LDS Film Criticism (Part 2): The Role of “Criticism” in LDS Culture and Art

[Continued from Part 1]

When I was in the Stake Sunday School Presidency some years ago, our primary responsibility was to consult with ward presidencies on the question: ‘How can we improve teaching in the Church?’.

For a church that depends on effective teaching, the quality of teaching was (and is) decidedly mixed.   Without professional clergy, teachers are called from the pool of lay members — 99% of which have no training or teaching experience outside of Church callings.  As our presidency observed different Sunday School classes, we saw that the biggest problem wasn’t that teachers didn’t have testimonies of the material or adequate knowledge of the scriptures, but that they were unskilled in many of the practical matters associated with teaching:  lesson organization and preparation, guiding class discussion, and asking good questions.  Even minor things like talking in a clear enough voice so that members in the back row could hear were issues in some classrooms.

None of which are insurmountable problems, naturally — many teachers improve over time simply through the experience of teaching.   However, many do not, and remain mired in the same bad habits week after week — compounded by the second problem with teaching in the Church:  teachers receive virtually no constructive criticism from anyone other than themselves.

“Criticism” is a bad word within the Church, directly associated with “judgment” and “contention” and all the related condemnations from the Bible and Book of Mormon.  After a lesson (or sacrament talk), most LDS will give the teacher a generic “Good lesson!”, regardless of whether they genuinely thought it was or not.

Everyone wants to be supportive.  No one wants to be the one who offers some ostensibly constructive criticism that offends someone and causes them to leave and never come back.  Many members believe whole-heartedly (with support from statements from prophets and apostles) that if you didn’t like a lesson or sacrament talk, that’s *your* fault, not the speaker or teacher.  Taking this to the extreme, quality of teaching no longer matters — having good intentions and a testimony in your heart of the material is enough, apparently.

Naturally, this only serves to prevent any real improvement in the quality of lessons or sacrament talks.  When “good” lessons and “bad” lessons (however we define those terms) are treated as if they are equivalent, what incentive does the teacher have to improve? (Or even recognize areas for improvement?)  If teachers are allowed (if not implicitly encouraged) to bunker down and say, “I don’t need to ‘improve’ — whatever I teach is good enough and if students have a sub-par experience, that’s *their* fault.”, what incentive does the listener have to return week after week?

But…how do you offer criticism without — you know — criticizing something?  Even when “critics” go to great lengths to avoid personal criticism, critiques of someone’s effort will often be taken personally regardless.  And it’s one thing to criticize something that took a couple of hours to prepare (a talk or lesson) and quite another to criticize someone’s artistic output that may have taken months or years of their time to produce.  When a book, movie, play or other form of artistic expression represents a tremendous sacrifice of time, energy and focus by the artist — something that embodies their deepest passion in life — how can criticism NOT be taken personally at some level?

Again, everyone wants to be supportive and no one wants to be a spiritual stumbling block.   Everyone knows creating is hard, criticizing is easy.  How do we improve teaching (or art) without some concept of criticism?

Unfortunately, we can’t.  Criticism is necessary if improvement and progression is to be made — a necessary evil, perhaps, but necessary nonetheless.

The process of repentance, one of the key principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, inherently relies on “criticism”.  Self-criticism in the ideal — recognizing your own mistakes and vowing to do better — but where self-criticism is inadequate or absent, others may need to offer an outside perspective and suggest areas in which personal actions and attitudes may need to be reevaluated and improved.

When I was a teacher myself, had another Church member not been direct in telling me I wasn’t speaking loud enough for the back row to hear, I may not have ever known.   Many members would have just given me the “Good lesson!” boilerplate and moved on to the next class.  I could have been offended, I suppose, at the boldness of someone pointing out an area I could improve in — how dare they judge me as a teacher?   However, since improving as a teacher was a goal — after all, why spend all the time preparing the lesson in the first place if many people in the class were going to be unable to hear it? — objective criticism from someone was necessary to attain that goal.

LDS Film Criticism

Ten years ago, BYU graduate and prospective film critic Eric D. Snider worked locally for a Utah Valley newspaper and published a number of LDS film and theater reviews (most still available at his website).

