Eugene England and Richard Dutcher in Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_

5.18.12 | | 21 comments

One of my favorite personal essays in Stephen Carter’s book What of the Night? is “A Brief Tour of England: My Year With Gene.” It told Carter’s perspective of that mistreated hero of Mormon literature, Eugene England, and his last days on earth. Carter was England’s assistant at UVSC (now UVU) and in the essay he paints a picture of a tireless, slightly eccentric, and loving man who pushed the cause of Mormon Letters (and Mormonism itself) with his entire will and force of character. After running into problems at BYU and being chastised by certain General Authorities, you could feel England’s broken heart when Carter recorded his words, “You don’t know what it is like to hear what I heard from men I believe have authority from God” (p. 18). Knowing England’s background and how he was forced out of BYU, it was all the more powerful then, after that experience, England stated firmly his continued commitment to the Gospel, “Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I have spent my entire life being an apologist for the Gospel, because I know it’s true”(p. 23).

However, I couldn’t help juxtaposing that beautiful essay about Eugene England with the one Carter wrote about Richard Dutcher, “The Departed.” I still really like Dutcher, and think his Mormon films are some of the best in the genre. He’s a man who I have met briefly and still very much admire. So I’m going to try hard not to judge Dutcher too harshly in my following comments, as I believe he still has a valuable voice and I believe, even after he left the Church, his legacy for Mormon Cinema and the Mormon Arts is an extremely positive one. But I have to say my peace about Carter’s approach to Dutcher’s moment in the sun in the history of Mormon Letters.

Like Carter, Dutcher had a huge impact on me when his films began coming out. I was an avid supporter, watching his films, buying the DVDs, attending his lectures. I defended him to those who would criticize him or would question his commitment to the Gospel. When his Joseph Smith film didn’t pan out, I actually anguished about it in prayer (and I believe the Lord gave me an answer, which I won’t share, but will only say that it came to pass). I wrote raving reviews of Dutcher’s work, and tried to re-define and re-view his sometimes disturbing comments in my blog posts. Those very comments many people were saying indicated that he had lost the faith and that he was on his way out of the Church. I wouldn’t believe that. Dutcher, in my mind, was on his way to becoming one of the Great Mormon Artists, with a capital G, and a man of the Spirit.

But to keep believing this I had to ignore certain signs that I kept seeing on the way. These signs alerted me, but I dismissed them because I simply didn’t want to believe them. In his seminars and speeches, Dutcher started out bright and brilliant and full of light. I went away edified. But as time passed and I attended more such events, his tone got increasingly darker, more angry, more arrogant, more hostile. It was quite the contrast and it caught me off guard. But I continued in my faith towards the man. A faith that, unfortunately, I discovered was ill placed. Dutcher did not finish what he had originally set out to do. He had promised us bread, but then gave us a stone.

When Dutcher’s letter came out about his abandonment of the Church, I was crushed. But, surprisingly, not surprised. I had seen the warning signs, and tried to will disbelief in them, tried to will Dutcher to stay in the Church. But, deep down, I knew better. He had already shown his hand.

I relate this only to give the context to what I’m about to say. In his essay, “The Departed,” Carter sets up Dutcher as a kind of cultural martyr. Carter outlines his journey with Dutcher’s work, how Dutcher inspired him from God’s Army and onward. The disturbing thing, though, is that Carter’s own enthusiasm for Mormon Letters (and, am I reading it right, maybe Mormonism itself?) rose and fell with Dutcher’s own success and subsequent fall. “I wanted the church to be brought back to me through the art that arose from it. And I had hope, because things were progressing. I started to see a nook for myself; I started to finding a community” (p. 121). In this way it seemed that Carter’s own faith in Mormon Arts (and possibly Mormonism itself, or at least cultural Mormonism?) was too connected and too dependent on the fate of one man. He was flying on the back of a broken angel instead of realizing the powerful, gorgeous wings that protruded from his own back.

