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The Moralist 

Neil LaBute, Latter-Day Filmmaker

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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Page 4 of 7

--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.

Yet as is evident from his rogues' gallery of male rapists, killers and just plain sick fucks, LaBute's biggest problem isn't with women, but with his own sex. "Yeah," he admits, "there's a preponderance of bad men in my work." One overly reductive explanation is his father, who was absent from home because of his hours on the road, and LaBute avers that "often there were periods of tension when he was around, because he was a very strong personality." But his take on men and women and the space between them seems more complex than this freeze-dried pop psychology. In the spirit of confession, the filmmaker volunteers that his interest in suspect male behavior may spring from his patriarchal church, or may be one of the reasons he was drawn to the church in the first place.

"I was once asked if it could have been two women who plotted together in In the Company of Men," he says. "I said that it seemed particularly male, and what it was was the hunt, which was as exciting to them as the capture. A woman could be as deceptive and harsh, but it would be a singular attack rather than something that was done in that sort of one-upmanship." LaBute isn't a misogynist, but his tendency for letting women more easily off the hook proves that neither is he an enlightened feminist. Two of the plays in bash feature characters who kill their children. The crime committed by the woman, as well as its rationale, is telegraphed by the play's title, medea redux; the man kills his baby for purely selfish reasons in a play titled iphigenia in orem (as in Orem, Utah). A restless thinker who calls himself cynical and hopeful at once, LaBute is finally far more preoccupied with questions of sin and guilt than with those of gender. "There's been a thread of betrayal through a lot of the things I've written because I think that is the most potent thing that happens between people, and people who profess to know each other well," he says. "Intimate betrayals are infinitely fascinating."

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