Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ode to Nick Nolte/ On being 'Priesthoodly'

A memory that has had a surprising impact on me was when I was a priest (about 17 years old). Our Stake President was visiting our ward that day. As he walked by me on his way out of the chapel after the meeting had ended, I happened to be lying on the bench. He remarked to my Bishop that I wasn't behaving 'very priesthoodly.' The phrase has stuck in my mind for these years— perhaps partly due to the oddity of the word— but none the less creating a need to define that word. What does it mean to behave in a 'priesthoodly' manner. Somehow my thoughts on the matter have turned to Nick Nolte.

Why have I dedicated a post to Nick Nolte? Has he passed away? No, though I do feel some urgency in what I have to say about him.

I've been thinking about him since a conversation with a friend a few summers ago where Ang Lee's Hulk came up (a movie which, though deeply flawed, we both thoroughly enjoy). My friend mentioned Nick Nolte as one of the great parts of the film, while I thought of his performance as overwrought and lacking variation or depth. But my friend, whose opinion I greatly respect, re-asserted Nick Nolte's greatness.

Since I was little, when one of my favorite movies was The Three Fugitives where Nick Nolte and Martin Short played opposite each other, I have considered myself a fan. But I have recently been deeply moved by two of his performances in particular Olivier Assayas's Clean, and the Terrence Malick produced The Beautiful Country. In both features Nolte's character could hardly be considered the leading role, but at the end of each it is his performance which stayed with me.

In academics as well as popular criticism actors are rarely discussed in comparison to the roles behind the camera. Partly because it's so difficult to pinpoint, partly because it's so difficult to discuss, but this doesn't lessen the role actors play. Since I read Dave Kehr's entry on Charleton Heston a few weeks ago, I've been trying to reevaluate this, reflecting on careers of great actors like Brando and Nicole Kidman especially. I feel like I've gained a new pair of eyes
and its with these eyes that Nolte's performances hit so deep.

Those performances of Nolte's seem to have everything with the priesthood. For some years, I've been concerned for various reasons about the state of masculinity in our ever-changing modern world. I've said it many places but I'll mention it here that I feel that Edward Albee's American Dream trilogy (as I refer to it: The Sandbox, The American Dream, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?) to be the most important piece of American literature that I know of. It has everything to do with the priesthood, I believe. The structure of these plays is similar (as it is with many of Albee's works such as the more known A Delicate Balance): A domineering wife and mother, an ineffectual, passive, and frustrated father and husband whose marriage is defined by abuse, neglect and dysfunction. The child is either non-existent or heartless and impotent, while sometimes a grandmother is featured and the only voice of wisdom. They paint a picture of a 'post-feminist' world, where fathers are no longer the head of the household because they are unable, and the mothers rule in anxiety and tyranny. This all, like Miller's masterful Death of a Salesman, is tied to the death of accomplishment, of the American Dream, of the future generations.

On the other hand, images of masculinity like Scorsese's paint masculinity as violent vigilantes, incapable of true intimacy or fidelity let alone lasting happiness. Which leaves us with men and patriarchy as evil on both fronts. Either slothful and ruled by fear, or violent and ruled by fear. A pretty bleak picture all around.

Yet Nick Nolte's performances here seem to answer all of this.

In Clean, a film I deeply love for its subtlety and masterful direction, Nick Nolte is Maggie Cheung's (of fame In the Mood for Love fame in the US, as well as Assayas' former wife) father-in-law after a tragedy has occurred. Nolte's choices as an actor make not only for a more engaging performance, but for a clearer, less marginalized view of masculinity. There is wisdom and concern in his every gesture which plays off his natural 'gruffness' and stoic demeanor. In this role he embodies paradox and the qualities I believe define being "priesthoodly": he is quiet, dignified, not puffed up, devoted, humble, hard-working, determined yet considerate, willing to adapt, yet firm without anger, cheerful and calm, naturally searching for the positive. I hope that as the years continue to come that I might be the type of man portrayed here. I would trade the last twenty minutes of this film for every one of Scorsese's pictures. I hope I wouldn't have to, because there are moments of sheer genius in Scorsese's oeuvre, but if put to it, I would. But these are qualities aided by the script, but created, I'm convinced, by Nick Nolte. What kind of life has he lived that he knows such things. Might our films be greater if we knew these things better as well?

