Jolie Hales’s Latter-Day Fake and the elusiveness of Mormonism.
It is with a certain degree of reticence that one examines a student short film with the intention of extracting profundity from its cluster of amateurish sights and sounds. This is not to say that student films cannot strive for and achieve a professional feel, but rather that they are, by definition, primarily a learning experience. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not one is reaching for global box-office dollars or simply trying to make the grade, all films — no matter their length, scope, budget, or aesthetics — share one unassailable goal: To be seen. Miss Hales’s film has begun to realize that very simple ambition, as evidenced by being pronounced the winner of a recent silver student Emmy for comedy at the College Television Awards. In addition to comedy, her film has also received accolades recognizing its family-friendliness and even redemptive plotline. And since there is talk that Miss Hales will be adapting this project for a feature, it seems relevant to review the ideological foundations in this, the model-home phase.
In the space of a mere twenty-six minutes, Latter-Day Fake manages to follow the travails of Jack (Jackson Davis), a non-Mormon filmmaker who finds himself in need of a mere twenty-thousand dollars in order to complete his labor of love — a slasher flick called “Crushkiller.” After discovering the existence of a grant for Mormon artists, Jack does what any sensible artist would do: He pretends to be what he is not in order to get the money. With the help of his African-American roommate/producer and a copy of “Mormonism for Dummies,” Jack puts his plan into motion. However, when he discovers himself pitted against a beautiful young Mormon photographer named Molly (Elizabeth Chomko) for the prize, he must ultimately choose between art and integrity.
It is an admittedly ambitious project to fit a non-contextualized redemption story into less than a half an hour of screen time (one observer noted that it was really “a feature film story in short film clothing”). From the outset, the film compares to other LDS fare such as The Single’s Ward (Kurt Hale, 2002) or Suits on the Loose (Rodney Henson, 2005) in its reliance on situational humor which pokes and prods at Mormon culture. However, the element in Hales’s project which makes it noteworthy is not the subject matter so much as the perspective from which it is supposedly viewed — that of a non-Mormon.
Hales (who also served as the film’s writer) puts an interesting twist into the arena of Mormon romantic-comedy (Mormantic comedy? Romantic Mormomedy? Moromcomonism?) by making her oddball decidedly non-LDS. This is a riskier choice than meets the eye in that it purports to show the viewer not what we look like to ourselves, but what we look like to others. It is also a break from most traditional LDS films and conceptually, Hales’s approach is as clever as it is simple. Rather than make the Mormons the weirdos, Hales gives that function to the non-Mormon Jack. His attempts to “be Mormon” are so literally by-the-book that he comes across as being not only out of touch with Mormonism, but in comparison to Molly and the bishop, out of touch with reality altogether. In one scene, he lies to the bishop (Patrick O’Connor) about being from Utah which prompts the bishop to remark about possible acquaintances to his wife’s family. Jack innocently inquires how many wives the bishop has and the bishop laughs at Jack’s presumed sense of humor.
Unfortunately, it is at this point where Hales pulls the conceptual rug out from under herself. The bishop’s suspicious lackey Langston (Ashley Clark), in what reads as an over-magnification of some sort of calling along the lines of ward clerk, indignantly informs Jack — and more importantly, any viewer who still associates mainstream Mormons with polygamy — that the church discontinued the practice in 1890. It seems a harmless enough way to let the uninformed in on the joke, albeit after the fact, except that Langston comes across as just as much of a pariah as Jack. When Jack meets Molly for the first time outside the bishop’s office, Langston questions the bishop’s wisdom in trusting Jack. The very simple, plot-driven reason for this is to provide the story with something to raise the stakes. Langston has caught Jack’s true scent, as it were, with the intended result being that Jack must be more devout — and therefore ridiculous — than ever to fool the vigilance of Langston.
