Saturday, June 25, 2005

Fear (of LDS culture in films)

Says Kurt Hale of the upcoming LDS comedy Church Ball:

"And we're trying to reach a broader audience, so we are constantly watering the Mormonism out."

This may show a belief that people are only interested in other people if they aren't unique; if they are in some way the same as ourselves. I think this is true in one context and false in many other contexts. I think this is definately true on the level where everybody is human and seeks after universal human meaning. I don't think it's true where everybody expresses that meaning differently, and where entire cultures have set ways of expressing it. My belief is that people are interested in coming to understand cultures foreign to them. Why not design the film to walk the audience through the experience of becoming someone else, of walking through a different culture, of Mormon culture in whatever ways it is different? I would guess from Hale's comment that his only approach is to reinforce culture where it is the same as other cultures.

Utah Mormon culture may be at least the same as much of American culture when it comes to competition in sports. A lot of Mormons distort their approach and go worse when it comes to sports. Hale may not explore whatever different approach to sports the Mormons take, and the film may suffer for it. An ending where the folks conclude that losing is really winning because you tried isn't novel. An increase of LDS inter-ward (stake) harmony as a consequence of it would be strange and novel. What if, stake-wide, the entrenched violent/super-competitive LDS elements looked to the Book of Mormon story of the Lamanites burying their weapons of war, and decided to bury their basketballs? And then later generations who made no such oath dug up the basketballs and went back to war?

It's easy to understand someone who is chopped down until they are like ourselves, but if you cut down everything different or challenging about a character, there's nothing left to reach for. And since there's nothing to reach for, the audience doesn't go on any substantial journey, and arriving at the door without ever going through it, they'll forget they ever came.

But, he adds, "..the whole story still takes place under the umbrella of the church. You just don't have to be a Mormon to get what we're doing."

Does this reveal a conclusion that no one wishes to look at the world through the lens of Mormon culture? The thing I loved about My Big Fat Greek Wedding was, specifically, the quirks, uniqueness, and idiosyncracies of Greek culture that the film walked me through. Someone compared this to The Singles Ward, complaining that The Signles Ward didn't walk you through the humor.

There's a tricky balance there. I would think the ideal thing is to set up enough information that the audience "gets it" without being spoon-fed.

I loved the Singles Ward (especially the main character's defining or transforming moments), but I have to agree with the provided example (link) of what non-LDS folks wouldn't get. Some things were deliberately this way, which can also work - such as the cameo of Richard Dutcher of Mormon fame for creating the film God's Army - Dutcher arriving at the door and declining to see his own film on the basis of its offensive content.

There are conflicting approaches to making films that are a lens on Mormon Culture. One, Dutcher's - by a lecture of his I attended at the Orem Public Library - is that LDS culture (and religion) shouldn't be "watered down" so as to be understood by the outside world. Another - Hale's - is that it does. Plainly, I more agree with the former. I add that we stand to benefit by finding ways to explore our culture from the point of view of the outside world. I'll explain why, with a prelude: Speaking straight from my religious perspective, we believe (and I beleive) that our religion has the only authority, if we are faithful, to exalt us. I am aware that such absolutism offends other denominations who insist on not insisting that they are the only ones with authority. That is a philisophical quandary for another day.

We stand to benefit understanding the view of outsiders to our religion. The reason for this is that, while in so many ways we are definately unique, in so many ways we are outsiders to our own religion.

Our own scripture says that natural man is an enemy to God. None of our scriptures say that at present we are collectively exalted as a people. So the lot of us are very often operating under the laws and foibles of natural man. In fact, according to President Ezra Taft Benson, the church as a whole remains under a sad condemnation for our failure to grasp and utilize the Book of Mormon as we ought. We are waiting for that condemnation to be lifted! So, while we have a grasp of the principles of our own religion on a level, all of us, in so many ways, do not grasp the full meaning. At present, Exalted we Ain't. So many of our misconceptions and bad habits fall right in line with our outside peers that we so condescendingly call "worldy", while we are just like them at times.

But this doesn't mean there isn't hope for ourselves and humanity. And what of our outsider peers? Brigham Young said that Mormons could lay claim to the truth wherever in the world we find it. We cannot know the truth elsewhere without comparing and adding it to what truth we already have. In that process of collecting truth from elsewhere, we must separate it from fallacy elsewhere. If separating exterior truth means separating from exterior fallacy, it must also be that interior truth was found by separating from interior fallacy. We weren't born into this world better, as so many of us so annoyingly behave as if we are, just because we're Mormon. We are as fallen as Adam ever was. I do not say that I hold our doctrines incorrect. I say that our behavior often goes against our doctrine. We try to do right but often we do wrong. We are supposed to learn from that process.

Someone may think I try to justify sin. I do not. Let's not sin. But when we do, let's learn from the experience instead of ignoring the sin. And, very frankly, here is my worry: that we are hiding. I fear that we are hiding who and what we are because to show others what we are, we have to show them more of what we aren't. We can't really put our highest aspirations out there unless we build those aspirations up from what ground we have not yet covered, or worse, sunk far too low upon. The light doesn't shine unless it shines in darkness, and our own human errors are a lot of that darkness.

So, I endorse works of art that show learning from sin insofar as it is an experience that teaches us we don't want it; that we do not want to do wrong but right. Everyone falls into this world with incomplete information. Positive and negative experiences teach us what life is really about.

If, as I fear, we get so caught up with being and doing right that wrong must be denied, we do ourselves a disservice, because there is always some wrong, and if we ignore it, it's power remains.

I know people who feel betrayed by Mormon comedies that explore our more common, I suppose mass-market foibles because the outside world will accept them - and who unfairly judge those comedies as putting up such foibles as ideal. This common response makes it very difficult to get anywhere with an audience. This response overlooks a major pretext of comedy: things being funny because they aren't cool; people being foolish. I wonder that the watering-down approach may be a response to that; not bringing up things that would really irk the audience. But I think watering down might also reinforce the response; I suspect an audience would be more inclined to forgive the film characters if deeper human flaws were exposed that explain their foolishness. Even there, though, a lot of audiences still don't get it. Their loss.

On the other side of the argument - watering ourselves down as far as presentation - there are places where we need that, where it would be innapropriate to explore some contrary or dark issue without sufficient exposure and time.


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