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?


Anonymous said...

Actually this is not a moral conflict at all. The tree of knowledge is sweet (it specifically says so in the temple endowment. You could then assume that the tree of life is bitter in that it reflects all of life's difficulties. I don't think it is to be confused with the Tree of Life in the B of M.

Trevor said...


I appreciate the perspective, but I've revisited the texts that I can and every telling of the eden narrative contains an almost identical notion as what I quote here from Genesis 3:22-24

"And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever...the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden...and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."

I took a few words out to improve the flow, but the sense is unchanged. I share it here because this idea that "Cherubims and a flaming sword" were placed there to "keep the way of the tree of life," "lest he should put forth his hand...and live forever" Suggests that there is a passing to eternal life and if done without repentance would have the direst of consequences.

I don't expand on this to further some doctrinal discussion (though I see that this all has doctrinal implication) but to clarify my point on morality. That neither tree's fruit is 'evil' though they are in opposition to the other. Lehi's dream and Alma's discussion of this tree (which I do indeed believe are all the same symbol, and thought I see no suggestion that would suggest otherwise, I don't want to labor the point) both require a repentance process or great work to access that tree and all it implies.

The notion that the a symbol of eternal life, or God's love for us, is in opposition to the knowledge of good and evil, which is essential to our mortal probation and becoming "as Gods" (to quote the Genesis) might be a confusing one if when we hear "opposition" we think that one side is good and one side is evil. But I believe that we are better prepared to face life's challenges if our binaries (those sets of oppositions) are not viewed through two dimensionality.

I should briefly say that this notion of our morality being two dimensional or three dimensional comes from my reading (however elementary it might be) of a psychologist named George Kelly. He described the human psyche in terms or our perceptions, and that we think in binaries. If we view people in terms of how tall they are and how good they are only, and all the "good" people we knew where also short, we might assume that all short people were "good" and all tall people were "bad." We would be psychologically and (since our perceptions determine our moral judgments) morally very ill adjusted indeed.

These ideas have so formed my thinking that my shorthand leads to being unclear in many instances. As I discuss 'morality,' I primarily mean moral judgments as manifest through perception (here, primarily the moral judgments films present of characters by which perceptions they share, and how 'generous' or pointed those perceptions are).

Kayela said...

I'm not sure this is relevant but could Brigham Young's historical moment have something to do with it? He really didn't have the opportunity to see much of anything besides melodrama. Maybe Shakespeare which is still melodrama but not in the booing and aahing sense. Also, I think it's useful to remember that that quote was said in a time when theater was seen as a major source of moral decay. Brigham Young had to send personal letters to parents to get them to let their daughters act in his plays. Also, the amount of time people spent watching plays in Utah was considerably smaller than the amount of time we spend watching movies today. I wonder if our familiarity with melodrama as a genre lessens the power it might have had for those who only saw that kind of representation and only saw it very rarely. It's possible that particular quote doesn't apply to the morality you find so engaging because it wasn't meant to. It could be historically specific and confined to the particular genre he was speaking about. Just a thought.
PS. I'm glad you're writing again. I've missed reading.

Trevor said...


It's sad that, though much of what you said is the most logical and obvious insight to that quote, before you wrote I had yet to consider any of it. How many times the phrase "place it in context" should have come to my mind, yet didn't. Thank you for your important insight.

Do you think you might give me a little more background on what "his plays" refers to exactly?

Also, strange that we might be closer through something like this blog than we were when you came to visit us. (I'm not perfect but I'm feeling much better, by the way.)

Schmetterling said...

Shoot. While reading your post, I felt I was treading deep waters, but now the comments have me drowning. Nevertheless, if I may offer up my meager two cents as one who loves both the Gospel and movies, I'd like to say few things.

I'm not sure Brother Brigham's quote is quite so dramatically binary as it appears, though if he was referring to melodrama like Kayela said, it certainly may have been. But when I see the phrases "evil and its consequences" and "good and its happy results and rewards," I think I perceive them to mean something somewhat different from what you do.

You said, "the good are rarely rewarded as they expect and evil is rarely punished as we'd hope." Yes, yes; very true. I agree wholeheartedly. But I don't think that this is necessarily irreconcilable with President Young's statement.

In Mosiah, we have a very interesting look at the consequences of good and evil wherein none of the consequences seem quite right: King Noah and his priests (bad guys) kill Abinadi (a good guy); Alma (a bad guy gone good) and his fellow converts are forced to flee into the wilderness for their lives; Limhi (a good guy) and his people are overthrown by the Lamanites because Noah's priests (bad guys) kidnapped some women; Noah's priests (still bad guys) become leaders in Lamanite society and are given power to abuse and overwork Alma et al. (good guys)....

