Monday, November 24, 2008

Of What Fold Are We?

Let me be upfront about this. This post is not intended as a condemnation, condescension, or any other con you can think of towards anything. It's an honest thought with a question attached. Please read it in that light.

I've been wondering. We hear a lot from the brethren and from members of the Church in general about media as the showcase of wickedness. We hear from a lot of producers of LDS films (and other arts) about their good intentions. We hear a lot about film and how good ones challenge us. We also probably say a lot about these things. I know I do.

There's a constant banter about ratings, standards, and other measures for determining what is good to consume and what should be avoided and under what circumstances. Some want rock-solid statements by which to judge every time. Some want the kind of flexibility that takes each work individually as it comes. Both have good arguments. We all want to know how we should approach what's out there and how much of it we should let in here and how to get our product out there in an appropriate fashion.

My questions are these: why are we so eager to partake of (and sometimes emulate) the world's every offering? When we readily admit that popular films in general are getting more edgy, when we acknowledge that the people who make them do not share our standards, when we even suspect some of them of having unholy agendas, why do we rush to see what kind of fare they have created? I am not implying that there is no good answer to these questions. There may well be one or more good reasons to do this. I can see cases on either side. But I ask the question because I think it is legitimate. When we have prophetic counsel to be very guarded in what influences to allow in our lives, can we go long without asking these or similar questions?

It may be a testament to the value neutral nature of artistic and technical knowledge that some of our best and brightest are seeking education at the same institutions that train some of those who would make things even worse and calling their learning excellent. It may be a deterrent to maintenance of a spiritual perspective on film. It may be an attempt to raise the bar or bridge a gap for LDS cinema. It may verify the claim that truth, wherever it lies, should be sought out. It may describe a need: namely, a supply of high caliber, LDS or LDS-values-friendly film schools.

Perhaps one reason we are struggling to improve LDS cinema is that we are learning primarily from Gospel-incompatible sources. If so, perhaps something should be done to change that.

That's what I've been wondering about. What do you think?


Th. said...


I think we as artists are failing our people. We do not provide consumers of every taste and temperament with what they need.

And while I would never argue that we must build walls between ourselves and the world, and I would argue that there will always be work of merit for us to find on The Other Side, I do think we have an obligation to at least offer to meet all the Saints' artistic needs.

(Unrelated: when is Trevor coming back?)

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Thank you, Th., both for your comment and for putting up with the dominance of my comparatively small-minded voice on this blog (compared to Trevor's). You're not the only one who misses him. In answer to your question...well, I'm not sure how much of an answer Trevor would want me to give. He will be back, but when he is, it may not be here. Right now he's so swamped with film school and other responsibilities that he simply hasn't time for blogging. Something is (or was, a couple of months ago) in the works to relocate the discussions here. I haven't been able to get an e-mail response out of him for a while, so I can't be more specific than that, although I do know a bit more.

In response to your comment, I agree with your stance, but how do we determine what those artistic needs are? Are current offerings in LDS film meeting any of them? If not, is that why the industry is struggling?

I want to use a recent Sunday School discussion to make a similar point. In it, I heard an incessant vilification of television as the purveyor of immorality. The same is often said of film. I spoke up and mentioned President Hinckley's comment that television, or "that most remarkable all tools of communication" could enrich our lives. Then someone commented on the imperative that general conference and BYU devotionals be made available via television. I observed that people don't learn vice from the media by watching talks on how to be vicious. They learn it by example.

If we want to use film to reinforce virtue, we have to do it by providing examples of virtue, not by filming sermons only. They don't have to be didactic. The most insidious evil in some films is so bad precisely because it is not obvious. Too many films lose their audience because they beat it over the head with piety. But I submit that we need these examples in abundance, if not overbearance, in order to make an impact on a large scale. What do you think?

Th. said...


I think making art selfishly (stick with me here) is the answer. If we make the art we need, it will find the others who have the same need. Or so I hope.

Anonymous said...

I think making art selfishly is the answer.

Welcome to my Randiverse, Th. You just uttered the Magic and Sacred word.

Pardon, Adam and Th. I did take a teensy bit of this discussion back over to AMV because I thought it was pertinent.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps one reason we are struggling to improve LDS cinema is that we are learning primarily from Gospel-incompatible sources. If so, perhaps something should be done to change that.

I guess my question (to clarify for myself) is: What are you trying to learn about filmmaking? Technique or thematic elements?

For instance, I love a lot of what Baz Luhrmann does in terms of camera and parody and sheer silliness. I'm thinking of Strictly Ballroom in this particular instance. It IS choppy storytelling and I've said to more than a few people, "Just hang with it the first 10 minutes and I promise you won't be sorry." The fact that I have to say that is at once a testament to the difference in style and my willingness to be confused for 10 minutes because I wanted to see a dance film (for which I am a sucker).

On the other hand, it did amazingly well for an a) foreign film with b) arthouse sensibilities.

Yet the use of the fisheye lens, the ridiculous, the parody of the ridiculous--brilliant.

Another example is something along the lines of The Blair Witch Project, with herky jerky camera work and pseudo-documentary juxtaposed with classic horror devices. That's a technique, not a theme.

My third example is Pulp Fiction which story begins at the end and makes a complete circle with seemingly unrelated storylines. Or Kill Bill, with both its homage to every martial arts film ever made, but without mockery. It's clear he loves the genre and treats it in an almost "sweet" manner. But I'm partial to Quentin, so pardon the fangirlishness.

So I'm wondering what it is that you're trying to learn from non-gospel sources that can't be translated to gospel sources with no muss, no fuss?

On the other hand, I doubt such oddball techniques would go well with a largely LDS viewing audience, which doesn't seem to like something that's not straightforward.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


It does feel more genuine that way, doesn't it? I guess it's the same problem we have with member-missionary work: we bake a pie to create an opportunity for a gospel conversation, not because the person we care about needs a pie or because we need the spiritual benefits of giving.


I've been struggling with how to respond to your question. I appreciate that because it's helping me refine the ideas I'm trying to express here.

I guess it's that so much of the "learning" we do comes in the form of imitating what we see in the world. We try to replicate the things we admire - the cool shots, the special effects, the moods, editing styles, and plot structures, etc. - rather than tap into our own creativity. It's the same comment I made on AMV a second ago - it's about restoration instead of reformation.

I believe that many non-LDS artists are inspired and I love their work. I learn from it personally. But as an artist myself - as a filmmaker - when I try to recreate what I've seen on screen I find that I'm trying to be someone I'm not.

That's not to say that there's no value in learning techniques and "tricks of the trade" from others, but we have to put them together in new ways in order to find our unique voice. We also have to come up with new ones of our own. We can't be limited in our imagination by what the artists - even the great artists - of the world (or the Church) have said and done.

I think I've said it here before, (on my Napoleon Dynamite Post) that I think LDS cinema should be a non-genre. That is, it should be so unique and diverse that it really can't be lumped together thematically or stylistically. God speaks to each of us according to our understanding, and I think we should speak with as unique a voice. We can't learn that voice from others.

Unknown said...

anyone get that email asking to take a survey on some supposed upcoming lds television series?

i got the email, but deleted it. now i can't find it.