Monday, July 7, 2008

Napoleon Dynamite as the Standard for LDS Filmmaking

I know that this topic has been addressed in various ways before, but because it is so central to what we're trying to accomplish here, and because I was just reading something that really drove it home to me, I thought I would bring it up again.

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.

19 comments:

Bryan said...

One of the current difficulties is the portrayal of Mormon characters in cinema. Part of this is due to external events (like the FLDS raid a few months back) that have put the Church and its members on the defensive. We are working hard to send the world a clear message as to who we are and what we stand for. (Note the Church's recent PR efforts in Texas on this front.) We want everyone to see us as optimistic, hard-working, family-oriented, and driven by faith. This makes it difficult for filmmakers to portray Mormons that are more "complex" than that. We see well-meaning bumblers ("The Home Teachers," "The R.M."), missionaries who bend the rules (both "God's Army" movies), murderers and pornography addicts ("Brigham City"), and say "Wait a minute. That's not what we want people to think Mormons are really like!"

However, portraying Mormons as goody-goody characters is usually either thematically boring ("The Work and the Glory") or limits the potential audience ("The Other Side of Heaven," "The Best Two Years"). "Saints and Soldiers" is a good example of a "Mormon movie" that broke into the mainstream; however, one could argue that it did so by minimizing the "LDS-ness" of Cpl. Greer. Same with "Napoleon Dynamite." This placates those who are sensitive about our image, and seems to be a better guarantor of box office success. But that hardly gets us to where we need to be.

I believe we need more movies where Mormons are identified but not isolated or ostracized because of their beliefs. We also need Mormons to become less uptight about imperfect portrayals of themselves and their beliefs. Richard Dutcher tried to accomplish this and received a lot of blowback for it (this is not meant to stand as my definitive statement on Dutcher and his work). I have a feeling it may never happen.

I'm enthused about Ryan Little's upcoming film "Forever Strong," as it looks like he's crafted a good story with fine actors on a small budget, but from what I know about the movie it has very little explicit "LDS-ness" in it. So it would seem this is the future of LDS cinema: Mormons making good, inspirational movies without denomination-specific characters and themes.

A partial victory, I think.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Bryan,

I think you make a necessary point in saying that (if I understand you correctly) placating the sensitive and doing well at the box office should not be the goals of LDS cinema. There's a difficult balance between doing what you need to to get your movie into the hands (or eyes and ears, as the case may be) of an audience and staying true to your artistic/spiritual vision. The same old conflict between living in the world without becoming part of it.

As far as Forever Strong goes, I saw it when it was screened at the LDS Film Festival last January. You're right about both the quality and lack of "LDS-ness," as you aptly put it. I personally thought it moved a little too much towards the "Hollywood" model (the swimming pool scenes didn't have to include quite so much footage of the bikini-clad women, and the characters didn't all have to look like supermodels, etc...) but it was compelling and generally a step forward for LDS productions that want to be mainstream.

I understand some changes to it will have been made by the time it reaches wider release.

However, Forever Strong illustrates my (or actually Eric Samuelsen's) point perfectly. It is an ordinary movie, comparable to Remember the Titans, or Miracle, only it is made by, with, and about - to an extent - Latter-day Saints. The exception is that it doesn't in my opinion meet Samuelsen's "not as good" criterion. However, I don't think it sets itself apart from those Hollywood features I mentioned in enough meaningful ways to make it appeal to a wide audience more than its competitors.

I'm not trying to condemn the film. I liked it. I'm just saying that it's not too different from the other things you see. However, I don't think it tries to be and that's okay because its values, which are very good, should reach quite a few people by virtue of its affinity with Hollywood productions.

I hope, having said that, that Forever Strong is not the embodiment of LDS filmmaking's future. I hope Napoleon Dynamite isn't either, except inasmuch as it represents a creative and unique mode of presentation. I would personally like to see LDS cinema develop as a sort of non-genre, meaning that its member films are so diverse, creative, and singular that they can't be lumped together. As Duke Ellington said, I want our films to be "beyond category" just like the people who make and view them.

Bryan said...

