Thursday, August 19, 2010

Davey's Mormon Arts 101, Part One: FILM

I'm going to do a little series on the best stuff I've encountered in my forays into the world of Mormon arts. My exposure has been by no means exhaustive, probably not even really extensive, and there are still dozens of titles to check off my list at some point--movies, musicians, artists, plays, and especially books that I've heard great things about, but just haven't gotten around to yet. In the meantime, however, there's enough good and great stuff to keep anyone occupied.

I think the idea of Mormon art is exciting. For me, art is as important a part of religion as church meetings--it is the way in which I most frequently and often most fully partake of the Spirit, and am able to "ponder on the mysteries," as Joseph Smith put it. Good art shows us something about the world, about people, about cultures and customs, and about history. Great art does all this, and it does something more--it touches upon the divine, the sublime, and the deepest and most fundamental aspects of our humanity. It helps us see things, think about them, and feel them anew. It reminds us what it is to be alive.

I define Mormon art, rather broadly, as any art by or about Mormons. It's a pretty inclusive definition, and in making lists like this I tend to lean towards works with content that is specifically Mormon either culturally or religiously, or which lend themselves particularly well to Mormon readings (for more on Mormon readings, check out my recently-accepted-to-the-Mormon-Media-Studies-Symposium paper on Pan's Labyrinth--also one of the best and most spiritually moving movies ever).

There's often a real (and unfortunate) stigma around Mormon art--partially, I think, because there often tends to be an unfortunate stigma around art in general within Mormonism. In any case, when we think of Mormon artists, we tend to think of people like Greg Olsen and Jack Weyland--the pop artists of Mormonism; the Deseret Book crowd. And, personally, I generally don't find those guys to be very good (just like many of the most widely-known artists in the broader American cultural landscape are often not very good). But some of the best books I have ever read are works of Mormon fiction. Some of the best movies I have ever seen are Mormon movies. Part of my affection for these pieces stems from my connection to our culture, history, and theology--but they're also just great books and movies any way you look at them. And, at their best, they've moved me and brought me closer to God in ways that few other experiences in my life have.

So, without further ado, here's my first list. Mormon movies. Because I love movies.

I'm limiting myself to features here, although maybe I'll make a list of shorts another time--the best stuff at the annual LDS Film Festival is almost always in the short film programs, and there's some really amazing work being done (the past few years I've found that, as a whole, I much prefer the shorts at the LDS Film Festival to those at Sundance). It's harder to keep track of all the shorts though, and harder to track down most of them. So features it is.

Not all of these are great movies, but they are all good ones. Not all of them have changed my life, but probably at least half of them have. Some of them are hard (or next-to-impossible) to find--others are on DVD and Netflix, and others are available for free on the internet. All of them are well worth seeing.

God's Army

Dutcher's first movie was the second movie made by a Mormon filmmaker about Mormon characters to play in commercial movie theaters--and the first in nearly seventy years. I hadn't seen it almost since the film came out, and I caught it again at a special screening earlier this year at the LDS Film Festival, in honor of its tenth anniversary. I think in some ways it's an even better film now than it was ten years ago. Maybe that's due to all the bad movies that followed in its wake, but I think freed from the burden of being the Mormon movie, it's able to be seen for what it is--one particular movie telling one particular story, and doing an amazingly good job of it. It's sweet, sad, funny, moving, and uplifting, and it's one of the most compelling and undiluted testimonies ever put on film. It has terrific performances, a fine script, excellent direction, and really great music. There's very little here that doesn't work, and doesn't hold up. A great movie.

