Film: Napoleon Dynamite and the limitations of urban(e) critics

Most of the “Napoleon Dynamite” reviews I have read mentioned that the film doesn’t have a strong plot. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the capsule headline for Carla Meyer’s San Francisco Chronicle review: “There’s no cohesive story.”

However, when I read the full review, I did find it interesting that Meyer accuses Jared and Jerusha Hess, the film’s writers, of trying to make an ’80s period piece a la John Hughes.

Her specific objections:

1. “The comic setups are rather geek-movie conventional for a picture that keeps trying to announce its differentness. ‘Napoleon’ is unique only if you gauge uniqueness by an inability to tell the era in which a film is set.”

2. “Napoleon’s Idaho high school classmates seem to be living in 2004, but they slow-dance to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.'”

3. “The filmmakers want to evoke the ‘Sixteen Candles’ era of geekdom without committing to a period movie or acknowledging what’s happened in the intervening years. Napoleon’s three-piece, 1970s thrift-store suit was unfashionable in 1984, but today it looks like something a San Francisco hipster might wear.” (Carla Meyer. “‘Napoleon’ falls too much in love with its own nerdiness.” San Francisco Chronicle: June 18, 2004.)

It would seem Meyer doesn’t know rural Idaho very well. Sure her reactions are valid (for her). And I’m sure they reflect the likely reactions of some of her readers. But with this review Meyer proves something that I’m sure Motley Vision readers may have already suspected — there are limitations to being an urban(e) critic.

Folk: My Three Nephites story

Writing about Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite” reminded me that I have a Three Nephites/John the Beloved story to tell. It’s a story that was told to me on my mission in Romania. I have changed the name of the person involved for reasons that will soon become obvious. The story goes like this:

During my second companionship, Elder Nichols [name not changed] and I began regularly visiting a family that consisted of Doina [this is the changed name], a mother in her mid-40s, and her three children, ages 10-18. They were a poor family, but always fed us very good food. We taught them some of the discussions and had several other visits where we presented gospel-related messages. The oldest son wasn’t interested — in fact, he became involved with the local Jehovah’s Witnesses and once told me that he saw a white dove fly out of my chest (i.e. a sign that I didn’t have the Holy Ghost with me). But Doina was as were her daughter and youngest son. They often came to church, although sometimes Doina wasn’t with the two children.

Doina was am interesting, passionate, flaky person. She liked to tell stories. My Romanian wasn’t great at the time (but adequate) and from what I could gather, her basic story was this:

She had been raised outside of Bucharest and had always been involved with non-Orthodox religious groups. She moved to Bucharest as a young woman and soon met and fell in love with a young man [according to here she was a great beauty at the time with hair so long and thick that on one occasion she went to a church function clothed only in the garment God gave her — her hair]. The rest is a little hazy, but despite their minority religious status, both she and her husband obtained jobs with Ceaucescu government and traveled abroad — especially her husband. In fact, Doina claimed to have worked in some secret biological lab (weapons or genetic engineering or something like that) run by Ceaucescu’s wife.

Her husband often worked abroad for long stretches of time. Sometimes sending back money — sometimes not. Doina become more involved with minority religious congregations (some of them legal, some of them not), although because of her personality she often came into conflict with members of the congregation and alienated herself from the community. At one point, she became a sort of underground Christian activist and was picked up by the Securitate (secret police) and interrogated and tortured. Because of that experience, she (I found out much later — after her daughter had been baptized and we had sister missionaries who could take over the Doina visits) became addicted to injections of painkillers (or some sort of injected drug). This addiction kept her from being baptized.

But despite all that had happened to her, Doina had a strong, one might say even fierce faith in God.

