Sunday, May 21, 2017

God's Army 2: States of Grace (2005): A Review

From the morass of products of most questionable quality that is LDS cinema, the work of Richard Dutcher juts upward like a monumental rock face. Here at last is sublimity. Here is art. I believe this statement is uncontroversial, even among Mormons, for whom their distinct film industry, such as it is, is not to my knowledge a point of especial pride. In a field that is otherwise made up, near as my fellow investigator and I can tell, of student-produced shorts from BYU in the 1960s and '70s, largely intended for seminary audiences (who in LDS contexts, recall, are mostly teenagers) and with vague P.S.A. overtones (in one of them, a student actually does awake at the end to learn that the terrible warning conveyed by the film about the importance of temple marriage was "all a dream" -- à la "Come back, Zinc! Come back!"), along with a handful of godawful "comedies" made in the last two decades in which some mildly rebellious Mormon twenty-something learns that it's actually worth it to follow church rules because it is the only way to win back his gorgeous future Mormon spouse. Among this sallow competition, Richard Dutcher is, indisputably, the best. And the uncomfortable part? He left the church in 2007 in a high-profile way, announcing he was no longer a Mormon.

All of this may seem like overconfident opining coming from the likes of non-Mormon me, however, so let me take a moment to establish my claim to expertise. My friend Isaac and I have undertaken together what has now been a years' long excursion down the rabbit hole of religious film subcultures -- running the gamut from Evangelical schlockbusters produced as thinly-veiled Hollywood knock-offs (they are a kind of store-brand version of the big studio movies, with the names slightly changed and a personal testimony of conversion/conversation about theodicy wedged into the closing frames) to movies that actually manage some kind of warmth and heart and self-deprecating humor, and that even suggest in flashes that non-believers might be human beings too, such as Christmas with a Capital C, featuring Daniel Baldwin (apparently, there is a third Baldwin -- eerily indistinguishable from the others -- who knew?)-- to yet a third category of films that are so strange and indescribable, they attain a kind of arthouse quality in spite of themselves (We would cite here Let the Lion Roar, as an instance -- in which, if I recall correctly, the city of Geneva that housed John Calvin is described as "one of the stinkiest cities in Europe," and our omniscient narrator announces that he personally became a Christian "during the charismatic wave of the 1980s.")

In the course of our journey we have spent more than a little time investigating Mormon film as well, and it is safe to say that from all this mass of celluloid, some of the few works of any real distinction were the ones created by Richard Dutcher.

Who? People who have paid closer attention to this blog than it deserves over the years may not be unfamiliar with the name. I had something to say about Dutcher, and God's Army 1, in a long-previous post. It is only now, two years later, however, that Isaac and I got around to God's Army 2: States of Grace, which is not really a sequel per se (indeed, the first part of that title has the aura of the studio executive about it -- I'm guessing it was a later add-on), but which is also about Mormon missionaries and bears the same distinct imprint of genuine quality as the original. I'm inclined to mull on the film in some detail here -- hence the post -- since the reasons why it is so good, almost against all odds, shed light both on the reasons why most other religious subculture film is so bad (and to be fair -- the majority of film in general, of all persuasions, is pretty forgettable) and on matters of still more ultimate significance.

The tantalizing thing about Richard Dutcher's films is that they seemingly have no right to be as good as they are -- though this is true in two different ways for the two God's Army movies, and in ways that nearly mirror each other. The first God's Army begins with -- and sustains for most of its length -- a deep candor and intellectual honesty. The characters are genuinely struggling with the not always obviously compatible claims of their religion. One of the group of missionaries in the film, we learn, is in the process of reading the Tanners, or Dan Vogel, or some other forbidden critical work lifted from the unofficial LDS Index Librorum Prohibitorum -- and while he is only doing so at first, he claims, in order better to know the mind of the enemy and prepare for his traps in advance, he ends up declaring in dismay at last that everything in the book is "all true!" Another missionary, who's black, finds himself confronted by an African American family to whom he's trying to proselytize, who demand he explain why the church took so notoriously long to recognize the equal humanity and membership in the priesthood of black people (according to Richard Bushman -- no critic of the church -- one of the reasons it even happened at all, when it finally did, was for no more idealistic reason than that it became too taxing to have to track down every person's racial ancestry when the church started proselytizing in Brazil!).