I commend Carter on the one hand, because he is very kind, compassionate, loving, and supportive of Dutcher throughout the essay. Rightfully so. Dutcher is still a good man and remains a self proclaimed “friend of Mormonism” as the Salt Lake Tribune recently quoted him saying. I have no personal beef with him and only hope for him to have success in his continued efforts as a talented filmmaker. I believe Dutcher is honest and sincere in his beliefs. But on the other hand Carter’s portrait of Dutcher’s journey stuck in my craw and is really the only major flaw I saw in what is a beautifully crafted and eloquent set of personal essays which I would suggest to all lovers of Mormon Literature. Yet Carter seems willfully unable to entertain the possibility that Dutcher’s story may be less Joan and Arc and more King Lear.

Carter seems to think that the reason we don’t have Dutcher in our midst anymore was because we didn’t support him in his art. Carter takes a condemnatory attitude towards Mormon culture for not supporting this obvious genius in our midst:

Essentially, States of Grace was a box office misfire. When I went to see it, there were two other people in the theater with me. What happened? The greatest accomplishment in Mormon Cinema to date comes into our hands, and we ignore it?… But there is no doubt about one thing. Richard had put out a deeply personal story. He had bled it out the way one must in order to make a story true. But then he found himself playing to an empty house (p. 124).

Now I adored States of Grace, too. A beautiful film, surely. But let’s be frank about one thing… any artist who feels like anyone owes him anything is full of himself. As a culture we are not beholden to support anyone’s artistic vision, no matter how beautifully crafted. Carter charges Mormonism with the inability to listen to each other because it didn’t come in droves to States of Grace. This is a mistake.

You’re not guilty of uncharitable vice when somebody wants to charge you $7 to listen to a story that you know you won’t like. It’s one of the pragmatic aspects of the arts that it is on one hand so personal, but on the other hand so commercial. It’s a mistake to take it too personally. No matter how personal it is, a film is also something you’re selling. Nobody is obligated to buy it from you. With money as limited as it is for many of us, it’s better if we spend our cash on things we’ll actually love. Does it say something that some people prefer The Avengers over one of my favorite art house movies like Remains of the Day? Sure. But I don’t blame anyone for their tastes, especially when The Avengers proves that a movie can both be excellently crafted, but appeal to the widest (billion dollar!) audience.

And let’s remember that God’s Army had more Mormons see it than all of my dozen plus plays put together… times a thousand. Mormon artists as gifted as a Eric Samuelsen or a Margaret Blair Young or a J. Kirk Richards, as accomplished as they are, have never had such luck. Dutcher was very fortunate to get the audience and attention he did… that’s rare for any artist, in or out of the Church. And, frankly, it had a lot less to do with his talent as an artist (although he is certainly talented!) but that he was one of the first people to tell the Mormon story on film in a way that took it seriously.

This immediate success he received with God’s Army seemed to spoil him a little, though. A sense of entitlement seemed to lace his comments as time wore on, and he took it very badly when his work as an artist was not sufficiently “appreciated.” Now on one level, I can understand this. As a playwright and possible screenwriter, I very much want to make my living off my art and labors. I want thousands, heck, millions of people to watch my plays and movies. But I don’t blame my culture if one of my plays or films doesn’t accomplish that. At that point, I re-evaluate and try again, I just don’t just up and leave the Church because they’re not “supporting” me.

But that’s another flaw in Carter’s essay. States of Grace lack of success is not why Dutcher left the Church. Again let’s go back to the recent Salt Lake Tribue article:

When Richard Dutcher wrote the screenplay for his dark drama “Falling” in 1999, he hadn’t started shooting his landmark LDS missionary film “God’s Army,” and he was a devoted member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When Dutcher finally filmed the movie in 2007 — around the same time he was filming “States of Grace,” the quasi-sequel to “God’s Army” — he wasn’t a Mormon anymore.

“In a very real sense, the writer was a very different person than the director was,” Dutcher, 47, said in an interview this week. “The director was no longer a believer, but the script writer had been.”

This information alone casts a different light on Dutcher than the one that Carter was trying to paint. This shows that this very pinnacle of a Mormon film that Carter and I and so many other people were so impressed with was not made by a believing Mormon after all. Not that Dutcher wanted us to know that critical information at that point, which raises a whole host of other questions about his motives in creating the film. It also makes me re-think his reaction when he was so obviously angry with Mormon culture for not accepting his “vision.”

