In Hollywood but Not of Hollywood, Part 2 – New Directions for LDS Institutional Films

In Hollywood but Not of Hollywood: Cecil B. DeMille, Paul Schrader, and the Evolving Spiritual Aesthetic of the Institutional films of the LDS Church, Part 2

Mark T. Lewis

[This is the second part of an article taken from Mark T. Lewis’s 2016 masters thesis, from Brigham Young University’s Department of Religious Studies, entitled “An Hungry Man Dreameth”: Transcendental Film Theory and Stylistic Trends in Recent Institutional Films of the LDS Church”. Part 1, about the religious film aesthetic of of Cecil B. DeMille, Paul Schrader, and the makers of The Testaments can be read here.]

New Directions

Though seemingly etched in stone, the prevailing status quo for religious filmmaking in Latter-day Saint culture need not belie an inability for aesthetic exploration. In the decade since Testaments, the Church has begun numerous new media initiatives, including but not limited to short documentary profiles of individual members;[1] a feature film focused on Joseph Smith; and short, shareable vignettes depicting the life of Jesus Christ. Stylistically, many of these films decline from the intensity of the DeMillian aesthetic present in Testaments, though there remains much that hearkens back to Hollywood’s aesthetic in general.

Perhaps the most intriguing shift away from DeMille and towards Schrader came during the announcement of The Life of Jesus Christ Bible Videos (2011). These videos are based on short passages from the New Testament, filmed as vignettes, and uploaded to popular video-sharing websites, such as YouTube. The departure from previous stylistic practices is evident in more than the changed mode of distribution; in his announcement of the new videos at the 2011 First Presidency Christmas devotional, President Henry B. Eyring laid out the stylistic aim of the new project: Continue Reading →

In Hollywood but Not of Hollywood, Part 1

In Hollywood but Not of Hollywood: Cecil B. DeMille, Paul Schrader, and the Evolving Spiritual Aesthetic of the Institutional films of the LDS Church, Part 1

Mark T. Lewis

[This is the first part of an article taken from Mark T. Lewis’s 2016 Masters Thesis, from Brigham Young University’s Department of Religious Studies, entitled “An Hungry Man Dreameth”: Transcendental Film Theory and Stylistic Trends in Recent Institutional Films of the LDS Church”.]

“It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite” (Isaiah 29:8).

To the religiously minded, few things carry greater importance than a connection to the Divine. For centuries the literature of prophets and the work of gifted artists have served to create a liminal space where man and Maker can meet. As technology and art have advanced, new opportunities for communion have been unveiled. The advent of cinema and the creation of the Internet pose unique questions for the artist seeking to lead an audience toward an encounter with God. Evangelists like Cecil B. DeMille and theologians like Paul Schrader both see the opportunities presented by cinema to stir viewers towards transcendence. However, the aesthetic, or overall stylistic efforts, of DeMille and Schrader differ markedly and reveal a fruitful point of tension: a filmmaker’s portrayal of the spiritual on film reveals much about his or her beliefs about God, the viewer, and how the two achieve correspondence.

As an institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been heavily involved in using film and new media to further its spiritual ends, generally favoring the style of missionaries like DeMille. Comparing the DeMillian aesthetic for spiritual filmmaking and Latter-day Saint beliefs about how man and God communicate reveals spiritually rewarding areas for stylistic exploration in institutional films of the LDS Church.

