Commentary: 2006 AML Conference

Captivated and engrossed in following the words of each speaker, I ended up taking very poor notes. I write, then, mostly from memory ““ apologies if I mischaracterize anything anyone said.

In a session on LDS film, Gideon Burton spoke of “sacramental cinema”. Comparing film to religion, Burton said that film is a vision, and not just a vision, but a moving one that has the power to satisfy spiritual appetites. Cinema, though secular, returns us to the sacramental mode, we are quiet together, laugh together, cry together and are moved together. Both film and religion offer the threat of death and the promise of love. Burton then claimed that the use of film as “sacramental cinema” has been effectively used by Richard Dutcher and pointed out examples of Dutcher’s use of the religious traditions of penance and devotion in film.

Though I fully agree with Burton, I find it interesting that this use of film as a sort of religious experience is, ironically, exactly what makes Mormons uncomfortable about the genre in the first place. We have, somehow, created a cultural barrier between the religious and the secular, and it seems we find any intersection between the two to be sacrilegious. But I think the notion of sacramental cinema that Burton describes is a valuable thing, and possibly the very thing that could bridge some of the many gulfs between the religious Mormon world and the secular one.

In the same session, Randy Astle provided a history of Mormon film and a thorough discussion of the sources for Mormon films, noting that most of them are adaptations of something previously written. He also spoke of the fact that Mormon film is so much more popular than Mormon fiction ““ something that I think reflects popular culture, but may be even more so among Mormon audiences. Everyone wants to turn their novel into a movie, but not many are getting excited about turning movies into novels. Astle is apparently preparing to write a book on the history of LDS film. Like his presentation, I think it will make a great reference source for all interested in the subject.

Margaret Blair Young showed a short documentary she had written and produced about the African-American experience in the church. Originally intended just as a promo for her historical fiction series on black pioneers, it was lengthened to create the short. Some footage is taken from the stage play about Jane Manning James, but most of the documentary is an uplifting discussion with three African-American young women who discuss having come to terms with being black in the church and their appreciation for the life of Jane Manning. I’d like to see the documentary short turned into a full”“length documentary about the life of Jane Manning James, as those who are not familiar with her life will probably be wondering a bit as to who this woman was that these girls admire so much. Margaret Young later predicted that, within a few decades, Jane Manning James would be the most well-known female pioneer. Thanks largely to Young herself, that very well may be true.

In a session on Mormon studies, I again found myself listening to Gideon Burton. Burton’s argument was that Mormon studies is a bigger and broader field than most of us realize. He mentioned the misconceptions that the study of Mormons is entirely historical and theological and that that Mormon studies were solely the work of Utah schools, pointing to strong collections of primary LDS texts at USC and other major universities. He also read off a substantial list of papers that were being written on subjects relating to Mormonism, subjects that varied from sociological studies to literary studies of The Book of Mormon. And these were all papers that had been published by people outside of Utah.

Finally, he spoke of the need for Mormon insiders and outsiders to value one another and their work instead of with suspicion. I do think we have not yet reached a time when Mormonism can be really studied for its own sake, without the fear or bias of it being produced to either defend or attack the church. Unfortunately, because of this, Mormon studies has the double stigma as being seen with suspicion by non-members as well as by very conservative members. I think blogs may be starting to break this down though. 🙂

Dennis Potter spoke of the image of Mormonism in popular culture, referring heavily to South Park episodes, particularly the episode which was all about the Mormons. Potter claimed that Mormons were portrayed in a hyper-positive manner in the media, as the innocent wholesome idealization of the American family. The claim then was that this representation was actually anti-Mormon because it denied Mormons in their natural state as fallible, normal people.

It was pointed out in comments that not all media depictions of Mormons are positive at all, that many are negative. I tend to agree that focusing on South Park, which has been rather uniquely vocal in its positive depiction of the church, isn’t the best representation for the media as whole. Even still, it’s an interesting situation. We generally like hyper-positive depictions, but there is a sense in which these depictions convey an idea that Mormon are pejoratively abnormal. I think that as Mormons become more public and more mainstream, both extremely positive and negative depictions will start to dwindle.

10 thoughts on “Commentary: 2006 AML Conference”

  1. Have you seen the new LDS movie, “The Return”? It was premiered at the LDS Film Festival this last Jan. 24. Now, there is some amazing Mormon ART. Can’t we enjoy an interpretation of LDS life without it being portrayed as perfect?  

    Posted by Laura T

  2. Thanks, Eric.

    Good point about Gideon Burton’s presentation on film and why some LDS aren’t comfortable with Dutcher’s brand of Mormon cinema.


    Regarding Mormon Studies, it would be fantastic if somebody published a yearly bibliography of works published/papers presented in Mormon Studies. I don’t know who that would be though, or where the funding for it would come from.

    Actually, perhaps the AML, MHA, SMPT, Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and Claremont and/or UVSC could put together a community-contributed, but tightly edited wiki.


    Posted by William Morris

  3. Okay, so we’ve got:
    Award for Poetry: Lance Larsen, In All their Animal Brilliance.
    Award for YA Fiction: Shannon Hale, The Princess Acadamy
    and Patricia Wiles, Funeral Home Evenings (tie).
    Award for History: Richard Bushman
    Award for Film: New York Doll
    Award for Criticism: A Motley Vision
    And a special award for Mike Allred’s graphic novel versions of the Book of Mormon, right?

