Monday, June 14, 2010
I first got involved with TLDSC after hearing about it at the first LDS Film Festival that I attended a few years back. I followed the blog for a while, and when Trevor asked for contributors I volunteered. I have fond memories of this time and there are many things I've wanted to do but haven't. Over the past two years, Trevor and Benjamin have ceased posting or commenting entirely, and I don't know if they even still look at this site. Regardless, as the sole remaining contributor I have tried to keep it alive as best I could with everything else that is going on in my life.
But times change. As participation has declined an my schedule has grown increasingly busy, my ability to keep things running has waned. It hasn't been an easy decision, but I've made up my mind to leave TLDSC. Lacking administrative rights and being unable to contact Trevor, I've been unable to do anything about the spammers appearing in the comments or to make any real decisions about the future of the site. I sincerely hope that, at some point, Trevor will come back around and revive this site into the great blog that it once was.
But there is a silver lining, for me at least. A few weeks ago, Kevin Burtt approached me about helping him create a new LDS Cinema blog in conjunction with the excellent Mormon arts and culture blog, A Motley Vision. This new site, LDS Cinema Online, launches today and I hope that it will be a good forum for continuing the work that was begun here.
To have the backing of William Morris and his crew is no small thing, and I'm excited about the association. TLDSC and AMV nearly merged a while back, but things fell through. I think this development is the best that I could hope for, and I'm sure it will help create a better future for Mormon cinema, if not for this site.
So for the foreseeable future, you won't find me here. I'm moving on. Thanks for the good times and the great discussions. I hope you'll come with me.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Paradigms of Mormon Art: Finding Our Place in the World
I've separated the paradigms into internal and external categories: the former being how we view our LDS film making community independently, and the latter being how we see our relationship with, intentions toward, and roles within the larger world of cinema. To better conceptualize this, I've assigned each paradigm a prophetic tag - the name of an ancient patriarch or Book of Mormon prophet. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon paradigms almost all appeared to me to be internal, while the Old Testament ones were mostly external. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, given the nature of the two books.
I also want to make it clear that I'm not endorsing or condemning any of these approaches. I just think they are phenomena that we've seen in various combinations that deserve discussion. Some of them might reach a bit far and many of them overlap, but I think there is evidence of all of them.
Following are my paradigms, categorized as Internal or External, but otherwise in no particular order.
Abraham - This can mean that we consider ourselves strangers in a strange land. Like Abraham in Egypt, we bring to a world of earnest imitators a higher form of knowledge (art). Our enhanced understanding and divine investiture of authority make us natural leaders. We believe that there is a special place for us - a land of our inheritance - that we will receive if we seek diligently, but we also seek to sojourn within the larger film making culture. We neither seek nor accept full assimilation into that culture, but we try to influence it nonetheless.
Noah - This paradigm is about using our films to warn a wicked world of impending destruction. We usually do this by trying to lay such wickedness bare or by putting all our efforts into constructing a way of creating films that will save us when the worldly system collapses. Then we try to recruit others to our way of doing things.
Joseph - We see ourselves as having started from a lowly position (as Joseph when sold), but either think we have, or are trying to work our way up to respectability and even prominence. We might have a regression or two, like Joseph, but we think that if we are good enough at what we do and pure enough, the Lord will prosper us and we'll become the leaders that others can only dream of .
Jacob - This paradigm has us coming (again into Egypt) with honor on the coattails of the Josephs who came before us. We might be just as qualified, but we only have the respect we do because of others.
Moses - We have been in bondage to the worldly media of the past, and now we think the time has come for our deliverance. We try to free ourselves from the encumberments of the establishment and create new ways - even miraculous ways - of becoming our own people again.
Joshua - We've crossed over Jordan as a people (finally gotten good enough to make respectable films on our own) and now we're going to kick out the wicked Amorites and replace their Jerichos with Jerusalems.
Ammon - We're in the middle of a wicked industry, trying to love it and serve it into righteousness.
Mormon - We feel an obligation to the art, but are mostly without hope for the redemption of those who currently have the greatest influence. We also see ourselves as powerless to effect change.
Moses - Because we haven't been creating the right kinds of films (either for our faith or for the market) we're condemned to wander for a while before really coming into our own.