She shared the following story with Elder Nichols and me during a visit:

Doina reached a point where she had no money for food. She had lost her government job and with it her income. Her husband had been incognito for awhile. She had become estranged from her (latest) congregation. She didn’t know any of her neighbors very well, and besides that they were all barely scraping by themselves. And she had three young children to feed. The only option she had left was to boil the straw from her broom and see if she could draw some nourishment from the small undeveloped kernels of wheat attached to the straw. She was in deep despair and didn’t know what to do. She cried out to God. A few minutes (or perhaps hours) later there was a knock on the door. She opened it. A nicely-dressed (I think he may have even been wearing a white suit — at the very least he was in ‘church clothes’) older gentleman was there with several bags of groceries in his arms. He asked if he could come in. Doina, of course, said yes. He gave her the groceries and some money. Doina wanted him to stay and told him that she would prepare a meal for him. He declined, but (I believe) did ask for a glass of water. Then he left.

Elder Nichols and I stared at each other in amazement after hearing this story. After the visit, we excitedly discussed it. If I recall correctly, the dedicatory prayer that opened up Romania for mission work had said something about the Lord preparing the land to receive his gospel. To us this seemed like a very real example of that. And the story had a certain amount of credibility in our eyes because her was someone who didn’t grow up with Three Nephites stories telling us about an experience that echoed those stories.

Now, even then, we had some doubts about the account because we knew that Doina was prone to exaggeration. She is not the most credible witness. I also realize that this type of folk narrative featuring a heavenly visitor is not unique to Mormonism. For all I know, there could be a long tradition of such narratives among Romanian evangelical and protestant Christians [I think that with Orthodox folk narratives the details of such a visit would be quite different].

And while I can say that the story touched me deeply — and was deeply felt by Doina, the tears streaming off her face as she told it — because I am aware of the folk-quality of many of these narratives, I can’t say that I believe it is a factual account. However: knowing Doina and her family as I do. Knowing her faith and how she relates to God and how he seems to relate to her — he puts her through the wringer, but always somehow to provide the right things for her at the right moment. And believing as I do, the Book of Mormon account of the Three Nephites (and by extension what that tells us about John the Beloved), there’s a part of me that believes the account is true.

It’s a strange situation to be in. I believe that it is doctrinally possible. But I also am aware of the problem of relying on folk narratives and think that it’s best to take a skeptical approach to sensational Mormon narratives.

True or not, it is an interesting addition to the corpus of Three Nephites/John the Beloved folk narratives.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part III

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part II, I discussed the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” noting that the supernatural element of story — the old man with wings — was a baffling presence that challenged the religious conventions of the community he appears in. Neal Chandler’s “The Third Nephite,” which appears in his loosely-connected collection Benediction, also features a supernatural old man that poses a problem for the realistic characters and world of the narrative.

In the story a middle-aged father comes into contact with a mysterious old man who asks for his help. The father decides to give him aid and ends up in a series of situations that culminates in the two being taken by LDS security men to visit a general authority who tries to council (and threaten somewhat) the old man into following Church protocol more closely. It would seem that this old man has been driving the Church bureaucracy crazy by running around doing charitable acts that are rather unorthodox and perhaps more importantly in doing so he subverts the wishes and boundaries of local authorities. Although Chandler leaves room for some doubt on the matter, it seems pretty clear that this old man is what the title of the story suggests — one of the Three Nephites, the three apostles who in 3 Nephi ask Christ that he allow them the same status that he gave to John the Beloved, namely, to not die, but instead be transformed into a state that would allow them to remain on earth until his Second Coming.

There is a rich body of Mormon folk narratives dealing with the Three Nephites. Chandler is clearly evoking these narratives. And by locating the story in a “realistic” seemingly historical-bound time and setting, he creates a narrative that seems to be in the magic realist mode — especially considering how well it parallels Garcia Marquez’s story.

There are some important differences between these two baffling old men, however, and herein lies, I think, part of the challenge for Mormon magic realism that draws upon religious-folk beliefs for its magical elements.

Both old men present challenges to orthodox doctrine, but in parallels Garcia Marquez the challenge is one of definition of being, whereas, in Chandler it is one of conduct. The Catholic authorities get caught up in an unresolved debate about the nature of this old man with wings — and the nature of his being is not solved for the reader either. With Chandler, the being of the old man seems rather clear. Although we don’t receive a 100 percent confirmation, I think most readers would agree that the old man is most definitely meant to be one of the Three Nephites. The problem is not what is he, but is he behaving appropriately?

