LDS Art and Its Critics

September 22, 2004 | 73 comments
By

I followed Adam’s link in the sidebar to an article in Meridian Magazine, by their film critic Kieth no I did not spell that wrong Merrill.

The article is Brother Merrill’s take on The Book of Mormon Movie. I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not so much interested in his review as I am in some of the (I think) bigger issues that he raises about LDS art but doesn’t really delve into in the article.

(1) He notes a difference of opinion between himself and Meridian editor Maureen Proctor. Apparently, she interpreted his negative review of the movie as a personal attack on the director. I would imagine this could be construed as a general problem for every review of LDS art: how might we say it stinks without impugning Brother or Sister Jones’ artistic gifts, nay, their very testimony?

Sister Proctor wrote:

““Can’t you share your reactions to Roger’s movie by addressing your article to the rising tide of Mormon Cinema without being so specific?â€? the boss asked. ”

Is this a reasonable thing for an LDS art critic to do?

(2) This isn’t related to anything, really, but it seemed like a good time for me to express my irritation at comments such as:

“Trusted friends in high places who share my dismay over the movie encouraged me to be the voice for a myriad of silent opinions. ”

Mormons do this sort of thing all the time. I find it offensive. Either name the GA you are friends with, or drop it. I think this type of argument relies on our very worst attitude that authority–any authority–is a trump card in any argument.

(3) Brother Merrill wanted to write to the movie’s creator:

“my open letter to Brother Rogers is not a personal assault it is an objective and professional appeal for him NOT to make another movie ripped from the pages of our most sacred book of holy writ without (1) a close alliance with the First Presidency of the church (2) enough money – and I mean A LOT MORE MONEY – to do it right (3) a more qualified and experienced team of artisans and actors (4) shooting it on film instead of video and please (5) making sure it will be the excellent epic we expect and that the Book of Mormon deserves to be.â€?

I find (1) interesting. Would we want this as a standard for LDS art? (Would the First Presidency want it? I doubt it. I hear from a close friend in a high position that they are rather busy.)

(4) Brother Merrill then relates two stories: of a nonmember friend totally turned off to the BoM because of the movie, and a girl reactivated by the movie. He writes, “It is remarkable that what is embarrassing to one is inspiring to another. ” Hmm. Does this teach us something about LDS art? About spiritual experiences? To what extent is the artist responsible for things like this? To what extent should LDS art be judged by its missionary impact?

(5) He talks a little about Mormon cinema as a Wasatch Front phenomenon. He makes one innacurate statement: that LDS movies don’t make it out of ZION. I saw God’s Army in Woodland, CA and The Other Side of Heaven in Austin. And, according to his own story, a young woman in Brazil managed to find The Book of Mormon Movie. Obviously, though, his general point is correct and I wonder what, if any, cultural fallout will result from those Utah Mormons having a cinematic tradition so different from the rest of us in The Mission Field.

(6) He shares a quote from President Kimball about the potential for an LDS masterpiece to be shown for months in all corners of the globe. (Imagine.) Brother Merrill seems to implicitly criticize the makers of current LDS movies for not living up to that standard. According to the article, the first LDS movie was made exactly four years ago. From zero to worldwide masterpiece in the genre in four years seems a little far-fetched to me. Perhaps there is a word for this, but we might have a Hugh Nibley phenomenon here: some of Nibley’s work is now criticized, but I think cut the guy some slack. He was a pioneer in the field. There were no giants upon whose shoulders he could stand. Could we say the same thing about LDS movie making?

My analogy may break down: I can’t remember which LDS movie it was, but IIRC, I read that despite horrid reviews, they movie grossed maybe 4 times what was spent on it. (I don’t believe overremuneration was a problem for Professor Nibley.) This does worry me: if the financial interests will support crummy movies because they are financially viable, we may be in for a whole lotta junk. On the other hand, perhaps at some point people will stop seeing movies just because they are LDS movies and this problem will correct itself.

Another issue that may need some trial and error exploration before we get our masterpiece involves just exactly what an LDS audience will permit in a movie. I know some people turned off God’s Army because they were disgusted at the idea of a priesthood blessing in a movie. (Raises all sorts of weird questions if you think about it: if the actors are real priesthood holders, and they are getting paid for the movie, is the blessing then priestcraft because it was done for money?) Another trial and wrror issue is how to make the movie understandable to those Gentiles without making it plodding to Mormons.

Update: Meridian has a response to this article by Preston Harris. His main point seems to be that if we don’t portray the Saints in the movies, someone else will, and we won’t like it. This reminds me of an article about Mormon characters in Tom Clancy type books:

“”What Clancy does is he uses Mormons as a very easy way to convey a whole host of association,” said Michael Austin, Chair of the English and modern languages department at Shepherd College in West Virginia. “He can say ‘Mormon’ and people know that this person is a little uptight, very straight arrow, won’t drink, won’t smoke and probably a little nervous. That freezes him up so he won’t have to … take time and narrative to develop the character.””

A little nervous? But that’s a topic for a whole nother post.

Tags: ,

73 Responses to LDS Art and Its Critics

  1. marta on September 22, 2004 at 10:44 pm

    Wonderful post Julie. Your (tongue in cheek?) concern about priestcraft was worth a big smile, but I think you can probably relax. Portraying a murderer does not make an actor a murderer (leaving aside snuff films). Nor does playing a straight character make a gay actor straight, any more than his role on WKRP made Brother Jump a station manager. It wasn’t a real blessing, it was acting. Thanks for the laugh.

  2. Ethesis (Stephen M) on September 22, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Gee, now I need to read a Tom Clancy book to see the Mormons in it. REH used to have a lot of Mormons too.

  3. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 12:13 am

    Great post Julie. Lots to think about.

    I think the artist has got to learn that he/she cannot get around criticism. I went to a fireside put on by the creators of the BoM[b] movie before it came out. There were a lot of tears – many which seemed to be sincere. They had quite an experience filming it – miracle after miracle was recounted. I could’nt help but believe that in many instances they were truely edified. However, that doesn’t mean that the art was good. It stank! That being said, I wounld’nt be suprised if they were a little taken back by the flood of criticism after soring so high in the clouds during production. Either their experiences were a whole lot more mystical than spiritual or the Lord is far more tolerant with such endeavors than we presume or a little of both. At any rate, a critique of the movie is going to say something about the director in an implicit way – it is his baby. Many times the critic will be way off and in time the truth will be told. In this case however, there is no professional criticism required and the truth was told the day it opened.

    I belive there are two hurdles to be overcome before we get our masterpieces. 1) We need to find some people who know what the heck they’re doing with the core elements. i.e., story, script, score etc. A budget can take care of the rest. 2) We need to find people who can handle the core elements who are rock solid LDS – not some strange off-beat mystical fringe mormons who believe that they made special covenants in premortality to come forth in the latter-days and “rock” the world with their art-religion. (though, I agree that they don’t have to be in cahoots with the brethren)

    In response to point no.2: The downside of being an artist/critic is that you have to be prepared to have it thrown right back at you. I wonder if KM knows that there are people in high places who won’t take their children to see the movies at the Joseph Smith building?

  4. Justin H. on September 23, 2004 at 12:16 am

    I heard that Dutcher was actually very concerned about the blessing scene in God’s Army being offensive to some. His defense against the priestcraft indictment (lol) is to shoot the “blessing” in a number of takes from different angles–with no individual take containing all the necessary elements of an actual priesthood blessing–and then edited together to look like the real thing.

    Of course, the real question is whether the actor receiving the blessing was really healed…

  5. Justin H. on September 23, 2004 at 12:18 am

    oops–meant to say:

    and then edit the takes together

  6. Rusty on September 23, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Isn’t one of the problems the fact that all these Mormon movies are about our Mormonness? Are there any Mormon movies that show normal Mormons (like all of us here on the bloggernacle:) living through the dramas of a normal movie? Why can’t we have a Bourne Supremacy (or whatever) about a guy who is dealing with other issues (i.e. ones that have nothing to do with his Mormonness) but he happens to go to a bar and not drink, or mention that 10% of his money goes to tithing, and then the movie rolls on with it’s plot?