Lehi - In order to avoid destruction, we're going to forsake the world and seek our promised land. We try to focus on families and teaching Gospel principles with our films. We try to bring our group with us, and occasionally go back for others. This is different from the external Noah paradigm, which has us trying to convert the world while building the ark.
Nephi - We've arrived in a wilderness with vast resources (been given a medium with limitless possibilities), now we're trying to molten some ore, make some weapons, build some temples, and generally do great things without losing our principles.
Mosiah - The current system won't work forever, so we're trying to lay down some rules - establish measures and such - before turning it over to the people. This is particularly useful with the Internet, because this paradigm recognizes not only the shift from institutional films to independent films as the defining force behind Mormon cinema, but also the importance of every audience member's increased role in the films we make and ability to make films of their own.
Mormon - This is the same as the external Mormon, but instead we're looking at the LDS community instead of the mainstream cinema.
Moroni - We don't have a lot of confidence in the current state of things, and we're just trying to preserve something good to pass to future generations.
Enoch - We are trying to create the ideal LDS cinema through community building.
Adam - Film making is our Eden. It's a perfect place for us in every way. This paradigm can't help but carry with it the warning that we might suddenly find ourselves expelled if we choose to disobey certain key principles.
So there it is. You might notice the Christ paradigm missing. I wouldn't dare define that one.
As to the others, some of them might need combining, others eliminating. Still others might exist that I've overlooked.
What do you think? Is this even a useful framework? Can you see certain films that point to a particular paradigm being employed? Have we had some notable advocates of some of these viewpoints? What perspective(s) do you come from (remember that this is a non-judgmental forum)?
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
LDS Film Festival 2010
I love the LDS Film Festival, and this year I was privileged to participate in ways that were new to me. In addition to participating in the 24 hour competition and attending all day every day (except for the opening screening Wednesday night), I contributed as a volunteer member of the staff, providing the AV gear for the filmmaker presentations, recording those presentations, and introducing all but one of the sessions. The reason I didn't introduce that one is the other new opportunity I had. A few days before the festival, Katherine Morris invited me to give a presentation and be on the panel for the LDS Film Forum. It came as a bolt from the blue because I don't really consider my contributions to be of any significance to anyone but me, but as the topic was Mormon Film and New Media, and as I'm the only "active" poster on this blog at the moment, I can understand in retrospect.
So I had a chance to see things from a different perspective this time, which was good. Thanks, Katherine, by the way, for giving me that chance. I'm still not totally over the surprise, but it touched me in a sacred way that you could not have anticipated and I hope I managed to meet your expectations.
Getting back to the point, all I can do is give you my personal impressions of the festival this time around. As I said, I love it. I look forward to it all year. This is the event that inspires me and keeps me going when everything seems set against my efforts as a filmmaker. Even when the films confuse or disappoint me, I still come away more committed.
That was certainly the case this time. Some of the films both confused and disappointed me. That's partially because I found less "LDS-ness" in some of them than I had hoped. I realize that on this blog and in academic circles we have tended to take a very broad definition of LDS film, including films that were made by Mormons, regardless of content. The festival itself certainly does not choose films according to how overtly Mormon they are. I'm not saying that should change, but I did feel that, particularly where narrative films were concerned, more of those films I saw were more secular, less influenced by LDS beliefs, and more generic than in the past. They reinforced the other definition of Mormon film that I read somewhere. To paraphrase: regular movies, only made by Mormons, and not as good (if you know where this comes from please remind me, I couldn't find the source).
Now that's not a universally (or even widely) applicable statement, especially the "not as good" part. The production value of the films is, I think, on a steady incline. Even those that don't go for a Hollywood look are becoming more and more polished. And the lack of Mormon influence in narrative film was limited, too. Many of the short films were strongly Mormon, and some special screenings like The Book of Jer3miah were profoundly so. More on that later. Others, like Humble Pie, presented their Mormonness more subtly. I also need to say that, of course, I didn't see every film playing at the festival. I can only speak to those that I actually saw.
Nevertheless, one of my general impressions this year from both the films and the presentations is a growing movement away from content that is easily identified as being influenced by LDS beliefs. That shouldn't be read as an accusation that these talented people are abandoning the faith. I don't mean that. It's a personal choice and there's room for growth on both sides. I just happen to think there's a great opportunity to move in the other direction right now.
