KevinB on the role of criticism in LDS film

4.20.11 | | 13 comments

Back in February, I linked to Randy Astle’s excellent essay on LDS film and criticism. Now KevinB has taken up the subject at AMV’s sister blog LDS Cinema Online. Part 1, which provides an overview of film criticism and reviewing, is interesting, but part 2 is where things really take off as Kevin brings things in to the sphere of LDS arts and culture. It will come as no surprise that he comes to the same conclusion as Randy, one that’s also been discussed several times over the years here at AMV and elsewhere — that LDS art, and LDS film in particular, needs a stronger culture of criticism. What’s interesting about Kevin’s approach is that he frames it in a gospel context: that of repentance. And illustrates it with, what seems to be an intractable problem — or not so much a problem as a byproduct of certain aspects of LDS culture — that is, the often lack of quality teaching in LDS gospel doctrine classes.

There’s a lot to like in his analysis so head on over and check it out. I especially look forward to part 3, where Kevin is going to talk specifically about film reviews and what’s fair criticism and what isn’t.

13 comments: “KevinB on the role of criticism in LDS film

  1. Bradly Baird

    I always been facsinated by this notion of “If it is produced by someone LDS, it must therefore be good,” without regard for whether the quality of the work is good or bad. I see so many LDS faithful gobbling “cultural” items up when they appear on the market and I wonder where that impulse comes from? I’ve been thinking about this for years and I don’t have a good answer. I have a number of theories about it, but no answer that satisfies.

    On the topic of teaching in the church, I have one observation. In addition to the problem of many teachers not having the essential skill set, I have observed that very few teachers put in the time necessary to create a solid and deeply spiritual lesson. I have heard nearly every teacher I’ve ever had indicate in one way or another that they sat down for an hour or two on Saturday night to prep, and that simply is not enough time to prepare an effective lesson. It seems almost an afterthought for many. And so I do agree that the quorum and group presidencies have a responsibility for honest and thoughtful feedback.

    I once had some very honest and open feedback from a General Authority and I wonder why the church in general cannot follow his example. I was a missionary and Hans Ringger, then Europe Area President, came and spent several days in the mission with us. I was sitting on the front row in the session he was conducting with us and he was offering us counsel about how to organize our lives as missionaries. During his discussion, he looked down at me and asked if he could take a look through the planner that I was holding in my hands. I gave it up to him and he proceeded to look through the whole thing and offer an honest assessment. He also grilled me about why I had done things in a particular way and also told me where I could improve. I was little mad about it for a couple of days, but he offered really excellent advice and in time I came to see that he was correct, took many of his suggestions, and came to value the assessment. Needless to say, my mission president got a great deal of enjoyment out of the exercise (I could hear him snickering a couple of rows back). But, the criticim was excellent and it made me a better missionary.

    Another great example of critcism is the way that missionaries in the MTC are taught to proclaim the gospel. The missionaries are put into teaching situations with volunteers who role play investigators and the whole thing is watched on closed circuit tv by the MTC teachers. As soon as the teaching session is complete, the missionaries receive immediate and honest feedback about their techniques and process. I think it is probably tough for the missionaries when they first arrive in the MTC and have never had that sort of criticism before; but, over time, I watch many of these men and women grow into excellent teachers. Honest feedback is truly important and I believe that the presidencies have a responsibility.

  2. proud daughter of eve

    “I always been facsinated by this notion of “If it is produced by someone LDS, it must therefore be good,” without regard for whether the quality of the work is good or bad. I see so many LDS faithful gobbling “cultural” items up when they appear on the market and I wonder where that impulse comes from?”

    I say it’s two things. 1) A lack of options. There’s just not that much out there to choose from. 2) A desire to support these endeavors so that people will continue to produce LDS cultural stuff.

  3. Jettboy

    “It will come as no surprise that he comes to the same conclusion as Randy, one that’s also been discussed several times over the years here at AMV and elsewhere — that LDS art, and LDS film in particular, needs a stronger culture of criticism . . . ”

    No it doesn’t, at least not yet. Before you can have film criticism, you need something to critique. To some extent there is enough books and artworks to discuss, but too generic and cliche for more than cursory observations. I don’t watch, read, or buy Mormon creative works because when I have seen one then I have pretty much seen them all. Nothing stands out from the others for good or bad. Variety of talent and style must exist to be worthy of the label criticism.

    This is a way of saying, in more detail, that I agree with proud daughter of eve’s observations. There is a lack of options and desire to financially support what is mostly Hallmark reproductions, very well done paint by numbers, or lazy romance. When it comes to Mormon film, it died around the time that Richard Dutcher had his tantrum because he couldn’t control what movies were getting made and by who. That death isn’t because of him, by the way, although he contributed to its downfall by not understanding (or turning his back on) his supposedly intended audience.

    There are two things that are needed outside of the artists to make art happen; Power and Money. The only one who had both was Larry Miller, but I think he too wasn’t satisfied with the work done. That, more than anything, might be the reason The Work and the Glory didn’t go beyond the third installment when it should have been completed up to the time of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. That would have been the natural ending since it starts with him.

    I don’t know enough to speculate how this can change. I just know it hasn’t.

  4. Jettboy

    I forgot to add, what Mormon art does need is a place like A Motley Vision where “good” art is broadcast and pointed out. Of course, we all have to decide if that is really the case for the art. At the least it would be nice to know those things that stand out from the rest when they come along.

  5. Katya

    I see so many LDS faithful gobbling “cultural” items up when they appear on the market and I wonder where that impulse comes from?

