Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The purpose of art is to conceal itself.
This is something I try to remember whenever I'm shooting or editing a video. If my technique calls attention to what I'm doing, rather than what's happening in "front" of the camera, then my approach is wrong. This is the problem I have with a lot of films and even more videos. They seem like the creators want to say "look what I can do!" when they should be saying something completely different. I think this is part of what Trevor talks about when he discusses form and content as equally important to the meaning of a film. Effects for the sake of effects miss the boat. Stunts for the sake of stunts can cheapen an otherwise good production. It should be clear from this that I interpret the word "art" in the quote to mean craft, although other interpretations are interesting as well.
I can think of two movies I've seen that remind me of this. One was Tomorrow Never Dies. After seeing it in High School, a friend commented to me that it was "a movie about stunts." That was relevant to our purpose because we were in a performing group that was doing a James Bond show and we were two of the three stunt men. Nevertheless, my friend's comment shows that whatever substance was in that movie was lost, at least on him, by the distracting elements we sometimes refer to as "Hollywood."
The other movie was Transformers. I didn't like the movie for its brazen sexuality which, I felt, dominated any redeeming messages. Having said that, however, I was impressed with the robots, and not just because they were "cool." I remember hearing that Optimus Prime had over 10,000 moving parts.
Why do I mention this? because if I were to really see a giant alien robot walking around, I would expect to see moving parts. The effects "sold" the characters. There were things going on inside the robots that were unconscious, just like our lungs and hearts moving independent of our direct commands. Obviously, the robots weren't real, but the art that created them was believable. I agree that the best effect is one you don't know is there, but in the context of Transformers, such an approach would have meant a movie without its title characters. I don't think that's the spirit of this idea. In other words, had the robots been real, I don't know that the film would have been any different.
Now, even if you agree with me on this, you may wonder what it has to do with LDS cinema. Aside from general filmmaking topics, I argue that the "preachyness" we read about so often and that is so much spoken against as a weakness of LDS films would be less blatant if we tried to encode our messages with this quote in mind. If, instead of having a didactic conversation between characters about gospel doctrines, we actually demonstrated those doctrines in practice - showing the effects of their acceptance or rejection as Brigham Young said, we may see better results. That's just one idea.
Alma 32 has something to say about this that I'm going to discuss in a later post (part 3 of my Light, Truth, and Spirit series), but I do want to point out that Christ taught often in parables. Why? Well, among other reasons, to conceal the doctrines the parables contained from those who do not have "ears to hear." By concealing the doctrines, he spared the unbelieving the condemnation they would be under for hearing him teach the truths directly and not obeying. He used stories with a deeper meaning for those prepared to search for it.
This post comes immediately after having a discussion with someone who does not feel that movies, particularly fictional movies, are a suitable vehicle for serious discussion of issues. He thinks that those who search movies for deep meanings are usually over-analyzing. That's a bit oversimplified, but still. Obviously, I disagree, but I liken his attitude to that of one who views the Savior's parables as nice stories with a good message.
To be clear, and because he may well read this, I know he doesn't think that way about the parables. He has given some very insightful interpretations of some of those in the past. But I'm talking about movies. Not all films try to be like this, but I think films that are interested in art should.
What do you think?
Monday, July 21, 2008
The film’s main character Tom struggles to find the Tree of Life to save his dying wife Izzy. Beyond the Old Testament reference, the film is a pretty amazing allegory of man’s mortal experience. Tom struggles, and only when he accepts his struggles does he find transcendence. Izzy teaches him that suffering and death are, potentially, a means of the creation of new life.
This lesson is an important one for me because, despite having been taught that righteous living is accompanied by happiness, I try to do good and still encounter enormous trials. And I think this lesson is important for all disciples of Christ who work hard and pray for blessings but still must learn to endure to the end. I am learning, like Tom, that although we may not experience relief from our sufferings, as we endure our trials with patience, humility and hope, we are developing Christ-like attributes. And that is a blessing in itself.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
- Ordet. First is a film that I am convinced is the greatest film ever made. From my knowledge of film history, which is admittedly flawed but I have seen a film or two, no film even comes close. The film is formally perfect. The more I see it, the more I want to see it. I've seen it satisfy the highest demands of high art as well as the movie-going needs of those who are still wary of subtitles. I don't want to paint Ordet to be something it's not because it is it's subtlety that gives it its grandeur. It has more to say about the conflict between churches, faith, miracles, and the meaning of Christ than anything else I know of. In my opinion, it is the alpha and omega of films concerning doubt. There is no longer a reason to question God's existence in film. This film said everything that needed to be said on the topic. (I haven't yet seen Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas, an homage to Ordet set in a Mexican Mennonite community, but I suspect that it would have a place on this list if I had.)
