This is the second in a series of posts about applying the standards of the thirteenth Article of Faith to film, both as audiences and creators. Having begun in part one to explore the concept of virtue and what makes a virtuous film, I now continue to the next part of the standard: loveliness.
Loveliness can be defined as the quality of charming or exquisite beauty, and certainly many films can be said to have that. When Christan Vuissa’s The Errand of Angels came out, I remember hearing comments about how much the film was enhanced by the delightful Austrian setting. In fact, I heard it said that it is impossible to make a bad film in Austria because of the splendor of the surroundings. The gorgeous cinematography of T.C. Christensen has graced several institutional Church films, as well as many others. Indeed, his crisp, rich style has become something of a hallmark in the official films of the Church, and conveys the clarity of the message these productions are designed to communicate.
But loveliness goes beyond mere visual beauty, reaching into the realm of that which also appeals to the heart or mind. Moral and spiritual beauty also lie within this domain. As possessors of great blessings and heirs to the guidance of the Holy Ghost, LDS filmmakers would seem to have a special (though not exclusive, I am quick to add) dispensation for this kind of thing, and I have seen many touching examples. Yet for a period years not very long ago a general lack of loveliness (of any real depth) seemed to characterize the best known offerings. Halestorm chose cultural commentary over spiritual revelation, and in spite of Dutcher’s efforts, his increasingly gritty films largely alienated his audiences. Many adaptations of popular works of fiction or scripture were either misguided or unrefined. LDS moviegoers were encouraged to laugh at themselves (and each other), to appreciate their heritage, or to question their preconceptions, but rarely were they exposed through film to the true spiritual beauty of the Gospel.
What was missing, in my opinion, was a lack of deeply personal stories. It is in the inmost heart and the hidden corners of the mind that the Gospel has the most powerful impact, but our films have only occasionally originated there. We’ve looked for something inclusive – something universal – and have forgotten that it is most often found in the intensely individual.
Consider the success of New York Doll. I have yet to meet a person who was not touched by it, though I’m sure there are some. Yet I also don’t know of anyone but Arthur Kane who combines faithful service at a family history library with cross-dressing pre-punk rock. What story could be more individual? What character less accessible to the general public? But many have called New York Doll the first true Mormon crossover film, and hailed its spiritual sensitivity and beauty.
Loveliness is, above all things, a quality of the heart. Its banner is beauty, its soul is charity. It is that which imparts and inspires love – for self, others, God, creation. Because it also comes from the depths and heights of the soul, it is most often found in films that tell intimate stories on one end or the other. There is usually a bridge.
Much is made in modern films of starkness and brutal honesty, but that is a partial reality. Forasmuch as sharpness and reproof have a place, such should be followed by “an increase of love towards him whom thou has reproved” D&C 121:43. Although evil must be acknowledged, good must be also. Just as movies that dwell in too dark a cavern tend to offend and alienate, those that are all sunshine and roses feel empty and leave many wanting more.
Balance is needed. Films that have great love often also have great evil or fear. It is the well-used principle of opposition. The best and most impactful show both sides in their proper usage, and don’t draw artificial lines between them. In so doing, they are able to demonstrate the transcendence of the good without heavy-handedness. The real value and beauty of spirituality can then be seen, and the soul can be touched in redemptive ways. I do not know that we have had an LDS film yet that has gotten the balance quite right, although my viewership is by no means complete.
Here’s where the issue comes home to me: God is love. A film that is lovely, therefore, is godly. That means all-inclusive and utterly individual. It means comprehensive of dark and light (it is darkness that does not comprehend). It means charitable even towards the unlovable, incompatible with evil yet somehow forgiving of it, all powerful but not forceful, all knowing but not didactic. It means any or all of these things and more. But a film that is lovely is also the best that is human. It is conscious of its own limitations and ignorance. It acknowledges its low estate and in so doing seeks upward. It is imperfect, perhaps, but striving.
This might seem a little ostentatious or over-ambitious, and perhaps it is. Loveliness is difficult to grasp, but should we not desire the best? Can we not see these aspirations and seek after them?