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:
“â€œCanâ€™t you share your reactions to Rogerâ€™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:
â€œmy 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 â€“ 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.