    I don’t think they’re looking for works that will challenge their preconceptions or expand their minds; I think they just want something culturally familiar and comforting.

    As for the topic of teaching or serving in any sort of calling, the volunteer nature of church service makes it difficult to give much criticism. (This is not to say that people serving in almost any calling can’t use good feedback, just that it’s hard to beg someone to be a Primary teacher, then turn around and tell them they’re doing it all wrong.)

  6. Wm Morris

    This is why criticism needs to be tied in to the idea of building craft, of perfecting ourselves. That requires both an intimate familiarity and disciplined practice of the craft itself and a willingness to teach and mentor those who are called to the craft. Which isn’t easy. And is a two-way street.

  7. KevinB

    I should emphasize — in case it isn’t clear enough in the text — that the problem of criticism is NOT generally from the LDS novelists, filmmakers, or other artists themselves.

    The LDS artists I know do not hold themselves or their work above criticism at all — in fact, they seek it out, and are often frustrated when they encounter the LDS cultural reluctance to give specific (and non-positive) feedback to their work, something any artist needs to succeed. The problem seems to come from LDS culture in general — the audience for the art, who criticize “critics” even when the artist may very well agree with the criticism (and certainly the need for criticism in the first place).

    I suspect the solution is for LDS writers and filmmakers to team up somehow and “criticize” each other’s works, letting one’s work receive feedback from someone who understands the value of criticism (being in the same position themselves) and who has the experience in the medium to make that feedback genuinely helpful.

    Since I’m not a professional LDS “artist” of any kind, I have no idea: do LDS writers do this already amongst themselves?

    If not, is this is a genuine need within the LDS community for opportunities to solicit positive feedback from artistic peers who don’t buy into the LDS cultural aversion to criticism?

  8. Theric Jepson

    .

    I agree. The lack of art suggests a greater need for good criticism. Good criticism is a teacher. Mormon criticism of Mormon art can create a positive feedback loop. Any artist unwilling to learn from criticism koffheimergingerkoff is likely to stagnate. We can’t improve without it. Criticism need not be a destructive force. Done right, it is creative.

  9. Mojo

    On the other hand, criticism by someone who’s skill isn’t very well developed can be harmful.

    There is an LDS writer I find unreadable because the writing is so elementary, but they’re giving craft advice on their blog. Because they’re published (by an LDS publisher), they feel that they’ve been validated as a craftsperson when in fact they need much instruction themselves.

    (Yes, I used the plural for an individual. I hate that. Just so you know.)

    I don’t know who bought or edited the work I attempted to read, but that person wasn’t any better at spotting the problems or fixing them than the writer was at writing.

    If the “gatekeepers” were actually more critical, perhaps we’d get something worthy of critiquing.

  10. Mojo

    And yes, I’m also as leery of naming names and titles as everyone else is because the person is nice and I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

    They will not learn anything from what I have to say about their work–and I’m not even sure they SHOULD take what some random reader who is also a writer has to say about their work as instructional.

    I’ve been very conflicted about this because I think it needs to be said, but I don’t necessarily want to be the one to say it.

  11. Mojo

    *whose not who’s

    Forgive me. I’ve just been traumatized by the celluloid butchery of my favorite book in the whole wide world.

  12. Dyer

    I love KevinB. But the criticism gives me pain. But it was just an acting. I like that film. Very Interesting to see.

  13. Randy

    Sorry I’m jumping in late here–just catching up. I certainly agree with Th’s notion of a positive feedback loop between artists and critics; that’s the quote of President Kimball’s that I like about how Mormon films will be “purified by the best critics,” and Wayne Booth’s statement on Mormon literature that we won’t get a great artistic culture until we have a great critical culture.

    So that begs the question that’s being articulated in some of these comments of whether the chicken or the egg CAN come first or if they both have to emerge simultaneously. Jettboy says “Before you can have film criticism, you need something to critique.” There’s certainly a lot of dross out there in the field of LDS film–a lot of it–but there are dozens of hidden gems that nobody’s heard about that critics need to champion and reify into the corpus. In my work as an amateur LDS film critic I’ve seen nearly 900 Mormon-related films, so the sheer quantity is there, and they’re certainly not all duds. There are some fantastic pieces that really should be better known (“Perilous Journey,” the Church in Action films, the Fit for the Kingdom docs, “Eliza and I,” etc.).

    And then there are the films that, though mediocre on a holistic level, show individual traits that Mormon filmmakers can accomplish quite well, and systematic criticism of these films can help reveal that. I know that sounds terribly vague, but I mean an okay film where there are a few moments when the music works really well, or another that has a great structure patterned after Hebraic poetry or something. I think Mormon criticism particularly lends itself to phenomenology, just because of our beliefs about the Holy Ghost and nature of receiving revelation, and that’s where Mormon film criticism gets really fun for me, in examining films to see how they reveal eternal truths beyond what can be depicted onscreen. I have moments like that with LDS films all the time, the good ones and the bad ones. And then there are the excellent ones–”Joseph Smith, the Man,” “The Faith of an Observer,” “New York Doll,” etc.–that do it consistently and superlatively. As I’m writing my book of LDS film criticism I see it as my job to explain those films and, hopefully, how those moments work, so that both viewers and, yes, other filmmakers can profit from it. As I’m working on my own film, however, I tend to trust more in my gut than all that cerebral theory…though I do think all my work as a critic has certainly helped to purify my screenplays and ideas from where they were ten years ago when I started. So maybe it does work after all!

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