Thursday, May 29, 2008

Clarion call to LDS producers

After all I wrote about Yeelen, I have been thinking about miracles, and a Mormon portrayal of them.

There are a few specific things on my mind. 1. That transcendence in film is a different discussion from the portrayal of miracles in film. The two may very well be linked and overlapping, but to assume that one is the other deprives us of clarity and opportunity. 2. That Godard has said that Dreyer and Hitchcock are the only two directors who knew how to frame a miracle. My feelings about this notion are both surprise and humility. 3. That miracles and an understanding of them is integral to a Mormon world view.

However representing miracles on screen, as Godard, the world's premiere cinephile, notes, virtually everyone has gotten it wrong. I might say that there are a few exceptions to his Hitchcock/Dreyer standard, but not many. Souleymane Cisse, director of Yeelen, might very well be one of them. Though his miracles are based in magic rather than Christianity, they seem to me more pure than any LDS-specific, or American for that matter, film that I know of. Perhaps then LDS film should not only not be looking to Spielberg or Pirates of the Carribbean, but to Dreyer or Hitchcock either. At least sometimes.

I desperately think we need to make stories that focus on miracles but do so in a pure way. As I've thought about this, the first story that comes to my mind is Helaman Chapter 5. But to my mind, no amount of special effects can do justice to the sacredness of the visitations, the circle of fire, and the crumbling jail contained in that chapter. So perhaps the model should be straight from Georges Méliès all the way to Souleymane Cisse. Méliès was one of the very first filmmakers, but he was a magician by trade. He started making films to add to his "magic shows." His Trip to the Moon was remade into the Smashing Pumpkins video for "Tonight, Tonight," for those of you familiar with it. But to a modern eye, the kind of in-house special effects came mostly from camera trickery can only be cause for delight rather than to convince. But as Yeelen teaches us, when founded upon innocence and purity, a sincerity comes through that transcends devotion. And so here is my clarion call: for LDS producers, distributors, and financiers, as well as filmmakers, to rally around a production of Helaman 5, with Méliès and Yeelen providing a genealogical framework of innocence.

The goal (much to the production's financial benefit) would be to be as digital perfection as possible, to rely on, for lack of a better word, "tribal," "primitive" non-actors, and mythical (in opposition to mystical) storytelling. Such an exciting, homespun brand of special effects would be delightful to "family-films" audiences, as well as being more capable of expressing devotion than any forms LDS filmmakers are currently engaged in. Again, anyone interested? Please contact me s soon as possible at towardanldscinema AT gmail DOT com. Or do it and don't tell me about it. If there's anyone who wants to and can make this film, please feel free to do so without my involvement. However, I of course would be more than willing. Let's hope we see the film get made.


Bryan said...

Trevor, your post incites much thought. I wonder if you could clarify a few issues?

First, I'm not sure how you (or Godard) are defining "miracle." It's entirely possible that he and you are talking about two different things.

Portraying miracles (defined here as spectacular healings/events witnessed by others; the other, more personal/transformational kind, happen in movies all the time) in film is difficult. I like to think that "The Prince of Egypt" got it right most of the time. I think to pull it off requires a film to be (mostly) grounded in reality, together with some kind of attribution to God. Otherwise it's simply special effects, which do have their proper place in film.

Since you mentioned Spielberg, the first and third movies in the "Indiana Jones" series live in a unique place, since they incorporate religious mythology within a "Saturday morning serial adventure" milieu. The Angel of Doom/melting faces scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could well be interpreted as either a miracle or spectacular setpiece. The scene feels very Old Testament-ish, and knowing Spielberg's Judaism and lack of fondness for Nazis (brought out in greater detail by Ebert's Great Movie review here) adds a bit of interesting gravitas to the proceedings. The fact that it could be interpreted either way is not a weakness, in my opinion.

(I know I've just mentioned in quick succession two figures you don't particularly admire, but I did so to ground my point.)

Second, what is the intended audience for the proposed film? Is it a strict literal adaptation of the Helaman 5 story, or intended to be an allegory? Straightforward Book of Mormon-based films are an incredibly risky proposition for anyone other than the Church right now. And the Church would probably wish to exercise greater creative control than you'd be comfortable with. Remember "The Book of Mormon Movie: Volume 1"? Aside from the fact that it was a pretty poor movie, it did next to no business at the box office, even among LDS audiences. And it was even based on that part of the book that Mormons know best!