  7. Adam Greenwood on September 23, 2004 at 12:27 am

    Gracious, I’ll be more careful in the future before I link to something on the sidebar. :)\

    I don’t think Brother Merrill is holding LDS movies to the high standards of the Kimball quote, at least not in the way you think he is. Everybody vaguely associated with Mormon arts goes into periodic bouts with the quote. Brother Merrill seems to be having one of his at the moment, but I see him as holding up the quote as an aspiration, not as the sine qua non of film-making. Of course, for members of the Church of Jesus ‘Be Ye Therefore Perfect’ Christ, aspirational goals aren’t as merely aspirational as they are for most people.

    I found one of your questions particulary intriguing. You said, “I wonder what, if any, cultural fallout will result from those Utah Mormons having a cinematic tradition so different from the rest of us in The Mission Field?” Now that you mention it, I wonder too. I’ve always been a little irritated with Saints who haven’t seen, say, God’s Army and Brigham City and soon Saints and Soldiers. I didn’t know why. You’ve just helped me put my finger on it. I hardly dare say it, but I guess deep down I’ve been harboring the idea that–I hardly dare say it–that we Saints have a sort of obligation to have the culture in common as well as the gospel. Well, there’s always missions and BYU and people moving back and forth to Utah.

  8. Adam Greenwood on September 23, 2004 at 12:31 am

    “We need to find people who can handle the core elements who are rock solid LDS – not some strange off-beat mystical fringe mormons who believe that they made special covenants in premortality to come forth in the latter-days and “rockâ€? the world with their art-religion.”

    Funny, I’ve always defined ‘rock solid LDS’ as ‘strange, off-beat, … fringe” people who believe they made “special covenants in premortality, etc.” :) Guess that’s my mistake for taking myself as the paradigm case.

  9. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 12:37 am

    Rusty: In response to your “mormonness” in movies; I think one of the big problems in LDS films is the incredible stereotyping that comes about because of the focus on culture. In this sense I agree that there’s too much “mormonness” in LDS movies. As to your other point about telling a standard secular story about a guy that happens to be be mormon; of course this can be done, but I think we have much better stories to tell. We have a wonderful store of personalities and events to draw from in our own legacy.

  10. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 12:50 am

    Adam, yes we’re all a bunch of lunies in the eyes of the world. But being an artist myself I can tell you that there’s a great tendency for artists to mystically view themselves as being especially endowed with a calling to change the world – which (calling) almost invariably in time will begin to outweigh their commitment to the Kingdom.

  11. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 1:36 am

    Ah sheesh! I can’t spell worth beans. It’s loonies not lunies. I guess I have my own “crazy” way of spelling things.

  12. Mike on September 23, 2004 at 6:52 am

    The coordination with the first presidency- from President Kimble’s perspective I believe that was for movies produced by the Church- for movies simply about mormon characters or mormon culture that obviously wouldn’t make much sense-

    but the Book of Mormon movie is challenging. Because it seems to attempt to recreate the entirety of the book. It isn’t like the ten commandments where it is focusing on one story based on scripture- it attempts to create in multiple volumes the entire story of scripture. Those are pretty grand goals- and if those are the goals it would make sense to have coordination with church officials. If you are trying to make something that is representative of the church and its doctrine (basically what Merrill did in the movies he directed for the Church) wouldn’t you want the church officials input?

    I have liked some Mormon cinema more than others- but I don’t think any of it has been horrible when judged within its own context. It is difficult to me how we judge what makes Mormon cinema. Other side of heaven? produced by disney with lots of non-mormon actors but definitely Mormon subject matter. Any of the Labut stuff? People have been asking why we don’t have more films with mormon characters that aren’t really based totally around being mormon. there are mormon characters in some mainstream movies- does this count?

  13. a random John on September 23, 2004 at 10:19 am

    Jack,

    It has been a while since I saw Brigham City, but it seemed to me that it was primarily a murder mystery involving a sherrif who happened to be a bishop as well. As for being available outside the Wasatch Front, I have seen it for rent at more than one video store here in Boston. My understanding is that Saints and Soldiers never mentions that the characters are LDS. I have not seen the BoM movie, but many of the Mormon comedys seem to have not risen from the level of a stream of inside jokes and cameos by minor Utah celebrities such as Jimmy Cunga and Super Dell. I suppose this is to be expected for a sub-genre that is just emerging.

    I would also echo Mike’s comment about what counts as Mormon cinema. Nurse Betty? Going Coconuts? Napoleon Dynamite?

  14. Braden on September 23, 2004 at 10:22 am

    Just want to validate what Jack said. As a theatre guy, I know of a lot of LDS artists who, as he says, feel that their talents somehow trump the necessity of living the mundane, daily principles of the gospel. I personally feel like one of the reasons we haven’t had a flourishing of Mormon art is because we don’t have a sizeable (I think it’s changing) contingent of Mormon artists who are Mormon before being artists.

  15. cje on September 23, 2004 at 11:33 am

    If you want to see real Mormons with real (Mormon) problems in a movie rent HBO’s “Angels in America”.

    The old cliche in mormon art circles is “when are we going to have our Mormon Shakespeare”–the problem is old William did not write about pleasant things–it was not sweetness and light. A lot of it was about teen sex and suicide and murder and racism and…well you get the picture.

    If Romeo and Juliet were the 16 year old mormon kids in SLC would we still watch and would we still love it and would we still learn.

    cje

  16. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 11:36 am

    Random John. Yes you are right about “Brigham City” being essentially a murder mystery. But for the LDS audience it would not rise above the less than average mystey-thriller if it didn’t have the decidely “mormon” elements in it. I saw a special preview of “Saints and Soldiers” at BYU. I think these guys have a lot of potencial. Even though the story was very cliche in many ways, there was a depth in it not yet found in other LDS movies – something truely religious rather than just platitudinal.

    Branden. I agree that the trend is changing and I’ll bet anyone dollars to donuts that a community of LDS artists more firmly rooted in the “church” will eventually produce greater art.

  17. Bryce I on September 23, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Julie said:


    (3) Brother Merrill wanted to write to the movie’s creator:

    “my open letter to Brother Rogers is not a personal assault it is an objective and professional appeal for him NOT to make another movie ripped from the pages of our most sacred book of holy writ without (1) a close alliance with the First Presidency of the church (2) enough money – and I mean A LOT MORE MONEY – to do it right (3) a more qualified and experienced team of artisans and actors (4) shooting it on film instead of video and please (5) making sure it will be the excellent epic we expect and that the Book of Mormon deserves to be.â€?

    I find (1) interesting. Would we want this as a standard for LDS art? (Would the First Presidency want it? I doubt it. I hear from a close friend in a high position that they are rather busy.)

    I think what Merill is trying to say in his point that a movie with the title “The Book of Mormon Movie” suggests strongly that it has official approval from the LDS church, and should be approached as if it does. I think he would argue that any movie based on the Book of Mormon should be approached in this manner; my opinion is that if you were to title the film “Nephi and his Brothers” you wouldn’t be under the same kind of obligation.

    Which leads me to the question: Does the Church not hold a trademark on the title “The Book of Mormon”? And if so, doesn’t it seek to enforce it? It seems like this would be a prudent thing to do.

    Here’s what I found: US Patent and Trademark Office search for “Book of Mormon”.

    Any of you lawyer types care to comment?

  18. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    I need to qualify my statement: “…I’ll bet anyone dollars to donuts that a community of LDS artists more firmly rooted in the “churchâ€? will eventually produce greater art”. I don’t mean to say that an artist cannot create great art without fully embacing the gospel. But I do mean to say that the more serious artists we have who are “Mormon before being artists”, as Branden said, the more likely LDS art will reflect, in an appropriate way, the profound elements of the gospel. As Pres. Kimball said, “… they [artists] must be faithful, inspired, active church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.“.

