Dutcher bows out

So father of Mormon cinema Richard Dutcher has gone public with his disaffection from the LDS church and the Mormon audience. And, of course, godfather of Mormon cinema Kieth Merrill can’t help but respond. This repeats pretty much the re-enacts the same drama as last fall when Dutcher and Chris Heimerdinger got into it. I’ll let others decide whether this one or the previous one is/was the tragedy or the farce.

I suppose it’s good to see Utah’s newspapers actually having relevance to the world of Mormon arts and culture. And it is by no means surprising that this latest dust-up has caused a flurry of discussions in the various nodes of Mormon cultural discourse. And yet one can’t help but wonder if those of us who care about Mormon arts are getting the best spokespersons for this duel. I mean think about it. Combine America’s bizarre celebrity culture with auter theory, the high-financial stakes of film, the Mormon emphasis on personal revelation and individual achievement, all that talk about Miltons and Shakespeares, and strong, charismatic males (so far it seems to only be males) and wrap those into the most emotionally-manipulating of all arts forms and no wonder you have Dutcher comparing himself to Oliver Cowdery and Merrill prophesying Dutcher’s future career. With all the egos involved (and how the express themselves) one is tempted to tell all LDS filmmakers, including Dutcher and Merrill, to let us know when they’ve created something powerful, well-crafted, sophisticated and capable of connecting with at least a portion of the Mormon audience. One also wonders if perhaps Mormon film shouldn’t be more communal.

Of course, I would remind AMV’s readers again that I have no credibility on this subject because a) I’m just a blogger and b) my boycott of Mormon film continues and my direct knowledge of the field is limited to the church films I saw in seminary and the MTC and “New York Doll.”

And by no means am I uninterested in the discussions the great Mormon filmstreit of 2006-07 sparks. There’s a lot to talk about.

However, Dutcher leaving (sort of) the fold has already brought up in some quarters the question of can great Mormon artists be faithful (for a given definition of faithful) latter-day saints. Or a perhaps a better formulation — can the believing LDS community produce great art?

And, of coure, Mormons of all ideological interests have their answers to that question and can throw down all sorts of factors, trends, examples, counter-examples and assertions to prove to back up their positions. And most of the time we want it to be so because deep down all of us want Mormon art to prove something about our beliefs (or disbeliefs) about Mormonism. As I’ve said before, this is only natural. We aren’t the only religious/ethnic/nationalist community to act in this manner. We’re anxiogenic. Most non-dominant (and these days most withou the qualifier) communities are, especially when it comes to art.

But this question of can is ultimately frustrating because the truth is none of us know. True artistic greatness is a very rare, very individual thing that takes many forms, arises in many different ways and is often not even recognized until way after the fact. Sometime it isn’t even published.

The question isn’t can. The question isn’t really even greatness. I don’t see any reason why faithful Mormons can’t be just as mediocre as anybody out there or why disaffected Mormons can’t produce mediocre art that is of value to faithful Mormons. Nothing wrong with mediocrity — it’s where most of us live at. It’s what our current culture (Mormon, American, etc.) seems best at producing. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

The question isn’t can — it’s who, why, how and where (where meaning the finding of an audience and the publishing, distribution and marketing that goes along with that [although I wonder if the where doesn’t get in the way]). The problem with asking can is that there’s a yes or no answer to that question, and it’s a question that can only be definitively answered after the fact.


Who is creating Mormon art? Why are you creating it? How are you creating it? And where are you going to find an audience?

UPDATE: Kieth Merrill apologizes

UPDATE II, 4.19.07: Richard Dutcher’s Farewell Part II (at BCC)

17 thoughts on “Dutcher bows out”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hasn’t bothered to watch much LDS cinema. (I didn’t even see the two movies at the old Hotel Utah because I already knew what I’d think of them. So I saved be annoying to everyone I would have gone with)

    New York Doll was fantastic though.

    I don’t think most LDS cinema I have seen is that bad, although it’s definitely not my cup of tea. It’s just targeting a mainstream audience and doesn’t aim that high. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not the kind of film I like.

    Now if someone could make the LDS equivalent of Indiana Jones then I’d get excited about LDS cinema.

  2. Clark have you seen Saints and Soldiers?

    I decided recently that I’d like to dive into photography more. As in, make a living off of it. I never really thought of it much beyond a hobby until I rewatched one of my favorite documentaries, Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides. He’s an artist who works with found objects, and his stuff just blows me away. I realized as I listened to him talk about his work that it’s the same way I feel about photography. He talks about exploring a place and coming to understand it through his art, and I can relate to that. I’d love to be able to capture the feeling certain places evoke in me and share it with others.

  3. Yeah, I unfortunately did see Saints and Soldiers after hearing so much good about it. Ugh. Maybe at 1/3 its length it would have been good. Very, very slow pacing. I wasn’t expecting Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, but dang that wasn’t good. It was impressive how much they good for so little money. (My friend worked on the film and had told me about it)

  4. How I wish we had people who would make points like Dutcher’s from the inside. This just goes further toward reinforcing the critic=apostate stereotype. Sigh.

  5. *sigh* You’d think he’d at least be able to spell Martin Scorsese right in an official release….

    In any case, I fail to see why bowing out of “Mormon” cinema means one must bow out of being a Mormon.

