Half Faked

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. Continue reading “Half Faked”

My sister Katherine’s review of “The Errand of Angels”

Christian Vuissa’s film”The Errand of Angels” opens in theaters in Utah and Idaho today. My sister Katherine saw the film when it was screened at the LDS Film Festival (which Vuissa founded) back in January and posted a review for her personal blog. She has kindly agreed to let me republish it here at AMV. Note that the editing and other post-production on the film may have changed for the official release. ~Wm

A wide-eyed sister missionary from Boise arrives in Austria to begin her 18-month-long mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite having to make a few cultural adjustments, Sister Taylor meets every challenge with optimism. Her enthusiasm to share the Gospel makes her indomitable, until she finds herself with an abrasive companion whom she doesn’t understand and doesn’t particularly like. This challenge, along with the ordinary vicissitudes of missionary life begin to wear on her, and thus in the process of sharing the Gospel, Sister Taylor finds herself gaining a better understanding of its key precepts: faith, repentance, forgiveness, and charity.

The missionary film is a well-known sub-genre of Mormon film. In fact, some of the most notable and successful films, such as God’s Army, The Best Two Years, and The Other Side of Heaven have fallen within this genre. Even in Mormon films that haven’t been explicitly about missionary work, the missionary element usually makes an appearance.

If the missionary story has been told, why make another missionary movie? In the Q&A following the 5:00 showing of The Errand of Angels Friday night, the director/writer, Christian Vuissa, said that while many films have been made about missionaries, none has told the sister missionary story. The source of Vuissa’s material came originally from a woman named Heidi Johnson who simply wanted to tell the story of her mission. Having no previous experience in script-writing, she decided to make a go at it anyway. The film in its present form is the result of much re-writing by Vuissa, but still retains many of the elements of Johnson’s story. Continue reading “My sister Katherine’s review of “The Errand of Angels””

Artificial Reality

A comparison of the imagery in Russell Holt’s Lamb of God (1993) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

“I do not look forward to the feelings that will grip my heart when The Passion suspends me in time and space and brings me to the feet of the suffering Christ. But it is a feeling I want to experience. We speak and preach so casually about the sacrifice of Christ, the “price he paid for us,” the blood he shed and the agony he suffered. Such phrases have become so familiar to us it is more prosaic than real.”

So concluded LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill in an article published in Meridian Magazine prior to the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a controversial visual narrative of the final twelve hours of the life of Christ. That Merrill – the director of church-sponsored favorites such as Legacy and The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd – should anticipate the viewing of such a charged film is not so unusual when considered in a vacuum. However, when one considers that Latter-day Saints have their own film chronicling the Easter story, one begins to wonder what the “feeling” is to which Merrill is referring.

But the focus of this piece is not simply to point out that Mel Gibson’s film is a more graphic representation of the Easter story than Holt’s. Not only does that go without saying, but it would be equally foolish to stand these two films side by side in light of their vast differences on grounds ranging from production budgets to the purpose behind their production. Lamb of God is a church-sponsored film with a proselyting simplicity packed into its lean twenty-seven minute running time while Passion of the Christ is commercial entertainment designed for consumption by the paying masses. Certainly, Gibson’s staunch Catholicism indicates a goal that was loftier than mere dollars and cents, but it seems erroneous to assume that he was ignorant of the financial risk/reward scenarios presented by his film. Conversely, Lamb of God never had a commercial theatrical run and video and DVD sales are, like most church-produced media, zero sum at best. Continue reading “Artificial Reality”

Overanxiously Engaged, or “What’s Mormonism Got To Do With It?”

Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged: A Piccadilly Romance and an examination of the intrusion of Mormonism in Mormon Cinema.

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Carl Gustav Jung

Upon initial viewing, Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged: A Piccadilly Romance (2005) is a difficult film to classify in the academic sense as it suffers from a number of idealogical flaws. The purpose of this piece, therefore, is to investigate the symptoms in an attempt to isolate and identify the central malady.

The story focuses on a young Mormon named Carson Welles (Jaelan Petrie), a ranch-raised Montanan working at an international beef company in the heart of far away London. The film begins when Carson’s engagement to Lucy Armstrong (Katie Foster-Barnes) is derailed when her grandfather (James Green) refuses to give his blessing unless Carson first finds a husband for Lucy’s older sister, Jema (Sophie Shaw). Carson’s attempts to set Jema up with a suitable suitor meet with continual disappointment until he introduces her to his supervisor, Nigel Backman (Tom Butcher). While sympathetic at first, Nigel’s motives for dating Jema seem to be rooted in his overarching scheme to embezzle the company, which happens to be owned by Lucy and Jema’s grandfather (it’s never made clear what the embezzlement scheme has to do with Jema). Eventually, Nigel frames Carson for the crime, which leads to a showdown in which Carson proves his innocence and finally marries the right girl.

The title is itself an unwitting invocation of what turns out to be perhaps the film’s primary ailment. The double entendre is, of course, descriptive of the predicament in which Carson finds himself. Engaged but unable to marry, he is certainly anxious. But the Mormon audience will unmistakably recognize the term from LDS canon.

“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness…” Doctrine and Covenants 58:27

This throws the story into something of a new light as Carson is understood to be anxiously engaged in the good — indeed righteous — cause of finding Jema a husband. Clearly, scratching at this conceit unearths the smell of Mormonism. To a culture that idealizes marriage as much as Mormonism, matchmaking may very well strike one as a good turn. If there’s joy in bringing converts into the waters of baptism, how much greater must the joy be in bringing them into the bonds of matrimony? For this reason, more than any other, Carson begins to question his testimony. “Sometimes” he confides to his secretary, Alice (Gwyneth Powell),” I feel like everything I’ve been taught is a lie.” Yet at this point in the film, Carson’s only real conflict is brought on by his inability to introduce Jema to a decent marriage prospect, let alone marry her off. It’s curious that something as alien to Mormon doctrine (and practice) as matchmaking, in effect, should cause such a grievous crisis of faith. This is but one instance in which a Mormon cultural ideal (if it can indeed be called that) takes precedence over Mormon doctrine within the film’s subtext. Continue reading “Overanxiously Engaged, or “What’s Mormonism Got To Do With It?””

