Latter-day Saint Cinema

God's Army. Brigham City. The Other Side of Heaven. The Singles Ward. Out of Step.

Love 'em or hate 'em, one thing that can't be denied about LDS Cinema -- it gets people talking. Virtually all of the LDS-themed films have spurred intense discussion and debate. In a word, controversy.

Moviegoers consider them worth talking about, and these movies have been defended and denigrated, praised and pilloried on the Internet and around the water cooler.

The LDS-themed feature films have generated unusual levels of discussion and controversy, something that can't be said of most Hollywood movies. Take some of the biggest films of 2001, for example. People had a lot to say about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (the year's top-grossing films), but controversy mainly swirled around how the films adapted their intensely popular source material. Shrek (#3 film of the year), was also based on a book, but it was a book nobody has read. A lot of people praised Shrek, but beyond that there was little to say. No controversy there. And Monsters, Inc.? Nada. Really, it was a pretty bland movie.

Pearl Harbor... Well, people talked about what a waste of money and celluloid it was. You can't call it controversial if most everybody agreed that it was an overhyped disaster. Rush Hour 2. The Mummy Returns. Ocean's Eleven. Jurassic Park 3. Much money. No controversy. Some fun entertainment there, but essentially forgettable fare. Rounding out the top 10, Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes." Okay, that got people talking.

After that, a few of the year's top films were controversial, none more than A Beautiful Mind (which went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award). (Hey, did you know that A Beautiful Mind had the same assistant director as The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd?) Yeah... People talked about differences between the film and John Nash's real life. All kinds of dirt was dished up in the media and on the Internet about John Nash. It got very ugly, and many suspected there was a whisper campaign going on intended to derail its Oscar chances.

But most of the year's top films... Well, they couldn't buy that kind of publicity if they tried... Doctor Dolittle 2. Legally Blonde. The Others. America's Sweethearts. Cats and Dogs. Save the Last Dance. Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. These movies went by like water off a duck's back. Not that some of them weren't noteworthy. The Others, for example -- a great film. It just wasn't controversial.

But when Richard Dutcher's God's Army burst onto the scene, it seemed that everybody who saw it weighed in with a strong reaction, either negative or positive. It wasn't just something you could see and forget about it. It was more than just a movie. Many Church members decried the film's depiction of sacred ordinances. Although sensitively filmed and edited, the scenes showing a Latter-day Saint healing and a baptism were unlike anything ever seen before in a commercial movie theater. For many members, the very idea of a commercial feature film about Latter-day Saints was controversial. It had not been done before (at least not by a Latter-day Saint filmmaker), and at first people didn't know what to expect, what to think. But the quality and honesty of the film won people over. God's Army became one of the year's top-grossing films in Utah, one of the country's top-earning independent films, and the top-selling video in the LDS market.

God's Army's most ardent critics were anti-Mormons who did not care how good the actual movie was. Their minds were made up before they saw it, and they simply labeled the film a skillful propaganda piece which had the unfortunate potential to dull hatred of Mormons. A number of Evangelical Protestant film reviewers openly lamented that "God's Army," was a better made film than recent Evangelical efforts such as Left Behind and Omega Code. Fortunately, there were very few legitimate reviewers who were blatantly anti-Mormon. But on internet websites and in other forums a number of anti-Mormon "reviewers" denounced "God's Army" without saying much about the movie, focusing instead on denouncing Mormons for taking over the world or sacrificing goats or holding malice toward lepers or somesuch claptrap. A common tactic was picking a favorite anti-Mormon urban legend or slander and asking, "Why didn't the movie address this?" As if they had preferred Dutcher to make a documentary or a video Encyclopedia of Prejudice, instead of a narrative movie.

National critics were sharply divided over God's Army. Many hailed it as a breakthrough, while others were jarred to the point of extreme discomfort by the film's overt spirituality and frank depiction of heretofore unfamiliar Latter-day Saint missionary life. The same critics who have long since become accustomed to frequently filmed material such as graphic depictions of tranvestite sadomasochism or war crime brutality were scandalized by Dutcher's straightforward, almost documentary-like window into Latter-day Saint missionary culture. Some critics considered this a great plus, and rated the film highly, while others panned it.

Then Brigham City came out. It became the most critically acclaimed LDS-themed movie to date, yet it was surrounded by controversy. Perhaps those two facts are not unrelated.

One of the biggest controversies related to "Brigham City" was its rating. The movie is about a serial killer in a small Utah town. Although it features no graphic violence (and certainly no nudity, sex or profanity), its theme and dark tone earned it a PG-13 rating from the MPAA ratings board. This rating did not surprise filmmaker Richard Dutcher, but what did surprise him was the intense negative reaction among some Church members when the rating was announced. Although there are no Church prohibitions against seeing movies that are rated PG-13, many individual Church members have adopted such a rule for themselves and their families. Some people who loved "God's Army" and had long looked forward to seeing Dutcher's next film were turned away because of the rating. A debate over the general topics of movie ratings as it relates to Latter-day Saint ethics and doctrine ensued. For Dutcher's part, he simply explained that he did not "make a PG-13" movie -- he simply made the movie that he felt was appropriate, and the rating was affixed to it by the MPAA. Many Latter-day Saints were surprised at how many Church members said they would not see "Brigham City" solely because of the rating.