  19. William Morris on September 23, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    For the record: I support the ‘uh’s that Adam included in his lead up to the link to the Meridian article.

  20. Russell Arben Fox on September 23, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    While there is much to say on the subject of LDS cinema and the arts and Mormonism in general, I’d just like to say something about Kieth Merrill’s Meridian columns. They’re totally fabulous. They’ve providing me and a film-buff friend of mine with more than a few hours of enjoyment over the years. By turns deeply earnest and frustratingly conflicted, nursing weird old jealousies yet always capable of great (and always self-flattering) magnaminity, the guy was always my favorite Meridian author. His columns were a feast of always heartfelt, often cloyingly strangeled argument. Just go through the archives, and enjoy. There is his giggly, fulsome praise of a “Rising Star In Mormon Movie Making” (you’ll never guess who); his excited determination, inspired by the metaphysical bond he shares with Mel Gibson, to make a “Gladiator Meets Jesus” movie; and a whole lot more. All of it good, good stuff.

  21. Kim Siever on September 23, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    Quite honestly, if Kieth Merrill wants to take apart the Book of Mormon, he should first redo his flop of a film he called Legacy.

    That has to be by far the worst LDS film I have ever seen.

    FWIW, I saw Brigham City for the first time when I rented it from a video store here in Lethbridge. It was Richard Dutcher’s best film of the two I have seen. I liked it not for the LDS themes sprinkled throughout but for the dramatic elements Dutcher weaves into the film. It is my favourite LDS film of all the ones I have seen.

  22. Rosalynde Welch on September 23, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    CJE–

    I must take issue with your claim that “Angels in America” contains “real Mormon characters with real Mormon problems.” I think Tony Kushner is a brilliant playwright: I’ve seen both “Angels” plays numerous times and read them several times as well, and I think they’re important, exciting plays. But his Mormon characters have always struck me as devastatingly mis-drawn, if he was going for psychological or sociological realism–not that Mormons don’t have issues with prescription drug addiction, suppressed homosexuality, or other issues that arise in the play–just that Harper and Joe’s lives seem so very different in detail and broad stroke from LDS life (particularly transplanted-from-Utah LDS life). I think Kushner brilliantly exploits certain symbols of Mormon theology for his artistic purposes, and it works beautifully–but does not result in realistic portrayal of LDS characters.

  23. ed on September 23, 2004 at 3:50 pm

    This might be a controversial comment, but here goes.

    I don’t think most church leaders care much about art. They may pay lip service to it from time to time, but even that is fairly rare. I think they are mostly happy with bland, reassuring, pretty, conventional art. They care about people leading righteous, happy, conventional lives, and they care about art only to the extent that it supports this goal. Honestly, the quote from President Kimball seems mostly like wishful thinking to me.

    I DON’T INTEND THIS AS A CRITICISM, just an observation. The fact is, the vast majority of people don’t care much about art…just look at the films playing at the local multiplex. Those that do care deeply about it are often weird and messed up. Obedience, conformity, and moderation don’t seem to go along with the artistic personality, as a rule.

    Personally I go back and forth on this: some days I fell that art is great and important, and we should honor the bold artists who are willing to sacrifice for their artistic visions. Other this seems like so much vanity, ultimately much less important than some of the more mundane things in life.

  24. William Morris on September 23, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    I agree with Rosalynde on _Angels in America_.

    There’s a great essay by Jonathan Langford in the spring 2004 edition of Irreantum that makes this same argument. Sadly, it is not available online.

  25. cje on September 23, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Rosalynde and William

    Full disclosure–I’m not really a theatre goer so I have not seen the play–so i’m going exclusivly off the HBO production.

    I guess what I mean is that Harper and Joe are not entirely defined by their Mormoness they are characters who have a vast backstory and as part of that they just happen to belong to a “wierd little utah religion” this is simplistic–I know.

    However,

    The problem with a lot of mormon (performing?) art is that there is such a feeling of sacredness about the religion that alot gets igmored for fear of steeping over the line (the party line). For instance A in A doesn’t ignore the fact that alot of mormons wear temple garments and that those garments are sort of strange to non-mormons–most mormon artists would have (i would imagine) have tried to stay as far away from that fact as possible–and in a way that is not truthful.

    So although I agree that the stereotpyes are there– the way morminism is is reflected in A in A has a good deal more depth than anything I’ve seen from traditional mormon art.

    cje

  26. Philocrites on September 23, 2004 at 5:24 pm

    About “Angels in America”: I saw both plays in the Salt Lake Acting Company’s old 19th Ward Meetinghouse and thought they included the most compelling depictions of Mormons I had come across in non-Mormon literature. Maybe things have changed.

    The only LDS-targeted movie I’ve seen is “The Singles Ward,” which I enjoyed as a comedy of manners but found dishonest in its depiction of non-Mormons and pretty crass in its depiction of the main character’s reconversion. (It seemed all about nostalgia and wanting to belong, sort of second-order reasons if you ask me.)

    My question is whether Neil LaBute’s misanthropic films count as Mormon art.

    And how about “Napoleon Dynamite”? (I was so charmed by seeing those enormous Yardbird sprinklers in every outdoor scene — not to mention the scene shot in a Deseret Industries — that I warmed up pretty quickly to a truly odd film. The extras looked like a family reunion to me. My wife is from New Jersey, so “Garden State” was a splash of nostalgia for her; “Napoleon Dynamite” was my “Garden State” this summer.)

    But LaBute and “Napoleon Dynamite” make me ask: How explicitly Mormon must a film be to be a “Mormon film”?

  27. Greg on September 23, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    Philocrites,

    In the past year or so, Dialogue ran a very interesting piece entitled “Neil LaBute as a Mormon Artist.” The author does a very close reading of LaBute’s films which, to some extent, rehabilitated them for me.

    We also had a bit of discussion on what constitutes a “Mormon movie” here,. If “Latter-Days” can count, “Napolean Dynamite” certainly does.

  28. Greg on September 23, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Hmm, the link didn’t work.The discussion referenced is here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=257

  29. greenfrog on September 23, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    I personally feel like one of the reasons we haven’t had a flourishing of Mormon art is because we don’t have a sizeable (I think it’s changing) contingent of Mormon artists who are Mormon before being artists.

    Was Shakespeare an Anglican or a Catholic (we don’t have to resolve that one here) before being a playwright? Donatello a Catholic before being a sculptor? Picasso? Sartre? Flannery O’Connor? Graham Greene? Milton?

    IMO, the only circumstances in which art is important is when it embodies the truths perceived by the artist. The combination of disposition, talent and creativity is vanishingly rare to begin with. If one possessed of it is devoted to anything more important than the truths she perceives and expresses, the chances of rendering great art move from vanishingly small to even less.

    IMO, of course.

  30. Adam Greenwood on September 23, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    “If one possessed of it is devoted to anything more important than the truths she perceives and expresses”

    I think the point, Greenfrog, is that Mormonism could be the truth perceived and expressed.

  31. Jack on September 23, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    I agree Adam. For the truth – or shall we say the gospel – to be perceived, it must be lived. Therefore, if the artist wishes to express the gospel faithfully he/she must live it – or at least IMO be striving to do so.

    Greenfrog: you make a good point that great artists are not necessarily great mormons. It is a fact that many have succeeded in conveying truth better than any LDS artist could ever dream of doing. On the other hand, Pres. Kimball believed that the saints should be able to do better than Shakespeare or Handel. That’s a tall order if you ask me, and one that we’re not likely to be filled in my lifetime.

    That being said, all it takes is one or two great artists to make a difference. Surely we should be able to find a couple in a crowd of twelve million.

  32. Bryce I on September 23, 2004 at 9:02 pm

    The LDS art that most appeals to me is the art that draws upon the power of the common experiences and heritage that we share as members of the Church to tell a story. To me, Brigham City is well-worth watching just for the last scene, in which the powerful symbolism of the administration and partaking of the sacrament in a social setting is deployed to devastating effect. I also love Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker and Homecoming series for the way that they take the well-known stories of Joseph Smith and Nephi’s lives as scaffolding. Card’s storytelling provides insights into their source material, and draws strength from them as well.

