In her last re-view, Stevi Costa promised “an intellectual contemplation about the body, art, and performance.” Lo and behold, here’s another look at Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things.
Moralists have no place in an art gallery.
That’s the phrase imprinted on the wall of the gallery at Evelyn’s MFA exhibition project “She Loves Me Not,” a human sculpture made from her “boyfriend” Adam using only manipulation as “her palate knife.” Evelyn’s MFA thesis is the twist ending in of Neil LaBute’s play-turned-film, The Shape of Things, the third act revelation that undoes the otherwise realistic portrait of a relationship between an eccentric graduate student artist and her somewhat dweeby undergraduate partner. For two acts, we see Adam transform from meek and schlubby to downright, well, Paul Rudd attractive (apt, as he is played by Paul Rudd) because of his relationship with Evelyn. She convinces him to have confidence in himself, we think. He learns to eat better. He learns to take pride in his appearance. Gets new clothes. A better haircut. Even some elective cosmetic surgery. And all because we’re led to believe that love has made him want to be a better person.
But what Evelyn’s thesis exhibition reveals is that her relationship with Adam has all been an act, a careful faux seduction to see if she could create a work of art out of a human body. As much art project as sociology experiment, Evelyn’s project reveals that as Adam transformed physically into a more conventionally attractive individual, so, too did his morals begin to shift into questionable territory: a tryst with his best friend’s fiancée, numerous lies about the details of that event to all parties involved, and, eventually, cutting off contact with Phillip and Jenny (best friend and fiancée) at Evelyn’s request. Evelyn does not offer an argument about what this project should be taken as, or understood as. She offers it merely for our consideration, without comment or further analysis, and asks us to accept the premise that this is art, and, moreover, the kind of art that changes the world.
The first time you watch The Shape of Things, it is a mindfuck. The scene I describe above is supposed to take you by surprise. Yet on any rereading or reviewing, it absolutely shouldn’t. Because that’s how reading works. The Shape of Things is fundamentally a text that asks you to interrogate it, to look for the places where Evelyn’s calculated construction of Adam shows itself, like a Renaissance painting that, through years of exposure, reveals the cartoon underneath. We’re told several times that she’s working on her MFA thesis, but what, exactly, she is working on is never described to us. It is only casually referred to as a “sculpture thing” or a “kind of installation.” Indeed, we know very little about Evelyn at all. She listens and observes, speaks only when provoked or when spoken to, whereas Adam babbles, brimming over with words, words that are often lost on Evelyn, who apparently has no cultural knowledge of literature at all. (Even to the point where she misses a Henry Higgins reference, which is a grand irony that she fails to make the connection in spite of constructing her own Pygmalion-like project.) Early in the narrative, Adam notes, “I don’t know anything about you.” Evelyn shoots back, “Yes, you do.” Adam responds, “No, not really.” And Evelyn then proceeds to derail the conversation into casual, surface details like favorite colors or foods. A hint for a careful reader to recognize that Evelyn herself is merely dwelling on the surface of things, the shape of them.
But the first viewing is a mindfuck. I remember this revelation being shocking and cruel when I first saw this film in 2003. I knew it was adapted from a play, but I hadn’t yet seen that play – I wouldn’t for a couple of years until my sister-in-law invited us to a production of it at USC. And at that production, there were people in the room who were encountering the narrative for the first time. There were audible gasps at the moment that Evelyn unveils Adam’s before/after photos during her presentation. I don’t recall this happening in the movie theatre, but I also don’t remember where I saw this film for the first time, or who I was with. I’m assuming it was Marcus. And I’m assuming it was in downtown Berkeley. But it could have been Los Angeles. Much like the original text of the play, it doesn’t really matter where it takes place because The Shape of Things is about Big Philosophical Questions, not a specific historical or social context. On the DVD, LaBute comments on the film being set in Southern California and suggests that the film takes on a different culturally specific valence because of the image-obsessed culture of SoCal. That’s nice, Neil, really. I want to buy it. But they never leave the isolated college campus setting, so I don’t think this holds as much weight as what LaBute suggests it does. My point is that I don’t remember a specific experience that made me like this film 10 years ago. I have no sentimental attachment to it or anything surrounding it. But it stuck with me. It was smart. Brutal. Ambiguous. The kind of story you don’t often see made into a movie. If anything, LaBute’s DVD commentary track does rightly point out that there is a difference between theatre and film: they’re both dishonest mediums, but one of them seems inherently more so. LaBute’s theatre work is horrifying. He writes about people at their most brutal and cruel, doing and saying horrible things. (And not horror movie horrible. Just emotionally awful.) This is not something that sells in the cinema, but it’s something that you can do in theatre. Theatre audiences want that challenge. They want to walk into a space and be changed by art. That’s catharsis. That’s the point of it all. Cinema audiences, especially those who adhere to the stuff that comes out of the studio system, want to be entertained. They’re surface with no depth. Independent cinema changes this, of course. And The Shape of Things was one of those little indies around the turn of the millennium that presented its audience with the kind of challenges theatre provoked.