The next performance is even stranger to mention, since though Nolte's picture is on the cover of the DVD case, he appears for the first time less than 15 minutes before the end of the picture. Here again, he plays a father, but more detail might affect the viewing of any who haven't yet seen it. But, again, I would trade these 15 minutes for hundreds of other films. A 15 minute role in a minor, yet thoughtful production hardly qualifies actors for awards, but this might be the best piece of work I've seen from an actor for years.

Patriarchy is at the very heart of what our church stands for. Without the patriarchal order, not only is the church not true, but neither is the gospel. This was a hard thing for me to accept (and I guess at points, it still is) because so many male figures in media and my life alike, are either ineffectual, or tyrannical. If me lying on a bench for a moment was unpriesthoodly, than these two images most certainly are. But that these two extremes are characteristic of what men are and should be is a lie and I am convinced its source is darkness. Patriarchy is not tyrannical, though its use has been in more instances than can be mentioned here. How much evil has been committed by men who justified their works by power!

But there men who defy tyranny by their ability to love and love as Christ would. There are men whose concern is the good of others and who fight everyday for their families— to protect and provide. Might this be more urgent to discuss in our literature and our film than searching for the next "Mormon teen crush'? I just want to say that I struggled with this, especially as I've been more aware and concerned with how women are undermined by male-driven systems. And I know that I am talking about very big issues, and using very small words, but I also know that the order of God's church, and the order His church teaches about families, is the order he has designed and ordained. And I know that's His way because I questioned and I have now got my answer. I guess what I'd like to say is, that if you haven't got yours, keep searching, and it will come.

I recently read a post and dozens of comments on Feminist Mormon Housewives on a post entitled "On Patriarchy and Patriarchs" that discusses this perception. I was extremely impressed with the thoughtful nature of so much of the writing there, but many other comments testified of pain and frustration on the topic. I know that this is a sensitive and difficult topic, and I hope nothing I've written here betrays that. I feel that a large part of the responsibility to discuss and cultivate these topics lies on LDS cinema.

Let us take these performances as models and again, be more thoughtful in our media.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Morality, Rambo, and Brother Brigham's quote

There have been delays between posts for several reasons (my recent illness, visa problems for my wife and daughter, etc). But I've also realized that I've been making some increasingly outrageous assertions lately that I'm not sure I have the right or the clarity of mind to make. So I'd like to take a step back and ask some more questions.

These 'assertions' that I'm hesitant to make stem from what it means to be a 'Latter-day Saint' aesthetically on the one hand and morally on the other — what ways this is expressed in film as well as its definition, not to mention what an 'LDS' morality might be.

It is in the spirit of the second that I approach this post.

There are a few citations that are on my mind and I'd like to start with those before I start framing them:

The first is the quote often shared and mentioned but rarely (or perhaps never) discussed from Brigham Young. It reads:

Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnamity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to sun it (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.243; Bookcraft, 1998)

The next is the discussion of good and evil we find in the scriptures. There is no gray area as far as they are concerned. The end of Omni 1:25 reads: "for there is nothing which is good save it come from the Lord: and that which is evil cometh from the devil." There are many such references, this just happened to be one I had at my fingertips.

The next thought comes from the first time I read Alma 30. It was at a time in my life when I was trying to fix a lot of things, or, I guess, I had just recently fixed a lot of things and I was trying to grow out of the afterbirth, so to speak, of that change. I remember reading the story of Korihor and being moved to tears mourning his loss. I didn't hate him, and I don't believe that it is possible to hate him if you read the account in the spirit with which it was written. I identified with him (for lack of a better, less-encumbered, less-Freud-laden word). That experience did more for me as a young man, new to this blessing called repentance, than I have words to express. I can remember no such experience with melodrama.

