Tuesday, April 8, 2008

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.


Schmetterling said...

Wow. That's--uh--that's probably the best response to a General Conference I've ever encountered. Thanks for that; I think I'll be chewing on it for quite a while.

'sgood to have you back.

Anonymous said...

"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?"
This is really beautifully said. It seems that when messages are sincere they avoid being dogmatic somehow. I haven't quite worked that out yet. Perhaps it's just that my definition of the word sincere involves humility.

Trevor said...


I wanted to say that I've been thinking about your comment since you wrote it, and I think it would do us good to discuss definitions of the word "humility."

I once hear an address where the main point seemed to be Jesus' humility. The two main points which stuck with me were that the sermon on the mount was the most humble address given, and the second was that Jesus exuded humility even when he cast our the money-changers. I seriously wonder why the speaker mentioned such a statement without expounding.

On the topic, Marlin Jensen's address in the April 2001 (given a few days before I went in the MTC, for those interested) Conference is, to me, the greatest talk I know on the topic.

But as far as mind-baffling scripture on the topic, I would say that Alma 13:28 is the verse I think about most on the topic (because of the inclusion of the word both at the beginning and the end of the verse when a cause-and-effect chronology is established. That would logically rule out the possibility of the word being used both at the beginning and the end. Yet it's there, and its non-linearity has yielded precious inspiration for me).

oh, and Schmetterling, thanks so much for your words of encouragement.