I appreciate your perspective on "Forever Strong," even if it did dim my enthusiasm for the movie somewhat. Given that it looks like the film is intended as a star-making (-burnishing? I don't know him) vehicle for teen heartthrob Sean Faris, I wonder how many of the creative decisions in it were made by Little and how many were imposed on him by the producers.

In the indie music world, some people refer to the artists in these situations as "sellouts." Do you (or anyone) think that's the case here? It seems to be an axiom in Hollywood that if you want the studios to finance your pet projects, you've got to give them the occasional crowd-pleaser that rakes in the dough at the box office. Examples of this phenomenon abound.

Looking to the future, I think "The Errand of Angels" looks interesting, and I'll likely check out "Emma Smith: My Story" when it hits DVD, simply because I loved singer/actress Katherine Nelson's take on the character in the Church's "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" movie. And maybe I'll move "The Singles Ward 2" to the top of my Netflix queue if I get desperate for a Kirby Heyborne fix. Other than that, I'll just sit back and wait for the Church's next effort. There really is no Mormon cinema here in Georgia, other than what I can scrape off of Netflix. I'm not about to blind-buy any of these direct-to-LDS-bookstore titles, especially when I can usually tell by sight that they fit Samuelsen's criteria like a glove.

MoJo said...

This is off the cuff and I haven't had my coffee yet (kidding! blog cliche alert) and I haven't seen any of the films mentioned except for Napoleon Dynamite, but it seems to me the problem has about three parts (maybe more).

1. Money. The minute Adam mentions money, my mind goes to El Mariachi that was filmed on what, 10K? But look what play it got. Even if that's a low-ball exaggeration, it's still pretty spectacular. I don't see why a low-budget film can't use that as a selling point.

2a. Perceptions. I'll admit I haven't seen any of the LDS films except Napoleon Dynamite, but the main reason is that they're less accessible to me out here in the hinterlands. They just don't get the advertising other indie films do. They're not screened in our art houses and they have no exposure.

2b. Perceptions of too LDS or not LDS enough. TOO LDS? I can get that at church, thanks. Don't want to be inundated with it. I also spent enough years in Provo that I don't want to "live" with it again, per se. Not LDS enough? Give me a break. Any positive or neutral portrayal of a Mormon character who's not constantly pointed out as a freak of nature is good enough for me.

2c. Perceptions of not good enough. I'll tell you my extremely opinionated and based on exposure to several protestant religions gut reaction:

IMO religious art tends toward the mediocre. I can't tell you how many times I've thrown a Deseret Book across the room because of the sheer mediocrity. The message is lost for quality.

This happens in the evangelical and Catholic markets, too. Go to a Zondervan's and find a novel that's not completely mediocre.

The minute you get didactic, criminal mediocrity ensues. A Mormon film might not actually BE didactic, but it's going to get tarred with that brush.

That tag is more escapable in visual arts such as paintings, sculpture, etc., because its Mormonism isn't necessarily inherent and a good portrait of Christ is universal no matter who painted it. But RELIGIOUS (not necessarily LDS) film, literature, and music won't be able to shake the dust of mediocrity off its shoes any time soon.

And one more thing along those lines. Our temples and church buildings all look alike. Why should the world expect anything different from our arts?

3. LDS culture is FOREIGN. Our language is different; no one understands how the organization is structured (maybe they don't care but no one's made an effort to put our lexicon out there). We are insular at our core.

The world can speak in the language of Catholicism, can speak in the language of evangelicalism, can speak in the language of Judaism. Here we are, millions strong across the country and we're like this little snow globe the world shakes and watches as the weirdness fall out and gather on the ground around us.

I've read a little about Dutcher's efforts and I applaud him. I'll find his films. Eventually. I'm enthusiastic about what you all have to say about his portrayal of complex characters.

I know this is a film blog and I'm a novelist, but I wrote a post about complex characterization on my blog here: Reading against type.

I think what needs to happen is writing secondary Mormon characters in films otherwise aiming for a mainstream market, and portraying them as normal; it should be part of a bigger, broader effort to get the language of Mormonism out into the general public.

And oh, hey, look. I wrote another novel. :/

Dennis said...

Just a couple thoughts.