Brigham City

Dutcher's follow-up is probably even better, and a worthy contender for The Best Mormon Movie Ever. It's a powerful study of some of the most difficult questions at the heart of both the gospel--the relationship between innocence and wisdom--and the church as an organization--the sometimes messy crossover between our lives in church and our lives in the community--and it offers no easy answers, only grace. Again, Dutcher is a pretty amazing triple threat--it's a rich, engaging screenplay with impeccable direction, and, in the main role, he gives a great, sympathetic performance. Box Office Magazine called this the best independent film since Blood Simple, the Coen brothers' first film back in the mid-80s. It's certainly one of the best films ever to explore matters of faith. And that, in my mind, qualifies it as one of the great movies ever. It's deeply sad, horrifying on a number of levels, and also has a warmth, humor, and heart that makes it, in my opinion, incredibly likable and accessible for a movie with so much on its mind. (One of my favorite podcasts, Watching Theology, did an episode on Brigham City that you can listen to here.)

States of Grace

And again--Dutcher's third Mormon movie is maybe even better than its two predecessors. An ensemble indie drama with, yes, good writing, good performances, and good direction. The first time I saw this in a theater I felt like I'd been hit by a train. It packs a huge emotional wallop. I read an interview where Dutcher said one of the reasons he made this movie was because he knew people whose fathers told them they'd rather see them come home from their missions in a casket than come home dishonorably. Disturbing phrases like that crop up far too often in the Church--we need far less of that, and far more of the grace in this film. Much as we talk about it, I think we still don't discuss the Atonement as much or as accurately as we should. Watch this movie, and then download this session from the 2006 Sunstone symposium on the film--some wonderful conversations (and it's free to download).

New York Doll

This movie is a masterpiece. A glorious celebration of spirit in religion and in rock. Arthur Kane is a beautiful human being. The rendition of "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" is probably the most beautiful and moving performance of a hymn I've ever heard in my life, and every time I watch it I tear up. This is great documentary filmmaking--and Greg Whitely is a great documentary filmmaker--but it's the story that is just mind-bogglingly amazing. The fact that things unfolded as they did can't help but feel like a miracle. There are just so many moments in this movie that are so sublime. Here are a few. Kane's description of reading the Book of Mormon as "like an LSD trip from the Lord." The moment when Arthur is reunited with David Johansen, the man he's been begrudging for literally decades, and suddenly everything dissolves and all that remains is their friendship. Their conversation in the dressing room before their concert. Arthur's beautiful prayer before the performance. The moment when the film slows, the rock music is replaced by an angelic choir--and then we're back to the punk rock. And the perfect use of The Smiths' "Please Let Me Get What I Want" as the musical finale to the film. This is one of the best movies I've ever seen.


Fit for the Kingdom is the name of a wonderful series of documentaries whose purpose is to highlight the quiet, virtuous lives of everyday Latter-day Saints--friends, family members, and neighbors of filmmakers who briefly share their stories, their beliefs, and their struggles. They are monuments to the many small ways we try every day to be a little more perfect. Many of these little movies are gems--I particularly love the family scripture study with the Duncans (BYU film professor Dean Duncan and former student/former professor Ben Unguren started the Fit for the Kingdom project together during Ben's undergrad days). Angie is the only full-length film in the series thus far, and even then it's a scant fifty minutes or so. But it's a heartbreaking, beautiful movie. Made by Tom Russell, another BYU film professor, it documents the last months of his wife's life, as she battles with and ultimately succumbs to cancer. Like the other Fit for the Kingdom films, it is stylistically sparse--it's essentially a home movie with a narrative. And it's that sense of vulnerability that makes it so real. Documentary filmmakers spend their lives trying to figure out how to develop relationships with their subjects that allow them to be open and honest, but there is nothing like the real thing--there is an intimacy in the openness and plainness in the way Angie shares with her husband and with the camera that cannot be faked, and cannot be gained by any shortcuts. This is an amazing movie. And all of the Fit for the Kingdom films are available to watch for free on their website.

