Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Crisis in LDS Art?

Chris Heimerdinger published an editorial in the Deseret News today that I found quite thought provoking. The headline of the editorial was “LDS Filmmakers Cause Own ‘Crisis.’” http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,645198547,00.html In his editorial, Chris made some pretty harsh statements against Richard Dutcher. The two of them spoke at the LDS Bookseller’s conference, and apparently have conflicting opinions on several issues.

I admire both Chris and Richard as storytellers and the success they have been able to achieve. I also like what I have seen of them as people. I have mixed feelings on their works and I have very mixed feelings about their apparent philosophies on LDS audiences, artists, and products.

I didn’t hear their actual addresses, so if you did feel free to contradict me here. But as I understand it, Richard is saying that LDS filmmakers have shot themselves in the foot by creating shoddy products. He blames a great deal of the lack of success of the second God’s Army film on the apathy of LDS audiences—supposedly created by poor films being distributed by LDS film makers. Chris also says that Dutcher blames LDS audiences as well. “But instead of blaming himself, Dutcher blames its failure upon fellow LDS filmmakers for "poisoning the pond" with a rash of recent bad films, or he blames the LDS people themselves for not recognizing great art when it's dropped in their lap.”

Up to this point I agree with Both Dutcher and Heimerdinger. Like Dutcher, I think LDS products are hurt across the board when shoddy work is offered up to the public.

LDS fiction—like LDS film—has received a bad rap, because of the glut of mediocre books published over the last five or six years. Apparently LDS publishers decided LDS readers would buy anything as long as it was sold in an LDS bookstore and had an attractive cover and title. This backfired on the publishers, the stores, and the writers. Sales went way down. Stores and publishers were stuck with inventory they couldn’t move. And writers’ sales numbers went way down.

Over the past year or so, publishers and retailers have become much more selective in what they will carry. Readers are starting to come back. And sales numbers for authors are slowly starting to increase. I believe the same thing will happen in LDS film.

Like Heimerdinger, I think an LDS artist is shooting him or herself in the foot—if not in the head—when he/she blames audiences for a lack of sales. “They don’t understand my work.” “All they want is fluff.” “They are afraid of anything challenging.” These are phrases I have heard many times from disenfranchised LDS artists.

As far as I’m concerned, they are hog wash. When you as an LDS artist are paying the audience to see your film or read your book, you can complain about their taste. But until then, it’s like someone moving to Utah and then complaining about all those Mormons. You knew the audience when you chose to write to it. If they don’t like your work, it isn’t their fault. It’s time for you to look in the mirror. As Chris says, “The market owes me nothing. I owe it everything. I am its servant, not the other way around.” Bravo.

On the other hand, Heimerdinger makes some comments that I don’t buy at all. Speaking about God’s Army 2, “I've heard it's well crafted, well acted, well directed and inherently offensive to most church members.” And regarding LDS films as a whole, “. . . I believe the moral will be that our movies should celebrate our doctrines and focus upon who we are as a people. We should abandon the notion of ‘crossover.’”

Inherently offensive to most church members. That is a strong statement and perhaps the most stinging criticism one can make about the work of a fellow LDS artist. I watched States of Grace and found it an excellent film. I wasn’t offended in any way. My mother and father watched it and felt the same way. Was it offensive to some people? Probably. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.

If as an artist I am afraid to offend anyone, I might as well never put pen to paper. Although Chris has said in the past that an LDS writer should never offend anyone, I know for a fact that some people are offended by Chris’s very books. Some people don’t like that he puts words in the mouths of characters from the Book of Mormon. Some people don’t like that he makes some assumptions about where the Book of Mormon might have taken place. Some people don’t like LDS fiction at all.

To those people, I say, “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.” No one is making you read or watch anything you don’t want to. And as an LDS author, if you are offended by my books, I’m sorry, but I’m still going to keep writing. Personally I have no problem with Heimerdinger’s books at all, except that the stories seem a little cookie-cutter to me. But you know what? They’re selling like hot cakes, so obviously he is doing something right.