    Julie and others have pointed out how some writers have made characters Mormon
    as a shorthand way of providing characters with some (superficial) depth. What we need is artists and writers who use Mormonism as a means of providing real depth — by using the associations that we make with LDS doctrine, practice, and culture as a starting point for the discussion, not as the end to which they are employed.

    On a different note, somewhat related to Julie’s point #5 regarding the availability of LDS cinema outside of Utah: I was recently disturbed to find an email in my inbox announcing the final week of The Best Two Years run in the Triangle area. The email came over the ward email list. The week before, I had noticed a flyer for the movie on one of the bulletin boards at the ward building. I also had received a postcard advertisement for the film in my snail mail.

    I’m pretty sure the snail mail came because we had had a Living Scriptures salesperson in our home over the summer, so no big worries there. The use of church resources to promote a commercial venture, however, gave me cause to fret a little. I wondered if I should make a complaint to the bishopric. Ultimately, I decided against it. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t make a comment now that the movie is gone.

    When you’re in the mission field, there’s a bit more pressure to support LDS film and other presentations by LDS artists because theaters and venues won’t book future presentations if they don’t get an audience for the stuff they do bring in. I understand this, and I don’t have a big problem with it, although I generally don’t choose to attend events based solely on the religious affiliation of the presenter. I do have a problem with the ward becoming actively involved in publicity, however. An announcement by a member in priesthood meeting is one thing; a flyer on the bulletin board and an email from the bishopric is another.

  33. Julie in Austin on September 23, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Bryce-

    I would, without a doubt, contact the sender of the email and point out that ward lists CANNOT be used for commercial or politcal purposes. This is a wall we don’t want broken. On the other hand, the ward bulletin board (at least in my experience) is an OK outlet for this: it doesn’t demand your attention the way an email does. Ours usually has used cars, etc., on it and I think that is OK.

  34. greenfrog on September 23, 2004 at 10:22 pm

    I phrased my prior comment as I did because I do not believe that the truths that can be perceived and expressed through art are completely subordinate to (or even subsumed within) the gospel as we presently understand it. So I’d prefer an artist stick to perceiving and expressing truth. If it happens to be gospel truth, so much the better. But I’ll take truth of any variety over the next best alternative.

    As I think about it, I suppose I have the same perspective when it comes to scientific truths, too. I wouldn’t want an LDS scientist to stop discovering truths in order to conform her work to her understanding of the gospel. If there is truth out there that she discovers through her efforts and devotion, it will eventually become a part of the gospel.

    Should not the same process be followed by artists?

  35. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 1:05 am

    greenfrog: You almost make it sound as if there’s a dichotomy between the gospel and truth. Is it not called the “Gospel of Truth”? I think you’re right in implying that there may be a perceived dichotomy because of our present understanding of things – and I hope that because we know that that understanding is limited that won’t be too quick to dismiss anything that may prove itself to have merit, no matter how far afield it may seem at the outset. (unless of course, it’s a well composed photo of one man urinating into the mouth of another, or a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine etc.) That said, I don’t believe that artists will be able to faithfully retell something from the Book of Mormon unless they have a feeling for the truth of it. I’m not saying that they won’t be able to produce something that has merit. But the odds are that it will lack in the area of what we consider to be “other worldy”, without which it wouldn’t make much sense. Imagine someone like Mark Twain writing some sort of narrative from the BoM. We’d have a wonderful morality play on the killing of Laban (which might be more useful than anything else that’s been done on by the LDS on the subject), but IMO it would probably miss the mark in terms of the spirit of it. (or not hit it with enough force) It’s the same with philosophy. Many have made wonderful contributions, but have any really come close to hitting the nail on the head as consistently as Joseph Smith? Now I’m not suggesting that the LDS artist needs to be a tower of spiritual strength like JS in order to create something meaningful, but I am suggesting that he/she must have access to the same Spirit that JS had in order to faithfully represent those things that came about because of that Spirit which worked within him. (i.e., the BoM, and other elements of the Restoration)

  36. Jeremy on September 24, 2004 at 1:51 am

    I think there’s a bit of a catch-22 in the mormon film genre. In order to be commercially viable within what is at this point a rather limited demographic, there’s considerable pressure to appeal to the lowest comedic or dramatic common denominator. Get too thinky or too snarky and you lose a big chunk of your audience. I think that’s why two of the smartest efforts have not done so well commercially: the Provo version of Pride and Prejudice, which I thought was very cleverly written and performed (though underfunded in its production), didn’t seem to have made much of a blip on the Mormon cultural radar; as I understand it, Brigham City didn’t do so well among Mormons either, even though it received praise from as unlikely a source as the Village Voice(!).

    I think part of the challenge is that a talented Mormon artist or composer or writer realized fairly early on that s/he has to find the best exemplars of his/her discipline outside of Mormonism, and sometime things out there are ugly or distasteful or even offensive or whatever. The artist may thus perceive an incompatibility between immersing onesself in the most skillful art and participating actively in the gospel. That perceived incompatibility leads some to either abandon art as a serious vocational pursuit, or to aim for a less aesthetically rigorous, more mormon-crowd-pleasing mode of artistic expression. That’s partly why I find La Bute so intriguing — he seems coyly oblivious to this perceived incompatibility.

    And, frankly, I think our culture tends to (implicitly? inadvertantly?) discourage serious artists. There’s an appreciation for middlebrow culture (Utah has the highest ratio of both households with pianos and households with harps), but that also serves to put artistic pursuits in a kind of Victorian space: proper girls play the piano in the parlor for guests, but let’s not get carried away…. Also, there are few aesthetes in leadership positions locally and generally (Elder Packer’s nature drawings notwithstanding), and the profile of the careers one does usually find within leadership ranks inevitably conveys an unspoken association, intended or not, between proper gospel living and “normal” upper-middle-class careers (doctor, lawyer, etc…). Unintential though it may by these things may have the effect of alienating artsy-fartsy types — they might leave the church because they don’t feel like there’s a place of dignity or respect for them within church culture. (I say “might,” but know of a handful of specific examples in which I suspect this is the case.)

    I suppose the question shouldn’t be “When will the Great Mormon Artist come along?” But rather “Will Mormons recognize the GMA when s/he comes along?” I don’t mean for this to sound snotty, but if we haven’t read Shakespeare, will we have any idea what to expect from his Mormon reincarnation? If as a people we’re not particularly culturally literate or appreciative of art on the highest levels, we might need the art world to point out the GMA to us.

  37. Jeremy on September 24, 2004 at 1:53 am

    Par. 2 first line should be “realizes”

  38. cje on September 24, 2004 at 10:17 am

    I’m going to tangent back to the original post about the BOM movie-I did not not see it but judging from the reviews that I’ve heard it seems that it sucked pretty bad.

    I’m going to make a suggestion about the problem that any BOM film will have– and that is that the story is just not very compelling in a dramatic sense. After all the BOM was written/compiled in a very biased one sided sort of way–it’s great for teaching Sunday School where the world is very black and white, but for drama you need all sorts of grey–in fact the most interesting drama happens in the grey areas of moral character. Take one of the most simplistic examples–(this may open up a whole pandoras box so bear with me) Darth Vader is by far the most interesting character in Star Wars–he has all these shades of grey–for sure he’s evil–but we also know that one time he was a pretty good person–what happened how did he become this way–what’s his story (don’t rely on Lucas to answer thoase questions–you’d do better watching Clone Wars on Cartoon Network)

    Now back to the BOM the real question in 1st Nephi is not how did Nephi become such a great prophet, but why were Laman and Lemuel so angry at him–it just seems that’s where the real story is–but you make that movie and make L and L actual people with real emotions and real issues and corcerns with their “power hungry little brother” and suddenly you have a movie with a compelling story that would probably be really good but no TMB would touch with a ten foot barge pole.

