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.