Dutcher doesn't skirt the difficulty of any of these questions -- until the end, that is, when all the theodicy and self-doubt is suddenly swept away by a literal miracle healing. One is left very much with the feeling that Dutcher himself is not convinced by this resolution, and it strikes one that this is the only dishonest note in the film -- it is just a shame that it happens to come right at the end, and is the capstone of all that has gone before.

If God's Army is conceived in sincerity and ends in cliché, the second film -- our chief subject here -- follows exactly the opposite pattern. It begins with a positively outrageous cluster of clichés -- several of them bordering on racist stereotypes -- and somehow manages to pull an emotionally impactful and heartfelt movie out of them.

The film begins in some beachfront community in what appears to be Southern California, complete with bikini-clad women whose presence challenges our two twenty-ish missionary protagonists (who are three weeks away from the end of their deployment) not to think "dirty thoughts." Within a block of this unnamed picturesque resort, the boys bump into a black gang leader (shades of "Tylenol Jones"), who of course is thrown into uncontrollable rage at the slightest physical contact, but before he can do anything to them that would last, a rival gang pulls up and proceeds to machine gun everyone in sight -- the only survivors being our missionaries and the now-wounded gang leader who will -- also inevitably -- be converted to Mormonism by the end of the film. All this in the first five minutes.

As for our two heroes, by the way, they are: 1) a sheltered boy who grew up Mormon and who's shy and bad at sports; and 2) a guy who converted to the church in his teens, whose back is covered in tats, who's athletic, who himself used to be in a gang and lost several family members to a drive-by shooting of some sort, and who therefore knows what to do -- as every street-wise kid would -- when the massacre in the opening five minutes goes down. One of these two boys is white, and the other is Hispanic. Can you guess which is which?

As my friend Isaac said, it would have been nice if we could say the film inverted the stereotypes. But no. Nope. In short, Richard Dutcher, after exploring ever-so briefly in his previous film the history of Mormon awkwardness in matters of race, decided to write a new chapter of it himself.

But wait, we're still not done. In addition to our street toughs, we have as well our female love interest, who happens to be conveniently positioned in the apartment next door to the lads, and who just as conveniently seems to have no preexisting social network, romantic entanglements, friends, or family (we learn later on that the last has, of course, "cut her off"). When this crushed violet happens to disclose to the boys early on in the movie that she is "an actress" and, to their question as to where they might have seen her, she replies "Oh trust me, you wouldn't know any of the movies I've been in," Isaac knew exactly where this was going. I, meanwhile, still held out hope. "Maybe she does daytime drama!" I said. "Maybe she's in weird evangelical movies. Or does arthouse!" But no. Shades of Updike again. She of course started out, when she first came to Hollywood as an idealistic young ingenue, searching for more respectable film roles, but as her spirit wilted beneath the cold realities of showbiz and the cruelty of non-Mormon men, she was thrust into the porn industry by economic necessity. Pornographic films. She repeats this revelation twice, in case we failed to appreciate its gravity.

Look, I'm sure that L.A. is a terrible place, don't get me wrong. I have no desire to live there, and Brecht wasn't lying when he said that Hell, which seemed to Milton a lot like London, "must be even more like Los Angeles." I get that there are probably gang shootings there, and beachfront resorts, and bikinis, and disappointed would-be starlets, and the porn industry. But are they all packed in so close together? Does one encounter them all so fast on each other's heals? Do the shootings happen in broad daylight, right next to the tourist boardwalk?

...

That, then, is the unpromising raw material from which Mr. Dutcher has decided to stitch his masterpiece. And yet, mystery of mysteries, the product that results from it actually does become good! From such humble beginnings, a star is born. How can this be? Well, for one thing, our characters all end up either becoming more interesting and complex than their backstories would suggest, or else they fade into relative insignificance. For another, while the film's first two thirds do enact all the clichés one is expecting, the narrative proceeds from there in each case in far less anticipated directions.