Jer3miah, Williams, and Already Over
Many people at the festival were doing just that. Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon's The Book of Jere3miah took some pioneering steps in both its content and form. For those unfamiliar, Jere3miah is a web series, complete with an immersive transmedia experience, including an alternate reality game for those who have the interest and the time. The entire first season was screened at the festival, which amounted to the equivalent of a feature length film.
In addition to expanding our paradigm of what Mormon film on the Web can be, Jer3miah rather boldly depicts the extent to which the LDS belief system can and should influence its adherents. The series unapologetically makes things like the voice of the Holy Ghost and scriptural guidance as much a part of everyday life for its characters as food and automobiles are for Americans. Doing so in a quasi-fantasy world is both a risky and a safe move. Because the supernatural happenings in the series require a certain suspension of disbelief, the eternal powers behind those happenings and the characters' responses to them can be easily included in the show's mythology. So non-LDS viewers might dismiss them as fantastic as quickly as they would the forces that empower any comic book superhero.
On the other hand, extraordinary actions like a Holy Ghost inspired slaying of an enemy (ala Nephi and Laban) by a seemingly average BYU student might spread a rather damaging impression of Mormons, particularly in a time when religion-based terrorism is undeniably real.
However, the success of popular TV serials like Heroes, Supernatural, and others has paved the way for this kind of extremity, and American audiences at least have shown their readiness to accept it. Including Mormons in the crowd of people who acknowledge and follow other-worldly whisperings might just as easily open doors and hearts as close them.
A less dramatic instance of increased Mormon content for a filmmaker was Kristal Williams-Rowley's short film offering, The Missing Song. Last year, Williams-Rowley's Mind the Gap deservedly won the short film competition, and while her film this year was less refined, it centered around a young woman's struggle to overcome spiritual paralysis born of her despair of finding an eternal companion. The straightforward discussion of very young Mormon women's feelings about marriage made this film stand out to me as one of the most uniquely Mormon works I saw.
Perhaps one of the most exceptional films I saw (by which I mean the one that was the greatest exception to what I expected), was the Fackrell brothers' Already Over, a music video that would have seemed more at home on an MTV college station than at the LDS Film Festival. The tone of the music was hard, heavy, and rough and I felt uncomfortable watching it, but at the same time I sensed the filmmakers' desire to depict a theme of struggle, captivity, and redemption. It was lyric and visual. This is the kind of thing I love to see, because it requires thought and makes extensive use of metaphor. Perhaps the multi-tiered application of metaphor was the most Mormon thing about it - or at least scriptural, if not uniquely Mormon, but an effects-heavy sense of restorationism did come through to me.
At the same time, Already Over represented one of the most direct uses of a form that is very popular outside the Church, but not generally well received within it. Dark-eyed, tattooed singers, a woman dressed in a way that temple ordinances would never allow, dark and intense imagery, and a heavy mood, even in the hopeful parts. All of these things made me wonder at first why of all the festivals out there, this film's makers chose this one. It seemed like a blatant attempt to push the envelope, but the depiction had an element of brutal sincerity that I don't often see, even in non-LDS themed films made by Mormons. I want to see more of what this film did, but less of the way it did it, I think.
I may be accused of being too generous to this film, but this kind of movie breaks my heart. There's just so much good to be said about it, even if there's an equal amount of bad.
One area in which the LDS Film Festival may never cease to be strongly LDS is the documentaries. With appearances by or subjects like household names John Bytheway and Janice Kapp Perry, and with contributions by Mormon arts and scholarship heavyweights Richard Bushman, T.C. Christensen, and Lee Groberg, the documentary selection is bound to feel very mainstream Mormon. There are always a lot, and I never get to see very many of them because of the presentations, but I did catch a few this year.
The first, I Am from Nowhere, was a beautiful story of the Lemko people, who almost no one has ever heard of. This tale of a lost people's cultural revival after decades of oppression, dismissal, and genocide is touching and extraordinary on its own, but if you replace the word "Lemko" with "Mormon," I think the film carries some portentous advice about the loss of cultural identity (and other things) that Latter-day Saints would do well to heed.
Rei Hamon: Man of Nature is a tribute to a skilled New Zealand nature artist who drew his inspiration from the way the natural world enhanced and aided his relationship with his Heavenly Father. This convert to Mormonism's story is told mostly by his closest family members and friends, and gives some great insight into a remarkable life, as well as what faith can mean to an artist.
