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.”