Thursday, February 28, 2008

"If only we had a Mormon (insert your favorite filmmaker here)..."

I'll admit that I consider the concept slightly crass, and the phrasing extremely crass, but I will say that perhaps the fruits are beneficial. I believe the intended outcomes of such exercises are many: 1. To suggest that Mormon artists should look outside of themselves to be inspired and taught. To 'read the best books' so to speak, but in a much more intense and formally concentrated way. 2. To counter the opinion that the creation of art is something that "only members of the church can do, because only they have the Spirit." I can't tell you how similar this sounds to certain prayers offered from the Rameumptom, and it is, in my opinion, the greatest stumbling block to "Mormon artists." (I don't think the Spirit works that way.) 3. That there are many ways and forms which both might be informed by the doctrine of Christ, and also inform that doctrine, meaning expound upon it and allow it to take on more meaning and application for us. 4. That there are other options for creation than the Hollywood model or overwrought cliche, or even the 'Church films' standard.

Of course, that being said, I must add that of course I don't mean that we should try and be "Mormon Frank Capras." But I do think we could learn a thing or two. Also its said that the Stones we trying to recreate the Blues of the American south. But they fell short. So their miraculous addition to music history was an attempt to recreate, not to create. But create they did. Failure as creation. Fascinating. If taken with a salt lick I hope this to be very beneficial.

So here I go, and feel free to add.

Frank Capra: I think we could learn a lot from his 'small town' aesthetics and underdog vs. the system while championing the system approach to filmmaking. Likewise his clarity is remarkable.

Alain Resnais: I think that if someone, if anyone, could film the Doctrine and Covenants, it would be him. Not only are his films intellectually dense, but they are also deeply affecting. He understands torment and romance and fairness and longing all at the same time, all the while being a moralist. He also reminds us that its OK not to understand everything. Somethings are more important that understanding. Yet he appears to be one of the most humble filmmakers in the world, ever.

Carl Th. Dreyer: We can just allow his name to hold its place here without elaboration. If you don't know him, look him up.

Ozu, Yasujiro: The greatest reminder that eternity is family and eternity is change. More peace, beauty and insight in one of his stills than in most movies you'll find.

Eric Rohmer: I'm falling in love with this man's films. There is way too much sex outside of marriage to fulfill our world view of divinity, and I strongly take issue with his notion of 'love,' but I can't think of infatuation more gently presented. That is a big part of my world view as well.

Ming-Liang Tsai: Strangely the least religious of the "Taiwanese New Wave," and the least concerned with morality, but the most affecting in my book (though I can't stand watching "The River" without getting some fresh air in the middle several times). Grotesque, alienated, horrifying. All true. Yet in my book, he is the living filmmaker most aware and in tune with the meaning of "ritual." One of the most affecting of all filmmakers. His What Time is it There? is one of my favorite movies ever. And even though I can't seem to stand most of Truffaut's films, the whole thing is a love story of sorts to him.

Robert Benton: Though he is a much better handler of his own scripts, he is quite a handler. Rarely have I seen movies so packed with Americana, and yet filled with delight.

David Cronenberg: I have listed him elsewhere on this site as someone we should take note of, but I wanted to mention his name again (by the way, I now have seem the edited down version of his 'Crash' and would not ever recommend it to any member of the church or anyone outside the church. I found it foul, nihilistic, and pornographic in its anti-pornography. I know that there's got to be something else there, but I can't say that I will ever want to re-watch that or revisit it in anyway. I do highly recommend the Senses of Cinema article that got me excited about the film. It is more thought provoking than the film, in my estimation. However I consider Cronenberg a master director).

Fred Wiseman: True, that he's been on my mind since the release of his newest film with is filmed in Boise, Idaho, but there are few filmmakers in all of history willing to do what he does. Such patience and skill in expression without aver manipulating whats in front of the camera.

William Wyler: Remembered mainly for his Ben Hur, only now am I finding the joys of his earlier artistry.

