s mother tells her son as she critiques his drafts of Unanswered Prayers, or “The book or your soul. It’s up to you.”

(So perhaps I’m also kind of mad at screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz for penning these lines for these superlative actors to have to utter straight-faced and without irony.)

And speaking of ghosts and hallucinations…there are a lot of them, y’all, popping up to really hammer home Capote’s regrets and recriminations, campy and devicey as you please.

This is not why I’m mad at Gus Van Sant, though.

Analyzing the Story

Despite the stunning array of talented actors who without exception are excellent in their roles, they are poorly served by a meandering, heavily internalized, talky, slow script.

All the tension and conflict seem to have happened offstage. We see a lot of angst and inner life, a lot of dialogue and broody, self-medicating scenes about how angry or hurt or outraged the characters are, but it feels as if we’re catching up to them after all the action has happened. Although perhaps there was no “action” to dramatize—a feud where one offending player is ostracized from the group and whose main manifestation is the absence of interaction creates a massive storytelling challenge from the get-go: It seems to force the story into what it becomes: a very internalized study of its fallout on the characters’ psyches.

The story feels drawn out, as if it lacks enough depth or development to warrant the entire eight hour-plus episodes of what feels like about a movie’s worth of story stretched to the breaking point. The indulgent length gives the series slack to go off on tangents that feel padded, repetitive, or just unnecessary, like perplexing invented storylines about Babe and the swans forgiving Truman, or the clunky symbolism of Truman eating a swan he sent his hired chef to retrieve from Central Park.

There are no real character arcs, little character development for anyone but Capote (kind of—he also risks being portrayed in two clichéd dimensions despite Hollander’s bravura performance), and no clear resolution.

The first Feud was so good, so meaty and immediate and spectacularly active and combative, that it set up high expectations and feels like a false promise, when the second season was so different in approach, tone, and execution.

But that is also not why I’m mad at Gus Van Sant.

Story Is Subjective

I’m not mad because I didn’t find this story to be effective or deeply engaging, or even because based on Van Sant’s track record I expected it to be better. Everyone has misfires. Every artist can stumble.

Read more: “Analyzing What Makes Story Work (or Not)”

And as a rule I don’t get angry at art and artists that simply don’t speak to me. Every work of art is subjective, and even though I grudge-watched my way through the final four or five episodes of the eight-episode miniseries, irritated at its lack of momentum and its jumpy, sketchy presentation of what should have been fascinating characters and events, continually hoping it would get better and tie it all together (it doesn’t), season two has a decent 71 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as compared with season one’s 83 percent) and got a healthy portion of very good critical reviews, so I’m clearly not in the majority in my displeasure. 

Here’s why I’m mad at Gus Van Sant: because he let his storytelling get in the way of the story. The main reason I never got sucked into what should have been a fascinating story was because the storyteller (or storytellers, since I should probably include the screenwriter as well) drew so much attention to his own style in telling it.

I’m mad because he’s taking advantage of his reputation and viewer goodwill and the FX dolla bills to indulge himself. Mad because he’s squandering amazing resources like his stellar cast. Because he’s opted for style over substance.

Storytelling should make the story as impactful and effective as possible—not draw attention to its mechanics and the storyteller.

And while I’m quick to appreciate adroit and skillful style, it’s an element that when truly executed with vision and skill, is invisible. The storytelling style should serve the story, bring it more fully and vividly to life, draw the reader in more deeply and completely. It should make the story as impactful and effective as possible—not draw attention to its mechanics and the storyteller.

As Jessica Lange’s ghost critique’s her son’s draft of Unanswered Prayers: “There is no discernible raison d’etre.”

Gus! Listen to your characters!

Read more: “How Do You Write Enduring Stories?”

Don’t Forget Your Audience

Van Sant’s Feud wasn’t about Truman Capote and his swans so much as it was about Van Sant and his artistic vision. That’s fine for show-and-tell or a talent show, but when the artist gets in the way of the art, the art becomes less effective. It’s self-indulgence at the expense of the story and the reader or viewer.

The creation of art is only half of its ultimate effect—the other half is what the viewer brings to it. This is never truer than in written story, when authors create their world and characters, and readers become an active part of bringing it to full life in their imagination. An author must create their vision, yes—but the other part of that necessary equation is to share it with readers on the page, to engage them, to make them connect with it.

That’s a tall order, and in itself completely subjective—what engages one reader may leave another one cold (just read reviews for anything you’ve loved or hated to find ample voices who disagree with you). You may not share my opinion of Feud—or any story. It’s a subjective medium.

But that’s why learning to analyze why you do and don’t respond to story is a prime skill for an author to develop, one of the most effective ways to improve your own storytelling and editing craft so you can create stories that speak not only to you, but to your readers—the people who connect with your story and your vision.

Read more: “How to Read Like an Editor
Read more: “The Giddy Delight (and Incalculable Value) of Analyzing Masterful Work

Clearly I’m not Gus’s “people” for this season of Feud—but if you saw it I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you share my thoughts–and if so, in what ways? Or what worked for you, and why? Knowing why a story succeeds (for you) is equally as valuable and instructive as being able to articulate why it doesn’t, and regular readers know I often proselytize about the value of learning to analyze other storytellers’ work to improve your own.