- Stalker. Tarkovsky's 1979 adaptation of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem's book is set in a post nuclear present. This film is also on my list of '10 bests.' The complexity of the poetry and metaphor is new and fresh every time I view it. I'm currently reading the biography of Henry Eyring, the scientist, and I can't help but think that he may appreciate if not enjoy this film. The conflict between religion, science, and art has yielded such fruitful ponderings for me. In the end, it is the divine, the controller of both time and space, and the desires of men's hearts that resolve this conflict. In my opinion, it is the only excuse for science fiction as a genre.
- The Matrix trilogy. Many may scoff an the inclusion of this on my list, but I am fascinated at how complex the metaphor becomes. The fact that Christianity is tied thoroughly (and love/hatingly) to technology and filtered through a working definition of reality is fascinating to me. I'll admit that the majority of the fight sequences are gratuitous, though I'm still dazzled at many points. But the mention of sexuality (though also fascinating in its relation to technology vs. anti-technology) is obscene and frivolous, not to mention hedonistic and degrading (even as an expression of anti-technologicality). In every sense, it is pleasure-seeking rather than intimate — the difference between which the film is oblivious to. Regardless, I find the expression moving and multi-faceted. For all its profanity, I find it trying harder to say something than almost anything in current 'pop' culture. Two articles I've recently come across show the thoughts of Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard (!) on The Matrix.
- The Decalogue. Kieslowski and his lawyer-turned-screenwriter partner Piesiewicz made ten one-hour films for ten commandments that all took place in the same group of apartment buildings in Warsaw during communist rule. Just as there are no easy answers for any of the moral dilemmas presented, there are no direct links between each one of the films and each one of the commandments. The stories come from Piesiewicz's experiences as a lawyer. But the moral complexity requires the viewers to reconsider their conception of the ten commandments.
- Dogville and Manderlay. The world's most anti-Christian living filmmaker (for his sadism, misogyny, control, and outright abuse —formal and otherwise—of his actresses) has perhaps more to say about Christianity than any other living filmmaker. These first two parts of his "American Trilogy" will most likely not see a third, as his abuse of his three consecutive leading ladies, Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Bryce Dallas Howard, should leave no room for question in anyone's mind as to how far away from this man actresses should stay. However, the fragmentation of Lars Von Trier's Christ figure is a powerful lens through which to view modern Christianity, and I must say it has moved me deeply. Nicole Kidman's patience, humility, wisdom, love, and unending "turning of the other cheek" is inspiring. Yet according to this film, it is only half of what Christ embodies. James Caan brings justice to her mercy and "overturns the money changers' tables" to her "turning the other cheek." Christianity is only one lens through which to view these films. Both are powerful political-, economic-, and historic-conundrum readings of America. They can also be viewed in terms of the meaning of art. Both have strong nudity, Manderlay being more vile than Dogville. As a sidenote, Von Trier also understand Brecht far more than any playwright I know of.
- Dancer in the Dark. Christ as an eccentric foreign woman, a single mother no less, in 20th-century, working-class America is an audacious casting, to say the least. But the moral dilemma which this Christ figure, played by Björk, is faced with is the thing that most makes me reconsider and reframe the canonical gospels.
- Magnolia. For all its crassness, its vile abundance of "f-words," and references to Altman's Nashville, it truly is a wonder to behold. It is a modern recasting and meditation on Israel and the hand of the Lord. The film is "embedded with 8s and 2s," according to Gary Tooze's DVDBeaver, in reference to Exodus 8:2, speaking of the plagues in Egypt. A former bishop of mine, though he had never seen the film, quoted a story from the prologue.
- Junebug. Though this film also contains nudity, I find it wrought with tenderness and a film that, over and over, I wish Mormon filmmakers would study. Director Phil Morrison, whom I am familiar with because of his earlier ties to Sonic Youth, directs his first feature as a blatant and consistent homage to the domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. He gives more complexity and reverence to our view of protestant middle America and to the act of believing than all these straight "Mormon" features (which would exclude New York Doll) that I've seen (which, by all means, is not everything).