One I didn't catch at the festival but saw afterward on DVD was Brandon Smith's Sacred Walls, which explores the symbolic meaning of temple exteriors without delving too deeply into sacred ordinances or attempting to dictate an official interpretation of these edifices' architecture. The simple style is consistent with the film's message that the most significant meanings of all sacred symbols are as individual as they are real. Smith's other film about the connection between Mormons and Masons also screened this year, but I haven't seen it yet.
My volunteer assignment prevented me from fulfilling my desire from last year to see more of the screenings and hear fewer of the talks, but spending six to seven hours each day in a conference setting was fulfilling nonetheless.
Most of the presentations focused on the completed or in-progress works of the presenters, with the most notable exceptions being the LDS Film Forum and the session with frequent presenter and judge Michael Flynn. Flynn's words about passion and the nature of the film making beast were reminiscent of his presentation last year, with new material focusing on his work adapting several well-known LDS books to film, including a very detailed look at the process of finding support and funding for one of those projects: a film based on Dean Hughes' Midway to Heaven.
I'll be dealing with the topic of the Film Forum in a later post - outside the context of the festival.
A complete list of presenters and their topics can be found here.
A few highlights:
For those whose children enjoy the Liken series, a new musical stage production Jonah and the Great Fish opens this weekend at the SCERA. The show is in the evenings, and the film version is being shot during the day.
Joshua Ligairi and Andrew James discussed their film Cleanflix, which follows the edited movie industry in Utah and discusses issues of censorship, creative control, fair use, and others. Warning: the filmmakers felt that they needed to include the material that was edited out of these film as well as clips from the edited versions in order to do the subject justice, so for many viewers there will be offensive content in this film.
The idea is an interesting one - I personally don't agree with the stance Ligairi and James took. But the question is valid and I may raise it in the future: do you have to see the offensive content to appreciate the intent of the edited versions?
Dennis Packard, Lyman Dayton, Joe Pia, et al. spoke about the Masterpiece Film Initiative, which seeks to encourage truly great LDS cinema as defined by Spencer W. Kimball's A Gospel Vision of the Arts.
Upcoming films announced/discussed during the presentations:
The Last Eagle Scout from Kels Goodman
A Root Beer Christmas from Dave Hunter and Craig Clyde
Dragon Fire produced by Steven A. Lee and McKay Daines, directed by Ryan Little
Midway to Heaven from Michael Flynn
Immortality Bites from Maclain Nelson (also, a sequel to last year's sensation Dragon Hunter)
Cleanflix from Joshua Ligairi and Andrew James
Jonah and the Great Fish from Dennis Agle/Liken
Offering a Decent Proposal in 24 Hours
For whatever that's worth. The most important thing is that we had a great time and saw some major improvement.
All the credit goes to my sister, Jamie and her newly minted fiance A.J., both of whom were good enough sports to do a film about ring shopping before their engagement was official. Their real-life relationship carries this film.
Something funny happened to the sound in the last part of this during the upload, and I haven't quite figured it out yet, but bear with it for now and I'll replace the video ASAP.
You can go to YouTube to watch it in HD.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
LDS Film Festival Starts Tonight!
Friday, January 15, 2010
Eden Comes to (or Leaves?) DVD
LDS "film" has long included filmed versions of stage productions, the most obvious example of which is the decades old but still ubiquitous Saturday's Warrior. In this tradition, I'm excited to announce the soon-to-be-released DVD version of Mahonri Stewart's Farewell to Eden, which my production company has been asked to produce. While it is extremely low budget, I have been fortunate enough to enlist the help of very talented and experienced people who are willing to work for love of the work more than the money. This adds to the already impressive abilities of the cast, technical crew, writer, and director.
To be clear, this is a recording of a live performance with an audience. Although it's much more complex than simply pointing a camera at the stage, the production value is limited by certain restraints inherent to the nature of this format. Nevertheless, we think it will be worth seeing - for the play if not for our work on it.
For now, the only way to get a copy of this disc is to buy it (cost: $15) at one of the live performances taking place over the next week and a half - starting tonight. I'm posting the flyer for the show below so you can get the details. As interest and resources dictate, other options for purchase can be made available.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Over and Over - A Discussion of Appropriate Viewing Practices
Partially, this is because kids (of all ages) can be easily indoctrinated by films, and this risk is increased by the viewing approach that says "I like this movie. I should watch it again."