First, no one has mentioned "New York Doll." Could not this film also be seen as a standard for LDS filmmaking? The film has complex characterization, it has a unique LDS appeal, and yet it also has an appeal to a wider audience (albeit a narrow one). Perhaps LDS film makers might consider making films that cater to other niche audiences, even if it sacrifices some of the mainstream Mormon audience.

Interestingly, New York Doll appears to have had good reception from the Deseret Book crowd as well. To be sure, many were not personally interested in the rock stuff, but I haven't heard a lot of people offended at the way Mormons were portrayed. But maybe that's because the star was a recent convert. Maybe there's more leeway towards complex characterization with converts (we see this in Charly a little bit, as well as in Other Side of Heaven, with the Tongan converts).

Second, regarding complex characters, I think it's important to consider reactions to Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith. Many Latter-day Saints loved the biography, but many did not. And a few saw it as bordering on the heretical. Really, we could say the same for Richard Dutcher's films. All this makes me think that there are a lot of mainstream Mormons who welcome complex characterization (including "bad Mormons"), as long as there is an overall current of goodness.

However, outside of Mormondom, I think that there is a much larger demand for complex characters. As Bushman said, people want to meet a real person. The only way to "sell" Mormonism, then, is to sell complex characters -- hopefully including main characters who are basically good.

Clark Goble said...

I'm glad someone else mentioned New York Doll which was quite the genre breaker in some was. I think why Napoleon Dynamite worked is that it was quirky and focused in on what makes us different without focusing in on the religion. I mean anyone who grew up around Utah would recognize most of those stereotypes immediately. I think that's why so many see it as Mormon. It's the cultural Mormon thing.

Clark Goble said...

I should add that I think half the Disney movies (many which are filmed here by LDS or quasi-LDS crew) are sort of exemplary of the mediocre LDS film. The only difference is that LDS film makers then make token yet arguably insubstantial LDS references.

I think they could do more. However at this stage I think any LDS film to do well and be interesting has to be presenting LDS culture to non-Mormons rather than to Mormons. Something I think both Napoleon Dynamite and New York Doll managed quite well.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Wow! I'm glad to have finally written a post that people have found interesting enough to comment on!

I have a few things to say.

Bryan,

Let me give you a better rounded impression of Forever Strong. When I say that it's not different from Hollywood fare, I don't mean that it's mediocre. It is as good as anything you'll see from a major studio with the benefit of LDS values. Not forsaking anything I said earlier, I will say that it differs from those other films I mentioned in that the story is driven by the moral/spiritual development of a single character and that gives it opportunities that the other films I mentioned didn't have. The Sean Faris character is well played, as is the representation of Coach Gelwix. At the screening I attended, we had the privilege of having an Q&A with both Ryan Little and the real-life coach Gelwix afterwards, at which the coach testified to the authenticity of the story. The film feels authentic and that gives it character and meaning. It was good to know that it was almost entirely grounded in real events. I'd recommend it to you, but if your expectations are a little lower because of my comments you'll probably better satisfied.

I'm not sure to what extent Ryan Little "sold out," but I got the impression that some of that may have occurred for the reasons you stated.

I didn't see The Errand of Angels or Emma Smith, My Story at the festival, although I had opportunity to see both. I chose instead to attend some workshops and I'm glad for my decision. From what I've heard, however, you probably won't be disappointed with either of them.

Mojo,

As far as El Mariachi goes, your point is well taken, but I don't know how realistic it is for us to expect that kind of turnaround very frequently. The closest we've come is Napoleon Dynamite which had a budget of about 400,000 and grossed over 4 million, according to the same article in BYU Studies that I referenced in my original post.

I also think your idea about secondary Mormon characters is a good one for mainstream movies, but I don't know that all LDS films need to be mainstream to be effective. I'm thinking of the "if it so be that ye should labor all your days and bring but one soul unto me" principle.

On Dutcher, I haven't seen all of his, and I realize that his contribution is valuable (though not unequaled), but I can't help but wonder at how much of his leaving the church was due to his filmmaking path. It's a question I don't necessarily want to ask, but I don't see how I can't - especially given what I know about Fallen, his first supposedly non-LDS movie. You know how they say that people can leave the church but they can't leave it alone...

