Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Priori assumptions

I guess I should clarify a few things that I may have taken for granted. There are assumptions that I've made, which I assumed would not be debatable, but I realize I should also bring the following to the discussion:

1. That a discussion of what is "essentially LDS" will be beneficial to those who are creating cultural and artistic output both inside and outside of the Church's official channels (i.e. that the films at the conference center and movies made outside the church's facilities by members might be stronger and/or more thoughtful if their makers took part in some kind of dialogue on the implications — doctrinal and cultural — of their form and content).

2. That this same discussion will be likewise beneficial for and greatly benefited by participation of Latter-day Saints (and, therefore, hopefully thoughtful) consumers as well as intellectuals from all fields, not just cinema or media studies.

3. That this discussion acknowledges both content and form as intrinsically linked to the philosophies and ideologies they propagate, denounce, address, etc. (i.e. that both what a movie shows or what story or lack of a story it is telling is just as important as the form in which it tells that story or lack thereof). This also suggests that cinema which does not explicitly discuss LDS doctrine may still be viewed/scrutinized in terms of the discussion this author hopes will take place.

4. That escapism is not in harmony with LDS thought. As far as a Latter-day doctrine is concerned, the Word of Wisdom (an abstinence from addictive and harmful substances outlined by revelation as well as a respect for the body) and the Law of Chastity by extension pertain especially to film construction: Both laws forbid behaviors that substitute dealing with life's difficulties. In the opinion of this author, promiscuity, infidelity, drunkenness, as well as any form of addiction, weaken us spiritually and socially in the same way escapist cinema does. "Escapist" could be further expounded upon, but in short it is anything which encourages retreat into "the world of the film" rather than confronting and challenging, communing with and celebrating with its audience. This is a complex issue, both acknowledging that everyone needs some kind of release from tense situations and thinking of 1 Cor 10:13. However, as a general guideline, escapism does not lead to godliness.

5. That such a discussion's goal is NOT to come to any kind of consensus, but to provoke thought and discourse, to challenge and refine. While scripture teaches that Zion is "of one heart and one mind," unity, if brought about before the needed study and work, leads to passivity and a compromise of values. However, this can be accomplished without contention.

6. That such a discussion MUST take place outside of a Church context, though it is designed for those who belong to its ranks. The Church cannot, officially or unofficially, endorse such a discussion. The Church's focus, in this ever more PR-run present, has rightfully turned to correlation committees rather than "by lines." This is at odds with the nature of such a discussion as well as the subject in many ways. The Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, Isaiah, and John's two narrative books are unique among narrative-based scripture in that they have explicit authorship. However, outside of General Conference, this kind of personal storytelling must be discouraged within the Church.

7. That the LDS culture is in need of personal films from LDS filmmakers. This need stems from a desire to see LDS life portrayed on screen as well as a desire and need to have discussions (since the best films are a conversation between the audience and the film) about the morality perceptions and culture of the Latter-day Saints. It is this author's belief that these goals can best be brought about by strong artistic voices strengthened and formed by Christian ideologies.

8. That the films created and produced by the church are not and should not be considered scripture, no more than the architecture of temples and meeting houses should be considered scripture. The church has found a style and functionality that fits its aesthetics and purposes for its buildings, but nowhere is the suggestion that all Church architects should design all their buildings in that manner. It is also worth noting that the Church's architecture varies from country to country and culture to culture—that even its official buildings change according to the surroundings and the members.

9. That the films produced by the Church should be scrutinized and analyzed. If the goal in this is fault-finding, it is obviously wayward and of evil origins. But if the goal it to learn from the first and earliest attempts and Church films, then, again, this author's hope is that such scrutiny will be done in the spirit of Moroni's words: "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been. (Mormon 9:31)"

Likewise it is this author's opinion that as the architects for the Salt Lake Temple studied European architecture as an influence (ironically one secondary source for that information is Mountain of the Lord), it occurs to this author that the production of Church films could benefit from a greater acquaintance with world cinema and cinema history. Furthermore, supposing that some architectural style that was suggestive of hedonism, atheism, or commercialism, would definitely NOT be the suggested style to build temples in, we should also assume the same for film style. If any of these things apply to the Church's films, or could apply to future projects, it is this author's suggestion to discuss such things, again, in the spirit of Moroni's words cited above.