Interview: Filmmaker Christian Vuissa

Editor’s note: Christian Vuissa was kind enough to take time out of a very busy schedule to provide a bio and do the following Q&A for AMV. ~Wm

Bio: A native of Austria, Christian Vuissa graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University’s Media Arts program in August 2002 and is considered one of the most connected filmmakers in the LDS film community.

He is the director of “Baptists at Our Barbecue” and the producer of “Pirates of the Great Salt Lake.” Vuissa’s other films The Letter Writer, The Reunion, Roots & Wings, Unfolding, and A Given have won over 20 awards at film festivals nationwide. His newest film “Diary of a Sister Missionary” (working title) will premiere at the LDS Film Festival (LDSFF) in January, 2008. Continue reading “Interview: Filmmaker Christian Vuissa”

Beauty and the Beard

Facial hair as a barometer for evil as typified in The Work and the Glory series.

This post will examine all three of The Work and the Glory films. For the sake of clarification, only the first, Russell Holt’s The Work and the Glory, will be referenced by that title. The two sequels, both directed by Sterling Van Wagenen, will be referred to by their subtitles – American Zion and A House Divided, respectively. It should also be noted that while a few comparisons will be made between the films and the books by Gerald Lund, this criticism focuses uniquely on the films.

With the publishing of The Work and the Glory: A Pillar of Light in 1990, Gerald Lund began what has become the best-selling series of LDS historical fiction to date. The nine book series has sold over two million copies and the book on tape has reportedly also sold exceptionally well. But the series received what seems to have become the ultimate validation in this day and age when Larry H. Miller announced in 2003 that it would be adapted into a feature film. “With this much of a following,” Miller stated,” and with the significance of the events the series examines, it’s time to make this historical story into a quality feature film.”

The magnitude of the undertaking was underlined by the involvement of Deseret Books’ own president and CEO Sheri L. Dew, who personally represented the interests of both author and publisher. Even then, Lund was brought on board as a script consultant. “We don’t underestimate the magnitude of this film project,” said producer Scott Swofford. “We are properly funded, have a book that flows easily into a screenplay, and have collected the most qualified talent to produce what we believe will be a film of excellence. This story requires that.” Added Dew, “The Work and the Glory series is one-of-a-kind. As the publisher of this series, we have complete confidence in the integrity of those producing this movie and that the integrity of the books will be maintained while crafting an artistic and first-rate movie. Everyone involved with this production epitomizes excellence and quality. This movie is going to touch many lives.”

The purpose of this critique is to examine the story thematics in light of the need to tailor a written work to the demands of the visual consumer, which the films do largely by reducing or replacing outright depictions of evil with the presence of facial hair. Continue reading “Beauty and the Beard”

“The Singles Ward’s” Double Standard (Part 2 of 2)

An exploration of the ideological inconsistencies in the directing 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 part one of this series, an interrogation of the internal and external workings of the film, in particular the writing, revealed pronounced contradictions that disable the film’s moral project. Now, we focus a similar examination on the directorial choices.

Upon casual observation, The Singles Ward is a comedy not unlike many others. For generations, the modus operandi of the standard comedy – and specifically, the romantic comedy – has been rather hands off in terms of directing. Performers were the ones who drove the comedy. Most directors, through the vaudeville and screwball comedy eras and beyond, used the camera frame as a sort of stage in which the actors performed as they would in theater. This “proscenium lens” (as I will refer to it) provided a large space for the long-take antics of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and so on. Even Academy Award-winning comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) tended to keep a two-shot distance, thus adapting theater for the masses by simply transporting it to the silver screen. Eventually, comedies would adopt the use of the four standard shots – establishing, two shot, close up, and reverse – but continue to leave the comedy in the hands of the performers. Still, the proscenium lens remains popular among the likes of Woody Allen and Kevin Smith, comedy directors who keep the actor within the performance space through use of the “traveling two-shot.” In essence, directing comedies has traditionally been, as far as the device of film is concerned, an exercise in artistic passivity. Continue reading ““The Singles Ward’s” Double Standard (Part 2 of 2)”

“The Singles Ward’s” Double Standard (Part 1 of 2)

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. Continue reading ““The Singles Ward’s” Double Standard (Part 1 of 2)”

Richard Dutcher: Variations on a Theme

My wife and I just got our copy of States of Grace and the God’s Army Special Edition 2 Disc DVD in the mail this evening and almost immediately watched States of Grace and the special features of God’s Army. Thus my mind has been full Dutcherized and for the evening, I wanted to throw in my thoughts once more about the man that is such a popular discussion piece among Mormon intellectual and social circles.

Continue reading “Richard Dutcher: Variations on a Theme”

Irreantum’s film issue (2006)

From the Association for Mormon Letters:

The Association for Mormon Letters is pleased to announce the publication of
its newest issue of Irreantum. The focus topic for this issue is “Film and
Religion.” It includes an essay considering LDS Church filmmaking as
propaganda, four film review essays (including a review by Eric Samuelsen on
the HBO series “Big Love”), and the reprint of an article written in 1931 by
Gordon B. Hinckley on the use of filmstrips in missionary work. Continue reading “Irreantum’s film issue (2006)”