I like Chandler’s story very much, but I think that it is weak as an example of magic realism because the magic realist element is used in the service of counter-discourse — or to put it in harsher terms — as a teaching tool. The old man with wings represents a puzzle; the old Nephite is used to show how Church hierarchy and bureaucracy can interfere with “pure” Christian acts (in fact, this is one of the main themes of Benediction).

The problem for many (orthodox — although I’m not sure I like the term applied to this situation) Mormon readers, I think, is that they just don’t think that one of the Three Nephites (the last one even?) would come into conflict with Church leaders. What’s more is that he doesn’t seem entirely recognizable when removed from the folk narratives associated with the Three Nephites. I think that this is especially true because even though his charitable are mentioned, they aren’t depicted. Perhaps if these had been dramatized the “magic realistic” feel of the character would have been heightened and made more believable.

And this problem illustrates a major challenge for Mormon magic realism, I think. Although Mormonism has a great foundation of folk narratives, it also has some clear doctrinal boundaries and lines of authority.

One solution for Mormon writers might be to follow Garci­a Marquez’s lead and introduce elements that are baffling for Mormon readers (i.e. not accounted for by doctrine).

Another is to not worry about the category so much and focus on how to powerfully portray those Mormon experiences that are not “supernatural” but are not explainable by modern science. Those things –healings, warnings, appearances, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of spiritual gifts — that are common and uncommon. I’m not sure how non-Mormon audiences will react to such narratives (although in part I, I assume that they will react negatively — if at all). And considering the discomfort much of the Mormon audience has with artistic depictions of sacred moments, perhaps the audience for these narratives is so small as to almost not be worth bothering with. And yet, this is an important part of the Mormon experience — this magic we see in the world, magic that is natural to us, unseen but true and living.

NEXT: I’m ready to move on to other subjects so it won’t be for awhile, but I intend to follow-up on Andrew Hall’s comments and take a look at magic realism in Margaret Young’s novel Salvador. I also will try and track down an essay by Eric A. Eliason that discusses magic realism in a story collection by Phyllis Barber.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part II

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

In part I of my discussion of the possibilities of magic realism as a fruitful mode for Mormon fiction writers, I brought up two complications that, at least for me, muddied the project. First, the fuzziness of the label “magic realism,” especially when transferred from the group of Latin American writers and particular mid-20th century works that led to initial category to other literatures. Second, the problem of the “naturalness” of the Mormon events/actions/figures that are often mentioned as possible sources of “magic” — the Three Nephites et al.

To restate the second point a bit: I think part of the enthusiasm among Mormon literary types for the category of magic realism is that it seems to be a way to create narratives where Mormon beliefs — both religious and folk — are treated seriously. Not only would/do such narratives reflect the Mormon experience in a ‘good’ way, they also then fit into a category that is treated seriously by the literary world.

In part I, I question whether or not such narratives would be accepted as magic realist narratives. I suppose at this point I should dig into the literary criticism — discuss how the term is defined and applied. I have read a little of it in the past — enough to know that it is a term in contention and that its definition as a literary mode really depends on what texts a particular critic is in to.

So my preference is to ground this discussion in texts — starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s often anthologized and taught “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” It leads to a very different definition or view of magic realism, but I will bring the discussion back around to Mormon literature by comparing it [I am a comparatist by training, after all] to Neal Chandler’s story “The Last Nephite.”