10. That as the Church has three goals (to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, redeem the dead), likewise we should realize that not every film has the same goal. It is my opinion that the films at the conference center fail as a means to perfect the saints. However in discussion it is important to remember that the goals of those films are to proclaim the gospel and should be held to that rubric first and foremost.

11. That there is a distinct difference, though the two are often connected, between what is spiritual and what is emotional. A tear-jerker may toy with, even manipulate emotions, but it may have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ or His Spirit. Emotions may be manipulated, but if we agree with Nephi and Joseph Smith, the Holy Spirit is Deity and has a divine will which not only should not but cannot be controlled. Something should not be considered "spiritual" because it is emotional. It is also this author's opinion that "sparseness" is superior to "abundance," in allowing for the Spirit of God to take a role in any given cinema experience. A "Christian" model would be in opposition to a commercial model, where cinematic tools replace the Spirit of God rather than "making room" for that Spirit.


)en said...

Trevor, this is all very interesting. And while I won't pretend to understand everything you said, I did see some interesting points, particularly the "tear-jerking" and emotional manipulation, etc.

I watched a well-known LDS DVD yesterday that is a nice one. But I had a moment where i was like, what's with all this pretty/emotional background music? Are they trying to force me to believe what is being said?

I don't really believe that to be true, but i do think it's interesting. I guess it would be boring w/out music and if I feel anything, I will just say it was due to the spirit of the things the apostles said in the DVD, which is testimony. And power can come from that. Anyway... but yeah. What a hard line to decipher.

AND: HAPPY BIRTHDAAAAAAY!!!!! That is my present to you, commenting on your blog. Just kidding, what a crappy present. But, happy birthday! Have lots of fun. We wish we could be there to celebrate and eat borscht and light firecrackers. Sorry for going off-topic. There, i'm done.

Trevor said...

Jen: I'm sorry I didn't respond earlier. The moose pants are more than a Christmas or a Birthday present. I've worn them constantly (even outside) for more than a week straight.

I know the DVD you're talking about and I find it truly troubling. I've hear some say,"yeah, but the music is functional." I still find myself wondering, "what function?" There is a reason that we do not EVER play hymns during the passing of the sacrament. Some things a ruined with music. Testimony is one of them.

I'm even more disturbed by the camera work. For me it is louder than the music is.

There was a symposium on Poetry in Film that, among others, Maya Deren, Dylan Thomas, and Arthur Miller attended (if any of those names ring bells). One thing that Arthur Miller and Maya Deren agreed on was that film should never have sound or music (though both obviously changed their positions before their deaths). The comparison was made to putting music to Hamlet. It already is poetry and therefore musical. It would be like adding music to music. Now, many filmmakers (at least the commercial and/or lazy ones) add music when the film is too weak.

The last play I was in before I Graduated, I was lucky enough to play the lead. It happen to be Shakespeare as well. The pianist who accompanied kept getting louder during the "dramatic" parts where it was just me on stage (especially the end scene). I argued and argued with him, until I found out that the director told him to do that. She didn't think I could "carry" the scene. I wasn't good enough.

When I think of the people who made the movie in question saying "The Apostles testimonies aren't strong enough. They don't carry the scene. Lets hype up the camera work. We'll make it powerful with the music, because they just cant hack it." What school of thought makes that behavior OK? Its one thing to question my acting, but another to say that about the twelve.

I say that if the listener gets bored, maybe they need to work harder to pay attention. Conversion takes work. there are no easy answers.

I outdid myself

)en said...

That is very interesting. I would hope that's not what they're doing/saying. I guess they're just trying to make something different from general conference and slightly, dare i say, more entertaining? Not that Conference isn't, but, you know...

I'm not sure what my total complete view on it is but I'd have to say that I like music in movies. In fact, i love it. I love soundtracks and have wanted to write music like that. I can see where music could take away from a performance, but there are times where i think it enhances the whole experience. It's what makes going to the movies different from real life.. different from plays (not that plays are bad, it just sets them apart, which is a good thing for variety's sake, right?) and you can sit back and forget about real life for a minute. I like that.

Trevor said...