As far as the last line of Heimerdinger’s editorial, maybe I am reading it wrong, but it seems that he is saying LDS artists should not try to create books, movies, or paintings that appeal to the world as a whole. We should stick to the LDS market. To me that is bordering on blasphemy. Heaven forbid that a non-LDS reader should like my books. I’m sure that the Church doesn’t want non-Mormons to go to the Joseph Smith Memorial building and see their new movie, right?

Heck no! Most of the world still thinks that Mormons are Quaker-like folk who don’t dance, don’t watch TV, have horns, marry seventeen wives, and worship Joseph Smith. Wouldn’t it be terrible if some of those people actually watched Mormon films or read Mormon books and learned something? They might even find them entertaining.

Of course we want to create films and books whose primary appeal is to LDS audiences. But just as important are the books and films which appeal to audiences outside our faith. How much did you learn about the Jewish faith by watching Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl or reading My Name is Asher Lev? Those films and books were absolutely offensive to some Jews. But they opened the world of Judaism up to non-Jews.

Orson Scott Card wrote a book called Saints. Personally I found some parts of it slightly offensive. I know other people who did as well. But it opened up the world of Mormons to many non-LDS people. And it turns out those Mormons don’t have horns. They don’t worship Joseph Smith. And maybe most importantly, they are not perfect.

Will the LDS film industry recover from a couple of bad films? Of course. People may be a little more selective about what they watch. But that’s good! I was embarrassed by The Book of Mormon Movie. I, like many people cringed at its poor quality, weak script, and lamentable acting. But unlike many people, I am glad it was made. Children learn by making mistakes. So do industries. If there aren’t a few stones to trip over, how will we recognize the diamonds when we come across them?

I have full faith in LDS people and artists. We will continue to make better and better products. Products that rival everything the world has to offer. And as we make those products, people will notice and they will return. Hollywood and New York has been offering filth and calling it art. We can offer art and let people call it whatever they want.


18 Comments:

At 9/05/2006 8:24 AM, Blogger Josi said...

Excellent points. I admire both Dutcher and Heimerdinger for what each of them have accomplished in and for the LDS market, I hope they both continue doing what they are doing. I also agree you can't please all of the people all of the time, but it's rediculous for settling for pleasing some of the people now and then. I also loved States of Grace, it rivals The Best Two Years for my favorite LDS movie. Great thoughts, Jeff.

 
At 9/05/2006 11:33 AM, Anonymous Jennie said...

I, too, read Chris's article in the Deseret News yesterday and was favorably impressed. I think he did an excellent job. I didn't take his comment about remembering who we're writing for as a statement against appealing to the general market, but as a reminder that when we write well or produce good movies for our specific market our work will be read or viewed by some members of the broader market, but when we cater to pleasing the general market and forget our specific market, we probably won't sell well anywhere and will definitely lose our specific market. I agree with that premise.

 
At 9/05/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

What I find most interesting here is that, while both Dutcher and Heimerdinger are successful artists, they each seem to be claiming superiority -- discounting any art that doesn't fit with their artistic philosophy.

I think it can be compared to 20th century art: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O'Keefe, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock were all contemporaries, and all of them had vastly different views on what art should be, what if should look like, and what purpose it should serve. But I love all of them, and would hate it if they were all the same.

The worst kind of artistic arrogance is to claim that your style should be the only style.

As for LDS cinema dying, that's absurd. It's only even been around for six years (in a commerical sense). How many years did LDS fiction wallow in preachy, cheese-fest YA novels before quality began to improve? LDS Cinema is young, and will get better.

 
At 9/05/2006 3:01 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

A good movie is a good movie, and will do it's own crossover. Anybody heard of a little Jewish story called Fiddler on the Roof? It's all about Jews, but at it's core are values and a story that everybody likes. We can all relate.