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is about exactly what the title suggests. An old man with wings shows up one day in the muddy courtyard of a poor Catholic family in a small Latin American coastal town. No one is sure what to make of him. He doesn’t seem like a real angel. In addition to his wings, the only other remarkable thing about him is that he speaks a language no one else can understand. He experiences some moments of renown brought on by curiosity and the possibility of miraculous healings (miracles do happen, but in a grotesquely funny manner) — and the family gets rich charging money to see him. The local priest tries to get a statement from Rome on the nature of the old man, but that gets tied up in esoteric debates. Finally, a new freak arrives in town and the old man is forgotten, left to languish in a dirty, decrepit chicken coop, his wings reduced to cannulae. The old man survives a winter with the family, re-grows his wings, and one day in early spring flies away.

Although no exact location or time period is given, the narrative seems to be located in historical time. That “magic” element in the narrative is the presence of the old man. But he is a baffling presence. The magic is not, for example, an appearance by the Blessed Virgin or an exorcism or something else rooted within the supernatural possibilities allowed by Catholic doctrine (even folk doctrine). In fact, the old man presents a problem for the Church — a subject for doctrinal debate rather than a wonderful manifestation of the power of God to be sanctioned and publicized.

This type of magic realism where the magical element is a baffling one poses a challenge for the category of Mormon magic realism — a challenge that is illustrated by Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite.”

Stay tuned for part III.

Folk: The Roll Away Saloon

I lived in Kanab, Utah, for most of my childhood.

My maternal grandparents also lived in town and from time to time we’d pile into their big Plymouth sedan and drive about four to five miles south of Kanab to Fredonia, Arizonia, to eat at Nedra’s Café. I liked to order the Navajo tacos and because she knew my grandparents Nedra would often give us a free order of sopapillas — light, crunch-chewy pillows of fried bread dripping with honey. It was a great café and if you are ever in the area, you should check it out.

Right near the Utah-Arizona border, on the Arizona side, was a bar. I remember that often as we drove past it, one of my grandparents [probably my grandfather] would tell me about how back in the early part of the century, the bar was actually set on logs and when the people in Utah would come to shut it down, they’d roll it over across the border into Arizona — and vice versa.

That story stuck with me. Probably because living in a small Mormon Utah town anything having to do with alcohol was unusual. I’m sure that as we passed the bar [called the Buckskin Tavern if I remember correctly], I silently passed judgement on the owners of all the trucks lined up outside. But I think it was more memorable because it was a strange example of the power of borders and jurisdictions. Even though Fredonia was only five miles away and was also a small town filled with sagebrush Mormons, like other Kanabites [yep, that’s what they’re called] I felt that Fredonians were very different from us Utahns and that, frankly, they were inferior.

Now I could be wrong. It could have been my paternal grandparents who told me this story about the saloon, but I think I’m remembering correctly. An intriguing answer to the origin of this story cropped up recently when I was visiting the Morris grandparents at a time when they were trying to clear a portion of clutter from their house. I gladly took several books of Cowboy stories and poetry off their hands including one titled “The Roll Away Saloon: Cowboy Tales of the Arizona Strip.” Published in 1985 by Utah State University Press, the book collects stories told by Rowland W. Rider to his granddaughter Deirdre Murray Paulsen. The title story, of course, tells the same story my grandparents had told me, but with some important differences.

As Rider tells it, the cowboys of the Arizona Strip liked to drink alcohol and all the stores would sell out of it, so they [the cowboys, I guess] built a saloon right on the Arizona-Utah border [i.e. near the current location of the Buckskin Tavern].

Rider says:

“It wasn’t very large, maybe twelve by eighteen feet, but it created quite a bit of disturbance among the Mormon housewives of Fredonia and Kanab because their men would come staggering up home on their horses, too late for dinner, unable to take their saddles off”¦

Well, one day when the women in the Relief Society up to Kanab got together sewing and having a quilting bee, they decided among themselves that too many men were going down imbibing at this Roll Away Saloon. So they organized a posse to go and burn the thing down”¦So when the men all went out on the range or out in the fields or doing something, the women saddled up their horses, a lot of them rode, and some of them took their white-tops and they headed for the saloon.”(3)

The saloon keeper saw the women coming and took a crow bar and trundled the saloon along the logs over the border so “[t]he women got down there and were all ready to light their torches, they had their bundles ready, when the saloon keeper, said, ‘You can’t touch this business; it’s in Arizona. We don’t belong to Utah at all. There’s the line.'” (3-4).