The next is the chapter of 2 Nephi 2. While I won't cite the whole chapter, I will say that it is the greatest treatise on the most morally complex narrative that I know of, namely Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden. Despite the fact that the binary for good and evil is still stark and consistent with all scripture, ("[men] are free to choose liberty and eternal life {which is then linked to the Savior}..., or to choose captivity and death {which is then linked to the devil}"), there are other more complex binaries presented so that the whole picture can no longer be viewed in a two-dimensional table. The most shocking and perhaps the most important to our discussion (as well as our understanding of the garden narrative) is at the very end of verse 15 which I will quote in full:

"And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter." (Italics added for emphasis.)

In the verse we read that this opposition which is so important in man's progression is brought to a head, as it were, by the two trees discussed in the garden. The forbidden fruit (which comes from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) in opposition to the fruit of the tree of life (the same discussed by Lehi earlier in his vision, as well as by Alma in chapter 12 and at the end of chapter 32). I have assumed that the fruit of the tree of life is to be considered sweet and the forbidden fruit to be considered bitter. Though I see that the converse could be argued effectively, I'll save such a discussion for another time.

The reason this binary challenges such a two-dimensional morality as we might understand it earlier, is that both trees are equally essential to our eternal progression. And not only this, but it is this very chapter that explains this principle. As far as I know, there is no other document which explains and expounds upon this concept. Yet it simultaneously presents them as being in opposition to one another and being mutually dependent on the other. Mutually dependent, mutually oppositional, equally essential. There is no room for black and white morality here. If we are only able to think this way, the gospel will be filled with confusion and contradiction, as will this narrative from the Garden.

Finally, I think of Rambo, or First Blood I should say. I mention this movie partly because it is one that my saintly mother-in-law secretly loves and partly because my wife and I recently broke down and watched it not long ago. When my mother-in-law is confronted with the disparity of how the most loving and non-violent of women (she is truly saintly) secretly loves a favorite of TBS's 'Movies for Guys who love Movies,' she blushes and defensively says that it is because he didn't do anything to them. "He didn't deserve it." Indeed she's right. First Blood is the epitome of what Brigham Young was talking about as far as character portrayal: The law is evil personified, and Rambo is good personified. Only according to President Young's quote, the consequences for evil and good must also be included in the text, which doesn't occur specifically here (even though Rambo gets the sequels and the police don't).

But one thing is sure about the film: the law is demonized and Rambo is idealized. There is not one positive trait shown for the "bad guys" and not one negative trait shown for Rambo.

So now for my conclusions.

First, anyone who suggests that filmmakers who "just tell a story that might have happened somewhere, sometime" have no moral obligation beyond telling that story is either naive or in denial. No movie can be mistaken for reality. It is, at best, a perception of reality. Along with that understanding comes the responsibility to realize how our perception of reality affects the telling of those stories. First Blood could have been told another way. The filmmakers chose which character traits to include and which to exclude. That is a decision that directly affects the morality of the story.

Next, as far as I've experienced in my mortal probation, the good are rarely rewarded as they expect and evil is rarely punished as we'd hope. In fact, I even feel to some degree that when I am trying to do what's right, things get more difficult. It seems that this perspective has come from my knowledge of the gospel and it's eternal perspective. Yet Brigham Young, who knows far more about the gospel than I do, suggested that viewing characters who embody good or evil and who get the rewards of their evil or good would aide the pulpit. I'm resisting the temptation to discard a prophet's input, but this situation is very confusing. True, his counsel was descriptive and not prescriptive, but I still have a hard time agreeing with the description. And so I have no conclusion as of yet.

There is a thin line, however, which I'm not prepared to define yet, between the complex morality we find in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a film wrought with contradiction so much that I can't quite get my head around it, and moral relativism or even when the mention of the words "good" and "evil" seem out of place. I know that it is mainly fear that drives those words from our moral discourse as well as from our storytelling and our aesthetic discussions. However, it is also fear that causes us to use those words too quickly, to rush in and judge harshly.

