Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Michael Sicinski
While being labelled “the father of Mormon cinema” may not be exactly analogous to being “the dean of Helsinki stage magicians” or “the #1 live reptile merchant in the Quad Cities area,” it inevitably carries a tenor so deeply localized, even parochial, that the designation almost automatically becomes a kind of faint praise, if not an apology. Richard Dutcher’s cinema has been a victim of its own success, in part because the films’ specificity of place and unique audience address has solidified into a set of expectations and, for many viewers, a set of prejudices. That Dutcher’s cinema defies expectation and explodes prejudice has, unfortunately, too often been beside the point.
After several student films made while studying at Brigham Young University, Dutcher burst onto the indie landscape with God’s Army (2000), in which he himself starred as Elder Dalton, a terminally ill missionary in Los Angeles determined to inspire those around him and lead his charges through incipient crises of faith. Essentially the first professionally produced narrative film made by and about practicing members of the Mormon faith, God’s Army was a staggering commercial success and convinced Dutcher, who had been struggling as a screenwriter in Hollywood for years, that the Mormon community would embrace films that depicted them and their religion honestly and without concession.
God’s Army is a strikingly devout film, one that brooks little disagreement about the tenets of the church, which made Dutcher’s second film, Brigham City (2001), that much more bracing. Dutcher stars again, this time as a small-town Utah sheriff forced to contend with both a serial killer and the collapse of the town’s conservative veneer provoked by the ensuing investigation. Brigham City is a heartbreaking examination of the erosion of faith in God, presented not as an aberration or some moral failing but as a natural consequence of life on the material plane. Extraordinarily subtle in its subversion of the codes of comfort and nostalgia, Brigham City observes a measured pace and deliberate meting out of narrative information that harks back to classical American cinema, following that mode through to a point of collapse similar to that found in late Ford and Hawks. Thematically and stylistically anticipating Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) but surpassing it in every way, Brigham City remains Dutcher’s greatest achievement.
Darker and more ambivalent than his debut, Brigham City received a decidedly mixed reaction, and it took four years for Dutcher to complete his third film, States of Grace (2005). Released in some markets as God’s Army 2, Grace is an ambitious but sometimes overreaching multi-character tale that returns to the Mormon missionary scene in Los Angeles, this time following a very different demimonde, Elder Lozano (Ignazio Serricchio), a former Latino gangbanger who plays companion to naïve young white boy Farrell (Lucas Fleischer) as well as inadvertently saving the life of Carl (Lamont Stephens), an African-American gang member who decides to turn his life around and join the Mormon church. Beset with numerous subplots, several key supporting characters, and the reappearance of God’s Army’s imposing local Mormon leader, President Beecroft (John Pentecost), Dutcher’s observational realism here gives way to melodrama, much of it rather predictable in its structured pathos, although some aspects are genuinely surprising. While States of Grace is a lateral move artistically, Dutcher’s obvious desire to rethink God’s Army from a more liberal, exploratory spiritual framework is admirable, and considered as a crypto-remake of his earlier cine-tract States of Grace becomes an infinitely more fascinating artifact.
This is all the more so because, in the midst of making States of Grace, Dutcher underwent a spiritual crisis that eventually led to his departure from the Mormon church. (As he told Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Lee, “One day in prayer, all by myself, I asked myself, ‘What if it’s all not true?’”) Dutcher’s break with Mormonism, and Mormon cinema, was highly public, entailing editorials and defenses in the Provo Daily Herald and his own questioning of his increasingly ambivalent place in the Mormon film “movement.” (“It’s like having porn on your résumé,” he quipped.) But while Dutcher has left Mormon orthodoxy behind, his commitment to using cinema as a tool for exploring questions of the spirit has deepened, and he has offered his hope that Mormon cinema might attain the greatness of those “handful of filmmakers who have dared to explore human spirituality in film,” citing Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, and Ozu as exemplars. The message is clear: above all, Mormon cinema must be cinema, and stand or fall as such.