    What’re ya gonna do

    cje

  39. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 10:52 am

    Jeremy: I think you make a good point in suggesting that great LDS artists may go unrecognized by the masses. I think we have some very talented people in our midst already who haven’t made it there goal to create “mormon art”. They don’t wander aimlessly with a chip on their shoulder because the LDS community hasn’t provided a place for them to roost. They just love art and emerse themselves in it. IMO one of my favorite commentors here at T&S is one of these no-name super talents and I hope in the not too distant future to see his works published.

    As for mormon cinema; perhaps I’m a little idealistic, but I believe in the “if you build it they will come” idea. It’s just a matter of doing it. (easier said than done apparently) So, far we haven’t really succeeded with or without the input of the brethren in create a masterful cinematic piece. But, if a truely great work were to come along I have no doubt it would be embraced by enough LDS to secure its success. I also have know doubt that the brethren would whole heartedly accept a fine work that didn’t originate from the church office building – so long as its feel is consistent with the spirit and mission of the church. (I think that many of the brethren are above “middle-brow” taste in the arts and hunger to see an improvement)

    IMO, “Brigham City” was 10 times better than “Pride & Prejudice” not that I loud it as a great cinematic achievement. While the Halestorm folks can be very clever it’s apparent that they need some basic instruction in the art of cinema. I was going crazy waiting for an establishment shot in almost every sequence of P&P. You’d see a conversation at the table between two people without ever seeing the both of them together in one shot. It was very claustrophobic.

  40. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 10:59 am

    I also have know doubt that the brethren would whole heartedly accept a fine work …

    Was that a Freudian slip? “know”

  41. Braden on September 24, 2004 at 11:04 am

    CJE You said:

    “The old cliche in mormon art circles is “when are we going to have our Mormon Shakespeare”–the problem is old William did not write about pleasant things–it was not sweetness and light. A lot of it was about teen sex and suicide and murder and racism and…well you get the picture.”

    That is a fair point. I guess, though, that when I imagine a Mormon Shakespeare, I don’t see a Mormon who necessarily writes the same kind of things that Shakespeare did (although maybe s/he will). I anticipate that a Mormon Shakespeare will be analagous to Shakespeare in terms of talent, insight, and quality. In fact, and I wrote a paper about this and will try not to bore you all here, my contention is that the Restoration requires new wine in new bottles and that we will not have great art until we create artistic forms that are unique and suited for our message.

    Greenfrog, your question about the previous religiosity of Shakespeare and Milton, etc. is also interesting.

    The point of Pres. Kimball’s article is that great artists have not been religious as a rule. His contention is that with the added advantage of the Spirit, purity, etc, there is no reason Mormons can’t equal the work of great artists. Since he suggests that it is the Holy Ghost that will make the difference, and the way one gets and keeps the Holy Ghost is by living the gospel faithfully, I feel comfortable saying that great Mormon artists will have to be faithful.

    Also, if I remember correctly, Pres. Kimball talks of great artists doing justice to the themes and histroy of the gospel and Restoration. So, I’m not sure that these artists will have a great deal of corss-over appeal. Just a thought.

    Finally, the Mormon characters in Angels strike me as being shallow charicatures, beneath Kushner’s talent. I didn’t see the SLAC production, which might have been better than most because thos actors might have actually known Mormons, something I suspect Kushner doesnt’ .

  42. Mark B on September 24, 2004 at 11:31 am

    Actually, I think that Kushner did meet some Mormon kids at a summer camp where he was a counselor, and that his Angels in America grew out of his fascination for their stories about the founding of the church.

    This is all based on a faulty memory of articles I read over 10 years ago–how long has it been, anyway?–at the time that A in A first opened on Broadway, so this all may be pure invention. I probably should run off to Google before posting this, but, in the slightly better than 50-50 chance that I’m right, I wanted to post the comment so I could show off. :)

  43. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Braden said:

    “[Pres. Kimball] suggests that it is the Holy Ghost that will make the difference, and the way one gets and keeps the Holy Ghost is by living the gospel faithfully, I feel comfortable saying that great Mormon artists will have to be faithful.”

    I agree with this, but would be careful not to imply that because there hasn’t been any great LDS art to date that all LDS artists are unfaithful. I think another requisit for great art is great talent. Also, a high level of cultural consciousness toward great art is necessary so that place is given for it’s establishment, nurture and growth.

    Braden, sorry for spelling your name Branden in earlier comments.

  44. cje on September 24, 2004 at 11:54 am

    you wrote “I anticipate that a Mormon Shakespeare will be analagous to Shakespeare in terms of talent, insight, and quality”

    Talent is something you either have or don’t have–especially when it comes to art.

    Insight comes from peeling back the obvious layers and looking at what lies beneath–usually that means subverting the original idea.

    Quality really comes down to execution of the above.

    I’m trying to take this somewhere but I haven’t really found it yet.

    cje

    not CJE

  45. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    A follow-up on Angels in America:

    1. One of the things that rang false for me is that Harper and Joe are presented as Mormons and Kushner draws in some Mormon details for them [garments, the pioneer and angel stuff], the couple doesn’t seem to have any ties to a Mormon congregation. Yes, I’m sure there are many young couples that move back East and end up not being integrated into their ward at all, but the whole sociality of Mormonism is missing in _Angels_. As a result, the characters aren’t *fully* Mormon, imo.

    2. Kushner seems to have chosen Mormons because they have a funky, particularly American history and are culturally conservative, but in many ways I feel like Harper and Joe are protestants (in particular evangelicals) in Mormon drag. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the play so I’m afraid I can’t provide detailed examples, but I came away with a sense that Kushner sees Mormonism through a Protestant lens. Now, I think it’s probably true that many educated Americans view us in the same way so it’s perfectly understandable.

    3. Kushner dabbles with Mormon metaphysics, but ultimately, it’s his Marxist metaphysics that dominates. I’m not saying that he should have done it any differently — in fact, I don’t think he could have. After all, the play is at heart a Marxist screed [even if artfully done — and I think it is] that reflects Kushner’s political-aesthetic views.

  46. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    Pres. Kimball’s statement that the Holy Ghost can make the difference IMO doesn’t mean bridging the gap between *not having* to *having* enough talent to create great art. I think it was meant to be understood within the context of his idea that the saints should be able to bring forth greater works than that of Shakespeare – with the clear understanding that there is no greater talent than Shakespeare. Therefore, what we have is an enhancement of an already superior talent.

  47. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    Jack:

    I think that’s an incredibly important point — and one that too many people miss in discussions like this one.

    I would only add that I think the only person who can know if the HG made a difference is the artist him or herself. I don’t doubt that readers/viewers/listeners can feel the HG when they encounter a work of art, but that no work of art can universally arouse feelings of the HG because all of us who consume art have different filters/tastes. [And for that reason, I don’t think that “this work made me feel the spirit [or drove away the spirit]” should be used in the marketing of and/or public reaction to art.

    —-
    You know, one of these days I should write a paper on the uses, abuses and possible effects of that talk by Pres. Kimball and the speech by Orson F. Whitney that spawned this whole thing — the one that includes the quote about us having Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.

  48. D. Fletcher on September 24, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    Ah, the art question.

    I have spent a great deal of my life debating this question. I’m not sure why we feel we need a great artist in the Church, why we’re looking for it, and why we don’t see it yet (though I certainly don’t). The Church doesn’t require great art to function, and actually seems to disapprove of the lifestyles of artists who might be deemed great, like Picasso or Stravinsky. The Church needs composers for only three purposes, as far as I can see — the Primary Songs, and to a lesser extent, the hymns, and background scores to Church movies like the Temple Movie. That’s it for music, in the Church proper. No wonder there is no Bach in the Church, not that we would recognize him if he appeared. All other extraneous music, like the Tab Choir or the Hill Cumorah Pageant, is secondary to the functions of the Church.

