By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
LaBute isn't a puritan, not even in the colloquial sense of the word (though as a Latter-day Saint he remains caffeine, alcohol and nicotine free, even here in Babylon). No matter how ugly its sentiments, his work evidences his pleasure in both its content (however ineptly, his characters are continually pursuing pleasure) and its form, particularly language and performance. At the same time, it's clear that for LaBute the pursuit of pleasure is freighted with danger and -- this is the kicker -- a wholly, and inevitably, moral proposition. This ties him to his younger contemporary Kevin Smith, who pounds at Catholic dogma like some punk Luther, as well as Martin Scorsese, for whom issues of faith, sin and redemption are always at stake, whether in the mean streets of New York or the mountains of Tibet. Although plenty of film critics believe that LaBute has gone beyond good and evil, to the point of amorality, it's clear that he hasn't, although he sees this essential dialectic operating more in his stage work. Specifically, in the critically acclaimed 1999 trilogy bash, which is about Mormons and mortal sin and references various Greek tragedies.
"I'm interested, in the plays I've written, with the idea not just of sin," he says, "but of guilt, and what people can get away with. Have they gotten away with something just because no one knows?" The three one-act plays that compose bash pivot on shocking violence -- two murders, one possible murder -- for which each character has, in the legal sense, remained unpunished. In the psychological or spiritual sense, of course, none has -- which becomes evident as each narrates his or her crime in the casual language of everyday violence that is LaBute's idiom, his grammar. LaBute is fascinated with the human compulsion to spill our guts, which he describes as "the sort of confessional quality of bash. That's probably why I'm so drawn to the monologue, that very serviceable thing in the theater that allows us to look into a character. A character can suddenly address the audience and make a connection that he can't make with anyone on stage. I love scratching away at that fourth wall between an audience and a production, and saying we're uncomfortably close. I love nothing more than doing theater in a space that holds 30 people and bringing the action into their laps."
"I just think for right now we need to treat each other like . . . meat. Right? Didn't we read that? You need to see me as a big . . . penis. And you need to be just this huge . . . vagina. To me."
--Your Friends & Neighbors
LaBUTE'S GIFT FOR UNEASY INTIMACY IS PART of what has earned him accolades as a playwright. (Writing in The New Yorker, drama critic John Lahr called LaBute "an original voice, and the best new playwright to emerge in the past decade.") That same gift has defined him as a filmmaker, and won him as many passionate detractors as admirers. Although he's earned enthusiastic notices from film critics as dissimilar as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum and The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, he has also inspired unusually inflamed negative reviews. Writing in the L.A. Times, Kenneth Turan dubbed In the Company of Men a "psychological snuff film." For Turan, LaBute's second film only confirmed that his was "a cinema of humiliation, embarrassment and misery, the celluloid equivalent of a round-the-clock news station that offers all jerks, all the time."
"LaBute is about serious statements about middle-class people, supposedly, and gross-out stuff too," says Kent Jones, a contributing editor at Film Comment and programmer for New York's prestigious Walter Reade Theater. "But I would much rather watch Jim Carrey taking a dump than suffer through Your Friends & Neighbors' Jason Patric telling the story of raping a guy in a locker room. I have nothing against movies that are unpleasant. Pasolini's Salo is the ultimate example of that -- it's very unpleasant to watch, but it's productively unpleasant. This is a moment in history where people can avail themselves of what I would call an Instant Transgression Erector Set. LaBute is selling people on the idea that he's performing transgressive acts with his movies, and he's doing nothing of the kind. He's either conning himself or he's conning us. He seems to be a very smart guy, so I assume that he's conning us. In any case, he's conning somebody."
Humiliation, misery and cynicism notwithstanding, the most common critical charge lobbed against LaBute is the most wildly off-target. Because he has a talent for summoning up uglier human truths -- he finds poetry under every rock -- LaBute is repeatedly accused of being a hater; again and again, he is accused of the very thing his films take aim at: misogyny. What put critics on edge and on notice with In the Company of Men, besides the metronome dialogue and David Mamet inflections (the title alludes to one of Mamet's essays), was LaBute's refusal to either prettify or excuse male hatred of women, a strategy often misread as sympathy. But it was with Your Friends & Neighbors, or six characters in search of a sex life, that LaBute transformed from promising indie filmmaker into cultural flash point. Suddenly, his name became shorthand for a variety of sins, mostly committed by men. In an essay pegged to Susan Faludi's book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, culture coroner James Wolcott lumped LaBute (or rather, "the needling misogyny of Neil LaBute") with South Park, The Man Show, Maxim magazine, Adam Sandler and the Farrelly Brothers as key practitioners of the "guy humor and horniness" that dominated pop culture in the '90s.
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