I'm just scared that that distraction is a symptom of something else. The forgetting you talk about, or the 'escape,' is what leaves me more empty than when I started. I'm a bit more puritan than most on this point, but the word "entertain" has been a noisy, ugly, frightening one since I was very young. Its goal is rarely in harmony with what I think media should accomplish.

I don't want to frighten anyone away (you're the only commenter here, right?) but I don't see that mode as being harmonious with a testimony of our Saviour.

I think that music and sound is incredibly important in films. Michael Nyman is a man who has done a great deal in that arena, I believe. He usually works with a filmmaker named Peter Greenaway, but he did the music for The Piano, that I told you to be careful about watching, and Gataca among many others you may have seen (The Hairdresser's Husband is a beautiful meditation on marriage that Ashley and I love). Wong Kar-Wai is another filmmaker whose films require music.

But the use of music here is emotional. Emotions are the core of human existence, right? But it isn't the spirit. To pass something that is emotionally manipulative off as Spiritual seems backward or lazy or dishonest or all three to me. And I think that we, as a culture, should be very careful in all those situations.

But I'm still figuring these things out and I'm trying to find these answers. Its just that from my perspective, something doesn't fit.

Th. said...


This is a fascinating manifesto--I was particularly intrigued by the bit on the Word of Wisdom and Law of Chastity.

I saw you intro at the AML forum, by the way. You will probably see me again.

Anonymous said...


I've just read through your assumptions and am amazed at how similar a line of thought I hold to what you've described here. Do I sense a little of Dean Duncan's influence here?

The ideas of analyzing Institutional Church Films from a critical standpoint is a very important topic. There is one church film recently produced that I've had a hard time digesting some of the performances and the use of music. I will not specifically indicate the film, but admittedly, it has been much harder to enjoy recent Church releases having a more critical, educated film eye. However, it is curious to note that old classics that I have long since enjoyed still resonate deeply with me. "Legacy", "Mountain of the Lord", "Johnny Lingo" (more on the entertainment side of resonating!), "On The Way Home", and others. These are the films that inspired me to seek a formal education in film with hopes that I could one day contribute to the body of works that would inspire and uplift others. I wonder if that is because my first impression of these films was prior to a film school education.

On a related side note, even the films that I don't fully agree with , I have to at least acknowledge that each has been considered good enough for the church department that initiated its creation.


Trevor said...


Dean has definitely been a bigger influence than I think I could put into words, and definitely in more ways than from his classes. In fact, the first time I heard him speak in 2000 about Buster Keaton in the MOA, he said things about 'the family,' not the proclamation, but the idea, than made me realize I had never heard anyone talk about their family that way. I think that that is at the core of what I've learned from Dean Duncan. The rest is just an extension of that, I think.

A lot of this, I must admit comes from ideas I picked up from other sources like my time working at the MOA at BYU talking about LDS painting and sculpture and from critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum as well as people like my Father-in-law (though he'd most likely disagree with most of what is being written here). That's mainly why I treat this as list of 'givens' rather than a 'manifesto' per se. Maybe a manifesto would be more in order.

But about those institutional films: there are a few moments in church movies that have had such an impact on me that I know I'll try and recreate them in my film career, that is, if its in the cards.

My major qualm, that I can't go into in much detail about, is 2 fold I guess:

Knowing that there are certain films which are meant to be seen repeatedly. We know which ones those are. We should be watching them all the time if we live near a 'theatre' that plays them. But it seems pretty clear that the film style (and every film has one) of those films is a style less-conducive to multiple viewings. Commercial films are made to be seen once. Many of these institutional films should, I believe, be made in this "one-time" viewing model — especially if they are a first exposure to the Church. But these other films are made strictly for members in good standing, who hopefully will view them regularly.

The second part of my qualm is that this commercial, or "one-time" model is often prone to emotional manipulation or sentimentality. While I don't condone especially the former of these two practices, I avidly protest that passing either off as something divine is heresy.

It seems to me that God's method most often entails asking "do you believe" or "will you believe" as a check point rather than forcing divinity upon the person. That is why Dreyer's model in Ordet is so conducive to our world view to me: if you aren't willing to believe in the beginning and the middle, you check out and you don't see the miracles. But if you do believe and you are willing to sacrifice and obey, then you get then and the miracle is yours. I think that is the closest to those kind of miracles anyone has come in film.