Mormonsploitation!!

December 9, 2005 | 57 comments
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That is the name of a film series currently going on at the Pioneer Theater in Manhattan’s East Village. The tagline for the series is: “A quick overview of some of the Mormons’ crazy and dangerous ideas, as well as some of the goofy characters the LDS community has brought forth into the celluloid world!”

Screenings include Trapped by the Mormons (2005) (“starring NYC Drag King Johnny Kat”), All Dolled Up (2005), Primer (2004), Trapped by the Mormons (1922), New York Doll (2005), John Ford’s Wagonmaster (1950), A Mormon Maid (1917), and a medley of Man’s Search for Happiness (1964), Cipher in the Snow (1973), The Mailbox (1977), and How Do I Love Thee (1965). Also included are various other Mormon shorts, and Peluca, Jared Hess’s precursor to Napolean Dynamite. If you ever wondered how a bunch of irony-drenched hipsters would react to Cipher in the Snow, here is your chance.

Interestingly, it looks as though BYU helped out with this series, as the theater thanks James D’Arc of BYU’s film archive, among others.

More information here (scroll down) and here.

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57 Responses to Mormonsploitation!!

  1. jimbob on December 9, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    “Cipher in the Snow,” but no “Johnny Lingo” or “Tom Trails”? Surely the powers that be have made some serious errors in judgment here.

  2. Mark B. on December 9, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    I’ll look for you and the better half over in the east village, Greg.

  3. Kingsley on December 9, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    And what about the missionary video on manners where the sisters learn to not exit cars spreadeagle and the elders learn that the proper way to butter bread is to gently tear it in chunks (one bite at a time) and butter each chunk individually.

  4. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 6:56 pm

    Cipher in the Snow is an oft-overlooked but crucial entry in the Mormon film pantheon. Far as I’m concerned, everything Niel LaBute has done is essentially a remake of it.

    I’m mostly joking, of course. However, when a colleague in the theater department at my school was mounting a production of “The Shape of Things,” I did loan her my copy of Cipher to give her some context for LaBute’s dark moralism.

    When she returned it, she was baffled. “They showed you this in Sunday School?”
    Me: “Yes, they did.”
    Her: “And what were you supposed to learn from it?”
    Me: “I guess, ‘If you make fun of the dumb kids, they might die.’”
    Her: “Yeah, I got that. I just couldn’t tell for sure if it was meant to discourage you from doing so.”

  5. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 7:01 pm

    Also, I’m disappointed they’re not showing The Phone Call (which was re-released on the same DVD as Cipher a few years ago), since, as I argued long ago in the ‘nacle, Hess’s Napoleon is clearly derivative from it.

  6. Ian M. Cook on December 9, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    I agree that Johnny Lingo should have made it to the list. It’s a pure classic.

  7. Wilfried on December 9, 2005 at 7:35 pm

    When I taught teacher ed at the U of Antwerp in the late 70s and early 80s, I used to show Cipher in the Snow to my students. And many were wiping tears. There was nothing “Mormon” in that film, only a universal message, but, of course, in a format of that period. Years later, alumni kept telling me it was a highlight of their training, a message they never forgot. So, what has changed?

  8. Kingsley on December 9, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    All that has changed is that one half of the U.S. gets its news from Jon Stewart and the other half from Bill O’Reilly.

  9. ryan lindgren on December 9, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    though the connection to mormonism is thin to nonexistant, I recommend Primer. Made for peanuts, one of the better movies I’ve seen in the past year. A time traveling suspense movie. Popular at sundance.

  10. Ben S. on December 9, 2005 at 8:10 pm

    Primer is a Mormon movie?

    Why’d they leave off Paint Your Wagon? It has polygamy, polyandry, AND Clint Eastwood singing “I Talk to the Trees” and my personal favorite “They Call the Wind Mariah.”

  11. harpingheather on December 9, 2005 at 8:19 pm

    I don’t know what’s changed, Wilfried. “Cipher” is a powerful and upsetting story. I found it so when I first saw it as a young woman in Sunday School and I still find it so. Though it is upsetting I think that’s a good thing. We want our children to see how their negative behaviour affects others. The kids in that movie weren’t thinking when they tormented that boy and that’s precisely the problem. They were thinking at the end and so was my class.

