Monday, June 30, 2008

Portrayal of the Divine: Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood

My brother frequently gets pre-release copies of books and DVDs hoping to be publicized by the radio station for which he works. Knowing me as he does, he recently sent me a complete set of Richard Carpenter's British television series Robin of Sherwood. While I know that this forum is not geared towards television shows, I felt that the way in which the subject of divinity is treated in this series was worthy of discussion. I should admit up front that I'm not finished with all 23 episodes, but I felt these ideas should be expressed before other thoughts took their places in my head.

God, not Christ

Because the protagonists in the series are Saxons, the divine favor they enjoy does not come from any God we would admit to. Instead their Pagan deity, an adapted version of British legendary figure Herne the Hunter, inspires them against the evils of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his fellows who are Christians. While we do see the religious side of the "bad guys" of the story (mostly through the Sheriff's brother, Abbot Hugo), I will primarily address the themes involved in the relationship between Herne and Robin.

But before I do that, I want to say that I don't think we need to be threatened by the use of Christianity as an antagonistic force or by the use of paganism to represent good. Although the series sets the two in direct opposition in some cases, with Christianity generally representing wickedness, I think it may be healthy to consider ways in which our faith can be and has been abused. I say "our faith," but the Catholicism portrayed in this series is really nothing like the restored Gospel. Also, religion is not attacked by this series as much as it is discussed. What I'm getting at is that the image of Christ associated with evildoers might offer a useful, if sometimes disturbing, perspective.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that LDS filmmakers use try to make Christianity appear evil, but we should recognize that the portrayal of Christianity as an oppressive force is consistent with history. I can imagine films appropriately made by Latter-day Saints that include the perspectives of those who have been oppressed by "Christians" in the past. Turning our eyes inward may help create understanding and reveal the tendencies that cause this perception of Christians, even today.

Ironically, and predictably, the Christian virtues the creators of the show clearly value are exhibited far more frequently (though not exclusively) by the pagans than the Christians in Robin of Sherwood. One exception is Friar Tuck, who never seems to abandon his Christianity but supports Robin in following the visions he receives from Herne.

Dispersal of Divine Attributes

Robin of Loxley is introduced as the son of a man who is killed while defending a sacred artifact. His father sacrifices himself to keep his son alive but loses the powerful artifact to the Sheriff, who can't use it and therefore has no appreciation for its real value. To him, it is only a silver arrow. Robin grows up as one of the last survivors of a destroyed village whose existence is no longer recognized. These two elements have echoes of pre-mortal life and the apostasy. One major difference is that Robin asserts that "Nothing [about Loxley] is forgotten."

Robin comes into his own at the end of the first episode when he is chosen through vision by Herne the Hunter to be the defender of the poor, and the last hope of England. From this point on, he is designated as "Herne's Son," who has "come to claim his kingdom." All of these things set up Robin as a figure of Jesus Christ, but of more interest to me are the ways in which both he and his adoptive "father" are humanized.

After the first vision, Robin is afraid and declines Herne's offer. He does not want to take up a divine mantle. After witnessing the devastation caused by the Sheriff, however, he changes his mind. In a cave near Sherwood, Robin meets the antlered Herne and is given his charge. Before this happens, however, Herne reveals his true nature to Robin by discarding his costume of fur and horns. Robin exclaims in surprise, "You're not a god. You're just a man."

The significance of this revelation is immense, because it reduces the figure who for the rest of the series imparts visions, power, and authority, to a mere mortal. When Herne replaces his costume, however, he is transformed.

Not only does the humanization of Herne point to the LDS concept of the origin of God, it gives Herne a dual role as deity and prophet/teacher. Robin takes on a similar role as he both channels the "powers of light and darkness" and reveals Herne's will to the merry men. As Robin learns more of the nature of God, he becomes more confident in this role, and more like the son of Herne the Hunter.

The main lesson I want to point to from this is that Robin and Herne both represent the divine in this series. About halfway through the series another character takes up Robin's mantle, adding to the list of those who symbolize deity. While the serial nature of the program prevents this kind of symbolism from being constant (sometimes it's obvious the writers just needed another story before the deadline) it is consistent in that it inevitably resurfaces and picks up the spiritual momentum created by the pilot episode. I've noticed in some films that one character or item is chosen to carry the burden of all divine meaning. I think this creates an overwrought analogy that loses effectiveness as these characters tend to demonstrate only power, omniscience, and an aptitude for saving the day in ways that can be hard to swallow. By dispersing the divine among several icons (but not too many, lest the symbolism lack potency), the filmmakers are able to create effective metaphors that also give the viewer some breathing room. I actually find this patchy symbolism refreshing, because it avoids over-simplification and "preachyness." The occasional vistas of clarity thus offered also allow the viewer to absorb the meaning more fully. Narrative devices that keep the action grounded in the proper context can fill the space between these moments of truth.