The Shape of Things asks us to think about what constitutes art from its opening scene, when Evelyn and Adam have their Meet Cute at the museum where she threatens to deface a classical statue in protest of its censorship. The statue was a marble nude of God, which had, at some later point in time, had a giant fig leaf placed over its genitals because people objected to “the shape of his thing,” as Evelyn says. It was obscene for God to have a penis, even if man was created in his image. Evelyn wants to spray paint a dick on the statue in protest, to restore it, in part to the “truth” of what it was supposed to be. She doesn’t like art that isn’t true, she proclaims. The addition of the leaf makes this art false in her eyes. Later, she gets in an argument with Adam’s conservative friends Jenny and Phillip who insist that the added spray paint penis was merely obscenity and not art at all. Jenny calls it pornography, but Evelyn protests: “Pornography is meant to titillate. To excite you. You saw a picture of what happened. Did it excite you?” Phillip calls it graffiti, where Evelyn suggests that it was meant to be a statement, a manifesto. “I don’t think a person’s dick can be a manifesto,” Phillip says. “You can write a manifesto on your thing, but your thing can’t be one.” What these discussions point to in a larger sense is that art matters because it is public. To place an object in a museum is to submit it for public discussion and examination, and anything that may happen to that object then becomes a public concern. This means, ultimately, that it is not the artist, but the public that decides what art is, what pornography is, and what is/isn’t appropriate for public consumption. Evelyn, the artist, of course critiques this notion and insists that meaning lies in the intentions of the artist…yet the presentation of her work, offered without comment or critique regarding her intentions or vision for the project also releases the work of making meaning to the public. By not stating her intentions, either when she defaces the statue, or when she effaces/refaces Adam throughout the course of the film, she offers her art for critique and interpretation by her public. Thus, Jenny and Phillip fail to see it as art, and instead interpret it as cruelty. Adam, then, is left without a way to make sense of what has happened to him. All he knows for sure is that She Loves Me Not, the human sculpture she has made out of him, is not art. “Don’t fool yourself and think that this is art,” he insists. “It’s a sick fucking joke, but it’s not art.”
The problem of where one should locate meaning in art is also a conversation about how fit bodies themselves are for public consumption. Adam and his conservative friends squirm at the thought of public displays of affection, thinking that sex should be a private matter to happen behind closed doors. Bodies, too, should be shrouded in clothing. Phillip and Jenny are always costumed in long sleeves and long pants. Adam begins the film in baggy clothes, which on the one hand communicates his lack of care about his appearance, but also totally obscures his physical body. Bodies are to be hidden in their world, unseen. Not so for Evelyn, a woman willing to spray paint so-called private parts on the public body of a statue in a museum. She begins by filming herself and Adam having sex, an action she assures him won’t be seen by anyone, but is simply for their own purposes, and then suggesting on several occasions that they not only partake in public displays of affection, but also have sex in public restrooms. Evelyn’s view of the body is of one that exists in public, and should do so in a way that is not false or censored. She and Adam have their first “real fight” about his response to a performance art piece in which the artist painted with her tampon. Adam recoils by calling the piece “nasty” and “private.” “It felt like something I shouldn’t be seeing,” he says. “But she allowed you to!” Evelyn shoots back, in defense of public display. If the statue in the museum is art, so too is any body in public view.
Hence, for Evelyn, moralists really do have no place in an art gallery. Nor do they have a place in the world. For her, art is constantly public facing, and shouldn’t be understood in terms of right and wrong, only in terms of artistic merit and intention. Yet, as I mentioned before, Evelyn’s ideas about merit and intention are tempered by her willingness to make art public. Hence why one of the most poignant things I noticed in this re-viewing of the film is the way that Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn and Adam’s final scene together in the gallery with a slight bit of what might be remorse for her actions. Her intentions to make art are clearly at odds with the public reception of them, as Adam is both her subject and her public, and this creates a conflict for her own understanding of her work and the nature of art itself. It’s nice to see this change, signified by a downturned glance and a glimmer in the eye, of a character we have come to know only as somewhat cold and sociopathic, even in her approach to intimacy.
I approached this review through Evelyn’s eyes because she’s one of the most interesting female roles in contemporary theatre. She has to play what can be understood as cruelty with the most rational honesty, and I find that a great challenge and craft exercise. Adam, on the other hand, simply has to be loveable – something which is not at all a challenge for Paul Rudd, who might be one of the most loveable actors on the planet. Because Adam is so loveable, it’s easy for the audience to side with him and read Evelyn’s thesis as theatre of cruelty, to brand it “not art” and be done with it. But Evelyn herself shows us that art isn’t clearly defined, and even the most honest artistic intentions may not be read as intended by the public, especially where bodies are concerned.
“Stop being so morbid,” she says to Adam at the cosmetic surgeon’s office. “It’s just flesh.” But we all know it’s more than that. It’s art.
I know this project is supposed to be a comparison of how I viewed this film ten years ago versus how I view it now, but I don’t remember what I thought about this ten years ago. I only know that it stuck with me. And that I probably hadn’t thought about it this much since then. Although now I think I might teach the play this fall.
Speaking of public bodies: in 2003, I saw actor Frederick Weller’s penis on Broadway as he played racist MLB pitcher Shane Mungett in Take Me Out.
Evelyn on scars: ““They’re like rings on a tree. They signify experience. They make us unique.”
Filmed at CSU Channel Islands, just about 45 minutes south from my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. CSUCI is beautiful, but famously was once a state mental institution. UCSB is beautiful and was never a state mental institution. Take that, CSUCI.
Paul Rudd’s prosthetic nose at the beginning of the film is very endearing, for some reason.
Do we need to talk about why they’re Adam and Evelyn, or does the apple on her T-shirt in the art gallery make that apparent enough?
I really enjoy the Meet Cute conversation Adam and Evelyn have at the art gallery about how he once helped her at the video store. It speaks to my former video store employee heart, and makes me sad that no one gets to have that conversation anymore, really.
The film’s opening credits list the actors as “actor Paul Rudd” and “actress Gretchen Mol” as they would for any other person on the technical side of the film. I like this because it equalizes the actors with the rest of the crew (by attaching their name to the role they fulfill, rather than letting us assume actors are more important than set designers or the like). But I also like it because it points out the artifice of performance, which the film’s narrative also does.
The sight of Paul Rudd on a playground rocking horse is something everyone should see once in their lives. Truly.