Richard Dutcher and LDS Film (Part 3)

Link to Part 4 of Richard Dutcher’s interview with Mormon Stories and my comments below:

Segment 4:  States of Grace, Falling, and Evil Angel

*  Dutcher mentions the strong aversion from using the cross (either on chapels or as items of jewelry) within the LDS church.  This is certainly true today, but we should note that this is actually a fairly modern change within LDS culture.

As a recent research article shows, 19th century Mormons used the cross quite regularly, before abandoning it in the 20th century, primarily in the era of President David O. McKay.  (See also this article).  I agree with Dutcher that the seeming “demonization” of the cross in many corners of LDS culture creates an obstacle for inter-faith relationships that doesn’t necessarily need to be there.

*  The LDS idea that a missionary coming home in a coffin is better than coming home “disgraced” or “dishonored” is a clear theme within States of Grace (see my review here for more discussion).  Dutcher considers the idea “ridiculous”, which is certainly defensible — however, this segment is immediately followed by Dutcher and Dan Wotherspoon discussing their admiration for the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi tribe within the Book of Mormon (another story with key parallels in States of Grace).

Isn’t the irony obvious here?  You’ll recall that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis (or people of Ammon) buried their weapons of war and made a covenant not to fight again.  Later, they were attacked by their enemies and … wait for it … decided they would rather die than “disgrace themselves” by breaking their covenant by shedding blood through battle.

I thought the idea of choosing death before dishonor or disgrace was “ridiculous”?  Does Dutcher believe the people of Ammon should have taken up their weapons again, and just “repented later”?  Does he believe that Carl — the repentant gang member who buries his own weapons in States of Grace — wouldn’t have been better off leaving his weapons buried, even if he ended up dying for it?

I wish Dan would have followed up on this apparent contradiction during the interview — when is it appropriate to choose death over “disgrace”, and when is it not?

Perhaps Dutcher’s comments were implicitly about sex?   That he wasn’t suggesting that “disgrace” should *always* be preferable to death in all circumstances, but that (in the specific segment of States of Grace involving Elder Farrell) that breaking the Law of Chastity should not be viewed as a big enough “disgrace” to attempt suicide over?

You can certainly argue (as I’m guessing Dutcher would) that the LDS emphasis on the Law of Chastity always being a sin next to murder in seriousness is a vast and dangerous overstatement, and that we need a more serious definition of “disgrace” to merit a preference for death more than simply “having sex with the woman next door”.

However, more serious definitions of “disgrace” are easy to suggest.  What if Carl had followed through on his attempted murder of the rival gang member?  What if his crusade had resulted in a death of an innocent bystander?

If one of Dutcher’s sons does decide to serve a mission one day, would he rather hear his son actively participated in the gang rape of a woman, for example, or that his son had died trying to defend that woman from her attackers?   (I know which one I’d prefer to hear about a missionary son of mine.)   Would he rather his son had stood up for what was right, or is his son still being alive (albeit in “disgrace”) the only important thing?   The fact that repentance is always an option through the Atonement doesn’t mean that missionaries (or their parents) would always be happier and more at peace being guilty of some genuine wickedness rather than having a clean conscience, even unto death.  Whether consensual sex is worthy of this disgrace is certainly debatable, but the idea that being guilty of any kind of conceivable evil behavior is still preferable to death is a stretch.

*I have not seen Falling, but Dutcher admits (and reviews seem to confirm) that the movie is fairly violent.  Dutcher describes how this is deliberate, and argues that raw violence can serve a fundamentally “moral” purpose.

As discussed in a previous post,  it’s certainly arguable that brutal, bloody, and gory depictions of violence can be more moral than ‘sanitized’ depictions of violence because (a) it’s more realistic to what violence is like in real life, and (b) it deliberately takes the “fun” and the “casualness” out of it.

Some people who are exposed to extreme movie violence may be desensitized to violence in real life, but for many others it may be the constant media exposure to fake, casual, unrealistic violence that may ironically desensitize viewers to the real horrors of war and violence.  Without making a broad statement about how “violence in movies is always good” it’s a fair question whether seeing real violence or fake violence in film will lead people to make more morally correct decisions in real life.

* Dutcher’s seemingly sincere belief that Falling was going to be an appropriate follow-up to God’s Army (according to his original plan) is probably the one part of this interview series that’s genuinely mystifying to me.

