In Film Is There Really Only One Right Way To Do It?

By Thomas C. Baggaley

12 April 2002

When I was working on a masters degree in music composition at UCLA, my thesis composition was to be a wind ensemble piece titled Joseph and Hyrum. The first movement was titled "Heroes" referring to my feeling that Joseph and Hyrum Smith, at least to me, really were heroes. The music was triumphant, truly heroic in character, featuring antiphonal trumpet fanfares between two trumpet sections. When I showed the movement to my advisor, however, he wanted me to change it, to throw in some of what he called their dark side, because to him, true heroes had to have a darker side in order to be realistic. He missed my point. I simply wanted to celebrate their heroism, not paint some kind of modernist character sketch of these men.

Sure, I know Joseph and Hyrum Smith had their character flaws. You can even find examples in the Doctrine and Covenants where Joseph was chastened for his failure in one area or another. I simply wanted to focus on their heroic qualities in that movement. Did that mean my composition was no good? Did I choose an invalid approach? Did this somehow automatically limit my work so that it could never achieve that elusive status of "greatness"? I don't think it did.

Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls ... can be revealed, and how to shun it.

-- Brigham Young
Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1941, p. 243

I don't bring this up because I need to vent an old frustration that has been weighing heavily on my psyche ever since. I bring it up as an example to illustrate a disturbing pattern that I have noticed in some recent reviews of films by LDS film makers.

Several of the reviews after the national release of The Other Side of Heaven seemed to assume that if you are going to make a film about a missionary going to an island in the Pacific and teaching the Polynesian people there, that the story has to be about how an arrogant white guy wants to go in an tell the Polynesians that they're doing everything all wrong and then grows up and learns to appreciate their way of life. And if you don't tell that story, or at least make it a subplot to the story, then you're doing it all wrong. My simple question to that assumption is Why? Why does it have to be that way? Why do you even, at the very least, have to have a character who resents the white guy for thinking he might have something to teach them in the first place? Is there some unwritten law that says all missionary stories that involve white skinned guys and brown skinned guys have to have that particular plot line?

What makes this assumption even more ridiculous is that the overwhelming majority of Tongans today are active members of Christian churches. Up to around 30 percent the population of Tonga are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while most of the others are part of church communities very similar to the Latter-day Saint community with regards to ethics and devotion. Far from resentment, it's safe to say that the people of Tonga have embraced the church as much as any other people in the world, so why should the movie's writers be required to concoct some cliche-based resentment?

Most disturbing for members of the church ought to be that this assumption reveals a stereotype or an attitude about missionaries that has been held over from the Spanish conquistadores. Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not travel the earth trying to force their religion down the throats of unsuspecting peoples of any colored skin, brown, white or otherwise. Nor do they tend to think that they are somehow smarter or better than the people they teach, despite the fact that most of them are barely out of those arrogant teenage years. They simply have a message to share, which they feel is important for everyone, and those who are willing to listen to that message then are allowed to accept or reject it. This is far from the white-skinned man forcing his way of thinking upon a brown-skinned man approach that apparently several of these reviewers felt was supported by this film because it did not breach the subject at all.

There is another assumption present in the national reviews of this film that ought to be dispelled. This is the perception that Mormons are just too nice to have a movie made about them. It is the idea that any movie about active, practicing Mormons is bound to be boring. Granted, this perception is a huge step up from the stereotype of a hundred years ago when people really believed that the Mormons were demonic beings who would kidnap your daughter and force her to become the 23rd wife of some polygamist church leader, and I agree with Deseret News Feature Editor Chris Hicks who, in Carole Mikita's recent documentary Latter-day Saints on the Silver Screen (2002), said "I don't think it's an offensive thing to say that Mormons are too nice." But why does having a nice guy as the main character necessarily make for a boring picture? My answer: it doesn't.

It does make it more challenging. It's easy to entertain with a story that has built-in conflict because the characters have huge character flaws and are involved in gangs or are struggling to overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. But just because you don't have any such characters in your story doesn't automatically make it boring or wrong. One of the reasons I wanted to write that movement in my thesis is because we live in a world that cries out for heroes, but we aren't allowed to have any. The moment a person seems to be somewhat heroic, people begin to look for that dark side -- the character flaws. Of course they always find them, because everyone has flaws. But we live in a world that would much rather dwell on those flaws, because it makes great news, great television, great film -- easy entertainment. To me, that is a challenge for LDS artists -- filmmakers, composers, writers, painters and sculptors -- to bring back the heroes, to dwell on the good, because it isn't easy to make great entertainment with those characters. But I think it's worth it.