Once again, debate surrounded the portrayal of religious ordinances in Dutcher's movie. "Brigham City" featured a baptism (as had "God's Army", but this time not at a distance). More importantly, it featured pivotal scenes that revolved around the blessing and passing of the sacrament. Once again, some people thought it was inappropriate to depict these ordinances in a film. Others thought there was nothing wrong with doing so. They pointed out that tens of thousands of missionaries worldwide, as well as the members, invite non-Latter-day Saints to sacrament services every day. Every sacrament service around the world is open to the public and anybody can see what goes on there, they pointed out.

Other people reacted negatively to the film's violence, which prompted fans of the film to point out that no violence is actually seen -- only implied, and that the film's level of violence pales compared to most anything that can be seen on television or in theaters.

"Brigham City" received widespread critical acclaim from national critics, but a few critics reacted negatively to the movie's religious content. Some rather inane criticisms pointed out that the sheriff's orders to have every home in the town searched was unconstitutional. Duh. Dutcher knew this was an unconstitutional action -- this was part of what made the character of the sheriff so fascinating. The same critics failed to point out that serial murder is probably unconstitutional as well, and if filmmakers restricted the actions of all their characters to only constitutionally sound behaviors there would be few crime movies.

In a rank display of racism, prejudice and myopia, Richard von Busack of Bay Area Arts Magazine not only said that a sheriff who serves as a lay pastor is "far more terrifying than any number of lurking maniacs", he also criticized the movie's town for having too many white people. Perhaps von Busack has never seen fit to leave the state of California, but places do exist which don't have the same racial makeup as his hometown, and to depict such a setting in a movie is called "honest" (as opposed to "politically correct"). Hopefully von Busack will refrain from watching "Training Day" -- the unconstitutional actions of that film's main character cop -- a person of color, no less! -- might send the easily frightened reviewer into shock.

When The Other Side of Heaven was released nationwide, it generated an unprecedented level of emotional and ideological responses from critics. Many critics wrote only a cursory description of the film's technical merits, and spent considerable time discussing their opinions on religion and missionary work in general. Others heralded the movie as a groundbreaking and refreshing break from typical Hollywood fare. Whether people liked it or hated it, nobody thought "The Other Side of Heaven" was a typical movie. Said Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel, "Should a movie like The Other Side of Heaven be reviewed? Is it even, in fact, a movie? Of course, it's contained on celluloid and presented in theaters where admission is charged. But if its form is that of a movie, its spirit is that of a sermon. Whatever you call it, The Other Side of Heaven is no mere Hollywood entertainment."

Then there's "The Singles Ward." More than any of the others, this movie divided people into "love it" or "hate it" camps. The major Utah critics reviewed it fairly harshly, but the movie quickly grossed more than its production budget as word of mouth and enthusiastic repeat attendance kept theaters full for months after it was released. "The Singles Ward" was a all-out comedy, something which had never been with an LDS-themed feature film. Some detractors criticized it for having characters that were broad stereotypes, perhaps not realizing that this was sort of the point of the movie. Many moviegoers expressed the opinion that whatever the movie's flaws, they had not laughed so hard at a movie in years, and they loved "The Singles Ward" for this fact alone.

Newspaper critics also criticized "The Singles Ward" for having humor that was very "inside" -- that would only be fully understandable to Utah and LDS audiences. Yet these same critics, whether LDS or otherwise, had no problem understanding the movie and its jokes, the film's promoters openly called it a movie "by and for Mormons," and the movie was only playing in Utah. Still, the question arises, if the critics themselves are NOT non-Utahn/non-LDS, and they have never seen the movie with a non-Utahn/non-LDS audience, how do they know that non-Utahn/non-LDS audiences won't like it? Ironically, these same critics had previously praised a number of esoteric films from other cultures, including Indian, Persian, and GLBT movies, all of which were full of inside humor and meaning that outsiders to those cultures didn't come close to completely understanding.

Then there was the whole "out of context quotes" movie ad, which sparked a whole controversy not even related to the movie's content.

God's Army, Brigham City, The Other Side of Heaven, and The Singles Ward all stirred up controversy, as critics and moviegoers discussed the religious, philosophical, and artistic implications of these movies.

Perhaps the least controversial of these movies has been Out of Step, but this was because the filmmakers pulled the movie from theaters after it had a very short release window. They decided to use a different marketing company and re-schedule the movie's release for a later date.

But those lucky few who did see Out of Step know the film has plenty to talk about. With the themes and topics broached, Out of Step is easily as potentially shocking, unusual and controversial as any other LDS-themed feature film. The movie takes a very realistic look at Latter-day Saint dating life, and includes among its main characters an anti-Mormon Baptist and a philosophy professor who has his class grapple with the very existence of God on the first day of class.

One of the immensely satisfying aspects of Out of Step is the way nothing in the story turns out as one might expect. The absolute realism of the characters takes the plot in fresh -- yet very believable -- directions. Jeremy Elliott's young New York musician character in Out of Step is probably the most fully drawn, complex and surprising non-Latter-day Saint character in any LDS-themed film to date.

Webpage created/article written December 2002.