More on Divine Potential

As far as I have gone in the series, Herne is never given any identity other than a god of the forest. Yet, in response to Robin's surprise at his humanity, Herne unexpectedly replies, "We can all of us be gods. All of us." This redirects the viewer's attention from Herne's fallibility to Robin's potential. It sets the stage for the rest of the series as an extended metaphor for the progression of Robin and his men toward godhood. Robin's first task is to recover the sacred silver arrow and destroy the dark sorcerer who is trying to steal it. Again, as a television program, some elements are designed purely for show and to fill time, but the theme is recurrent for as many episodes as I have seen.

Herne gives Robin the tools he'll need to accomplish his purpose: a bow and arrows and a sword imbued with the powers of light and darkness. These objects also carry divine symbolsim and indicate that man, without constant divine assistance, cannot accomplish or even find his true purpose.

There's a lot more that could be said about this series, but I'd like to hear what you think about the ideas I've mentioned above. I particularly want to talk about how these things can help us in the portrayal of the divine.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A few lessons from Mike Leigh

I just finished watching three of Mike Leigh's earlier features: Nuts in May, Abigail's Party, and High Hopes. Though the first two seemed significantly earlier than the last, I, in truth, know little about his sensibilities— stylistic or thematic— outside of the now five features I've seen directed by him (Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies being the other two). I learned a great deal from these features as far as sheer filmmaking goes, and think that they would be beneficial to LDS cinema.

My first observation may be a complaint at first, but it slowly turns into a helpful stepping-stone for our infantile/non-existent 'national cinema.' Though High Hopes—a rumination on (then) present-day 70's London in light of social, familial, and economic responsibility in the shadow of Marx's grave— mutes the tendency more than the others, all three features work in terms of caricature rather than nuance or individuality. I've written at length about my thoughts on character 2-dimensionality, as has Benjamin in Princess Mononoke, so I won't detract from it further here other than to say that it hinters our ability, as the audience, to connect with the script and the story.

But then again, it was because of this lack of connection that I found the films so charming (admittedly the first two more than the third). I found myself, on the other hand incredibly wrapped up in the ideas the films were presenting.

Nuts in May follows two eccentric Brits on their holiday to a campground in, what I must assume, is the month of May. Their conversations consist mainly of what food they will eat and when as well as how it will aid digestion, etc. (no meat, only free range chickens, only raw milk, and the like), when it isn't about their sight-seeing guidebook. The meat of the film comes as private and public obligations collide and are brought into question with each other. The two protagonists argue about who should hold the guidebook, and how one leaves the other behind, never waiting, while the topics with other campers focus on the volume of music, disturbing the peace, jealously, social etiquette, safety and camp rules. The thing that sets this film apart, aside from its 'zany' tone, is the lack of simple answers or side taking. Though there is caricature rather than characterization, there is a lack of melodrama—no one is right and no one is wrong, and there are no good guys or bad guys. Everyone is crazy to some degree or another, and so every caricature is the straight-man for the other 'nuts' at different times.

But this is only the first part of the lesson I think we could learn.

In the entire film, there was not one set. And I believe it was made for BBC. In Abigail's Party a filmed play essentially, there was one set, unless you count the 10 second shot of the interior of the bathroom, then there were two sets.

Both films seem to be more complex than most films you see in the multiplex—though the complexity comes from the moral construction and intellectual discourse found in both, not from the plot or characterization—but were made on what I'm assuming are minuscule budgets.

The films knew their boundaries and flourished within them (might I add BECAUSE OF THEM), rather than aiming for some more popular standard and failing. It seems that a major flaw with the 'LDS' films I've seen is the attempt to cover-up the lack of budget with camera showiness (meaning focus-flipping and unrestrained/untrained movement rather than adventurous compositions or daring mise-en-scene) or post-thingamajigging.

I think the strongest foundation for 'LDS' cinema may very well come from TV, despite my spite for the medium. Without BBC or Canal+, think how many films we wouldn't have.

We need stronger, more morally centered and morally inquisitive scripts (where there are no sides, but conundrums). And we need directors who are willing, able, and proud to work within a small budget. All the more reason we need thoughtful, low-budget LDS producers

Monday, June 23, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirit, and Cinema Part One: The Power of Film

"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:45)

I felt honored by Trevor's invitation to contribute to this blog. I take the responsibility seriously, and so I thought I'd start with the topic that encompasses my approach to both creating and receiving cinema. I think it is at the heart of everything we do.

I can't put this all into one post, so I'll break it up as needed. My purpose in this series is to suggest that the above verse is both true and crucial to the success of LDS filmmaking and viewing.

First I want to say that I believe this verse is literal when it says that light is Spirit. And not just any spirit, it is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Let me make clear from the beginning that I don't think that this is the same thing as the Holy Ghost; I think it is what is referred to in Section 88 verses 11-13 this way:

"And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things."

In other words, light, or Spirit, is an element that can be manipulated. Again, this is not a member of the Godhead, it's an element. Of course, the Holy Ghost does not fill the immensity of space. He is a being with a finite shape. And, of course, light exists in more forms than those which are visible to our eyes. But I believe that the Spirit of Christ also encompasses what we know as visible light, and that is what we work with in film. I don't think anyone would argue that light can be manipulated, but as soon as we throw around words like "spirit" and "truth," people start thinking heresy. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm asking you to think of these three things: light, truth, and spirit, as one and the same. The scriptures say that they are and I believe them.

