A portrait of the artist as a fat, middle-aged man
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.
And 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.”
All 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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