Some of his more amusing articles are “Angry Letters”, letters or other correspondence he received when a local disagreed with one of his reviews.

There’s nothing strange about disagreeing with a review — opinions will vary regarding any film or play.  What’s fascinating about these letters is that they are almost never simply “I happen to have a different opinion”, but that Eric’s opinion and personal feelings were judged to be either (a) objectively and indisputably Wrong, or that (b) he shouldn’t be writing critical reviews of LDS productions at all.

A sampling:  Reviews “should make people want to see the shows” says one Angry Letter Writer.  Reviews should make the actors and participants in the show “feel good about themselves” says another.  Some suggest it is inappropriate to criticize a literary or dramatic work of art presented by worthy LDS Church members with good intentions. (“with one swipe of his self-righteous pen, he has lowered the morale of a group of sweet, hardworking people whose only crime was to try to entertain him”)  Criticism should “see beyond” issues with acting, writing or presentation and judge only the motives and intentions of the creators.  Some suggest it is inappropriate to criticize a literary or dramatic work that is “clean” — no profanity, sex, or violence — as if artistic quality is determined by what a film doesn’t contain rather than what it does.  Some accuse him of being “dishonest” with a negative review — as if he really, truly liked it in his heart and is deliberately lying about it (…for some reason).

As a writer, I can understand how this is both funny and sad at the same time.  Obviously, Eric publishes these responses to point out the absurdity of what many viewed the principle of “reviews” or “criticism” to be.  In a microcosm, his experience within the LDS theater/movie system exemplifies the same cultural LDS problem as criticizing sacrament talks or Sunday School lessons in the Church — it seemingly can’t (and shouldn’t) be done, because we should always be respectful and supportive of Church members in their artistic endeavors, regardless of the quality of their output.

Here’s the problem: this is TERRIBLY condescending to LDS artists.

By refusing to judge LDS films (or plays, or novels…) through any kind of objective (or even subjective) lens of criticism, we’re treating LDS filmmakers like a 5-year-old kid who made a home movie (“Oh, look, wittle Billy made a movie!  How cute!  Now run along now…”) instead of as serious filmmakers.  I believe LDS writers and directors want to be taken seriously as professional artists, and as such want to be judged the same as any equivalent artist anywhere else.

(Director Martin Scorcese has gotten plenty of bad reviews in his career, particularly early in his career — see Boxcar Bertha, for one.  Can anyone argue he didn’t learn from those early criticisms — probably agreed with a lot of them — and become a better filmmaker because of it?)

Treating LDS film criticism as somehow “inappropriate” or “unsupportive” — as if criticizing an LDS film is equivalent to criticizing the filmmaker’s testimony or eternal potential as a child of our Heavenly Father — serves only to mark LDS films as an immature art form unworthy of respect or attention.  And it prevents films from being analyzed and improved.  Like sacrament talks or Sunday School lessons, treating LDS films as if they are beyond criticism doesn’t actually make them better, nor push the industry in a positive direction — in fact, it is the opposite.

The solution is simple: accept “criticism” as a viable (and necessary) part of the artistic process.  That doesn’t mean all criticisms (or critics) are valid and should be accepted — they can be pondered and rejected as needed on an individual basis.  However, we should accept “criticism” as a principle,  a tool that works toward analyzing and improving any art form.

With teaching, we have individuals (teaching improvement coordinators in the past, Sunday School presidencies today) who are more-or-less called specifically to be “critics” of teachers, who should be working with teachers to improve teaching quality through positive criticism and feedback.

In film, filmmakers should have associates they trust to review scripts and shot sequences of film and provide honest feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.  That process is helpful and necessary to making a better finished product.  However, even critics who see the film after release and point out things the filmmaker could have done better (admittedly not too helpful after the film is finished) are still an important part of the “critical” process.   Obviously, it’s easier to criticize a film as an outsider than it is to have envisioned and created the film in the first place, but without “criticism” as an concept, even within LDS film, movies and filmmakers get stuck in a rut and eventually viewers will turn away.  LDS filmmakers need more than the boilerplate “Good movie!” pat-on-the-back response from LDS viewers in order to improve as a medium.

