You might normally find an appreciation of Neil LaBute under film or theatre – rather than discussion of him as an author. Actually, you might not find a written appreciation of Neil LaBute anywhere…his work hardly ever ends happily, barely starts out that way and usually gets toughest in the middle. He works without including the now necessary *Trigger Warnings* and for all of the great stuff that he has put his name to there’s several pieces (particularly in his filmography) where it feels like a case of What was he thinking? Or even, was he thinking?
I first found out about Neil LaBute because of the film he directed, based on his own play, In The Company of Men. Searing and brutal I think this is one of the greatest movie statements I’ve seen. It’s cold and cynical and so evil that its lead, the great Aaron Eckhart, was chased down the street for years after. Women were so sure he was the character he portrayed that he fended off rotten fruit and handbag-haymakers.
The movie has jarring, abrasive passages of free-jazz soundtrack to score the jarring, abrasive passages of dialogue – the characters and the setting don’t need naming, this is about men and women and the power-plays that occur in the workforce and when dominant alpha-males get off on the thought of crushing all around, just because they can.
It’s not a great date-movie. But it is an incredible film.
I was hooked. I watched the movie three times in one weekend – I needed to try to get inside it so I could unpack it.
Next thing LaBute is on my list. He’s a guy I needed to know about.
Turns out he wrote plays mostly (“power plays” perhaps?) And so I found a couple more films he had made, and then I got to the plays, firstly via performances – there was a thing for a while in Wellington, a run over a year or so where a bunch of LaBute plays were produced. Most of them were very good too. Good productions – particularly the reaction to September 11, The Mercy Seat.
Neil LaBute wrote a book of short stories called Seconds of Pleasure. I’m not sure how it is rated, but I really liked it. I liked it because it’s consistent with his work, another part of it. It also shows why he deserves to be thought of as an author, because for all of the scripting and directing and producing, for all of the plays and films (and most recently TV) it is the actual act of writing that seems to be what inspires him, what he is bound to. It is the exploration of these recurring themes – basically that we’re all awful, or capable of being awful; all selfish and if we’re not we’re only going to lose out most likely.
I’m fascinated by this because LaBute explores these notions in a largely non-judgemental way. Well, he allows his audience to judge. And then, quite often, there’s a flip. A twist. A wee switch. The character we were rooting for turns out to actually be the despicable one. Or the character that we hoped would make it out and can be seen tunnelling towards happiness is stopped short. Foot down. Killjoy is here.
It’s always brutal. And so I get that it’s not for everyone.
And because it’s always brutal I get that it could seem repetitive or that by not fully owning these stories and themes – his name is there but not his judgment – he’s being duplicitous. Well, I’m fascinated by his ability to continue to twist and turn these characters, and situations. His plays, his stories, his films they are all angles and avenues, all connected. And they are all riding on dialogue. That’s the key to his writing. To the worlds he creates. He makes people that say horrible things. He doesn’t make them say those horrible things, he creates them, then explores the areas they take him.
Well, that’s how I see, and hear and read his work.
Seconds of Pleasure is one of my favourite books to dip back into. And in waiting for a second set of stories or a novel I turned to the original plays and collected up as many of the scripts as I could. I’ve read most of them. Not all, but most. Some of them are better than others. Some don’t work on the page as well as they do on the stage. Some – such as the one-act plays in Bash (mostly a set of monologues) I’ve seen performed powerfully and convincingly but they still work on the page. Even after. Maybe more so, because there’s a gut-punch to so much of LaBute’s work that the return-visit brings a new visceral hit.
I don’t love all of his work, and admire him all the more for that. I like that there are weird failures within his work. Directing the remake of The Wicker Man. Why? Directing the remake of Death at A Funeral. Why?
But then he comes up and hits you. All over again. Some Velvet Morning was extraordinary. Well, I thought so anyway.
Those first three films though. Magic. Cruel and cold. And then the book. The best of the plays. And a couple more films after. The new television series too. That’s enough of a range right there.
Reading or watching LaBute, thinking about what made him think about the words he chooses, that he puts in the mouths of his characters only to let us watch how they’re used, I think of Pinter and Mamet and Albee and the bickering at the centre of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And I wonder what works had an impact on him. What worlds he explored before settling on the ones he creates now.
And inside the best of those works are nasty sentences that force you to react. And to wonder, then, about your reaction. Did you laugh? Did you laugh at the absurdity or because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry? Are you laughing at the audacity? Or is it because you can see the power of the words and the coldness of the characters and the exploration of the human psyche without any sugar coating? Is laughter always the best medicine? Will these questions ever stop?