Later in the article, Dutcher reveals what had led him from the believer that filmed God’s Army to the disbeliever that filmed States of Grace. This transition occurred during his research for his unrealized Joseph Smith biopic:

In researching the life of Smith for his film, Dutcher said, “one day, I just simply asked myself the question, ‘What if it simply isn’t true?’ ” In a faith where adherents often begin their testimony with “I know this church is true,” that question carries enormous weight.

“My own brain, something from the deepest part of me, said, ‘Of course it isn’t true.’ After that, the whole house of cards fell,” Dutcher said. “In a very real sense, in the time span of one minute, I went from being a true believer to being a complete nonbeliever. It was actually quite terrifying.”

It was the Joseph Smith story, the very biopic people bemoaned (including me) that we didn’t get to see from Dutcher, one of the foundational beliefs of Mormonism. In a moment that was more whimper than thunder, Dutcher simply didn’t believe it anymore. No great, years-long struggle. Not even the martyrdom of the unappreciated artist. It was just the flick of a light switch, a single imposing question, and his faith was gone, flick, without a fight.

Dutcher went from the believing Elder Dalton in God’s Army to the disbelieving Elder Kinegar in an instant. That scene in God’s Army still haunts me in regards to Dutcher, where Elder Dalton confronts Elder Kinegar. Dalton says that he knows Elder Kinegar knows the Gospel is true because he has heard Kinegar say it. “I lied,” Kinegar defiantly replies. During his filming of States of Grace, is that all we were getting from Dutcher? “I lied.”

There were a few moments when I was with Dutcher that still disturb me. The first was during one of his early presentations at UVSC. He was giving a great presentation, I was feeling the Spirit, but then he said a comment that was disturbing about how he appreciated that people were plumbers and whatnot to earn a living, but that apart from having to earn for their families, he just couldn’t do something that had no meaning. A young college aged girl raised her hand, “My father is a plumber. His work has meaning.” Again, Dutcher repeated his assertion… it was better to be an artist than a plumber. An artist’s work was more meaningful. Maybe someone should remind Dutcher of that when his sink is overflowing, his toilet is clogged, water is getting over all of his scripts, disease is infesting his house, and he still really needs to go to the bathroom.

A similar moment happened at a retreat I attended which Dutcher was also in attendance. We were in a split off group and the comments that Elder Ballard once made to that Conference of Artists came up. Elder Ballard was very supportive of the artists in the Church, but warned them not to become too full of themselves, that a person fixing the plumbing was just as valuable as an artist. Dutcher warmly contested the point, “Elder Ballard is wrong. We are better!” he insisted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Again, I don’t want to say this to cast stones at Dutcher. These are just moments in time compared to all the good he has done, the hearts he has inspired, and the voice he has given to both those on the fringe and in the center. For every flaw he has, I believe he has ten virtues. He is a talented filmmaker, a kind hearted man, an insightful soul. His journey is valuable, HE is valuable. But not more so than any other person, and not more so than any other Mormon Artist, which is why I took umbrage from this statement about Dutcher from Carter in “The Departed”:

The very definite possibility that Richard will never make another Mormon-themed film breaks my heart, as does the idea that Mormonism can’t serve as a community to the person who helped me tell my story. Equally sad is that the field of Mormon arts has been left to hard-working but only semi-talented artists like me (p. 128).

I loved nearly every other word in Carter’s book, but this sentiment I refuse to accept outright. Mormonism didn’t reject Dutcher, Dutcher rejected Mormonism. Before he even started filming States of Grace, Dutcher had made up his mind, the Tribune article makes that much at least clear. That much is his right, and I honor his beliefs and wish him good luck. But let’s not make him a martyr. I don’t think that even Dutcher would want that. 

I demarcate a clear difference between those who willingly leave the Church on their own accord and those who are excommunicated unfairly. Dutcher left of his own accord, nobody forced him out. He seemed to dare the Chruch to excommunicate him when at Sunstone he quoted Max Golightly saying that “the first great Mormon artist would be excommunicated.” When the Church didn’t take him up on that dare, he simply left.