Dennis,

I haven't seen New York Doll, but every scholarly reviewer I've read on the subject - including Samuelsen - also mentions it as a breakthrough picture. I find it interesting that Whitely was Killer Kane's home teacher when he started making that movie. That alone sets an interesting and important precedent.

I hope that all of you realize, however, that I'm not trying to say what the future of Mormon cinema should look like based on any single film. My point about Napoleon Dynamite is that it was unlike anything that had been done before, and was done without a major budget. I think that should be the standard.

S.Faux said...

My two favorite "Mormon" films are: 1) New York Doll, and 2) Napoleon Dynamite. In each film there are unique and attractive characters. Mormonism is not the main character-- it plays a minor role if at all. (One really has to search for it in Napoleon).

Good films have to have the capacity to attract a broad audience that does NOT need inside information about the Church to appreciate the story. It is the ethnocentric aspects of "Mormon" films that kill them -- obviously not to Mormon audiences, but they cannot sustain the film. Recent history has demonstrated that principle.

Bryan said...

Ah, yes. I omitted "New York Doll" in my initial post not out of ignorance, but because I believe it stands as a terrific exception to what we've seen from the so-called "LDS cinema" movement so far. I forgot to mention it though, as I felt my reply was getting long enough as it was.

Adam, I'll still check out "Forever Strong" someday, but as you mentioned earlier, I will do so with lowered expectations.

Dutcher's LDS films deserve a post of their own.

Somewhat off-topic: I wrote a post about "New York Doll" back in April for a blog that I started up. I had a lot of initial support for the blog, but then all my pledged contributors (with the exception of my wife, bless her soul) starting dropping like flies, so it's kind of withered on the vine.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Sorry, I mistyped. Napoleon Dynamite grossed over 44 million.

Trevor said...

boy, what a discussion starter!

Allow me to point to a previous post of mine on the LDS-ed-ness Jared Hess's movies and their humor:
http://ldscinema.blogspot.com/2008/01/few-reasons-why-i-think-jared-hess.html

I used to feel similarly to Bryan: {We want everyone to see us as optimistic, hard-working, family-oriented, and driven by faith. This makes it difficult for filmmakers to portray Mormons that are more "complex" than that. We see well-meaning bumblers ("The Home Teachers," "The R.M."), missionaries who bend the rules (both "God's Army" movies), murderers and pornography addicts ("Brigham City"),}


I was outraged on my mission when I saw a poster for Neil LaBute's 'Bash' (a play I had acted in for a year) in a country where less than 4 percent of the 42 mil. population had even heard of the church.
But I've since changed my views a bit.
My bishop is an example to me, but he's not perfect. He has a lot of flaws, but I'd still like to be more like him.

Bryan said...

For the record, my use of "we" was intended to exclude me. :) I'm quite conservative on a number of LDS principles, but fairly liberal as to my willingness to see and appreciate flawed LDS characters in film - at least among others I know. That said, I have no desire to see either "Fallen" or "Orgazmo" (which I suppose someone could make a case for inclusion in the Mormon cinema tent, but I won't), so I guess there's a limit to my openness.

Kayela said...

Orgazmo is included in the BYU Mormon Literature Database but so is that one episode of Frazer with a Mormon lawyer in it. How are we defining LDS filmmaking? Do you count if you're less active? Just curious.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Kayela,

From what limited participation I've had in the LDS film movement, that's one of the big things that's under discussion right now.

In that same issue of BYU Studies that I quoted in my original post, Gideon Burton (et al ) has a 150 page history of LDS filmmaking. He presents as a working definition any cinema that has been made by, with, for, or about Latter-day Saints. That's a pretty broad scope, but he intends it to be and it suits the purposes of the publication. From that vantage point, LDS cinema even includes anti-mormon films like Trapped by the Mormons and films made by Mormons but with no identifiable LDS content, not to mention things that we don't generally want anything to do with like Orgazmo.

How I would define LDS Filmmaking would depend on the context. In this post I meant films made by LDS filmmakers who want to be known as such. That doesn't necessitate LDS settings, characters, or even references, but it does, in my mind, require that LDS values guide the intent of the film.