Which brings us to Falling (2008), a true L.A. story which depicts the disintegration of two lost souls, Eric Boyle (Dutcher), a failed screenwriter who makes a living chasing disaster footage with his camcorder, and his aging ingénue wife Davey (Virginia Reece), who may have crossed the line to get her last big break. This is Dutcher’s most painfully, even extravagantly agnostic film: a pivotal moment even features Eric lobbing f-bombs at the Man Upstairs. A grim work of gutbucket artistry, Falling is a masterfully controlled atrocity exhibition that, like its protagonist, eventually flies into a million pieces: one can practically see the blood and sweat, the physical force pushing light through the celluloid in the effort to grab hold of something in a spiritually rudderless world. Though its roots lie in the Sam Fuller/Nick Ray school of off-Hollywood operatics, its closest contemporary cousin would have to be Abel Ferrara in his unclean renegade Catholic mode; the only other halfway apposite point of comparison would be early Mohsen Makhmalbaf (particularly 1989’s The Marriage of the Blessed), around the time his rigid Islamic belief started to give way.
One can easily picture Falling unspooling in the projection booth without a take-up reel and piling up on the floor, appropriately ending Dutcher’s apocalyptic reckoning in a mad, inextricable tangle. However, as if to prove that nobody has him pegged, Dutcher is now making the rounds with Evil Angel, a straight-ahead, Ving Rhames-starring horror entry revolving around the seriously pissed-off ghost of Lilith (Adam’s ex-wife before Eve got the goldmine). And so, this is where we join Dutcher, an ex-Mormon auteur limning urgent questions of human belief in a cinematic syntax nestled somewhere between Andrew Wyeth and Hieronymus Bosch, alternately deemed too Mormon, not Mormon enough, or a one-time serious artist now embracing the horror mainstream. Perhaps careerism is the one creed to which Dutcher has never subscribed.
CINEMA SCOPE: Having seen your films out of order, I may have a different perception of a trajectory than you or others would. But it seems to me that God’s Army introduces elements of religious doubt. We see this particularly in the character of Kinegar, an angry skeptic who rejects the church, and to a lesser extent with Sister Fronk, who embraces Western lit and liberal-humanist values in equal measure to LDS ones. But the film ultimately comes down quite firmly on the side of LDS values. Yet then, almost immediately, Brigham City explores faith and leaves its most profound questions hanging in deep ambivalence. It seems that the evolution of the work involved taking that doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and giving it a hearing. A small spore had begun to germinate, and even take over. Does that seem accurate to you?
RICHARD DUTCHER: I think that’s fair. One of the things that I valued as I started making these more personal, more meaningful films was that I understood that I was able to merge my artistic progress with my spiritual progress. This meant I was able to write while reaching into my own questions, my own doubts, my own experiences. What I found was that filmmaking was helping me to progress spiritually and as a human being, and that by introducing the spiritual elements I was also developing and progressing as a filmmaker. It felt like a DNA strand coming together. Instead of my spirituality and my work being separate, which I think is the case for most people, filmmakers included, it was satisfying to experience that interconnected development. And because the films are so personal, I think there’s absolutely no doubt that when viewers watch the films in sequence, they perceive that they’re watching my own spiritual growth. (Well, I consider it growth. I’m sure some people consider it quite the opposite.)
SCOPE: Brigham City’s spiritual dimensions touch on other realms as well. It strikes me as having a lot in common with Mystic River, although I think it’s by far the better and more humane film. It doesn’t just grapple with questions of faith. It’s also about conservatism’s fear of outsiders as a kind of sleight of hand. People use this as a way to avoid facing the Other within.
DUTCHER: It was interesting for me to hear the responses to Brigham City because some people missed the boat altogether. A lot of intelligent critics primarily saw it as a murder mystery and then immediately started going down their checklist of genre elements it either conformed or failed to conform to. Although I didn’t publicly respond, I wanted to argue back that it’s a spiritual drama. I’m playing around with certain mystery genre elements, but it’s not Agatha Christie nor was it intended to be. I would think that an open-minded viewer would realize by the end what they had just watched.
SCOPE: Identifying the killer and meting out punishment isn’t what’s at stake, narratively or otherwise.