The medium of film, even in the digital sense of the word, is defined by the manipulation and capture of light. Oftentimes we actually use tools to create the light that we capture. Sometimes it is not so much that we create the light as it is that we control the way it is recorded and displayed. Using our current paradigm about light, this has major implications. We no longer simply light a scene, we establish its spirit. We dictate its truth. On a movie set, this is what cinematographers do and this is our great art.

To quote Kiarostami, one of Trevor's favorite filmmakers, "Originally, I thought that the lights went out in a movie theatre so that we could see the images on the screen better. Then I looked a little closer at the audience settling comfortably into the seats and saw that there was a much more important reason: the darkness allowed the members of the audience to isolate themselves from others and be alone. They were both with others and distant from them."

I'm not as versed in film as Trevor, but you can find the link to this quote on the right side of this page under "An Unfinished Cinema."

When the lights are turned down in a theater, where does the light in the room originate from? Technically, it's from the projector, but from the audience's perspective, it's from the screen. Either way, it comes to our eyes "from" the film itself. That's a powerful concept.

Now let me ask you this: is there any other art form in which the art itself is a source, not a reflector, of light? Even in photography, which uses similar techiniques to capture images, the finished product is ultimately made visible by a light from outside itself. A film is created when light prints an image on an emulsion or a sensor, and it is reproduced when light is passed through that captured image, or it is recreated electronically. Switching terms, we record Spirt and then recreate it using the image we have recorded. We color the truth generated by the projector with our own recorded version of the truth.

As Kiarostami points out, how that Spirit is received depends upon another device that utilizes lenses: the human mind. Fortunately, the audience can filter the truth we give it by its own experience and understanding. But I think this is one reason why film is so persuasive and powerful, not to mention popular. Because of this, I am also not comfortable (and never have been, even before I thought about this) watching any film, video, or TV show in a room with no other light source. I like to have the lights down a bit, but not off altogether, because I feel like the film is being unfairly imposed upon me. I'm being oppressed by its Spirit. This is not what the Spirit of Christ was intended for, and it feels wrong. Even in an otherwise dark theater there are strip lights on the floor to illuminate the aisle. The human eye is capable of detecting a single photon and mine notices even these small but comforting ties to a world other than that created by the film.

We live in an age in which "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:49). People are yearning for light, and we as filmmakers can, in a sense, provide it. As partakers of film, we need to be careful how the Spirit we receive is colored.

Now, I'm not saying that filmmakers are the ministers of all truth, but I am saying that film is by its very nature a spiritual art. By using Spirit to communicate our messages, and by doing so in a theater in which all other sources of Spirit are minimized, we open a passageway to the Spirit that lies within each member of the audience. This builds upon the idea discussed elsewhere on this blog that art opens a space for Spirit to communicate with spirit.

I don't mean to misuse this verse, but I believe it applies: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2) Of course, our audiences are usually sitting, and how great the light in question is depends on its unity with the ultimate source of light, truth, and spirit. This unity is meant to imply not only content, but also every other aspect of the production and presentation.

I want to make it clear that in this post I make no attempt at saying how this information can be appropriately handled. I'm not that arrogant or that wise. I only assert that these principles are true.

Film is so powerful because it is given to us as a source of light, which is Spirit and truth. Because of its nature, there is no other feasible way to view it. As a result, the messages a film contains are persuasive and some films generate large followings. The same is true of television, the internet, and any other screen machines we use to collect information. The more exclusive the light they emit, the more imposing the truth they convey. This medium was reserved for the dispensation of the fulness of times, when all truth would be sent down from Heaven, even things which had been withheld from the foundation of the earth. In conjunction with the Spiritual element, we use music and other things to add to our films. We use every tool used by artists in any other medium in this, what Gideon Burton at the 2008 LDS film festival called, "The fulness of art." How appropriate.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Princess Mononoke

Trevor invited me to contribute to the blog, so I thought I’d just write about some meaningful experiences I’ve had with some films...

Miyazaki has so many valuable things to offer on issues of war, gender, the environment, and spirituality, and I think its especially important that he’s offering these insights to specifically to children. Let me just a couple of spiritual lessons that Princess Mononoke is helping me learn.

I love that our protagonist, Ashitaka, is engaged in moral struggle in which he must navigate two warring ideological opposites. I was kind of disappointed the other day when I looked at AFI’s top ten animated films list and saw that Disney held every place. Not that Disney isn’t great (Finding Nemo and Dumbo are pretty stellar), but I think that the standard formula for children’s melodrama—employed almost without exception by Disney—is to pit hero against villain…period. In Mononoke, Ashitaka (and the viewer) sympathizes with both Sen’s primitive spiritualism and Lady Eboshi’s Enlightened secularism. And this is a conflict that is not unfamiliar to us (in the Old Testament, current ideological battles between left and right, and even the “war on terror”). Eboshi seeks to end the reign of the gods, but she also plants gardens, cares for the leprous and releases prostitutes from their bondage. The forest gods are noble, spiritual beings, but can be violent and overzealous—boars blindly charging into battle.

