Tuesday, May 01, 2007
The New York Times said the second half of this documentary wasn't as strong as the first, but for me the reverse would be true. In fact, for some reason the second installment just emotionally blew me away. I found it absolutely riveting and so well done. In fact, I got a little weepy—I don't remember the last time something discombobulated me emotionally so much. Very powerful and beautifully executed—while the documentary is certainly not perfect, it's remarkable that an outsider went to this much trouble and succeeded so well in understanding and fairly portraying us.
Things that pierced me most included the black female convert and the man whose wife died in childbirth, but I didn't care for the maudlin segment on the dying twenty-something girl. And God bless Marlin K. Jensen, who did so well. (He's been one of my favorite G.A.s ever since he subscribed to my literary magazine Irreantum for a year, and I really hope he becomes an apostle soon.) I felt bad for Elder Packer, who didn't look well. I'm surprised they didn't get any Monson, since he's next prophet. And they should have gotten Sheri Dew or some faithful Mormon female leader, for balance. At the same time, I must say that I found the statements by ex-Mormons and outside observers overall respectful and intelligent and worthwhile, not anti-Mormon.
I thought the part on the temple was handled extremely well and also the homosexual part, which didn't change my views that homosexuality is an evil that must be resisted but made me feel more compassion for those who are deepest in its throes. The dissident part was good too and I thought Margaret Toscano came off well, although I got tired of the scenes of the empty chairs to symbolize church disciplinary courts—in fact, I laughed out loud when the camera returned to them yet again the final time.
It's evident that Helen Whitney put an amazing amount of care and effort into this, and it's a remarkable achievement, including the very well done writing aspect of it. I got to meet Helen back when she was doing interviews; she called and asked me to catch her at the Salt Lake airport as she was leaving town (I think Jana Riess gave her my name—by the way, I would have loved to see Jana in the doc). I drove all the way up from Provo and found Helen sitting in an airport coffee shop with former Sunstone editor Elbert Peck, who was apparently a right-hand man to her on her Salt Lake visits and who, I noticed, got to explain baptism for the dead but nothing about his homosexuality. (It would be interesting to know more about exactly who steered Helen most on choosing topics, approaches, interviewees, etc.)
My main impression of Helen was that she seemed absolutely exhausted and frazzled at the end of her trip. I gave her a copy of Mormonism For Dummies, which I would like to think had at least a little influence on the show, and she flipped through it and pointed out one of those idealized portraits of Joseph Smith and muttered, "That's so Disney." In the doc, I think she might have gone a little overboard in trying to show non-Disney-style art rather than more accurately reflect LDS tastes and culture.
During our fairly brief chat, I told her that I did struggle to enjoy social and cultural aspects of Mormonism but that once I embraced the doctrine and the faith I have never struggled with my basic belief—I just can't even conceive of the purpose and meaning and nature of life in any other terms than Mormon. I remember she kind of squinted at me in an appraising way and said something that reflected what I can best describe as envy of my lack of doubt and skepticism, my ability to believe, my lack of inner turmoil about difficult aspects of Mormon doctrine or history. (It's almost as challenging to have social/emotional/cultural problems with Mormonism as it is to have historical/doctrinal/policy problems, but as long as you're strong in one of those clusters you can usually grit your teeth through the other.)
I never heard from Whitney again, which is fine—I don't enjoy being involved with anything AV. But I think the doc is great, and I have a hard time respecting church members who are negative or defensive about it—"Pull your head out," I want to say. Anyway, I hope this show enjoys a long life and much continuing influence. I wonder if it will affect the Mitt Romney campaign at all?