Friday, November 28, 2008

Not Very Good, but Who Cares?

I guess someone was bound to post on this movie here eventually. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing it yet, but that's part of why I'm writing this now. Everyone I've talked to about Twilight and many comments I've read have all had the same thing to say: the movie wasn't that great, but people liked it anyway. And not just teenage people. I've heard strong positives from elderly women and middle-aged men as well.

What an interesting phenomenon for a movie - especially one with strong Mormon ties! A lot of people have argued that poor production values have been a major downfall of LDS cinema. While Twilight may not fall under narrower definitions of that term, it certainly has a place in the history of the movement, and it may be a significant one. Regardless of how well the film or its characters or the book it's based on represent Mormonism, its doctrines, or its adherents, this is a film about a debut book by an obscure Mormon author who, in a startlingly short time, was transformed into a popular sensation. This film defies the idea that a person needs the most expensive, the most experienced, and the best of everything to reach a whole herd of people - to make it in spectacular fashion. This seems to me to be a very Christian idea - the weak and simple, as it were. Almost all I hear about this movie is 'the special effects were lousy, the acting wasn't great, and there were a host of other flaws, but I loved it.' So here's the question: why? What makes this film's flaws so ultimately forgivable?

And here's another: if Twilight can have such influence without superior acting, technical excellence, or a huge budget, how much do these things matter? How does this change our perspective on where the LDS film movement should go? Do we all want the kind of exposure that Stephenie Meyer has gotten? It's interesting that, as far as I know, the majority of the attention generated by the movie is turning to her - the author of the books. Some of it is bound to fall on the Church and other Mormon artists.

So what do you need to make an influential movie? A story with a good soul? A flock of teenage hyper-fans? Or do you just need vampires?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Of What Fold Are We?

Let me be upfront about this. This post is not intended as a condemnation, condescension, or any other con you can think of towards anything. It's an honest thought with a question attached. Please read it in that light.

I've been wondering. We hear a lot from the brethren and from members of the Church in general about media as the showcase of wickedness. We hear from a lot of producers of LDS films (and other arts) about their good intentions. We hear a lot about film and how good ones challenge us. We also probably say a lot about these things. I know I do.

There's a constant banter about ratings, standards, and other measures for determining what is good to consume and what should be avoided and under what circumstances. Some want rock-solid statements by which to judge every time. Some want the kind of flexibility that takes each work individually as it comes. Both have good arguments. We all want to know how we should approach what's out there and how much of it we should let in here and how to get our product out there in an appropriate fashion.

My questions are these: why are we so eager to partake of (and sometimes emulate) the world's every offering? When we readily admit that popular films in general are getting more edgy, when we acknowledge that the people who make them do not share our standards, when we even suspect some of them of having unholy agendas, why do we rush to see what kind of fare they have created? I am not implying that there is no good answer to these questions. There may well be one or more good reasons to do this. I can see cases on either side. But I ask the question because I think it is legitimate. When we have prophetic counsel to be very guarded in what influences to allow in our lives, can we go long without asking these or similar questions?

It may be a testament to the value neutral nature of artistic and technical knowledge that some of our best and brightest are seeking education at the same institutions that train some of those who would make things even worse and calling their learning excellent. It may be a deterrent to maintenance of a spiritual perspective on film. It may be an attempt to raise the bar or bridge a gap for LDS cinema. It may verify the claim that truth, wherever it lies, should be sought out. It may describe a need: namely, a supply of high caliber, LDS or LDS-values-friendly film schools.

Perhaps one reason we are struggling to improve LDS cinema is that we are learning primarily from Gospel-incompatible sources. If so, perhaps something should be done to change that.

That's what I've been wondering about. What do you think?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reflections on Reflections of Christ

I'm sure many if not all of you have heard of this remarkable photographic achievement of Mark Mabry's. If not, look here. The site is being redesigned, so this link will only work for a limited time.

My brother directed me to a Mormon Times article about this exhibit that got me thinking about what we try to do here. In it, Mabry expresses some interesting thoughts that I think would be good for all LDS artists to consider. Reading it will give you context on what I'm about to say.

I think of chief interest to me in this article is the concept of worthiness that Mabry outlines. He talks about appropriate subject matter. He discusses giving up harmful influences. He talks about singleness of purpose. He says that if he fails to remain faithful in his testimony, his work will lose its power, even though it's already been completed.

I realize that the purpose of Reflections of Christ differs from that of much of LDS art, particularly cinema perhaps. But I still think that the worthiness of the artist has to do with the quality and impact of the art. This must be especially true where the work in question is a testimonial piece. Whatever the intent or scope of our art, however, I imagine we all seek divine assistance. I know I do.

I wonder what this article and this exhibit have to say that we can benefit from.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Iron Man and Lancelot

In the spirit of Benjamin's posts on lessons from cinema, I want to talk about some things I'm learning from the joint venture of watching the recently released DVD of Iron Man and reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which is about King Arthur.

