Sunday, December 04, 2005

Neil LaBute and LDSness

A friend of mine asked me to write a few thoughts about Neil Labute, the LDS director of Nurse Betty and writer of several controversial plays. I went to see Fat Pig when I was in New York early this year, and that was my first exposure to Neil's work.

Fat Pig is a story about an attractive, health conscious, salad-eating, aspiring corporate executive guy who meets an obese girl in a diner at lunch one day. They hit it off immediately and begin dating, and the play explores the social consequences of this decision as our health-conscious guy deals with his superficial and even nasty co-workers at the office. Once they find out he is dating her, they do and say the most terrible, offensive things to make him reconsider dating this fat girl. The play is undeniably well-written; the dialogue was very smart, and you could see Neil's immense talent throughout the play.

My problem with the play was the impossible extreme poles these characters lived in. The fat girl eats like crazy, to the point of compulsion at times, and late in the play, when she and the guy (I can't remember their names) are having a heart-to-heart discussion about her weight, she understands the pressure he feels from his coworkers is really weighing on him. At that point, she offers the solution: "I can have my stomach stapled..." as if that is the only option available to her. We are presented with the proposition that fat people are driven to stomach stapling by the cruel, superficial rest of us, and reasonable suggestions, such as a healthy attention to diet coupled with exercise, are not even mentioned as possible lifestyle changes for fat people; either those lifestyle options don't exist or they are not useful to the playwright in his desire to make a point.

Furthermore, the play depicts only two kinds of observers of fat people; people who are either wholly accepting, open-minded, and able to focus only on the person's inner beauty, or people who are superficial, cruel, and nasty. Again, there is no reasonable middle ground here; the only people depicted in this play are at extremes of some kind: fat, compulsive overeater/obsessively fitness-conscious, or superficial and nasty/totally accepting of the whole person. Maybe that is a useful depiction of people for the purposes of the play, but my feeling is that most people are in between both sets of extremes. That said, even though I was bothered by the absence of a single moderate, reasonable voice in the play, I did enjoy the play and I was deeply impressed with Neil's talent as a playwright.

Now onto the broader question that comprises the title of this posting: should someone of the LDS faith be writing and directing works of art that are this vulgar, offensive and controversial?

My guess is that most LDS people would say no, and they might remark something to the effect that "Neil LaBute must be a lapsed Mormon, someone who doesn't really embrace his faith." But what if he is not a lapsed Mormon, and he is very active in the Church? I personally don't know this about Neil, but if he is an active, believing member of the Church, does he have a responsibility to always use his gifts to create uplifiting, inspiring works of art?

Orson Scott Card once addressed this question in an essay called "The Problem of Evil in Fiction," and I wish I had it on hand. He talked about people's reactions to his own depictions of evil in his books, and he mentioned the ruckus that occurred when he and the Ensign staff placed a graphic on the magazine that showed a tobacco pipe. Some members of the Church went berzerk, and if I remember correctly, people were calling in and threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

My personal feeling is that a lot of people have a worldview that successfully filters out a lot of the darker parts of human nature. I know a lot of LDS folks who seem to live in perpetual sunshine and inspirational bliss, and several offerings in the LDS film genre reflect this desire to avoid any portrayals of evil that the viewer might possibly be able to identify with. The bad guys are really bad, with unshaven faces and a drunken, vulgar demeanor. They even probably belch and stuff. They are sooo not like us.

On the other hand, artists like Richard Dutcher have shown evil and given it a much more familiar face. Dutcher's second movie, Brigham City, is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it explores the reality of evil among a group of very good people. I think a lot of LDS people shunned that movie because it was "too dark" for their sensibilities, and they couldn't believe something that disturbing would come from the mind of a fellow Mormon. I thought it was deeply inspiring, and I wonder if my ability to stomach the darkness in Brigham City may be due to my own exposure to a lot of human insanity growing up in Southern California. In any case, I was able to endure the evil in the plot and see a much greater good in the movie's resolution. It was fantastic.

But with Neil LaBute's work, there is no resolution, no lesson I can see that gives the evil he protrays a purpose in the play. He's not working towards a greater good, at least that I can discern. I guess if there was a moral or lesson one could take away from fat pig, it would be "Watch your back; people can be very awful and cruel sometimes." Putting on my amateur shrink hat for a moment, I wonder if the playwright is using these plays as some kind of therapy for his own soul, creating these phenomenally bad characters (who have some basis in reality given the state of our culture), and then sitting back and looking at them and feeling better about his own shortcomings because hey, "When it comes to badness, I've got nothing on these people I've created!" I'm not sure what Neil's motivations are for creating the art he creates, and that brings me to really the only useful question and answer we can ask and give about him:

Q: How should we feel about a member of the Church who creates very dark art for a living?

A: We should be overjoyed that he is one of us, no matter what is going on in his playwright mind. We should hope that someday he will use those talents (and they are exceptional) to produce something that will inspire people to be better than they are, instead of just depicting bad people and human failings. But even if he never changes the way he works, he is no less our brother and friend. We may wince at his work sometimes, but that should not detract at all from our acceptance of him as a member of family of the Church.

My irreverent message to Neil would be: Neil, we'd like you to write something pleasant at least once in a while, but if you're going to write plays about bad people doing bad things, then write them well.

And where do I get tickets?

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