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The Moralist 

Neil LaBute, Latter-Day Filmmaker

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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It was while at Brigham Young that he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When asked why, LaBute, a big guy with a baby face under ã glasses and a thicket of whiskers, answers freely. "You have to remember," he says, "I was going to a school where you're asked to take 12 hours of religious coursework. You're surrounded -- I mean, in Salt Lake you could find quite a disparity of people, but in Provo, 45 miles down the road, and certainly on campus, it was probably 97 percent [Mormon] -- you're literally surrounded. Everywhere you go you're getting the same kind of sell. Sometimes it's a very, very soft sell and sometimes there's a harder sell. Being surrounded by all that was a bit intoxicating. For myself, I can't imagine how it couldn't be. I still find that, as a religion, it makes as much sense -- and ultimately more -- than anything else that I've come in contact with. The idea of a modern prophet seems no more ludicrous, if you will, than the idea of an ancient prophet."

LaBute's Mormonism has been a subject of some discomfort in the media, addressed more as an article of kitsch than of faith. Read enough interviews and reviews, and you begin to understand why he prefers to live with his wife and two children outside Chicago rather than in Los Angeles or New York. A review of Nurse Betty in the current Gear, in which LaBute is tagged as the "Stormin' Mormon," exemplifies the cruder extreme of this unease: "Shit, even misanthropic Mormons have feelings. Who knew?" Even when LaBute's religious identity isn't the issue, it informs much of the critical language. In a bitingly funny and generally approving review of Your Friends & Neighbors, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice nonetheless reproached the film's "giddy sense of puritan revenge -- as though the filmmaker's dream audience would be watching these antics from the stocks."

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."

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