LaBute: A Latter Day Worry
In 2006, Neil LaBute released The Wicker Man, but many of his most dedicated fans didnít realize it. The film was a typical horror film of the blandest kind and LaBute defended its legitimacy. This came from the masterful director of In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. I, realizing it was LaBute, hoped for the best but was pained to realize the fate of this once talented director. Now any writing of his career in film might have to be a memoriam.
Neil LaButeís future in film doesnít look very good. In interviews for The Wicker Man he has already expressed interest in doing a sequel to the film. The poor performance of The Wicker Man at the box office could destroy that hope, but his desire to move forward with lackluster projects should be alarming. The pedigree Neil LaBute had to get to this point should suggest a different filmmaker and an entirely different attitude toward the material he deals with.
Neil LaBute first started out in theater. He studied theater at Brigham Young University and did graduate work at New York University and the Royal Academy of London. From there he taught both film and theater at the IPFW in Fort Wayne, Indiana. During the 1980s he was already a playwright, but in the 1990s he moved to incorporate film in his repertoire by making his first film, In the Company of Men, for $25,000. That script was originally a play. The film won him the Filmmakerís Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival while garnering nominations and awards at numerous other festivals around the world.
LaBute continued on by moving to large budget films. He also maintained his theatrical background by writing and directing plays with titles ranging from The Distance Here, The Mercy Seat and The Shape of Things. Each play (all unread by me) was catalogued works described as a progression of his two early successful films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Only The Shape of Things was adapted into a film. LaButeís follow up to Your Friends and Neighbors was the quirky comedy, Nurse Betty. It starred Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman and was uncharacteristically charming but also very characteristically bland. The writing was sharp but the film was served no special advantage with LaBute at the helm directing. He wasnít even trying to protect his writing. The writing wasnít his. It was done by someone else.
So the nature of Neil LaBute became epitomized by that situation. Possession and The Wicker Man stand as two larger budget films that drew much of his attention because their production values were so much higher than his independent films. Both films were also Hollywood material in every regard. LaBute bragged in interviews while promoting Possession that the ending of the film would surprise audiences for how genuinely heartfelt it was. He shouldnít have been bragging. The ending was genuinely heartfelt, but sophomoric on every level in artistry. His final theater adaptation, The Shape of Things, fell in between the glaring limelight of these two films. I sadly missed the film. I forget what force kept me from seeing it originally. Critical word on the film also wasnít that great. The film fell into line with the nature of In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors but wasnít seen as an evolution in either film.
Was there an evolution from In the Company of Men to Your Friends and Neighbors? Both films differ greatly in their filmmaking attribute because it is evident Your Friends and Neighbors is greatly balanced in a better budget. Editing is used to highlight those better sets instead of hide them like In the Company of Men with distant static shots. But, consider the characterization though. In the Company of Men focuses on the nature of a domineering masochist who is conniving against women and anyone that is competition against him in the workplace. Your Friends and Neighbors lifts the same type of character to play a secondary role. Unlike the first film, he is not the only character who is displaced to emotions. Other characters slowly show their colors of being adrift to emotion and sentimentality.
The immoralities in both films are not purely fictional. The characters rise out of social dilemmas and ideas to the modern male or female. Your Friends and Neighbors was a development over In the Company of Men in digging at societal comment. The nature of immorality was not easily predictable as in the one domineering masochist who dominated the screen time of the first film. The characters existed in realms that were more subtle and asked larger questions of our roles. Do complacent feelings in a relationship transcend to problems with the other or our inadequacy to show love? Your Friends and Neighbors didnít have all the answers. One imagines even that LaBute wasnít done asking his largest questions.