I think that if we’re ever to resolve the real-world conflicts to which the film alludes, we’ll need to adopt an Ashitaka-ish perspective. He starts his quest just to rid himself of the demon that’s slowly killing him (created by Eboshi’s attack on the gods), but his motivations become more selfless as he seeks to mediate between the warring groups. Our own spiritual well-being may, rightly, be our first priority, but I think that engaging in these moral battles—with both sympathy for and a healthy skepticism of both perspectives—may be a key to greater spiritual growth.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Adam wrote this in his comment about the Fight Club post and I had never heard it taken from its original context. I don't know if I would have appreciated it had I heard it this way earlier:

Nevertheless, as President Benson is so often quoted as saying, "the mind through which this filth passes is never the same again."

I'm really sensitive to this issue, as I watch a lot of movies, more than most people I know, and I have seen how they have changed me. That's true. And very often in prayer something comes that says 'Don't watch that movie.' I've even been directed to throw a movie away days after I had purchased it, never having seen it. I felt so good afterward and never thought of the money. I don't know why because from everything I had read on the topic the film was fine . . . yet I felt something clearly outside myself telling me to dispose of it.

I wrote a post on Thinking in a Marrow Bone on 'R' ratings, but I didn't write there the things that are most important to me about standards. I'd like to share a few of them here. (By the way, this makes me think of an excellent discussion several months back on A Motley Vision.)

How we watch movies is a large part of LDS movie culture (at least half, though I would say more), but I haven't talked about that much up to this point. I'd like to share a few principles here:
  1. No Torture Principle. I believe our standards should be far more engaged and active in deciding what we will and will not watch. I was extremely impressed to read Jonathan Rosenbaum write some time ago that he would never watch any film depicting torture. Since it was on a blog, someone chided him for his stance since he loved the films of Georges Franju whose films could be construed as depicting torture (I don't believe that they do depict torture, but that is a possible reading). Rosenbaum replied why those films did not apply to his criteria and they had a further discussion.

    I mention this because this is the kind of thoughtful criteria making (and by a critic no less!) that I think we should be engaged in and constantly refining. For years I had a specific distinction about what I would watch or not that has changed this year after getting out of the hospital. Something there changed my view and now films with the use of a certain kind of sarcasm are not ones I will watch. I'm saddened when I hear (for reasons I expounded upon on Thinking in a Marrow Bone) that the only thought that goes into what someone will or will not watch is the rating given by an organization I distrust immensely.
  2. Bishop/Branch President Principle. From my time being a branch president, I've learned that hearing the utterings of sinners is an important part of becoming like our Father in Heaven. I know that priesthood leaders are blessed and have guidance from the Lord, but I also know that there is a skill to be developed in this regard.