Redemption. That's the word (repeated in many reviews you may have read) that convinced me to watch this movie, and I'm glad I did. The way the main character, Tony Stark, goes from careless playboy genius to conscientious superhero genius is both moving and representative of real repentance which, as my little girls say, is "changing to be good." The thing that impresses me the most about it is his total change of heart and aggressive action to correct not a bad social situation like Batman, but the consequences of his wrong choices. Iron man doesn't become, at least in this movie, a vigilante crusader against all things evil. He has a specific mission to remedy the harm he has caused by not caring about the right things.

So where does King Arthur come in? He doesn't. But Lancelot does. In The Once and Future King, White describes Lancelot as a man who does so many good works because of his own dark nature. He enjoys hurting people and is filled with lust and envy. To combat these things, he establishes for himself a rigorous code of conduct that prevents him from acting on any of his base impulses.

These two ideas combined and came to a head in the first scene in Iron Man in which the title character takes action in his new cause. I have rarely had a more powerful experience with film, but I don't think everyone would have the same kind of feeling I did in that moment. To me, it represented a moment of decision, in which past transgressions and the natural man were overcome by the sheer force of will. I was going to say "human will," but that would be wrong. While the decision to repent and change is ours, Stark acknowledges later in the film that he would not be living if not for a higher purpose than his own. He cites his knowledge of this as his motivation for his new life. I think we can learn from that.

LDS FF '09

It's been a while, but that's for good reason. I think many of us are moving into a phase of life right now, whether because of the time of year or the kinds of things we're involved in.

Just to keep the spirit alive here, I wanted to post this announcement for those who may not be aware that the LDS Film Festival has issued a call for entries for 2009. Click the link for guidelines and details.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

LDS Audience Improvement

I have a question. It may be an old question, but I think it bears repeating. I suppose I'm asking this in tandem with this post from A Motley Vision. My scope is narrower as a result of being specific to this blog's audience. The assumption I'm basing my question on is that Latter-day Saints tend to view cinema in largely the same that the world presents it. We may or may not be more discriminating in what we will partake of, but we generally go for the same things in terms of what motivates us to see a movie and what reasons we give for thinking it worthwhile. We, as a people, tend to consider film watching a pastime - a break from the other parts of our lives. We go see movies for fun or for something to do and we think we had a worthwhile experience when the movie was exciting, we laughed a lot, there were cool special effects, the acting was good, we cried, there was some moral lesson, the company was enjoyable, and/or suchlike. I know there are strong opinions otherwise held by some who read this blog, but I'm speaking generally. This is my basic assumption.

It seems to me that a lot of thoughtful LDS filmmakers would like to change the way audiences approach the viewing experience. There is an apparent disconnect between the intentions of those who make the films and those who view them. My question is this: should this disparity be resolved and, if so, how? How can the LDS audience be improved?

We talk a lot about improving the art and the artists, but it seems to me that neither will flourish as readily without an equally improved audience. With whom does the onus for changing the perceptions of the audience lie? It is, in my opinion, a necessarily gradual process, but I was hoping we could have a discussion about that and what you all think can be done.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Art in the Midst of Artifice

I ran across a video on YouTube that I absolutely loved. It was a performance by Paul Potts of one of the most beautiful songs I know, Nessun Dorma. True it was on Brittain's Got Talent, a show of the type that I have a general disdain for, and true, the sweeping camera moves were mightily distracting, but the beauty of the music combined with the humility of the singer (both in background and in character) was overwhelming. It was filled with light. It was art.

I have marveled since at how powerfully that light penetrated my being. I have heard this song outside of the context of its opera before, but the last time it was sung by a man who, in my interactions with him that day, was arrogant, impatient, and condescending. To me, that tarnished the experience. Plus, the performance had a "look how amazing I am" tone to it. Mr. Potts never approached that attitude, although I have found such shows as the one that featured him to nurture the vice. His singing was service. It edified both him and the audience and they rejoiced together. He didn't do it (at least discernibly) for the attention.

I mentioned the camera moves. They were terrible. But the performance maintained its purity in spite of them. It also fended off the general clutter of YouTube, including an adjacent thumbnail ad for a video featuring topless photos of a well known celebrity. I normally find such things so offensive that I don't allow them any presence on my computer screen, but in this case it and all the other distractions were eclipsed by the purity (I'll use the word again) of the performance.

Perhaps it was a spiritual connection that I needed at the time, but it came back when I showed the video to my wife and children hours later. I originally came across it quite by accident, as I don't normally peruse YouTube. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Whatever it was, the experience is altering and improving, I hope, my ideas about art. I experienced how a single, unintentional, perhaps even unconscious element of a production can connect so powerfully with an audience that everything calculated and conditioned falls into insignificance. That element becomes art and the rest is just trappings. The art represents the soul of the artist as expressed through his art. It opens the spiritual channel that we've discussed here before. This reminds me of the mission I served, where I was taught that my imperfections as a messenger could be brought to naught through spiritual communication. Born of sincerity, this connection is, to my mind, wrought more by the tools that build character than the tools that build a film, or a vocal performance, or any other thing perceptible to the five senses. I wonder if we can't take a lesson from Mr. Potts' example of humility and apply it to our making and viewing of film.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Field of Dreams

It's been a while since I've posted. So, I thought that while Trevor is occupied I would continue my discussion of spiritual lessons that I'm learning from the cinema.