And Rob is right, LDS cinema will get better. It has to. It can't possibly get much worse. :)

 
At 9/05/2006 3:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

I agree completely, Matthew. But if we made an LDS FOTR, where a man's children marry outside the temple at first, and then to a non-member, a lot of LDS people would be offended. Doesn't mean we shouldn't make it though.

 
At 9/05/2006 9:09 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

Thanks for that post. I don't keep up on the LDS market very much--I don't live near a book store and I don't see many movies, LDS or non--but I'm very interested in it.

I agree that LDS fiction has gotten much better. I'm hopeful for LDS cinema.

 
At 9/05/2006 11:20 PM, Blogger Jettboy said...

I hate the "Fiddler on the Roof" example, as it isn't a very good one for the overall point of the argument. First and foremost, it was one movie - the only movie- with a very specific Jewish flavor that celebrated the culture that was a huge success. Dare I say that Asher Lev didn't start any Jewish story telling revolution.

If anything they say we need to get better as writers, directors, and filmakers rather than what kind of audience we need to attract. As for Yentle, I don't think very many people consider it a good film unless you already like the main actress. Its audience followed her and not for any interest in Jewish films. Again, that speaks for quality and not kind. We will get our audience (Mormon specific or general audience) when the skills and professionalism improves.

 
At 9/06/2006 12:30 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Jetboy,

Not sure what point you are making. I don't see one LDS book or movie suddenly making audiences cry out for movies or books about Mormons. And I'm not sure that should be our goal anyway.

Potok wrote several Jewish specific books that were all well read and accepted. They appealed to non-Jews even though they were very Jewish specific.

Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl did the same thing. Were they the best movies in the world. Maybe not, but they were both good, whether you are a big Streisand fan or not.

Are you saying that an amazing LDS book will suddenly popularize Mormonism? I don't buy that. I think a good movie will pull in viewers. But you absolutely have to consider who your audience is.

 
At 9/06/2006 2:52 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

When you first said FOTR, I thought you meant Fellowship of the Ring. I thougth to myself, "Why is he bringing hobbits into the mix? They're not jewish!" :)

"But if we made an LDS FOTR, where a man's children marry outside the temple at first, and then to a non-member, a lot of LDS people would be offended."

FOTR is a story about problems. Tevye has a problem. His traditions are under attack by social change. In the movie we see that he can accept some change, but not others. It is a powerful storoy, and it just so happens that the man is Jewish. If it was about a Christian, or a Muslim, it would be every bit as powerful because it's not about Jews, it's about something deeper.

Good LDS art can do the same. We, as a people, have problems too. Problems that others can relate too, even if they are not identical. A movie about these problems might offend some, but I agree with Jeffrey, they should still be made. We all have problems, problems we wish we didn't have to have. There are sons who choose not to go on missions, there are parents who get divorces. We don't celebrate these problems, but we should celebrate a good movie that shows how to deal with these problems. If we simply choose to ignore the problems, they won't go away.

 
At 9/06/2006 3:10 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Amen, Matthew. Big difference between celebrating problems and accurately portraying them in a meaningful movie.

 
At 9/06/2006 5:46 PM, Blogger Jettboy said...

What point am I making? That we shouldn't be making points, but should be making art.

 
At 9/06/2006 5:58 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

You said:

What point am I making? That we shouldn't be making points, but should be making art.

I said:

Hollywood and New York has been offering filth and calling it art. We can offer art and let people call it whatever they want.

So we agree?

 
At 9/07/2006 6:36 PM, Blogger Jettboy said...

I somewhat agree. I think we can offer art and let people call it whatever they want. My problem is that we should strive to make "good" art - at least asthetically pleasing as possible, no matter how subjective those qualities - and let come what will. So far most want to make "Mormon art" before trying to make "Good art" and end up failing at both.

 
At 9/07/2006 6:51 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Jettboy,

I think we do agree. My biggest problem with many of the books and films made for the LDS community is that they only sell because of their LDS content—not the quality of the product. That disgusts me.