    I remember being in a theatre history class where the question was asked why we watch theatre. A first-year student raised her hand timidly as she hadn't yet spoken in class. She was the only black student and we could tell that she felt intimidated. She mentioned how it discouraged her when people weren't even willing to experience theatre life from someone else's culture or from someone else's point of view. She mentioned hatred and alluded to racism being rooted in this lack of desire. I think there is a power in movies to do this, but sometimes those perceptions from other cultures and other people may be crass or have swear words. It leads us then to ask if they are invalid. I believe that if we are to love mankind — our brothers and sisters — we cannot claim to do so without first understanding them. Film, as with all the arts, offers a great capability to do so. What does being a branch president require us to do? To hear the most vulgar offenses before God. And this is a holy act. So I ask you, doesn't the lot of the work belong to us? I remember watching Magnolia and wondering if my wife, who, rightfully so, is very sensitive to foul language, should watch it with me a few weeks later. I remember feeling that I was filled with a greater love for people who differed from me and a greater understanding for someone else's understanding of God. I knew I was a better person, and I thought she might feel the same way. So I asked her to listen with a branch president's ear, and the conversations had and feelings shared are some of my favorite experiences we've had from watching a movie. I don't recommend the movie to everyone, but I do feel like there is great good in this principle.
  3. Principle against passivity. Another friend of mine has said that in his home they aren't allowed to watch anything on Sunday. I italicize it because he believes that the sheer act of watching is in direct opposition to what the sabbath is for. I find the idea compelling and worthy of discussion, though I disagree with its foundation. As I understand my friend's premise, the concept of watching is a strictly passive one. To watch is to be passive, to read is to be active. The Sabbath, and holiness, requires mental and spiritual activity; thus passivity, and watching, destroy spirituality. There is something true in what he says. But we are hopefully capable of being active viewers, rather than passive ones (despite what most films want from us). No matter the film, however, we are ultimately in charge of the acceptance or rejection of the doctrines contained therein. I think that what my friend suggests — that watching is essentially passive — is true until we change it. But if we do not make a vital effort to change it, we degrade our own spirituality by becoming passive. Thus, passively watching the best films is theoretically more spiritually degrading than actively watching a banal, fluffy romp.
  4. Mr. Rogers Question. Anyone who really knows me knows how deeply I love what this man did for television and the world through his program and work. His impact and importance cannot be over emphasized. If I needed to say who the greatest American filmmaker was, chances are Fred Rogers would be my answer. No one I know of has even come close to accomplishing what he did (but it helps that the vast majority would never have wanted to). But my question is this: Would the world be a better place if the only movies that had ever been made were made by Fred Rogers as part of his 'Neighborhood'? My knee-jerk reaction is to say 'YES.' If all the world's films were entrenched in his simple yet piercing sincerity, his love-affirming messages (not to mention his love-affirming form), his profound patience and fairness, we, I'm sure, would be better people. There are very few 'R-rated' (whatever that really means) movies I can think of that meet that criteria.
  5. Mister Rogers Question (part 2). I do think, however, that there is another side to that question. I once dated a girl who told me that whenever her parents showed the slightest bit of conflict, they went in the other room. As our relationship progressed, I saw that when the slightest bit of conflict arose, she would clam-up or retreat. She thought conflict was evil. I don't believe that, but I do believe that conflict should be resolved. She thought it was evil because she'd never seen it resolved. Though Mister Rogers did tackle topics like death and September 11th, I think there are some topics and some conflicts too devastating to be handled in his forum. Just because we don't see them on a screen doesn't mean that they don't exist. I believe that seeing them on screen, those most difficult of conflicts, can aid us in our lives. Quite often, those most difficult of conflicts are shown in movies designed strictly for adult audiences, as they should be. The difficulty comes from the idea that what the market thinks an 'adult' wants may not be what we think an adult wants.
  6. Matt 15:11 Principle. "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." I think there is much more in that scripture than we realize. We should be very, very careful about our media choices, but more importantly we should be careful about what we do with those choices. We have much more responsibility as per our eternal progression than simply deciding what movies we will or will not watch. You can watch Bambi and find the filth there, or you could watch Leaving Las Vegas and see the sincere upward strivings, though they don't quite get there. But I do believe that the greatest part of whatever defiling or whatever edifying that occurs occurred by what we do with it, "but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man," so to speak.
  7. The Clockwork Orange Principle. Principle 6 being said, my wife reminded me that there are some films that will just do damage to some people regardless of how actively they are viewing or how fine-tuned their "branch president's" ear is. I do believe that what these movies are varies from person to person — and very often varies from year to year for each person. A movie that builds and inspires me today may have destroyed me years ago. In this regard, we should remember to be very, very careful about what we watch. For instance, I felt a very strong impression that I needed to watch a certain movie, about which my friend later warned that no one should ever see it unless they had been married for at least three years. This movie, one of the most difficult movies I could ever imagine, is also one to which I attribute many positive aspects of my marriage. However, there are other films that I simply will never watch unless I get an explicit prompting to do so. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is one of them. This is even more interesting because a woman Ashley and I love very much and whom we look up to in more ways than I describe, who also happens to be our branch Relief Society president, was shocked that I hadn't seen it, and, if I remember correctly, she thoroughly enjoyed the film. But from what I know of the film, have heard from friends, and currently feel about the film, I would describe it, like President Benson, as filth from which I would never be able to recover (though I wonder how that would have changed with Kubrick's original ending, etc., etc., etc.).
Again, returning to President Benson's quote:
"The mind through which this filth passes is never the same again."
The talk was given to youth, but this phrase for the most part seems to ring true for all people (in rare cases, I do feel like I've had filthy things wiped from me through the Atonement, for instance). But I'm left wondering if that change is always for the worst. My reading of the Garden of Eden story would suggest that the experience of pain allows us to cherish the pleasure. This is the purpose of probation. This may sound reductive, but if we must do it someway, I hope that we would chose to do it vicariously rather than making the mistakes for ourselves. President Benson uses the term 'filth.' Obviously he wasn't using the term positively. But I highly doubt that he regretted hearing the sins of those who came to see him or that he would call that 'filth.' But he wasn't searching for entertainment in those experiences either, and neither, and never, should we.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mormon Paradoxes (i.e. literary fodder) part 1

Too often an LDS perception of art is equated with didacticism: we create because we are trying to teach. This desire to teach can often lead to pride, which leads to a loss of the Spirit. Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian Formalist who has had significant thought on my thinking and passion about the arts, wrote about poetry as being wrought with paradox. Something is poetic, because it is at ends with itself. This creates a place where the experience of the art cannot be considered didactic, yet the audience is forced to manage their way through the disparity. Among other things, it simply makes for a richer experience. (I've over simplified Shklovsky—and perhaps misappropriated him—but what follows is what I'm really concerned with).
In my view, an LDS world view is wrought with conflict and contradiction. This is the beginning of a list of these complexities inherent within Mormonism which should enrich our art.


1. That Paul says the Spirit is life but the flesh is death (that we are to overcome the carnal sensual natural man), yet the first and most foundational commandment given is to multiply and replenish the Earth. The only way to do this is through embracing the flesh (I'm not talking about marriage at all. Of course this is only to happen within th bonds of marriage, but it is a commandment to 1. get married, and 2. cleave unto our spouses). The goal (Spirituality and Eternal Lives) is only attainable through the only thing that is set in opposition to it (flesh is in opposition to the Spirit, yet only through being sensual, carnal, and 'natural' can we fulfill the commandment of the Spirit to obtain Eternal Lives).