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
The next link is to the discussion on Dave Kehr's cinephilia site/discussion board. That site's current discussion (here) on WALL-E is far more intriguing and thoughtful than the filth-nearing-pure-evil, ultra-right-wing-apostasy post on the same movie over on Millennial Star. (Notice I didn't include the link. If you'd like to post your views on the topic, feel free to do it there — NOT here). I'd feel far more comfortable directing members of the church to Dave Kehr's site than to that post by the author of 'Temple Study' (not to mention people who are encountering the church for the first time).
For those of you unfamiliar with Dave Kehr's site, it is populated by dense references to sometimes obscure titles written by those who are for the most part thoughtful, intelligent, and educated writers. The discussion on the thread about Manoel de Oliveira's films is likewise insightful, even for those who know little or none of his work.
The last link is simply another plug for the new and ever-growing Moving Image Source.
It is an impressive database for anyone interested in this medium. I highly recommend giving it a thorough combing-over.
I believe that one thing that is lacking in 'Mormon Film' is an awareness of world film and film traditions outside of commercial Hollywood fluff. If the viewers and the makers were more exposed to and interested in other traditions, I'm convinced we would be a better people.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
"To observe the physical properties of light can be exciting, but discovering the properties of spiritual light and truth is even more awe inspiring and essential."
"We live in marvelous times, yet also an hour when peace has been taken from the earth.1 For us to prosper in these times, spiritual light must burn within us. How do we obtain this spiritual light and ensure that the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ fill our souls? I would like to suggest three ways: (1) learn true doctrine, (2) gain pure testimony, and (3) live the gospel courageously."
According to our paradigm, filmmakers of all kinds utilize Spirit inevitably. But LDS filmmakers, in order to utilize Spirit appropriately, must be personally worthy and in tune with the Holy Ghost. It makes sense that a medium governed by truth is best placed in the hands of those who live according to truth. Also, that truth be an essential part of the purpose of any work done in that medium. Now, I'm not saying that film should be didactic or "preachy." To the contrary, we should allow the Spirit to do the teaching throught the instrumentality of our films. However, the Spirit cannot testify to something that isn't true. Films can be a means of provoking thought - inviting questions from the individual that lead him or her to personal enlightenment - but this process is facilitated by the enlightenment of the film's creator. One who is filled with the Spirit of truth can more easily embed within a film the grains of truth or Spirit that will reach out to those in the audience.
Elder Steuer points out that a knowledge of truth is essential to posessing spiritual light. In the context of this discussion, I want to suggest that this means that we should strive to understand the ways in which the doctrines of the gospel apply to the films we make and watch. This really, in my opinion, should be obvious. I've discovered over what few years I have behind me that often, when I think through some radical new idea I've been inspired by, it turns out to be just another way of framing the old ideas. In other words, I add complexity to a simple truth, only to be brought back around to its simplicity. This is an interesting principle for filmmakers too, as it in some ways describes the process we follow in taking an audience through our films. I'm mostly speaking of making film in this post, but I believe film viewing can benefit from these principles too.
The second suggestion, to gain pure testimony, implies that we cannot utilize spiritual light appropriately unless a conviction of its truth rests within our souls. In the mission field I was taught that I could not help convert anyone beyond the level of my own conversion. I believe the same is true in film. While our goal is not necessarily to convert, I find that films are best when they have something to say. In the same vein, saying something false damages both speaker and receiver. Although a good film can present many things without advocating one over the other, if we're going to say (advocate) something, it should be true, and we should know it is true.
This could be construed as a departure from my statement that films should lead others to ask questions. Not so. We shouldn't require our audiences to take what we have to say blindly. Not even the Lord asks us to take His word without confirmation. You realize that I'm not so much talking about structural elements of the film, such as setting and the basic establishing contextual points; I'm talking about message and values. I think that audiences should be able to come away with a clear idea of what is being said in a film - on both sides - and then search those messages for truth. It's obvious that I'm struggling with what I mean, but that demonstrates how difficult and flexible this topic is.