    It saddens me that beautiful, simple things of truth are so often dismissed as cliche by a bored and saturated audience.

  12. Adam Greenwood on December 9, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    “However, when a colleague in the theater department at my school was mounting a production of “The Shape of Things,â€? I did loan her my copy of Cipher to give her some context for LaBute’s dark moralism.”

    Let’s close down the blog. We’ll never top this.

  13. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    It saddens me that beautiful, simple things of truth are so often dismissed as cliche by a bored and saturated audience.

    I don’t think Cipher is dismissed as cliche, but as implausibly extreme. Sorry to play the role of the cynic, but I think Cipher simply comes across–at least to audiences today–as simply hamfisted and melodramatic to the point of camp. I think I think its strident tone makes modern audiences suspicious of its warning — like a child who becomes immune to parents’ warnings when they seem to exaggerate the gravity of the bad consequences.

    That’s not to say that I didn’t have the same reaction as HH and Wilfried when I first saw it, however. I apologize if my earlier comment came across as insensitive.

    I saw Primer, and liked it very much, but detected nothing Mormon in it whatsover — unless you count the presence of white shirts and ties. Which criteria, I suppose, would just as easily qualify it as an accountant movie or a carpet salesman movie as a Mormon movie. (Were there Mormons involved in making Primer or something?)

  14. jjohnsen on December 9, 2005 at 8:56 pm

    Primer doesn’t have any Mormon themes as far as I can remember, but I believe some of the people that made it are LDS.

  15. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    “However, when a colleague in the theater department at my school was mounting a production of “The Shape of Things,� I did loan her my copy of Cipher to give her some context for LaBute’s dark moralism.�

    Let’s close down the blog. We’ll never top this.

    Adam: apologies. I must have omitted the tags.

  16. Adam Greenwood on December 9, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    I’m not a cynic at all, but Cipher was hard for me to swallow. I felt like I either had to laugh at the film or be aghast that someone made it.

  17. Greg Call on December 9, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    The Pioneer Theater folks acknowledge that including Primer is a stretch, at least:

    “ALTHOUGH NOT OPENLY MORMON, PRIMER FEATURES TWO GUYS IN WHITE SHIRTS AND TIES WITH CRAZY IDEAS ABOUT THE FUTURE AND THE PAST SPEAKING GIBBERISH SOMEWHERE IN THE AMERICAN WEST. COULD PRIMER BE A COVERT MORMON PROPAGANDA MOVIE? COME INVESTIGATE!”

  18. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 9:02 pm

    Adam: apologies. I must have omitted the tags.

    WOOPS. Tried to make a lame joke using phone html tags, which made punch line disappear completely.

    Anyway, the point I was making was that I made the connection between Cipher and LaBute with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

  19. M.J. Pritchett on December 9, 2005 at 9:54 pm

    Jeremy:

    I have always thought of “Cipher” as a source (or at least a precedent) for LaBute’s dark view. Seriously.

    Therefore, I was disappointed to learn that (as I recall) he converted in high school or college and so probably never got the full “Cipher” experience–seeing it for the first time as a 10-year old in Sunday School.

    Actually, I remember hearing the story told in primary in the 60′s, before it was made into a movie. By the time I saw the film when it came out in the 70′s I was a jaded and cynical seminary student, but I still remembered the impact the story had on me as a child.

  20. Jeremy on December 9, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    M.J.,

    LaBute converted while studying theater and film BYU, so there’s a chance he learned the craft of filmmaking and the basics of the gospel from from the makers of Cipher… :)

  21. Tim J. on December 9, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    Jeremy,

    I second you on “The Phone Call,” starring the guy who played “Jimmy the photographer” from the Superman movies. It is hilarious. Whenever I’m called on to do an impromptu substitute lesson for the youth, it’s the first video I look for.

    I’m trying to think what video could be more depressing, “Cipher in the Snow,” or “The Mailbox.”