The spiritual implications of Field of Dreams have probably been discussed quite a bit, but I can't help but mention a few important principles that I'm learning from the film. First, the film obviously addresses personal revelation--that an individual can receive personalized spiritual direction from God. One of the scenes that I like most is when Ray discusses a spiritual prompting he has received with his wife, who is (understandably) skeptical. But having both shared the same dream the previous night, the husband and wife receive a mutual confirmation of the importance of this prompting. This shared spiritual confirmation and the immediate show of support that follows, I think, offers a powerful lesson in the process of spiritually-directed, family decision-making.

I also appreciate the representation of heaven as situated in rural Iowa. Not only does it echo the doctrine of a celestialized earth, but also it implies the need for us to work to prepare our earth to receive its paradisical glory--If we build it, He will come.

And lastly, I love that as Ray follows the promptings to build a field for Shoeless Joe, ease Terrence Mann's pain, and allow Doc Graham to live his dream, he is given the opportunity to-- with his family--become reconciled with his estranged Father. As he follows the Spirit and serves others, his own salvation is made possible. I find that very profound.

So, I will continue sharing some of the things that I'm learning from films, but I would love to hear about your experiences as well. Are there films that have offered you spiritual insights that you'd care to share? Maybe we can learn together.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mormonization of the Modern Fairy Tale

Certain activities in my life have led me to take interest in a company called RHI Entertainment (formerly Hallmark Entertainment), that produces, distributes, and licenses long form television content. One of RHI's fairly recent releases is a reinterpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of OZ called Tin Man.

I read a review of Tin Man that got me thinking.

The author (Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune) said, speaking of L. Frank Baum, "It’s almost as if the writer was planning ahead, not just for his own series of sequels, but for the latter-day artists and writers who’ve found endless creative possibilities in the realm of Oz."

After listing some other Oz interpretations and briefly mentioning the film's central themes, she continues, "
Sure, those well-worn concepts are not the most original starting points for stories, but those themes have endured for generations because they resonate not just with kids but with everyone who’s ever felt like an outcast."

So this got me thinking about how frequently people try to reinvent "classic" stories and try to turn them into blockbusters, social commentary, or whatever else they have in mind. RHI, for example, has films in its archives that give new interpretations to stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver's Travels, Snow White, Jason and the Argonauts, etc....

But we also see this in Mormon films too. Pride and Prejudice and Beauty and the Beast are the two that spring most immediately to my mind, but even classic Mormon stories like Johnny Lingo have already seen remakes. Plus there are a whole host of LDS films that take scriptural stories as their themes.

I'm wondering why it is that this is so popular, especially with the fairy tales and classic literature. Does this come from an impulse to claim mainstream but potentially meaningful works as our own, as seems to have been done with the writings of CS Lewis and others? I know some people who seem to look at the Narnia movies as church-sanctioned productions (this may be only a slight exaggeration). On the other side of that, are we sometimes trying to make our ideas seem compatible with mainstream lore, and therefore culture? Do we simply want to rearrange the tales so that they can be seen from what we consider to be an ideal LDS perspective (in order either to use them as teaching tools or to justify embracing what we might otherwise not)? If so, are we uncomfortable with or unwilling to consider them from other perspectives, not obviously LDS? If so, does that indicate an attachment to the natural man (the aforementioned desire to embrace the world's culture by ignoring its incompatibility with our perception of gospel culture)?

I realize that not all of the questions above apply to every classic story (or even all of the ones I've listed) and that my list of questions is not complete, but I'm not supposed to say everything there is to say on a topic. I'm interested in your thoughts on the place of fairy tales and classic literature in LDS filmmaking. What do you think?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirit, and Cinema Part Three: The Perfect Day

So, this line of writing has seemed to me to be somewhat unproductive, but I thought I would give it one more chance. Please bear in mind that nothing I say should be construed as an outright approval or condemnation of any work in its entirety and that no comment of mine is meant to be exclusionary of other ideas or in any way final or absolute. These are ideas that I hope we can work through together. I hope this legalistic disclaimer prevents at least some misunderstanding of my intentions here.

Let me start with the promised quotation from Alma 32.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible (Alma 32:35).

This is one of the most interesting light verses in all the scriptures to me, because it gives the reason why light is so good, and in so doing, further connects it with truth. We all know that the Lord tailors His speech to our imperfect understanding, and light assists in this regard. Our temporal natures endow us with a tendency to trust what we see with our eyes. In other words, if we can see it, it's easier to understand and believe. We sometimes give greater weight to evidence that is readily perceptible.

Interesting to me that Alma says that an evidential witness that causes our minds to expand and our souls to swell is real because it is light. This hearkens back to my other post on this subject that mentioned the "messenger" function of the photon. When we consider light, truth, and spirit to be one, this makes perfect sense.

Additionally, Alma says that all light is good because it is discernible - i.e. we can comprehend it, or it is truthful. The Spirit speaks to our spirit and we understand.

That's quite a concept for a filmmaker, in my opinion. According to Alma, not only does light imply truth, but it actually establishes reality and goodness. Again, I have to say that this really seems obvious in retrospect. I don't think that I'm guiding anyone through deep and uncharted intellectual territory here. I'm talking about things that we all get intuitively but that I, at least, have not often heard or seen discussed verbally.