DUTCHER: Exactly, but I was gratified when viewers picked up on these more significant issues, particularly the “lost innocence” question, which seems to be a running theme for me. And the suspicion of outsiders, the damage that can come with isolation. The film is also dealing with community, with forgiveness, examining these things within this genre framework, the murder story running along the top. The film was received fairly well, but it was disappointing to me that there was a lot of resistance from the Mormon community, which I thought would and should really embrace the film. Instead, there seemed to be a focus on what they considered to be an excess of violence. I thought it was handled pretty tamely. And there was also a certain discomfort with these ideas, with stepping into the shadows and acknowledging some of the realities that we all live with. It was very new to that community to see something that wasn’t intended just to preach to the choir, or convert people. It was simply a story about the effort of real faith and community in the real world.
In retrospect, I’d have to be pretty grateful it was received as well as it was in the Mormon community. The main disappointment for me was that I in no way intended it to be a film that would only be for the Mormon audience. I actually wanted it to be something that would reach across to non-Mormons, Christians, non-Christians. My assumption was that anybody would be interested in having a peek into this culture, in examining these universal issues within the context of that very specific culture. What was disappointing to me more than anything was that no matter how hard I pushed the film, it seems to have been largely dismissed by everyone except the Mormon community, and then only half-accepted by them.
But in fact one of the very strong motivations for making some of these films is that every time I saw a Mormon represented in a television show, a mainstream film, or even in films that the Mormon church as an institution put out, I felt, these aren’t Mormons. It’s so far off the mark as far as who these people are, how they speak, how they act, what they believe. It was very important for me to document from the inside, without trying to make the characters positive or negative, just to reveal who they were as best I could, as individuals and as a community. And to my knowledge, there sure hasn’t been much else out there to get a glimpse of it. Big Love has been interesting. I enjoy the show, but at times I still jump up and down, thinking, “Man, couldn’t you just get a Mormon onboard? Just one technical advisor, so you could pronounce the words right?”
SCOPE: On the rare occasion filmmakers even touch on Mormonism, it’s treated like some bizarre ritualistic lodge and only mined for its perceived exoticism or arcane lore. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2 (1999) generates perverse sculptural imagery from Mormon ritual. One of Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper films (The Moab Story, 2003) incorporates some radical LDS cult behavior, with the Luper character landing up in a polygamy sect. In fact, the only non-Mormon film I can think of that addresses Mormon history in an evenhanded way is James Benning’s Deseret (1995). It seems to be assumed that Mormons can be represented any which way, with little reprisal.
DUTCHER: Yes. Actually, as I was making my first couple of films, I felt a real kinship with Spike Lee. I thought the black community, and the gay community, had certainly experienced this. Filmmakers felt, if we don’t tell our stories, somebody else will, and they’re going to get it wrong. And I really felt much the same, the constant irritation of seeing your own people portrayed in a way that’s so inaccurate and so insulting. But yeah, it was probably an oddity in itself, the young Mormon filmmaker whose hero was Spike Lee!
SCOPE: It’s ironic, too, since as your work has gotten grittier, it’s been harder for you to find urban audiences. Brigham City was the last film of yours to play commercially in Manhattan. Falling did play Los Angeles, but the marginalization is odd.
DUTCHER: With Falling, marketing has been a problem. It’s been a challenge to get it out there properly. So I’ve basically pulled the film and plan to re-release it on the heels of Evil Angel, which is a much more mainstream, outwardly commercial film. So I tested the waters, learned a few things, and plan to come back with it, because I do think it’s a film that deserves a lot more exposure.
SCOPE: With Falling, it seems as though a radical crisis in faith is accompanied by a radical crisis in film form, in things like shot construction, narrative organization, overall style.
DUTCHER: Well, it’s easy to see the films in that kind of progression, but most people are surprised to learn that I actually wrote Falling right before I shot God’s Army. And it didn’t really change much, as far as the screenplay went. Granted, by the time I actually shot the film, I was in a different place spiritually, and so I think there’s a different tone to it. Although the film is very faithful to the original screenplay, it’s a very different film than it would’ve been had I shot it in 2000 as I’d planned. Thematically, it’s just another part of the brood, although it’s got its own personality, for sure. And I had always intended to approach the film visually the way that I did. I always intended it to be this edgier, grainier, handheld film. For the subject matter and for what I was trying to put across, I felt it was important to push the violence, and to push the look, to give it a very urgent, down-to-earth feel.