This is the dilemma of the playwright. He can only do so much on stage. Shakespeare graced the stage with epic battles, but only film could realize them. Thus the playwright has to focus on larger dramatic questions. He also has to focus on questions that can be contained in minor set changes through out a performance. Thus the reality of theater is that the drama is very inert. The plays that do try to achieve the epic in character focus and time period are still contained. Take for instance the play I, Anatolia by Gungor Dilmen. Itís an epic play on the evolution of women in the Middle East. It is contained to one woman monologues that scratch the surface of every time period and large problem women faced in that region. One comes away from reading the play impressed with the indulgence the play has for its subject but also feeling it was stretching its art a little too far. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, theater began to challenge its physical limitations of time and space. That challenge was one of the reasons that film caught fire so quickly with many talented people. A good percentage of people who were seriously making films in the early days were coming from theater.
Those who stayed with theater regarded its limitations with high esteem. The theater of Neil LaBute could fall in line with Bernard Shawís. Shaw worked in the late 1800s with comedies. In the early 1900s he turned those comedies on their head with comedies that were driven by ideas. Between 1903 and 1915 Shaw turned out an average of a play a year. The plays were driven by a perspective and theme. Shaw was challenging the basic ideals of Christianity and turning them on their head. Instead of providing an atheist viewpoint, Shaw dug at ideas that were out of belief. He challenged the bourgeoisie institution that Christianity became. Shaw didnít try to write a definitive play to preach his beliefs. Every play was a new challenge and a new avenue of criticisms.
Neil LaBute also offers similar challenges. Since his first two films, his career on stage has been a continuation of his potential. Consider the play, Bash: Latter-Day Plays. The play digs at the high morality of the Mormon religion by revealing the seedy actions capable of their everyday believers. LaBute himself left the religion by the time of this play. Then there is The Mercy Seat, a reflection of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. LaBute counteracts the ordinary by focusing on the affair of two people believed to be dead from the attacks. They spend the night of September 12th by debating what to do with their lives. Do they continue on as normal or start anew? LaBute poses greater questions than giving the simple renderings of humanity in struggle and peril. LaBute also interjects his own personality by having the play act as a battle of the sexes.
LaBute proves with his stage work that he can continue to do interesting work. Why has he veered off from similar ambitions in film? One of the reasons could be because he does come from theater to begin with. The tradition of theater has guaranteed many things. One guarantee is a respect for structures. One of the greatest arguments of the last century was the place of the tragedy in a modern context. Some say it ended with Shakespeare and some say it is able to continue on in modern plays. Critics arenít the only people really arguing this. Playwrights also argue these matters and do so in essays as well as plays. The reason is because many times playwright did begin either as a critic or a teacher (LaBute did the latter). Theater is an art that has more discipline and regards structure with greater care.
This could be how Neil LaBute approaches filmmaking projects. He respects the genres that film has created for itself and tries to utilize them the best that he can. He does try to rework the stories but always still in care of staying in bounds of the structure above the story. Other playwrights who have become filmmakers have shown a similar respect for genre. David Mamet keeps his writing voice in tact with his film gigs but has little problem of writing for a genre. He also has been an ever changing presence in theater. The merit of his depth still stands though in theater. I donít know of any play he has done that was as weak as his recent thriller, Spartan. Other filmmakers have taken opposite approaches. Ingmar Bergman began in theater and continued in theater after he retired from theatrical filmmaking in 1983. I canít think of one film that he did that ever bowed to a genre. He has used identities and themes of genres like horror in films like the Silence and Persona, but always done at the merging to his personality.
Ingmar Bergman approached film the smallest respect. He was able to advance the art of film further than most filmmakers by doing so. Neil LaBute and David Mamet continue to be capable of good work but minor effort when solely working for film. They are structuralists aware of the greater techniques. The greater truth is that film is still an infant art that needs to rest on innovation instead of technique. The influence of theater on film has more to do with practicality than anything else. Both arts were really shifting toward each other at the right time. Will film grow to become dominated by visual aesthetics? The questions are boundless. No one should have the answer. Neil LaBute should be on hand to be asking us some questions. His genre efforts have been painful. Letís hope the powers to be stop a sequel to The Wicker Man. Letís also hope LaBute gives the film world a bigger taste of what he is doing on stage. Not all of us are lucky to live in New York City.