    Some years ago, the Church had a contest for a musical, offering several thousand dollars to the lucky winner who could come up with the Mormon “Fiddler on the Roof,” (the actual example used). I put in my treatment, about my own polygamous grandmother, Rachel Ridgeway Ivins, the mother of Heber J. Grant. I was never told anything, but no one won the prize. I’m sure my idea was controversial, but then, all good ideas would have been controversial. In “Fiddler,” the youngest daughter marries outside her chosen faith, something which would never wash with the Brethren.

    I feel, in some ways, it’s a no win situation. Either you’re “with us,” and your work is free of controversy or conflict, or even exploration, or your “against us,” and as such, hardly could be considered Mormon. It’s either Janice Kapp Perry, or Tony Kushner.

    For the record, I do like Tony’s play, but as others have eloquently stated, the Mormons are the worst-written characters in it, the least “true,” particularly Harper, the wife. There is no congregation, no Ward, no Relief Society, nothing that really smacks of the Church at all in the play.

    I don’t care at all for Dutcher’s films, which are particularly poorly written, I think. Some of you have commented that the “thriller” aspect of Brigham City is the better, more interesting part of the film, but I completely disagree; it isn’t as well plotted as a weekly episode of CSI. And there’s something about Dutcher’s own writing and acting of the leading characters with breakout emotional epiphanies that smacks of the worst kind of egotism. Sorry to be so personal, I don’t know him, personally — I’m simply reacting to the films.

    I haven’t seen the Book of Mormon movie, but wouldn’t it take a mini-series at least? Merrill is right, though perhaps a little jealous, eh? He’d like to be the one to be given the money and the approval, it’s clear.

  49. Bill on September 24, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Another explanation for the lack of great LDS art is the unwillingness to pay for it. In earlier periods, secular courts and religious institutions (which often functioned like courts) spent extravagantly as they vied to bring in the best talent as an ornament to their prestige.

    Now we have a church that pays its lawyers and financial advisors, and psychologists, but considers it a great badge of honor that the Tabernacle Choir musicians work for free. We should not expect large numbers of musicians to arise out of nowhere who suddenly know all about counterpoint and improvisation when there is no incentive.

  50. D. Fletcher on September 24, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    Rachel Ridgeway Ivins Grant was my great-great-grandmother. Heber J. Grant was my great-grandfather.

    Sorry to make that mistake! I’m not that old.

  51. D. Fletcher on September 24, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Here’s a review I wrote of “Brigham City,” in May, 2001 (might be useful)

    Ruminations on “Brigham City� and cinematic depictions of faith (Don’t read further if you wish to keep the movie’s ending a surprise).

    I cringed all the way through “Brigham City.â€? I cringed at the archetypal characters; the stilted dialogue; the obvious and manipulative music; the energyless pacing and clichéd cross-editing. I cringed at the casting choices, particularly as the writer/director/star presented himself praying and taking the sacrament (his self-appointed sainthood is nearing completion — “Brigham City” is his second miracle after he made a man walk in “God’s Army” before dying of cancer and showing himself in the coffin). I cringed at the use of racial stereotyping to create suspense. I cringed at the lack of suspense. I cringed at the lack of logic for a realistic tale. I cringed at the total lack of psychological truth. I cringed because this movie, perhaps the most visible art piece ever made by an LDS church member, presents a debatable point: that Mormons cannot make expressive art, at least concerning Mormons. It is a point that I would like to see irrevocably contradicted, and I have spent my life trying to do just that; but “Brigham City” proves the rule once again.

    The murder-mystery itself is a no-brainer: certain characters are set up as red herrings (recognizable as such from the beginning), which makes for very few surprises. When the murderer is revealed, it isn’t fun, or energizing, but sloppily devised and illogical — a stranger, with a criminal record and possibly former murders, has come to town, waited years to return to his brutal ways, married, gone to church, fathered a child, and then turned murderous again, killing several young women in the space of a few days right under the noses of the town’s law enforcement and the FBI. Couldn’t he have laid low while the FBI was there? No, then there would be no movie. The scene where the murderer is revealed is by far the worst scene in a plethora of bad scenes. The Bishop/Sheriff confronts the man himself, without even calling upon the FBI. The already slow pace is actually slower just before the climax, not a very engaging way to spend the last 15 minutes out of 119. This is not “Silence of the Lambs.” It is not as well-crafted as your basic TV Movie-of-the-Week. It is a huge letdown for the audience of a suspense/action thriller.

    But then this isn’t your basic suspense/action thriller. It is a movie about spiritual enlightenment in a cruel world foaming with murderous rage. Unlike the murder/mystery itself, the ritual behavior of believing LDS members is presented credibly, even sweetly (though we wouldn’t sing “Nearer My God To Thee” as a Sacrament hymn; artistic license, anybody?), but its actual presentation in a MOVIE made me cringe, and I am trying to analyze why. The sacrament and baptism prayers are read verbatim. Other kneeling prayers are delivered (presumably scripted). I am not reacting to some perceived over-the-top evangelizing. I did find some scenes in the movie preachy in a very clichéd way (you’ll die if you smoke, I’m very disappointed to find out you like girly-porn, I got more date-offers wearing this midriff-baring blouse than in all my years at BYU, etc.). It’s the presentation of the sincere Mormon rituals of Sacrament Meeting, baptism, and the sacrament ritual itself, that made me want to run for the exit, though I witness and participate in these every week without undue stress or concern.

    The display of Mormon rituals in a commercial feature film project (in a contemporary setting) ultimately diminishes their impact (for me). These weekly rituals are profound ordinances, reestablishing weekly the great eternal truths of the restored gospel, which have been reduced to pablum for small-town congregants pretending they belong to something big and important. I was particularly horrified to note, as a PLOT DEVICE, that everyone in the Ward/Town noticed who took the sacrament and who didn’t, leading to the Bishop/Filmmaker’s final atonement: he didn’t take the Sacrament as an act of absolution for the sins of the entire town; and the congregation followed suit. They might as well have each stood up and yelled “I’m Spartacus!”

    I guess I believe that the acquiring of faith is an essentially private act, and should not be shown; a character’s level of belief should be gleaned by the audience from a subtle script. We believe sex between married partners to be a sacred act, blessed and required by God; but it is private and no one would dream of showing Mormons in the act of conceiving their children. Although the Sacrament is taken in public, it is as sacred and personal as any human ritual I can think of: by portraying it onscreen with actors taking parts of sinners and saints, it becomes banal and (worse) unnecessary. I found every scene filmed in Sacrament Meeting to be unnecessary to the story, and not illuminating to the characters and their development (actually, no character had development). It was as if the filmmaker chose to serve up these sacred rituals to shock Mormon audiences who weren’t used to watching their own behavior under such scrutiny, and insist they not only like it, but they cry out with the bloom of a testimony magnified.

    Which brings up my final point — what is the prime audience for this material? As an active (if not devout) Mormon, I was embarrassed by it to the point of anger. I may not be the ideal target viewer, but if not me, then who? Those seeking thrills from gruesome serial killer exposés will surely be disappointed. Anybody who likes independent film and it’s inherent gritty unprocessed truth is bound to find this trite and ordinary. If you like big budget spectacle, it’s not for you either. So, I think it’s catering to that Mormon audience that is titillated by seeing itself portrayed onscreen in whatever caricature or unpleasant likeness, if only to know they’re still part of popular culture even has they eschew it over the pulpit. The film was made for them, and that is exactly what is wrong with it.

    As for Dutcher, it’s easy enough to respect his faith, as H.L. Mencken said, “only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

    D. Fletcher

  52. Braden on September 24, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    cje, (sorry about the caps), Jack, and William:
    I posted too hastily perhaps. I didn’t mean to imply that the HG would make up for lack of talent, but rather, that when the talent was there, it would enhance it.

