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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Brigham City Revisited

Ever since God's Army, Richard Dutcher has always been one of my favorite directors. He literally started the movement that I'm spending the entirety of this project researching. As I stated in a previous blog post on this topic, Brigham deals primarily with one topic: the dichotomy between wisdom and innocence. The ward Sunday school teacher asks her class the question, "Do we have to loose our innocence to gain wisdom?" Discovering the boundary between remaining innocent and gaining wisdom has, also plagued Richard Dutcher, and many other LDS artists. Just as many artists have done in the past he seeks to discover the answer to his question by exploring through his works. However, most of the time these realizations occur not in assertive moments, but rather through the text of piece. Alan Heimert stated,

To discover the meaning of any utterance demands what is in substance a continuing act of literary interpretation, for the language with which an idea is presented, and the imaginative universe by which it is surrounded, often tell us more of an author's meaning and intention than his declarative propositions (7, emphasis added).

What then is the text with which to interpret Dutcher's work. We must look at the characters and who they are in order to gain a better idea of what Dutcher's perspective of the church and faith are. Every character in the film has to ask themselves the same question. It is the fight between being "a part of the world", but not "of the world". How these characters react to this question helps us understand Dutcher's perception of the LDS faith, nonmembers of the church, pornography, and many other topics.
I am going to look at three characters and create a sketch of their identities based off of their experiences in the film. First, I'll begin with Meredith, the FBI investigator who is not a member of the church and not from the community. Second, I'll focus on Terry, Brigham's deputy and closet serial killer. Last the town's sheriff and bishop. By focusing on the identities of an outsider, a deceiver, and a town leader I will be able to see a sketch of Dutcher's perception of the church.
Meredith had never set foot in Brigham before the film started. She never wanted to either. However, upon entering the community she becomes an outside observer. She sees all of the pre-discovery identities, is there for the reveal, and continues to linger in the community after their tragedy. Her perception is one of an unbiased visitor. Her role is that of a revealer, one who through which we can see unbiased perceptions of the community. Perhaps more than any other moment in the film we can see this in action when Meredith is having a conversation with the sheriff at night. "You're just naive," the sheriff states unapologetically when Meredith asks why he believes the LDS beliefs. She's read the books, been to church, but admits to not praying about any of it. In other words, she's done her homework. She's taken the time to study the beliefs. That's what kind of a person Meredith is. Thus fitting the role of the outside observer perfectly.

What then does this say about the LDS perception of nonmembers of the church? In my experience there are many nonmembers who, while intensely interested in the church have no desire to discover if it is true or not. This is much like Steven Olsen's opinion; he states "The World, however, is... informed of the activities of the Kingdom, but only in an oblique manner" (94). I believe that many members of the church feel this way. They do not want to "bother", "upset", or "pester" their friends and therefore assume that all nonmember reactions to the church will result in either apathy or aggression.
Terry provides a unique identity to the film. Throughout most of the film he is perceived to be a model member of the church. However, he carries a secret. While his secret is much bigger, Terry is not the only member to hide their sins. The former sheriff smokes occasionally, the town photographer is a pornography addict; everyone has a secret. Many members of the church also feel this way. They want to hide the dark parts of their identities in order to present this ideal of perfection. Terry's defining moment carries a unique parallel to many people who chose to break free of the facade they present. He confesses to his bishop, although the circumstances are different. The need to keep sins hidden has existed for centuries. Cain kills Abel and tries to hide his sin from God. Ananias and Sapphiria hold back a part of their money and try to hide it from Peter. It is a natural instinct to cover up ones sins. Terry is no different than any other member of the church, except for the whole fact that he's a serial killer.

The sheriff is both the spiritual and temporal leader of his community. His whole mission in life is to protect people from both temporal and spiritual danger. He exclaims at one point in the film, "The world just won't let us be." This desire to keep everyone safe puts him in a precarious situation. He must find the killer before he kills again. He feels there is only one way. Search everyone's lives. This teaches us a lot about his identity. He is so worried about keeping everyone safe that he is willing to take the agency of those around him away in order to protect them. This sounds an awful lot like Lucifer's goal: to take the agency away in order to save everyone. This illegal search leads to many broken hearts, including that of a citizen that I believe will never come back to church again. How does that fit in to his goal of protecting people? After finding the murderer and watching him commit suicide realizes that he was the reason that there were so many deaths in the community. He is brought to a complete realization of his guilt. He realizes his fault: he trusts people too much. This realization brings him to make an important decision. He choses to not partake of the sacrament, a choice which was intended to show viewers the pain that he felt.

He was guilty, but not for the murders. His guilt lies in the breaking of the trust of every member of his community, from hurting people, from taking agency away. When the congregation refuses to partake of the sacrament the bishop gives in and partakes. This moment feels cheap to me. It feels he is giving in to the ritual of the church. He is supposed to partake so he does. The film would have been much more powerful if no one partook. We are all guilty. We all fall short. It is an extremely healthy thing to realize that. We would have seen fuller characters, more rounded identities, and a more complete story.

Film Information
Works Cited

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I caught myself laughing through parts of this movie because of how accurate Teryll Givens was in describing the three paradoxes of LDS cinema: "searching and certainty" (190), "disintegration of sacred distance" (191), and "isolation and integration" (192). This film follows the relationship of Sam and Charly. Sam is a stereotypical Peter Priesthood type. His day planner runs his life to the point that he has alarms set for when he needs to row his fishing boat. In the first five minutes of the movie it is clear that Sam is a member due to his BYU baseball cap and quick references to Temple Square. Charly on the other hand lives by the motto "Life is for fun." She's loud, witty, and spontaneous. Most importantly, for the purposes of the story, she is not a member of the church. 

In perhaps Sam's most defining moment Charly and Sam talk about her experiences in taking the missionary lessons. She states, "I don't believe any of it." Almost baffled Sam states "You just have to pray." Then, like the good return missionary, he kneels down and says, "Let's pray now, it's pretty secluded." It is clear that Charly is leading him along as she kneels. However, this, more than anything is a springboard for the rest of the discussions on faith and doubt. After Charly's baptism Sam and Charly are looking at the Christos in the Salt Lake Temple visitor's center. Charly asks, "Do you really believe it?" Sam's response, "No. I know it."

It however, becomes unclear if he really knows. When Sam realizes that Charly is not a virgin then he flips out and pushes her away, almost losing her. When they find out that she is terminally ill he breaks down asking for "one lousy miracle". This paradox is a dominant theme in this film. What does it mean to have faith? What is the place of doubt in life? As given states, "It is no wonder that Mormon culture expresses itself in inconsistent bursts of the pat and the provocative, the clichéd and the astonished, the complacent and the yearning" (190).

Part of Charly's doubt at the beginning of the film is if God really answers prayers. She does not believe that God is personal and intimate with his children (it may be more accurate to say she does not believe in God). However, after accepting the church's beliefs she has no problem accepting the interpersonal connection that members of the church believe they can have with God. In fact she states, "I've been discussing the whole thing with God. We're very close now, He and I." However, during Charly's blessing near the end of the film it is made clear that Sam is blessing Charly, not God. Sam is struggling with the feeling that his wife is going to die. He will not accept it. He believes his faith will save her. He wants to force his will upon God instead of accepting that they are separate.

If there is any one of the three paradoxes Given's describes in his paper that is less dominate in this film it is the paradox of isolation and integration. Sam has no problem dating a nonmember of the church (something that many member of the church frown upon). The only struggle that is present with Charly is he ex-boyfriend's desire to still live with her after her baptism, but she may want him to leave not only for her newfound faith, but because she has broken up with him.

Overall, this film gives a solid interpretation of LDS culture. Sam's character can be extreme at time, but once Charly rounds him out he becomes a faithful, balanced member of the church. One who has his doubts, but is able to work through them. Charly becomes a strong member who, even in the face of her own death, relies on God and reaches out and touches those around her. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

