Jungle Love

Why, when it comes to romance, do we treat each other so badly? Laura Miller reviews two new movies which investigate that question

Topics: Documentaries, Coupling, Movies,

You’d never know from watching Hollywood movies how bitter things can get
between men and women these days. Onscreen, boy still meets girl and knows
instantly that she’s the one — or else they clash at first, but soon find
themselves gliding deliciously into each other’s arms. Everyone knows what happens ever after — why bother with the details? Romance, along with impossibly agile and resourceful action
heroes, is part of the brain candy that the movies feed us when we flee our
vexed lives and seek refuge in a dark theater.

Neil LaBute is one of those directors who wants to put a vision on the
screen that’s nearly as dark as the auditorium we sit in, and he intends
that vision to reflect the people in the seats. Last year, his tale of two
corporate managers plotting to break the heart of a deaf typist, “In the
Company of Men,”
seemed unconvincing and calculated, a bid for controversy.
With his new film, “Your Friends and Neighbors,” he delivers a more
plausible, richer ensemble piece about six urbanites playing musical beds.
The result is like a Woody Allen film (“Hannah and Her Sisters” or
“Husbands and Wives”) without the goofiness and lovable neurotic schtick as
a softener. LaBute has made a comedy this time around, but it’s not so much
black as simply bleak.

The other difference between LaBute and Allen (his most obvious influence,
along with David Mamet) is that both of LaBute’s movies have been stomping
grounds for the Antichrist. In “In The Company of Men,” Aaron Eckhart’s
Chad exercises his power to cause pain with a cold-blooded, motiveless
relish; “Because I could” is his answer when another character asks him
why. In “Your Friends and Neighbors,” Jason Patric plays Cary, a guy whose
every moment on screen is devoted to demonstrating his malevolence, whether
he’s fondly reminiscing about participating in a homosexual gang rape in
high school or terrorizing a lover who dares to get her period while
sleeping on his 320-thread-count sheets. LaBute doesn’t create bad guys, he
creates fiends, which may be the most detectable sign of the
director’s Mormonism. It was Hannah Arendt, after all — a Jew like Woody
Allen — who came up with the idea of the banality of evil. LaBute will
have none of it. Cary seems like such a patent psychopath (Patric plays
him with scary, compressed rage) that you can’t help wondering why the
other characters go anywhere near him.



What LaBute asks is a question that has all too rarely occupied filmmakers
of late: Why, in the name of love, do we treat each other so badly? Combine
the dissolution of shared courtship rituals and sexual rules after the ’60s
and ’70s with the romance-drunk pop culture that saturates every corner of
contemporary life and you have a recipe for disaster — or a least a recipe
for 10,000 Cosmopolitan articles. Boy gets girl is just the beginning of
the story, the easy part. What about when boy vanishes without explanation,
or girl dumps boy because the novel he’s writing stinks, or boy asks girl
for a divorce so he can marry another girl half his age, or girl decides
what she really wants right now is another girl, or boy announces that he’s
always seen himself with someone with a tighter butt, or girl announces
that she’s just not cut out for a monogamous relationship? All of which
have happened to various people I know. Hollywood movies took a few stabs
at depicting this melee in the ’70s — films like “Carnal Knowledge” and
“Shampoo” — but the anti-romantic comedy has been in short supply of late.

That makes LaBute’s film an interesting departure, despite his Miltonian
temperament and the frosty moralism that wafts through “Your Friends and
Neighbors.” On the one hand, it’s refreshing that he can muster so much
outrage at the notion of adulterous doings behind the fagades of perfect
marriages, but on the other he doesn’t really understand that betrayal,
more often than not, is the result of weakness and self-delusion. LaBute
doesn’t pay much attention to the consequences of the cheating indulged in
by Jerry, a narcissistic drama teacher (played by the wonderfully
squirm-inducing Ben Stiller), and Mary (Amy Brenneman), the sexually
bewildered wife of his best friend. He’s much more fascinated by ruthless,
heartless alpha males like Cary and Chad, and the way other men admire them
and tacitly endorse their atrocities. As far as LaBute is concerned,
cruelty is a secondary sex characteristic, just part of being a guy, and
the more testosterone coursing through your veins, the meaner you are.