Aesthetic of Cecil B. DeMille

In Cecil B. DeMille’s entire body of work, his “religious epics”—such as his 1956 masterwork, The Ten Commandments—were by far the most impressive and presented the most enduring impact.[i] In these cinematic behemoths, DeMille employed nearly anything that would draw in viewers and slacken their jaws to fuel box-office receipts and drive home his message. To effect this spectacle, DeMille expended copious budgets to hire casts of thousands, depict salacious pagan revels, feature barely clad women,[ii] construct enormous sets, create ornate costumes, wield the full force of technological sophistication for special effects, and score his works with booming soundtracks. DeMille’s films are the cinematic equivalent of what the military would refer to as a “shock-and-awe” campaign. Critics groaned, but audiences flooded in by the millions.[iii] Emboldened by the box office, DeMille ignored his detractors and pressed forward. He had the world’s attention, which, to DeMille, was victory. Continue Reading →

2 Calls for Submissions: Joseph Smith poetry, Mormon Steampunk

1. Prophet

Bob Rees and Clifton Jolley are collecting poems for an anthology inspired by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Poems need not be biographical, theological, or focus on the mission of the Prophet. Or they may. All verse forms are permitted. Poems previously published must include complete citation of previous publication. Submit as many as 3 poems but no more than 5 pages as MSWord documents to: 

bobrees2@gmail.com Cc clifton@adventcommunications.com

Submission Deadline: 1 June 2018

2. PRESS FORWARD, SAINTS

Immortal Works (editors James Wymore and D.J. Butler) hereby call for submissions for an anthology of MORMON STEAMPUNK to be called PRESS FORWARD, SAINTS.

Here is the deal:

1. The writer’s religious affiliation is completely irrelevant. We don’t care; we don’t even want to know. I really want to emphasize this point. This is not an anthology for Mormon writers only.
2. The story does not have to be set in any particular world. The story must be in some sense “Mormon” and in some sense “Steampunk.” We’ll try to interpret those categories both broadly.
3. If your story is faith-promoting (Mormonism is “true” in the story), we’ll stop reading it. If it is mean-spirited (Mormons are all idiots), we’ll also stop reading it.
4. Stories should be at least 2,000 words long and generally no more than 8,000 words.
5. The deadline for submissions is April 1, 2018.
6. Authors will not receive up-front payments. Authors will share in the revenues from sales of the book over time and will receive one (1) complimentary author copy.
7. Send submissions to david.john.butler (at) hotmail.com. Include the words “PRESS FORWARD SAINTS SUBMISSION” in the subject line.

This Month in Mormon Literature, January 2018

The year-end “Best of” lists are out, with Mackenzi Lee’s YA novel The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue appearing frequently.  There are new novels by Heather Moore, Obert Skye, Kasie West, a posthumous poetry collection by Linda Sillitoe. There are also new short stories and a novel in Spanish and a novel in Danish. Remember to turn in your AML Conference paper proposals by Jan. 5. We note in sadness the passing of the young author Neil Longo. For suggestions and corrections, please write mormonlit AT gmail DOT com.

In Memoriam

Neil Longo passed away in late November, taking his own life. According to an author bio in Dialogue, “Longo was raised in California and attended Brigham Young University. He was baptized into the LDS Church during his first month at BYU and developed a strong interest in Mormon theology, history, and sociology. After graduating with a BS in political science, he interned for the Senate Judiciary Committee Staff of Senator Orrin Hatch in Washington, DC. He lived in Portland, Oregon, loves to hike and camp, and hopes to study Russian religious thought from the late nineteenth century.” Longo had personal essays that appeared in the Summer 2016 (“Palmyra Redemption: July 18, 2015”) and Fall 2017 (“Cry for the Gods: Grief and Return”) issues of Dialogue. He also co-wrote a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, “What’s more conservative than reverence for the Earth?” In a memorial post, BYU professor Ralph Hancock wrote, “I’ve had brilliant students of all kinds in my 35 years of teaching, but never one with the prodigious philosophical-religious imagination that moved Neil.  His thinking knew no limits and no disciplinary boundaries . . . He really couldn’t contain his love for a beautiful truth he thought he had glimpsed just beyond the horizon of whatever I was trying to get him to focus on.”