How many films adorn the "good guys" with light and cloak the "bad guys" in darkness? How many films would exist without the ability to create a reality using light? Probably none. The medium itself wouldn't exist.
This raises some interesting questions for me, because it seems to me that a growing number of films are featuring protagonists whose lives are not only touched by, but defined by darkness. In other words, the good - or the reality we are supposed to accept as true - is coming from the darkness. Interestingly, in many cases, so is the evil. Only rarely do I see a film in which any antagonistic forces are surrounded by light, especially white light. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers come to mind as examples of films that have elements of this.

The question I'm forced to ask is this: is creating a story in which the "hero" is a dark being or the "villain" is a light being tantamount to calling evil good and good evil? I don't think there's a universal answer to that, and I realize that in many of the best films, there is no absolute one way or the other, but is it at least a danger of such a story?

I'd be willing to guess that some of you reading this think I'm talking about The Dark Knight. Well, I'm not. At least not exclusively. I still haven't seen that and so can't comment on it so specifically. I do think of Daredevil while I write this, as well as The Chronicles of Riddick, only one of which I've seen - and that was a TV version. I just remember that the narrator of that movie said that sometimes good is too weak to fight evil, and therefore it must be fought by a different kind of evil. Hmmmm.

Kate DiCamillo's beautiful book, The Tale of Desperaux deals with light and darkness in a way that I think sets a good example. I hope the animated version of it coming out this December doesn't forsake that. I would love to see a serious animated version of that book.
I digress.

Going back to Alma, in the next verse, he says that the above mentioned experience with light does not equal perfect knowledge - at least not in the sense that "perfect" means "complete." Faith is still required.

I mention this because it seems to me that this takes the didacticism out of the thing I've been saying in this series. A film can present, through the united medium of light, truth, and spirit, a reality to be considered by the viewer. Light can be used to set forth ideas as true or false, to impress concepts related to good and evil, and to open spiritual communication with the viewer. But the film that does this does not require the viewer to lay aside his/her faith. In other words, the application of the film to the individual viewer is not dictated by the film itself. As much as it may have seemed so previously, I am not advocating shallow, preachy films that overuse obvious symbolism. I'm saying that an understanding of the spiritual nature of natural light can help a filmmaker harness the power of his tools.

The last thing I wanted to mention was a quotation from Harold B. Lee's Stand Ye in Holy Places. Here it is:

One is converted when he sees with his eyes what he ought to see; when he hears with his ears what he ought to hear; and when he understands with his heart what he ought to understand. And what he ought to see, hear, and understand is truth-eternal truth-and then practice it (Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, 92).

Here's my take on the application of this quote to filmmaking. A movie that doesn't mean anything is, well, meaningless. The goal in film is not always, or even often, to convert, but it should't be. Film uses spirit, but only the Spirit can convert. One thing a film can do is manage its use of light to enhance spiritual communication - to provide an opportunity for truth to be taught by presenting ideas that the viewer may not countenance in any other context. In this way, physical light can open a pathway for spiritual light to show, tell, and teach a person the truths "he ought to see, hear, and understand." Remembering our assumption that physical light is the spirit of Christ, in this way, a film can become "the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not" (Doctrine and Covenants 10:58).

I think this should be the goal of LDS filmmaking: not conversion, but awakening, enlarging - preparing the mind and heart for the teaching of the Holy Ghost. This can be done in a limitless number of ways, and it won't work for every viewer, but I think it should never be forgotten. If my films can't contribute positively to someone's spiritual journey, they ought not to be.

The process can be begun with the film, but in the continuation of it lies the great potential. “He that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”18

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


So I didn't go to Bill Viola, and a wonderful decision that was. I somehow forget how stressful moving is every time... and international moves with a small child doesn't make things any easier. My wife and I had plans to take care of things while we were staying in Utah on my way to Los Angeles for Film School. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs (which was worsened by an extra day in travel due to missing connecting flights).

I'm at the American Film Institute's Conservatory, and homeless to boot. I'm really imposing on a friend of a friend's hospitality, and pirating internet access to post this. My family is in another state until we find affordable housing.

I'm planning on making some changes here, but right now is what they are terming "boot camp" and my life is consumed. I'm very grateful that my Sunday was clear, and I am planning to make that a rule, but the buzz word "24/7" is thrown around here a LOT, so we shall see. I'm learning a great deal, but I may not have much ability to write about it for some time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Film Languages and the "Real Story"

I was just writing on my blog about an experience I had with Arnold Friberg at a dinner where he was receiving an award. I thought it was relevant to what we do here, so I wanted to repeat it. This is mostly verbatim from my other post:

I didn't meet him. I only heard him speak. At 95 years old, it wasn't easy for him. He said two things, however that I wanted to write down and comment on. The first thing was about how he speaks.

He said that some people speak in the language of words, but he speaks in the language of paint. He said that since he forgot to bring his brushes with him that evening, he was having a hard time.

The second thing was about his painting Peace, be Still, shown above. About that, he said the following - paraphrased: In paintings of this scene today, you see a lot of waves. That's dramatic, but it isn't the story. The story isn't the storm, it's that a man stood up and said to the storm, "be still" and it obeyed.