SCOPE: Contrasting the visual style with that of the three earlier films, the sun-bleached, grainier style perhaps creates more of a distance between the viewer and the image, which seems thematically relevant, since both lead characters, Eric and Davey, work with the manipulation of images, and both have an increasing tendency to become inured or numbed to the human image.
DUTCHER: Well, I certainly wanted to communicate a certain ugliness to the psychological world that they were living in. One thing I find interesting, though, is that there are a few images in Falling that I find to be some of the most beautiful images that I’ve shot. I really respond to that look. I like the grain, I like the natural lighting, and as far as the colour values I was working with, I find it beautiful. So I know a lot of people would look at that style of filmmaking and think it’s kind of ugly, but to me there’s some real beauty in it.
SCOPE: The first thing you notice about Falling is its striking texture. Especially in the turn to digital, we’re being coached to perceive visible film grain as almost bad manners. We’re losing that tactile quality.
DUTCHER: I agree. And of course the story itself dictates the visual style. Obviously I don’t think the look of Falling would’ve worked for Brigham City. With a film like States of Grace, I felt satisfied that I’d found a certain slickness or grace in the image and movement of the camera—it all had a solid, professional gloss to it. But with Falling, it was pleasing to challenge myself to move toward something very different visually. It was fun having multiple cameras jostling for space among the characters, breaking things up. It was very invigorating work.
SCOPE: God’s Army and States of Grace offer a viewpoint of Los Angeles as a temporary but communal space of integration for the young missionaries there. Falling’s construction of L.A. filmic space is one that we’re generally more familiar with, a space of fragmentation and disintegration. But Brigham City is more ambivalent in this regard than it seems at first. Like Falling, Brigham City creates distance, generates an artifice, only by being far too perfect. The cinematography in the opening passages is so exaggeratedly autumnal it begins to veer into Douglas Sirk territory. It’s too beautiful. The film constructs a spatial integration that it immediately begins to unravel piece by piece. So there are connections there.
DUTCHER: And Evil Angel elaborates on these tactile qualities as well. I had a great deal of fun making it because, on a formal level, the horror genre permits certain camera manoeuvres and other tools from the toolbox that weren’t appropriate to more serious spiritual drama. It’s like I’m leaving the chapel and getting to go to the amusement park.
SCOPE: One of the things that’s perplexing about your situation vis-à-vis the festival scene: world cinema has a place for films that are philosophically and spiritually searching about Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism. Why the marginalization of your films, which are clearly bucking the mainstream of Mormon theology? What are the resistances you’ve specifically encountered?
DUTCHER: I think a lot of it is just because it’s new. I think the cinema-going public in the US is more used to seeing films that, for instance, may be heavily Catholic but aren’t institutionally Catholic films. With The Apostle (1997) from the Pentecostal community or the Godfather films, they have other films they can reference as if to say, “Okay, just because it’s got religious characters or context, it’s not necessarily a religious film.” It can transcend that. But I think there just hasn’t been that with Mormonism, and I think Mormonism itself is a very unpopular religion in the artistic community.
There’s a suspicion about Mormonism that has rubbed off on these films. We knew how to market to the Mormon audience, but what we could never break through to was marketing the films to the broader, mainstream Christian audience, which I thought should respond really well to these films. But just because the film was set in a Mormon town or had Mormon characters or featured Mormon missionaries, I encountered such a surprising level of bigotry. States of Grace, for example. We pushed so heavily, because it seemed like something that should appeal to a broader Christian audience.
SCOPE: Right. The film has very deliberate, very genuine ecumenical gestures.