2. Mainstreaming vs. being a peculiar people

3. Being learned and reading the best books vs. being humble and ignorant (like Adam and Eve), as a child—submissive, easy to be entreated, obedient.

4. Prosperity in the land vs. giving away all we own to follow the Savior (the eye of a needle vs. the Nephites promises).

5. The desire to teach vs. the desire to bare testimony. The desire to entreat to a change of behavior, versus express about our own behavior.

These are a starting point. I welcome your additions. What paradoxes do you see in Mormonism?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Latter-day Saints should be interested in Fight Club

About Priesthood
From the get-go, I'll admit that I haven't read the book from which Fight Club, the movie directed by David Fincher, was taken. I've heard some anecdotes about how the novel came to be, which are pretty dismissive of its message and worth. Not knowing the book, I can't speak about it, but from what I understand, the movie follows quite closely to the book's narrative. From here on out, when I mention Fight Club, I'll be referring to the film and not the novel.

As Latter-day Saints, we might be hesitant to consider such a film as Fight Club. It's form is admittedly crass and a bit too hype-driven for my tastes. But thematically it deals with issues that I find intrinsically linked to LDS perspectives and sensibilities.

The film opens with a dilemma. The group we're called to identify with and which gives us our starting point and groundwork for the film is a group of testicular cancer patients. The film's world is populated very literally and allegorically with de-masculinated males. The dilemma throughout the entire film is what should be done about this de-masculinization. The cause is unclear. On the one hand, as Meatloaf's character suggests, body building — striving towards the appearance of strength — has done the de-masculization. On the other hand, selfishness is to blame. One thing I'm glad to see is that the text avoids demonizing femininity and blaming it for the cause, as it would be so easy. There is of course the film's implied misogyny, but never does it assert that femininity is to blame. So whatever the cause, it is entrenched in the modernity and bourgeoisification of men, or as Tyler Durden states, a move away from the "hunter, gatherer" notion of masculinity.

I've written elsewhere on this site about Edward Albee's work and what he has to say about the ineffectualness of middle-class men and how that's led to the death of the American dream. I can't help but see similarities between the American dream, the 'rags-to-riches' story, and a Latter-day Saint journey to become more like our Father in Heaven. In a patriarchally-governed theocracy, we should be ever increasingly interested in sociological and psychological dilemmas that stand in the way of men becoming like their Father in Heaven. From my perspective, there are more and more families where the father is either absent or uninvolved, unable to lead or tyrannical. In the church, where the father's role as the head of the household is constantly reinforced and where the father's leadership in his home is a microcosm for all male leadership within the church, this seems to be a very fundamental theological dilemma. Likewise, our eternal goal, from an LDS perspective, seems to essentially have echoes of the American dream; a progression from the slothful natural man to the Christlike man "obtaining all that the Father hath" certainly has echoes of a progression from rags to riches.

Let me be clear here. My intent is not to profane King Benjamin's speech or our theology. Likewise it is not my goal to make any cultural ties to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I, too, am offended by the notion that our church is the "American church." Yet we might do well to acknowledge similarities between American cultural ideologies and ideologies within the gospel of Jesus Christ as told by Latter-day Saints. I say this mainly to suggest that when Arthur Miller and Edward Albee talk about the American dream, we should take interest from a theological as well as cultural perspective. It's in this framework that Fight Club becomes so fascinating to me.

Edward Norton's character, now a fragmented and de-masculinated, bourgeoisified man, describes for his counterpart, Tyler Durden, his efforts to overcome his state.
  • His first attempt was to turn to pornography. This is mentioned only briefly, but a friend of mine pointed out that the remainder of the film's form follows suit and becomes pornographic. There is a CG sex scene where the sex is violence. This is a hot topic; the film gives little insight aside from suggesting that pornography is the first attempted remedy. Fascinating and tragic and horrifying and true. The following three attempted remedies for his de-masculinization are treated like abusive addictions, in the same vein that pornography is.
  • The second attempt is materialism. Fincher exhibits his dazzling and satirical use of CG to associate glib materialism with pornography. Norton's character turns from smut companies to IKEA to fill his gender void. Several times his consumerism is described with phrases such as "It's what defines me as a person." I find it fascinating that this false bourgeoisie lifestyle is indicted for being unable to return one's masculinity. As though we weren't able to decipher the class references, the text is sure to point out that Norton's plates have "bubbles" to prove that they're made by blue-collar laborers, who are described as "honest, simple, hardworking" and "indigenous."
  • The third method to regain masculinity is chemical dependency and pill-popping. The major scene describing this method has the doctor, despite Norton's requests for more drugs, prescribing "good, natural sleep," which leads to the most interesting method.
  • 12-step programs, self-help groups, and new-age therapies of all kinds are implicated as not only failed remedies but as worsening the problem. In this framework, psychology is seen in terms of what it does to masculinity. The film's morality fascinates me in that my gut-reaction remedy to the loss of masculinity would be a "coming to terms with"/support oriented approach. It is these programs that are vilified as "touchy-feely" and therefore stepping further away from masculinity. Tyler Durden even goes so far as to say, "self-improvement is masturbation." In this light, self-improvement is self-destruction.
The film's remedy is two-fold. First, the famed fight club — a return to violence. Not out of aggression, but as a way of life. Aside from one instance, the violence has nothing to do with anger or destruction. Instead it is about control, strength, and endurance. There's a reconnection with the body, since all four previous remedies have distanced men from the body: pornography, the ultimate isolation from the body; upper-middle-class materialism and the distance from a proletariat work ethic; a chemical numbing of the body; and a self-help-centered devaluation of the body. These male relationships in the club illustrate the difference between violence and aggression. One of the foundational rules in the fight club is that when someone either goes limp, taps out, or says "stop," the fight stops. The ending point is not determined by the dominant figure so the fight is therefore not aggressive. No fight is motivated by hatred or revenge. It is a respect-centered masculinity.