Although Friberg is a painter, not a filmmaker, we probably all know his connections with the film industry. I thought that it would be worth our while, as his first comment suggests, to consider the various languages involved in creating and viewing film.

I also think that the second comment of Mr. Friberg's - about the real story - is something we could profitably consider in our own film activities, be it production or interpretation.

What do you think?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Do I go (about Bill Viola)?

Right before we got to Poland last year, another Bill Viola exhibition closed. It crushed me to find how close I was to the exhibition just missing it by a few weeks and a short train ride. As I've written before, I consider Viola to be one of the most important American filmmakers especially for those interested in spirituality. I have yet to encounter someone who took his work on their terms who was not moved by them.

The majority of criticisms I hear are on the cliche nature of the discussion of his work, but I've yet to come across a valid argument for the devaluation of his installations or video work.

Do to the nature of installations, access to such video work is severely encumbered for those of us hicks who are moved by the avant-garde.

So we're moving (and international moves are quite severe, aren't they?), and less than an hour ago I finished a grueling shoot and just now I sat down to read an email advertising another Bill Viola exhibition in Gdansk (we're about 7 hours away). The opening is Friday. We leave Sunday evening after church.

So much stress, and yet I can't imagine being able and not going.

I will almost surely not go, but I wonder how much sleep I'll lose if I don't.

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Purpose of Art

I'd like to use this post to discuss the lessons of a quote I once heard, but have been unable to identify the source of. Nevertheless, I love it. If any of you know, please tell me. It's short and sweet. Here it is:

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 Fountain

Continuing my discussion of spiritual lessons I’ve learned from the cinema, I want to share my experience with Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful and profound film. I love the performances, the seamless integration of the three storylines, the music, and the beautiful images. The film more effectively represents romantic love from a man’s perspective than any other film I’ve seen. And it seeks to reconcile seemingly conflicting, but equally important elements of life: male and female, life and death, future and past, reason and faith, the sciences and the arts. Though, I think the most important lesson that it is helping me learn is how suffering may be used as a source of spiritual growth.

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

Modern Christianity Through Film

I have decided to share a list, which most definitely you will be able to add to, of films that take modern Christianity as their subject. I like to have them all on the same list to show how versatile the topic can be and how much there is to say about it, whereas Latter-day Saint films have said very little on the topic. This list will exclude films like New York Doll, which discusses one man's conversion but doesn't talk about Christianity as a whole. It will also exclude films like Spiderman, whose "Christian" element is tacked on rather than being inherent to the foundation.
  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
This is a beginning list. Please add to it as you have the desire.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kaurismaki, Wall-E, and MIS

I simply wanted to point to some things going on links I've provided in sidebars. The first is a short, thoughtful, heartfelt essay framing the work of Aki Kaurismaki, a Finnish filmmaker whose work I've previously written about on the this blog in praise of his Christian view of his characters (it seems FAR more important to me to make movies whose worldview and view of their characters is Christian rather than showing Christian characters in an un-Christian way). The link is found on the Dissidenz English blog here. Kaurismaki, in my view, follows in the grand tradition of Keaton-esque deadpan and Tati-esque subtlety. He's truly one of the funniest and gentlest of living filmmakers. (Although Petr Zelenka, the Czech filmmaker, is surely climbing that list, as well, in my mind. I highly recommend his 2005 feature, which has titles differing from 'Wrong Side Up" to "Story of an Ordinary Insanity.")

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

Light, Truth, Spirt, and Cinema Part Two: Personal Worthiness

Trevor's stated purpose at the top of this page is "to challenge, develop, define, and encourage a cinema influenced and created by Latter-Day Saint doctrines." I hope this post can help to do that. I'm going to use the dangerous word "should" a lot in this post. I want you to know from the outset that I'm not trying to assert my own omniscience or prescribe inflexible rules. I'm stating principles I believe in, but they are larely based on my own interpretations. Unless otherwise noted, all the quotations below are from Elder Robert R. Steuer's General Conference address given in April 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."

As indicated by part one of this series, I believe that the light we work with as filmmakers is in very fact the Spirit of Christ that fills the immensity of space. It is not only light, but also Spirit and truth. Accordingly, our work can benefit from an understanding of its properties. As says the Doctrine and Covenants, "the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled, only upon the principles of righteousness" (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36). I intend in this post to use Elder Steuer's talk as a guide to discussing how our artistic works benefit from personal worthiness as it relates to our use of the Spirit. I realize that the term "use" when applied to the Spirit may seem offensive. If I were referring to the Holy Ghost, it certainly would be; and yet, all these things are given for the benefit of man. I ask you to remember the paradigm set forth in part one. Elder Steuer continues:

"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

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.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Introducing, Me

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

Attn: Mormons interested in films discussing Mormons: The Tulse Luper Suitcases

Unfortunately this will only be applicable to readers in the US. I posted this on the AML boards, but hope that it will get more traffic here than what's going on there. I'm posting it now rather than later because it is time sensitive:

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).

