Monday, April 16, 2007

Disappointed about Dutcher

Most people have heard by now that LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher has declared that he is no longer a practicing Mormon.

Seems like this happens all too often with artists I admire: Terry Tempest Williams, Brian Evenson, Neil LaBute, and now Dutcher. I can see how it would happen with Evenson and LaBute, because their material was pretty far afield of Mormon sensibilities. But I thought Dutcher was a true believer, based on the highly religious content of his films. If anything, his films are a little too religiously melodramatic for my tastes, although I overall admire them for taking more risks than most Mormon fare.

Perhaps Dutcher's problem is that he cares TOO much about his art, and when the Mormon audience responded with distaste and disregard, he couldn't get past that. I would like to think he still believes in the doctrine but just can't stand the culture, which I can certainly understand. Part of me wishes I were passionate enough to go all out like Dutcher did with making his films, but I've never developed anywhere near his level of belief in my own messages or talents. Instead, I'm more lukewarm, without the danger of extremes but with the danger that the Lord will just spew me out of his mouth, as the scripture says. With Dutcher, it appears to be all or nothing, whereas I just dabble.

I'm certain that Dutcher is taken in the sin of pride to some degree. I don't think he thinks he knows better than God, but he does obviously feel he knows better than the Mormon people--and in many ways he does. But that's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I doubt he would honestly argue he's found anything better than Mormonism, but he probably thinks that by freeing himself of Mormonism he can make new discoveries. Personally, I don't think that's ultimately true--if I really thought there was anything better out there than Mormonism, I might be willing to give it up in order to make the leap to something better. But I don't believe there is, and I think people who think there is are laboring under the illusions of some kind of intellectual or spiritual or cultural pride.

One thing that bugs me is that Dutcher has now undermined some of the progress he's made. Now all those boneheaded people who thought his portrayal of ordinances was sacriligious, for example, can say, "Ah, I told you so. He was never really one of us." I suppose in some ways I'm lucky that I haven't found much success with a project like my novel Kindred Spirits. While I can't see myself just walking away from Mormonism, I could see myself getting disfellowshipped or something over my writing. Then it would be the small-minded decision of local church leaders, not my own wrongheaded choice. (To tell you the truth, a very similar dynamic played out in my divorce, and I can see where it's quite passive-aggressive on my part: I won't directly confront to break ties in a relationship I'm not enjoying, but I'll do subversive things until the other party takes the decisive action.) Fortunately, my writing and publishing plans for the next year or two are all safer than my recent riskier projects like Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer and Kindred Spirits. But I do wish I enjoyed my relationship with Mormonism more; I really don't anymore, much, even though I still believe it's the right thing to do.

Another thing I can't help wondering about is the effect on Dutcher's own family. Evenson sacrificed his marriage for his art, and I get the impression that LaBute is estranged from his wife and kids if not outright divorced yet. In Dutcher's case, I hope his wife agrees with his decision and goes along with it. I believe it would be better for them to be inactive together for several years or even decades than for them to draw apart and get divorced. I can think of another example of a blogging couple I follow who both went inactive recently, and deep down I suspect the wife is mainly just trying to keep her marriage together. She may have some real complaints and concerns about Mormonism, but my instincts tell me she wouldn't have left the church if her husband hadn't. And from what I know of her case, I think she's doing the right thing with her situation for now, and maybe Dutcher needs to go through this period of inactivity too before he can come back on emotionally survivable terms.


Bryan said...

You make some superb points in your post here. I couldn't say it better. I actually wrote Evenson a couple months ago and asked him some pointed thematic questions about his work (I'm a fan, but I thought his new book was out of line). He sent a thoughtful, 6 paragraph response. I can't quite figure out his relationship to the church, but he's a great guy. I understand why he left the church. But this news about Dutcher hits me like a punch to the gut. I love all his work but BRIGHAM CITY is my all-time favorite LDS film. I'm glad I got the news from you.

Anonymous said...

How did you hear that he left the church? Was there some kind of public statement? - M.S.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Dutcher wrote a statement himself that was published in the Provo Daily Herald. His announcement about leaving Mormonism is toward the end:

Also, LDS director Kieth Merrill wrote a rebuttal in the Herald that was full of fire and brimstone against Dutcher, and then issued an apology. I don't have that link handy, but you could search.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for the link. Very interesting. Though I agree with a lot of what Dutcher says about the quality of Mormon movies, I can't wonder if some of his bitterness is because his latest movies haven’t done well at the box office even though (for LDS cinema) they were very well made. I find it sad he's taken that step and agree with you that he's ultimately undermining his cause more than he's helping it. Dutcher would be more effective leading by example than simply alienating more of his audience by implying that they're stupid or incapable of understanding "great cinema." - M.S.