According to Rider, the women from Fredonia did the same thing with the same end result and they went back and forth like this for years.

The two stories — the one I remember and the one Rider relates — bring up a couple of interesting questions about the transmission of folk narratives. Notice that in my grandparent’s story the agents that force the saloon to move are never explicitly stated — whereas in Rider we have a group of angry Mormon women. Rider also adds the details about the posse and the torches. I’m pretty sure I would have remembered those details if they had been included in the story I had heard.

Part of this may be Rider exaggerating things for effect — he is a cowboy storyteller, after all and some of the other stories have some pretty outrageous details. Or it may be that the story was edited or stripped down in how it was told to me — or how it had been originally told to my maternal grandparents.

This all leads to the question of provenance. Rider’s collection was published in 1985 [it was published under another name and by a different publishing house in 1979, but the version my paternal grandparents have is the 1985 edition] — a year after my family moved away from Kanab, and I know that this story was told to me several times while we were living in town. So it seems unlikely to me that the origin of the story I was told is the Rider collection. If it was, then a lot of stuff got left out.

If the story was told to me by my maternal grandparents, then my best guess is that they heard it from friends from Kanab [they moved their in the ’60s — well after the Roll Away Saloon story takes place]. What would be interesting to know is if the story they were told had the same details as Rider’s or if they were told the same stripped down version they told me.

Whatever the provenance, apparently the vivid detail of Mormon women forming a posse and getting ready to light torches was something that needed to be left out in the transmission of the narrative to me. Or was never there in the first place and was added by Rider.

But questions of provenance and censorship or exaggeration aside. Here’s what puzzles me about the Rider narrative:

I always took the story to mean that the Kanab Sheriff and his cronies or other town officials [or maybe even Prohibition-era revenuers — my sense of decades was rather fuzzy back then] were the ones who rode out to shut down the saloon. That’s why the whole border thing made sense — my knowledge of the power of state lines informed, of course, by that great ’80s television show “The Dukes of Hazard.” But why would a state line stop a posse of angry Mormon women? And even then, what kept the Kanab women from conspiring with the Fredonia women to do a simultaneous raid? [Maybe it was that whole Kanabite/Fredonian thing]. Perhaps it as simple as that posses comprised of angry Mormon women still feel bound to obey and sustain the law by honoring state lines.

There’s something to be said here about Rider’s narrative and gender dynamics in small-town Mormonism, but I don’t know enough about the topic to say it.

Criticism: Mormon magic realism?

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Damon Linker’s post over at Times & Seasons on PoMo Mormon Enchantment has drawn a lot of great comments including one by Rob on the possibility of Mormon literature written in the on magic realist mode. This idea of magic realism being a natural mode of literature for Mormonism comes up from time to time. The appeal as I understand it is that because magic realism was pioneered by South American Catholic (believing or not) writers as a mode of literature and features seemingly supernatural (“magic”) actions or beings embedded in a realist narrative, it would seem to be a good fit for Mormon writers. After all, like Catholics, we believe in an “enchanted” world — to borrow the term from Linker.

I see a couple of complications.

First: As is their wont, literary critics have stretched and strained and misapplied and muddied the definition of magic realism to a point where one wonders how useful it is. At its’ most reductive level, any narrative written after, say, 1950 that seems to be “literary” fiction but contains fantastical elements is hit with the magic realism label.

For example, Eugene England says about Orson Scott Card’s work [and I think he has specifically in mind her Card’s excellent Alvin Maker series] that it is “what might be called, on the model of Latin American novelists, “magic realism.” (Eugene England. “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.” See paragraph 54.). Yes, England throws in the qualifier “might,” but from my point of view Card is clearly writing in the speculative fiction modes of fantasy (Alvin Maker, Saints) and science fiction (Ender, etc.). What he is doing is quite different from the Latin American novelists.

