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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's been twenty years since Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and became a much-discussed and argued-about independent film sensation. The provocative film was made in Fort Wayne on a tiny budget with a crew made up mostly of local artists and craftsmen (The extras were local as well, while the three lead actors — Aaron Eckhart, Stacey Edwards, Matt Malloy — were brought in for the shoot.) LaBute's acerbic script and brutish dialogue made the movie a surprise hit and the film won many awards on the festival circuit — the Filmmaker's Trophy at Sundance, the "Best First Film" award from the New York Film Critics, the "Best First Screenplay" at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film went to France and competed in the Golden Camera competition at Cannes.
In Fort Wayne, the film played at Cinema Center for a special screening, and for the crew members present, it was a kick to see the finished product. It's not often that something made in Fort Wayne becomes the focus of national critical attention. The success of In the Company of Men didn't exactly lead to a stampede of Hollywood production companies invading the city, but it was still exciting to have the city associated with something noteworthy and buzzing around the zeitgeist. It served as a great calling card for Neil Labute as well, who parlayed the infamy and success of the film into a successful Hollywood career. (director of Nurse Betty, Lakeview Terrace, Death at a Funeral) in addition to his prolific work for the stage.
So 20 years have passed since the debut of the film, and in that time there's one thing that has become abundantly clear: no way in hell a film as dark and corrosive as In the Company of Men would ever be a critical hit in 2017. The movie is about misogynistic a-holes doing misogynistic a-hole things (not to be too dismissive of the plot) and that narrative is just not going to be accepted in this era. A similar movie might get made today — there are a lot more opportunities for independent filmmakers now than 20 years ago — but there's no way critics will like it. We are simply incapable of making the aesthetic distinction today that a movie featuring misogynists doesn't support misogyny in some way or isn't misogynistic itself.
It seems stupid to have to say this but artists are quite capable of using misanthropic and malevolent characters and notions in their works to make larger points about the human condition without necessarily supporting misanthropy and malevolence. It is possible, in theory, that an artist can make a fairly nuanced point about racism, sexism, homophobia, genocide, depravity, monstrosity, etc., that is complex and disturbing but doesn't pander to banal impulses toward generalization and platitude. ("Racism is bad." "Tolerance is good.") In a truly enlightened environment, an artist would have the freedom to tackle uneasy issues without having to worry whether the end product will make everybody feel good when they left the theater.
But of course, as that great American philosopher Drew Stevens once said, That ain't This. "Nuance" is on life-support in this era: if you're making a movie about lightning-rod issues, well, you'd better be unambiguous. I'm still a little stunned at the reaction to The Iron Lady, the 2011 film that won Meryl Streep her second Best Actress Oscar. I have a lot of friends who are Meryl Streep fanatics who flat-out refused to see the movie simply because Margaret Thatcher, the subject of the film, was anathema to them. They figured that seeing a movie that depicted Margaret Thatcher was tantamount to celebrating Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism itself. And if the director had the gall to try to humanize their pet "villain," well, then that director was evil, too.
Truth told, I had a prejudice against The Iron Lady as well, but it had nothing to do with Margaret Thatcher or the storyline or the Tory Party. No, my prejudice was against the director, Phyllida Lloyd, who made Mama Mia!, a movie so inept and bumbling that I can't bear to see another frame of anything she ever makes again. But that's an aesthetic rationale based on my conviction that she's a hack; the subject matter has nothing to do with it. I'd see a movie that portrayed Margaret Thatcher as Joan of Arc if it wasn't directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
I've even sat through a movie that tried to humanize Hitler — Menno Meyjes disastrous 2002 Max, starring John Cusack as an art dealer who befriends a struggling artist named Adolf. (At one point Cusack says something like, "C'mon Hitler, let's go out for a beer" and you just sit there, with your jaw hanging down.) The movie was widely derided when it was released (limited release, to be sure), and you can certainly see why: it's one of those movies that never manages to crawl out from under the weight of its awful premise. But I'll defend its right to be made; Meyjes was trying to perform a psychological autopsy on the most evil man of the 20th century, trying to figure out what made him tick. Anybody who sees this as an attempt to justify Nazism is simply an idiot.
Of course, it's possible for reviewers to swing too far in the opposite direction: some movies will get a clean pass if their intentions are noble enough or if they feature storylines about people who have been caricatured by previous movies. The Help, for instance, still feels like an awful movie to me, though I admit that its intentions are beyond reproach. But just because a movie is about decency and goodness and tolerance doesn't mean that it's any good. The film still has to earn that distinction.