"Elder M. Russell Ballard said: 'Clear declaration of truth makes a difference in people’s lives. That is what changes hearts.'"It is often said that testimony is found in the bearing of it, and that's what I think LDS film should do. I know that this is done in varying ways, but I think that we, as a whole, abuse the God-given medium if we refuse to use it to build God's kingdom. I'm not prescribing anything in terms of specific form or content, I'm simply stating that our purpose should be in keeping with our values, or we are using film unworthily. Our works can carry the light of Christ. Back to Elder Steuer:
"President Boyd K. Packer reinforced this truth in saying: 'The Light of Christ is also described in the scriptures as ‘the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ … The Spirit of Christ can enlighten the inventor, the scientist, the painter, the sculptor, the composer, the performer, the architect, the author to produce great, even inspired things for the blessing and good of all mankind.'"
To me, this means that our works should strive to be inspired. Some may say that inspiriation is not ours to demand, and I would agree. Instead, it is ours to cultivate. I believe that the Lord is ever willing to inspire those who seek Him, and our own worthiness opens these lines of communication to us. Mimicking Hollywood or trying to push the envelope for the sake of edginess, ratings, or just to do something because it is new, funny, or possible is in my mind second class filmmaking. There must be some higher purpose. However, like Nephi, we may at times only know what we are commanded to do, without knowing the reason. Indeed, this is probably best. We couldn't presume to know all the ways in which our films could touch others and we shouldn't try. But "the Spirit knoweth all things" (Alma 7:13).
"Recent scientific thinking on the fundamental properties of light is indeed stunning. Today scientists even describe light as a “carrier”6 or “messenger”7 or “mediator.”8 How profound are the doctrines of the Lord!"
I'll leave the implications of that statement to your interpretation, but remember that this is physical light that is being spoken of by the scientists. It is a General Authority in General Conference who is putting it into the context of spiritual light. To me, this is more evidence that they are one in the same.
"President Spencer W. Kimball said: 'The treasures of both secular and spiritual knowledge are hidden ones—but hidden from those who do not properly search and strive to find them. … Spiritual knowledge is not available merely for the asking; even prayers are not enough. It takes persistence and dedication of one’s life.'"
This is my main point, and Elder Steuer's third suggestion. Courageous, personal dedication to truth enables us to become the servants of truth. As its servants, we are eligible to create works that contain this truth in a powerful way. I would argue that we are obligated to do so. If, as Trevor has noted, that which defiles a man is what comes out from him, we should be very cautious that we do not allow anything profane to come out from us in the form of a production, performance, or other contribution to a film. I think I've said this before, but I'm not implying that our films must refrain from depicting anything but the most sanitized saintliness. Neither am I saying that we can only deal in "spiritual" subject matter. The gospel unites the eternal and the temporal. I'm saying that the personal worthiness of the creator, the purity of his or her heart, is vital to the success of the creation and its acceptability before God. Let man do with it what he will, we are - or should be, I think - interested in creating after the pattern of Him who created all things. Remember, in the beginning, the Spirit of God moved, and God said, "let there be light" (Genesis 1:2-3).
Monday, July 7, 2008
In last year's special issue of BYU Studies, Mormons and Film, Eric Samuelsen makes an interesting observation near the end of his paper on competing business models in LDS cinema. It reads as follows:
But what has happened with the Mormon film movement is that, in the minds of many audience members, Mormon films have become a genre, and one they do not particularly care for. Consciously or not, Mormon films have become known as "regular movies, only with Mormons, and not as good." This has been particularly true of romantic comedies such as Pride and Prejudice and Baptists at Our Barbecue. These films look and feel like mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies. But without movie stars to drive them, without really distinguishing themselves meaninfully from the bigger-budget films they resemble, there is no particular reason for anyone to see them.
Contrast that with his equally interesting comments on Napoleon Dynamite. After calling the Mormon film movement a "subset of the American independent film movement," Samuelsen says the follwing:
Most independent films cannont afford famous movie stars, exotic CGI effects, and expensive stunts or action movie sequences. For an independent film to succed, the film itself has to be the star. Audience members have to be attracted to that film, usually because they have heard about it, heard that it is offbeat, unusual, that its story is not structured the way most traditional Hollywood narratives are structured, or because it is amusing or provocative in ways standard Hollywood films often are not. This is precisely the case with Napoleon Dynamite.... The film is clearly informed by an indie sensibility.... And so, to many LDS filmmakers, the idea that [it] could provide a model for other Mormon films seems confusing and troubling.