Again, I haven’t seen Falling, so I can’t comment directly on the actual film — however, based on what I know (and what Dutcher shares in this segment) the idea that the LDS community was going to embrace what was obviously going to be a hard-R-rated movie (whether it had been originally filmed immediately after God’s Army or not) with profanity, violence, and nudity, and get a positive response is kind of mind-blowing.

Dutcher has shared he was idealistic about the future of LDS cinema at first, but this takes “idealism” to a whole new level to think that after constantly complaining about PSV material from “godless” Hollywood studio movies, LDS audiences would suddenly accept it from Dutcher simply because he was (at the time) active LDS and his movies included spiritual LDS themes.  Sorry, not buying it.

If anything, the controversy about including LDS ordinances within the PG-rated God’s Army would have been a immediate wake-up call that Dutcher’s ideas of what the LDS community was going to accept needed some revising.  Granted, Dutcher’s actual follow-up (Brigham City) turned about to be somewhat violent and challenging (…for a PG-13 film), but I think it’s obvious that even while Dutcher says Falling was a movie he “had to make” regardless of box office, it was destined from the beginning NOT to be a ‘hit’ within the LDS community regardless of when it was released.

* On the same subject, this is the billboard for Falling that appeared in Utah when it had its one week release in Salt Lake City early in 2008:

Now, I don’t know whether this was Dutcher’s idea, or someone else’s, but this has got to be one of worst ideas for an advertisement I’ve ever seen.

For one, its claim is categorically false:  Former-LDS writer/director Neil Labute has already made several R-rated films with identifiable Mormon themes that fit the description of “R-rated Mormon Movie” just as much as Dutcher’s film.

And even if Falling was pioneering in this way, who is this advertisement trying to attract?   The “R-rated” part is going to scare away most Mormon viewers, and the “Mormon” part is going to scare away most non-LDS viewers.   Sure, many LDS do watch R-rated movies, but the ad doesn’t give any reason to see the film *other* than it is R-rated, as if that is its primary selling point.  (Mormons who watch R-rated movies have plenty of options to choose from for R-rated material, thank you very much…)

All things considered, it’s not too surprising when Dutcher mentions that Falling ran in theaters for a week and “no one wanted to see it”.  (See this BCC thread discussing the advertisement as well…)

* I haven’t seen Evil Angel either, but I found it interesting that Dutcher said he made Evil Angel in part because he wanted to make “a film that people actually wanted to see”.

Interesting, only because within LDS cinema Dutcher had seemed to steadfastly avoid making films that LDS audiences would “want to see” — “crowd-pleasers”, if you will.  His attitude seemed to be “these are the films you *should* want to see, and if you don’t like it, that’s all you’re going to get from me…”.

I like Dutcher’s LDS films, of course, but while it’s obvious he wished his Church-oriented films had better reception (and bigger box office) from LDS audiences, it’s never seemed like he spent a lot of effort trying to discover and then meet what the average LDS movie-goer was looking for in a movie.  (Example (again): Falling as a follow-up to God’s Army?  Really?)

  • Paul

    I have to agree with the commentator at this point, though, I’m not sure what we should expect from an interview by Dan Wotherspoon. Wotherspoon’s style belies his underlying assumption that his near-faithless approach to the Mormon Experience is the only rationale one. He speaks to his interviewees as if they espouse the same point of view and avoids difficult questions about faith as if somehow you could sanitize the spiritual experience out of Mormonism.

    Of course, Dan tends to interview people who have either left the Church (like Dutcher) or who look at the Church and its members from the outside of the stained glass window (non-Mormon LDS scholars). So, it is possible that he is merely trying to convince them that they are being interviewed by a sympathizer.

    What I really appreciate about Dan, however, is that through his interviews I get to hear from some very interesting people that nobody else would have taken time to listen to at length.

    With regards to the billboards for Falling, I find it regrettable that Dutcher, or his agents, really felt they could succeed at anything other than offending the people he publicly renounced by putting up such a billboard. Cynically, I think it was a failed PR stunt aimed at provoking a response outside of the LDS Community in hopes of raising awareness about his film. It smacks of desperation by a PR firm that understands little about the practicing LDS Community.

    Dutcher seems to want us to be interested in his personal apostasy (which, this film clearly nods to) as if those of us who still hold to their faith, or those who may be wavering, might find his story more relevant than the limitless number of other films of existential angst.

    I really miss Richard’s leadership in the Mormon Film genre and, as a brother, I wish him well. I am hopeful that one day he will make a movie about someone who rediscovers faith they thought they had lost forever, especially if it is his autobiography.