The second string to the solution the film presents is the destruction of consumerism: first by Norton's destruction of his material-laden condo and then a move to a decrepit and defunct, nearly condemned home devoid of materialism, and then finally the destruction of credit debt and by extension the idea of credit — a finance that cannot be touched. This second string is merely an extension of the first.

Far less time and clarity is sacrificed to these two solutions and by no means do I believe they could be described as literal suggestions for this very real dilemma. The suggestion is based in metanym and designed assuredly to be more of a provocation than a prophecy.

The film's misogyny
Tyler Durden says, "We are a generation of men being raised by women." He continues with, "I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need." Obviously a Latter-day Saint would differ here, on the one hand, as central to our doctrine is a committed and eternal heterosexual relationship. Yet on the other hand, I'm tempted to agree within this framework.

Once the fight club has started, the first major shift in the film illustrates what kind of femininity the film is discussing. Helena Bonham Carter calls Norton during a "cry-for-help" suicide attempt, the epitome of an emotionally needy/ 'high-maintenance' femininity. This passive aggression is placed in opposition to the violence, which is non-aggression. The masculinity-restoring violence also cures, in the end, this emotional manipulation and passive aggression. If this is what the film means by "needing another woman," then I must agree that passive aggression isn't the answer. But regardless, the film is shortsighted and misogynistic. In this world, the man is still the possessor and the woman the possessed, the man is the hunter and the woman is the hunted, sexually and otherwise.

No matter what aspect of femininity the film is attacking (or 'curing'), it is essentially misogynistic because it is the only portrait of women in the entire film (that they are reduced to being sick with emotional neediness and can only be 'cured' by a male sexual administration). This reduction has obvious negative implications and is in direct opposition to our view of temporalness as well as eternity.

This view of femininity also reveals the film's view of masculinity. The primary expression of the ideal post-modernity (as opposed to post-modern) male-male relationship is non-aggressive violence. Part of my goal here is to reassert that this violence should be viewed largely as a symbolic gesture toward something greater. The primary expression of the ideal post-modernity, male-female relationship is aggressive sex — suggested by the tongue-in-cheek rubber gloves and Helena Bonham Carter's falling off the bed in the background. The sex here, it is suggested, requires the male to be dominant and the female to be submissive to the degree that she falls off the bed.

Norton's character is only able to please Helena Bonham Carter (likewise a definition of what it means to 'be a man') when he becomes Tyler Durden, i.e. as a fractured, misogynistic man. Edward Norton's character can only become intimate with her on an emotional level, however, when he destroys the part of him which could please her sexually. Here, sexual pleasure and emotional commitment cannot coexist (that is, of course, unless Norton's character has absorbed Brad Pitt by this point, therefore allowing simultaneously for emotional commitment and sexual fulfillment. But my reading is that the film actually knows nothing about emotional commitment). The point is that the depiction of femininity reveals much about the film's assumptions about masculinity.

However crass they may be, the film also comes with references to Lorena Bobbitt. This reference has less to do with pop culture than with a long string of phallus references (Tyler Durden peeing in the food, splicing in images of male genitalia into children's films — as well as into our film, threats of neutering, not to mention countless crude gestures and phrases referencing the phallus), only this reference focuses on the woman as the aggressor. Here femininity is the cause of the demasculinization. The rest of the film doesn't express this point of view, but this reference furthers the misogyny as well as revealing its view of masculinity.

I've written before on this blog against escapism and how it seems in complete opposition to an LDS view of the purpose of mortality. (This, again, is one reason missionaries are not allowed contact with any non-canonical media.) So of course I take great interest when a movie of this commercial magnitude takes a stance against escapism.

