Byron Pitt lives and breathes cinema, displaying a rare and sometimes explosive passion for the silver screen - often with unpredictable results. GeekPlanetOnline is proud to present a movies column from the self-confessed “film drunk”; a man who once yelled at an entire cinema for laughing at Johnny English…
I’ve been thinking about marriage and babies a lot recently. Being 27, I’m reaching that age in my life in which half my friends are making that commitment of commitments. Every day I’m seeing various Facebook profile pictures and statuses by friends of their special days. Other messages include moaning about their other halves or how much they love their kids. In my last two places of work I’ve witnessed a multitude of baby bumps and glowing mothers-to-be, preparing to spit out a sprog and drain more of our precious resources. The girlfriend clearly can’t wait for me to set the date, while our friends pester, joke and generally egg us on about our future together.
All this mention of marital and baby banter always leaves an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. You see it’ll soon be five years that my girlfriend and I have been an item and I’ve never truly put the question into any real focus. Many things have delayed any real suggestion of the idea; from unemployment to my general smuttiness and love of strippers. But the biggest obstacle for me has always been just one teeny, tiny little pea under the mattress...
I’ve never met her father.
The reason? Quite simply, the colour of my skin. *cue audible gasps from at least one person*
Yes, despite being well-brought up, polite and actually considered charming (by drunkards) I have never met this man.
It’s a conundrum I find amusing and absurd at the same time. I mean I could actually understand it a lot more if it were down to football teams (I’m a Gooner and he’s Spurs) but from what I’ve been told, he has no desire to acknowledge my existence and relationship with his only daughter.
As a decent and relatively sane member of society (depending on who you ask) I have spoken to friends about it and have gained an interesting variety of answers. Some have no idea what to say while other have quite bluntly said “F**k him.” In the 21th century, friends are the family you choose and I’ve always been glad to have such a fine range of chums to pick from.
But it’s not an easy subject and it’s always struck a chord with me, as family is one of those unpredictable things. The idea of simply stating screw it and going forth with our glorious Vegas elopement, getting married by my mate Phil dressed as Elvis, all the while plotting to have kids ALL named after myself is a brilliant scheme. But real life works differently from our dreams. My offer of marriage could cause all sorts of inner family turmoil. It’s not outlandish to think that my girlfriend being married to me could cause her to never see or speak to her father again. If and when it happens there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be at the wedding, and what about the aspect of children? Is it possible that he would put himself out of the picture of his own grandchildren just because I don’t need to sunbathe? Stranger things have happened; I mean Uwe Boll is still making films. I will say this: I don’t speak about this as often as I should with our friends because of the cramped expressions that come across their faces. The best example being on my girlfriend's 21st birthday (the only time her father and I have been in the same room) and watching the awkward floor glances.
Race is still one of the biggest topics to haunt many people and yet it’s often extremely difficult to talk about. And the reason for my biographical intro? It’s just as difficult to talk about it (or talk about it well) in mainstream film.
This brings me to Lakeview Terrace, a 2008 film by Neil LaBute. I mentioned this on the most recent Cinematic Dramatic podcast as a film that nails my worries about my own real life interracial relationship accurately. As a thriller it’s in no way perfect, but it’s in moments of drama and build up of tension that the film wins me over.
A token piece of plot: Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) are two happy newly-weds who move into their first home. Their neighbour is Abel (Samuel L Jackson); a veteran LAPD cop and single father who is a little more than unwelcoming to the couple. What at first are only slight hostilities, slowly become grander as Abel’s dislike for their interracial relationship becomes more apparent.
Lakeview Terrace works for me for a couple of basic reasons: first, it deals with a situation that feels true to me, that isn’t really given any real commentary. Second, the very simple idea of making the bigoted antagonist a black man helps open a wide range of questions about what you're viewing. I’m sure there are those who will complain about the film's “black villain” and once again portraying African Americans as that horrific other that Hollywood dutifully ignores in their focus groups. Others, like this forum post I found, are irate at the fact that the film is racist to Caucasians. Such points amuse, as not only does it ignore Kerry Washington’s character completely, but seems to miss the point that such prejudices goes both ways.
LaBute and the screenwriters (David Loughery & Howard Korder) have an amazingly tight grip of such a slippery subject within the film, shading the character of Abel in the right shade of grey to make him contemptible and compelling at the same time. We are given a man who believes he is on the side of right, no matter what, particularly in his work (an excruciating scene involving a young father and a shotgun show the depths to which Abel is willing to go). It can’t be an accident that his name is shared with Adam and Eve’s second child, giving everything we see an impudent sense of irony, considering Abel’s off-kilter moral centre. This also makes an entertaining aside as LaBute, a former Mormon, clearly has enough knowledge about the church's much talked about race relations and of course the “curse and mark of Cain”.