Perhaps the most interesting claim Samuelsen makes about this film is that "it can be argued that, in some ways, its outlook and approach are more directly informed by a thoughtful examination of Mormon culture than even the HaleStorm comedies."
What this reminds me most of is Trevor's assertion that there is a need for "directors who are willing, able, and proud to work within a small budget. All the more reason we need thoughtful, low-budget LDS producers."
I'm not arguing that Napoleon Dynamite should be the gold standard for all LDS cinema, but this article forced me to think about it in a way that I hadn't before, and that has been good for me.
Mainly, I wanted to throw these ideas of Samuelsen's out there for discussion. What do you think can be done to save LDS cinema from being thought of as "regular movies, only with Mormons, and not as good?"
Surely we, of all people, have an obligation to rise above that.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Hi. My name is Adam. I feel like a student at the beginning of a new class who has just been asked to go first in telling something about himself that will help the professor remember who he is. I'm doing this because somebody requested it, but I don't pretend that it will be very interesting, so here goes.
My name is Adam Figueira. The K. K. you always see in the middle represent one name given to me by my parents and another by my grandparents. I use them both because they help me remember who I am. Kind of like Nephi and Lehi. Plus, the second one is the only connection I have to any of my grandparents, since all but one of them died prior to my birth and the one died not many years after.
I live in South Jordan, Utah, but in a couple of weeks should be moving to Clinton, Utah - assuming the negotiations on the new house go well. I have a three beautiful daughters (seen above - that picture was taken just earlier tonight) and a wife who is as near perfect a person as I've ever met. We've been married five challenging and gracious years and will be blessed with a son in August, God willing.
I own a small company that produces videos for weddings, corporate events, educational purposes, etc.... I've produced/directed one short film and plan to do at least one more this summer for submission to the LDS Film Festival next year. I've also acted in a number of shorts and student films, as well as stage productions. The best known film I've had a part in is a little short called Instant Karma that's won a number of awards at local festivals and seems to be quite popular, much to my surprise. It was my first screen performance, and I'm the guy in the green suit. I only mention that to give anyone who knows the film - and cares - a clue as to which one was me.
That's about all, I guess. My cinematic and scholarly credentials don't extend very far, but I try to think seriously about things and I am a devoted student of the scriptures. So that's me in a nutshell, for what it's worth. Hopefully, when I post things in the future, this little blurb will help you get a feel for who it is that's talking to you anyhow. Any questions?
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Peter Greenaway (with other links here, here and here) is a British filmmaker whom I had initially written off as ultra pretentious and vile (he uses full-frontal nudity in long-shot often in his films, though not always. I should mention that it is rarely meant to incite eroticism, but nudity is nudtity). I have since very much changed my opinion about him, though he is still pretentious, and you could argue vile as well.
He is one of the few truly painterly filmmakers living today (meaning he tries more than anything to draw from the history of paining rather than the history of film in his composition and subject matter). His most recent feature, which I saw in a theater this year, Nightwatching, is lesser, but still an interesting study of Rembrant as a painter and icon. Though I'm repulsed by some of his work (less now than at other times), some of his features are truly inspiring and beautiful (for the strong stomached). His adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest starring John Gielgud is incredibly profound. And The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is a favorite of mine and our branch's Relief Society President.
He began as a structuralist filmmaker, the style of which can be seen in most features.
If nothing else his filmmaking should be of interest for his use of composition and music (frequently working with one of the two greatest film composers alive, Micheal Nyman, in my opinion).
I am posting this because a series of his films deals with 'Mormons' in Moab, I believe, who are polygamous (therefore excluding them from membership, of course, but they, I believe, are referred to as 'Mormons') and that series, which will in all likelihood never receive a home video release anywhere in the world, let alone the US, will be screened on the Sundance channel this month.
Part One - The Moab Story
Thursday 7/3/2008 at midnight
Sunday 7/27/2008 at midnight
Part Two - From Vaux to the Sea
Thursday 7/10/2008 at midnight
Sunday 7/27/2008 at 2:15am
Part Three - From Sark to Finish
Thursday 7/17/2008 at midnight
Sunday 7/27/2008 at 4:15am
Again, I haven't seen these films, but I assume they might be of interest to those of you with access to them.
(Also, anyone with access to record them for those of us without access is welcome to contact me).