  53. Braden on September 24, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    One other comment–I dislike cheesy, cliched, or trivial film, art, music, drama, etc., as much as the next person. However, it decades for Broadway to develop from European operettas to musical reviews to musical comedy to Sondheim (someone I think is a bit over-rated but will use because he is held as the personification of sophistication and skill). Likewise with drama: the early American stock characters took a great deal of time to evolve into Death of Salesman or Angels in America. It takes a long time for cultures to generate great arts, and it seems to me that it generally comes after years of trial and error and growth–it doesn’t pop out ex nihilo. So, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the Kapp-Perrys, Dutchers, de Azevedos, Merrils, etc.–folks who are doing the best with what they have and are actualy contributing something, even if we don’t always like it. It is there work that others will hopefully stand on and improve. I don’t like Saturday’s Warrior, but I am grateful that it at least brought a consciousness of theatre to LDS poeople. Tim Slover and Eric Samuelson and improve on it and their students can improve on their work, etc

  54. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 2:18 pm

    Braden:
    I completely agree.

    In my more postmodern moments, however, I think that many of the art forms in which great art has been made are somewhat played out — esp. in terms of what modes of the form would mesh well with Mormonsim. Not that I won’t keep hoping for great Mormon novels and plays.

    But I do sometimes think some of the better, groundbreaking (yet faithful) Mormon art might not be accomplished in forms such as the graphic novel or any of the various digital arts.

  55. Braden on September 24, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    BTW, Jack, I agree with you on the gospel of truth idea.

    William,
    Hey, its nice to be talking to you, I enjoy your blog, btw.

    I agree that some of the forms are being played out. My own suspicion is that since the Restoration was new wine innew bottles, great Mormon art will also be new wine in new bottles in terms of form. I don’t believe we will simply write better Broadway musicals or absurdist plays or sonnets or operas or novels better than others. My guess is that we will somehow create new forms and genres that marry form and content. I wrote a paper on this that is in BYU studies, but I wonder if the visions of Nephi and John are any indication of what this form might look like.

    The musical is a great case in point, as is jazz–uniquely American idioms. I have to think that Mormon artists will eventually do the same thing, but possibly to a larger degree in terms of difference.

    And yes, I’m with you on graphic novels and digital arts not necessarily being the ticket!

  56. greenfrog on September 24, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    A few passing comments:

    Eugene England agreed with William Morris and Braden and suggested that the new form that Mormon artists should audition for that role — at least for literature — was the personal essay.

    While he wrote a number of remarkable essay collections, I’d suggest that the best I’ve seen from Mormons yet are those by Terry Tempest Williams.

    D.Fletcher’s previous comments about music written for Church settings triggered a further thought: exactly what is the Momon-centric role of art? My earlier post indicated my belief that it is (or should be) a kind of truth-saying. Reflecting on D’s comment, I now wonder whether my assumptions may be not only not common, but simply wrong. Is art to be a magnifying glass for already imagined and developed ideas or is it more like a trickster/clown dancing on the outside of the circle, reminding the community that fixed concepts are always imprecise enough to be wrong?

  57. greenfrog on September 24, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Oh — one other comment I’d forgotten…

    Jack noted that he wouldn’t have any regard for a crucifix immersed in a container of urine.

    Coincidentally, I read two days ago an interesting explication of that very image as art, and I had that explication in mind as I was writing the prior post. The explication was in a Sunstone article from earlier this year that a friend had photocopied for me. I don’t recall the title or author, but the topic was the use of root metaphors in our religious experience.

    The author used the crucifix in urine image to emphasize how much of our experience and lives are guided by metaphors. He noted, accurately I thought, that in simple fact urine is a relatively benign yellow liquid produced by (in that case) the artist’s own body. It is only the revulsion that stems from urine’s metaphorical connotations that draws the response from the viewer. One way of interacting with that art is to consider the source of the response it elicits in each of us and come to understand more clearly how our preconceptions affect our perceptions.

  58. D. Fletcher on September 24, 2004 at 3:23 pm

    Commenting on Greenfrog’s comments, context is often the defining element of “good” (or bad) art.

    For years, my prelude music in Church was quite often “I Feel You, Johanna,” from Sweeney Todd, the musical by Sondheim. Occasionally, I would break into “This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific, an elegant waltz. These songs are hardly appropriate for Church, and yet, played with sincerity and musicianship by the artist on the pipe organ, were not recognized from their original contexts. The sound of the Churchy pipe organ gave them a sacred context, and no one (except the artist, me) knew any better.

  59. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Actually, I meant to say: “might not be accomplished in forms such as the graphic novel or any of the various digital arts”

    They aren’t forms that I’m particularly in to, and they may be a trendy pick and end up being forms that don’t really go anywhere, but I see some potential there.

    greenfrog: Yes, great point. It makes a lot of sense — esp. considering that sermons, letters and journals comprise the majority of our Mormon letters heritage. I like personal essays, but have to admit that even the most amazing personal essays don’t affect me the same way a good short story, novel or film can.

    BTW, my favorite Mormon essayist after England is Harlow Clark. His work is an interesting blend of anecdotes, puns, literary criticism, personal narrative and poetry.

  60. Braden on September 24, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    D. Fletcher,
    I love it! Those are gorgeous songs, and your sincerity, in a sense, consecrated them. One of the things I enjoy most about the theatre is that interpretation can make such a huge difference in a piece.

    By the way, when I was priest or teacher the U of U finally won the annualy BYU/U of U football game, I played the U of U fight song on the organ during the prelude to Priesthood opening exercises. Irrelevant, but I thought of it in terms of sneaking things in to prelude music. This was noticed, though.

    William,
    I’m open to your idea about graphic novels and digital arts–but I’ve never thought of it ibefore. Would love to hear more.

  61. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    Addendum to my previous post:

    A list of works by Harlow Clark can be found here.

  62. greenfrog on September 24, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    D, I think your organ-playing, and your point, are both well taken. At a funeral for a Catholic woman held in our LDS chapel several years ago, I was pleased to be asked to sing Schubert’s Ave Maria (which I happen to love). After the service, I was mildly chastized by a couple of LDS members in attendance for performing that piece. Yet I’ve heard the same piece, in instrumental form, performed in the waiting chapel in the temple without comment or even recognition by those in attendance.

  63. William Morris on September 24, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    Meridian has been inundated with reader mail over Merrill’s column: Tempest in a Teacup, Take II: The Broth Boileth Over

    Any T&Sers want to claim comments included in Take II? I did not write in.

  64. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    greenfrog: I think you make a good point “in principle” about human reaction because of preconditioning. Art can certainly help us open up to the truth in ways not previously explored.

    That said, I wonder that the artist only spoke of the urine and not the crucifix in terms of metaphor. Or is that your own reduction of the article? In my opinion there are metaphors that have sacred meaning and if we desecrate them we mock that sacred thing behind them. Doesn’t this mortal experience have something to do with discovering what lies beyond the rituals of life? And Isn’t the gospel given precisely to guide us in that process of discovery? I think this is a much more positive and healthy way of growing beyond our preconditioning and I believe that the greatest art helps in this process. There have been works like Picasso’s “Guernica” perhaps, that have a useful shock value. But as shocking as it is, there is no ambiguity as to what is sacred.

    That said, shall we through dung on the temple in order to demonstrate that it (the temple) is only a metaphor thereby encouraging us to look beyond it for the truth?

  65. greenfrog on September 24, 2004 at 9:05 pm

    Good question. As a boring utilitarian in most of my life, I’d say we should do so only if doing so would help more people than it would harm — alleviate more suffering than it would cause. But I also don’t think that what I admire most in the artists from whom I’ve learned important truths isn’t their sense of societal decorum.

    Your point brings us back, I think, to the central question about why artists so frequently find themselves on the periphery of a community, rather than at the center. The artists I admire most seem to be the ones commenting about emperors and clothes without carefully tabulating the upsides and the downsides of making such observations.

    Guernica comes to mind — but so does Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Just as Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, he also wrote Romeo and Juliet. Michaelangelo carved the Pieta, but also David.

    What role should art play in our lives as members of the Church? A confirmatory one or a controversial one?