The Sonosopher: Alex Caldiero in Life... in Sound

A couple of my friends made this documentary. And it's amazing. I just saw it the other day at this year's Sunstone symposium. It's an innovative, beautiful, experimental documentary about Alex Caldiero, a poet, a musician, a performance artist--a "sonosopher," in his own words. Caldiero teaches and is a poet-in-residence at UVU; he converted to the Church shortly after he was married in his early twenties (he's a New Yorker, his parents were Puerto Rican immigrants), and fell out of activity with the Church after years, less interested in the institutional, day-to-day, practical, 1950s businessman aesthetic and organization of the Church than in the elements of mysticism and mythology. The film cinematically recreates the power of his raw, emotional, kinetic, mad performances. It's a movie about a fascinating character, and a wonderful collage of images and sounds.


Dutcher wrote the script for Falling while he was shooting God's Army; he shot it back-to-back with States of Grace, in the midst of a crisis of faith; he edited and released it after he left the Church. These strange autobiographical and intertextual undercurrents are, I think, a good deal of what makes the film as good as it is--made by Dutcher the Mormon, it would've been the most graphically violent seminary video ever; made by Dutcher the Skeptic it would've been just another diatribe against the silence of God and lack of redemption. But the movie gets its power by finding itself caught between belief and disbelief--it's the tragedy of a man who wants to believe, who wants to be redeemed and to return to a life he once loved, but who may have passed a point of no return. It's a fascinating, paradoxical study of the ethics of filmmaking and film-watching. And Dutcher's performance is one of the best performances I've seen. Not a movie for everyone, by any means, and it certainly has its problems, but it's an incredibly powerful experience, and one that demands discussion.

Mr. Krueger's Christmas

The best LDS institutional film I've seen, easily. It's a lovely little movie--the rare institutional video that isn't really didactic, it's just a study of a sad, lonely old man who finds some love, and, both in script and in execution, it's appropriately quiet, low-key, and naturalistic, and very, very charitable. The final voice-over is kind of terrible, but everything up to that is wonderful--a celebration of Christmas, Christ, and the small things and the small human interactions that make life. Jimmy Stewart's performance is really terrific. This movie is a gem.

Plan 10 From Outer Space

This, in my opinion, is what a Mormon comedy should be. Trent Harris isn't Mormon, but he's an independent filmmaker who's made Salt Lake City his home, and both his affection and frustration for the Church is evident here. The movie starts with opening credits in both English and the Deseret Alphabet, and it goes on to weave a bizarre and frequently hilarious tale involving seagulls, bronze plates, aliens from Kolob, Porter Rockwell and the Danites, and Brigham Young's mythical 28th wife, among other things. It's a delight to see the way Harris connects the dots of Mormon history, theology, and folklore, and it's all underpinned with a criticism of the Church's hesitance to fully own up to our history that I think remains important.

Napoleon Dynamite

This is the least explicitly "Mormon" movie on the list (the only real reference to the Church is a shirt one of the characters wears with "Rick's College" on it), but I think it warrants inclusion not just because Jared Hess, Jon Heder, and most of the cast and crew are Mormon, and not just because many Mormons seemed to identify the small-town Idaho culture as specifically small-Mormon-Idaho-town culture. Really, I think the movie is about being a peculiar person--feeling like an outsider and an outcast, and coming to terms with the things that set one apart from Everybody Else, and I think those are subjects and feelings close to Mormon people, history, and even scripture. They are also feelings close to virtually everyone who has ever been in high school, which is probably why this is also by far the biggest money-maker on this list.

Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons

Though far from comprehensive, and often distractingly unpolished (the audio in many of the interviews is TERRIBLE), this is not only an admirable documentary, but an involving and informative one as well. Margaret Blair Young is one of the best Mormon writers around--she and Darius Gray collaborated on a trilogy of novels about early black Mormon history (I hear they are great, and look forward to reading them), and, though neither of them is really a filmmaker, they directed Nobody Knows as sort of a follow-up. I really appreciated that they were able to approach the difficult subject matter from a perspective that is both undeniably faithful and also unwilling to whitewash history. I found that very inspiring.

