So father of Mormon cinema Richard Dutcher has gone public with his disaffection from the LDS church and the Mormon audience. And, of course, godfather of Mormon cinema Kieth Merrill can’t help but respond. This repeats pretty much the re-enacts the same drama as last fall when Dutcher and Chris Heimerdinger got into it. I’ll let others decide whether this one or the previous one is/was the tragedy or the farce.
I suppose it’s good to see Utah’s newspapers actually having relevance to the world of Mormon arts and culture. And it is by no means surprising that this latest dust-up has caused a flurry of discussions in the various nodes of Mormon cultural discourse. And yet one can’t help but wonder if those of us who care about Mormon arts are getting the best spokespersons for this duel. I mean think about it. Combine America’s bizarre celebrity culture with auter theory, the high-financial stakes of film, the Mormon emphasis on personal revelation and individual achievement, all that talk about Miltons and Shakespeares, and strong, charismatic males (so far it seems to only be males) and wrap those into the most emotionally-manipulating of all arts forms and no wonder you have Dutcher comparing himself to Oliver Cowdery and Merrill prophesying Dutcher’s future career. With all the egos involved (and how the express themselves) one is tempted to tell all LDS filmmakers, including Dutcher and Merrill, to let us know when they’ve created something powerful, well-crafted, sophisticated and capable of connecting with at least a portion of the Mormon audience. One also wonders if perhaps Mormon film shouldn’t be more communal.
Of course, I would remind AMV’s readers again that I have no credibility on this subject because a) I’m just a blogger and b) my boycott of Mormon film continues and my direct knowledge of the field is limited to the church films I saw in seminary and the MTC and “New York Doll.”
And by no means am I uninterested in the discussions the great Mormon filmstreit of 2006-07 sparks. There’s a lot to talk about.
However, Dutcher leaving (sort of) the fold has already brought up in some quarters the question of can great Mormon artists be faithful (for a given definition of faithful) latter-day saints. Or a perhaps a better formulation — can the believing LDS community produce great art?
And, of coure, Mormons of all ideological interests have their answers to that question and can throw down all sorts of factors, trends, examples, counter-examples and assertions to prove to back up their positions. And most of the time we want it to be so because deep down all of us want Mormon art to prove something about our beliefs (or disbeliefs) about Mormonism. As I’ve said before, this is only natural. We aren’t the only religious/ethnic/nationalist community to act in this manner. We’re anxiogenic. Most non-dominant (and these days most withou the qualifier) communities are, especially when it comes to art.
But this question of can is ultimately frustrating because the truth is none of us know. True artistic greatness is a very rare, very individual thing that takes many forms, arises in many different ways and is often not even recognized until way after the fact. Sometime it isn’t even published.
The question isn’t can. The question isn’t really even greatness. I don’t see any reason why faithful Mormons can’t be just as mediocre as anybody out there or why disaffected Mormons can’t produce mediocre art that is of value to faithful Mormons. Nothing wrong with mediocrity — it’s where most of us live at. It’s what our current culture (Mormon, American, etc.) seems best at producing. And I’m perfectly happy with that.
The question isn’t can — it’s who, why, how and where (where meaning the finding of an audience and the publishing, distribution and marketing that goes along with that [although I wonder if the where doesn’t get in the way]). The problem with asking can is that there’s a yes or no answer to that question, and it’s a question that can only be definitively answered after the fact.
Who is creating Mormon art? Why are you creating it? How are you creating it? And where are you going to find an audience?
UPDATE: Kieth Merrill apologizes
UPDATE II, 4.19.07: Richard Dutcher’s Farewell Part II (at BCC)