Thursday, March 16, 2006

Aaron Eckhart on BYU and Mormonism

Required to be in the car around midday, I had the good fortune to notice two Mormon connections on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. Audio available here.

(Image: Katie Holmes as a reporter, left, and Aaron Eckhart as super-lobbyist Nick Naylor in the upcoming Thank You for Smoking.)

The first half hour was an interview BYU alumnus Aaron Eckhart, who has been in a number of films, including four directed and/or written by fellow BYU alumnus Neil LaBute. LaBute was a graduate student in, what, I guess Theater and Film or whatever they would call it, and Eckhart was an undergrad in the same department. I’m a fan of Eckhart’s; his relatively brief performance in LaBute’s Nurse Betty was particularly riotous.

(I also like LaBute’s work, though I’m not sure how to read his In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, both of which he wrote as well as directed. The two films explore similar dark and twisted emotional territory, with the emotional sociopath ending up with the sweet girl in both cases. What I can’t tell is whether these are intended as tragedies/dark comedies, intended as cathartic depictions of unusual pathological cases; or as realistic depictions of the typical state of human relations. The title Your Friends and Neighbors seems to suggest the latter, but if so I have a bit of a hard time relating to it. But then, I often find depictions of human interactions in literature or movies unrealistic or unconvincing—“What is this? People aren’t that petty and mean in real life,” I often find myself thinking. Perhaps I have simply lived a sheltered existence.)

Anyway, in today’s interview (occasioned by his new film Thank You for Smoking), there is some discussion of how LaBute’s work didn’t fit in well at BYU, how they were locked out of the theater and had performances cancelled, how they did single unauthorized performances at like 8am, how he took a film ethics class from LaBute, how neither he nor LaBute—the department’s two most famous alumni, at least before Napoleon Dynamite came along—have ever been invited back. He did express warm feelings towards his Mormon upbringing, saying that it taught him certain values he appreciates, and something along the lines of ‘once a Mormon, always a Mormon, something that’s always a part of you that you can’t get away from’ and so on. Oh, and sisters, he said he’s 38 and childless, and joked about not getting too old to have children (whether or not he’s single did not come up).

The second half hour had an interview with journalist Elizabeth Weil, who recently wrote about the issue of ‘wrongful birth’ in The New York Times Magazine. Weil spoke of spontaneously answering her daughter’s question about where she was before birth with an answer like, ‘floating up in the sky,’ together with her sister—which seemed to be a great comfort to her daughter, but it was also an answer that distressed Weil in connection with her abortion of a fetus expected to have severe disabilities. Anyway, I found it interesting that the notion that a pre-mortal life may be as naturally imagined and desired as a post-mortal life, and I wondered why it doesn’t come up more often.


Of the LaBute/Eckhart films the only one I've seen in In the Company of Men.  Eckhart's character in that movie is the worst movie villain ever, in my opinion.

I didn't see In the Company of Men as trying to represent reality--no way a man would demand to see another man's equipment. I see Eckhart's character as kind of an embodiment of the cutthroat, misogynistic, dehumanizing aspects of the ladder-climbing business world and/or capitalism in general (if a leftist reading is possible it's always a safe bet--all those pinkos in Hollywood . . .).

Like you, I'm always aware of the silly and absurd way characters act in movies. I usually forgive it if it's in the service of something good.

You know, you're showing your true colors, man. Every true Mormon would attribute Weil's inclination to believe in a pre-mortal existence to the Light of Christ. You're such a Spinozist.  

Comment by Tom | 3/16/2006 11:13:00 PM  

Tom,  I've only seen the movies once each, and haven't listened to the cast and crew commentary, nor read much of anything about them either, so I could easily be wrong---but both factors internal to In the Company of Men  and the fact that similar territory is covered by Your Friends and Neighbors outside of a corporate setting suggest to me that the business world and capitalism per se are not the main targets, but are somewhat incidental (this despite the potential pun of "Company" in the title).

As for Weil, even considering the Light of Christ the source of her idea, I still am curious to know whether it is common for people to find the thought that they didn't exist before birth to be as distressing as the thought that they won't exist after death. (By the way, after re-studying the various sides of the issue in depth she doesn't in the end regret her painful decision.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/17/2006 08:51:00 AM  

I try to stay away from his 'R' rated garbage. Don't you have better things to do than analyze his trash?