Next:  How to review an LDS film — what’s a fair criticism and what isn’t?

  • http://michaelknudsenauthor.com Michael Knudsen

    Excellent analysis. I’ve enjoyed Eric D. Snider’s reviews and humor for years, and he is unrelenting in exposing the type of condescension and hyporisy you describe. The thing about criticism in film is that eventually, you get it whether you’re looking for it or not. Many a project may be green-lighted based on “good intentions” or “righteous desires”, but producers are in for a rude awakening unless they subject themselves and their work to thorough professional and critical review in the pre-production stage. A case in point is the “Book of Mormon Movie” fiasco of a few years back. Did the writer/directer feel inspired and excited about what he was doing? Was he able to arrange financing based on the “worthiness” of his project? Was everyone involved certain that they were creating a great film? Did most members of the Church anticipate this film HOPING that it would be good? Yes to all of the above. Yet the film was an unmitigated critical and box office disaster. Why? I feel it’s because the creative entities involved thought that the nature of their subject matter alone was enough to make their work “good”, and they didn’t go as far as making sure they had enough experience, talent, and professionalism on board to do justice to that subject matter. In my view, it’s a form of pride (and not in the good sense) that leads us to embark on projects we aren’t quite prepared to do justice to.

    Like mother always told us, “if you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.” This can be discouraging, because it generally takes enormous amounts of capital to produce a decent feature film. Maybe our filmmakers need to exercise more patience, and not rush headlong into making a movie as soon as they can. Maybe they should hold out for the right script, the right people in front of and behind the camera, and the right funding to get it done right. I feel that LDS cinema is still in the pioneer stages in many ways, and that the best by far is yet to come.

  • Katya

    Many members believe whole-heartedly (with support from statements from prophets and apostles) that if you didn’t like a lesson or sacrament talk, that’s *your* fault, not the speaker or teacher. Taking this to the extreme, quality of teaching no longer matters — having good intentions and a testimony in your heart of the material is enough, apparently.

    This is very nicely put, and it’s a particularly damning situation for members like me, who generally don’t get much out of our church meetings, because we’re not only miserable for those three hours a week, we’re encouraged to blame ourselves for our misery.

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  • http://www.writeletters.net mark reynolds

    The biggest issue I have with public unions is that they have unfettered access to finance political campaigns that elect politicians who directly vote on their compensation packages. The only one left out of the negotiation is the tax payer who is stuck with the bill.

    I am OK with public unions ability to collectively bargain, but the idea that they can contribute to political campaigns is corruption at its worst.

  • http://mormonfilm.com Randy

    Great thoughts. I’ve tried to consistently point out the quote from “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” where President Kimball says that the great works of LDS filmmakers, the ones that will play in the theaters of the world in the tongues of the people, will be made by great artists and “PURIFIED BY THE BEST CRITICS.” And not only is that the last word he has on cinema, but it’s the only art form, I believe, about which he’s so explicit about the need for criticism. You’ve got to have that great critical culture before you can have the great artistic culture. (Which is one reason we added a discussion group for LDS film critics at the revised LDS Filmmakers’ Network http://www.ldsfilmmakersnetwork.com/groups/criticsscholarshistorians/.)

  • Mark Parker

    I’m definitely in favour of the views of professional critics, and it’s far better before the event if you are involved in the creative process and want to do something at a high level. I’m working on some different Book of Mormon based screenplays which are extreemly complicated in many respects.
    I can pay for and get very good screenplay analysis from Hollywood analysts. I can get similar analysis in Australia (where I live) though its more expensive. To my mind there is nothing more valuable than good honest critical analysis in the creative process. Sometimes its hard dealing with critisism but that is where the creative element needs to be applied so that the negitive can be turned into a positive, and it is very rewarding to then see the modified screenplays work better.
    A major studio would only invest the large budget required when the screenplays impress them sufficiently, and they predict a good return. So the bar is set very high indeed, and must be cleared pretty much on the first attempt. So when Spencer said ‘PURIFIED BY THE BEST CRITICS’ he is talking about something essential.
    Mark