In my experience, though, squirrely, self-pitying guys like Jerry (or, for
that matter, Woody) wreak more romantic carnage — all in the name of true
love, of course — than sadistic puppetmasters. (In fact, I’m not sure I’ve
ever even met a sadistic puppetmaster, but then I, unlike LaBute’s characters, don’t spend much time in men’s steam rooms asking guys to describe their best fuck. And you
gotta wonder who does.) For all that LaBute likes to declaim about his own
unblinkered frankness when it comes to human perfidy (“this is the way life
is,” he told one interviewer), no one’s going to look at Patric’s creepy,
Nietzschean Cary and think, “Oh, God, that’s me,” any more than most of us
can identify with Hannibal Lecter. Evil, in LaBute’s cinematic universe, is
purely a spectator sport.

That universe doesn’t include anyone like the four single New Yorkers in
Nicholas Barker’s “Unmade Beds,” real people who play themselves in this
scripted documentary. Barker’s unusual technique — he wrote the screenplay
based on interviews with his subjects, then had them perform their own
statements (giving them considerable control over how they present
themselves) — makes “Unmade Beds” more complex than its premise suggests.
Barker ends the film with four long, silent, motionless shots of each of
his subjects staring directly into the camera, challenging us to judge
them. That’s the director’s crudest move, probably intended to deflect
charges of exploitation, but it’s entirely unnecessary. By the end of
“Unmade Beds,” if you feel enough distance from these people to pity them,
then you’re the one who’s emotionally deficient.

Barker’s toughest case is Michael De Stefano, an unsuccessful 50ish
“screenwriter” with a penchant for black shirts and aviator shades, who
describes his shag-carpeted home as “my cave. This apartment says to every
woman who comes here, ‘You’re here to fuck. If you don’t want to fuck,
leave.’” That bit of bravado could have been written for one of LaBute’s
monsters, but not too far into “Unmade Beds” you realize that no women have
been around to receive the cave’s message in quite some time. By day, De
Stefano types out hard-boiled dialogue and tells Barker, “I don’t go out with
mutts,” but by night he eats his share of humble pie. Recounting one date,
he says, with impassive dignity, “She told me she’d be embarrassed to
introduce me to her friends because my position in life is not high enough.” Later, in another eerie echo of LaBute’s steam room confessionals, he recounts the peak of his sex life (sleeping with three different women in the course of two days). He pauses, then volunteers that if he’d been faithful to any of them, he wouldn’t be alone today.

The rest of the foursome in “Unmade Beds” includes Aimee and Mikey, at 28
and 40 respectively, both terrified that they’ll never get married. Mikey
blames his height (5-foot-4) and visits a “dating coach” who warns him that he
comes across as a bit too “intense.” Aimee doesn’t blame her weight (220
pounds) for her predicament, and she can still laugh off the “worst date of
my entire life” with her best friend, but she refuses to try a dating
service because “it’s my last resort. What do I do if that doesn’t work?”
Finally, there’s Brenda, an aging, wisecracking sexpot, who doesn’t really
want a man at all. “Dick is easy to get. You just reach out anytime and you
grab a dick. What I need is cash.” In exchange for her still much-sought-after favors,
she seeks a fellow “who will give me money, help me with the things I need, and go away.”

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Brenda, the one with the fewest
romantic expectations, is the only person in “Unmade Beds” who seems
remotely at home in the world. She can even stand in front of a mirror,
cataloging the slow deterioration of her scantily clad body (“everything’s
moving around, and I don’t like it”) without capsizing into agonized
self-hatred. Still, for all the considerable despair they endure, Aimee and
Mikey keep trying. Even De Stephano, who mostly lives in a Mickey
Spillane-esque fantasy world (“When I bleed, I like to bleed alone”),
doesn’t lie to himself about his past mistakes and the long odds he now
faces. You can see how disappointment — not cold-blooded sadism –
sometimes leads these people to lash out (as when Mikey berates a potential
date for hanging out with gay men) at a world that doesn’t fulfill all
their Hollywood-fueled dreams. But you can also see that they’re human
beings, and like the rest of us, they aren’t beyond redemption.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>