We also try not to let our kids do much screen watching at all until they're at least a year old. We just want their tiny brains to be somewhat grounded in what the real world looks, feels, and sounds like before we start introducing them to fantasy worlds of any kind.
Both policies have born fruit, I believe, but we have been partially unable to keep certain repetitions from our girls. Sometimes they will wake up before my wife and I do in order to watch a movie they love (although this doesn't happen often) and other times they will see the same thing two or three times while visiting family for a day.
I'm interested to know, what policies do your families follow (if any) in regards to watching movies in a home environment - even if it's not your home? How do they differ for children and adults? What results have you seen?
Friday, September 4, 2009
Making Cinema of the Book of Mormon
A new project of mine, which you’ll be able to read about on my personal blog soon, has gotten me thinking about the various attempts we’ve seen at Book of Mormon movies. There have been a lot of films with plots based on stories or characters from the book, and even more sharing Book of Mormon themes. We’ve even seen films with original stories set either partially or completely in Book of Mormon times. But it seems to me that depictions of the events in this book of scripture have been the rarer than those of other books, including the Doctrine and Covenants.
This leaves me asking why? Here are some possibilities:
Recreating any extensive or believable version of Book of Mormon culture/setting requires money. We know just enough about what these things may have looked like to have certain limited expectations, which leads me to my next point:
2. Precedent vs. Lack of Historical Data
Church productions like The Testaments and a host of seminary videos have created Nephite and Lamanite looks that we seem to have adopted as official, if not authentic, as evidenced by films like Passage to Zarahemla. At the same time, we don’t have nearly the wealth of information about these societies that we do regarding, say, the ancient Jews. So Bible stories are a lot easier to depict from one perspective because we can establish legitimacy through historical accuracy. Restoration stories are even easier than the Bible. Because we don’t have third party descriptions of clothing, armor, weapons, architecture, social habits, etc, that we can definitively associate with Book of Mormon cultures, much of what we see and hear in a film of this type is essentially made up. This brings an element of world building autonomy to Book of Mormon films that is generally absent from other scriptural stories.
3. Faking the Scriptures
That freedom can be a little uncomfortable when you’re dealing with scripture. For the most part, anyone who is interested enough to make a serious Book of Mormon film will probably be Mormon, so there would be a vested interest in representing the material well. Doctrinal accuracy would probably be a prime consideration, as would realism. But audiences are also looking for a way to visualize scripture stories. As has been discussed in this forum before, however, filmmakers aren’t really authorized to take on the role of scriptural interpreters for everyone. No matter how much a filmmaker tried to stay away from it, many LDS audience members would probably view the film expecting to see the scriptures – as they personally understand them. I’m sure you can see the problems with that. A notable exception may be the Liken the Scriptures series, which avoids this issue by targeting children, making their films the cultural equivalent of a “My First Scripture stories” book, rather than the book itself. The musical numbers also help with this differentiation.
4. Wrong Types of Stories and Characters
The Bible – particularly the New Testament – gets put into film all the time, and the filmmakers don’t generally have the burden of developing the main characters too much. For one thing, one of them is nearly always the Savior, who for much of the world needs no introduction. Additionally, the New Testament is very vignetty, if I can make that a word, and lends itself in some ways to disjointed, fairly shallow storytelling. Again, the characters and events are so well known that for many audiences this doesn’t really hurt the film. We expect the background to be already built. Not so with the Book of Mormon.
First of all, most of the major stories require a longer telling than New Testament episodes. Additionally, to really develop a character (let’s take Helaman), several chapters and/or books of scripture need to be covered, but the stories don’t always transition nicely. Filmmakers would need to add supplemental (read: fictional) material, which could be viewed as a no-no. This is one reason I think the makers of The Testaments were wise to stick to fictional characters involved indirectly in actual events. You notice that none of the western characters in that film actually come from the scriptures with the single exception of Christ. Honestly, I wondered why for a long time. I mean, you see the real apostles and others in the scenes in the Holy Land, but once you get to the
Then again, given the popularity of Book of Mormon based novels, I may be wrong.
Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, so what do you think? How do you depict Book of Mormon events in a movie, and why haven’t we seen more of it?
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Boy Scouts and Belated Celebrations
I'm about to embark on a four-week workshop to help the scouts in my ward get the Cinematography merit badge, for which I'm a counselor. We're having a mini film festival at the end to showcase their work. I'm really interested to get these kids' reactions to the world of filmmaking. I'm wanting to push involvement in the local filmmaking scene for those who are interested - particularly emphasizing awareness of LDS filmmaking - and I'm going to try to get a group of these kids to come down to the next LDSFF in January to participate in the 24hour marathon. I don't want this activity to be too driven by my agenda, but it seems I've got a real opportunity here and while I don't want to abuse it, I also don't want to miss it.
I'm wondering if any of you have any ideas or suggestions on how I could structure the workshop to make it meaningful beyond the scope of just another merit badge (like the easy and almost obligatory Basket Weaving), which is often all these things turn into, unfortunately.
Anyway, I'll post anything relevant that comes from this, but what do you think?
Friday, July 17, 2009
Mormonness and Other Phenomena in the DVD release of Forever Strong
Ryan Little's Forever Strong has been compared to other popular sports films such as Remember the Titans and Rudy in ways both flattering and dismissive: flattering inasmuch as the film tells an inspirational story in a way that resonates with a wide variety of audiences, dismissive because it does so in a fairly formulaic manner – the formula in question being established and entrenched by movies such as these.
Both points are valid. Comparing Little's effort to the ostensibly larger, more widely known productions is more than an insecure attempt to turn a broadly targeted LDS film into the movement's flagship (see how Hollywood that was! Did you notice Sean Astin? Aren't Mormons great filmmakers?) or to ride the more famous films' coattails to financial or social success. Forever Strong really does have as good and universal a message as Titans even if it's not as emotionally charged as that film's racial elements can sometimes make it, and the two demonstrate many other similarities. And while Sean Faris' character Rick Penning doesn't share Rudy's overlooked underdog status, he does have certain obstacles to overcome before he can really belong on a team that is as famous in high school rugby as Notre Dame Football is in its sphere. All three films, and many others like them, utilize the medium of sports to teach lessons and tell stories that should transcend the realm of athletics and the ages of the players.
True it is also that the film is predictable. No one is surprised when the troubled Penning lands in a correctional facility, when he reluctantly agrees to join the Highland team, when the team suffers from his influence, when a teammate helps him see past himself, when tragedy involving that same teammate strikes, when the coach demonstrates both firmness and compassion in teaching life lessons, when the transformed Penning is confronted by his old life, when that life conspires against him, when he and his father share an emotional moment or two of forgiveness, or when (in slow motion and presumably against the odds) Penning himself scores the final, desperate, last-second winning goal. The average American moviegoer could probably give a good general outline of the film without ever having seen it.
But neither of those things (the similarity or the predictability) matter because neither of them say anything about the value of the film. The latter argument begs the question, what is wrong with following a formula in telling a story, particularly if such a formula helps an audience to identify its place within the story? Does knowing the end from the beginning make the journey meaningless? Why would we ever watch a film more than once if this were the case? The “that's been done before” philosophy would prevent the telling of a great many important stories if it were allowed to. This is not to deny the importance of new perspectives and innovative approaches, but rather to assert that tradition can provide as fertile a storytelling matrix as does frontier.
Are Remember the Titans or Rudy either worse or better because Forever Strong is like them? It could be argued that Little's film lacks originality, but this is simply a function of coming after so many others. Even if the genre was picked for the commercial potential demonstrated by movies like Titans and the “hook” was that hey, this is a rugby film, we've never seen that before, does this imply that the new offering can't be better than the old? I personally don't think Forever Strong is the “better” of the films I've mentioned, but the point is that it could be – even if every page of its playbook was taken from something previously done. It could still be better because the story, as real life Highland Rugby head coach Larry Gelwix says, is true.
The story has some important differences from the films mentioned above, however. Unlike Titans, the plot of which revolves around the coaching staff and is narrated by a child, focusing on the game of football as a microcosm of racial relations, Forever Strong focuses on a single player's personal life, telling the story from his perspective and somewhat downplaying the importance of Rugby in the transformational process. Unlike Rudy, in Forever Strong, the change in the team (coach included) is minimal – at least in terms of screen time. It's Penning converting to the Highland way, not Irish being made flexible by the tenacity of a small zealot.