I'm talking about people and films that are trying to be part of the "LDS film movement." So your Hollywood figures who happen to be Mormon wouldn't count unless they are specifically trying to create a film that's for purposes defined by our religious values. Independent filmmakers may fit more easily in my view if they are trying to stick to values and artistry without the "selling out" that Bryan referred to. People like Jared Hess would count when making films like Napoleon Dynamite because, although the LDS themes are not strong, LDS community life is being depicted by a Latter-day Saint. I know that that film may not perfectly fit the mold I've laid out here, but I used it originally to point to its unique qualities.

Your question can be a confusing one because a definition of LDS filmmaking that we all agree on may not ever be reached. Nevertheless, there seems to be an instinctive tendency to identify some films and filmmakers as LDS and others as mainstream or simply independent. It's the first group that I'm trying to address.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

For what it's worth, here's an interesting note about Forever Strong.

Tonight I'm running some equipment for the Days of '47 "Pioneers of Progress" dinner in Salt Lake. It's an annual event at which I've been the technician for the last three years. Tonight, one of the honorees is Larry Gelwix, the coach portrayed in Ryan Little's movie.

I found it interesting, since we're talking about this movie in the context of being different from Hollywood, to note that both in the videos and the printed materials, this group refers to the movie as a major "Hollywood" production.

I don't think I'm ready to cast Ryan Little in that mold, but now that I think of it, he may have had the backing of a major studio for distribution at least. Not sure.

Bryan said...

I think that in this case the marketing folks hope people equate "major Hollywood production" with a much better story, production values, and acting than, say, "The Singles Ward." I don't know if I would equate "Hollywood" with Little selling out on his core values. I think he needs a little more time to mature as a filmmaker before I can determine that.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Bryan,

Sorry, not my intent at all. Actually, what I think happened was that the people giving the awards hoped that calling it a major Hollywood production would make it sound like a more impressive achievement than saying "production by a local independent LDS filmmaker." Everyone likes a little bit of Hollywood at these events.

I should have, but didn't have time before the event to mention that it is an awards banquet at which people who have made outstanding contributions to various areas of life (such as art, sports, technology, humanitarian service, etc...) are honored. President and Sister Faust received the "Posthumous Legacy Award" for example, and Arnold Friberg was honored in the arts area. Coach Gelwix's - if I remember right - 379-9 record over the last 30 some odd years is impressive, but he was being honored for the spirit of what he does with the boys on his team. The movie was really just an ancillary part of the comments on him, although they did show a clip from it in the video. The event is held in conjunction with the Pioneer Days celebration in Utah.

I posted the note here because I wanted to point out that the people who give these awards clearly perceived the movie to be the equivalent of a major Hollywood production. I doubt they really knew who made the movie when they made the programs and video, although the movie's executive producer was in attendance tonight.

I think it speaks to my point that Little's latest effort is in most ways similar to a major Hollywood production. I wasn't trying to imply selling out. I agree with you on that.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Trevor,

Sorry to revive an old topic in this way, but I just caught up on the AML discussion you mentioned in your e-mail. I'm putting this here for the benefit of anyone else who might have something to say about this film.

Obviously I haven't seen it, but HottieBoombaLottie seems like just what you said - a failed attempt at using Napoleon Dynamite as a standard - at least in the way I was getting at here.

My impulse is to say that this is because it seems to try to immitate ND - with a slight twist - instead of learn from it. I know you know this, but "what I was getting at here" was taking the lessons ND taught us and applying them to films that are not mere knockoffs.

HottieBoombaLottie may not intend to be a knockoff, but its creator, Seth Packard, seems to want to become "the next John Heder" by taking a Jared Hess-like approach. He says on the film's website that he actually created it to advance his acting career. Rather than trying to do anything meaningful, Packard essentially wanted to write his own role so that he could get attention.

I don't know if Packard actually means to accomplish something larger with HottieBoombaLottie, but I agree with you that it doesn't seem to do what this thread is all about. I also don't think that it sets a great example for aspiring LDS filmmakers or the movement in general.

If I get the chance to see it I may change my mind.