The Errand of Angels

What makes Christian Vuissa's low-budget story of sister missionaries in Austria is great is that it's about essentially good, kind people who sometimes have a hard time getting along. It seems to me that this is the third in the triptych of great Mormon missionary movies thus far--the conflict in God's Army is internal, about one young man's struggle to learn whether or not he has a testimony; the conflict in States of Grace is external, the sometimes violent and sometimes redemptive collision between culture, race, belief, sin, and salvation, as Mormon missionaries interact with the non-Mormons they meet; the conflict in The Errand of Angels is between the two companions, trying to get along, trying to make it through the day without getting frustrated with one another, and get their missionary work accomplished in spite of their clashing personalities. It's probably no big spoiler to say that they eventually become friends, but the real accomplishment of the movie is that it manages to make these everyday struggles real, relatable, and important, just as they are in life. It's not as professional as Dutcher's work; for that matter, it's not as professional as Vuissa's follow-up, One Good Man--but, unlike that film, it has the insight and the compassion to portray its fundamentally good characters as flawed and imperfect. One Good Man looks prettier, but this sensitivity to character, conflict, and story makes The Errand of Angels an infinitely better movie.

The Book of Jer3miah

Created by faculty and students in the BYU film program and released as a web series, The Book of Jer3miah is marketed as a "spiritual thriller"--what I love about it is that it takes aspects of our doctrine, history, folklore, and beliefs, and uses them as a template to connect the dots for a somewhat supernatural thriller about a BYU freshman who discovers things about his past he never could have guessed. It's a delight to see a story like this that incorporates Mormonism so fully into its framework, and the story is incredibly well-paced, with a twist at the end of every two-to-five-minute episode (well, at least after the first couple, which are really significantly weaker than everything that follows). It's a courageous bit of work--it's incredibly ambitious, it doesn't shy away from dark, challenging thematic material, and it isn't afraid to bring any aspect of Mormon doctrine or folklore that might fit into the story. It doesn't always look professional, but that's not really a weakness--there's a sort of a handmade quality to the product that I think lends it more personality and soul than it might have had given more slick production values. And really, for episodes put together by students once a week over the course of a semester, it really looks and sounds and feels pretty fantastic. I think the internet is the perfect venue for (and probably, at least to a large extent, the future of) Mormon cinema. Jer3miah is a thrilling pioneer in the medium, and an excellent, entertaining, and fascinating bit of moviemaking. You can read my interview with the creators, Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon, here.

Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love

This is almost definitely the worst movie on this list, but it's such an oddity that, at least for me, it was impossible not to be intrigued and entertained by it. Based on a play that was based on a novella (that was written by B. H. Roberts), it's a sex-and-sandals epic set in the world of The Book of Mormon--and it's really a total genre film, adhering slavishly to contemporary genre expectations, looking and sounding like a slightly lower-budget DeMille Bible epic of the time (I think Corianton was released in 1931), the only difference being that the names here can't be found anywhere in either Testament. Eric Samuelsen wrote a good (and funny) review of it for the Association for Mormon Letters; you can read it here. Also, the history behind the making of Corianton could make for an even better movie. Maybe someday I'll write it.

Happy Valley

It's fairly well-known that the level of prescription drug abuse is way above average in Utah County. I think it might be higher here than anywhere in the country (if I'd seen this movie more recently, I'd probably know). Anyways, Happy Valley is about that strange juxtaposition--the bright, pleasant, picture-perfect exterior of Utah Mormonism, and the dark, painful things that it too often tries to conceal (in this case, drug abuse). The documentary is far from perfect--the final fifteen minutes or so are particularly bizarre, as it turns into a weird little home movie for the filmmaker, telling us about his new wife and dog and stuff, with upbeat pop music and everything--but the stories and lives documented in Happy Valley speak for themselves, and the result is often very powerful and incredibly moving.

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