Were this the only scene in which this is the case, the eventual interpretation might not be so adversely effected. However, as Jack’s behavior is understandable given his circumstances and ignorance, Langston’s escalates for seemingly no reason beyond that of simply satisfying the plot device. As Jack and Molly wax coy in the park, Langston spies on them with binoculars from behind a distant tree. Later, after Jack’s roommate Troy (Keith Arthur Bolden) aids in the grand deception by hiding all of his beer in several empty jugs of ginger ale, Langston not only reaches in the window and steals one from the windowsill but takes an incriminating picture of Molly as she is about to take a sip (Jack saves her — and his scam — in the nick of time). Finally, in the climax, Langston storms into the awards banquet with a slide projector for the picture and the ginger ale bottle full of beer as “evidence” not that Molly is simply in violation of breaking the Word of Wisdom, but that she is, in fact, not Mormon at all. In light of this evidence, the bishop looks gravely at Molly and asks her for an explanation. It is at this point that Jack fesses up, sacrificing the future of his chef d’ouevre in favor of doing the right thing.
None of this is necessarily troubling at first as it serves the plot’s need for a climactic catalyst to force Jack into making a decision. What is troubling is not what one sees but what one doesn’t see. While the bishop shows grave concern over Molly’s supposed actions, at no point does he (or anyone else for that matter) call Langston’s conduct in obtaining the evidence into question, even as it becomes readily apparent that he used clandestine and deviant means to do so. The spying in the park; the invasion of privacy; the theft of “ginger ale”; the photographing of people in the home; and finally, the humiliating of them in public… the film remains utterly indifferent to all of these behaviors. The result is that Mormons and Mormonism are emphatically abnormal, the former because of their actions, and the latter because of its reaction (or lack thereof). Mormons are not nearly as normal as the film wants you to believe because Langston’s aberrancy is not viewed with any singularity. We are, in fact, far stranger than the guy who is pretending to be us, not because of heterodoxy, but because of comportment.
The significance of the Langston character is given even greater weight by the fact that the execution of the film’s concept relies solely on defining what Mormonism isn’t, but never on what it is. As discussed earlier, Jack quickly learns that the bishop only has one wife (i.e., Mormons are not polygamists). Then later, Jack finds himself nonplussed at the discovery that Molly is actually from Chicago (i.e., being Mormon does not mean that you are categorically from Utah). And yet again, when Jack and Molly enjoy a bike ride through the park, she tactfully informs him that his missionary attire is probably overdoing things a bit (i.e., Mormons aren’t a bunch of stuffed-shirt prigs). Jack even visits the bishop in an “I can’t — I’m Mormon” t-shirt. Thus the film strips away several celebrated misconceptions about Mormons, but does so without ever revealing an underlying core. This is problematic as audiences never embark into a story in search of what isn’t. Hence, the audience is forced to search for meaning within a vacuum. Thus, the Langston/Molly dichotomy proves to be completely vaporous as both characters serve to debilitate the film’s true intentions together: Molly — against the canvas of Jack — tells us what Mormonism isn’t, while Langston — against the canvas of the bishop/everyone — tells us what Mormonism is.
Another example of the film’s focus on Mormonism’s shadow instead of it’s substance is in the film’s treatment of Jack and Molly’s respective art projects. The film begins as a play within a play as the audience watches a tense scene from Jack’s film in which a two-timing couple is saved from being cleaved to death by a camera malfunction. From the get-go, Jack’s art is not only seen, but experienced. It cannot go without notice, however, that his project exists in a genre that — aside from pornography — is probably the most abhorrent to Mormon culture. Jack proves this when the bishop questions him about the project and Jack replies by pitching a story about a young Mormon who falls in love with a girl only to discover that she’s an alien (note that despite his ignorance about Mormonism and Mormon culture, he pitches a romantic comedy rather than a religious film). In this literal worthiness interview with the bishop, we are given the balance of Jack’s soul via his artwork. Since his current project is patently unnacceptable, he fabricates a different one in order to fashion himself according to a more presumably acceptable Mormon standard. Thus, the film establishes the need to redeem Jack’s soul via his film.
