The latest (v. 42, no. 4) issue of Dialogue features another important Mormon film article by Randy Astle* titled “What Is Mormon Cinema? Defining the Genre.” Astle pulls together work by Mormon (Preston Hunter) and non-Mormon film critics (Hamid Naficy, Rick Altman) in an attempt to position Mormon film as somewhere (Astle says “positioned in the interstices”) between genre and ethnic cinema.
The article is available via a subscription to Dialogue, but Randy has generously allowed me to excerpt a few passages here at AMV. To start out with I want to present his basic summary of the second point of his two-part purpose for the article (the first is to offer up the case for “approaching Mormon film from a taxonomical perspective” — I’m going to assume that most of AMV’s readers already believe in the merits of such an approach, or at least allow that such an approach can be a useful exercise in literary criticism).
So on to his second purpose:
Answering the second question—what is Mormon cinema?—is more difficult. As mentioned, the term has constantly shifted, avoiding any single definition. However, Mormon film does have components in common with film genres, certain ethnic cinemas, and even national cinemas, among other precedents. It can therefore be useful and not inaccurate to describe Mormon film as a genre, or at least approach it from that perspective. To be more accurate, however, we must define Mormon cinema as a religiously based ethnic cinema that is continually developing characteristics of an actual genre or even multiple genres. Thus, positioned in the interstices between genre and ethnic cinema, Mormon film exhibits characteristics of both but complete adherence to neither.
I like that Astle frames things in this way. It can be seen as a bit of a cop out “It’s in the interstices”! However, it rings true to me. One of the things that fascinates me about Mormon narrative art as a field is how it shows during of the course of its history some of the same preoccupations as other emerging literatures of its time. So, for example, the foundational work on Mormon literature as a field that was done by Orson F. Whitney has a lot in common with other belated, emerging national literatures of the late 19th century (Greek, Romanian, Latin American) in terms of stated goals, worth, etc. With the lost generation of Mormon writers, we find works that are much more regionalist-goes-national in nature (the literature of the South being the most vibrant example of American regionalism) and are closely tied in with Western regionalism. More recently (the past 3-4 decades), we see Mormon literature splitting in to streams that are informed by the previous two generations, but that seek to mimic Christian genre literature (Covenant), legitimize Mormon thought through the genre most open to exploration of ideas (speculative fiction), and works that borrow somewhat from the ethnic literatures, the hyphenated Americans that have been semi-legitimized since the 1960s (much of the Mormon literary realism, which is supported by the AML and the Mormon journals, falls in to this category, imo). All this is to say that because of the unique makeup of the Mormon socio-cultural history and environment, it’s no wonder that a hybrid approach is necessary. Because the Mormon identity is malleable in how it presents itself in cultural form (religious praxis is a different issue — but one that is important as it keeps Mormon culture from being solely an “ethnic” identity) and how it interacts with other literatures (and cinemas), it’s no wonder that it so often falls in to the “interstices.”
The devil is in the actual analysis, of course, and for that you’re going to need to get hold of a copy of this issue of Dialogue (or pay for an electronic subscription). What I like about the article is that Randy provides some interesting, valid readings of Mormon films (both his own and a few from other critics) that relate back to his major arguments. However, I will offer up one more excerpt. This comes later in the article where Astle is exploring how Hamid Naficy’s characteristics of diasporic filmmakers (and their films) apply or don’t to the world of Mormon cinema. He writes:
The final and most important way in which Hamid Naficy’s theories aid an understanding of Mormon cinema, however, is in relating themback toMormon society, including both the films’ supporters and critics. The result is a much richer comprehension of how Mormon films function within their own social context. As mentioned, Mormon filmmakers are notmarginal or subaltern but interstitial, emanating from where dominant and minority groups interact: “To be interstitial . . . is to operate both within and astride the cracks of the system, benefiting from its contradictions, anomalies, and heterogeneity.” This duality affects the thinking of all members of accented communities, not just the filmmakers; thus, most “ethnic communities are highly sensitive to how they are represented by both . . . outsider and insider filmmakers. They often feel protective and proprietary about their ‘image,’ sometimes even defensive—all of which forces accented filmmakers either to accede to the community’s self-perception and demands or to take an independent path at the expense of alienating the community and losing its support.” Naficy terms this dilemma “accented cinema’s extraordinary burden of representation.”
Sound familiar to anyone? (And yes, Randy, goes on to talk about Richard Dutcher). This is just one aspect to his analysis, though, and it’s very much worth reading. Definitional criticism is not easy, it’s often controversial, and it tends to get a bit squishy in Mormon spheres because of the oddness of Mormon cultural identity.
Astle has taken his already fine and rather encyclopedic work in the field and applied some serious critical tools to it with this article, which solidly melds theory with specific examples. Well worth checking out, and one of the best pieces of Mormon narrative arts/literary criticism to come along in several years.
* Randy is not the field’s only film critic, but he is one of the most prolific and knowledgeable. See for example, his BYU Studies article Mormon Cinema on the Web.