Monday, June 30, 2008

Portrayal of the Divine: Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood

My brother frequently gets pre-release copies of books and DVDs hoping to be publicized by the radio station for which he works. Knowing me as he does, he recently sent me a complete set of Richard Carpenter's British television series Robin of Sherwood. While I know that this forum is not geared towards television shows, I felt that the way in which the subject of divinity is treated in this series was worthy of discussion. I should admit up front that I'm not finished with all 23 episodes, but I felt these ideas should be expressed before other thoughts took their places in my head.

God, not Christ

Because the protagonists in the series are Saxons, the divine favor they enjoy does not come from any God we would admit to. Instead their Pagan deity, an adapted version of British legendary figure Herne the Hunter, inspires them against the evils of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his fellows who are Christians. While we do see the religious side of the "bad guys" of the story (mostly through the Sheriff's brother, Abbot Hugo), I will primarily address the themes involved in the relationship between Herne and Robin.

But before I do that, I want to say that I don't think we need to be threatened by the use of Christianity as an antagonistic force or by the use of paganism to represent good. Although the series sets the two in direct opposition in some cases, with Christianity generally representing wickedness, I think it may be healthy to consider ways in which our faith can be and has been abused. I say "our faith," but the Catholicism portrayed in this series is really nothing like the restored Gospel. Also, religion is not attacked by this series as much as it is discussed. What I'm getting at is that the image of Christ associated with evildoers might offer a useful, if sometimes disturbing, perspective.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that LDS filmmakers use try to make Christianity appear evil, but we should recognize that the portrayal of Christianity as an oppressive force is consistent with history. I can imagine films appropriately made by Latter-day Saints that include the perspectives of those who have been oppressed by "Christians" in the past. Turning our eyes inward may help create understanding and reveal the tendencies that cause this perception of Christians, even today.

Ironically, and predictably, the Christian virtues the creators of the show clearly value are exhibited far more frequently (though not exclusively) by the pagans than the Christians in Robin of Sherwood. One exception is Friar Tuck, who never seems to abandon his Christianity but supports Robin in following the visions he receives from Herne.

Dispersal of Divine Attributes

Robin of Loxley is introduced as the son of a man who is killed while defending a sacred artifact. His father sacrifices himself to keep his son alive but loses the powerful artifact to the Sheriff, who can't use it and therefore has no appreciation for its real value. To him, it is only a silver arrow. Robin grows up as one of the last survivors of a destroyed village whose existence is no longer recognized. These two elements have echoes of pre-mortal life and the apostasy. One major difference is that Robin asserts that "Nothing [about Loxley] is forgotten."

Robin comes into his own at the end of the first episode when he is chosen through vision by Herne the Hunter to be the defender of the poor, and the last hope of England. From this point on, he is designated as "Herne's Son," who has "come to claim his kingdom." All of these things set up Robin as a figure of Jesus Christ, but of more interest to me are the ways in which both he and his adoptive "father" are humanized.

After the first vision, Robin is afraid and declines Herne's offer. He does not want to take up a divine mantle. After witnessing the devastation caused by the Sheriff, however, he changes his mind. In a cave near Sherwood, Robin meets the antlered Herne and is given his charge. Before this happens, however, Herne reveals his true nature to Robin by discarding his costume of fur and horns. Robin exclaims in surprise, "You're not a god. You're just a man."

The significance of this revelation is immense, because it reduces the figure who for the rest of the series imparts visions, power, and authority, to a mere mortal. When Herne replaces his costume, however, he is transformed.

Not only does the humanization of Herne point to the LDS concept of the origin of God, it gives Herne a dual role as deity and prophet/teacher. Robin takes on a similar role as he both channels the "powers of light and darkness" and reveals Herne's will to the merry men. As Robin learns more of the nature of God, he becomes more confident in this role, and more like the son of Herne the Hunter.

The main lesson I want to point to from this is that Robin and Herne both represent the divine in this series. About halfway through the series another character takes up Robin's mantle, adding to the list of those who symbolize deity. While the serial nature of the program prevents this kind of symbolism from being constant (sometimes it's obvious the writers just needed another story before the deadline) it is consistent in that it inevitably resurfaces and picks up the spiritual momentum created by the pilot episode. I've noticed in some films that one character or item is chosen to carry the burden of all divine meaning. I think this creates an overwrought analogy that loses effectiveness as these characters tend to demonstrate only power, omniscience, and an aptitude for saving the day in ways that can be hard to swallow. By dispersing the divine among several icons (but not too many, lest the symbolism lack potency), the filmmakers are able to create effective metaphors that also give the viewer some breathing room. I actually find this patchy symbolism refreshing, because it avoids over-simplification and "preachyness." The occasional vistas of clarity thus offered also allow the viewer to absorb the meaning more fully. Narrative devices that keep the action grounded in the proper context can fill the space between these moments of truth.

More on Divine Potential

As far as I have gone in the series, Herne is never given any identity other than a god of the forest. Yet, in response to Robin's surprise at his humanity, Herne unexpectedly replies, "We can all of us be gods. All of us." This redirects the viewer's attention from Herne's fallibility to Robin's potential. It sets the stage for the rest of the series as an extended metaphor for the progression of Robin and his men toward godhood. Robin's first task is to recover the sacred silver arrow and destroy the dark sorcerer who is trying to steal it. Again, as a television program, some elements are designed purely for show and to fill time, but the theme is recurrent for as many episodes as I have seen.