This is one way in which Forever Strong, though not uniquely Mormon, fits comfortably into the developing tradition of Mormon film: it is essentially a personal conversion story, including themes of forgiveness and redemption. Penning is redeemed as he accepts the higher lifestyle of the Highland philosophy, from which his father has also, unbeknownst to the son, fallen away. It's interesting that Penning Sr.'s life of bitterness stems from the belief that when he was on Gelwix's team, he was played in the wrong position. This is exactly the same hurdle that Penning Jr. has to overcome in his very first game for Highland, when he learns that he is being placed somewhere other than his traditional goal-scoring post. His wounded pride at not being the star impacts the entire team and they lose the game through lack of effort,an unacceptable outcome to Gelwix.
Penning Jr. does not repeat his father's mistakes, however, and his personal redemption, which holds true even when he is framed by a former friend and jailed falsely, leads to the same change of heart in his father. Their spiritual atonement is made complete by the forgiveness the former extends to the latter as their teams (Penning Sr. coaches his son's former team) are about to face each other for the championship.
None of this happens, however, before Penning Jr. gives a perfect illustration of the LDS understanding of repentance. First he realizes the error of his ways, second he physically abandons his bad behavior (kicks a ball in which he's been hiding his drugs over the correctional facility fence), and third, he confesses his sins to the appropriate authority – in this case coach Gelwix. His probationary period is set (he can't play in the next game), but he is also promised future blessings (he is made co captain of the team). Ironically, Penning's repentance leads to his early release from his now irrelevant correctional sentence, which takes him from the Highland team and thrusts him back into the midst of the very environment he has just learned to forsake. His refusal to return to that lifestyle leads to the framing mentioned above. In the final game, he completes his repentance by asking forgiveness of those he has offended (his father).
Redemption also comes to coach Gelwix after his philosophy is challenged by Penning Jr.'s rebellion. At one point, the coach poses the thought to his wife that if he can't help Penning, it may be time for him to quit coaching. Clearly, the outcome indicates that Gelwix's usefulness as an instrument of change is far from expired.
Finally, “Q,” Highland's other co captain is brought to redemption by the converted Penning Jr.'s example when he admits first to Penning, and then to Gelwix that he has been cheating in school, in violation of the team's honor code.
One of the staple messages of the film is the importance of forgetting oneself in the quest for team victory. The definition of “team” can be variable. Gelwix's philosophy states that while being honestly beaten is undesirable, it is acceptable so long as the best effort is given. Accordingly, as mentioned, a key requirement is that players accept and magnify their positions on the team. Penning learns to accept that his role is not to score, but to support the team in other ways. This lesson, which embodies the transformation his attitude has undergone, is contradicted in the final seconds of the championship game when the already injured Penning fends off and evades repeated vicious attempts to disable him and scores the winning goal. That this is expected in a film of this nature has already been observed, but it might seem more consistent in this case to have Penning provide a critical assist to the goal, or to play a very minor part in the winning play. For him to rejoice in the desired outcome when it was brought about by the team's unity rather than his direct actions would reinforce the message rather than undermining it. The pacing, framing, and length of the critical shots are such that Penning's big play seems to be a one-man drive without regard for or awareness of teammates who may be in better scoring position.
From a certain perspective, however, the point may be moot. Gelwix instructs all his players that “it doesn't matter who scores. It only matters that we score.” If Penning has truly become converted to this teaching, then scoring any goal – even the winning goal of the championship game – holds no personal glory for him above what is shared by the team as a whole. That it was him who scored wouldn't matter. If this is the case, the scene in question has no inconsistency. My limited understanding of rugby prevents me from saying whether the goal represents Penning usurping the role of a teammate or simply being in the right place at the right time.
What I can say is that this scene feels inconsistent because it narrow the film's focus back to the game level – if Penning can only score, he will win the game. The transcendent lessons have been forgotten in a momentary push to make the play. While this deviation bothered me, it doesn't detract from the film's overall consistency enough to be a serious flaw.