  66. greenfrog on September 24, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    Bad editing on the prior, but you all can probably get my drift. Just insert or eliminate negatives as needed. ;-)

  67. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 9:33 pm

    “What role should art play in our lives as members of the Church? A confirmatory one or a controversial one?”

    Great question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. I guess I would say that there’s nothing more controversial than the gospel. Therefore, if the artist is devoted to faithfully representing it in whatever medium, there should be no lack of controversy. However, if it is a truely consecrated effort on the part of the artist, the art will also confirm itself as truthful to those who are open to it regardless of the controversy.

    Well I’m off to play piano for a silly western vaudeville. Obviously I’m on the road to greatness in the world of mormon art!

    Fun chatting with you greenfrog.

  68. D. Fletcher on September 24, 2004 at 9:51 pm

    “What role should art play in our lives as members of the Church? A confirmatory one or a controversial one?�

    Before we tackle expressive art, could we just try to beef up the quality of art needed in our services? I think we need more technique before we decide what art means as a commentary on our culture.

    We need better hymns, better Primary Songs, better buildings (but fewer, I think), better lessons, and better decorative details like paintings in the buildings. We could use better music as presented in our Sacrament Meetings, too (I’m talking about musical numbers, organ preludes, etc.) It would be nice if we could build a tradition of “new” art — something like every January, a new hymn is introduced into the canon. We need to find ways to inspire and include our visual artists, and other kinds of performing artists like dancers. If there needs to be a “straightforward” movie version of The Book of Mormon, then so be it, but try to make it more useful, both technically and spiritually. Perhaps Kieth Merrill was on to something. Couldn’t movies be used as lessons for teenagers? Let’s make those BYU movies better, too.

    The art we currently have is pretty tired of doing the same job, year after year. Some of the hymns definitely need to be retired.

  69. Jack on September 25, 2004 at 1:16 am

    D. I think we all hope for a general improvement in arts. But improvement in any artistic medium will have a tendency to leven the whole IMO. So if D. Fletcher writes a wonderful LDS themed broadway like musical I’m gonna yell three cheers and hope that more good stuff will follow.

    By the way, I was very impressed with your review of “Brigham City”. I share the same feelings with regard to the sacred nature of the ordinances. I think It’s important for the artist to remember that the Gospel or the Word is a living thing, and that when we undertake to represent it to an audience we must do so without getting in the way of the potencial real time message that may be conveyed. It cannot be merely established as a culture or tradition or used as a device as you mentioned above. For that matter, what’s almost as bad is when everything else is used as a device in order to convey a gospel message – which is what happens most of the time in LDS art. We’ve got to get away from our silly platitudinal approach to the arts. It’s in our hymns and our primary songs. (not all) It’s hanging on the walls and lining the shelves at Deseret Book. (almost all) It’s everywhere! And whose fault is it? The artist’s. You can’t blame it on the average Joe/Jane mormon. I have more faith than that in the audience. Everyone loves a burger, but who would refuse a meal at a four star restaurant? The audience will go for it. (or at least enough of an audience to make it worth while) I better get off my soap box before I fall off.

  70. D. Fletcher on October 3, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    If you’ll indulge me, I’ll attach here a response I wrote to a question at TalkinBroadway.com, AllThatChat, about Angels in America (the HBO series). It came from a Mormon, querying other Mormons about their response to the program. Here’s what I wrote:

    I think your question deserves an elaborate response, though I am a little bit hesitant. I am also LDS, currently active in the Manhattan Stake, though I am gay, a conundrum if ever there was one. I am not entirely innocent of the gay lifestyle, but I am almost permanently unattached, which makes it easier to be received in the religious community without too much complication.

    I know the woman who was a student of Tony Kushner’s, and gave him the Book of Mormon (with the Angel Moroni on the cover) and started him on the journey to “Angels…” Her idea was clearly evangelical, but he was fascinated by the history, doctrine and rituals, and eventually borrowed liberally from these to create the play.

    I think Tony is respectful of his Mormon characters in the sense of giving them intelligence, inner lives, and heavy doses of reality. They are not stereotypes of conservative transplanted Utahns, with Spanish Fork accents and Laura Ashley clothes. They are modern people with modern concerns. In other ways, though, Kushner betrayed his disdain for these “believers,” portraying Joe Pitt, for instance, as an impossibly ambitious conservative lawyer on the “evil” side of law briefs (against the common needs of the people). Kushner even has Louis say, “All religions less than 2000 years old are cults.” So, Judaism is excepted (and in this case, much more reverence is accorded Judaism’s religious rituals, notably the Kaddish delivered by Louis with Ethel Rosenberg’s help). But Mormons are all about Jesus (the proper name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), a detail that is completely absent in the play.

    Many Mormon details are portrayed, some with accuracy and others with facile disdain. In the movie, Joe Pitt wears one-piece Temple garments with a zipper, something he probably wouldn’t ever have worn. Temple garments today look like Calvin Klein underwear, the boxer-brief kind. Harper wears more up-to-date two-piece garments, though she wouldn’t make love while wearing them. All the LDS characters use rhetoric including the word “God,” as in “as God is my witness,” and “My Lord…” etc., in the exclamatory sense and I find this false. Hannah says to Joe over the phone, “drinking is a sin,” which is very false, because Mormons don’t think of sin this way, and certainly don’t exclaim it as such (more of a born-again Christian trait). I also find the isolation of the couple in Brooklyn to be entirely false. Perhaps Joe Pitt has isolated himself in his closet fantasy, but Harper would be surrounded by other transplanted Mormon wives, and probably would submerge her needs in Church community service. When she separates from Joe, Harper would return to her Church community in her hometown, or wherever she goes back to. I find the character of Harper exceedingly falsely written.

    How Kushner achieves the falseness is with disclaimers, that Harper was always “different,” that Hannah was always “independent,” etc. This is the easy way to explain away the lack of a certain kind of research, how people speak to one another and behave in certain situations. Kushner understood Belize and Louis and Prior and created a hugely compelling, fantastical demigog in Roy Cohn, but he wasn’t really interested in finding the peculiar Mormon rhetoric that I’ve known all my life. Norman Mailer wrote it more accurately in “The Executioner’s Song.”

    But then, I think Kushner’s ultimate point is that one must eliminate the shackles of faith in order to find sustained fulfillment. Hannah and Harper are redeemed by becoming “enlightened” in the sense of… turning away from their Victorian, restrictive faith. And poor Joe Pitt is left unredeemed, something for which I almost cannot forgive Kushner, though in the movie, there is an extra little scene between Hannah and Joe in which it is suggested that she will take care of him, and he will be OK (again, by finding his real self, the gay man, against the tenets of his own divine belief).

    Kushner’s point is very modern, urban, popular, and vaguely clichéd. Be yourself. Ok, but what if your self is slovenly, drug-addled, and untrustworthy? Perhaps a better theme should be… be your “best” self, the self you’d really like to be. Have a few goals. Make yourself into something that’s unique and wonderful. Yes, progress forward (the “progress” message is very heavy-handed in the “heaven” scene of the play) but not just in the (sorry) “liberal, leftist, urban, 21st century” way that these works promote. Faith can be modern too. And anyone who creates beautiful things knows that the best creations come from restrictions, of scales or rhythm, or color palettes, or boundaries of stone, or rhyme scheme, or even, social behavior.

  71. Jack on October 3, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    D. That’s excellent! I really am very much impressed by your analysis and criticism of the arts. Have you thought about writing a book on the subject? I’d be first in line to buy it!

  72. D. Fletcher on October 3, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    Why, thanks, Jack! I haven’t really thought about writing. I’ve got to find something to make some money, though, having giving up my job a couple of months ago.

  73. No One on August 24, 2005 at 4:41 pm

    D. Fletcher, thank you for sharing your response! I confess that Harper’s character was so badly written for my taste that I couldn’t bring myself to see any of Angels’ good points.

    Anyway, thanks for digging deeper than I did to uncover more of the merit in this complicated work.