Rightwing Film Geek

A portrait of the artist as a fat, middle-aged man

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Slate is running a diary this week from Neil LaBute, an important event because of who the man is — in my opinion, one of the most distinctive artists-moralists in American film today. He was the both director and story-script writer of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS, and the director of NURSE BETTY and POSSESSION, the latter also being adapted by LaBute and two others from a novel.

labute2.jpgAnd for those who’ve seen me in person, don’t rag on my title; LaBute makes a point of talking about his weight, and even linked his diet woes to his personality, some of which you can see in his movies. But the LaBute diary seems to be pressing ahead pretty well — he’s described the concept and premise of his next film, and it sounds crackerjack: “a pregnant woman who is rushing around a city, trying to get to her lover’s cell phone before he reads a sweet text message to her husband that she accidentally sent to him, sort of an American Rohmer with a ticking clock.” Though a little birdy tells me that Eric Rohmer (maybe the greatest director alive and working) will not come to mind when I see this next LaBute film.

LaBute’s three films from his own story-scripts are all year’s 10-best quality (though the year’s obviously still not over for SHAPE), and the other two are solid achievements also. La Bute is part philosophical anthropologist and part mathematician. The three films that are distinctly his own all share an abstract quality (in that sense only, they remind one of Fritz Lang’s revenge films, like RANCHO NOTORIOUS, which LaBute mentions watching in his diary). The characters are archetypal — the central couple in SHAPE is Adam and Eve(lyn); the characters’ names in NEIGHBORS are never given in the movie itself. The dialogue has an incantatory ping-pong quality to it — the characters in NEIGHBORS all give a museum director their opinions of the same unseen painting in “chapter breaks” sprinkled throughout the film, and from COMPANY: “Women. Nice ones. The most frigid of the race. It doesn’t matter in the end. Inside they’re all the same meat and gristle and hatred. Just simmering.” The dialog-in-progress LaBute quotes at the end of the first day of his diary seems to be of same type.

Chance and extraneous detail do not exist in LaBute’s universe — in COMPANY, we never find out the company’s name or what products or services it’s involved in; but we do find out the name of the college that is the setting of SHAPE (Mercy College — and don’t think LaBute doesn’t call attention to that fact). Two of the films have major third-act plot reversals that I will not spoil beyond saying that on second viewing, they twists recode every last detail in the films and make absolutely perfect sense with no loose ends. The films also intolerantly insist on a moral reckoning with the universe — all three films end in the triumph of a certain sort of person and/or the defeat of a different sort. “Give me God or give me Nietzsche,” one might say. Or “give me starvation or give me a whole bag of Cheetos and an entire pizza.”

friendsbw.jpgAll LaBute’s own films are underpopulated (Central Casting must be ready to picket this guy) and focus on a small group of characters — with just one very important exception, all are present-day upper-middle class white professionals. And the “winners” in these films are shown as too deeply soulsick even to know how soulsick they are. (As much as I feel I can say without spoilers.) In both NEIGHBORS and SHAPE, there is a conversation where one character asks another about whether “you are a good person.” That specific formulation is used, and then reiterated when the nihilist figure in the movie mocks the question as meaningless cant. (Something in the back of my head tells me that’s a typical formulation of Mormonism, LaBute’s religion. Donna? Other theologians?) There’s not exactly a precise equivalent in COMPANY, but the central plot engine is a practical joke played for no reason other than its sheer gratuity.

There’s a certain stagy, ritualistic quality to them all. SHAPE was a stage play at first and apart from finding natural-looking sets, LaBute made absolutely no attempt to “air it out” — it’s basically 10 dialogue scenes. And when a certain showdown comes in COMPANY, one of the two characters makes a point of closing all the blinds in an office window, and LaBute’s emphasizes the gesture until it becomes a preparatory ritual.

In a certain sense, you can’t really criticize LaBute’s work, you either go along with his works’ sensibility and enjoy (sic) with the ride he is giving or you don’t — and the people who don’t, tend not to merely dislike his work or the work in question, but to loathe it — seeing them as airless, overdetermined puppet shows serving as prosecutorial briefs against the human race. This is a criticism with which I obviously can’t really disagree. I can only defend him by citing Flannery O’Connor’s aesthetic credo:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural … to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

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November 18, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Reader input (and response)

A reader took exception to my reference to liberals as people who “see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.” The following exchange took place by private e-mail, reproduced here with permission from the author, who wished to be identified only as “the anonymous postmodern aesthete.” Anyway, here’s the two notes, his first.
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They see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.”

I expect more from you bud. The NEA? They have not mattered in over a decade and have so shied away from controversy it is repugnant. Coming off your brilliant SOUTH PARK defense, the attack on Ofili seems especially misinformed and knee-jerk.

hvm.jpgFirst confession, I have not seen the painting in question in person. That said, I have seen numerous gallery and museum shows including Ofili’s work and while he ain’t totally my cup of tea I have never, ever seen smeared shit. He uses dried elephant dung, which resembles dried mud really and it often serves as a connection to the earth, mounting the painting or as an adjunct of the canvas — hanging off it like a piece of crisp biology. The reproductions of the offending painting put it in that camp as far as I can see. The use of this material (elephant shit) never suggests disrespect in the way that a Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley using shit might — it is so safe, dry, scentless, and aesthetically sculpted as to move beyond filth into something new.

On top of all that Ofili is a Roman Catholic of African descent and a native of England — he is exploring his African roots in his work, linked here.

Pay no attention to the gallerists and curators in the piece, rather, focus on Ofili’s stance. His work is no more blasphemous in my opinion than that of SOUTH PARK in which Jesus is hosting a hippie cable access talk show — the new age Donahue.
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Although I had forgotten the detail about genital cutouts from porn magazines (which would have made my point better and the relationship of which to African nature cults is unclear), I actually did know “The Holy Virgin Mary” had dried elephant poo, rather than a piece of toilet paper one second after human use.

The problem is that shit is shit — and to shit on is a signifier of waste, contempt, the lowest animality. At least in Western society, and Ofili is not a Hottentot ignorant of our conventions and language and symbology, you don’t use it, even “to make people think” or whatever other cant the curators care to use, on whatever one considers holy. He may be exploring his African roots (Zimbabwe is a rather odd place for a Nigerian to do that, but let that go), but he’s doing it on Western nickels and in a Western public space.

If I saw the painting in real life and it’s as you describe it and how it looks in that article you hot-linked for me, I might not figure out that it was shit, taking it for mud and maybe I would get the metaphor or maybe not (it sounds at one and the same time obscure and ham-fisted).

You tell me to ignore the curators, but you really can’t. Truth be told, I think that’s the real cause of the fact I have zero interest in the contemporary art world. Were I to see “The Holy Virgin Mary” and take it for mud, there’d still be a panel next to it or a program guide *telling me* it was shit and extolling the work’s daring at epatering the bourgeoisie and “asking questions,” and the narrative of “Pretentious Blaspheming Artiste” then clicks in and I check out. Even if it may be wrong in a given case, it’s hard to deny that the art world and the culture crowd are asking for (literally) this kind of reaction.

ofili.jpgFurther, I’m not so sure Ofili stands so apart from the curators. Here’s the article’s nut quote:

“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say any more.”

Refusing to explain his work, reducing it to interpretation disagreement, and, this is the richest part, *You never know what’s gonna offend people.* Really?

At some point in the future, I’ll write a lengthy exigesis of the portrayal of Jesus in SOUTH PARK. Suffice it for now to say that he is one of the few characters in the show who does not manifest a caricatured to-the-nth-degree extreme form of one or more vices.

November 18, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment