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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Saints and Soldiers (2003)

Saints and Soldiers contains an interesting dichotomy in LDS film. While nearly every scholar states that this is an LDS film there are no explicit references to any character’s faith. There are however, implicit references to aspects of the Mormon faith in Deacon’s character. He “doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t even like coffee”. He carries an unidentified book of scripture around on him at all times. He prays while on watch. He went to Germany on a mission for his church for two years. These are all clues that indicate that he is in fact a member of the LDS church. Therefore even without explicitly stating that Deacon is a member of the church one can imply membership because of these contextual clues. This analysis brings to thought a question about the uniqueness of the Mormon identity. Are there not other churches or peoples that have nearly the same standards as the church? On my mission I taught a family that on many occasions were asked if they were Mormon. They didn't smoke. They didn't drink (much). They went to church every week. They prayed as a family. They read the Bible together, individually and as a family. These traits are not unique of the LDS faith.

In many, if not all of the previous LDS films that I have viewed have, "[alienated] or [excluded] the non- Mormons" by "largely polarized [audiences] by recognizably Mormon subjects, themes, or treatments" (Givens, 202). Saints and Soldiers uses the cross overs between Mormon culture and the rest of Christianity to both reach a wider audience and create empathy between these two cultures. "Matt Whitaker and Geoffrey Panos (the screenwriters) choose instead to rely on a text coded in such a way that its meanings can be read in both particular and universal ways (202). By doing so they were able to bridge the gap between cultures.
Does this bridge, however, destroy the inherent nature of LDS cinema? If any culture can easily accept the themes and devices of this film without any prior knowledge of LDS culture do the filmmaker give up the film's Mormon identity? How is it any different than The Land Before Time (Don Bluth) or The Swan Princess (Richard Rich)? (Neither of which are considered LDS films). The LDS genre is a deeply complex genre. "There can be no linear scale of “Mormonness” for a film" (Astle, 28). Each film must be evaluated on an individual basis. "A film that initially appears to have nothing to do with the Church might, in fact, be quite thoroughly infused with Mormonism, while one that is apparently full of Mormon content might be rather devoid of it" (29). 

There is no scale that one can look at and say, "There are 34 direct references to the church in this film, it must be an LDS film" or "Well, they mention the Book of Mormon, but not the Joseph Smith so it doesn't quite make the cut". The definition, however, lies in the inherent identity of the film. While Saints and Soldiers makes no explicit references to LDS faith or culture then "Mormonness" of the film is high because the identity of Deacon is so clearly LDS that there can be no question as to his faith. He must be a member of the church because he is what members desire to be like. He is not pigeonholed. He is not stereotyped or mocked. He is true. He is real. He bridges cultures like each individual must do in order to develop empathy and charity. For "[Charity] is accepting people as they truly are. It is looking beyond physical appearances to attributes that will not dim through time. It is resisting the impulse to categorize others" (Monson, Charity Never Faileth, October 2010 General conference).

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Monday, March 28, 2011

The Single's Ward (2002)

I don't even know where to begin? When I was growing up I remember that for a while every party, every time my friends would get together we would watch The Single's Ward. Then one day it clicked. This movie is a monstrosity. It is pure product placement. Watching it today made me seriously reconsider even doing this whole project (although later this week I'm going to be viewing The Book of Mormon Movie... now that makes me reconsider things). "Aristotle supposed that entertainment enjoys a natural advantage by providing us with certain sensual pleasures and thereby more readily chasing away our cares" (Anderson 232). This film is purposed to entertain about at the expense of the church. In other words, This Single's Ward, "primarily appeals to the body; it is more likely to be pleasing and diverting because it satisfies bodily cravings for rest, relaxation, and physical satisfaction" (232). However, this project is not about how good the movies are or how much they make me want to puke. It's about how these movies represent Mormon identity.
So how does this film stack up? You may remember a few weeks ago I wrote about the representation of women in the movie The RM (also made by Halestorm). Cammie Giles is a twenty something year old Activities director in the church. While she, unlike the women in The RM, is a very spiritual person, she has one major flaw. She is the definition of self-righteous. When she discovers that her boyfriend, Jonathan, tells slightly off color jokes about Mormons (nothing worse that what I've heard on BYU campus) she storms out of the room in a hysterical mess. It seems for a while that her only intentions with the unknown Jonathan in the foyer are to get him to come inside. In fact, Jonathan says himself that she'd "be a good missionary" in reference to her pushy attitude (Hollist, 142). One might even interpret this film by saying that the only way that women can be spiritual in the church is if they are self righteous or holier-than-thou.

What interests me more than the view of women in the church, however, is the perspective that this film contains about inactive members of the church. Jonathan is highly knowledgeable about the church. He quotes scripture and conference talks, references Book of Mormon stories, and "knows the tactics" used to reactivate less active members (he even still has his white shirt and tie in the closet). In fact, aside from occasional alcohol use and some off colored jokes in a comedy routine he is a stand up guy. His ex-wife is a recent convert that he himself got to join the church. Upon buying a six-pack of beer and a package of cigarettes she says, "I'm done. I don't even know if the church is true anymore".  No other explanation is given. From these two perspectives we can discern part of the attitudes that the filmmakers have concerning inactive members of the church. One, they lack a belief in the church. Two, inactives are opposed to the culture of the church. The first of these perspectives blames the individual for their inactivity. The second the community in which they live.
I've found through this project that most LDS films pigeonhole members, non-members and inactive members. They represent members as self-righteous, nerdy, or just plain weird. Non-members are seen as wild and free, but desperately wanting to connect with the world. Inactive members are hurt or confused about Mormon culture. These films create stereotypes of deeply complex identities that make up the Mormon Church.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mommy Blogging Breakdown

In 2005 the newfound organization BlogHer held a conference called BlogHer, BlogMe. This conference covered a variety of topics in the blossoming blogosphere. However according to one participant, Alice Bradley, the whole conference was "annoyed by an undercurrent of derision aimed at the “Mommy Bloggers” (no matter how I try, I still hate that term). At the Mommy Blogging panel, an editor admonished us for always being the ones who attack each other and also for being upset with the NYT article. Which, um, isn’t true (for the first part) and misses the point (for the second). But whatever. If we’re not valued enough, it’s our own fault, and look, even when we get attention we whine about it" (Finslippy; BlogHer, BlogMe; August 3, 2005). She later went on to post what became the theme of the 2006 BlogHer conference. She stated, "Mommy blogging is a radical act" (August 5, 2005. This post has unexplainably been deleted, however several papers I have read make reference to it. See the Lopez article cited below).

How then is mommy blogging a "radical act"? "Motherhood is impossible to perform perfectly, it is all-consuming, it places women into dueling camps and forces them to decide which side they are on, and yet it is the one thing that all women are told that they must desire most out of life" (Lopez, 732). Mommy blogging presents an alternative view to the ideal of "New Momism". Mommy blogs are "creating a different picture of motherhood to what we see in the mainstream media. Instead of the vision of the loving mother, we see women who are frazzled by the demands of their newborn baby, who have no clue what to do when their child gets sick, who suffer from postpartum depression and whose hormones rage uncontrollably" (732).

"For the most part, women categorized as ‘mommy bloggers’ are simply women who are mothers and occasionally write about their own children" (Lopez, 734). Due to this fact it is necessary to break mommy blogs down a little bit in order to better understand why "New Momism" is applicable to the blogosphere. First, I feel the need to clarify that not all mommy blogs are created equal. They do not all post about crafts, cooking, fashion, organization and being a perfect mother all at once. Most of them, in fact, only cover one topic at a time. Below is a very incomplete list of mommy blogs (not all blogs on this list are written by Mormons). My wife and I have broken them into different categories, which are popularly recognized.

"General Mommy Blogs" - Blogs that discuss life, parenting, children, husbands, or family life in general.

          Marriage Confessions
          C Jane Enjoy It
          Nie Nie Dialogues

"Fashion Mommy Blogs" - While these blogs may discuss family life or parenting their primary purpose is to discuss fashion. They piece together outfits, talk about vintage clothing, and discuss how to "[find] style in the world of diapers and fishy crackers" (The Mom Uniform).

          The Daybook
          The Mom Uniform
          Cardigan Empire
          What a Nerd Would Wear
          Clothed Much

"Crafty Mommy Blogs" - Much like fashion mommy blogging crafty mommy blogging may discuss family life or children. Its primary purpose however is how to make things. I've seen posts from everything from fabric flowers to reupholstering a crib. This blogs sound the cry of thrift. They're mostly written by middle class Americans who want to show women how to make trendy items while saving a few pennies.

          Little Miss Momma
          MADE (Dana Made It)
          Make it and Love It
          HoneyBear Lane
          I am Momma: Hear Me Roar

"Cooking Mommy Blogs" - Cooking Blogs teach people to cook, it's that easy. Most of the popular ones have cookbooks published because of their blogs.

          Our Best Bites
          Pioneer Women Cooks (You can also check out her wide variety of blogs from that link)

"Organization Mommy Blogs" - My wife actually introduced me to this category today. They're blogs that teach families how to stay organized while six kids are running around trying to destroy everything.

          Clean Momma

Works Cited

Lopez, Lori Kido. 2009. The radical act of 'mommy blogging': redefining motherhood through the blogosphere. New Media & Society 11:729-747. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Best Two Years

There was a transfer on my mission where I served with a companion who didn't know why he was on a mission. He didn't enjoy working particularly. He wouldn't stop listening to his favorite music from back home. He didn't get what a mission was. Did this make him a bad missionary? Of course not. He had one trait that redeemed him of all of his inadequacies. He cared about people. That one trait, in and of itself made him successful in my eyes. I saw how important it was to gain relationships of trust where members, missionaries, and everyone else could trust that this Elder would treat them right. This impacted my perception of what it meant to be a missionary.  I created a loose theory of missionary work. I called it "getting it". Missionaries who "got it" were successful. Those who did not would fail no matter what they did. The question in my mind was, "What does it mean to get it". By the end of my mission I understood that getting it was different for each missionary. For some it was learning to work hard, day in and day out. For some it was learning that submission to mission rules brought peace and comfort in their lives. Yet for others it was learning that each individual is more than just a statistic to be analyzed by the office elders.
The Best Two Years is a film about "getting it". Elder Rogers may not have been the hardest worker, but he understood the importance of people.  Elder VanPelt was an aspiring Elder who didn't get anything. Elder Johnson understood the value of hard work, but he didn't understand the importance of supporting his peers. Finally Elder Calhoon got a lot of it. He understood how and why to work; he understood the importance of people. He didn't, however, understand the importance of his role in the mission field. This film is about understanding both the strengths and weaknesses that we each have. It's about understanding the roles that we play. It's about understanding our identity.

This is at the heart of my definition of cinematic transcendence. Without knowledge of who we are and why we are here there can be no real success because there can be no progression.
This identity is also central to Mormon theology. Even from the beginning of the world we believe that it is important to understand who we are and what our relationship to Deity is. Lucifer was cast out of the heavens because he didn't understand his relationship with God. He sought to rise about God and commanded Him saying, "surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor." This account illustrates "the significance of sacred narratives, often called creation myths, for the expression and maintenance of cultural identity" (Olsen, 90). When the Elders in The Best Two Years understood who they were and what their weaknesses and strengths were they became infinitely more effective and productive. They became a force for good. Mormon identity is rooted in self-identity. Scott Anderson and nearly every member of the church know this. It is central to everything that Mormons do.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The RM (2003)

I remember when this movie came out. Somehow my brother got tickets to the Arizona premier. I saw this one on the big screen (a rare thing for an Arizona boy). The whole family went. I've seen it a few times since then, but it's been a while. It's always amazed me how revisiting a text can change your perceptions of that text dramatically. I'm taking a Gender and Sociology class this semester and therefore I've been thinking a lot about media's representations of gender. However, I'm just realizing that LDS films have historically presented women in two ways. First, as super attractive singles who are hyperactive in the church. They go to the dances, devotionals, institute, homemaking meeting, and just about everything that a college student could go to. Secondly, women are presented as frumpy relief society moms. These women make huge breakfasts, bare children, bake, clean, prepare centerpieces to be placed on doilies during Relief Society. However, in both versions of women there is one thing in common. Women are not spiritual. They don't talk doctrine, like the men. They don't bear testimony (Hollist ,142). What does this say about role women play in the church? Are they too supposed to be hyperactive and go to every activity, every service project while canning beets and making jams? The RM is perhaps the most typical of these cinematic representations.
This film is about Jared Phelps. He is a recent returned missionary. He loses his job, his girlfriend, his car, and his chance at education. He's stuck with an engagement ring that blew his college fund. Throughout the film, however, he keeps his faith. He interacts primarily with two women in the film: his mother and Kelly Powers, his would-be-girlfriend. These two women are stereotyped into both categories of women.

Emma Phelps is a super mom. She has kids ranging from 21 to newborn. She cooks breakfast every morning, only to see it passed by as her kids run off to school. She singlehandedly got each of her boy's Eagle Scout awards. She creates intricate centerpieces for her relief society lessons. She is so set on getting a year's supply of food storage she creates furniture to hide the extra. However, the one time she is seen with the scriptures open she is looking for names for her newborn baby. When faced with a challenge from her son she denies his trouble. She ignores it and worries about how the family's standing in the community will fall (142).

Kelly Powers
Kelly is the daughter of a Seventy. She is perfect in every way. She is tall, thin, and a smile that melts Jared Phelps's heart. She is fiercely loyal. Even through all of Jared's trials she sticks with him. She also aggressively seeks him out. When he is too shy to ask for her number she leaves it at his work. She is coy and flirtingly teases Jared every chance she gets. She is everything that Jared ever wanted in a woman. However, just like Emma there is no reference to her activity in church. She is never seen reading the scriptures. She never references her prayers (143).
This film carries a dangerous representation of women in the church. It states that while they are required to preform all homemaking activities (canning, cooking, cleaning, etc.)  they are also supposed to keep their spirituality quiet or at least to a minimum. It states that LDS men do not want spiritual women.  They want women who will be stay at home. This is not only true in The RM, but in many other LDS films. 

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