The wounded gang leader, for instance, does as previously mentioned become a Mormon convert and renounce the life of crime and violence, and even changes over his wardrobe to a sweater and button-down by way of signifying the transformation, but this does not at once solve all his problems the way it would in a bad film of the genre. His young half-brother is still murdered by a rival gang, after seeking the revenge that his older sibling's new convictions will not permit him to carry out. Though he himself decides at last to show mercy to the person who killed his brother, forswearing vengeance, he is not able to save the man's life from another member of his crew who lacks those scruples. While he continues to seek solace in the church, the film does not portray this as an easy answer to the problem of theodicy, and -- unlike in God's Army 1 -- there is no miraculous resurrection at the end. Along the way, he behaves the way a flawed yet sympathetic human being actually would, for the most part (excluding such occasional affronts to realism as the fact that he becomes interested in the faith after reading from the Book of Mormon -- which, I'm sorry, could not possibly give any neophyte much sense of what present-day Mormonism is about or what Latter-Day Saints believe, with its thinly-veiled rantings against Free Masons, freethinkers, and Universalists, with its Korihors and its Nehors and its Anti-Nephi-Lehies).

The gang leader's conversion, in short, defies both the Evangelical and the Mormon tropes. In the Evangelical films Isaac and I have seen, the convert is always utterly transformed by the touch of grace. The sneering atheist they once were breaks down in sobs and admits they've always actually believed in God, they've just been angry with Him all these years. Then the evangelical hero provides his own personal testimony, which somehow -- to borrow a phrase from Samuel Butler -- "silences, but does not remove" the profound and troubling questions about theodicy that have just been raised. And once they have done so, the convert puts on garments of righteousness. They are a totally different person. The perishable have become imperishable and all that.

Mormon films, by contrast, almost never have a conversion story at all -- it is certainly not at the center of the plot if there is one. This may seem like an odd fact in a faith that ostensibly so values proselytizing activity that it all-but requires a two-year missionary commitment from its young people. Our going theory to explain it, however -- based on long and careful observation of LDS film culture -- is that the sociological function of the mission trip is really far less about expanding church membership, which is holding alright, than it is about binding fast the church's teens to the Mormon community, at a time in their lives when they would otherwise be going to college and being exposed to a host of other intellectual and bodily temptations. (Indeed, one of the most immediate problems that the missionary program seems to have been designed to solve -- and it is a recent invention by the way, dating in its present, semi-compulsory form only from the 1970s -- was that of early marriage. The old BYU student films mentioned above are filled with warnings against the practice. Separating young people from one another by oceans for two years right after high school was one way to solve it.)

The missionary experience -- as one might guess -- is central to many of the films we have seen -- especially to those pitched toward the young. It is presented as a harsh yet indelible bonding experience with no small resemblance to a tour of duty in the military -- this is "God's army," after all. The focus of these mission-trip films is seldom on the work of conversion, but rather on the relationships among the missionaries themselves.

Psychologically, the mission is both isolating from outside influences (Isaac tells me the missionary's reading is carefully monitored) and is such an intense experience that it forges an un-severable link among those who have passed through it. Moreover, one becomes attached to the perpetuation of the missionary tradition oneself, having gone through it, both because it was formative in one's own case, and because it seems necessary psychologically to justify the hardship it entails. One has to find meaning in one's past suffering. It is the same reason why soldiers who have been through the worst fighting actually sometimes have the least pacifist tendencies -- viz., say, Ernst Jünger -- and why Cyril Connolly, in the passage about Eton from Enemies of Promise that is cited by Orwell (who mocks it savagely, even though as an Etonian himself he must actually have understood it all too well), maintained that "the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development." It is the same reason why Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick once remarked in a lecture that it was above all life in the Red Army that created a sense of collective buy-in for the new Soviet regime, and why -- as Orwell once complained -- Dickens pressed his own children through England's miserable educational mill even though he was one of history's most astute critics of that whole system.

Armies, English boarding schools, and Mormon missions -- all crowd youngsters into a semi-totalistic homosocial environment with all kinds of confusing rules and notions about sex -- taboos which are both half-expected to be broken and unforgivingly punished when they are (more on that below). Apparently, it makes an impression, whether for good or ill. It has certainly proven a useful device for retaining young people within the Mormon fold.