Herne gives Robin the tools he'll need to accomplish his purpose: a bow and arrows and a sword imbued with the powers of light and darkness. These objects also carry divine symbolsim and indicate that man, without constant divine assistance, cannot accomplish or even find his true purpose.

There's a lot more that could be said about this series, but I'd like to hear what you think about the ideas I've mentioned above. I particularly want to talk about how these things can help us in the portrayal of the divine.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A few lessons from Mike Leigh

I just finished watching three of Mike Leigh's earlier features: Nuts in May, Abigail's Party, and High Hopes. Though the first two seemed significantly earlier than the last, I, in truth, know little about his sensibilities— stylistic or thematic— outside of the now five features I've seen directed by him (Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies being the other two). I learned a great deal from these features as far as sheer filmmaking goes, and think that they would be beneficial to LDS cinema.

My first observation may be a complaint at first, but it slowly turns into a helpful stepping-stone for our infantile/non-existent 'national cinema.' Though High Hopes—a rumination on (then) present-day 70's London in light of social, familial, and economic responsibility in the shadow of Marx's grave— mutes the tendency more than the others, all three features work in terms of caricature rather than nuance or individuality. I've written at length about my thoughts on character 2-dimensionality, as has Benjamin in Princess Mononoke, so I won't detract from it further here other than to say that it hinters our ability, as the audience, to connect with the script and the story.

But then again, it was because of this lack of connection that I found the films so charming (admittedly the first two more than the third). I found myself, on the other hand incredibly wrapped up in the ideas the films were presenting.

Nuts in May follows two eccentric Brits on their holiday to a campground in, what I must assume, is the month of May. Their conversations consist mainly of what food they will eat and when as well as how it will aid digestion, etc. (no meat, only free range chickens, only raw milk, and the like), when it isn't about their sight-seeing guidebook. The meat of the film comes as private and public obligations collide and are brought into question with each other. The two protagonists argue about who should hold the guidebook, and how one leaves the other behind, never waiting, while the topics with other campers focus on the volume of music, disturbing the peace, jealously, social etiquette, safety and camp rules. The thing that sets this film apart, aside from its 'zany' tone, is the lack of simple answers or side taking. Though there is caricature rather than characterization, there is a lack of melodrama—no one is right and no one is wrong, and there are no good guys or bad guys. Everyone is crazy to some degree or another, and so every caricature is the straight-man for the other 'nuts' at different times.

But this is only the first part of the lesson I think we could learn.

In the entire film, there was not one set. And I believe it was made for BBC. In Abigail's Party a filmed play essentially, there was one set, unless you count the 10 second shot of the interior of the bathroom, then there were two sets.

Both films seem to be more complex than most films you see in the multiplex—though the complexity comes from the moral construction and intellectual discourse found in both, not from the plot or characterization—but were made on what I'm assuming are minuscule budgets.

The films knew their boundaries and flourished within them (might I add BECAUSE OF THEM), rather than aiming for some more popular standard and failing. It seems that a major flaw with the 'LDS' films I've seen is the attempt to cover-up the lack of budget with camera showiness (meaning focus-flipping and unrestrained/untrained movement rather than adventurous compositions or daring mise-en-scene) or post-thingamajigging.

I think the strongest foundation for 'LDS' cinema may very well come from TV, despite my spite for the medium. Without BBC or Canal+, think how many films we wouldn't have.

We need stronger, more morally centered and morally inquisitive scripts (where there are no sides, but conundrums). And we need directors who are willing, able, and proud to work within a small budget. All the more reason we need thoughtful, low-budget LDS producers

Monday, June 23, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirit, and Cinema Part One: The Power of Film

"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:45)

I felt honored by Trevor's invitation to contribute to this blog. I take the responsibility seriously, and so I thought I'd start with the topic that encompasses my approach to both creating and receiving cinema. I think it is at the heart of everything we do.

I can't put this all into one post, so I'll break it up as needed. My purpose in this series is to suggest that the above verse is both true and crucial to the success of LDS filmmaking and viewing.

First I want to say that I believe this verse is literal when it says that light is Spirit. And not just any spirit, it is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Let me make clear from the beginning that I don't think that this is the same thing as the Holy Ghost; I think it is what is referred to in Section 88 verses 11-13 this way:

"And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things."

In other words, light, or Spirit, is an element that can be manipulated. Again, this is not a member of the Godhead, it's an element. Of course, the Holy Ghost does not fill the immensity of space. He is a being with a finite shape. And, of course, light exists in more forms than those which are visible to our eyes. But I believe that the Spirit of Christ also encompasses what we know as visible light, and that is what we work with in film. I don't think anyone would argue that light can be manipulated, but as soon as we throw around words like "spirit" and "truth," people start thinking heresy. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm asking you to think of these three things: light, truth, and spirit, as one and the same. The scriptures say that they are and I believe them.

The medium of film, even in the digital sense of the word, is defined by the manipulation and capture of light. Oftentimes we actually use tools to create the light that we capture. Sometimes it is not so much that we create the light as it is that we control the way it is recorded and displayed. Using our current paradigm about light, this has major implications. We no longer simply light a scene, we establish its spirit. We dictate its truth. On a movie set, this is what cinematographers do and this is our great art.

