"THAT WAS BALLSY of Michael Crichton to say, 'You know, I think the first book on sexual harassment should be about a man who's sexually harassed.'" In town on a publicity tour, filmmaker Neil LaBute is describing Crichton's Disclosure as one of the precursors to his own contentious take on the subject, In the Company of Men. "[David] Mamet sort of did the same thing with Oleanna," LaBute says. "He dug right in." Yes, quite. But what about Men's relation to the oppressed-white-guy oeuvre of Michael Douglas (Disclosure, Falling Down, etc.)? "I like Douglas," LaBute says. "He has a way of sniffing out volatile material, putting his finger on the pulse, as they say. And I think it's because he's also a producer. He's shrewd."
As calculated provocation is the order of business all around, I'll admit to designing this critical litmus test as a means of nudging LaBute to disclose his own office politics, which are pretty tough to figure. Not unlike the men of Men--two junior execs who set about humiliating a hearing-impaired woman for sport--the first-time writer-director has a way of raising doubt if not distrust about his agenda, and often on purpose. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, where he took the Filmmaker's Trophy as well as some heat, LaBute answered a post-screening query about the victim's deafness by stating, "I've always found deaf people funny." When another viewer asked, "What's up with the black dude?"--apropos of a Mamet-ian scene in which one of the execs forces a black intern to strip down and show his balls--the filmmaker replied, "I guess I've always had a hankering for black dudes."
"You try to bring some levity to it," says LaBute, publicist now in tow. "But you forget, especially at Sundance, that people don't know you, that nothing's really been written about you." Or so it was then. Now Men has become grist for cautionary hype in Time and Newsweek, and a cause célèbre for a lot of New York critics. Yet the questions remain. "I had a screening yesterday in Denver," the director says, "and the first question was from a woman who asked, 'Why do you hate women so much?' My answer was, 'Well, I don't--but I'm willing to learn [laughs].' You try be light about it, but then you wonder if she was just trying to be provocative, like, 'Let's pin him to the wall, let's see how he likes it.'"
Speaking of paranoia, the privileged-male view that women are out to get them is rendered with some insight in Men; LaBute drew his businessmen's rabid repartee (e.g. "We're doomed--as a race!") in part from his fly-on-the-wall tenure at a software company. In addition, the film doubly reflects its maker's formal training as the author of agitprop plays with titles like Lepers and Bash: in its functional use of sets, certainly, but even more in its view of drama as a form of antagonism. "I'm most taken with movies and plays that connect so well with the audience as to seem like an affront," LaBute says, citing such provocateurs as Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and Mike Leigh.
"With Men, I tried to set up the premise in such a way as to keep you off guard for the full 90 minutes. Something that makes you go, 'How dare you? How can you be so familiar with me?'"
In other words, the viewer of Men, like its victim, is meant to suffer an invasion of privacy--and might well wonder why. Myself, I forgot to ask. But, as LaBute has managed to harass his way into a career, the chief villain in Men offers the following to explain his own manipulative exercise: "Because I could."
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