An exploration of the ideological inconsistencies in the writing of Kurt Hale’s The Singles Ward.
(Note: This work is strictly a critical commentary on the film The Singles Ward. No consideration was taken for aspects outside of the work itself, and anything read as such is unintentional.)
In 2002, director Kurt Hale and writer John Moyer created what was essentially the first “Mormon” comedy, a light-hearted romance entitled The Singles Ward. The purpose of this commentary is to examine how the proposed ‘moral of the story’ seems to be contradicted by the filmmaking aesthetics and how that contradiction affects the viewer.
The film follows burgeoning stand-up comic Jonathan Jordan (played with wry charisma by Will Swenson), a returned missionary whose recent divorce has left him slightly embittered toward the church. While seeking solace in inactivity, Jonathan soon discovers that efforts to reactivate him are unremitting, culminating with a call from the local activities director Cammie (Connie Young). After some initial rudeness, followed by the genre-required electric banter, Jonathan and Cammie begin dating. Due to the firmness of Cammie’s convictions, Jonathan is forced to examine the true motivation behind his rediscovered faith. In the end, Jonathan once again embraces activity within the church, even though he must wait for Cammie to complete her mission in order to court her, thus proving his true commitment to the gospel and not simply a girl.
The importance of the internal vs. external examination of this film is made crucial by the fact that the film itself intentionally blurs the boundary. From the first moments of the film, Jonathan breaks through the fourth wall and acknowledges the audience. Much like Matt Damon’s character in John Dahl’s 1998 cult poker film Rounders, Jonathan addresses the audience as if he’s putting his arm around them and letting them in on something they don’t know. Whether it’s the voice-over explaining that his desirability is like a Pinto with a gas leak or simply talking to the camera while in a lunch line, Jonathan knows we’re there and he quite literally invites us into his film. And while the writer’s device can be sourced by examining such successful comedies as Ferris Buhler’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) or Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977), the execution is flawed as the film attempts a moralizing conclusion.
The film’s final act exposes a seemingly crucial paradox that ultimately renders the “message” moot (which I will explore further on in this piece). The paradox exists in the polarization of the film’s diegetic and non-diegetic elements. To clarify, something is diegetic when it exists within the world of the film, while something is non-diegetic if it exists without. The best (and original) example of this is in the usage of music. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielburg, 1989), Dr. Jones discovers that his room has been ransacked and goes to inform his companion Dr. Elsa Schneider. As Elsa leaves her room, she turns off the phonograph and the music that has been playing stops. The music in question is diegetic, or part of the world within the film. The characters can hear it. It’s a part of their world. The Raider’s March, composed by John Williams, however, is non-diegetic. When Indy gathers the resolve to climb up onto the tank in a later scene and thrash several Nazis, at no time is he aware of the triumphant music accompanying him. It exists outside of the world within the film.
While the project of The Singles Ward is to create a family-friendly comedy by poking fun at LDS culture (a feat which it does rather harmlessly), it is the execution of the film that deserves scrutiny. The diegetic/non-diegetic barrier is one that, once crossed, automatically and by definition changes the piece into a form of absurdism by destroying the illusion of reality. By calling attention to the artifice, the filmmakers inescapably undermine any conclusion drawn by the story because they have fundamentally absolved the audience of suspending their disbelief. In other words, if Indy suddenly stopped to look around and see where the orchestra was that was playing the Raider’s March, it would shock us viewers completely out of the moment.
This is why most films that blur the fourth wall either avoid drawing moral conclusions altogether (like in Ferris Buhler) or embrace the inherent absurdism for the sake of their message (Annie Hall). Joseph Heller’s powerful play We Bombed in New Haven begins breaking the fourth wall early on when the actor playing Henderson openly admits to the audience that he’s an actor and that the whole show isn’t real. However, after other characters begin disappearing – “killed in action” according to the characters who remain safely back at the base – Henderson seeks to undermine the diegesis by going back stage in search of the actors who played the now-deceased characters. Of course, as the play goes on, he can’t find them. As his own scripted death nears, the actor playing Henderson becomes paranoid that he’s actually – non-diegetically – going to be killed and tries to back, not out of the mission, but out of the show, only to be shot and killed in a display that is supposed to make the audience believe that the actual actor playing Henderson, rather than the character, has been killed. Heller shatters the fourth wall in an attempt to disturb the audience into sensing something of the reality and senselessness of war.
Note, however, that this diegetic/non-diegetic contradiction is not uncommon in film. In Jurassic Park (Spielburg, 1993), the story’s conflict is brought about by the intrusion of technology into nature, and ultimately, nature responds by destroying the technology and eating the men who made it. The irony, of course, is that cutting-edge technology is what made the film possible in the first place, with CG giving life to dinosaurs and more importantly, theater-goers (almost a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales). Diegetically, technology is bad, nigh evil. Non-diegetically, technology is good, nigh worth a few sequels. Action films often feature a hero who racks up a gigantic body count in an effort to put an end to violence. Diegesis: Violence took the hero’s family and made him a hardened man, which is bad. Non-diegesis: Violence is spectacle that puts people in theaters, which is good.