  22. WendyP on December 9, 2005 at 11:16 pm

    I vote “The Mailbox” as most depressing. I bawled and couldn’t be consoled when I first saw it.

  23. Melissa Proctor on December 10, 2005 at 12:00 am

    Mark B. are your plans definite? I’ll be in New Haven Saturday and could certainly drive down to see this film, but would rather not walk out of the theater after midnight by myself in New York City. If you’ve already bought tickets, then I’ll buy mine. Otherwise I’ll wait until it comes out on DVD.

  24. Grimwanderer on December 10, 2005 at 12:08 am

    How about the old “Families are Forever” (you know.. the one with the song “I’ll build you a rainbow” where the kid’s mother dies). I am a cynic… but I can admit I cried when the missionaries showed me that one (a very very long time ago now).

  25. Kaimi Wenger on December 10, 2005 at 12:08 am

    I’m jealous that I’m on the wrong coast for this — it looks like a lot of fun.

    Though your list inexplicably omits Baptists at our Barbeque . . .

  26. Greg Call on December 10, 2005 at 12:31 am

    Mark B. (#2): This would have been a fun outing — the theater is right on the F line! You should take all the kids for a holiday family treat.

  27. Blain on December 10, 2005 at 2:00 am

    Ben S. (#10) — Don’t forget “I Was Born Under a Wandrin’ Star”…at least I think it was Eastwood on that song, too.

    So, has anyone seen the church video “Christmas Snows, Christmas Winds”? I vote for this one as most depressing. It ends with absolutely no redemptive note–almost the opposite in fact. Made me feel like an ice knife had been thrust through my heart. It didn’t even make me cry; I couldn’t believe that that was where it ended. Sooo…cooold!

  28. meems on December 10, 2005 at 2:19 am

    There was a time awhile back when the church was throwing out all their 16mm films (you know, when that new-fangled VHS thing got started), and I snagged a few copies of stuff out of “free” pile at church. (I have a 16mm projector at home). One of the movies was Man’s Search for Happiness, which coincidentally was also shortly thereafter playing at an art house cinema-type venue in the City (that’s San Francisco to you small town folk), and the experience of watching Man’s Search for Happiness in a group of art-punks laughing their heads off was actually pretty disturbing.

  29. Logan on December 10, 2005 at 8:21 am

    Hey, if people are really going, I’ll come too. This sounds like a blast. Looks like New York Doll is tonight. I still haven’t seen it — I’ll have to see if my wife wants to go.

  30. Ivan Wolfe on December 10, 2005 at 11:00 am

    grimwanderer:

    When I was taking a songwriting class from Ron Simpson at BYU, he had an interesting tale about that “I’ll Build You A Rainbow” song.

    When it was orginally pitched, he was at that meeting and he and his producing partner, after the song was over had a dozen reasons in their heads over why this just wasn’t a good song, was all wrong for the audience, etc. But before they spoke to the writer, they looked at each other and noticed that they both had tears in their eyes.

    So, it was approved. The moral of the tale – no matter how much something doesn’t fit all the “rules” for good songwriting or art, if it works, it works.

  31. Ivan Wolfe on December 10, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Oh, yeah – and I hated the Mailbox as a kid, because it was so depressing. Rather than make me want to do my home teaching, it plunged me into (for a 13 year old) existential despair. It might be a good movie, but I was depressed for a week and could find no joy in life (I’m not joking. But it may have just been too typical 13 year old angst).

  32. Rob on December 10, 2005 at 12:31 pm

    Growing up in Oregon, they showed us Cipher in the Snow in our public elementary school. Less teasing ensued…

  33. D. Fletcher on December 10, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    Doesn’t anybody know about And Should We Die? It’s the best movie produced by the Church and BYU.

  34. Seth Rogers on December 10, 2005 at 1:51 pm

    Yeah, I love “The Phone Call” and “Johnny Lingo.”

