Friday, November 28, 2008

Not Very Good, but Who Cares?

I guess someone was bound to post on this movie here eventually. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing it yet, but that's part of why I'm writing this now. Everyone I've talked to about Twilight and many comments I've read have all had the same thing to say: the movie wasn't that great, but people liked it anyway. And not just teenage people. I've heard strong positives from elderly women and middle-aged men as well.

What an interesting phenomenon for a movie - especially one with strong Mormon ties! A lot of people have argued that poor production values have been a major downfall of LDS cinema. While Twilight may not fall under narrower definitions of that term, it certainly has a place in the history of the movement, and it may be a significant one. Regardless of how well the film or its characters or the book it's based on represent Mormonism, its doctrines, or its adherents, this is a film about a debut book by an obscure Mormon author who, in a startlingly short time, was transformed into a popular sensation. This film defies the idea that a person needs the most expensive, the most experienced, and the best of everything to reach a whole herd of people - to make it in spectacular fashion. This seems to me to be a very Christian idea - the weak and simple, as it were. Almost all I hear about this movie is 'the special effects were lousy, the acting wasn't great, and there were a host of other flaws, but I loved it.' So here's the question: why? What makes this film's flaws so ultimately forgivable?

And here's another: if Twilight can have such influence without superior acting, technical excellence, or a huge budget, how much do these things matter? How does this change our perspective on where the LDS film movement should go? Do we all want the kind of exposure that Stephenie Meyer has gotten? It's interesting that, as far as I know, the majority of the attention generated by the movie is turning to her - the author of the books. Some of it is bound to fall on the Church and other Mormon artists.

So what do you need to make an influential movie? A story with a good soul? A flock of teenage hyper-fans? Or do you just need vampires?


Schmetterling said...

I would hope, though, that LDS Cinema would seek to set standards heretofore unknown. A large part of the problem with modern movies &c. is that people love garbage, so media moguls cater to that love. If LDS Cinema is going to lift and inspire, I think it requires a higher degree of quality. I agree that this quality doesn't have to come from deep pockets, but it's gotta come from somewhere. Twilight gets its appeal from its sensational--even sensual--themes. The Gospel offers no such appeal.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I agree with you completely, but the question I was trying to pose (using a timely but perhaps rather poor example) was where does this quality come from? That may be a hard question to answer succinctly, but it's an essential one nevertheless.

Your comment reminds me of Gideon Burton's paper from the last LDSFF about what he called scopophilia and/or epistophilia as the flipside of voyeurism. In other words, people want to know by seeing. It's related to this whole concept of vicarious experience that we talk about so much with art, and it's not a base impulse of the kind catered to by the media moguls, as you rightly point out.

I think the quality we're looking for comes from a film's ability to get past merely occupying the mind to engaging it. Twilight may do that on a somewhat twisted or perverse level for many of its fans (depending on the person, of course), but how do we cultivate the ability to do it on a higher?

I think you also raise an issue that I deliberately avoided in my post (mostly because I wanted to see what discussion followed without it), which is popularity vs. propriety. In other words, we all know that financial success and positive reviews don't equal a good film or a worthy one. Nevertheless, financial viability and endorsement are important aspects of film making, whether you're looking for large profits or not.

Schmetterling said...

That is an interesting quandary: for a movie to make a far-reaching impact, it has to have a far-reaching audience; to acquire a far-reaching audience, it must appeal to a wide range of people; to appeal to a wide range of people, it has to have popular themes and ideas--but can such a movie be the sort of thing we're looking for?

I don't know.

If it can't, then perhaps the goals of an LDS Cinema ought to be aimed more toward a smaller audience, but that seems to me to defeat the purpose: if we only cater to the righteous few, really, what good can we do at all? But we certainly don't want to sacrifice truth or morals for appeal and accessibility.

Perhaps I'm making this more complicated than it ought to be. It occurs to me that I take an overtly fatalistic stance in assuming that society will holistically reject anything of real worth. So maybe this whole thing is a sort of non-issue? Perhaps the ideals of an LDS Cinema ought to be such that they disregard what is popular and hope that people somehow notice? And yet that seems to just go back to what I said above about catering to the elite few.