What about your blog's goal to "hold fast that which is good"? 

Comment by Karter | 3/17/2006 09:30:00 AM  

I hope it was clear that I was joking with you in my final paragraph. I wouldn't presume to tell anyone that they're not a "true Mormon."

That's an interesting way of asking the question, whether the thought of no pre-mortal existence is as distressing as the thought of no post-mortal existence. I would expect not, because it's past. There's nothing to fear in the past.

I may well be off the mark in identifying the business world as the target. In fact, that does seem kind of trivial and obvious. I know a lot of people find LaBute's work to be cruelly misanthropic, so maybe the real target is human nature. But I have a hard time with that reading because Eckhart's character doesn't act like any human I've ever known. He would seem to be an exceptional case, to say the least. I don't think we're meant to believe that the story is plausible (again, demanding to see a guy's unit . . . no way). 

Comment by Tom | 3/17/2006 11:29:00 AM  

Karter,  we have to decide what's good, don't we? Don't forget the "prove all things" part, as well as my aim for insight from culture "high and low." Discomfiting depictions of undesirable and even evil behavior does not necessarily make something trash. There clearly are some valuable reasons making such depictions, or else the Bible and Book of Mormon would also be trash. So there needs to be further elucidation of what makes something "trash." Do you make such distinctions on anything other than an R rating? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/17/2006 08:56:00 PM  

Tom,  you are free to say I'm not a true Mormon, and I won't take offense. When my thoughts wander off the reservation, unlike some others I don't ask for it to be considered legitimate Mormonism, but instead prefer to recognize that I have real doubts and differences.

I do think the target in In the Company of Men  was human nature. Ekhart's character is extreme, but forcing someone to disrobe is not a completely unknown means of humiliation. Think Abu Ghraib, fraternity hazing (e.g. in Old School as I recall), etc. Even the crucifixion, according to my BYU New Testament teacher... 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/17/2006 09:14:00 PM  

A written interview  with Eckhart at Salon (noted at Times and Seasons). 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/17/2006 09:51:00 PM  

. . . according to my BYU New Testament teacher . . .

Ha! Citing the authority of a BYU religion professor? You are a true Mormon afterall.

A BYU religion professor of mine once drew on the board the hierarchy of authoritativeness of various sources of Gospel information. I can't remember if the standard works or the official communications of the First Presidency were highest, but at the very bottom, below the random next door neighbor, was BYU religion professors. Of course, it's hard to know how valid that hierarchy is given the source, but that's the standard I live by.

I'm extra aware of my lack of authority to judge the validity of other people's Mormonness after being told yesterday by an ex-member elsewhere online that I'm a "cafeteria Mormon" because I don't believe in a lot of what's in The Journal of Discourses and, later, that because I don't consider polygamy to be "God's mode of marriage" I must be embarassed by the unique aspects of Mormonism and that I, therefore, must not belong.

My perspective on In the Company of Men just changed. I just finished watching the documentary Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room. There is some apalling stuff there. The recordings of these foul-mouthed energy traders--the ones who helped Enron exacerbate (or create?) California's energy crisis--joking with one another about defrauding little old ladies (which they were knowingly doing) and rejoicing at the news of wildfires ("Burn, baby, burn!") was chilling. It reminded me of how bad we suck sometimes. I usually do a good job at convincing myself that humans are essentially good, but stuff like that makes the Eckhart character seem a little more human. 

Comment by Tom | 3/18/2006 03:55:00 AM  

Well, I don't think that's the most useful use of the term "cafeteria Mormon," so I wouldn't be bothered by such people. Picking and choosing among the unanimous positions of the current  1P and Q12 is the I would use the term.

That Enron movie is one I'm keen to see. (By the way, great links on your blog---I'm a big fan of Metacritic. Also interesting movie and music choices in your profile...) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/18/2006 03:30:00 PM  

CC, can't say that I've seen Smoking (or any other LaBute film), but it sounds a little bit like The Coca-Cola Kid with Eric Roberts. As for BYU's inability to embrace successful alums who aren't G-rated, I think it's too bad. Nothing that a substantial financial contribution to the film department couldn't remedy ... 

Comment by Dave | 3/19/2006 08:14:00 PM  



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