Second: As Clark Goble points out in a response to an earlier post by Linker on enchantment, Mormonism’s “enchantment is a double move in which the enchantment is naturalized and made ‘normal.'” Granted this was in a philosophical context, but I think it has a literary application as well. Insofar as Mormon magic realism manifests itself in narratives where the “magical” elements are actually natural or ‘normal’ (albeit perhaps not entirely common) Mormon phenomena (such as speaking in tongues, angelic appearances, healings, etc.), it is no longer, in my opinion, magic realism. And yet in my experience, when Mormons talk about a Mormon magic realism, these are the phenomena they give as examples. See Rob’s comments linked to above, for instance, where he mentions the Three Nephites and baby resurrections.

This is not to say that such a mode of literature wouldn’t be good for the field of Mormon literature. In fact, I would love to see more natural-supernatural acts occur in Mormon fiction. But such literature does create a weird situation where non-believers would read it as magic realist [although I have my doubts about whether many would be charitable enough to group it in that category — instead I think it would be received as Mormon propaganda] and Mormons would read it as, well, realist.

NEXT: I’ll explore this topic further in a couple of days by taking a close look at two short stories that are examples of magic realism — “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Latin American writer and the godfather of magic realism Gabriel Garci­a Marquez and “The Last Nephite” by Mormon author Neal Chandler.

Marketing: Calling out Larry Miller

So how come all the aspiring and/or established LDS filmmakers hit up Larry Miller for financing? Seriously, first there was Richard Dutcher, then Scott Swofford, [and then Richard Dutcher again], and now Tyler Ford.

What, you haven’t heard of Tyler Ford? Well, neither has Miller, so to rectify that situation Ford, an aspiring London-based LDS filmmaker, has created

From a marketing perspective, it’s not a bad idea. After all, it got picked up by LDS Today [which is where I ran across the link — thanks, guys] — and from there by me. And although I’m not sold on their effectiveness, I am a fan of goofy marketing stunts. And, after all, big risks and gutsy moves are an integral part of the independent filmmaking mythos.

But I have to say that I was looking for more from Ford’s cleverly-titled Website than a lame top 10 list. I mean the story idea for the film is somewhat intriguing. So how about a sample dialogue, a couple of story boards or even a 4-5 minute shot and edited scene from the film?

And I don’t like that the press release reveals that he’s already tried to pitch his idea to Miller. Relevant quote: “According to a member of Larry Miller’s staff, he gets as many as 15 business proposals per day. Ford’s web site is what he calls the ‘creative approach.'” You do something like this and you have to maintain the veneer of goofiness and moxie — revealing that you’ve already been turned away shifts the focus. It makes you seem reactive rather than proactive.

In fact, the entire press release could use some work. It’s both too informative [personal] and not informative enough. I also don’t buy the England/Europe angle.

As a cheerleader for Mormon art, I hope Ford is able to make his film and I admire his enthusiasm. But as a public relations flack, I hope that he seeks out some marketing advice and refines his approach. The world of LDS film already has enough bad press releases.

BONUS: I do give Ford mad props for setting up a site where you can view short films made by LDS filmmakers for free.

Criticism: About that Whitney quote

So about that Orson F. Whitney quote…

No, not this one. Not the one that crops up almost everywhere.

This quote — the one that appears near the bottom of the right sidebar:

“Our literature must live and breathe for itself.”

The quote comes from the same source as the Shakespeares and Miltons one. It’s part of the section in Whitney’s foundational essay “Home Literature” where he most clearly defines how Mormon writers should go about creating a home literature:

“Above all things, we must be original. The Holy Ghost is the genius of “Mormon” literature. Not Jupiter, nor Mars, Minerva, nor Mercury. No fabled gods and goddesses; no Mount Olympus; no “sisters nine,” no “blue-eyed maid of heaven”; no invoking of mythical muses that “did never yet one mortal song inspire.” No pouring of new wine into old bottles. No patterning after the dead forms of antiquity. Our literature must live and breathe for itself. Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God’s supreme design.” (Orson Whitney. “Home Literature.” The Contributor: July 1988).