Of course, Molly eventually forgives Jack his trespass, fulfilling her role as gatekeeper to his moral resolution. But even in this scene, Mormonism is conspicuously absent. When Molly is originally introduced as Jack’s only competition, she reveals herself to be a photographer. But not only is her photography never seen, it is not even described. When Jack penitently seeks to amend their friendship at the end, Molly is shown taking pictures in the park, though from such an oblique angle that, once again, the subject of her art remains unknown. Furthermore, she extends an olive branch to Jack by abandoning her immaterial project in favor of instead making a movie with him; the romantic comedy he pitched to the bishop. Symbolically, Jack becomes a Mormon by virtue of his salvation from artistic damnation and commitment to the now true path of what was his fabricated worthiness. But the art of actual Mormonism remains utterly shapeless. While Jack’s ignobility is given shape, whatever may be exemplary about Molly’s art, and therefore ultimately her Mormonism, remains chimerical. Molly is free to abandon her project for the simple reason that it never existed in the first place.
In order to be fair, there is a final element that must be examined in order to determine the validity of the above assertions, and that is whether or not Molly in any way presents a face for “normal Mormonism.” She does, after all, serve the dual function of being not only Jack’s conscience, but also the catalyst for his transformative arc. She is what leading ladies in LDS films tend to be: inviting, playful, and most importantly, immaculate. This is why when she confesses to Jack that she doesn’t date much because she became tired of too many guys pretending to be what they were not, we accept this as truth rather than merely her side of the story. Jack is simply the next in a long line of men who have not allegedly, but incontrovertibly attempted variations on the same dishonest theme. However, the third act turning point contradicts this necessary setup when Molly goes in search of the bathroom and all of Jack’s compromising “non-Mormonism” comes literally spilling out of the closet. This scene is bedrock romantic comedy. Yet as the scope of the betrayal registers in Molly’s reaction, the warm and inviting light which has empowered her throughout the film is replaced with a harsh blue key light, giving her a grim and unforgiving look. The contrast is accentuated by the reverse shot in which the culpable Jack is given a much warmer light. The audience already knows that Jack’s remorse is sincere, but this choice further diverts audience sympathy away from Molly. Thus, the true victim is the relatively misunderstood non-Mormon in light of the Mormon’s certain judgment. In the moment of absolute truth, we are encouraged to sympathize with his lie rather than with her truth. On a fundamental level, the audience instinctively knows that it should sympathize with Molly, but those instincts are suppressed by this bewildering presentation. When Jack tries to follow Molly and explain, she decks him, which while humorous, makes her not only the judge, but the executioner of that judgment as well.
Remember that this contention would probably be rendered completely moot were it not for the fact that the audience has been conditioned at this point to seek out what Mormonism is as a result of the film telling them what it is not. Therefore, what may seem like over-analysis at this point is rather justified as one begins to dissect increasingly trivial details in search of the very thing the film would have them seek.
It surely seems somewhat unfair or perhaps even cruel to direct such a pointed criticism at a student. The lighting disparities alone could come down the practical matter of equipment availability, a concern of no small regard in student film communities everywhere. The counterargument to that is that Jolie Hales displays the talent and moxy of a filmmaker, and has been recognized within filmmaking circles as such, endeavors to be such, and therefore deserves respectful consideration as such. She has compiled a body of work that, given her youth, is nothing short of staggering by any measure. The possibility exists — and as of this writing, is rumored to have been set in motion — that she will adapt this story into the feature that it conceptually deserves to be. This criticism is therefore given in the cautionary hope that her future projects will escape the glib trappings that have plagued the Mormon cinema movement since its inception; not because she is a student, but because she is seen. The success of Mormon cinema, as it is shaped by filmmakers like Jolie Hales, is most likely to be founded less upon technical expertise and artistic ambition than it is upon conceptual quality and ideological soundness. Here’s hoping that the films they end up building upon the rock are more than model homes.