End-of-the-year “Best of” Lists

Mackenzi Lee’s YA novel The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was included on many year end lists, including the NPR Book Concierge list, Publishers Weekly Best YA Books, the Shelf-Awareness 2017 Best Children’s & Teen Books of the Year, Kirkus Best Teen Books with a Touch of Humor, and Buzzfeed’s 28 of the Best YA novels published in 2017. Continue Reading →

In Tents # 84 A Note on Hermeneutics part 4

My friend who goes to Jerusalem a couple times a year on university business for BYU’s Jerusalem center tells me that seeing the places where events in the Bible took place, seeing the geography and studying the culture, greatly adds to his understanding of the Bible.

Similary, my old retired farmer neighbor who served as mayor of Vineyard, Utah, then a small farming community on the shores of Utah Lake south of Geneva Steel, now growing considerably as the former superfund site is deemed safe for industrial, commercial and residential development, told me that after he burned off his fields each year he would find little charred clumps around the fields. “Chickens are the only birds who will gather their chicks under their wings to protect them rather than fleeing the danger and leaving them,” he said one day in Gospel Doctrine class.

Continue Reading →

in verse # 84: Post-Christmas post

The observant among you have noticed that Bob Christmas hyphenated Bunk-House in the titles of his “Bunk-House Poetics,” which indicates that the hyphenated phrase is an adjectival nominal modifying a noun, in this case Poetics.  Given how careful Christmas is with his phrasing and punctuation, if a hyphen were left out, the phrase could mean “House Poetics that are Bunk” — no!  I’d better debunk that one right now.  Christmas punctuates better than that.

If this were a post-structuralist blog, I could accuse Christmas of being an old white guy, but again, in his poems, he has taken care of that.  He has very carefully written that tough truth throughout Saviors on Mt. Disneyland, without conceding, though, that his identity makes him ineligible for poetic stature.  Now, however, in “Bunk-House Poetics 8,” he starts down a different slippery slope:  quantity versus quality.

Bunk-House Poetics 8

………..Write little; do it well.
………..Your knowledge will be such,
………..At last, as to dispel
………..What moves you overmuch.

………..………..Yvor Winters, “To a Young Poet”

All poets (including this one) tend to overwrite.
We’re very verbal, excitable—we have so
much to say, about our own lives especially;
and we’re just dying to share it with others.
Sadly, this is the downfall of most poets.

Do your readers a favor and write one-page
poems eighty—no, ninety—percent of the time.
Avoid writing multi-page poems that read
like somebody’s confessional diary (ouch!).
Keep your lines and your poems short.

You’re not Chaucer, or Pope; you’re writing
the English Lyric, a form that enabled Hardy,
Shakespeare—many others—to achieve near
perfection in verse.  And believe it or not,
Continue Reading →

in verse # 83 : Christmas in the Bunk-House

To reprise:  “Bunk-House Poetics 1” urged poets to avoid assuming that their audience should “feel” some “feeling.”  Number 2 encouraged poets to embrace “‘the plain-style,’ everyday words, in striking order.”  And number 3 reminded us that the plain-style is written in sentences, “distinguished by syntax.”  Today, I present the next four poems in the series for your delight, instruction and edification.  Essentially, they constitute a defense of free verse in English.  Here’s the first:

Bunk-House Poetics 4

……..I have eaten
…….the plums
…….that were in
…….the icebox
…….…….William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

It’s tempting—and reassuring—to think that
iambic meter and true rhyme are the norm of
English verse (because so many great poems
have been written this way for centuries).
Sorry, “free-verse” is here to stay.

Writing poems outside the limits of rhyme and
meter is not, as Robert Frost famously said,
“like playing tennis without a net.”  It’s
simply a “convention,” another way of
using language for artistic purposes.

Free-verse, so to speak, has now been written
for so long—and so well—that there’s no
turning back. Poems today can be shaped like Continue Reading →

in verse # 82 : Christmas poetics

Consider this poem:

Bunk-House Poetics 1

……… A poem should not mean/ But be.
……..……..….. Archibald MacLeish

The way we read our fellow-poets is likely
how they’re reading us—meaning that all
too often we’re writing the same poem,
trying to get readers to experience some
“feeling” we think they should all be “feeling.”