Setting aside the whole Holy Ghost question for a moment, it may seem that talk about muses is out of place in the world of (post)modern fiction, but how many times have you heard authors discuss the process of writing in terms that seem to hearken back to the idea of a muse? Sure, now we call it the subconscious, but authors continue to claim that their characters come from some ‘other’ place. You hear things like: “I thought the novel was going to be about James, but then the character of Tess grabbed me by the shoulders and yelled in my ear and forced me to completely changed the focus.” Or, “At first I didn’t know exactly what her story was so I had to get her to tell it to me.” Or, “Yeah, that was a weird twist for me too — David completely surprised me by doing that.” [Full disclosure: I made all those quotes up. They are based, however, on interviews I’ve heard/read over the years].

Now, granted this is just a way to explain the creative process, and in some cases is probably exaggerated to mystify the experience of writing for non-writers. At the same time, I know that for me writing a narrative, writing about characters, requires a sort of tugging on the subconscious, an inner staging that can’t be consciously blocked out beforehand.

Okay, so that’s all well and fine — the subconscious has a role in the creative process and you could describe that as a sort of ‘muse.’ The real question is: how involved is the Holy Ghost in the process?

I can’t answer that question, of course. Sure there are authors in the LDS market that claim that they were inspired to write a particular work. But there’s no real way to verify that. For even if readers feel the Holy Ghost when reading, viewing or listening to a particular work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work itself has received some indelible stamp of the spirit — especially since not only is feeling the spirit a subjective, virtually indescribable experience, but it also varies by reader. Even those of us who claim some sort of orthodoxy, who have built a common ground of trust, of feeling the spirit in similar situations, don’t always respond with the same intensity [or even at all sometimes] to works of art.

Which I guess gets at the real difficulty here. What does it mean for the Holy Ghost to inspire a work? Is it some form of automatic writing where the writer only acts as a conduit? I’d doubt that any Mormon writers would claim that. Does it mean that God somehow wants a particular work to come forth? In my experience, God wants us to use our talents and can encourage us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean he sanctions the work for all time and all peoples. None of us are writing for the scriptural canon — no matter how inspired we feel our work to be. [Okay, so there’s some room for discussion on this point, but I don’t feel like going into it here].

No, I think that at most I can say that this about Whitney’s quote: Mormon artists should seek to live close to the spirit, to do those “Sunday School” things [prayer, service, scripture reading, temple attendance] that keep us in tune, and just as importantly, I think, Mormon artists should be obsessed with Mormon materials, with the stuff of our history, theology and culture. Assuming it is possible, and I remain hopeful that it is even though I think that it will take some time and will not be in abundance, originality, a literature that breathes for itself, will come from someone who can digest and interpret Mormon materials in a way that is informed by and refreshes but resists, even critiques Western, canonical [and pop, I think] culture.

CAVEAT: “Mormon artists” above refers to artists who seek to live a life of LDS orthodoxy. In keeping with the big tent definition of Mormon literature, A Motley Vision will, at other times, use the term “Mormon artists” in a broader sense to include those, for instance, who identify themselves as cultural Mormons but are not active LDS. I’m not sure how this Whitney quote would apply to them. But I’m open to comments that speak to that issue.

Film: Newsday on ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

The June 6 edition of Newsday features my favorite article so far on “Napoleon Dynamite,” the film from LDS director Jared Hess that was a hit at the Sundance Festival.

Here’s why:

1. Hess reveals for the first time (that I’ve read) that the character of Napoleon Dynamite is loosely (very loosely) based on a man he met on his mission.

From the article: “For Jared Hess, a 24-year-old filmmaker based in Salt Lake City, it began when he was serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He commenced his stint in Caracas, Venezuela, but finished up in Chicago after hernias forced him back to the States for surgery. It was while he was in Chicago that an elderly Italian-American man came up to him and introduced himself as Napoleon Dynamite.