Of course I understand that smaller publishers and filmmakers do not have the budgets or resources of the big boys. So their quality will never be quite as high.

But—the attitude that drives me crazy is, "We don't have to be as good because people will buy our product since it is LDS." That is unfair to the audience and ultimately will drive down quality and alienate the audience.

 
At 9/11/2006 6:49 PM, Blogger G.Ellen said...

I read the article as well, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with Richard a couple of years ago at a writing conference at Thanksgiving Point. He told me that he had hoped there would be lots of LDS writers come out of the closet with wonderful scripts after the success of Gods Army, but he had been VERY dissapointed. I found it kind of a strange comment, and after reading the article I feel that he has gotten a little bitter over the lack of success of his other movies. I think his stuff is great, and I love Heimerdinger's books as well.
Why can't we all just get along? ;)

 
At 9/13/2006 4:26 PM, Anonymous Scot Denhalter said...

I don’t think Art is an attempt to either celebrate human problems or to instruct the audience as to how we can solve such problems. For me, Art is a moving depiction of the human condition. It allows us to understand who we are. From that experience one can adopt an ethic of behavior, but that must come from an interpretation of the work itself. If the ethic is there, it can only be implicit in the work for the work to be Art. If it is explicit in the work, the work is not Art, but rather pedagogy. Such pedagogy can be art in that it is well-wrought, but it cannot be Art.

This reality often impedes appreciation from the Mormon audience for Art because an accurate depiction of the human condition, one that moves us to a deeper understanding, usually involves human problems of a darker hue. For example, if a Mormon writer writes a story about a bishop who commits adultery, the majority of the Mormon audience will be scandalized. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that most of us don’t appreciate having ourselves, let alone our leaders, portrayed to the public in any way that could be seen as less than admirable. Another reason is that the story certainly be misunderstood by some as a celebration rather than a condemnation of the sin. Another reason is that few of us feel comfortable with a candid depiction of the subject. Such a subject is simply not worthy of our attention. Nevertheless, if the writer is a true artist, he will have not only presented the sin accurately, but also the personal, familial and communal consequences of that sin as well. His artistic intent will not have been to create a cautionary tale, but to have created a work of Art that galvanizes within the heart of the reader the recognition: “I am that.” (This is, of course, not a problem that is exclusive to the Mormon audience. It is one that plagues any religious audience. I lead a discussion of this problem on the SunstoneBlog (http://sunstoneblog.com/?p=107).

 
At 9/14/2006 12:40 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Great comment, Scot. I disagree a little, but we may end up at the same conclusion.

I don't believe people will necessarily be offended by a bishop committing adultery. There is lots of LDS fiction by all the major pubs that portrays everything from child abuse, to drug abuse, to homosexuality, to rape, and obviously adultery.

Of course you are pushing it a step further by making it a church leader, and the higher the leader, the further you push the envelope. I can ask Covenant, but I don't believe they would—out of hand—reject a book because the sinner was a church leader.

The next step—and one which will get you kicked out most major LDS pubs (and stores for that matter) is how candidly you discuss that adultery. If you feel your artistic integrity requires you to tell the reader the graphic details of the adultery, then you are going to have a hard time in the LDS market. It’s my contention, that a story can be just as effective without watching every act.

Now we get to the “celebration” question. There is a very fine line here. Lean one way and you have the cautionary tale you suggest. Lean the other and the moral of the story is, “Adultery is a good thing.” I don’t have a recipe for success, but I have seen it done very well by several LDS authors. I think believability is key—the motivation has to be real, the enjoyment of the sin has to be real, and the consequences have to be real. The one thing that most LDS pubs and stores will not accept is if your story seems to be saying adultery is or can be a positive thing. “My husband was a wife-beating jerk, and by sleeping with a nice young LDS author I met my real and true love.”

I’m not saying that no one has ever ended up in a better situation after committing adultery or other sins. If anything, hopefully all the parties learn something on become better people as a result. But if the gist of your story is that in this case adultery was rewarded you are going to have a tough time in the market. The LDS publishing industry is not looking for a Mormon Bridges of Madison County.