The morally complex films of Terrance Malick and Jia Zhang-Ke, which refuse to judge their characters (precisely because every character, no matter how small the role, is morally intricate) present both a challenge and an answer to that fear. I don't believe that either filmmaker's work could be called morally relativistic (especially Jia Zhang-Ke) because even though each character is far from being clear-cut, the film is always challenging us morally.

Perhaps the best answer, however, might be the films of Anthony Mann. Mann's westerns, by nature, have a clear sense of good and evil, but each character is nuanced and their own senses of morality are constantly evolving, thus challenging my own flawed sense of morality. I consider the westerns of Anthony Mann to be some of the most morally complex of the genre and of any American film I know. Truly he is one of the greats. It is this morality which seems to go in line with the compassion that I remember Korihor being described with. There is always a clear sense of right and wrong, but the characters are so nuanced, and the text's perception of them is so unassuming, that we are challenged. The character's complexity doesn't fit easily in to the film's clear cut, uncompromising morality.

But what other conclusions can or should be drawn?

Elder Ballard's address on politics media and the church

I just came across this address and I find it not only fascinating, but extremely important. I wanted to share a link from here since I consider it to be valuable to every part of the discussion we are having here.

Elder Ballard.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Two obituaries

I just wanted to include links to two thoughtful responses to two recent passings in film history.
Dave Kehr on Charlton Heston and David Bordwell on Paul Arthur.

The Greatest Cinema Ever — General Conference

Though I've not fully recovered, I've been out of the hospital for a little more than a week. I've had my first migraines ever and I'm extremely tired all the time. But we decided that we couldn't afford to miss conference, so we made the trek and imposed on our good friends Magda and Darek (among others) in Warsaw so we could enjoy conference. We are incredibly thankful to them not only for their hospitality and care for us, but because both of them have intense responsibilities due to translating and interpreting conference (something I, thank goodness, am no longer eligible or responsible for) on top of their already strenuous lives with 80-hour weeks and extremely little sleep. So it is with some guilt that I write what I have to say. Our schedule allows us much freedom and I even missed the only true obligation I've had to the University here because I've been feeling weak. But this conference was something I will never forget.

True, I can't say I saw much. The monitor was small for a room filled with so many people, and much of the time I had to be watching our daughter (though I gave way to my neglected and over-worked wife toward the end). But with that being said, there is nothing that compares to this experience in my mind. To be, as Elder Holland so aptly coined, 'eye witnesses' to that mantle distilling on President Monson, is an experience I will treasure always.

I hope that it doesn't appear that I've over-extended my description here. I don't believe I've overstated it. Perhaps it is simply because of how starved I have felt, or how weak physically, but there has yet been nothing to compare to it.

It even seemed that the zooming and editing was brought down a notch, though I can say this with little accuracy as the only session I truly saw was the last one, after our daughter had gone to sleep at 10 pm Sunday night, Poland time. And for all my angst toward Mack Wilberg as an icon and musician, I was shocked at how much calmer the musical decisions were. Almost without anxiety. But this, perhaps, might be due to a humbler me.

But what a glorious experience to hear the words of living prophets and oracles of God. If it is not going too far, I would like to take a moment and just add my witness that those men are called of God and that they speak for him because they have His Spirit and His authority, and they bring and have brought His teachings to us. I will defend that to anyone who does not know it. I have no doubts about that and I know it is true.

Many things are changing. Many things are vibrantly changing in the Church and I'm glad that we know their source.

I don't desire to make this too personal, but I feel I must say something more on a personal note. I have been uncomfortably surprised at how important a place President Hinckley held for me. I say 'uncomfortably' because, though I received an undeniable witness as to his calling and his place in God's Kingdom, I was shocked at how his death has affected me. I have felt extreme loss at his passing, so much so that it affected my hearing of this session. But I suspect that I am not the only one because testimonies of President Monson's place kept coming. I mention this mainly for disclosure — I am definitely among those who were in need of those numerous yet powerful testimonies.