In the next couple of years, this flamboyant senior from Chicago would morph in Hess’ imagination into a sullen, misfit high-schooler from Preston, Idaho” (Jan Stuart. “A dynamite muse.” Newsday: June 6, 2004).

When I was on my mission in Romania I met a guy who called himself Roberto Christo and claimed to have worked for Donald Trump back in the States. He spoke and dressed like a New Jersey Italian mobster — right down to the two track suit look [that’s right — a red and black tracksuit zipped down the sternum with an unzipped yellow and baby blue track suit jacket over the entire ensemble] and the big gold chain with cross dangling in the chest hair. I’ve thought about how I could work this character into a piece of fiction, but I only met the guy briefly so it’d be hard to get all the details right — so I like what Hess has done better. He’s taken the weird character from his mission and transposed him to a setting [Preston, Idaho -and- High School] that he knows really well.

2. It discusses the working relationship Hess has with his co-author and wife Jerusha. She says about working with her husband: “Jared needs someone, especially me, to get him to start writing. He can’t multitask. He’s jotting down note after note on random bits of paper, then I sit down and start putting things together. I’m the get-the-ball-rolling person. He listens, we fight about it, and we come up with a better arrangement.”

I like this because I’m always interested in hearing about other writers’ creative processes, but also because I think that, considering the building-Zion-together aspect of Mormonism, LDS writers would be eminently suited to doing interesting, unique collaborative projects. Of course, a husband-wife duo is quite different from what I’m thinking about — it’s a whole other dynamic. But this article brought that interest of mine back to mind.

Know of any really cool example of collaborative writing in Mormon fiction [non-fiction is different because it’s more of a normal practice]? Post a comment. I’m always looking for reading that matches up with my theoretical interests.

BY THE WAY: “Napoleon Dynamite” opens in New York this Friday.

News: Move over Matthew Barney — Brocka is in town

Hip, liberal NYC Mormons looking for the next post-Matthew Barney thrill may be interested in a rare opportunity to see a screening of Lino Brocka’s “Manila: in the Claws of Neon.” The GLBT publication The Empty Closet reports that the film will be shown June 30 at the Dryden Theater.

As LDS film has reported, Brocka was one of the first members baptized in the Philippines. He converted in his early twenties and served a mission but then left the faith. According to LDS film, “Brocka was not an active churchgoer later in life, but never held animosity toward the Church. It appears that Filipino church members eventually rejected Brocka’s films because of ‘R-rated’ content and GLBT themes.”

I can’t recommend this film because I haven’t seen it and know nothing about its content [which I know is important for many LDS filmgoers, including myself]. But what I thought was interesting is that the LDS context comes up in The Empty Closet article in a way that is frankly one of the more positive treatments of the faith I’ve run across in press coverage of LDS and GLBT issues — especially when it comes to the world of art.

The relevant paragraph:

“Interestingly enough, Brocka converted to Mormonism in his early twenties, making him one of the first two Philippine citizens baptized into the LDS faith. Subsequently he served as an LDS missionary in a Hawaiian leper colony, a formative experience that presented him with images of humanity at its most abject, something which would be reflected in much of Brocka’s later artistic production.” (“Manila: in the Claws of Neon by Lino Brocka premiers at Eastman Pride Month series.” The Empty Closet: June 3, 2004).

Okay so perhaps positive isn’t quite the right adjective, but I like the acknowledgement that his missionary service affected his art. And more importantly that it was his experiences with “abject humanity” that his mission provided that found its way into his art rather than, say, a story of personal liberation from the confines of Mormonism — the narrative that seems to often be deployed by American GLBT artists. Perhaps The Empty Closet was influenced by LDS film’s information on Brocka [Reporters do use Google, after all], or more likely, and this hopeful person that I am believe, this narrative of Brocka and his art in relation to his Mormonism is the one that’s generally accepted and isn’t just how “LDS insiders” view him.

More: See also this bio written by a Filipina for a Filipinos in history Web site.