    But I also remember my parents showing us kids stuff like:
    -The Mailbox
    -Cipher in the Snow
    -John Baker’s Last Run
    -That depiction of the father holding the bridge in place while his son gets run over
    -The girl donating blood to her brother expecting to die
    -The Gift (kid wakes up early to milk the cows for his dad)
    -Some story about a dad whose kid gets run over by a reckless youth running from the cops
    -Another story about a teen boy who loves horses whose domineering father is reliving his high school glory days through him (bleak and kinda trippy)
    -Mr. Kruegar’s Christmas

    It was an interesting childhood.

  35. Seth Rogers on December 10, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    Oh gosh,

    And what about that movie where the kids’ mom dies and alcoholic “Uncle Ben” has to lay off the sauce to get custody?

  36. gst on December 10, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    “Wandering Star” was Lee Marvin.

  37. JWL on December 10, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    I’ll be there for the 10:45PM ‘New York Dolls.’ Anyone want to get together for dinner before the show?

  38. Logan on December 10, 2005 at 3:57 pm

    I’ll join you, JWL. It will be a nice distraction after studying for my Torts final all day. I’ll try and get my wife to come, too. She’s often tired on Saturday nights, having worked six days in a row, but maybe I can convince her.

    We can discuss details here in case others want to come, or you can email me: loganbobo@gmail.com

  39. jimbob on December 10, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    “How about the old “Families are Foreverâ€? (you know.. the one with the song “I’ll build you a rainbowâ€? where the kid’s mother dies). I am a cynic… but I can admit I cried when the missionaries showed me that one (a very very long time ago now).”

    After listening to that record, I can remember telling my mom that I wished that she was the best football player on the block and that she was letting me down.

  40. JWL on December 10, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Say we meet at the theater at 8:30, pick up tickets (the website says they are available three hours before the show) and find someplace to eat from there? Anyone else want to join us, just post here so we know who to look for.

  41. Logan on December 10, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    Perfect, JWL. I’ll see you there at 8:30.

    Um, I think I remember what you look like, even though it’s been a while.

    I’ll be the guy with dark shaggy hair and a scruffy face (I don’t think I looked like that last time we met), and I might have a gorgeous woman with me. Ha — that probably doesn’t help at all, seeing as how the theater’s in the East Village!

  42. WillF on December 11, 2005 at 2:04 am

    “I’ll build you a rainbow�:

    In the Dominican Republic we taught the neighbors of a member family a first discussion. When we went and visited the members later they asked if we had shown them the “I’ll build you a rainbow” film (the Spanish translation).

    When we told them we hadn’t, they were shocked at our ineptness as missionaries, and even chided us in all seriousness with something like “don’t you know you should show that to all your investigators?” It turns out that seeing it was what convinced them to join the church.
    Not to stereotype, but the “pull at the heartstrings” gotitas-de-amor (raindrops of love) quality of that film fits so well into Latin culture that I might have been convinced that it was in Spanish first, except for what I think was the Jordan River temple at the end.
    —-
    Does anyone remember the film that was originally in Spanish about two boys who get into some kind of fight, maybe with rocks? As far as I could tell, it was the only one that was made in a language other than English first. Which was nice because showing the other standard flicks of the 90′s (Prodigal Son, On the Way Home, etc…) made me worry that our investigators were going to think that Mormons were all super-wealthy.

  43. WillF on December 11, 2005 at 2:09 am

    And what is the film where Pancho Villa clashes with people in the Mormon Colonies?

  44. manaen on December 11, 2005 at 4:13 am

    One of my old favorites was “5 Principles of Supervision” a surprisingly self-aware overt-the-top film. It’s about a Sunday-School Superintendent going through his challenges. One of the them is how to correct and counsel one of his teachers, who also is his boss at the steel mill during the week. Favorite scene: Superintendent is in a classroom saying that his biggest challenge is… and the boss, in work clothes and hard hat, busts right through the chalkboard and wall to come into the classroom to say, “Me!”

  45. Seth Rogers on December 11, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    Honestly, I think I like the old 70s offerings better than the stuff they came up with in the 90s (with the exception of “How Rare a Possession, which I like quite a bit).

