Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The PBS Mormon Documentary

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?


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this doc yet but just tonight I heard that some people in my ward felt pretty negative about it, like "they were unfair to Joseph Smith", "too much emphasis on Polygamy", etc. Hearing these comments kind of depressed me since I had hoped this doc would be a fair portrayal, so I came to your blog specifically hoping to hear a more even review--which is what you provided. Thanks! Drew (your Colorado bro)

Anonymous said...

I watched the first part and felt many of the commentators provided a fairly objective view, but portrayed Joseph Smith as somewhat of a manic. From an intellectual perspective, he is a controversial character. I thought Oakes did a great job with his comments in regards to the mountain meadows massacre, which is a difficult Mormon pill to swallow. Hysteria and fear lead to that slaughter of innocent people and it was wrong. The Christian world has their killing sprees otherwise known as the Crusades and the Mormons have their massacre. Both ugly scars in the history of these groups. The whole polygamy bit still gives me some heartburn. I liked your post as well. Dave (your Florida bro)

Anonymous said...

zbAppreciated your "post" on the doc. I read it carefully and look forward to discussing it with you and others.Truthfully, I am still forming my own opinion on the doc as experiences tend to go to my heart more quickly than to my mind and sometimes the two take a little time to meet.Marjorie of Bountiful

Anonymous said...

I belive that the "Mormon Documentary" could have been portrayed better. The fact that there are two sides of the religion is another story. The incidents that were shown (like the ex-communicated women who wrote a book about the church) could have been portrayed differently. Another thing, at certain points of the movie the narator said "Jospeh's church" or "Jospeh's idea". This is a complete mockery of the LDS faith. The Prophet and Seer Joseph Smith should be respected at all points. The church BELONGS to JESUS CHRIST! Jospeh Smith did not have an idea or thought, all the revelations were given to him by the hands of God.

Christopher Bigelow said...

Anonymous #4, I don't think you can reasonably expect an outsider to take that viewpoint. So many Mormons are complaining about the documentary because it's not like something the church would have produced, but I still think it's remarkable that someone outside the faith gave us this fair and nuanced of a treatment.

It's so refreshing to me to see a perspective that doesn't come filtered through the usual dogmatic Mormon propaganda mode that you're describing (not to say I don't believe that mode and see a place for it, but I get tired of it and am always happy to see worthwhile expressions of Mormonism outside it).

Anonymous said...

I really liked the documentary. I thought it was fairly evenhanded and well done. I agree with you that the second half was much stronger than the first half and thought many of the stories were quite poignant. A lot of people I know didn’t care for it but I thought it was very balanced. Overall, I don’t think it did any damage to the church but provide an objective look at it and how people both in and out of the church really feel about it – something that’s not been done well until now.

Unknown said...

I believe the documentary was very well done. Many members think it is negative, well it would have just talked about the church as seen by its authorities and faithful members it would not have been a documentary, but a big church commercial. The author went well into depth into the history of the church, history that many members do not know about or do not want to hear about because it is felt to be anti and lifts up defensive behaviors. All history has to be studied and learned not selectively. At the end if spiritually you know that the book of Mormon came the way Joseph Smith said it did then you know the church is true, but nobody should hide or not talk about things that are past. They are part of our history and if they are fairly portrayed it is just historical truth.

Anonymous said...

I missed the doc--don't have cable and PBS doesn't come in clearly--but I was interviewed for it years ago by phone (didn't make the cut for a film interview, so I know I'm not in it) and am glad to know it finally came out.