Nicolas Philibert: Perhaps the greatest of all documentarians... perhaps not. Maybe a stronger case could be made that he is the most Christ-like in his treatment of his subjects. Maybe the most Christian of all filmmakers. That is a tall order, but I can't think of anyone who outright pushes him from that place. I can't remember a conversation I've had with my father where I didn't plead with him to see "To Be and To Have." That is a tall order as well. I haven't seen Back to Normandy yet, but I'm grateful for Second Run DVD and their release of two of his movies with English subtitles.

Robert Bresson: of course. But I didn't always see it. The things I would write here seem better whispered, so I'll abstain. But I didn't always see it. I hope to learn from him for my whole lifetime.

Maya Deren: Speaking of ritual, her discussion of film as ritual is the thing that shifted me finally to film. I different view of space and time than I've yet to come across anywhere. Here shifting views between ritual, art, and ethnography seem worthy of reading by anyone interested in the temple. I highly recommend the anthology of writing edited by Bill Nichols put out a few years ago devoted to this American avant garde ritualist. Her "Anagram" is also included. It is the only printing of it available. You may not agree with hardly anything written there (she often changes her mind and perspective), but even her self-contradicting hypotheses give more reference for thought and pondering on the meaning and power of film as ritual than any other writing I know.

The Dardennes Brothers: Who else can say that their films have changed social and legislation? Who can say that one film has changed so much? But not just Rosetta. The Son left me weeping for two days. From, joy? not completely. From pain, because I changed that day. I became a better person in such a deep way, that it ached.

Charles Burnett
Abbas Kiarostami
Hayao Miyazaki
Terrence Malick
Jafar Panahi
Ernst Lubitsch
The entire Makhmalbaf family
Zhang Yimou
Jacques Rivette
Jacques Tati
F. W. Murau
Andrei Tarkovsky
Emir Kusturica
James Benning
Otar Iosseliani
Raul Ruiz
Agnes Varda
Terrence Davies

I'm realizing how incomplete this list will always be. I hope we'll keep adding to it. But I feel like putting Murnau on, but not Lang even though Lang might have been the greater of the two. Just a reminder of how subjective and preferential these lists always are. I also realize how I'll never be able to have viewed everything or heard of everything, but this is a start.

Feel free to add.

Jonathan Rosenbaum Interview

I was sent this link today to an interview done last night (for you in the states), the eve of Rosenbaum's retirement. I found it a fascinating video interview where he discusses issues concerning his retirement and criticism in general. He discusses movies as politics (a topic he has written a book focusing on) and toward the end he discusses his support for Barack Obama. There's no need to go into politics here or our positions on Mr. Obama's policies, but I am still fascinated by him as a figure, if for no other reason than his attendance at our Prophet's memorial and funeral services. But enough on that. Here is the link:


I found this fascinating article in the New Republic comparing Obama to Adam here.
It may be the most well-written article I've read on politics in months... I can't remember one better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Jonathan Rosenbaum's Retirement from the Reader

Today is officially Jonathan Rosenbaum's last day as writing for the Chicago Reader. I, like many of his devoted fans, find comfort in the thought that he will continue writing in other venues. I'd like to write a few words on his effect he's had on me personally over these years.

While studying at BYU I became more and more disenchanted by my experiences as an actor. After a particularly difficult semester that ended with a particularly difficult production, I decided I needed to start studying something over the break that I was passionate about. I decided to watch a few Kurosawa films that I had yet to see (despite a class I had on his films that semester taught by Darl Larsen). I went to the SLC Library and checked out ten movies. I watched them and returned the next week for the same amount. I noticed that one name came in the liner notes of some of the most interesting films: A four-film package of silents made by Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, Chabrol's The Ceremony, not to mention a book written on Jarmusch's Dead Man. I also owned the Criterion Dreyer boxset where he wrote the essay on Day of Wrath, and I remembered Dean Duncan mentioning Rosenbaum's name in one of his lectures. The biggest determining factor, however, was an article I found on James Benning's Deseret about the state of Utah (which is also finally being shown in a course at BYU taught by Gideon Burton this semester). Why would this man be so favorable about such an obscure and high minded film (that sounded ravishing to me to boot!). I was, more than anything, curious who this man was and why I hadn't heard of him before.

