Sunday, July 31, 2016

Shapes and spellings

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

As Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things starts, a woman stands in front of a sculpture of a nude male that she intends to deface – the figleaf, clumsily imposed after the artist’s death to satisfy someone’s sense of decency, offends her artistic sensibility. The attendant approaches; they strike up a conversation. He doesn’t talk her out of defacing the statue, but he gets a date out of the encounter, and then a relationship. And then she motivates him to lose weight, and to get a better haircut, and even a nose job. He feels great, but his two best friends watch the changes in him with suspicion.

LaBute’s debut was the acerbic The Company of Men. He followed it up with Your Friends and Neighbours, at which point he already had a reputation as a savage, disillusioned observer of contemporary relationships. I found the first film witty and only a little overrated, but the second seemed to me a pointless ‘plague on all your houses’ routine. LaBute then made two films from other people’s screenplays – Nurse Betty and Possession – both of which extended his range but achieved no particular impact. However, by now he was maintaining a dual career in the theater, where his work, distilled and stripped-down, revealed no softening. The Shape of Things began as a play, and the new film has the original four-person cast from London and New York (Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd as the couple; Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller as the friends).

The Shape of Things

It’s hard to discuss the film without giving away the ending, which I don’t want to do, so suffice to say that it’s about the twisted motives that shape human interaction, and it’s also about the perverse demands of art and creation. The revelation, delivered in a formal setting, looks like it would have been an effective piece of theater, and the movie doesn’t really try to disguise its origins. It’s divided into clearly demarcated scenes, with much of the key action happening off screen, and it’s lit as clearly and crisply as a stage, or a laboratory.

That said though, this is a film, and the way we apprehend LaBute’s theme surely shifts accordingly. Although I found it interesting, it seemed to me there’s an in-built redundancy here. Cinema always manipulates character and spectator alike – it’s always artifice masquerading as truth. The same is true in theater of course, but the manipulation of the spectator isn’t as complete, and the illusion of reality isn’t as gripping – the audience member participates more consciously in the creation of an imaginary space. In cinema, a revelation of deception is just another day at the office.

Which is why, rather weirdly, The Shape of Things is a cousin to The Matrix and Identity and that whole genre of “meta” movies I wrote about a few weeks ago. Things are not what they seem – a discovery that may or may not pack a philosophical punch. If, as I do, you go through life with the basic assumption that you’re always missing something, then it’s hard to be impressed with a film that merely confirms your suspicions and self-doubt.

Not that LaBute’s film, taken scene by scene, isn’t intriguing. But it lacks much spontaneity (perhaps inevitable given his and the actors’ familiarity with the material); it always feels that we’re being pushed along. Weisz’ performance, which is key to the success of the premise, sums up the tone: it’s interesting, not without nuance, but fearlessly efficient – the effect is more like a schoolteacher than a creator. Unexpectedly, Gretchen Mol creates the most intriguing character, simply because she’s the most recognizably vulnerable and tentative.


Still, The Shape of Things is a film of ideas, and even if you doubt how many dimensions its shape of things really has, you feel provoked and engaged. But LaBute’s film hasn’t been as well received as Jeff Blitz’ Spellbound, which was nominated this year for a best documentary Oscar. The film’s first hour introduces us to eight diverse children who are all headed for the national Spelling Bee championship in Washington; the last half-hour gives us the drama of the contest itself.

It’s an inherently appealing premise, and Blitz delivers it effectively. Still, the movie annoyed me more and more as it went along, because it’s less a paean to the Spelling Bee than to the greatness of the United States. The contest, as presented here, serves primarily as a stirring symbol of American diversity – proof that the humble and the privileged alike can stand shoulder to shoulder on the road to greatness. One of the fathers, a prosperous Indian immigrant, shows off the showcase home he built for himself, and says that America’s the only country in the world where you can achieve anything you want through hard work; the film makes variations on this same point time and time again.

At the same time, Spellbound does expose something of America’s complacent underbelly. One of the girls is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who doesn’t speak English, and his employer tells the camera about how he’s one of the good Mexicans, proving they’re not all lazy and unreliable. One of the Indian kids has a teacher who speaks about how she’s always delighted to have Indian children in her class because they have such a good work ethic. I suppose these views have some kind of grounding in the speakers’ direct experience, but they show how the melting pot only melts so far. The most intriguing child to me, named Anna, is the most striking exception to both nurture- and nature-based theories. She’s a rather solemn kid with blue-collar parents that she compares to Archie and Edith Bunker, and seems to be growing up almost in her own self-contained space, demonstrating little of her parents’ direct influence.

Ideologically driven

The movie acknowledges lightly that the Spelling Bee may be creaky, nerdy, not the most relevant event in the whole world, but this seems simply like a ploy of anticipating criticism, the better to brush it aside. It’s an American Institution – who could carp? Well, actually, given the current shape of things, it’s tempting to see it as a manifestation of the country’s penchant for getting its priorities spectacularly wrong. This is obviously an ideologically driven criticism, but then the most striking thing about Spellbound is that it’s such an ideologically driven movie. The more I think about it, the more I think I’d like to deface it.

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