To quote Kiarostami, one of Trevor's favorite filmmakers, "Originally, I thought that the lights went out in a movie theatre so that we could see the images on the screen better. Then I looked a little closer at the audience settling comfortably into the seats and saw that there was a much more important reason: the darkness allowed the members of the audience to isolate themselves from others and be alone. They were both with others and distant from them."

I'm not as versed in film as Trevor, but you can find the link to this quote on the right side of this page under "An Unfinished Cinema."

When the lights are turned down in a theater, where does the light in the room originate from? Technically, it's from the projector, but from the audience's perspective, it's from the screen. Either way, it comes to our eyes "from" the film itself. That's a powerful concept.

Now let me ask you this: is there any other art form in which the art itself is a source, not a reflector, of light? Even in photography, which uses similar techiniques to capture images, the finished product is ultimately made visible by a light from outside itself. A film is created when light prints an image on an emulsion or a sensor, and it is reproduced when light is passed through that captured image, or it is recreated electronically. Switching terms, we record Spirt and then recreate it using the image we have recorded. We color the truth generated by the projector with our own recorded version of the truth.

As Kiarostami points out, how that Spirit is received depends upon another device that utilizes lenses: the human mind. Fortunately, the audience can filter the truth we give it by its own experience and understanding. But I think this is one reason why film is so persuasive and powerful, not to mention popular. Because of this, I am also not comfortable (and never have been, even before I thought about this) watching any film, video, or TV show in a room with no other light source. I like to have the lights down a bit, but not off altogether, because I feel like the film is being unfairly imposed upon me. I'm being oppressed by its Spirit. This is not what the Spirit of Christ was intended for, and it feels wrong. Even in an otherwise dark theater there are strip lights on the floor to illuminate the aisle. The human eye is capable of detecting a single photon and mine notices even these small but comforting ties to a world other than that created by the film.

We live in an age in which "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:49). People are yearning for light, and we as filmmakers can, in a sense, provide it. As partakers of film, we need to be careful how the Spirit we receive is colored.

Now, I'm not saying that filmmakers are the ministers of all truth, but I am saying that film is by its very nature a spiritual art. By using Spirit to communicate our messages, and by doing so in a theater in which all other sources of Spirit are minimized, we open a passageway to the Spirit that lies within each member of the audience. This builds upon the idea discussed elsewhere on this blog that art opens a space for Spirit to communicate with spirit.

I don't mean to misuse this verse, but I believe it applies: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2) Of course, our audiences are usually sitting, and how great the light in question is depends on its unity with the ultimate source of light, truth, and spirit. This unity is meant to imply not only content, but also every other aspect of the production and presentation.

I want to make it clear that in this post I make no attempt at saying how this information can be appropriately handled. I'm not that arrogant or that wise. I only assert that these principles are true.

Film is so powerful because it is given to us as a source of light, which is Spirit and truth. Because of its nature, there is no other feasible way to view it. As a result, the messages a film contains are persuasive and some films generate large followings. The same is true of television, the internet, and any other screen machines we use to collect information. The more exclusive the light they emit, the more imposing the truth they convey. This medium was reserved for the dispensation of the fulness of times, when all truth would be sent down from Heaven, even things which had been withheld from the foundation of the earth. In conjunction with the Spiritual element, we use music and other things to add to our films. We use every tool used by artists in any other medium in this, what Gideon Burton at the 2008 LDS film festival called, "The fulness of art." How appropriate.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Princess Mononoke

Trevor invited me to contribute to the blog, so I thought I’d just write about some meaningful experiences I’ve had with some films...

Miyazaki has so many valuable things to offer on issues of war, gender, the environment, and spirituality, and I think its especially important that he’s offering these insights to specifically to children. Let me just a couple of spiritual lessons that Princess Mononoke is helping me learn.

I love that our protagonist, Ashitaka, is engaged in moral struggle in which he must navigate two warring ideological opposites. I was kind of disappointed the other day when I looked at AFI’s top ten animated films list and saw that Disney held every place. Not that Disney isn’t great (Finding Nemo and Dumbo are pretty stellar), but I think that the standard formula for children’s melodrama—employed almost without exception by Disney—is to pit hero against villain…period. In Mononoke, Ashitaka (and the viewer) sympathizes with both Sen’s primitive spiritualism and Lady Eboshi’s Enlightened secularism. And this is a conflict that is not unfamiliar to us (in the Old Testament, current ideological battles between left and right, and even the “war on terror”). Eboshi seeks to end the reign of the gods, but she also plants gardens, cares for the leprous and releases prostitutes from their bondage. The forest gods are noble, spiritual beings, but can be violent and overzealous—boars blindly charging into battle.

I think that if we’re ever to resolve the real-world conflicts to which the film alludes, we’ll need to adopt an Ashitaka-ish perspective. He starts his quest just to rid himself of the demon that’s slowly killing him (created by Eboshi’s attack on the gods), but his motivations become more selfless as he seeks to mediate between the warring groups. Our own spiritual well-being may, rightly, be our first priority, but I think that engaging in these moral battles—with both sympathy for and a healthy skepticism of both perspectives—may be a key to greater spiritual growth.