I was so taken with the experience I was having watching those films over the Christmas break, and how much more I felt I was learning from them than anything else, that I rearranged my schedule to continue the trend for the entire next semester (with my angelic wife's support, of course). As that trend went forward, I began noticing Rosenbaum's name in the most daring of places. His criticism was in favor of daring films, but not only because they were daring. He was aesthetically conscious, which was more than I could say for any critic I was aware of at the time, but that was not the guiding factor for his criticism. Being the religiously-minded viewer that I am, I consider it a great blessing that I ever came across his criticism. He remains the only 'popular' critic that I am aware of that is intelligent and thoughtful, yet wholly concerned and aware of the morality of film viewing and production.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is first a human being with moral obligations and responsibilities to others and himself, second a film historian, third a critic. I don't know what more any morally-minded reader could ask for than that. I do not always agree with his sense of morality, and I don't always agree with his aesthetic sense, but I am always a better film viewer, and I dare venture a better person, from reading what he has to say on film.

During that semester, I took most of my film viewing from pre-established canons, but none of them were more valuable or more rewarding than Rosenbaum's lists (either his year's bests, or his top 1,000 favorites — links to all of which are on this site, as well as on the Chicago Reader Movies page).

As my reading went on however, I discovered that filmmakers that I had loved, had also been favorites of Mr. Rosenbaum. The most memorable of these is Abbas Kiarostami whom I often quote here. I had actually picked up a copy of Taste of Cherry by accident, but that viewing was perhaps one of my most memorable, and I consider it life-changing. I searched as many movies as I could by him and placed Kiarostami at the forefront of importance in world cinema (a place from which he has not moved since for me). Only months later did I find that Jonathan is one of his greatest supporters. Likewise, one of my childhood favorite filmmakers, Joe Dante is another filmmaker discussed at length by Mr. Rosenbaum. Though I watched movies like Innerspace, The Explorers, Gremlins and Eerie, Indiana for days on end without stopping, I feel as though I had never seen them before after reading something Rosenbaum had written about them.

Perhaps I've said too much, but I'd like to emphasize the great sense of selfish loss I feel knowing that the world film community will be losing the regular writing of such an important figure in morally-concerned and intelligent film criticism. I am forever changed and bettered for having known his writing and I can say that about very few. He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Addendum to "On Entertainment"

I'd like to take the same topic from perhaps a different perspective: We all waver in certain areas on a regular basis. Sometimes we're better journal writers, some times we're less sincere or less diligent. Sometimes we're better listeners, sometimes we can't bring ourselves to care as deeply. And we all had check points, I assume to tell us whether or not we're doing well. I just know that most often I do worse at all of the things I care most about when I watch movies to be 'entertained.'

I have found that I care a little less about doing the dishes. I find that I am a little more reluctant to answer a telephone call that I know will require something of me. I am less concerned with my wife's needs, wants, and feelings. I'm less excited about reading the scriptures, and more likely to put it off. I have found that my prayers are shorter and more short-hand. There is less longing in them. I have found that I repent less often. I have less faith in Christ, and I need that. I need all of those things.

Have any of you found anything similar? Can you relate?

Perhaps not, and that excites me. How many faithful Saints there are. How much more devout. But I can't afford it. There are things that I can afford, that I'm not as sensitive to as others are, or perhaps as I used to, or should be, but I am sensitive to this. And I consider it an extremely worthwhile discussion.