LDS Film Project

I remember growing up during what came to be known as the "Golden Age" of LDS cinema. During this time LDS filmmakers made dozens of films about LDS people/subjects. It was a breath of fresh air to members of the church, who prior to this time had not been strongly represented in the film world. These films covered a wide variety of subjects/genres: romantic comedies, war stories, dramas, and a unique subgenre to LDS film, the missionary film.
These films raise many questions, but the most pressing it seems is, "What does it mean to be a Mormon?" According to Teryll Givens these films raise their dichotomies that are present in LDS culture. First is the struggle between "searching and certainty" (190). The ability to know for certainty is near the very heart of Latter Day Saint culture. However, many saints struggle with doubts that they have. The second is "the disintegration of sacred distance" (191). This is a struggle that members of the church have been scrutinized ever since Joseph Smith claimed to see God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees as a fourteen-year-old boy. It is the belief that God "[made] man in [their] own image" (Gen 1:28). That man is the literal offspring of a Heavenly Father and therefore has the potential to be like Him, just a we have the potential to be like our father and our mother. Lastly, Givens states, that LDS film includes themes of "isolation and integration". There is a common saying in the church that members are supposed to be "in the world, but not off the world". Mormons still have the human need to fit in, to have friends, and to be accepted. However, they are exhorted to not partake in "worldly" practices.

Cinematic Transcendence

Cinematic transcendence includes, but it not limited to, films that assist individuals discover their relationship with God, their communities, and themselves. This definition has been developed through a variety of sources. First, that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God” (John 17:3). Second, that “Without question, the environment of our homes and families is the single greatest influence in our identity as individuals” (Monte J. Brough, “Search for Identity”, Ensign, May 1995). Also, Russell M Nelson also stated, “It is important to know who you are and who you may become. It is more important than what you do, vital as your work is” (Identity, Priority, and Blessings). If relationships help us to discover who we are and are the most important objective people can strive for then cinematic transcendence must include those themes.

This definition is crucial to my project because I am going to be looking at LDS cinema through the lens of identity. How does LDS cinema stack up to representing LDS people? Or how do LDS people identify with these films. The answer to these questions, according to my definition or cinematic transcendence, will state if these plays are transcendent or not.

The Project
I am going to watch the top ten grossing LDS films and analyze them on how well they represent the LDS community. Before I list which films made the list I feel it would be appropriate to define LDS cinema. My definition is borrowed from Eric Samuelsen (associate professor of theatre at BYU). He states LDS films are, [feature [films] made by an LDS [filmmakers], intended for theatrical release, dealing specifically with Mormon subject matter, and largely marketed to LDS audiences by a studio specifically created for the task of Mormon film distribution" (Samuelsen 216). These films (and their box office earnings) are

10. Charley
09. Brigham City
08. The RM
07. Best Two Years
06. The Single's Ward
05. Saints and Solders
04. The Book of Mormon Movie: The Journey
03. God's Army
02. The Work and The Glory
01. The Other Side of Heaven

The Process
I am going to start at with Charly and movie up the success ladder, watching about one a week (one week I will double up) and look at each film's representation of Mormons. I will then write and post about every film individually. At the end of the process I am going to write a post over viewing the process and create a list of common themes relating to identity in these films. I will include bibliographic information on a single post that will be updated as I find more articles and source the reference during the process. There will be a link to the post at the bottom of each blog post.


LDS Film Project Works Cited

Astle, Randy. "What Is Mormon Cinema: Defining the Genre." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon      Thought 42.4: 18-68. Print.

Cummings, Richard J. "Some Reflections on the Mormon Identity Crisis." Sunstone 4.5 (1975): 27-32. Print.

D'Are, James. "“In the Beginning Was the Word:” But That Was Only the Beginning." LDS Film Forum 1.1 (2002): 62-68. Print.

Givens, Terryl. "“There Is Room for Both” Mormon Cinema and the Paradoxes of Mormon Culture." BYU Studies 46.2 (2007): 189-208. Print.

Hollist, Julie. The Ideal Mormon Woman an Analysis of Ensign Articles and Comparison to LDS Women's Perceptions of Gender Role Expectations. Thesis. Utah State University, 2009. Print.

Olsen, Steven L. "Joseph Smith and the Structure of the Mormon Identity." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14.3 (1981): 89-99. Print.

Pace, David G. "God's Army: Wiggle Room for the Mormon Soul." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35.2: 182-88. Print.

Samuelsen, Eric. "Finding an Audience, Paying the Bills: Competing Business Models in Mormon Cinema." BYU Studies 46.2 (2007): 209-30. Print.

Robbins, Dallas. "Marrow: Richard Dutcher’s Mormon Films." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 42.2: 169-85. Print.