Certainly Brother Brigham wasn't opposed to The Book of Mormon?

Really, looking at The Book of Mormon as a whole, the good guys lose in the end--or at least seem to because they all get killed. Yet I know of no other work that makes such a strong case for living righteously, and I think that it all has to do with intent. If a book or movie or play or whatever portrays evil in powerful positions and does so to glorify evil, then Brother Brigham would be most adamantly opposed to it, I believe. But if evil is portrayed in powerful positions with the intent of demonstrating that living righteously is best even when we fail to see any "happy results and rewards," then he'd probably be all for it.

So yeah. That's my bit.

Trevor said...


how true. Looking at the Book of Mormon's narrative, as well as the doctrine, suggest a mode other than melodrama.

yet it seems that as I've heard this quote referenced, it is referenced as a 'proof' to use narratives or performance as melodramatic in form or melodramatically didactic. It's too bad that no one with that opinion has posted here.

I've heard that opinion often and I'd take a gander that I'll hear it again. At least there will be a place to direct people interested in this discussion in the future.

Kayela said...

By "his" plays, I meant the plays that were produced in the early days of the Salt Lake Theater. Brigham Young was a major proponent of the theater. He was pretty much in charge of everything in those days. People didn't like the idea of their daughters being in plays but since there weren't any "fallen women" hanging around to do the acting, Brigham sent letters to parents asking them to let their children take parts in the plays that were being produced at the theater.

Bringhurst Family said...

I recently stumbled across your blog and have found it quite interesting so far.

I would like to add to your discussion of morality in media by pointing to the "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet. The basic counsel in there appears to be quite similar to Bro. Brigham's. This similarity would tend to discredit the idea of confining Bro Brigham's comments to his time and circumstances and view them in a more timeless and universal light.

The pamphlet reads "Satan uses such entertainment to deceive you by making what is wrong and evil look normal and exciting. It can mislead you into thinking that everyone is doing things that are wrong. . . Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable."

I tend to agree with Schmetterling. The idea is not to present good and evil as stark caricatures devoid of any semblance of reality. In my view such representations do little to aid the pulpit.

Instead true reality should be shown. Too often media glamorizes sin or evil. They don't show the realities of addiction and disease. They show the small part of sin that looks alluring. This kind of media must be avoided.

On the other hand media that shows people doing to trying to do good and the challenges and rewards that come with it, should be embraced. Media that shows the realities of sin: the ease with which one is lured in, the struggle to get free, the difficulty in finding the correct path, should also be embraced.

In my view Bro. Brigham, 2 Ne 2, Omni and the others you cite, call for a true representation of the reality of God's laws. Evil has many consequences and good has a variety of rewards beyond those plainly seen. The closer we come to portraying that in all media, the better of we will all be.

Trevor said...

Bringhurst Family,

I want to thank you for pointing the discussion to such a practical and well thought direction. (Thank you also for using media as a plural)

The inclusion of the quote from the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet is especially appreciated.

I wish that I could add to it notions which Elder Ballard was the first to raise (at least to the best of my knowledge) in a General Conference setting about the mind-numbing effects that the general misuse of media has (he spoke, as others have since, specifically of video and computer games).

I believe that gratifying the desire to 'be entertained' is just as responsible (in fact I believe it to be more responsible) for Satan having a greater influence on us than portrayal of evil in a positive light.

But both of those things are still in terms of viewing.
I do wonder what we might say in terms of creating media. What are your thoughts on the obligation that filmmakers have in passing judgment?

On the one hand, without any moral assertion a film could be a declaration of relativism. On the other hand, a film which makes moral assertions could and does often become so heavy handed that we as viewers become unable to make our own morally based decisions.
Many films are described as being "claustrophobic" either because they show very little variation in the mise-en-scene, or because the camera is so close to its subjects that virtually no mise-en-scene is shown. It seems to me that films which are so concerned with declaring what good and evil are run a great risk of being 'morally claustrophobic' in that they leave no room for moral expanse and they have no room for vastness in their perspective.

Along those same lines, often such films (and the same happens in literature I'm sure) turn out to be just plain wrong in that they are so detached from the big picture, and are so short-sighted, that their morality is canned and cliche. Not to mention being cut-off from reality.

So how do we juggle these two sides?

Trevor said...

"Too often media glamorizes sin or evil. They don't show the realities of addiction and disease. They show the small part of sin that looks alluring."

Might I also add that Lodge Kerrigan is someone whose films I feel are currently discussing these problems in a harsher and more gritty light. Though none of his films are meant for children, and should be viewed with extreme discretion, they are doing this now. They aren't gratuitous, I don't think, but they are extremely pointed and critical of the modern condition, especially about the devastation of disease and mental illness. I recommend 'Keane' to begin with as it is the easiest to watch in my mind.