Friday, February 22, 2008

On Entertainment

In great part, this post comes as a response to a post on the Third World post by Brent Leavitt. I have thought a great deal about some of the issues he raised there and I would like to address them here. The bulk of this post might be classified as a manifesto, though I hope it is more considered a clarification on my world view which has everything to do with my doctrinal convictions and ideals. What follows comes from my personal experiences and should be treated only as one perspective, but one I hold to strongly.

I spent most of my adolescence watching TV. I remember at age 5 I spent several weeks in the hospital due to illness. One night my parents listened as I said my evening prayers: "Please, Heavenly Father, help me to stay sick so I can watch more movies." I even remember what those movies were.

But one side effect of watching so much was that I didn't do my homework, and I didn't ever read. The first book I ever read was my senior year in high school. That is a serious problem. Imagine how hard it was for me to start to read the scriptures.

But the biggest thing I remember from that time is that even when I would sit down to watch a little TV I ended up spending hours when I usually never found anything that I enjoyed watching. I always felt empty. I recently had the opportunity to meet the English theatre-director-turned-film-director Mike Figgis, a man of very different sensibilities than my own, but who compared watching TV to (forgive the crassness) masturbation. He said that it is never fulfilling and you always feel guilty afterward. I think the same can be said of all mass media. It isolates and weakens self worth. This is saying nothing of the messages being sent, but the format leaves you weak and empty. J Hoberman has written that TV is a post-modern medium: the concept of channels and the choice of changing, fracturing and mixing of high and low — to say nothing of the fracturing of commercials — erases all classical linearity. I believe that all "mass media," even leaving out the commercialism, fractures and leaves us weaker. We are drained by it and guilty because of it.

Though not the only one, my mission was the biggest 'healing' experience as far as the damage done by 'mass media.' Two years, no media that wasn't canonized or Conference, with the occasional first vision or priesthood restoration (both of which I prefer to the revisions). I emerged a new person. During that time I began to realize that the only thing these 19-year old boys who had given their lives to God had to talk about was the Simpsons. Almost every one could quote Bart Simpson, but I never once heard a passing comment made quoting Nephi, Moroni, John the Beloved, or Abraham. Maybe I only noticed this because I wasn't allowed to watch the Simpsons, but something about that still seems wrong to me. Pop culture was the only thing that governed our social interactions. With out them we didn't know how to be funny, sly, witty, or even kind. There was an awkwardness that came with the responsibility to face other people without a pop culture reference to mediate. And to face problems.

Before my mission, like most I believe, I turned to a movie, music, or TV when I was angry, frustrated, or depressed. But those things, if used for that purpose will numb, weaken, isolate, dumb-down, and fill with guilt — surprisingly similar effects to alcohol, sexual deviancy, and narcotics. This is how I define entertainment.

But on my mission I learned, for the first time in my life, that you could face your most challenging problems on your knees. I also learned that God doesn't make it easy for you and most times praying is hard. I went through those challenges, even though God helped me. But I went through very little before I learned those lessons. I just let the media help me forget until I went back in a weaker form to try and throw something together.

I grew up when Grunge was emerging and everyone was looking to Seattle. I think I saw the first ever broadcast of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Say what we will about the movement, but the biting refrain 'here we are now, entertain us,' still defines pop culture. To entertain is very much a verb with two sides and one of them is receiving the action. The English "F" word is vulgar because it linguistically changes an act which is reserved as a holy covenant between man and a woman (a 'communion' if we will) into a verb where one side is doing and the other is being done unto. Some of the worst crimes known to us are the abuse of this communal power and forcing to a one-way act. We believe that Adam and Eve were both "agents unto themselves." 2 Ne 2:14 says that God created "both things to act and things to be acted upon." Verse 16 reads: "Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself." Meaning that Adam and his children should not be acted upon. I think this is at least a partial reason for that guilt. When we say "here we are now, entertain us," we voluntarily shift from subject to direct object, from agent to beast, from a thing to act to a thing to be acted upon. Maybe we can understand the Nirvana song from their following album entitled "Rape Me," as a continuation of this same theme.