It seems the latest trend in LDS cinema is "mainstreaming" - telling values-based stories that appeal to a broad audience, and in the process getting people like Ryan Little ("Saints and Soldiers," the forthcoming "Forever Strong") embedded in the Hollywood system, so that later on investors will warm to the idea of making more LDS-centric films.

Of course, there are plenty of direct-to-video efforts that one sees on display in LDS bookstores, but I have no idea how financially successful they are. But then again, maybe the point isn't to make money.

Trevor said...


I'm really glad that you're posting this. It's just the kind of thing we should be discussing in concretes.

I, unfortunately (sincerely), don't have access enough to Godard or the context of the quote to answer for him. That may have been irresponsible of me, but I believe the thought to be compelling enough outside of any context to be worth while nonetheless. Judging from the directors he listed, we can know at least that he was referring to the last scene in Dreyer's Ordet. I'd guess that the Hitchcock reference was included to both stretch our notion of what a miracle is and to suggest that 'secular' framing (meaning how something is placed in the camera's view) is far more sacred than so called 'sacred' framing. He might be referring to the escapes from Hitch cock's 'wrong man' scenarios, or he might be referring to how these figures were placed in these scenarios in the first place. I'm not familiar with Hitckcock's oeuvre sufficiently to say for sure. Whatever his full meaning, we can also be assured that, at least partially, his intent was to turn heads. He definitely succeeded in this as my head turned, and has been turned accordingly for a very long time now.

That being said, as an introductory definition, I'd say a miracle is an event incomprehensible to humans and inexplicable by mortal means.

Now, I wouldn't agree with Godard all the way (and he has been known to go back on such statements) in that I think the ending of Bresson's Mouchette, and the end of Life of Oharu both contain miracles of the highest order.

Before I go deeper, let me point out that I've written much more ground work about my views on this subject under previous posts (like 'a priori assumptions' and 'On Entertainment' as well as their follow-ups). What I wrote there is not profound in anyway (though I thought it worth writing), but they will explain in better detail what I might write here.

That being said, my lens is mainly a formalist one (meaning that what means the filmmaker uses is often the best way to decipher what is going on in the film). Through a formalist lens Spielberg becomes a different figure than he would otherwise be.

A formalist lens reveals his use of music and camera tricks to be masterful, but masterfully manipulative. Now, that is a big term to throw around, by what I mean by it is that his goal is not to talk about emotions, to describe them and talk about their implications, but to elicit them from the audience.

D&C 121 talks about unrighteous dominion and 'amen to the priesthood of that man.' You might think that my take is a bit extremist, but I think this emotional manipulation is unrighteous on a massive scale. Is is fine film making? It is filmmaking of the highest order. But it is destructive spiritually. I can think of no better term than 'Anti-Christian.'

Now, do not misunderstand me here. I do not mean 'Anti-Christian' in a New Testament vs. Old Testament sense of the word. How ignorant that would be. But I do mean it in a Christianity vs. Commerce sense of the word. Mr. Spielberg does not give a gift, he wants to get something in return for his story. He requires the audiences emotions to be in his control for the story to be worth while. And if we refuse to give them? His films, as a rule fall apart, becoming empty.

Now, I've said a lot here. I don't want to suggest that I loath his movies altogether. This last year has taught me the opposite. Spielberg owes a great deal to Andrzej Wajda, a Polish director, for films like Schindler's List. Spielberg himself has acknowledged this debt, and accordingly caused Mr. Wajda's lifetime achievement award with the American Academy. However this year in Poland has taught me, if nothing else, a deep respect for Spielberg's storytelling, which I consider by far superior to Mr. Wajda's, who is often uneven and unintentionally disjointed. Mr. Spielberg is as far as I'm concerned one of the greatest storytellers to have made films. Truly. LDS filmmakers would do well to study how he does it (I haven't got a clue). Yet what he does with music and other emotional cues are poisonous to my mind. You do take the good with the bad, but there is no excuse for his bad.

As for this Helaman 5 thing. I think a pared-down straight-forward Book of Mormon story, but a BoM as allegory, not literary adaptation (The Book of Mormon Movie hfailed as a literary adaptation. There is a great difference). If you, or anyone else, get a chance, see Yeleen (rent it from a library, as many have it, and they're usually free) and you'll see what I mean. In that vein, the story will have much more appeal than just a Mormon audience, just as this African tribal story is deeply loved by thousands who know nothing of their culture.

But the suggestion is more a catalyst than a feasibility, I'm guessing.

Also, as far as miracles go, go see Dreyer's Ordet. You will never forget it and it will change how you see movies as well as miracles. Go to a library that has it. I know of several in Utah.

