Tuesday, September 23, 2008

LDS Audience Improvement

I have a question. It may be an old question, but I think it bears repeating. I suppose I'm asking this in tandem with this post from A Motley Vision. My scope is narrower as a result of being specific to this blog's audience. The assumption I'm basing my question on is that Latter-day Saints tend to view cinema in largely the same that the world presents it. We may or may not be more discriminating in what we will partake of, but we generally go for the same things in terms of what motivates us to see a movie and what reasons we give for thinking it worthwhile. We, as a people, tend to consider film watching a pastime - a break from the other parts of our lives. We go see movies for fun or for something to do and we think we had a worthwhile experience when the movie was exciting, we laughed a lot, there were cool special effects, the acting was good, we cried, there was some moral lesson, the company was enjoyable, and/or suchlike. I know there are strong opinions otherwise held by some who read this blog, but I'm speaking generally. This is my basic assumption.

It seems to me that a lot of thoughtful LDS filmmakers would like to change the way audiences approach the viewing experience. There is an apparent disconnect between the intentions of those who make the films and those who view them. My question is this: should this disparity be resolved and, if so, how? How can the LDS audience be improved?

We talk a lot about improving the art and the artists, but it seems to me that neither will flourish as readily without an equally improved audience. With whom does the onus for changing the perceptions of the audience lie? It is, in my opinion, a necessarily gradual process, but I was hoping we could have a discussion about that and what you all think can be done.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Art in the Midst of Artifice

I ran across a video on YouTube that I absolutely loved. It was a performance by Paul Potts of one of the most beautiful songs I know, Nessun Dorma. True it was on Brittain's Got Talent, a show of the type that I have a general disdain for, and true, the sweeping camera moves were mightily distracting, but the beauty of the music combined with the humility of the singer (both in background and in character) was overwhelming. It was filled with light. It was art.

I have marveled since at how powerfully that light penetrated my being. I have heard this song outside of the context of its opera before, but the last time it was sung by a man who, in my interactions with him that day, was arrogant, impatient, and condescending. To me, that tarnished the experience. Plus, the performance had a "look how amazing I am" tone to it. Mr. Potts never approached that attitude, although I have found such shows as the one that featured him to nurture the vice. His singing was service. It edified both him and the audience and they rejoiced together. He didn't do it (at least discernibly) for the attention.

I mentioned the camera moves. They were terrible. But the performance maintained its purity in spite of them. It also fended off the general clutter of YouTube, including an adjacent thumbnail ad for a video featuring topless photos of a well known celebrity. I normally find such things so offensive that I don't allow them any presence on my computer screen, but in this case it and all the other distractions were eclipsed by the purity (I'll use the word again) of the performance.

Perhaps it was a spiritual connection that I needed at the time, but it came back when I showed the video to my wife and children hours later. I originally came across it quite by accident, as I don't normally peruse YouTube. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Whatever it was, the experience is altering and improving, I hope, my ideas about art. I experienced how a single, unintentional, perhaps even unconscious element of a production can connect so powerfully with an audience that everything calculated and conditioned falls into insignificance. That element becomes art and the rest is just trappings. The art represents the soul of the artist as expressed through his art. It opens the spiritual channel that we've discussed here before. This reminds me of the mission I served, where I was taught that my imperfections as a messenger could be brought to naught through spiritual communication. Born of sincerity, this connection is, to my mind, wrought more by the tools that build character than the tools that build a film, or a vocal performance, or any other thing perceptible to the five senses. I wonder if we can't take a lesson from Mr. Potts' example of humility and apply it to our making and viewing of film.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Field of Dreams

It's been a while since I've posted. So, I thought that while Trevor is occupied I would continue my discussion of spiritual lessons that I'm learning from the cinema.

The spiritual implications of Field of Dreams have probably been discussed quite a bit, but I can't help but mention a few important principles that I'm learning from the film. First, the film obviously addresses personal revelation--that an individual can receive personalized spiritual direction from God. One of the scenes that I like most is when Ray discusses a spiritual prompting he has received with his wife, who is (understandably) skeptical. But having both shared the same dream the previous night, the husband and wife receive a mutual confirmation of the importance of this prompting. This shared spiritual confirmation and the immediate show of support that follows, I think, offers a powerful lesson in the process of spiritually-directed, family decision-making.

I also appreciate the representation of heaven as situated in rural Iowa. Not only does it echo the doctrine of a celestialized earth, but also it implies the need for us to work to prepare our earth to receive its paradisical glory--If we build it, He will come.

And lastly, I love that as Ray follows the promptings to build a field for Shoeless Joe, ease Terrence Mann's pain, and allow Doc Graham to live his dream, he is given the opportunity to-- with his family--become reconciled with his estranged Father. As he follows the Spirit and serves others, his own salvation is made possible. I find that very profound.

So, I will continue sharing some of the things that I'm learning from films, but I would love to hear about your experiences as well. Are there films that have offered you spiritual insights that you'd care to share? Maybe we can learn together.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mormonization of the Modern Fairy Tale

Certain activities in my life have led me to take interest in a company called RHI Entertainment (formerly Hallmark Entertainment), that produces, distributes, and licenses long form television content. One of RHI's fairly recent releases is a reinterpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of OZ called Tin Man.

I read a review of Tin Man that got me thinking.

The author (Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune) said, speaking of L. Frank Baum, "It’s almost as if the writer was planning ahead, not just for his own series of sequels, but for the latter-day artists and writers who’ve found endless creative possibilities in the realm of Oz."

After listing some other Oz interpretations and briefly mentioning the film's central themes, she continues, "
Sure, those well-worn concepts are not the most original starting points for stories, but those themes have endured for generations because they resonate not just with kids but with everyone who’s ever felt like an outcast."

So this got me thinking about how frequently people try to reinvent "classic" stories and try to turn them into blockbusters, social commentary, or whatever else they have in mind. RHI, for example, has films in its archives that give new interpretations to stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver's Travels, Snow White, Jason and the Argonauts, etc....

But we also see this in Mormon films too. Pride and Prejudice and Beauty and the Beast are the two that spring most immediately to my mind, but even classic Mormon stories like Johnny Lingo have already seen remakes. Plus there are a whole host of LDS films that take scriptural stories as their themes.

I'm wondering why it is that this is so popular, especially with the fairy tales and classic literature. Does this come from an impulse to claim mainstream but potentially meaningful works as our own, as seems to have been done with the writings of CS Lewis and others? I know some people who seem to look at the Narnia movies as church-sanctioned productions (this may be only a slight exaggeration). On the other side of that, are we sometimes trying to make our ideas seem compatible with mainstream lore, and therefore culture? Do we simply want to rearrange the tales so that they can be seen from what we consider to be an ideal LDS perspective (in order either to use them as teaching tools or to justify embracing what we might otherwise not)? If so, are we uncomfortable with or unwilling to consider them from other perspectives, not obviously LDS? If so, does that indicate an attachment to the natural man (the aforementioned desire to embrace the world's culture by ignoring its incompatibility with our perception of gospel culture)?

I realize that not all of the questions above apply to every classic story (or even all of the ones I've listed) and that my list of questions is not complete, but I'm not supposed to say everything there is to say on a topic. I'm interested in your thoughts on the place of fairy tales and classic literature in LDS filmmaking. What do you think?