As to Carter’s self deprecating comment, “Equally sad is that the field of Mormon arts has been left to hard-working but only semi-talented artists like me,” I think that dishonors the rest of us Mormons Artists who have stayed in the faith, including Carter, by placing Dutcher too high.

Stephen Carter’s work is worthwhile, my work is worthwhile, Christian Vuissa’s work is worthwhile, Melissa Leilani Larson’s work is worthwhile, Margaret Blair Young’s work is worthwhile, Eric Samuelsen’s work is worthwhile, J. Kirk Richard’s work is worthwhile, James Christensen’s work is worthwhile, James Goldberg’s work is worthwhile… Dutcher’s wonderful ex-wife Gwen, who I believe is still with the Church, is also a fabulous artist (I know because my wife was her model once). Gwen, who traveled much of the path with Richard, her work is also worth while. I would place a whole host of Mormon artists who haven’t given up on the faith as Dutcher’s equals in talent and, in some cases, his superiors. Mormon Arts did not begin with Dutcher and they did not end with Dutcher. Carter’s beautiful group of essays is a testament of that.

Carter accuses Mormon culture of not listening to Dutcher. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe they heard only too well. Maybe they heard the signs long before Carter and I did, because we made ourselves deaf to them because of our adoration of Dutcher. While they all folded, we kept throwing the chips in, never calling Dutcher’s bluff. I believe we were rather naïve in this regard.

Back to Eugene England. He wasn’t excommunicated, but I certainly believe that he was an individual who wasn’t given his proper value in the Church. Carter isn’t wrong when he points to those we have willfully misused. But I would prefer to dwell on an example like Eugene England who clung to the faith despite the hardships and judgments that were pressed upon him. He clung to Mormonism and Mormon Arts even when he lost his job at BYU. He clung on even when his efforts to bolster and strengthen the faith were seen as dissident. He hung on until even his body was reflecting his inner state, as cancer ravaged his flesh and he became paralyzed. He hung on even when he seemed most forsaken and alone. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!

Like Carter recently wrote in “Wanted: One Internet-free Dark Night of the Soul,” at the AML blog, Dawning of Brighter Day, that belly of the whale experience seems requisite for every hero’s journey. For one it is when his tragic flaw is revealed. For another it is when her heroic virtue is revealed. The latter seems to have been the case for Eugene England. As Sir Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him,” or to repeat what England himself said, “Some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I have spent my entire life being an apologist for the Gospel, because I know it’s true.”

21 comments: “Eugene England and Richard Dutcher in Stephen Carter’s _What of the Night?_

  1. Ryan N.

    Very insightful, Mahonri. You’re a great writer and thinker. :)

    It feels like you placed a value judgement on England’s journey as superior to Dutcher’s journey. Is it possible that Dutcher’s journey out of the church was actually more difficult than England’s journey of “clinging” to Mormonism?

    Could it not be that England’s was the tragic flaw and Dutcher’s was the heroic virtue?

  2. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Hey, Ryan! So glad to see you here!

    As to your comment, that’s not how I see it, unfortunately or fortunately, but I definitely honor that viewpoint. Either way, I definitely see Dutcher’s journey as worth pondering on and respecting, but as it comes down to my own worldview, I definitely see England as some one I personally would prefer to emulate. Dutcher, though, deserves honor for his own journey and his own agency.

  3. Stephen Carter

    Mahonri,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post. You make some interesting points.

    One thing to realize is that I wrote “The Departed” very soon after Richard’s announcement that he had left the Church. Like you, I was in a state of grief, and this essay was an expression of that. I didn’t have access at the time to any of the further information you cite. And, you’re right, the Mormon writers you mention are all very worthwhile.

    Referring back to my AML post, I guess losing Richard as a Mormon artist was an important part of my evolution as a writer. You have to lose your mentor at one point, right? I lost Gene in one way, and Richard in another. Now I have to forge my own path. It’s lonelier without them.