I hope that these descriptions are not overly graphic, but I believe that we do more harm to ourselves socially, spiritually, and morally than we may realize when we desire and/or allow ourselves to be 'entertained.'

Of course, we can't always watch Dreyer's films. And I'm not saying we should. But perhaps we should be more strict in our approach to viewing. Aristotle said "instruct and delight." That seems to be a helpful guideline. Tati doesn't entertain, because they require so very much of us. But there are few things more delightful than Parade for me.

I don't agree that film began as a medium of entertainment. After one of the first screenings that the brothers Lumiere had for their one minute films the audience was in awe. Indeed, what they saw must have been awe inspiring. But the filmmakers were surprised at the response. I think that the audience's reaction embodies what I feel most deeply about this medium, now 113 years later. They said: "The leaves. They're moving!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Love Letter to the Latest Training

We recently returned from Ukraine due to recent visa issues, but prior to that trip Ashley and I were able to attend the most recent worldwide training meeting. I find the concept of these trainings to be fascinating and extremely promising, though I must admit that the execution up to now has caused me frustration and disappointment.

I gladly reemphasize, however, the phrase "up to now."

This training, which focused mainly on the importance of family from a doctrinal as well as pragmatic standpoint, was a significant shift from previous attempts. The training from two years ago was quoted in our stake for at least a year — or at least Elder Bednar's talk in the training was. That talk was even cited indirectly in this year's training. From a "true doctrine, understood" perspective, the previous trainings have been insightful and, in due measure, effective in "changing behavior better than the study of behavior." However, from a formal standpoint I have found the grammar retroactive and counterproductive to the goals of such trainings. I thought this a good place to outline the differences and the effects of those formal changes.

The largest difference, noticeable to the the most lay of viewers was the obvious time difference. This training, though broadcast 'live' from Salt Lake on Saturday, stated that President Hinckley was the living Prophet of our times. This was, as stated by president Holland at the end of the broadcast, due to translating needs so that the worldwide broadcast could more easily and more effectively reach the church members in more than 80 languages (I believe the number to be 89 currently). I used to be a translator for the church for a number of years and I had the occasion to interpret one of the first such trainings without any text. I can assure you that the results were not pretty. I'm sure it could have been worse, but no membership of the church deserves that just because they don't speak English fluently. So that was a VERY welcomed change in my (and, I assume, the majority of the Church population's) opinion. So first of all, the translation was made easier, but this change signals two more important changes.

The first of the two is that there was a larger focus on the differing cultures that this broadcast was intended to reach. Aside from the first two speakers (Elder Holland followed by Elder Packer — the then 'acting' president of the 12 — both comprising less than 20 minutes together) and the addition of President Monson's address as Prophet (which was around 5 minutes), the 2 hour broadcast consisted fully of a panel discussion with three women and two men (Elders Holland and Oaks as well as the presidents of the three female-headed auxiliaries). Elder Oaks made the remark to describe their comments that "We are general officers, so we are making general comments" and acknowledged that there are always extenuating circumstances and cultural differences. Likewise, Elder Holland, quite surprisingly, added that to some cultures it may seem inappropriate to sit on a panel and speak openly with women, but that this is the way that the church should be operating. He said this with specific application to Ward and Branch councils. I thought the comment was especially sensitive, and posed options that I for one had not considered. However, he attributed the policy to a 'Gospel Culture,' whereas I might have attributed it to a current western, upper-middle class mentality (which is not to say that it is not the way that the church needs to function, but I find nothing about those procedures in the "Gospels" as I understand the word). He is the Apostle, however, and I am not. The point is that this broadcast, more than any other in my knowledge, was aware of a non-American church. These are problems touching nearly every culture I know of where the church is prominent. Though it is as large a problem in Utah valley as anywhere else, the shift to being aware of other cultures was extremely welcome here in Poland where an American working temporarily in the Polish-American Embassy just replaced a Polish district president (the developing church's equivalent to a stake president).