One who sometimes prioritizes his sense of personal conscience over respecting the religious practices of other faiths might be inclined to criticize the tactic at this point as pretty hard sauce -- maybe even as a tad manipulative -- but the only point that concerns us here is that conversion is not the archetypal story of the Mormon film. The standard Mormon movie is far more likely to focus on the young Saint who grew up in the church but is tempted to try their hand at a modest bending of the rules, and who will be brought back into good standing by the end of the narrative. Richard Dutcher, therefore, is doing something unusual by focusing on a convert's story at all. Perhaps it augurs even in 2005 that he is not your typical Mormon, and that he will not in fact be a member of the church for much longer.

--

Another cliché that Dutcher's film somewhat manages to subvert -- or at least, to acknowledge -- is the usual religious subculture film's paradoxical sexual morality. While Evangelical and Mormon films alike uniformly take seriously -- and for granted -- the obligation of premarital abstention, there is running through all of these movies the unmistakable fact that even the filmmakers seem to think that those who stick too closely and easily to that rule are not particularly interesting or cool. The "real man," we are subtly led to believe, is one who is forever and recklessly conquering the hearts of others,  and who could sleep with all kinds of people at any time, only to be tempted wickedly (though not quite to stumble) and eventually to master himself. The suggestion -- to put it bluntly -- is that the reason to abstain from sex at all is because it is so sexy, and the opposite gender really goes for it.

Samuel Butler -- that acute cataloguer of all types and varieties of hypocrisy whom we have already had occasion to meet -- described the problem as follows, speaking of Christina Pontifex's confused feelings over the question of whether her young son did or did not have an affair with a servant: "As regards Ernest the suspicions which had already crossed her mind were deepened, but she thought it better to leave the matter where it was.  At present she was in a very strong position.  Ernest’s official purity was firmly established, but at the same time he had shown himself so susceptible that she was able to fuse two contradictory impressions concerning him into a single idea, and consider him as a kind of Joseph and Don Juan in one.  This was what she had wanted all along, but her vanity being gratified by the possession of such a son, there was an end of it; the son himself was naught."

Female characters in these movies, as you can probably imagine, are not faced with these difficulties, since they are either chaste Christian wives or temptresses. The former have no interest in sex one way or the other, and the latter are in no manner expected to be admired.

Perhaps the most despicable offender in this category is 2014's "Old Fashioned" -- in which we are meant to believe that the loathsome protagonist is so bewitching to women that his next door neighbor is willing to abandon her whole life as she's known it so far, convert to Christianity, and get married, all because this is what it takes to bed him. The notion that any person on Earth -- let alone someone like the fantasized "magic pixie dream girls" who appear as female leads in these movies -- would give up so much as a spoon to trail after this creep is impossible to accept.

Dutcher's film, as I say, throws itself headlong into this Joseph/Don Juan problem as it does into all the other clichés -- but again, it also follows it through further than any other film would, in order to explore some of the consequences that would actually stem from it, if it happened in real life.

Our defeated starlet/ingenue mentioned above, for instance, pivots between being the sexless "pure" woman and the temptress; meanwhile, our white-bread Mormon missionary protagonist (as opposed to the one who's the former gang member) is manfully striving to maintain his chastity from the start, and it is precisely this that makes him so irresistible to the female love interest. When he walks her to her door one night, after they have dinner for the first time, she remarks, "You know, you're the first man who's ever walked me to my door and not tried to get inside."

This elicited audible groans from myself and my fellow researcher. Here were two of the stalest tropes in the book. There is first the insinuation that all non-Mormon men are sex fiends, plus the corollary assumption, as Isaac pointed out, that women never invite men into their apartments on a date, because of course women never want to have sex -- unless, also of course, it is with our gallant and perpetually inaccessible Joseph/Don Juan Mormon protagonist.

So far, so terrible, as I believe I've said before in writing this kind of review. But then comes the subversion of the trope (and I'm intent on spoiling the whole plot here -- be warned). In this film, he actually eventually does sleep with the love interest! And he does so before they are married, and without her converting to Mormonism or anything. While this would be hardly surprising in Hollywood fare -- would rather be the most ancient trope of them all -- it is unprecedented in the genres my friend and I have been exploring. (Added bonus: a side character even manages to explicitly call out the Joseph/Don Juan factor in the whole situation -- thereby "lampshading" the trope, to borrow a term -- by saying, when he learns what happened, that he's not sure whether to feel sorry for our protagonist -- or to feel envious. "I wish I had his problems" is the sense of it, more or less.)

