LaBute, Solondz & the Contemporary Dark Comedy
by: Lindsay Dold
Major: American studies
In 1997 I had my cinematic awakening. I had always been a film “enthusiast,” seeing two or three new releases a week, but the fall of 1997 marked my metamorphosis from film enthusiast to film omnivore (translation: geek). In August 1997 I saw writer and director Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, and I was amazed by the power of this minimalist dark comedy. Henceforth my craving for satiric, dialogue-driven movies was insatiable.
A year later, I found myself at Southwestern, unsure of my major or where my amateur affinity for movies would take me. However, after some major-hopping and a good dose of kindly professorial guidance, I ended up an American Studies major concentrating on Film, Communication, and Political Science. A strange brew, I’ll admit, but it enabled me to take almost every film course offered at Southwestern.
What does all this mean? Well, it eventually led to undertaking an American Studies Honors Thesis that focused on film—specifically, contemporary dark comedies that have yet to be analyzed on theoretical or critical levels due to their recent conception. Returning to the roots of my film obsession, I chose to focus on Generation X filmmakers Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness) and Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors), both popular and controversial arthouse cinema writers and directors. My ultimate goal was to explore and correlate this recent trend of dark humor by examining the influences and dynamics of such dark comedies. “Influences” is twofold in this sense: 1) influences that have inspired the styles of these filmmakers, and 2) cinematic influences (or precursors) that have created a marketplace in modern American society for the popular reception of such films.
As I embarked on this personal and theoretical journey, I began to realize the necessity for more information about these filmmakers who had yet to be academically explored. With some research I discovered a treasure trove of interviews and information about them; unfortunately, this information was across the country in Los Angeles at the American Film Institute’s Louis B. Mayer Library, which does not lend or loan materials outside of the facility.
As a recipient of the King Creativity Fund 2001-2002, I was able to take a one-week trip in January to the American Film Institute to conduct further research. There I had access to film journals, texts, and audio interviews—generally reserved for students of the AFI Filmmaking Academy and Los Angeles filmmakers—that I could not have found in Texas libraries. Such information has served to elevate my Honors Thesis to new levels of comprehension and fluidity.
As my Honors Thesis comes to a close it remains a wholly different entity than what I had originally envisioned, analyzing much more than the twofold influences and dynamics of Solondz and LaBute. It has evolved into a project that examines the effects of deviating from conventional cinematic narratological structure, while also investigating the negotiation of genre boundaries. (Recognizing that genre must be fixed in time and space, my thesis suggests that genre theory is constantly in flux and in need of revision.) Ultimately, my work explores said films as socio-cultural and rhetorical tools of communication. My research of (what I have termed) “isolationist tragicomedies,” facilitates an understanding of their roles as cultural mirrors of modern American society.
Thanks to the support of the King Creativity Fund I have been able to create a multi-disciplinary thesis on a topical issue that has given way to another metamorphosis: from film geek to film scholar.