Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mormon-Movie Auteur Sheds Moniker

Coming to faith as a teen in Calgary meant I wrestled with the claims of the Mormons. My city, I was told, had more Mormons (as well as cars) per capita than any place outside Utah. (Well, I don't know how many cars they have per capita in Utah. It was more cars per capita than any place in the entire world. But I digress.)

I didn't end up becoming a Saint, but I've continued to have a sideline fascination with the gang ever since.

One example; the first film I reviewed for Christianity Today was a Mormon film, THE BEST TWO YEARS.

Another example. Picnicking at Spanish Banks, I watched a large group of gorgeous twenty-somethings gather for a barbecue. Frisbees, food, flirting, general good humour and high spirits - but no beer, no fights, no swearing. I was thinking, only First Baptist seemed large enough for a College & Career group of that size. But I didn't recognize a single face. Maybe some kind of youth conference? And then the guitars came out, and it began to dawn on me; I didn't recognize a single song. These weren't Christians, or at least not exactly; these were Mormons.

From a bit of a distance, Mormons look pretty much like your standard evangelical Christians. Which has had me wondering from time to time if there really is much of a difference.

Sometimes the effect doesn't go away even up close. I spent a week at a playwrighting workshop with a writer from the Brigham Young theatre department, and his play was full of grace. In fact, it was about grace. He really got it right. When we eventually talked about my fascination with but theological problems with the LDS church, he agreed that the church under-emphasizes grace, he seemed a bit baffled that I thought grace was so utterly central, but when it came right down to it, he - like his play - was all about grace.

I came away from that thinking what I guess I've always thought. That here and there among the Latter Day Saints are people who really do get it, but that by and large, as an institution, they just don't; the prevailing philosophy is one of Being Good. Earning one's way to heaven, or salvation, or divine approval. The Boy Scout motto turned into religion. A religion about achieving and succeeding - the ultimate American religion - which is inevitably going to end up a religion of failing, and therefore either of guilt and discouragement or of hypocrisy. Whereas the gospel that Jesus brought is about how we just plain can't earn our way - and, therefore, that it's got to be all forgiveness, first to last. I understand the misperception that Christianity is all about sin and guilt; it starts there so it can move beyond. "Yup, you've sinned. Forgiven. Let's move on."

So maybe the rest of the Christian world isn't so much different from our LDS cousins as I would like to think. There's plenty of folks in plenty of churches who really don't grab hold of grace at all. Churches attract every kind of hurting, broken and screwed up human being, including the constitutionally religious, and so - sadly, ironically, in the presence of Jesus and his words, week after week - the place ends up full of guilt-trips and self-righteousness in equal measure. It's hard for us humans to grab hold of, and hold on to, the slippery, scandalous idea of grace. So maybe it's as much a surprise in any church to find a real Christ-ian as it is in the Mormon church. To find somebody who really gets it, understands it, lives it, somebody who neither resorts to their own goodness nor returns to their own badness, but lives in that eye-of-the-storm centre place where God lives.

Still, I've ended up believing there's a difference between The Latter Day Saints and the rest of us sinnner-saints. There's a mix in every church of both sorts: believers and unbelievers, doers and pretenders, whores and hypocrites. But what gets preached from the pulpit week after week is essentially different, and different in a way that matters. However much it does or doesn't get through, Christian churches preach grace, non-Christian churches don't. If the party line is do-gooder-ism, it ain't from Jesus. And surely what's being preached week after week gets through to at least some of the people, some of the time.

Anyhow. That's all a lead-in to a fascinating L.A. Times article about Richard Dutcher, "the father of Mormon film," who went to Hollywood and lost his Faith. Which doesn't necessarily mean he's lost God. Not at all. (Which is why I needed to write all that other stuff. Far be it from me to theologize without good reason.)

I can't help thinking of Paul Schrader, who fled what he perceived as the moralism of Dutch Calvinism (he was a Calvin College grad or drop-out, depending who's telling the story) and has ended up making a ton of movies, some of them masterpieces, as preoccupied with God as the films of Bresson or Tarkovsky. Doesn't FALLING sound like Dutcher's own TAXI DRIVER?

I'll be watching this film maker.
Once known as the king of Mormon film, a crisis of faith has him heading in a new direction.
By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 19, 2008

RICHARD DUTCHER didn't set out to become a filmmaking messiah. Before he became known as "the father of modern Latter-day Saint cinema," Dutcher was simply a writer-director-actor hustling for movie work in late '90s Los Angeles. That is, until the devout Mormon took stock of an underserved filmgoing community -- his own.

"There was Indian cinema for the Indian community. Gay and lesbian cinema was starting to mature. There was black cinema," Dutcher recalled. "I realized there's 12 million Mormons in this country and we don't have a cinema of our own. I thought, 'Holy cow! If I could make a movie for this demographic that's successful and other people could start making Mormon films, it could be a vibrant thing.' "

"God's Army," the low-budget drama about missionaries proselytizing in Hollywood that Dutcher wrote, directed and starred in, garnered nearly $3 million at the box office, a smash by indie-movie standards. The 2000 film had higher production values and asked bigger theological questions than was typical of the straight-to-DVD Mormon movie fare before it. But, more important, it ushered in a new era for Mormon film. He became the first Latter-day Saint filmmaker to land a movie about Mormons, intended primarily (but not exclusively) for Mormon viewership in theaters across the country.