The second of the two important changes is the one I find most interesting and fulfilling. the delay in time allowed for more than just translation, as Elder Holland suggested. The previous trainings have caused me deep sorrow and even slight anger due to their formal language. The 'trainings' were structured and filmed like infomercials. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, they are the paid television programming designed to look like a daytime show, when their real aim is to sell an otherwise obscure product. The camera angles, the camera distancing, the pacing, the audience reaction shots, the scene length and macro-structure, but above all, the canned "informative" dialogue that is meant to sound improvisational. All of this has previously been too distracting to me to get anything doctrinal from these trainings. I will oppose anyone at anytime who suggests that the gospel of Jesus Christ is something to be 'sold.' I don't know that I wouldn't have been more offended by logo placement in the background. It might have been something else if these trainings had been for a non-believing membership, like the Conference Center films, but the audience here is not only membership but church leadership. However all of that changed in this last training.

The camera was on a constant medium shot for the speakers, as opposed to alternating between three separate camera angles and varying distances that we are all used to for General Conference. I found the stasis refreshing (partly, I'm sure, due to the fact that our daughter was dancing in the dark on my lap as the first two speakers addressed us). I found myself feeling confronted and challenged by what they were saying rather than being lulled into what they where saying during Conference.

For the round-table discussion there was one camera with a master shot of all the participants (and, as far as I can tell, this camera varied that position twice for a tighter frame on three of the participants), and a camera in medium shot on each person at the table. Aside from a few odd zooms and slight pans, I didn't pick up any camera movement whatsoever. How refeshing this was. What a discovery! That there is no need for any camera movement because it is meant to be pure dialogue. Why try to hide it? Did someone at the communications department discover Ozu this year? Let us hope that it's true.

There was no selling whatsoever. There were no forced statements formally or doctrinally. So what did the delay give us? It gave the editing team quite a bit more leeway and freedom to construct and edit something that otherwise has been extremely scripted and canned. The format of the conversation appears to have been far more conversational and spur-of the moment. The presentation of the conversation, however, was crisper, clearer, and more cohesive than even the scripting of the previous trainings could have been. Though the form allowed for tangents and slight diversions, there was no dead time in this broadcast. Any lulls or awkwardness where two or more people might have been talking on top of one another where beautifully edited out. Now, instead of dead, boring, or uninspired (uninspiring) exposition for the duration of the conversation, the dialogue consisted of stories, anecdotes, and surprising scripture references that were personal and actually meant something to those saying them. If nothing else, we were again reminded that general officers of the church are called to such positions because of their spiritual maturity and their abilities to serve, love and teach the general body of the church and not for their acting ability or their selling talents. I can't say enough about this new change.

Kiarostami reminded us that profundity is to be found in cliché, but this training reminds us that we must be very careful which clichés we embody: nothing that is canned can be led by the Spirit. Do we agree on this? Can it be any other way? Likewise, our church has no business, I assert, speaking in a language created for financial gain. There is no room for that.

Ionesco stated that there are some world views so complex that they cannot be expressed in any other way than through plays, or essentially dialogue. The creators of infomercials are well aware of a perversion of this concept: that they have more convincing power when two people are talking and they are both convinced ("Isn't that right, Bob?" "Yes, that's exactly right, Alan." or "I can't believe its true! 2 knives for the price of 1!?" "Yes, you've got it, Bob, 2 knives for the price of 1!"). But this last training on the family seemed to me to get it right. The most complex concepts were saved for the table. They talked about idealized versions of romance as well as harsh realities of the need for work in marriage. There was an exciting balance between pragmatics and idealizations while making room for exceptions. Though the stories were often centered in an American Bourgeoisie background, there were many encouraging things said about single women and widows and broken homes.

Needless to say, I can't wait to see what further step the Communications department will take next.