Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Film: "God's Army" and kindred spirits

Dear Y.A.,

I still check out K.'s blog occasionally, for no particularly good reason except that I like to read. (I mean, I read my OWN blog sometimes when I'm looking for reading material.) Bearing in mind that I genuinely do like K. as a person, it's interesting to me that I find these films that she loves so much to be so, well, tedious. She just wrote a glowing post (quoted below) about Dutcher's film God's Army.

I didn't connect with God's Army at all. As I recall, I thought the missionaries portrayed in the movie were a bunch of dungol punks (there's this crude scene about photographing someone in the W.C.) and their dilemmas implausible. Look, I realize that some people really do have testimony issues, but I couldn't take a movie about resolving those issues WHILE ON A MISSION seriously because frankly, a mission is not the place to resolve those doubts. Not that it may not sometimes happen, but it's not Church policy or practice, it's an aberration if it does happen, and that made the movie less about my religion than about a bunch of, I dunno, American religious people who happened to believe they were LDS. I don't remember a single character who impressed me as believing in true principles. I remember being distinctly un-shocked when I found out that Richard Dutcher had left the Church and decided to quit making films for Mormon audiences--because from seeing God's Army and reading about Brigham City, it didn't seem like Dutcher appreciated the Latter-day Saint perspective in the first place. Maybe he appreciated the "Mormon" perspective that K. likes to talk about, but the culture is not the doctrine.

Anyway, it was quite interesting to hear K. say of this movie that it was, for her, "something that I've always felt very deeply but haven't found the words or medium to express myself." Datum. I wonder if my siblings (e.g. T. & T.) would dislike this movie too, or if it's just me. My gut feel says that anyone with our value system is going to find the movie less than thrilling, although those with more empathy than I may enjoy it on another level as a human interest story. Remind me some time to ask T. and T. their opinions of the movie some time. But honestly, it gives me the creeps to hear K. say stuff like this and it makes me think she's well shut of me. So. Alien.


On Thursday last we watched God's Army in my Mormons and film class. The only other Richard Dutcher film I've seen is States of Grace. As much as I liked States of Grace, I liked God's Army even more. I was so impressed. My experience watching God's Army was similar to my experience watching New York Doll for the first time. I think I've mentioned in past posts that New York Doll was what got me interested in Mormon letters to begin with. Watching Arthur Kane's story unfold on screen in all of its beautiful complexity, shaped and crafted by deft hands, but not filtered or molded into something it wasn't made me realize how important Mormon stories are--how they need to be told and told well. I had a nearly identical experience watching God's Army.

I like that in the Fifth Wave of Mormon cinema, several filmmakers working independently from the Church and other institutions have captured the Mormon experience more authentically. For example, in God's Army we have Elder Banks, an African American missionary who during one scene is treated patronizingly by African American investigators because they think he's been duped by the Church. I remember witnessing something similar when I went on splits with sister missionaries during a Stake missionary day activity back home in Sacramento. The sister missionary I was assigned to go tracting with was African American. At one of the homes we visited, we chatted with a couple who were also African American. They weren't interested, but it was pleasant enough, and I didn't think much about it until my sister missionary companion, eyebrows knit together, told me the couple had been laughing at her--that they were thinking essentially the same thing that the investigator couple in God's Army had thought about Elder Banks. Along with this issue, Richard Dutcher brings up several others: a young missionary having doubts because of the anti-Mormon material he's been reading, the protagonist questioning his faith because his step-father who brought him and his mother the Gospel had been jailed for molesting children, a sister missionary gaining a testimony of the Gospel only to lose an important relationship in the process, missionaries becoming frustrated because there's only so much they can do to help their investigators. These are the kinds of things that Mormons experience, and it was refreshing to see it portrayed on film--to see missionaries get angry and frustrated in once scene but humbly give blessings of healing and comfort in another scene. These may seem incongruous, but these scenes certainly reflect my own experience quite well--those paradoxes of Mormonism that Terryl Givens has discussed in articles and in his recent book, People of Paradox.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for God's Army was somewhat quenched by the fact that there will never be another one because Richard Dutcher is no longer interested in working in Mormon cinema. To me this is tragic in a very personal way because when art touches me the most, it's when it speaks something that I've always felt very deeply but haven't found the words or medium to express myself. When the Mormon community lost Richard Dutcher, we lost a voice that was successfully speaking the Mormon experience. Like being struck dumb just after we'd learned to speak. I only hope that future Mormon filmmakers will take up where Dutcher left off.

"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

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