Friday, August 1, 2008

The Filmmaker as Rebel

I think the seeds of this writing came from a recent Elders' Quorum lesson in which we talked about diversity in the Church compared with the scriptural imperative to be of a single heart and mind. I commented then, and still think, that something about worldly philosophies has subtly twisted the value of diversity into a mindset that values rebellion, non-conformity, and unfettered individualism. In other words, when Isaiah points out that "all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6) the world replies, "Oh, good. We should all try to be ourselves."

I've found this philosophy to be especially apparent in the arts. I'm not sure why that should be so other than the deeply personal nature of art, but it seems to me that art, and film more so than some other media, has become a vehicle of choice for rebellious personalities. There's a mindset that says, "If I make a film, I can show my rage against the system," or "Since I'm such a rebel, I should make a film about it." You get the idea. Film itself seems to have become a symbol of extreme individualism - particularly independent film. Interesting that it should be called that.

I'm all in favor of personal expression and I recognize the diverse ways and means of the Spirit, but it seems to me that LDS filmmakers should shy away from this mold. I commented on another post about Richard Dutcher and whether or not his personal apostasy was related to his filmmaking path. I don't know the answer to that, but when I think of Brigham Young and his ideas about how the stage can reinforce the teachings from the pulpit, I wonder if it is wise in us to hold edginess and envelope-pushing as values in the creation of art, as we sometimes do.

It seems to me that honesty, charity, and other virtues should be at the forefront of our portrayals, whatever other devices or approaches we take. I also think that personal worthiness on the part of the artist - and by this I mean temple worthiness at least - is paramount. There is another kind of worthiness that has to do with whether our character can support our knowledge and creativity, and Katsuhiro Otomo's film Steamboy gives what I consider to be an excellent discussion of it.

I think I'll leave it there for now, but I would like your ideas on this. I want to know if I'm the only one who sees it this way and, if not, where we go from here.

10 comments:

Bryan said...

I still remember Elder Dallin H. Oaks' thoughts on the subject of diversity (and other topics) in his BYU devotional address from over nine years ago entitled "Weightier Matters." Highly recommended reading, if you haven't done so already.

whitney said...

Luckily for my mother, wordly philosophies have given her a great reason for why her daughter "went off the deep end." Last semester I participated in a Nietszche book club (though I still can't spell that dude's name) and mentioned it to her. Then about three months later I
"came out" to her...you know "came out" of the church openly. So the two are intricately connected for her forever.

For me, the more knowledge the better. I know that there are a lot of people who disagree with me - especially when it comes to film! - but this is just a personal philosophy of mine (a wordly one?). I would ask, though, who determines the philosophies we can learn about without causing rebellion? Will the church make a list? Is Kierkegaard, the highly religious but still existentialist Danish guy, still wordly? What about a guy like Sartre, who is deeply interested in treating mankind with respect and kindness, but who is supremely athiest? I just don't know how one would draw the line without first having a thorough knowledge about the philosophies? (which I totally definitely don't) And then, in relation to filmmaking, how could one who knows about the philosophies proceed to forget them in their art? Isn't that like asking someone who is a member of a specific religion to forget that religious affliction when making art?

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Whitney,

I'm not talking about forgetting anything we know and I'm not saying that we shouldn't learn about those things. In case you didn't see the quote from Brigham Young that I posted before, I'll do it again. He gets at the distinction I'm trying to draw:

We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences… If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world… And inasmuch as the Lord Almighty has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning. Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell. Do I need to commit iniquity to do it? No. If I were to go into the bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary that I should commit one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my Maker.

My concern is that in trying to be provocative filmmakers and/or viewers of provocative films, we may be driving ourselves and others towards personal apostasy. I think that our work and our viewing should be grounded in honesty and charity as well as other Christ-like virtues. Learning about worldly philosophies and even recognizing their influence on us doesn't preclude that. It's a paradox. We should learn all there is in our search for truth, yet we are supposed to forsake the world and its teachings.

My initial point is that rebellion against God-given principles or embracing evil doctrines may be only a few short steps away from valuing diversity appropriately and recognizing everyone's right to agency. I feel like its a fine line.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Sorry, Whitney, I had to cut off without finishing last time - unexpected interruption.

What I was saying is that I'm worried that we try to push the limits - whether for the sake of exploring new frontiers, expanding the art form, or whatever reason - at the expense of our personal worthiness. Film, learning, and challenging societal norms can be important, but moral purity and exaltation are more important.

As usual, I didn't really have one defining point in this post, but I hope that came through in my writing.

whitney said...

Adam,
I guess this is one of those hard things to discuss because those who have embraced those wordly doctrines have faith that they are in the right, and those who have remained Christian or religious in any way see those values as the most important thing. In both cases we tend to assume that what is right for us is right for everyone. And, in fact, our various doctrines teach us this.