And so it is that we come to the examination of the contradictory ideologies at work within The Singles Ward. Within the world of the film, Jonathan is a man plagued by inconsistency. His marriage having failed, he lashes out at the church with comedic cynicism, and by recognizing the audience, invites us all to share in acknowledging the foibles of our religious culture. In fact, as inactives go, Jonathan seems rather mundane. He still maintains the dress and grooming standards of a returned missionary. He still eschews Word-of-Wisdom-violating substances and abusive language. He still maintains very friendly relations with his active neighbors who happen to be the film’s comedic foils. In fact, his commitment to inactivity – which the general authorities would have us believe is no laughing matter – is a source of humor as we watch Jonathan unblock MTV from his cable subscription and rent an unedited version of Newsies. From a purely academic standpoint, this would probably qualify as “inactivity lite.”
But the heroine requires nothing short of full commitment to the Lord, a standard that we can all surely appreciate. However, the manifestation of her ire comes in such a manner as to undermine the entire project of the film. The scene in question occurs when Jonathan does his standup routine in front of an audience made up of largely non-Mormon peers. Cammie slips into the back and watches as Jonathan’s tepid act falters, then storms out in shock as he revives the audience with a slew of jokes about Mormonism. The irony, of course, is that while Cammie demands that Jonathan take the church more seriously (read: stop telling jokes about Mormons), the entire film is doing just that… laughing at Mormonism.
Part two of this examination will explore Hale’s directorial choices in light of trying to remain inoffensive to an almost exclusively Mormon audience. However, because of this concern, Jonathan’s jokes are tempered to be largely harmless. At no point does he make light of sacred ordinances, the temple, church leaders – really anything that Mormons have been counselled to reverence. No, just like the film itself, he makes fun of Mormon culture. “I did a Mormon version of an X-rated movie,” Jonathan says to his chuckling audience. “There was no sex, just all guilt.” Cammie’s diegetic outrage must seem extreme since the filmmakers non-diegetically tailored Jonathan’s jokes to specifically be inoffensive to Mormon audiences. In other words, if Jonathan’s jokes had truly been offensive, they wouldn’t have been in the movie. Meanwhile, in referencing the entirety of the film, even Seattle Post-Intelligence movie critic William Arnold admitted that “there’s all kinds of self-deprecating humor about all sorts of sensitive issues.” Because Jonathan breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, he becomes linked with the non-diegetic commentary. Therefore, if Jonathan is offensive to Cammie (members), so is the film.
At this point, one might argue that Cammie’s response does not derive from Jonathan’s jokes specifically as it does from his laissez-faire attitude about the gospel. This is a very forgiving approach, but one that is not supported by the film’s visual text. By the time Cammie issues her rebuke, the audience has spent over an hour laughing at Mormon culture. But the blurred fourth wall offers no distinction between jokes told by Jonathan and those told by the filmmakers. Cammie’s ire is sparked specifically by Jonathan’s segue from non-Mormon jokes to Mormon jokes. The only way one could convincingly argue that the message of the film concerns Jonathan’s attitude rather than his specific jokes, would be to conclude that the audience feels just as guilty about laughing at Mormon culture as Jonathan does, i.e., we feel the sting of Cammie’s rebuke. However, when he begins to search his soul for the proper conviction in response to Cammie’s catalytic admonition, unlike during the film’s comedic moments, Jonathan no longer acknowledges the audience. In contrast, one need look no farther than Allen’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall, wherein neurotic Alvie Singer (played by Allen) breaks the fourth wall in both comedic and tragic scenes, thus embracing the absurdism that propels his message about the inherent dysfunction of relationships. Jonathan, on the other hand, excludes the audience from his catharsis. We are not meant to experience it with him because we are expected to keep laughing.
Hence, the contradiction. Jonathan’s final address to the audience comes when, as the reactivated, remarried Elder’s Quorum President (a calling good-naturedly mocked throughout the film), he soberly informs the viewing audience that he made the right choice, presumably that of committing whole-heartedly to the church. The proof? He’s no longer laughing; no longer telling jokes. This is followed by punk versions of hymns playing over a closing credits sequence that allows us to laugh at each significant character in the film.
So, what is the message? To laugh or not to laugh? It would seem that even jokes about the foibles of Mormon living will preclude one from ‘getting the girl.’ And in a film whose very title emphasizes marital status, it’s clear that the priority is ‘getting the girl.’ And yet, it’s almost certain that the movie’s goal is not to make its money back with a heart-warming message, but by serving up as many “Momon” jokes as possible in 101 minutes. Diegesis: laughing at ourselves is light-minded and causes us to take the church for granted, which is bad. Non-diegesis: laughing at ourselves is healthy and helps us remember what’s truly important in the gospel, which is good.
Said Moyer, “We’re approaching our religion with the utmost reverence, but we’re also shining a pretty hot light on our culture.” One could argue that Halestorm’s attempt was to please the audience with humor and deliver an important message about humor at the same time. That may well be, but one cannot escape the ideological dichotomy in that message. In a world where public whim and adolescent aspiration turn on the unpredictable and the innocuous, no slice of cinema offered up for public consumption is exempted from review, no matter how modest its intentions. Jaws (Spielburg, 1975) didn’t intend to become a box office smash, invent the phenomenon known as the “blockbuster,” and usher in the practice of targeting lavishly produced summer fare at teenagers, but we still hold it accountable for doing just that. In this sense, the pen is truly mightier than the sword, even though in the case of The Singles Ward, that pen is double-edged.
(Part one of this series examined the ideological discrepancies in the film’s writing. Part two will seek to evaluate the effectiveness of the directorial choices and determine whether or not they contributed to the inconsistencies already described. All quotes are sourced and are available upon request.)