The fall-out from the Mormon pre-marital sex is swift, as it always is (see 1965's "The Long Road Back"). Our protagonist breaks down in tears and confesses what he has done to his roommate. The latter calls the ward president, or bishop, or whoever it is -- a kind man, but one nonetheless duty-bound to bring down the hammer of justice on errant soldiers. The protagonist is called home from Los Angeles in disgrace, and with only a week or so to go before honorably serving out his mission.

All of which would be in keeping with the moral code of Mormon films in general (if any others could bring themselves to contemplate such an extreme scenario in the first place). However, what quickly makes this more interesting is, as my fellow researcher said: "It's clear that even Richard Dutcher thinks this is a crazy way to respond to this. They're young. They're the same age. They seem to be moving toward some kind of committed romantic relationship. What's the problem?"

Indeed. We cannot quite believe that Richard Dutcher means for us to take the church's side on this one, and the film's closing twenty minutes bring to culmination a certain antinomian subtext that has run throughout the film. When the love interest confesses her true career, for instance, early on in the film, and tearfully breathes that God must hate her for it, the protagonist assures her that no, God loves her now and always-- and we are not at all asked to tangle with the question of whether or not she is a Mormon or whether she has truly resolved to "sin no more" before getting to this point. The other missionary, meanwhile -- the ex-gang member -- has been portrayed multiple times throughout the film as one who is able to suspend the missionary code of ethics on occasion in the service of the higher law of love to God and love to neighbor -- taking a homeless stranger into their living quarters, e.g., which are supposed to be off limits. He is also much less hung up on the need to suppress "dirty thoughts." And while this is to some extent an extension of the original cliché -- the white-bread boy follows orders, whereas the Hispanic missionary with the tats has a rebellious streak -- Dutcher artfully plays with the expectations it arouses by having our white protagonist be the one who ultimately breaks the largest of the rules, and ends up being discharged, whereas the other becomes the more skilled proselytizer and champion of the faith.

Dutcher in God's Army presented an appealingly liberal and self-aware version of Mormonism. It is a faith that leaves room for doubt, that acknowledges that the intellectual arguments may not all be on one's side, but that pitches its tent at last on the testament of direct religious experience. God's Army 2: States of Grace, then, suggests a Mormonism that is more liberal still -- that allows one to treat only half-seriously some of the more preposterous rules, for instance, for the sake of a higher purpose -- yet it moves so far in this direction that it is positively teetering on the edge of apostasy, and may even have already tipped over it. Dutcher, we learn from The Salt Lake Tribune, had after all already privately come to the conclusion that the Joseph Smith story was fabulous while he was working on The Prophet -- a film that was never completed, but which he would have been filming in 2004. And while Dutcher would not officially leave the church until 2007, two years after State of Grace, our timeline would suggest that when he was filming the movie we are reviewing here (it came out in 2005), he would already have inwardly lost a large portion of his faith.

States of Grace is therefore an incredibly rare and precious window into a personal belief system in the very moment of transformation. Dutcher may even have begun writing it as a far more orthodox vehicle for church teaching than the thing it eventually became. While the finished product is ambiguous enough that it could still be comfortably rented by a well-educated Mormon family up for a challenge on a Saturday night, it's hard to say that it would point anyone who was wavering back in the direction of the church. The wounded gang leader, as mentioned above, never does find his way to a comfortable resolution of the theodicy problem. He seeks, but does not find. As for the love interest, she never has the slightest thing to do with Mormonism in the film, least of all converting, yet it is she who invokes Jesus in our last and greatest antinomian moment -- saying back to the protagonist the same thing he had told her earlier about God's love, and affirming that, whatever else may be true of Jesus, his message was one of forgiveness.

A believer could of course watch even this far and say that this is all no more than an accurate account of doctrine-- an indicator that, so long as our penalized protagonist goes home and is truly repentant, he can eventually return to good standing in his community, in spite of his errors.

