That kind of movie
Back when I was working at Video II, I used to talk movies a great deal with a guy named Alex (also Mormon) who was a huge film nut. For his first date with his fiancee, they each brought a movie and had a doublefeature. I forget what he brought, but she brought American Beauty, and her exquisite taste in film was what first let him know she was the girl for him.
We were working in our backroom together when Video II purchased several hundred copies of Brigham City. I acclaimed the film (more on that later) and he was shocked by that acclaim. But when he saw that the movie had been favorably compared to the Coens' Blood Simple he rethought his kneejerk rejection to Mormon cinema. But, alas, (he said), for his fiancee would never go for it. She just didn't like that kind of movie.
"That kind of movie"?!?! What the heck is "that kind of movie"?!
I don't understand how so many "cultured" Mormons reject the possibility of their own crafting good art. As if there is something inherently gauche about being LDS.
And it pisses me off.
Richard Dutcher directed Brigham City and he directed God's Army--the first Mormon film of the modern era (if you will). In my opinion, God's Army was pretty good, though not astonishing or anything. But it certainly bode well.
The next year he released Brigham City and that movie affected me powerfully in two ways. The night after coming home from watching it, I was awake long into the night considering my own capacity for evil. I lay there, looking at my hands, and contemplated their ability to strangle. Which was an unfortunate reaction, because much more powerfully than its depiction of evil, the movie gave a powerful example of redemption. Never before had I understood the meaning and purpose of the sacrament quite so clearly.
The movie taught me my own religion.
And it was as good as a Coen Brothers' film. Best of both worlds.
But, it ends up, in some way, even Dutcher considered Brigham City to be that kind of movie.
Movies that suck
One of the first nonDutcher LDS films was this monstrosity. Dutcher read an early draft of the film and offered advice to make it better. He saw an early cut of the film and offered advice to make it funny. In neither case was his advice followed and the final product was one of the worst movies ever. EVER. It had exactly one funny moment (not enough for your average comedy) and was a repulsive mess from start to finish. It's an awful film.
Unfortunately, The Singles Ward has proven to be a more0followed template than Dutcher's work as the world of LDS film has unfolded.
And it's a pity.
Or it was.... Until Thursday.
Last Thursday appeared Dutcher's final words as the godfather of Mormon cinema. He has now cut his ties. Not only as the unofficial head of a movement, but as a Mormon entirely.
Although it comes a blow to the gut (more on that later), with a day's passage, it's less surprising. Dutcher's official bio, for instance, makes his Church membership sound more like a point of academic interest rather than an actual part of his soul, and I'm sure he wrote it himself. Writers, at least, certainly ought to write their own bios. Seems silly to leave it to someone else.
Also silly: some of Dutcher's reasons for going away.
For instance: he doesn't like the movies the Church produces.
Lady Steed and I heard Dutcher mention this topic at BYU once just before the release of Brigham City. Talking about the Church film Testaments, he complained why, with so many great stories available in the Book of Mormon, did they feel the need to make a Book of Mormon story up? And to give it a monkey? Fair questions.
Me, I thought Testaments was pretty nondescript. Save for the absolute final moment when it suddenly worked, the movie was just silly.
So Dutcher thinks the Church should make better films. And that Singles Ward (et al) sucked. And that--here it comes--LDS filmmakers should be aiming more for the acclaim of the world.
Keith Merrill is the Oscar-winning director of Testaments (I think it must kill Dutcher that a 'Church-film-making hack' like Merrill has an Oscar, but that's another discussion.) and yesterday, the same newspaper that carried Dutcher's self-serving valedictory address published a (also somewhat self-serving) reply from Merrill.
While he seems a little preoccupied with Dutcher's slams on his work, I do believe him when he closes with
- Perhaps my anger is in truth deep sorrow. A sense of loss. The ultimate great loss to Richard Dutcher and his family by his departure from the church. The great loss of a truly talented filmmaker from the league of "inspired hearts and talented fingers" seen in vision so many years ago.
But we'll return to that in a second. Right now, what Merrill said.
One of his major points was an attack on Dutcher's telling young filmmakers to "Passionately adhere to the guideline that it is better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie." Now, while I agree that a) the MPAA is a waste of time and b) the MPAA is not church-sponsored and c) it is better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie, Dutcher has created a pernicious false dichotomy here. He seems to suggest that there are no R-rated lies or G-rated truths or PG anythings. Now, intellectually, I'm sure he will reject that reading of his statement, but, by reading his words, I think he does believe that. Or, at least, he believes telling the truth is important--but the only truths that will get him the acclaim he craves are of the R-rated variety. Whatever that means.
For a long time, I have had in my heart a soft spot for the famous misanthrope (and estranged Mormon) Neil LaBute. Even though the only one of his movies I've seen was one of the worst literary adaptations of my acquaintance (although I do thank it for proving my long-held assertion that the book was unfilmable). (I do have another film of his in my posession [a leftover screener from my Video II days], but I've never gotten around to watching it.)
The reason I liked him all the same was this: LaBute was disfellowshipped not too many years after becoming a Mormon because of his play bash which, though he did not intend to be viewed as antiMormon, many saw that way anyway. C'est la vie, LaBute.
That isn't why I liked him, though I felt for his being misunderstood.
Why I liked him was this: He did what he was asked by Church leaders and never wrote about Mormons again. Now, I think that was an appalling thing to ask, but I'm not about to secondguess the people on the ground (if you will). The point is, they asked him and he did it. He hasn't written about Mormons since.
Recently, LaBute gave up on his half-in/half-out status and also quit LDSing. He's done; he's out; I'm sad.
An important difference of course is that LaBute never set himself up as The Great Mormon Filmmaker, so the loss of his faith is more of a personal tragedy than a blow to Mormon artists in general.
Being a faithful Mormon presumes that one accepts the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the source of purest and wholest truth. Mormons are unusually willing to accept other faiths and practices as also being sources of truth, but the fullest truth we claim for ourselves. In, one hopes, all humility.
Art--I agree with Dutcher here--is also a pursuit of truth. Or should be.
Ergo, I cannot look at the loss of talented artists' faith as anything but a loss also in artistic potential.
LaBute has said as much in an interview I can't find, but could have sworn was on Salon. He said, to molaq it, that he had to decide whether to tell stories of depravity or stories healthily Mormon and chose the former.
Do you smell another false dichotomy?
I've heard Orson Scott Card speak a number of times, and something that is obviously an irritation to him is how so many people just assume he must have either left or been kicked out of the Church by now because, well, he's a writer and sometimes he writes about unsavory things. Apparently he and fellow Mormon SF-writer Dave Wolverton (who I hear is even more unsavory) chat about this now and then. Apparently people are appalled that such writers get called to fill roles such as high councilman. Horrors!
Shocking and faithful?!?!
So what gives? Some people reject their faith in order to be shocking? Others can shock in spite of their faith? What am I missing?
- The fact of the matter is that if you tell the truth, some of your audience will always be shocked anyway; you don't have to soup it up.
Anyone with a sense of history knows that truth-tellers of all stripes--including religious and artistic--have always been prime candidates for stoning. And anytime someone decides they would rather associate with one group of truth-tellers over another, well, I just hope they picked the group actually interested in truth.
- ...the untrained audience is always opened to being transformed, the elitist audience is willing only to be impressed.
Friend Dutcher, I loved you. Good luck out there. And while I could wish you luck in your quest for "truth", I think instead I'll offer you luck where you really want it:
I sure hope you're impressive.
Forced to choose, I hope I would give up being impressive.
But let's be honest.
No one forced you.
last week's svithe