Well. I'm officially running in circles, so I'll just shut up now.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

"It occurs to me that I take an overtly fatalistic stance in assuming that society will holistically reject anything of real worth."

I'm personally of the opinion that people will choose things of real worth over mindless drivel and other spiritually damaging fare if they perceive them as legitimate alternatives. In order for that perception to be valid, however, the good stuff has to be not only as available as the bad, it has to be socially as or more acceptable. I don't think a lot of people really like the things that the popular media (I use that term stereotypically) says are popular. I think they just think they have to like it, so they convince themselves that they do.

To say it differently, I think people as a whole really prefer to experience spiritual growth, but they don't know how to do it or where to find it. They confuse spirituality with emotion and information with knowledge. They think fact equals truth and difficulty/discomfort/work are always harbingers of something to be avoided.

There are so many cultural and philosophical obstacles to the widespread adoption of the mindset that would make our kind of cinema popular, that we literally have to change the world to reach its people. This sounds a lot like your self-identified over-fatalism, but remember that I do believe people want this change. You just have to dig that desire out of them sometimes.

Maybe how to do that is the real issue in the way of LDS cinema. Maybe it has nothing to do with technical or artistic superiority - at least not yet.

It reminds me of the parable of the olive trees from D&C 101. The servants neglected to build their tower first, so they were driven out and had to overthrow the enemy's tower before they could establish their good works as effective. Certainly "Hollywood" and all its entourage can be viewed as a tower with armies in defense/assertion of the worldly cinema.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Thanks for getting a discussion started, Schmetterling.

Schmetterling said...

I think it's true that people generally prefer goodness over badness, but I'm not convinced that anyone looks for such things in movies--not generally speaking, at least. I think we've all come to believe that the best we can hope for from a trip to the theater is an escape from the stresses of our busy lives. Because movies are seen as no more than recreation, people don't look for movies to change them.

Books are very different in this regard: if you want a book that's nothing but mindless entertainment, no problem; if you want a book that is deep and profound, no problem; if you want a book that is educational, no problem. Books are far less limited in the effects they can go for. Movies can't really be like books in this regard because there are only so many theaters with so many screens, but bookshelves are almost limitless.

This brings to my mind, though, the YouTube revolution. Maybe YouTubey sorts of things is the place for LDS Cinema to get its start.

Schmetterling said...

Oh. And no problem: I don't know if I've commented since you started contributing; I figured it was about time.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

"I don't know if I've commented since you started contributing"

I'm not quite sure how to take that...

You may be on to something with YouTube, just look at Fit for the Kingdom. However, I think your comment about movies not being able to be like books overlooks home viewing options. You're right about the theaters, but most of a movie's money these days comes from DVD sales, doesn't it? I know some people who have plenty of bookshelves, but they're packed full with DVDs. That's an interesting phenomenon, isn't it, if you're right about people seeing nothing more in movies than escape.

As to that, we look for more, don't we? We can't be the only ones. I generally agree with you, though, about the masses. That's one of those cultural/philosophical obstacles I mentioned - perhaps the most significant.

"...people don't look for movies to change them."

And yet they often are changed, whether they know it or not. Hmmm...

Sun Swing said...

"In order for that perception to be valid, however, the good stuff has to be not only as available as the bad, it has to be socially as or more acceptable."

Just as timely as the Twilight discussion is some of the response to Prop. 8. Forgive me for bring up politics in a cinema blog, but the point is relevant. The defense that we as LDS have received from the Catholics, Protestants, and a host of other groups that also supported Prop. 8 in California, goes to show that yes there is a popular mass of potential movie goers that could find as much meaning and substance out of a "LDS" film as church members themselves would.

The wording that I've been using to focus my approach as I've given it a little more thought is "LDS Cinema for a general audience".

Unknown said...

don't know if this is the place or not, but i got this email asking me to take a survey of my thoughts on an lds television series.

anyone else get the email?

judas priest, i hope it isn't another halestorm project...

Schmetterling said...

Haven't heard a thing but, seriously, yeah--no more halestorm!