But after filming several other of the genre's touchstone works, Dutcher renounced Mormonism last year, citing a theological evolution he calls "a very frustrating enlightenment." And he tendered his kiss-off to LDS cinema, "leaving Mormon moviemaking to the Mormons," as he put it in a controversial opinion piece that ran in the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah.

Now, after incurring scorn in the Mormon movie world, the faith-based auteur is back with his most personal film to date, "Falling." Glibly marketed as "the first R-rated Mormon movie" in Utah, it opened in Los Angeles on Friday for a one-week engagement at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Focused on an ambulance-chasing videographer (played by Dutcher) who haunts Hollywood's mean streets, crime scenes and bloody accidents for footage to sell to unscrupulous media bottom feeders, "Falling" is, at its core, the story of a man's anguished search for salvation after repudiating his faith. (The L.A. Times review called it "one of the best small pictures of its kind in recent memory.")

Viewed against the writer-director's real-life religious odyssey, however, the film can be seen as the culmination of Dutcher's spiritual existence -- the product of a moment of self-realization followed by an existential crisis, a sudden plunge into what he terms "an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror" that caused Dutcher to literally lose his religion.

"In one moment, I went from being a true believer to knowing that everything I had thought about God, everything I thought about the universe, the way I looked at the world might be off," Dutcher said. "Ironically, it's the films that allowed me to progress spiritually to the point I left Mormonism. If I hadn't been making films, I doubt I would have reached that point."

When "God's Army" began to connect with audiences in 2000, a handful of movie reviewers in and around Salt Lake City seized on it as a cultural tipping point, anointing Dutcher "the father of Mormon cinema." "At that point, the representation of Mormons on TV and in movies had been pretty negative -- it was all polygamy and crazy people, really extreme and marginal," Dutcher said. "One of my main impulses was to portray Mormons as real people."

Rather than repeat the formula of his breakout feature, Dutcher followed "God's Army" with 2001's "Brigham City," a faith-based work about a serial killer set loose in an idyllic Mormon town. The film's unusual subject matter prevented it from connecting with audiences as did "God's Army." And less than half a decade after having launched a new wave of Mormon film -- a batch of nearly 40 movies made by and for Mormons -- Dutcher began to fear that LDS cinema was "dying." A casualty of what he would later describe as "too many badly made films in the marketplace, too few good ones" in that widely publicized 2007 piece for the Daily Herald.

More confounding for the Illinois-born 44-year-old Brigham Young University grad (who converted to Mormonism at 8 when his mother remarried): He underwent a consciousness-rattling realization that he says shook him to his spiritual core. It was a life-changing event that left him feeling "enlightened" but that ultimately compelled Dutcher to leave Mormonism.

"One day in prayer, all by myself, I asked myself the question: What if it's all not true?" Dutcher recalled. "It was an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror, such a profound experience. It was such a sense of loss. I felt my faith leaving me and never coming back."

The retiring Dutcher, who in conversation at a Culver City postproduction editing facility seemed more apt to make his point with a shrug than by banging his fist on the table, takes pains not to disparage Mormons or Mormonism. And although spirituality remains one of Dutcher's abiding concerns, he officially left the church last year. Nonetheless, in a frenzy of productivity right around the time of Dutcher's religious disconnect in 2004, he churned out screenplays for two more Mormon-themed movies: "States of Grace" (a harder-edged "semi-sequel" to "God's Army" that also follows LDS missionaries in L.A.) and the spiritually disquieting "Falling."

Released in 2005, "States of Grace" was greeted by mixed reviews and some outrage in the LDS community for what some felt was not an altogether positive depiction of Mormons -- buffeting Dutcher's reputation as the father of its cinematic vanguard.

"Richard became a local lightning rod because he accepted what might be called an ill-informed and premature title like the 'father of Mormon cinema,' " said filmmaker and Brigham Young University professor of media arts Thomas Russell. "He didn't make it up, nor did he ask for it, but I think he's also done little to distance himself from it."

That is, unless you take into account some of the more outré moments in his new movie. In addition to nudity, violence and coarse dialogue, you're unlikely to encounter in any other "Mormon film" -- R-rated or otherwise -- the amoral paparazzo protagonist Dutcher portrays in "Falling" hurls an F-bomb at God in a moment of despair and openly regrets having wasted 12 years of his life in the church.

To hear it from Dutcher's wife, Gwen, her husband's crisis of conscience added a layer of meta-narrative pathos to what is certainly one of the year's most self-excoriating performances. Then on top of his crisis of faith there were the vagaries of shooting a movie on a shoestring $500,000 budget.

"What you're seeing on his face is exhaustion and despair," she said. "It was excruciating. An unbelievably difficult time." Dutcher, who splits time between Los Angeles and Utah, parlayed his indie renown into writing and directing his most mainstream (and biggest budgeted) movie to date: the supernatural horror thriller "Evil Angel," which stars Ving Rhames and will hit theaters in 2009.

Despite its provocative handling of LDS faith, Dutcher insists "Falling" is, in effect, a Mormon movie insofar as its themes and imagery will be most meaningful to Latter-day Saints (never mind that, by default, they are embargoed from seeing an R-rated film). But then, doesn't that still make him a Mormon filmmaker?

"At the beginning, I was proud to say, 'Yeah, I'm a Mormon filmmaker' because then, I was defining what a Mormon filmmaker was," Dutcher said. "It quickly got completely out of my control. Now, no one wants to call themselves a Mormon filmmaker because you're associating yourself with a genre that's fallen into disrepute. It's like having porn on your résumé."

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