DUTCHER: But we would do screenings where we would invite the community religious leaders in Las Vegas and L.A., in several places. We basically had to drag these people into the theatre. Once they saw States of Grace, they loved it, they wanted to talk about it, and they wanted to tell everybody to go see it. But then the audiences just never materialized. I think it was just an insurmountable…lack of faith that this could be a good movie! Or that this was something that they wanted to see. I know that in the born-again Christian community, there’s such an antagonism toward Mormonism, and a fear of it, that I think a lot of that community wouldn’t go just because they didn’t want any Mormonism to potentially rub off on them. They wouldn’t want to come away being more informed about or more understanding towards Mormons, fictional or not. And I think in connecting with the mainstream film audience, it was the same thing. There’s far less bigotry and anti-Mormon prejudice in the mainstream. But then again, I think there’s the feeling that if you have the word “Mormon” attached to the film, people just run screaming. Or perceive it as something other than entertainment.
SCOPE: I know that when I first saw Brigham City, it was a revelation in terms of form and craft and storytelling, just because my encounters with independent faith-based cinema of any sort revealed it to be sloppy and amateurish and ham-fisted. It had become a red flag. Your films stand apart by actually being cinema. “Cinema” and “faith” become increasingly fraught, clawing at one another. It seems to me, for example, that you have a kindred spirit in Abel Ferrara. The three most recent films, Falling especially, are in many ways of a piece with his Catholic crisis films like Mary (1995) and even Bad Lieutenant (1992). And he’s marginalized too. Nobody wants to deal with these films. They’re Catholic to the bone, and yet the way Ferrara’s struggling with this is very reckless.
DUTCHER: Well, going back to what you said earlier, I think due to the prevalence of these incredibly poorly made Christian-market films, my films are met with the same expectations. My work was just grouped along with these other films, where they didn’t belong at all. Nor did they belong anywhere near the other films that were coming out later in the Mormon community. Man, I tried so hard to distance myself from those other films, because I felt those other films were on par with some of the worst of the Christian-market films. So yes, absolutely, I like the fact that you brought up Abel Ferrara, and I’d like the films to be seen more in line with Ferrara, Paul Schrader, or Michael Tolkin, who’s made some interesting stuff like The Rapture (1991). Or Duvall’s The Apostle, which I admire. I would really like to see my films considered in that family, instead of with the crap that we get coming out of the Christian exploitation market.
In fact, I have to say that after years of trying to get people to see these films, to get them considered in the independent film community or elsewhere, one of the most gratifying things to me was getting a call from Scott Foundas, who’s familiar with my films. He was interviewing Paul Schrader, and they were discussing faith-based films. Without prompting, Schrader asked, “Are you familiar with the films of Richard Dutcher?” Scott was, of course, and so they talked about it. But for me, just to get the third-hand information that someone like Schrader, who I look up to, and who often works in the realm of faith, religion, and spirituality in cinema, actually recognized and valued these films, that felt great. And it speaks to the diverse audiences I’d like my films to find.
SCOPE: Are your audiences changing? For instance, are you finding that some of the viewers who initially had qualms with Brigham City and States of Grace for not simply repeating God’s Army are reversing their opinions with time? Have portions of the Mormon community that rejected the films come to embrace them? Or did people tend to close that door and not look back?
DUTCHER: It’s interesting: there has been a re-evaluation of the earlier films, and they’ve been embraced more by what I would consider the liberal contingent within Mormonism. Unfortunately, that’s very small. And there’s been a re-evaluation of the earlier films by the more mainstream Mormon audiences as well, where I’ve found that some Mormon scholars and intellectuals who originally championed God’s Army and Brigham City have, after States of Grace and Falling, now gone back and considered, “Maybe we need to have another look at these.” Now I’m suspect. So in a way I’ve found myself in the hallway. I’ve left one room, but haven’t quite entered the next room yet. But the door to the previous room’s pretty much closed now. And I’m happy with that. I’ve done everything I wanted to do in that room. But there are still stories specific to Mormon history or the Mormon psychology that I’m still interested in exploring. I think I’ll always be interested in Mormonism as a culture that I understand. But the tone will definitely change, and keep changing. In my development, I certainly don’t feel like I’ve “arrived” anywhere, and I kind of hope I never do. I hope to keep growing in the years to come, both spiritually and as a filmmaker. I’ve recently discovered Manoel de Oliveira. A hundred years old, a new film every year, still examining the world. So he’s become my new hero. I sincerely hope that when I’m 100, I’m still exploring human spirituality through film.