Another version of this assumption can be found in the statement of several reviews that the characters were unrealistic and unbelievable. It reminded me of one teenager who called the more-or-less wholesome television show "7th Heaven" unrealistic. "Nobody lives like that," was her perception. "Nobody's that nice or that good." Why not? Because it doesn't make a good, entertaining film, so we dont make up stories with characters like that? Because people really can't be that nice or good? Why does being nice or good make a character unrealistic? How ironic that these reviews call the characters unrealistic when they are based on real, living people -- Elder and Sister John H. Groberg -- and real, living experiences from Elder Grobergs mission! It's also important to note that members of the church do not hold a monopoly on living clean, wholesome lives. There are a lot of nice, wholesome people in the world and a lot of them are pretty interesting too. Nice and good does not equal boring or unrealistic.

Again, we're dealing with a mistaken preconception here -- that a good, wholesome or nice character cannot be interesting enough to be the main character of a film. Unfortunately, I think some of these reviewers have let these preconceived ideas overrun their reviews. In other words, rather than talking about the film for what it is and if it accomplishes what it sets out to do, they talk about the film for what they think it ought to be or what it isn't.

For example, one reviewer from Lazy Movie Reviews wrote, "I've come to the conclusion that Mormon missionaries aren't that exciting. Even if they do end up in Tonga teaching a bunch of savages who eat their children for fun. If I want exciting, I can talk to one of the illegals that lives here in Phoenix who paid their way across the border by smuggling heroin. Now that is some excitement." And the L.A. Times reviewer wrote, "The Other Side of Heaven is the most unambiguous in a recent spate of broad-market films about the other love that dare not speak it's name in Hollywood, the worship of God. Not since English missionary Ingrid Bergman saved the Chinese from their basest instincts in Inn of the Sixth Happiness can we recall such a narcissistic screen spectacle of white Christian chauvinism versus the dark-skinned heathen." Are they really talking about the film? Or are these comments, and others by reviewers, colored by incorrect preconceptions? At the very least, the multitude of comments in reviews about imperialistic white men bringing Christianity to the Tongans is a criticism of historical events, and not of the film itself.

Unfortunately, letting preconceived ideas about what a film ought to be overrun your review has not been limited to non-LDS reviewers. The local reviews of the recently released film, The Singles Ward, revealed a preconception that I feel needs to be addressed. In several of the reviews, the film received bad marks because the reviewers, who in most cases were LDS themselves, felt that the film could not be understood or enjoyed by non-LDS theater-goers. The preconception, in other words, is that in order for an LDS filmmaker to make a good film, it must be universally accessible. I would, by the way, like to have the opportunity to take someone who is not a member of the church -- preferably someone who has not lived in an area with lots of Mormons and find out what their reaction to that film is before making that kind of judgment, because it's hard for me, having grown up as a member of the church in Utah, to watch the film from that perspective.

Let's address this preconception. Why does a film have to be universally accessible to be good? The filmmakers of The Singles Ward readily acknowledge that their target audience is members of the church. What is wrong with that? Are we worried that those who aren't a part of the LDS culture will feel left out? Are we so hypersensitive about being perceived as exclusionary (a stereotype the church has struggled to overcome) that we immediately label any film focused just on the LDS market as bad? If that is the case, then how do we deal with the many LDS-themed CDs, books, craft supplies, clip art, temple trading cards and other various items that can be found at stores like Deseret Book and Seagull Book?

For that matter, many of the films coming out of Hollywood could be considered exclusionary and therefore bad under this paradigm. I used to work for a marketing research firm in Los Angeles that handles much of the market research for the major Hollywood Studios. Many of the films that come out of Hollywood are made for a particular target audience, whether it is for a particular ethnicity or for a particular age group. Research shows that there are definite cultural differences, especially among different racial and ethnic groups, in the kinds of films that people enjoy. Do we automatically label a film as bad because it is intended for African-Americans and thus excludes any other kind of ethnic group? Do we say a film is bad because it cannot be enjoyed by teenagers and 40-somethings alike?

Responsible reviews of a motion picture will review the picture based on what it is trying to accomplish and if it does accomplish that stated goal. Of course, you want to include pertinent information, so that readers know, for example, the intended audience of a film. But then reviewers should judge the film on its own merits for what it is, not what it is not or what the reviewers think it should be. In the end, who cares if The Other Side of Heaven didn't deal with the issue of imperialistic Christianity? There are plenty of other films that have touched on that topic in one way or another -- Pocahontas and The Mission readily come to mind as two examples -- and you would think that this different approach to missionary work would be fresh and appealing for not having taken the well-trod path. So what if The Singles Ward featured inside humor not readily understood by every human being under the sun? Is it enjoyable to its intended audience? Is it well-made within the parameters it has set for itself? Those are the kinds of questions the reviewer should be answering.