  46. Carolyn on December 11, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    Has anyone ever seen the Japanese version of “Man’s Search for Happiness”? It is exactly the same as the English version, shot for shot, except everyone is Asian. That includes the portrayal of the celestial kingdom. I had no idea the after life was so segregated!! Hilarious.

  47. Seth Rogers on December 11, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    No, but I saw Johnny Lingo in dubbed Japanese. It’s really just about as good in either language.

  48. Jeremy on December 11, 2005 at 10:38 pm

    My wife’s organizing a youth activity in our ward that I hope other wards pick up: she’s doing an audience-participation screening of Jonny Lingo (in the tradition of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but without all the tranny vampire stuff).

  49. drex davis on December 12, 2005 at 2:35 am

    I can’t believe they’re not showing Danny Boyle’s latest film “Millions”.

    That has perhaps the funniest portrayal of LDS missionaries anywhere. One great exchange:

    Policeman: “Where did you get the money to buy all this stuff.”
    Missionary: “It was a donation.”
    Policeman: “And you bought a foot spa?”
    Missionary: “Well, we were praying for comfort from our discouragement.”

  50. toady on December 12, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    My favorite has always been the one with the granny who shakes hands with a bunch of kids and tells them, “now you have touched a hand that touched a hand that touched a hand that touched a hand that touched the hand of the prophet joseph smith.”

    sorry to see the film series missed this one.

    the other one that really should be included is “for time or eternity,” starring terry warner and including a great depiction of the preexistence (think 1970s chaises in a step-down lounge) with weird polygamist overtones.

  51. Carol on December 13, 2005 at 2:25 am

    This thread is hilarious. What about “The Last Leaf”?

    Still, the “The Mailbox” wins for laying on the guilt. I’ve got a few grandmas who could always use more attention.

  52. manaen on December 13, 2005 at 3:59 am

    11
    “It saddens me that beautiful, simple things of truth are so often dismissed as cliche by a bored and saturated audience.”

    At the “Y” in the 70s, we organized a “Spencer W. Kimball Film Festival” — a projector and some couches in our aparments’ parking lot — to have some fun with the campiness of some films in which he appeared. We laughed through the first film, calmed down in the second, and by the third, the Spirit overpowered the deficiency in production values.

    We all had testimonies. Could someone post the affect of the Church films on Manhattan’s people?

  53. Wm Jas on December 14, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    As usual, the best Mormon film of all time, “That Which Was Lost,” goes overlooked.

    Rick: Hiya, Lily. How’s it going, Turtle?
    Turtle: Like around and around!
    Lily: Get off the man’s grass, Turtle.
    Turtle: Yes, madam. Well, look at all them little blades! Rows and rows of blades and blades…

    They just don’t write dialogue like that anymore.

  54. manaen on December 14, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    53
    I still use that answer (around and around) when someone asks me how it’s going!

  55. Greg Call on December 15, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Today’s NY Times has a review of the “remake” of Trapped by the Mormons. Here is the link.

  56. Ken on January 25, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    [QUOTE=Carolyn]Has anyone ever seen the Japanese version of “Man’s Search for Happiness�? It is exactly the same as the English version, shot for shot, except everyone is Asian. That includes the portrayal of the celestial kingdom. I had no idea the after life was so segregated!! Hilarious.[/QUOTE]

    Well, the Japanese [I]do[/I] need to learn (at least [I]eventually[/I]) that at least some [I]gaijin[/I] are going to make it to the Celestial Kingdom … but it’s better to save [I]that[/I] “principle of the Gospel” until they’ve been members of the Church long enough that their tender testimonies won’t be shaken! ;-D (For those of you who are wondering, yes, I’m kidding! …)

    Apologies for my contribution to the thread. You see, I am an uncouth, unenlightened [I]westerner[/I] … and a barely-literate [I]Utahn[/I], to boot … I feel so out-of-place among all of you [I]uber-enlightened [U]Easterners[/U]. Pardon the interruption. I’ll go back into “Lurk” mode now.

  57. Ken on January 25, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    Oops. I used UBB code, which obviously doesn’t work. Oh, well.