Likewise with film, I think. While one filmmaker feels that their manner of making films is the most important, and various viewers will agree, others will think those films are an apostasy. Perhaps filmmakers like Godard or other sort of convoluted artists look at those simple films as leading others downward. I know Trevor has talked about deception through an attempt at simplicity (a really weak one-sentence summary).

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Whitney,

I think you're right on with your analysis of why this is such a hard topic. That's why I tried really hard not to be overbearing about it. Depending on how narrowly we define "LDS Cinema," though, I thought this topic to be in keeping with the purposes of this blog as I understand them.

The talk that Bryan linked to in the first comment on this post really does an excellent job of pointing out that diversity of methods is a good thing as long as the goals that should remain common are not sacrificed. Thanks for that link, Bryan. I never would have found that talk without your help. The distinction between means and ends that Elder Oaks draws seems to me to be the key to understanding and successfully negotiating this area.

Dee said...

I know this was a month ago post, but I think you're touching on a valid point. It seems like too many filmmakers (especially some in the indie circle) want to make something because it's "controversial," as though film's only purpose was to cause controversy or unrest. It was like when M. Night advertised his latest film as "M. Night's first R-rated film!!!!" (And no, I'm not here to preach on ratings.)

What bothered me about that statement was more of an advertising of a compromise on previous values than a movie. If your movie has R-rated content, then it does, there's no need to make sure we know there's been a dramatic change. (Not that it mattered, The Happening flopped.)

The other view I think you're trying to express is whether or not "diversity" is coming too close to an excuse for a type of moral ambiguity. I like having variety in art and film, but not at the cost of personal worthiness.

And I think if one truly subscribes to the Gospel (meaning as preached by the LDS Church) then a line has already been drawn--perhaps just difficult for us to determine at times. I once had an institute teacher whom I thought put it best: he said too often we'll try and sift through the Gospel according to our worldly knowledge when it should be vice versa.

Perhaps in the end a filmmaker needs to ask themselves, what am I trying to say and does that help the world or hurt it? (And I mean to include talking about difficult issues which may be hard to see but are beneficial to know about--aka the Holocaust, movies like Hotel Rwanda, etc.)

I don't think there ever will be "specific" guidelines. I think (speaking LDS here) we've been taught correct principles and it's time to govern ourselves.

(And btw, love what you're doing with the blog.)

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Dee,

Thanks for bringing new life to a topic that still has plenty of room for discussion.

What you said about the questions a filmmaker should ask reminds me of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. I think anyone interested in finding a meaningful voice (especially through art) should consider seeing that film. In it, the critic tells the main character that his job is to prevent the creation of useless films as much as to review those that do get made. This is a filtration process that should be undertaken by the filmmaker, too. The director in the movie learns that, although he had an idea, he didn't really have anything to say. He realizes his own impotence. This is only a glancing impression of the film, but this isn't the post for an in-depth analysis.

You're right that we shouldn't do things just because we can.

Michaela Stephens said...

"It seems to me that honesty, charity, and other virtues should be at the forefront of our portrayals, whatever other devices or approaches we take. I also think that personal worthiness on the part of the artist - and by this I mean temple worthiness at least - is paramount."

Amen! The challenge is that in order to portray true honesty, charity, and other virtues, the filmmaker must be AT LEAST as personally capable of exhibiting those qualities as the characters he films, otherwise he will not believe that it is even possible to incorporate those qualities and will not believe that portrayal of them is believable. Briars can't bear grapes.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Michaela,

Thanks for your comment. I find your framing of my point fascinating - partially because I'm not sure how much I agree with it. Let me explain.

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that an artist needs to be capable of exhibiting virtue on the level (s)he seeks to portray. But does the argument hold if we turn it around? Must the filmmaker be able to exhibit vice on the level his films portray?

I'm not sure what the answer to that is, but if it's true, it may be one reason that many of the artists in the church who create the most vivid descriptions of evil (and sometimes good as a consequence) end up apostatizing. That's not meant to be judgmental, but it sounds terrible, I know.

Again I ask, if it's not true for vice, can it be true for virtue? The Brigham Young quote I mentioned in one of my comments here suggests that one can learn evil without becoming evil or even committing sin. I don't think that supports your explanation because, again, reversing it seems to say that one can learn virtue without doing good or becoming virtuous.

I'm not totally comfortable with that statement, however, so assuming your point to be true the only explanation I can think of is that a fundamental difference between virtue and vice must be that vice can be learned without adoption, while virtue must be lived to be comprehended.

I still hold my point about temple-worthiness, but I arrive at it by thinking that personal worthiness opens the door to divine assistance in creation - regardless of what is being portrayed - and this assistance it critical to the success of LDS film, not by thinking that a person cannot depict a virtue that he recognizes but does not possess. Otherwise how could we have any legitimate depictions of Christ? On the other hand, do we have any?