But on to the point. Since I'm arguing that watching this General Conference is better than watching any film, I need to mention what it is I think watching does films does for us. I believe a great film challenges us morally and it becomes a changing, bettering experience.

Maybe we might do better to think of General Conference as the great movie of our faith. Everything about it might teach us something about ourselves, our capacities, our culture and traditional expectations. To be sure, the watching of conference is a learned skill. Five or four two-hour sessions over a period of two days is a strain on the untamed attention span. No matter who the speakers or how long they speak, listening intently for the full time is not an easy task for beginners. It takes time to become accustomed. But to my mind, there is nothing greater.

Though we could argue that the different form of sustaining was an inciting incident and President Monson's final talk was the denoument, this conference couldn't really be described in narrative terms without forcing them on it. There were major characters, some we identified with more and some less (depending on who 'we' is). But in the end, it is an entirely different beast and should be treated as such. But might not our narratives be richer and more full of the Spirit if we took note from General Conference?

Now I've done my fair share of shopping around for grad schools, and everyone seems to separate themselves (both those who liked my application and those who didn't) from the other schools by the exact same thing: they all claimed to focus on narrative, on 'telling story.' What an abstract and inevitably unhelpful distinction, in my opinion. It seems to me that in order to be true to what our culture and religion creates, 'telling story' cannot be our only concern. I'm not even sure if it can be as major as film markets dictate. Scripture, sacrament meetings, and conference all rely heavily on narrative, but in none is 'story' the end goal. It is always a means to an eternal end. Before coming to Poland, I had a priesthood blessing where I was blessed that I would be able to discern between those things which were of eternal significance and those which were not. I can't say that I know how or if that blessing has been fulfilled as of yet, but I know that I have been impressed by the phrase and it has stuck with me.

Maybe LDS filmmaking might take a turn for the better if we organized our movies in the way that these conferences are organized — around sincere people with sincere messages that they desire deeply to share with everyone who will listen, with the sole purpose of improving our culture, our lives. What would happen if our 'narratives' were constructed in such a way so that each character spoke with authority but also concern for bringing peace and truth to each person within earshot. Is media being made like this besides General Conference?

I had hoped to say more about the messages (for instance, do we appreciate how bold and brave and delicate Elder Scott's address was? We shall be speaking of it for years, as we did of Elder Ballard's 'Raising the Bar' address, I think), but I will finish what I started about it challenging our morality. This is only one small observation, but I would like to share it to illustrate how morally complex the conference as a whole was. From a structuralist point of view, we could view the messages in terms of binaries. From church addresses, one might expect moral simplicity in this view: good—bad, black—white, heaven—hell, obedience—disobedience. Under the slightest scrutiny however, one discovers an LDS world view is quite the opposite. I would like to say that, to the best of my recollection, the word 'tolerance' was used three times: Once by President Monson, once by President Uchtdorf, and once by Elder Amado, I believe. President Monson said that "evil often wears the Halloween mask of tolerance," obviously calling tolerance a guise for evil. Yet President Uchtdorf and Elder Amado denounced intolerance. Same conference, same Church, led by the same Spirit, yet a very complex view on one simple concept. Neither contradicting the other but each expanding the other's statements. We can't be satisfied to think that tolerance or intolerance is always good or always bad. These things are always complex and they always require discernment and the Spirit of the Lord.

It is also this moral complexity that we find in the scriptures every day (how often Moroni phrases something differently than Nephi or Alma, not to mention Paul), yet we might do well to notice this as lacking in LDS film. If it is not always lacking, it has not reached the point at which we find it in the scriptures or in General Conference.

It is the very nature of the sincerity-driven, second-person medium that General Conference is that allows for this complexity, for talks like Elder Holland's, Elder Christofferson's, and Elder Scott's, as well as the humor and profound simplicity that made Elder Ballard's talk perhaps his most touching and memorable. But I'm now of the opinion that LDS cinema could learn more from General Conference than from any other media the church has previously produced.