Bryan said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll have to add them to my Netflix queue, as the Georgia public libraries aren't nearly as well-stocked in regard to media as the Orem/Provo libraries are. I do miss them.

Your perspective on Spielberg is certainly unique, and I respect your opinion. However, I find it hard to find points of agreement or argument because with the exception of "Schindler's List" you've spoken of his work solely in generalities. I'm well aware of the backlash against SL in recent years, which as far as I can tell centers mostly around the "I could have done more" scene. I wonder if it is necessarily with Spielberg that your grief lies, or perhaps with his permanent composer John Williams. Williams has an incredible body of work, but he turns out a fair number of clunkers these days as well. I'm not saying that everything Spielberg has touched has turned to gold either, but I'd much rather discuss specific films and why they succeed or fail. I also know that this isn't the place for this kind of discussion, so we can defer it till another time.

I'll also reiterate my belief that all art has a manipulative effect on the viewer. The artist wants us to see, feel, and experience what he or she is feeling. Our reaction depends on how willing we are to accompany him or her on that journey. Press me too far, and I call it manipulation. Ease me into it, and I call it transcendence.

Trevor said...


you're right that I'm talking in generalities about Spielberg, but partially its because you don't have to look far at all to see exactly what I'm talking about. Even in his self-proclaimed 'experimental' phase post-Kubrick collaboration on A.I. Music is virtually omni-present for his emotional goals, it just gets more messy and doubles back on itself in endeavors like Munich.

'As to the all art is manipulative' take, you're free to have it, as I once did, but I've changed my view in the past six years. It is still a very thin line, but but the difference is some films focus on what the do, and some focus on what they do for you/to you. Historically as well as specifically, Spielberg is the frontrunner.

Look in ANY climax of ANY film or ANY film sequence. Does the camera move in closer? Does the music go up? Perhaps does the lighting change? Does the Editing quicken its pace? I've avoided specifics because we probably lack a common vocabulary (I'm sure you know things about his movies I don't and know certain movies far better than I do). But post Jaws, that is pretty much constant in American cinema as well as in his films. Just because the vast majority of films you may have seen follows that trend doesn't mean that all film does.

and for the record, I do deeply respect Ebert. I own many volumes of his writings, and he has a place. We simply differ, as you and I may, on what cinema (especially of the transcendent ilk) should be and is.

My general rule is that if the film does it for you, there is a lack of trust for the audience, and, as I've written about extensively elsewhere here, a spiritual numbing that denies divinity. That may sound a bit sloppy, but I'm in a rush and its a summary of things written elsewhere.

There are simply thousands more critics whose writing expounds my view on cinema more. And he's pretty impatient about greatness. If he finds 'Taste of Cherry' boring and unrewarding, I have no place for him.

I've seen him often at Sundance, and I've really grateful for his contributions to film and its understanding (especially about his stands against the MPAA, and what he's done for Asian reception, as well as consistently praising Jonathan Rosenbaum's writing), but I guess it would be too presumptuous to ask if he's changed his mind about Kiarostami. I guess with his health I just won't get the chance.

Bryan said...

Perhaps I'm not one for the formalist school then. I do not see sameness of technique and infer sameness of intent. I do not believe that all close-ups and swelling music are all employed for the same purpose, or with equal skill. I imagine that if I did, I would regard all American cinema with high esteem, and look down with disdain upon European and Asian cinema for being too reserved and emotionally distant, because I miss being told what my reaction to the film should be. Thankfully for myself, I do not. I actually value more subtlety in communicating moral lessons, not less.

This is a good conversation, and I appreciate your insights.

Trevor said...

"I do not see sameness of technique and infer sameness of intent. I do not believe that all close-ups and swelling music are all employed for the same purpose, or with equal skill."

I think we've missed each other here. While formalism sees a direct link between form and content (and I would go as far as to say that form IS content), it has nothing to do with what you've written above. I've given my best shot and capsulizing, but evidently I was unclear and missed the mark. I will try to say that formalism is simply a lens through which to better understand and respond to art. It does not impose judgment, it simply allows our judgments to be more focused and thoughtful.

"I would regard all American cinema with high esteem, and look down with disdain upon European and Asian cinema for being too reserved and emotionally distant, because I miss being told what my reaction to the film should be."

I can see that a chord was struck, but these are sweeping generalizations. I have no idea what "all American cinema" would entail, let alone grouping all European AND Asian cinema under one bubble. Cinema is in its third century.