Coach Gelwix is an admirable man, that much is clear from the brief exposure I've had to him both in person and via this film. Although he isn't the crux of the story in Forever Strong, he is the source of the influence that transforms Penning's life. The DVD tries to capture that influence in a special feature entitled Life Lessons with Coach Larry Gelwix or something like that. The feature is interesting for several reasons. From one perspective, the interview Gelwix gives demonstrates how extensively his personal philosophy is written into the film's script and how ably Gary Cole capture's the man's character in his performance. Many lines and moments that I initially thought were dreamed up by the studio turn out to actually be common sayings and real depictions of this dynamic leader, which helps to give the film its credibility.
But most of that credibility comes from the fact that the story is true, as Gelwix unreservedly declares it to be. Hold on a minute. Just before that he said that the events in the film were composited from experiences of more than thirty years of coaching, and that they didn't happen all in one season. Then how can the story be true? Gelwix explains that, too. He says that the truth of a story – or any statement – has nearly nothing to do with the actual words (or other direct meaning carriers like film images) used. Instead, the story operates on true principles, the coach claims, which is why it can, in spite of being factually inaccurate, be true. This is why Christ's teaching in parables doesn't turn him into a liar. It may be that no nobleman going into a far country ever had the same experience with his stewards that the man in the parable of the talents had, but that hardly makes the parable false. So with any story.
To greater and lesser extents, the elements of a DVD share a symbiotic relationship. The special features, the previews or advertisements, the menu design, the navigation can influence the viewer's experience, and therefore interpretation of the film. Unlike theater viewing, DVDs allow the user to control the pace, timing, and content of the experience, I hope you'll forgive my speaking about my particular experience with this DVD.
I'm a believer that a work of art should be taken on its own terms and does not need the context of the artist's biography, previous works, etc. to be understood. Those things can certainly impact how art is viewed, but they do so by making the work in question a part of a larger story – no longer a story unto itself. This means that the emotions, impressions, and interpretations the audience associates with the work are not actually responses to the art, but to framework in which it is placed. It's the difference between beholding a breathtaking vista from a high mountaintop and thumbing through the photo album of all the family vacations, including that one.
The photo album effect is what DVD special features often try to do to a film. In addition to experiencing the art, you can learn about the “making of” and get to know the cast, crew, and other individuals outside of the context of their roles as artists or contributors. The Life Lessons section of the Forever Strong DVD introduces the viewer to the real Larry Gelwix, which has two distinct effects. First, it makes an already somewhat preachy sports-as-life film (a genre in which it can be hard to avoid preachyness) even more didactic. Second, it grounds the film's theatrical elements in reality. Not often do we get to hear exactly which events in a “based on actual events” film are actual. It sort of does what the ending of Tim Burton's Big Fish does for the protagonist's wild life story – it lets us see the humanity behind the mythology.
Regarding the first effect, I should mention that Forever Strong is not preachy in the sense that it shoves the philosophy it advocates down the viewer's throat, only in the sense that it takes a distinct stand on the issues it handles. The title of the Life Lessons feature lets the viewer know what to expect, so there's no reason to be surprised that it feels like a young adult fireside.
The presence of this feature on the disc may constitute a sideways attempt by Little (or someone else involved in the production) to satisfy the LDS impulse to use media and art as a missionary tool. You can enjoy the movie without feeling like you're in Sunday School, but if you would like to know more about the teachings of Larry Gelwix... The opportunity is there, and religion finally comes into it when, in one of the final segments of this feature, Gelwix characterizes his coaching methodology by saying “you can't do the Lord's work in the devil's way.”
There is no LDS-specific proselytizing that I observed, by the way.
But as far as I'm concerned, this may be a perfectly good way for LDS filmmakers to get their stronger gospel ideals into their productions. Life Lessons is distinct among the features on the disc because it's the only one that doesn't feel like it came from a fan site. It carries a sober, inspirational tone in that it openly preaches what the film attempts to represent in application.
The other features – viral videos, trailers, and the obligatory outtakes and bloopers are standard DVD fare, and that's okay.
One thing that felt missing from this DVD: previews. I'm often annoyed by them, particularly as they include more pitches for non-film products, but I confess that I was hoping for a look at the director's next project, some upcoming offerings from Candlelight, or something. Instead the disc firstplays the main menu and there is no option I could see for anything else. Disappointing to my cultural Mormonness, not very Hollywood-like (in spite of repeated claims that this was a major Hollywood release), but not a very serious flaw, if it was one at all.