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16 Comments. Leave new

  • Miranda Darrow
    March 21, 2024 12:40 pm

    Thank you for this article about Feud: Capote vs the Swans. I abandoned the second season after loving the first season’s great tension and action. You articulated my disconnect well. I had felt like I didn’t know enough background about who the Swans were to Truman, why his book was such a betrayal, to justify all the mad, sad, etc reactions. We were missing the context and why his story about them was such a breach of trust. Without that, we’re left with reactions but we were missing the “action” and is was sloggy and dull. The actors were good – the problem was the storytelling. You nailed it.

    • Thanks, Miranda. I felt the same way–that the characters were intriguing but we couldn’t feel the full impact without knowing them more as fully fleshed individuals. It felt to me as if they were just representing Truman’s loss of access to the social circles he’d enjoyed, more than letting us understand the personal pain their ostracization caused him. Such a waste of monumental talent! The actors did their best to bring the characters to life despite the story’s challenges.

  • Sharon Wagner
    March 21, 2024 1:21 pm

    I loved the show, but I kept thinking it was over when it wasn’t. I saw a clip during an interview with one of the actors and wondered how I missed that scene. The show wasn’t over, but it was so disjointed in the timeline that I thought it was, and I stumbled upon the extra episodes due to the magic of Hulu or Netflix placing them in front of me. The A-list actors made it fun.

    • Ha–yes, there were several scene endings where I thought, “Yup, I guess it could stop there.” And then it didn’t. And then the actual series ending felt like it just trickled to a halt. It reinforced for me the feeling that the story kept plowing on beyond where it felt like it should have wrapped up (like that scene in episode five or six, where Truman sees Babe window shopping–that felt like a decent ending!). And the final two episodes felt like a lot of retread to me. I see this a lot with these miniseries events networks are increasingly doing–a lot of times it feels like an hour or two worth of solid material, padded out to six or eight or more.

      Funny you didn’t even realize you’d missed some episodes till you stumbled onto them. 🙂

      • Sharon Wagner
        March 21, 2024 5:28 pm

        I was so curious about the first season, I started watching Feud: Bette and Joan over lunch. I mean, I grew up with 3 channels. I’m still amazed that I can watch something this good on a whim, over lunch, any old time. We’re spoiled with all the good stuff on demand!

  • Christa Hillhouse
    March 21, 2024 1:40 pm

    I completely agree with your assessment of the series. It was a mess. But I’ll go further, because I started having an issue early on with the way Capote was characterized, portrayed as so petty and cruel that I made my wife watch “The Capote Tapes” just so she could understand the real person a little better and see the series version of Capote for what it was – a caricature. I even made certain she’d seen “Infamous,” which stars Toby Jones in what is my favorite version of Truman. And that James Baldwin episode was downright offensive to me, I just kept thinking “who does Baitz think he is to put words in James Baldwin’s mouth”? These two men were more than literary giants; they are among the few who were able to achieve greatness despite the barriers of bigotry. The fact that the director and writer are both gay – like me – just made me cringe a little more.

    • You know, it was my first time seeing a dramatization of Capote (somehow missed all those other great versions you mention), and I felt the same way–I kept asking my husband, “Why did all these people want him around? He’s awful.” Now you have e eager to check out some other portrayals. I was especially disappointed because I think Tom Hollander is an exceptional actor–I would have loved to see more dimensions beyond the swings between nasty and pathetic.

      I don’t mind some artistic license with real people–with Capote or with Baldwin. But I didn’t get the point of the imagined Baldwin episode. It didn’t seem to serve a clear purpose in the story and felt like padding to me.

  • Kelly Simmons
    March 21, 2024 3:16 pm

    I could not agree with you more! I LOVE his work (he considered directing one of my own books and I spent a week in thrall praying before he passed on it) and this brilliantly acted series feels like the world’s longest drunken lunch.

    • HAHAHAHA–that is the PERFECT description! 😀

      And AGHHH about the Hollywood near-miss. I had one of those with Anna Faris for my first novel, The Breakup Doctor, and I can’t look at her now without a mix of fondness and regret. 🙂

  • Maggie Smith
    March 21, 2024 3:49 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. He died in Episode 7 so I thought, Good, it’s over. But NO, they still managed to wring another whole episode out after that. First 2-3 episodes were good; but it started going downhill when James Baldwin showed up (which as I understand it never really happened?) Even the Black-and-White Ball episode seemed pedestrian.

    • It’s never a good sign when your thought at a character’s death is “Oh good, it’s over.” 🙂 I was annoyed they killed him off twice, FFS. The last episode felt like a weird remix of episode seven. And yes, even that spectacular ball felt underwhelming to me narratively–mostly spectacle–and cringey when we finally did get some action and Capote was so cruel to Demi Moore.

  • Pamela Keeley
    March 21, 2024 9:43 pm

    “I think Tom Hollander is an exceptional actor–I would have loved to see more dimensions beyond the swings between nasty and pathetic.”
    Brings to mind Cillian Murphy’s tribute to the script for Oppenheimer and writers in general. He said actors need words that can inspire them to character and storytelling. Without good writing a writer is hamstrung.


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