 
At 9/15/2006 7:52 PM, Anonymous Scot Denhalter said...

I haven’t kept up with Mormon fiction as I should, and I am inspired by your optimistic report enough to give it a second look. But, I am suddenly aware that I never directly addressed, as I wanted to, the topic of your post: the Heimerdinger article in the Deseret News.

Let’s go back to your praise of Heimerdinger’s statement: “The market owes me nothing. I owe it everything. I am its servant, not the other way around.” I think the reality of the artist writer is a little more complex than this. He cannot be so foolish as to disregard his audience, but at the same time he has an obligation to be true to himself. Some middle-ground must be mastered in order for the artist to survive both financially and critically.

If the Mormon audience doesn’t seem to want introspective, unsettlingly ambiguous, or emotionally complex stories, I would argue that it is for their own good that they be given them. I would also argue there is within the Mormon artist a need to pull such stories from himself. This is not to say that the Mormon artist must be a snob and completely disregard his audience, but writing with a marketing sensitivity as one’s priority can only produce a commodity and not, I believe, Art. When it is well-crafted, this commodity can be both critically and financially successful, and there is a lot of it around. Art, on the other hand, is not so common. It never has been. This is because it is the inherent nature of Art to challenge its audience, demanding something of it.

Heimerdinger accuses Dutcher of placing his private artistic vision above the demands of his audience. As Dutcher is no fool, I seriously doubt this could be so. Despite his public statement to the contrary (“I don’t make movies for you.”), I believe Dutcher hasn’t so much disregarded his audience as misread it. I am criticizing the Mormon audience here not Dutcher. More to the point, I am criticizing a culture that has developed an unhealthy appetite for white over whole wheat.

Heimerdinger opines that Dutcher’s last two films were rejected by the LDS public because they found them “patronizing and elitist.” Dutcher’s last two films were Brigham City and States of Grace. Heimerdinger admits to not having seen States of Grace, so isn’t it a tad arrogant of him to interpret for us the public mind regarding this film. As to how he can label Brigham City as “patronizing and elitist,” I am unable to offer even a reasonable guess. Dutcher’s films are anything but patronizing and elitist. Heimerdinger couldn’t be more wrong.

Dutcher’s films are what Mormon Cinema should be: sophisticated and complex. Divine miracles occur in God’s Army, but not everyone returns with honor. The sheriff in Brigham City may have caught the bad guy, but the harm his negligence has brought upon the town is permanent and only to be atoned for through a communal act of forgiveness underpinned by a ritual that Dutcher lets us see with new eyes as more deeply religious than we had ever realized. In States of Grace, both the greatest good and the greatest harm is done by not following the rules.

Now let’s look at Single’s Ward. To be sure, it is just a comedy, but still it insists on injecting the ostensibly serious subplot of the main character’s crisis of faith. Does anyone care about the silly spiritual journey he takes through the narrative arc of the film? True to the hackneyed, Hollywood formula for comedies these days, Single’s Ward pushes all the obvious emotional buttons and ties everything up with a sweetly palatable ending. The film may have made money, but it is eminently forgettable. I will never forget Brigham City.

So why did States of Grace fail to draw the Mormon public to the theaters? I suspect that too small an advertising budget is the primary culprit. Nevertheless, I also believe Dutcher’s complaint that Halestorm has poisoned the well is dead on. The effect on the industry of one bad film after another cannot be denied, nor should it be underestimated. Our excitement to see ourselves portrayed on the silver screen may have made us forgiving initially, but when we see three to five bad films for every good one, it doesn’t take long to stop watching. If we want to see stupid comedies, Hollywood cranks them out interminably and with usually much higher production values.

I agree with the optimism of some on this thread that Mormon Cinema is not dead, but it is seriously wounded and will take time to recover. It will take genius, however, to fully flower into what it could be.

 

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