Why not get some emotional distance by
writing in the third-person?  Why don’t we
tell our stories, or make statements about
interesting subjects, without constantly
repeating “I,” “I,” as we go along?

Poets and students of verse are generally
not very interested in a poet’s “feelings”;
but like all readers they want to experience
strong feelings of their own—based on what
poets have to say and how they say it.

What poets say must be about things more
important than mere sentiment.  The way
to profound emotion runs through a mind
enchanted by ideas and matchless artistry.
Poems must beautifully mean—to be.[i]

Continue Reading →

Claire Åkebrand introduces her debut novel “The Field Is White”

Guest post by Claire Åkebrand

Though my novel The Field Is White concerns a Mormon missionary and has a very Doctrine & Covenants title, I neither think of it as Mormon literature, nor a book about Mormons. It is a novel foremost about love, death, the purpose of art, forgetfulness, family, and time. My novel is for anyone of any background who is interested in literary fiction and who finds pleasure in slowed pace, figurative language. and self-indulgent ruminations.

I started writing The Field Is White six years ago. My husband and I were living in Frankfurt, Germany for a year. We didn’t have a car and therefore relied on trains and busses. We walked a lot. I remember listening to Rachmaninov often during that time. His Prelude in G Minor, the rapid tempo of it, kept creating this vision for me of a missionary trudging through a heavy blizzard.

I wanted to get to know this imagined missionary. Why did he keep coming back to me? As I began to write my way toward the idea of him, he turned out to be John Eliason from Lethbridge, Alberta serving a mission in Sweden in the 50s.  He baptizes an old poet named Emil Quist (curiously similar to my own grandfather Holger Bergius). Turns out, John is losing his faith. He doesn’t want to go back to Alberta where familial trouble awaits him. He uses his convert’s death as an excuse to escape to the countryside where he seeks out the estranged family. As the snow strands him with the widow and daughter, tensions rise and John learns some uncomfortable things about Emil. Continue Reading →

Out of the Best Books: Mormon Assimilation and Exceptionalism Through Secular Reading (2)

Guest post by Lauren Fields

This is the second post from my 2016 BYU English MA thesis titled “Out of the Best Books: Mormon Assimilation and Exceptionalism Through Secular Reading.” Part One can be read here. This thesis seeks to explore the relationship between Mormon assimilation, exceptionalism, and their endeavors in secular reading by analyzing Out of the Best Books (OOBB), a 1964–71 five-volume reading guide and reading program on secular reading established by the Mormon Church for its women’s organization, the Relief Society. The thesis can be read in its entirety here.

Part Two:

Discerning Mormon Truths in Secular Texts

In keeping with their proposed interpretive methods, the editors frequently reminded Mormon readers to maintain their sense of distinction as they embarked on secular reading, using their explicatory comments about Mormons’ unique worldview to persuade readers that only they could grasp the full spiritual implications of each author’s message. Thus, their program attempted to position Mormons as the most discerning readers of great literature by demonstrating how the most talented authors shared certain aspects of Mormon beliefs. For instance, in his introduction to several poems by Robert Browning, “probably the greatest English poet since Milton” (1:71), Clark explained that Browning “does firmly believe that God is in Heaven controlling the universe” and that “the potentiality of man in this life is great and the confidence with which he can look forward to live beyond death is equally great” (1:71).

Furthermore, in his explication of Browning’s “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” a portrait of a self-righteous Protestant clergyman, Clark inferred that “Browning believed just as strongly as do members of the LDS Church that faith without works is dead and that an individual has the responsibility through an exercise of willpower to work out his own salvation” (1:237). Thus, by framing these classic texts as works focused on sentiments Mormons were particularly well equipped to recognize, Clark positioned OOBB participants as uniquely perceptive readers. Continue Reading →

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