I would say that the lye scene is the strongest argument against escapism that I know of. It is likewise the clearest illustrations in art of any philosophy that I know of. The form, both in movement and stillness, exhibits such precision and clarity that I am tempted to label it with complete harmony between form and content. We see through this dazzling piece of filmmaking, never gratuitous, just one example of why David Fincher has so many aficionados. The scene, then, suggests that a lye burn (the required branding that declares that that individual has overcome escapism) is a vital step on the personal path toward manhood. In other words, to be a "man," you must wholly reject escapism, facing your problems rather than running from them. Again, if nothing else, we might do well to discuss this scene or some remnant of it at our priesthood activities. That facing the pain required of us is intrinsically linked to manhood, or priesthood, if you like, especially when founded on the pattern of our Savior who "did not shrink," and drank the cup the Father gave to him, seems pretty right to me.

However, as the scene progresses, it reveals a temptation that comes with this great power once we shed escapism: to forsake God. Rather, the philosophy is that either there is no God, or that God has immense disdain for man, or that man is God. (I will refrain from drawing any parallels between an LDS world view and the last option, as that is far too complex and troublesome a topic for me). But this fragmentation, by definition, is agnosticism rather than atheism. Yet the dialogue should stand as a warning on all three fronts, that this pursuit of 'manhood' has contained in it some very twisted heresies if we are not vary. And more and more those ideas become a slippery slope.* While this perspective does allow for profound connection between our forefathers and our Heavenly Father, its outgrowth is perverse. It seems clear to me that whoever penned the question 'if our fathers gave up, what makes us think God didn't?' may be sincere (and it maybe a question worth asking), but that person doesn't know the God mentioned in the Gospel according to John, or the God mentioned by Joseph Smith. Though we can learn from the sentiment, we should never forget the truth we have obtained.

Modernity, filled with place-lessness, alienation, and corporate dishonesty, has formed an image of masculinity that is rightfully questioned here. One scene shows Tyler Durden and Norton's character as they view advertisements for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger on a bus. They view the men's bare bodies and remark that they "feel sorry for guys packed into a gym." The statement adds extra weight as they are both more fit than the men on the advertisement. The models' fitness is bourgeois. The goal of Norton's and Durden's fitness is much more primal and pragmatic/holistic. They are prepared to assert and defend while having a need and Maslow-esque purpose. It's this distinction between consumerism and masculinity as well as the film's unique view of violence as non-aggression that gives us the proper frame work to understand their view of male historical figures or the history of masculinity.

Tyler Durden and Norton's character ask each other back and forth who they would choose to fight. Answers of authority figures, such as "my boss" and "my father," have hints of a challenge, true, but come more out of a need for connection with these figures. The protagonists desire to fight them out of respect and not disdain because they are only known in a modern and therefore completely disconnected world. This violence is essentially about respect and connection. The film's mentality is that violence brings male unity. In this context, we understand more the desire to share this violence with figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. All three figures are great minds and important leaders or artists, but the last gives us the greatest insight: Fight Club is just as much about the non-violence Gandhi championed as it is about broken noses.

Brad Pitt in Fight Club

There are obvious differences between an LDS world view and Fight Club's world view. Definitions of hedonism might be the biggest distinction. However it takes as its central topic masculinity (something LDS scholars have taken specific interest in. I believe that BYU professors are the most predominant if not the only writers for journals on men's studies in the United States.) Likewise, the film rejects pornography, consumerism, chemical dependency (though the protagonists still frequent bars), and 12-step programs, all of which in one way or another have made their way into modern definitions of manhood. This alone should cause Latter-day Saints to take note. However, it is what lies beyond the metaphor of violence that intrigues me most, that there is something in the relationship between men that, through modernity, we have lost. That the key to unlocking that secret element might be in the separation between violence and aggression does not seem so outlandish to me.

I wouldn't suggest watching the film as a priesthood quorum, but I do think that if the ideas and dilemmas as well as the possibility for solutions were digested by members of our priesthood quorums, I think that each of us might be more ready and able to function in our priesthood quorums. It does seem to me that we might be more service oriented as well as being more prepared to lead if we reconsider what it means to be a man.

Obviously, I don't agree, and we can't agree, wholeheartedly with the film's definition of what it means to be a man, and certainly there is no room in our families or in our church for the misogyny alluded to, but our definitions of both might do well to be challenged by these positions.


*Also worth noting is that in the film's vocabulary, the 12-step programs had replaced church. The film's protagonists are coming from a place where pop-psychology programs are the meetings which have replaced worship of God.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A little note of interest on Bresson

So there was a screening here on the 30th I just found out about of Bresson's 'A Man Escaped' maybe the greatest of his films, and maybe the greatest of films period. I regretted not knowing about it as I would have done everything to attend a screening of a film version as I've only seen it on VHS (though Artificial Eye just released a copy I'll eventually pick up).

Imagine how devastated I was to find that the film was shown in correlation with a more than hour long discussion with Bresson's widow who was also his 2 A.D.

It kind of helped that no one else from the university attended, but they all knew about it, and just didn't care.

I'm sure it was more complicated that, but still. I wanted to gripe.

Monday, June 2, 2008

By way of disclosure...

I guess I should mention that I've posted twice thus far about movie related issues on my friend Dennis' Blog Thinking in a Marrow Bone. The first was on the MPAA, and the second is simply a list of French Language films I would recommend to the readership of that blog.