This assumes, however, that Dutcher is sitting there behind his camera watching a young man be emotionally devastated because he has had premarital sex and thinking this is all a logical consequence of his actions. He plainly is not. And the final scene of the movie makes this even clearer.

--

Here, in these last five minutes, we see our protagonist emerge from his lowest pitch of despair to the same boardwalk on which it all began. There he finds a "living nativity" scene -- one that is conspicuously marked as the handiwork of the local Lutheran church, let it be noted.

He bends to hold the live Christ child in his arms and breaks down in sobs just before the closing credits. And as our love interest joins him at his side, one wonders if perhaps this is the antinomian Jesus whom they are cooing over -- the Jesus who has already paid for every sin, who forgives all, Blake's Jesus, the Muggletonian Jesus, who is found here in this crèche erected by a temple of mainline Protestantism -- a denomination in which one can drink coffee and have premarital sex without jeopardizing one's standing, and where there are a variety of understandings of Jesus, but in which Christ's message of love to God and neighbor and forgiveness of trespasses is nonetheless central. One wonders if this whole film, in short, is a great paean to the possibility of a liberal Protestantism (which does in fact exist, of course, and can be found quite easily if one is willing to look outside of Mormonism.) A prolegomena to any future Methodism.

Or is it something else still? As Adam and Eve stand there, protagonist and love interest, after the mortal curse and the expulsion from Eden have already been laid by the ward president, arm in arm watching over the nestled Christ child, perhaps it is the child itself for which they weep with joy -- the eternal child, the human child, the product of sexual intercourse, the "maculately" conceived, the one born of sin and dust, the only way human beings ever have come into the world. Perhaps our protagonist has reached the same conclusion as Anatole France's Paphnutius: "I have deceived you [...] God, heaven -- all that is nothing. There is nothing true but this worldly life, and the love of human beings." (Douglas trans.) Perhaps this is the only afterlife, such as is promised in the Mormon cosmology -- the only eternal planetary existence -- namely, the continuity of the human family on this planet; in this universe. Perhaps Dutcher's film is meant to gesture toward the kind of humanism that Louis Menand draws from James Joyce's life work, in an artful 2012 essay that closes with the following anecdote:
"One of the last exchanges [with Joyce that Arthur] Power recounts occurred, he says, in 1932. 'I have just received very important news,' Joyce told him. 'A son has been born to Giorgio and Helen in Paris.' 'Is that all?' Power asked. 'It is the most important thing there is,' Joyce replied." 
--

Or maybe it's something else again. There is in fact one further scene beyond the one at the crèche, by the way -- one that interrupts the credits a few seconds in. It features one of the characters (not yet mentioned in this review) who is a Pentecostal preacher, and who is busy in this scene exhorting the crowd with the good news that the devil can be fought, and that the devil can be recognized because he laughs when we are crying, and he cries when we are joyful.

It would seem the most straightforward reading of this final scene's inclusion is that Dutcher is telling us that God, whatever God is, actually wants us to be happy. All the tears of despair we have just seen  our main characters shed, then, were not God's will. They were pleasing only to the devil, even if they were wrung at the church's behest.

Whether the liberal Protestants or the Joycean humanists actually have a better means of advancing happiness than the Mormons is a more debatable point. The evidence drawn from the mainline and UU membership rolls thus far does not tend to land in our favor. I am even less persuaded that romantic love is so necessary to happiness in all cases -- it seems to me that it depends a great deal on the individual person. But the possibility that religion in general might one day be about the preservation of our humanity, rather than the effort to transcend it -- that the goal of forming a religious community at all might be the harnessing of collective strength for the protection and advancement of life on this Earth, rather than in any worlds to come, is one that appeals to me deeply.

Maybe Dutcher didn't mean to suggest this possibility at all. Maybe I'm reading my own preoccupations into it. But it's clear he meant something other that what thousand others have meant before, in films that might have begun from the exact same premiss. Dutcher has repaid a long slog through neglected film sub-genres, and he has done so with something other than the faintly mean-spirited laughter I have been known to indulge in on this odyssey. He repaid it with a film that is moving, at last, and was apparently of some interest to me, whose review of it has now taken the better part of two days to write.



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