    Stephen

  4. William Morris

    I appreciate you putting yourself out there like this, Mahonri. I think this is an excellent entry in the long line of essays and discussions grappling with what it means to be Mormon, to be an artist, and to be (or not be) an active, believing member of the LDS Church.

    For the record: I’m not comfortable with the use of the phrase “suicide bomber” use in relation to art (or rather in the context of this particular discussion about art).

  5. Cory Huff

    Thanks for writing this Mahonri. It’s a tough row to hoe when you think you’re entitled to something and you don’t get it. Makes me sad for Richard Dutcher if this is indeed the case.

    It’s tough to look in the mirror and realize that at the end of the day, the practical and pragmatic field of plumbing is just as important as the ethereal realm of the arts – but we all have our crosses to bear. ;)

  6. William Morris

    I work at a technical college. It has blurred my sense of the divide between craft and art. And definitely has given me greater appreciation for those who work in the technical fields.

  7. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Stephen,
    I had wondered as much.
    Yes, losing your Obi Won, Yoda, or Gandalf, is definitely part of that process.
    Amazing work. You read my OTHER review of the work above this one, right? Such a beautiful collection of essays.

  8. swittle

    Dutcher did what thousands of other former believing members have done; they have honestly studied the facts and come to the conclusion that the Church is not what it claims to be. I admire Dutcher for his courage and honesty.

  9. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Swittle, the problem with that conclusion is that there are just as many who have studied the same facts, the same history, and have come up with vastly different conclusions. There’s nothing that Richard Dutcher has read that Richard Bushman, Eugene England, Terryl Givens, Juanita Brooks, or Hugh Nibley didn’t read (and then some!). The history of the Church is passed through so many lenses, that it is possible to be well versed in Church History and then end up on any part of the believing/disbelieving spectrum.

    Again, I have no beef with Dutcher following his heart. I re-iterate I believe he is a good man… a good man who I happen to disagree with about what I believe are some rather fundamental things. I’m pretty well versed in Church History myself, and the deeper I dig, the more it all connects for me, despite the controversies. Dutcher’s path is not inevitable.

  10. William Morris

    Just as a reminder that discussions should remain centered on Mormon culture and artists and their relationship to the Church and to art. I’m leaving Swittle’s comment because it represents a POV in relation to Dutcher, and I think Mahonri’s response to it remain within the scope of AMV.

  11. Ryan N.

    Is it possible that you’ve created the same paradigm that you found discomfiting when used by Dutcher? Meaning: Have you undervalued Dutcher’s journey in the same way that he undervalued the plumber?

    And, in using that rhetorical device, was his lack of virtue revealed in that he created a sense of inequality or was it his certainty in that inequality?

  12. Mark Penny

    It seems to me, sitting in this stuffy little classroom during a break from studying SAT questions with a student from a Taiwanese international school, that the conflicts and dramatic decisions on both sides of the art and authority divide occur when people take the business personally. Disagreeing with me is disagreeing with God. Rejecting me is rejecting art. Does humility come in supplements? Can we add it to the water?

  13. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Ryan, I tried pretty hard not to undervalue Dutcher in the article. Most of my comments had much more to do with the narrative we create about Dutcher than Dutcher himself. As I said, I value Dutcher’s contributions, love his movies, and think he is a good man.

    His journey is his own, and I have no place in his true narrative with God, so what I think of it hardly matters. But I do feel like I must stick to my own lessons learned. Although I need to always be adapting and learning and changing based on my ever fluctuating experiences, still there’s a time you’ve got to know what you really believe and honor that. Dutcher did that for himself, just as I’m trying to do in this essay as well. And part of my beliefs is that, although Dutcher has many other virtues, he’s wrong about Joseph Smith. That’s MY journey, for Joseph Smith is one of the aspects of the Gospel I can point to with personal surety… that, as well as Jesus and the Christian story of the Gospels. Those are two aspects of Mormonism I’m fervent about, so Dutcher and I, I’m afraid, will just have to not see eye to eye on those issues.