One element of the film is of course that we have a man who has no reason for involving himself in someone else’s relationship, but wishes to dictate it. The Hollywood belief system of “love conquers all” has never really applied in most of LaBute’s movies and it’s a long way away here also. Abel’s views of “protection” are completely invalid as this couple would do nothing to encroach on his life, however their simple existence within his vicinity offends him to such a point that action must be taken. A quick look at a tabloid paper could easily spark parallels. It’s bad enough that Abel lives so close, but the simple fact that he actively decides to lash out against it is where the threat lies. The fact that he’s a police officer only heightens the helplessness of it all.
But it’s not all about the outward aggressive racist. There are thornier aspects that lie elsewhere. Case in point, a wonderfully spiky scene involving Lisa’s father Harold (Ron Glass) and Chris, in which Harold bluntly asks “Are you planning to have children with my daughter?” The idea of the couple having kids is a subplot that runs through the film and when it is brought to the forefront in this moment, it’s one of the most acidic points of the film. The reasons behind Harold’s question are obvious and tragic but never truly uttered. For those really in the dark about why I find this moment is so affecting, one only has to glance at the comedy writings of one Nick Griffin.
LaBute highlights the stress of the situation not only by carefully timing the drama of the film's loaded screenplay (Abel’s first conversations with Chris are severely uncomfortable), but also utilizing a blazing Californian wildfire as symbolism in the background. Throughout the film the fire intensifies as the tension between the characters slowly rises. By the time we reach the film's breaking point, the fire is widespread and almost uncontrollable. LaBute’s use of metaphor to depict the simmering tension is as powerful here as when he first came on the scene with his scathing first feature, In the Company of Men.
The jewel of the piece however, is Samuel L Jackson, with a barnstorming performance that I consider one of his strongest since Jackie Brown. His Abel is a highly combustible bottle of rage and hate. The screenplay does well to provide an uncomfortable degree of empathy with such a character, but its Jackson's talent that convinces. We all know how strongly those eyeballs can burn with fury, but it’s the monologue he addresses to a bar in one of the latter scenes that not only opens up the insecurity and flaws of the character, but demands praise for Jackson as it shows how well he can dominate a screen.
It’s a shame that LaBute cannot hold the level of drama this well as the film hurtles towards its climax. The film descends into more generic thriller territory, while the final moments betray two unfortunate characters, whether through lack of caring or plain ignorance I’m just not sure.
However, the film already puts in the work and effort and asks more disconcerting questions that a film like Crash only wishes it could. At his best LaBute is brilliant at creating such films, melding difficult subject matter and truly polarising people with the events that take place around them. Lakeview Terrace places front and centre those awkward questions that many wish to avoid or gloss over. That LaBute places such themes within what is an entertaining piece of Hollywood product is icing on the cake.
So why did I open up my writing with something so personal? I mean Abel is a Afro-American cop while my girlfriend's father is a Caucasian man who works in finance. Where’s the connection? The connection is in the damaging effects of racism. We often enjoy romanticising our real life relationships like our movies, often with a oddball belief of “love conquers all”. This can particularly happens with our friends and how they relate to us. I often see such sentiment when people ask why I haven’t got married and had kids yet. We are careful to ignore the mitigating factors from outside, which try to dictate such matters. Matters like the ones I’ve mentioned are often explained away by “it’s none of his business” but it’s tough take such an influence out of one’s life so easily. I have not yet made a proposal, however how will he react when I do? Everyone knows how twisted family ties can become when an outside element appears.
My problem is much like the forest wildfires depicted in Lakeview Terrace: burning intensely in the background, illuminating the landscape with a persistent dread. It feels far away but you can still feel the heat, so to speak.
I love movies like Lakeview Terrace, as they are ones that wish to get under the skin and linger. They can provide surface entertainment, but reward a viewer by having something to say. They brush against those real areas of life and cause one to question fears and provide insight. This is no attack on those who simply watch movies as time-wasting spectacle, but when you are given one which can provide a greater emotional resonance, one should not fear the Abel’s of the world and should be able to challenge and overcome obstacles that they place in your way.
After watching Lakeview Terrace, a few days later I was in town and went to a jeweller to ask about engagement rings. One day I will be brave enough to drowse the flames.