    Furthermore, to me there’s a vast difference between the Church itself making films that are meant to communicate the beliefs and doctrines, and somebody who is a member of the Church creating their personal art. The latter doesn’t have to be about Mormons in any sense – the very fact that the beliefs are held by the artist will shape the film and its context to somedegree. After all, Scorsese’s Catholic background certainly infiltrates his films, yet so few of his films are specifically concerned with Catholicism, even indirectly. However, realizing and understanding his background gives new light to the concept of redemption – or the lack thereof – in a film like GoodFellas.

  6. And Merrill’s response is just as bad, if not worse (and he also misspells Scorsese!). The Departed is great cinema, and has a moral conviction within the bloodshed. You may need some heavy surgical gloves to find it, but it’s there – just like in all of Scorsese’s pictures.

    This whole situation would be quite laughable if it wasn’t also so pathetic.

  7. Any time I’m engaged in a discussion about film with your average joe, only rarely are my education and experience in media respected as being remotely authoritative on the subject. Aside from politics, art is perhaps the only field in which everyone fancies him or herself an expert. Everyone seems to know better than the President, Congress, the Supreme Court and on down the line, and art is really no different. Certainly, we are entitled to our opinions, but we don’t seem so willing to criticize brain surgeons or civil engineers as we do artists. And unlike lawyers or educators (whom we criticize because of poor results), we tend to criticize artists for not doing things the way we would, regardless of results; for not creating the art we would if we only had the time, money, or opportunity. For not meeting our standard. For not serving our opinion. Second-guessing an artist, particularly a filmmaker, is as easy as second-guessing Neville Chamberlain.

    My personal opinion is that there are flaws in the approach both brother Dutcher and brother Merrill have taken to this issue, but the greater issue is that there is an argument at all. I never thought I’d see the day where I quoted Al Sharpton, but once something is defined, it’s confined. It would seem that in regards to Mormon cinema, the only thing everyone can agree on is that it somehow involves Mormons. I don’t know that it needs to be more defined than that. I don’t see why Mormon cinema can’t have its comedies and its Legacies; its milk and its meat; its hits and its misses. The moment we decide what Mormon cinema should and should not be, it’s no longer art. It becomes a movement. And the common denominator in all movements is that they end.

    If there’s room in our church for all people, and room in our beliefs for all truth, why would there not be room in our cinema for all stories? Perhaps it is because, just as we like some people more than others and obey certain truths over others, we take our artistic opinions to be expert. I don’t believe Mormon cinema needs a definition. I believe it needs humility. But admittedly, that’s just my opinion.

  8. Friends,

    I’ve just posted a reply to some of the speculation that has surrounded my article in The Daily Herald. It’s at bycommonconsent.com It’s comment #77 under the Vehicle of God’s Grace essay.

    Please have a look and pass it on to AML list, etc.

    Richard Dutcher

  9. Stop being constantly brilliant, Eric. You make me look ignorant in comparison. :p

  10. Actually, I almost ended that post by suggesting that there was room in Mormon cinema for both illusionism and realism (since I now know the difference), so the pot seems to be calling the kettle black! Still, I think I’ll pass the “brillian” comment along to my wife… that oughta humble me right back where I belong.

  11. I’ll also, in the future, attempt to spell “brilliant” correctly.

  12. I don’t think the question if “great Mormon artists be faithful latter-day saints” is relevant to Dutcher leaving the LDS Church.

    After reading his public statement and other posts he has written on various blogs I truly believe that his decision to move onto new plateaus has more to do with his personal prayers and spiritual journey than his movie making.

    I am not Dutcher so I can’t elaborate on what experiences have led him to his current feelings about the Church, but I believe we are too quick to point the finger at film-making as the cause.

    I think it’s easy and perhaps strengthens our faith if we tell ourselves that Dutcher left the Church because he tampered with the “dark side” of film-making. This enables us not to actually consider that someone could naturally come to the decision that the Church isn’t right for them. It prevents us from having to examine our faith and testimony.

    To me, that is exactly what Merrill did in his first response. He attempted to convince everyone that Dutcher’s motivation for leaving is anger, jealousy, and pride. That way we could LDS artist led astray by the “ways of the world.”

    There are many in the Church that find their spiritual journey taking them away from the Church from natural cirumstances and not sin or falling into the worldy trap. It just so happens that this time it involves a public figure who has made LDS themed films.

  13. I agree, Drew.

    I also think the converse question isn’t really all that interesting or relevant i.e. can faithful LDS be great Mormon artists.

  14. I think Dutcher’s comments on his love for Irish beer might be telling. I’m only guessing, but enlightened hedonism can make a church that valorizes blanching at caffeine seem pretty weak as a belief system.

    Maybe he’s not quitting because of his past movies but because of his future movies. It’s hard to portray the dark side of Mormonism while still a member. Doesn’t even have to focus on the dark side either – just a balanced portrayal of the real LDS struggle would be a step forward.

    Subjects could include homosexuality, disowning of apostates or just an authentic lifelong struggle to believe. Could be real Shakespearean in scope if you didn’t have to end (as Dutcher did in God’s Army) with a crippled boy being healed by missionaries. Maybe he can now come clean and tell us that scene was made under pressure from the church.

  15. dutcher’s newest film “falling” has a rated-r red-band trailer. check it out. http://www.fallingmovie.com

    from what i’ve read over at sunstone, its another mormon movie, albeit a rated r mormon movie. is that an oxymoron? rated-r mormon movie?

    didn’t he leave the mormon church? i like your line of though DavidB.

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