    So, how about the other awards? Novel, short story, theater, etc. And the Marilyn Brown award. Please clue us in.

    Posted by Andrew Hall

  4. Andrew, here are all the awards I was quick enough to write down as announced:

    Award for the Novel: I believe it was Brandon Sanderson, for Elantris  , but someone else’s work was mentioned as a runner-up or honorable mention and unfortunately I didn’t catch it. Somebody help me out here, I was sitting at a table with a bunch of rabble rousers and missed a few names.

    Richard Bushman won the 2005 Award for Biography rather than history (sometimes the two are hard to tell apart).

    It was indeed Michael and Laura Allred who won the Special Award, for their graphic novel series, The Golden Plates.

    A first ever award called Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters went to Dean Hughes for his two series, Children of the Promise and Hearts of the Children.

    The Marilyn Brown Novel Awards runner-up: Don Marshall for Seeker. The winner was (forgive me if I don’t spell the name quite right) Ariane B. Cope for her novel, The Coming of Elijah.

    I believe I missed a couple. Maybe someone out there could fill in the gaps? Of course, we expect to provide a link to the AML website once the full list of awards is published.


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. Sounds like it was a really interesting conference!

    I have a couple of questions:

    First of all, what do you mean by “Mormon insiders and outsiders”? What’s a “Mormon outsider”?

    If you remember me, you can probably figure out my motivation for asking this ;-). I’m just wondering if you’re talking about people like me: non or former LDS who nonetheless write about Mormonism.

    If that’s what you mean, then as far as “the need for Mormon insiders and outsiders to value one another and their work instead of with suspicion” is concerned, I’m all for it!!! 😀

    In my column for next Thursday in the Utah Valley Monitor I was planning to review a set of LDS novels. Just some light fiction that I think you guys here might not even consider literature — not sure 😉 — but my discussion of it will be essentially positive. (not PGK’s novel — it hasn’t arrived yet.)

    Also, I have a question about the statement: “I do think we have not yet reached a time when Mormonism can be really studied for its own sake, without the fear or bias of it being produced to either defend or attack the church.”

    My question is: “Why not?”

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  6. Laura T.,

    I haven’t seen The Return. But I do think Mormon filmmakers have done a fairly good job of avoiding hyper-positive depictions. Granted, they’ve almost all been largely positive, but the vast majority show members who are growing or struggling with something. Even the Halestorm ones.

    The problem is with non-Mormon depictions of Mormons. But I think it’s getting better.


    If UVSC ever get their Mormon Studies program up and running, they just might be the ones to do it. But yes, it would be nice to see something like that.

    Andrew and PGK,

    I don’t remember any of them. Sorry.


    Outsiders was in reference to non-members who wrote academically about Mormonism, but knew little to nothing about Mormon culture, and have had limited contact with real live Mormons. I suppose a former Mormon night be somewhere in between the insider-outsider distinction.

    As for “why not,” well, that’s kind of just the way it is. Many non-Mormon students of Mormonism tend to believe that anything published by a member will be positively biased or apologetic, while some very conservative members have a certain distrust of all academic Mormon studies, whether it’s being published by members or non-members. Dennis Potter, who currently heads the small Mormon Studies division at UVSC mentioned that they are struggling to turn Mormon Studies into an official minor because of UVSC’s conservative Mormon board. I’m not saying that objective work in Mormon studies isn’t being done, I’m just saying there’s still that perception among various groups.

    Posted by Eric Russell

  7. My brother is an executive of the John Whitmer Historical Association, and he has told me that the association is composed of active Mormons (including a BYU prof, I think), former Mormons (like my brother), and researchers who have never been LDS. I understand that it is a serious academic society that promotes respected research about Mormonism.

    (I have all of this info second-hand from my brother, but I think it is correct.)

    You may be right that such research isn’t taken as seriously as it might be, but I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely.

    Posted by C. L. Hanson

  8. I don’t think either Eric or Gideon was dismissing it, C.L.

    Indeed, it is with such organizations like the John Whitmer Historical Assoc. and the AML, MHA, etc. where some of the best work is being done.

    The point is that in wider academic circles, Mormon Studies is not as well-developed — in terms of respect, funding and amount of work being published — as it should be and one of the major issues is the prejudices of some of the parties who should be most interested in it. 

    Posted by William Morris

  9. Laura:

    What is “The Return” about? Is it about an RM?

    I actually have a short story that I’m working on again called “Return” that’s about a recent RM.

  10. The Return.
    Directed by Michael T. Amundsen, written/produced by Tracy Garner. Formerly titled “Sixty”. Go-getter, judgemental RM gets in an accident, goes out-of-body, makes a request to return to teach his fallen mother, is given 60 days. Eventually gains new priorities. Amundsen has been an editor for several feature films and documentaries, and worked on several Church videos in the late 70s/early 80s. It is Garner’s first work, although he is older. Stars Javen Tanner (LDS stage actor from NYC, was at BYU in 98-00, is an associate artistic director of The Handcart Company) and Tavya Patch. Budget: $320,000. LDS Film Festival, Jan. 2006. Well received there. Deseret News review (Hardy): “Possibly one of the most popular at the LDS Film Festival . . . full of unexpected twists and turns and an unpredictable surprise ending.”
    Looking for a distributor. Began a month-long run in Hurricane, UT, in Feb 2006.  

    Posted by Andrew Hall

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