  14. Sarah Dunster

    I did not know that Br. England had those struggles. Reading this, I felt sad that I didn’t know of them. My husband was an English major who graduted maybe the year roght before or right after England left BYU and went over to UVSC (or UVU, as it’s called now.) And I was not ever an English major, but when I was taking unecessary extra English classes for fun toward.the end of my bachelors’ degree, he was already gone. And then when Jeff and I joined his ward as a young married couple, he had already passed (though I got to hang out with Charlotte a few times.)
    When I was going through some crap, a friend gave me one of his books of essays. In particular one tited “why the church is as true as the gospel” provided some real insight I needed at the time. In particular the idea he

  15. Sarah Dunster

    Sorry, I was cut off by androids. In particular his theme of conflict…how any member with a real testimony, who has examined deeply the history and doctrines of the church and applied them in times of real difficulty learns to live with conflict, woth not-immediately-answered questions. This concept of conflict may jyst have saved my testimony, and likely strengthened it seventy times seven.

  16. Th.

    .

    Like Sarah, I now acutely regret not getting to know Gene when he was alive, thanks to this book (though I did not get quite as close as you, Sarah).

    I remember my first introduction to “Why The Church…” in a sacrament meeting about six years ago and immediately coming home to look for it. And a few months ago, my wife gave a talk that relied heavily on that essay. And when she sat down, the member of the stake presidency on the stand showed her his iPad. It was pulled open to “Why the Church…”—because it was the primary source of his talk as well.

  17. Marie

    Interesting contrasting of Eugene England and Dutcher. I heard England speak in his home in Provo right around the time he was fired from BYU, and was impressed with his demeanor and character, though I was not familiar with much of his writing at that point.

    On the other hand I am very familiar with Dutcher’s work and consider myself a fan–I own Brigham City and States of Grace on DVD, am always trying to get my friends to watch them, and have often ranted about the LDS movie-going public that preferred Singles Ward and Charly over Dutcher’s films. So when I went to see a special screening Falling with my brother a few months ago, it was with a trust in the director: I assumed that the intense violence I’d heard was in the film would be relevant to some important theme, as in his other movies. But the connection that I’d formed with the characters in his prior movies never materialized here. We almost walked out during the final violent scene, averting our eyes and staring at each other in disbelief–but I wanted to stay for the Q&A with Dutcher at the end; I wanted to hear his explanation for what I’d just seen. As it turned out, it was Dutcher himself who offended us enough to walk out early, when it quickly became clear that the man whose past work we had so admired was (or had become) a narcissist detached from or indifferent to reality. Ego is one thing, and it’s true that people who succeed in that line of work tend to have robust egos. But he didn’t seem to have any sense (or sensed and didn’t care) how uncomfortable his comments, made in front of his young son, were making many the audience. It seemed one part self-congratulation and one part let’s shock the audience for kicks. I don’t really want to know if he’s always been like this, because I have a tendency to let what I know of artists over-inform my experience of their work, and I would hate for Brigham City or States of Grace to lose some of their power for me. If he is certifiably mentally ill, I hope he’ll find help. I have heard something of the difficulty of his early life and have wondered in the last couple months if that hasn’t played a major role in his current spiritual turmoil. Whatever the truth is, I hope that he can step away from the spotlight and find some healing, for the sake of his own happiness and that of his family. Maybe he should take a break from film making (a la Daniel Day-Lewis) and try some meaningful and low-profile manual labor for a few years. Cobbler apprenticeship? Plumbing courses?

    Also, I saw Falling in 2012, well after its first showings, and so had forgotten about the billboards touting the movie as the “first R-rated Mormon movie.” But comments online later reminded me of those ads and I can’t help but wonder if Dutcher’s idea with the film was to incriminate his audiences by luring them in with promises of satisfying their violence addiction and then hurting them by giving them more brutality than they bargained for–plus a guilt trip for being the sort of philistines who bypassed his previous movies in favor of flashier fare. I don’t know if that’s what he was doing, but if it is, it’s terribly cynical approach to addressing our culture’s lust for violent entertainment. And for me, who attended Falling in spite of the reported violence (because I trusted the director), he’s entered the realm of the artistic has-been. I hope he’ll come to his senses, even if he doesn’t come back to the Church and whether or not he continues in film making.

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