Tarkovsky made Solaris in direct response to Kubrick's 2001 because he was appalled that he had made such an emotionally distant film. Though I believe 2001 is the greater film, I consider Tarkovsky the greater filmmaker. But the more emotionally involved by far is the European (or Asian depending on how you group Russia). Ebert even praises Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" for its close ups and intense style. Yet 2 decades later he made Ordet which stays pretty much to medium or medium-long shots for the entire film. This choice makes the last close-up such a release that nothing I know in cinema compares.

All I'm saying is, I hope that our disagreement here (surely caused mostly from differing backgrounds rather than a simple differing of taste alone) doesn't convince you to discount two of the most complex groupings of art possibly imaginable. (Hong Kong cinema differs vastly from both Chinese and Taiwanese modern cinema, not to mention film from those areas 20 years ago. You're free to make your own aesthetic decisions, thank goodness, but I hope they aren't made because of this disagreement.

If you would, however, I'm fascinated by what you wrote here:

"because I miss being told what my reaction to the film should be. Thankfully for myself, I do not. I actually value more subtlety in communicating moral lessons, not less."

I, obviously, vehemently object to your first stance "I miss being told what my reaction to the film should be," but the rest of what you wrote could either be mixed around or I don't know what you mean. So I have a few questions: How do you define 'subtlety'? How do you define 'more' or 'less' subtle? Do you believe Spielberg to be a subtle filmmaker? What rubric are you using if so? If not, then what is it exactly that you think I am propagating?

This may be a misunderstanding, but if you mean that you prefer films which are more subtle in communicating moral lessons, then I would love to hear more about it.

Anonymous said...

Trevor, I know this isn't the appropriate forum for what I have to say, so I'll keep it short. I went to school with you about 12 years ago. We weren't close friends -in fact, you probably don't even remember me- but you showed me a kindness and compassion back then that was absolutely unheard of in my life. Our short interaction stands out strongly in my mind and I really cherish the memories I have of you. I just want to say thank you. And I hope life has given you all the goodness you deserve.

A girl

Trevor said...

'a girl'

I don't know that you'll ever check back, but I'm posting this with hope.

I'm shocked as well as pleased at your message, the change in tone it brought, and the memories from school. I'll admit that I've been trying to decipher your identity, especially since I don't remember myself 12 years ago as being kind.

I have my guesses, but I'll leave it at that. It is always nice to remember, and if you ever get the chance, you can email towardanldscinema AT gmail DOT com

regardless, thanks for your courage and memory. I regret not doing what you did for those who have showed much kindness to me in the past (and if you are any of the people I suspect, you belong on that list for me).



Bryan said...

Hi Trevor,

I spent about an hour this morning writing a response to your comments, but when I clicked the "Preview" button to proofread what I wrote, Firefox crashed and I lost everything. I don't know if I have the patience to go through that exercise again, so I'll sum up my major points.

I think you misunderstood this remark:

"I imagine that if I did, I would regard all American cinema with high esteem, and look down with disdain upon European and Asian cinema for being too reserved and emotionally distant, because I miss being told what my reaction to the film should be."

It was meant to be interpreted as a hypothetical statement. Perhaps the point would have been better made if I had used missed instead of miss. I actually enjoy world cinema quite a bit, though my priority at this point is to catch up on all of the 2007 movies I care to see. My Netflix queue is over 140 titles long, and is a fairly eclectic mix of old and new, foreign and American, entertaining and enlightening. For instance, just yesterday I received Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" from Netflix, and hope to enjoy it sooner rather than later. I don't have quite the depth of knowledge you do in regards to world cinema (mostly because my competencies lie elsewhere), but I think I'm fairly open-minded to stuff beyond my country's borders.

On the issue of subtlety in communicating moral lessons, I tend to prefer what you called "narrative devices" (such as depicting consequences of human behavior and allowing audiences to discover the lesson for themselves) over an omnipresent narrator, so far as it applies to the visual medium of film. I think that telling is generally less subtle than showing, hence my remark. (Though that's a generalization too.)

As for your other questions about subtlety as it concerns filmmakers like Spielberg - again, I prefer to discuss specific films versus personalities. Spielberg's body of work is all over the map thematically. For instance, I don't think there are any great insights into the human existence conveyed in "Jurassic Park" or even the latest "Indiana Jones" movie. I judge a film by how well it succeeds at its reason for being. So if we want to talk about his ability to convey moral truths, let's dig into specific films where he stands a fighting chance - not "1941," for example.

But now we're getting far, far away from the original topic of this post. :)