Sunday, May 30, 2010

More Thoughts on Dutcher

I've been thinking more about the two recent Dutcher films I saw, "Falling" and "Evil Angel. (I mistakenly called it "Fallen" in earlier posts--sorry about that; I guess I was focused on the idea of Dutcher as a "fallen angel" from Mormonism.) Although I didn't get much online response to my earlier review and subsequent discussion, I did receive several private e-mails of support from people who, for some reason, did not want to speak out negatively or unsupportively about Dutcher. So I'd like to do a little more typing on this topic, with the acknowledgment that my expressions may not be 100% free of judgmentality, hypocrisy, and other flaws. WARNING: My following discussion has plot spoilers for both films.

First, here's why I liked "Falling." Hearing about it in advance, I thought it was going to be a melodramatic drag. But when I watched the movie, I found myself thoroughly absorbed in the story, the acting, and even the way it was shot, with the lighting and the sense of the gritty side of L.A. (I don't remember ever seeing L.A. caught on film as realistically as Dutcher does it, in both "Falling" and "States of Grace.) While I hear complaints about Dutcher's acting, I'm one who by and large enjoys him on the screen, particularly in "Falling," which I think is his best performance ever. I think complaining about his acting is a little like complaining about the quality of someone's self-published book; in essence, Dutcher self-publishes his own acting, which for many is cause for undue skepticism.

Anyway, here's how I read "Falling," which is probably not how Dutcher intended it. You have these people who've decided to give themselves over to worldly Hollywood and do things they know are ethically and morally suspect, in the form of filming violent crimes and accidents instead of helping the victims and in the form of doing nudity in a film. It was very clear to me in the way these things are presented that the storyteller knows they are wrong and so do the characters, and I found this tension exquisite. The movie then ends in total tragedy, which I read as the natural consequences of the characters' decisions. God appeared to have abandoned them, but from my Mormon standpoint, that was obviously because they had first abandoned God. I found the very bloody ending a little over the top--Dutcher does veer into melodrama fairly often in his films--but overall I found the movie very engaging, thought-provoking, and satisfying, even though the screening I attended was plagued with distracting technical troubles.

Then you have "Evil Angel," in which Dutcher does NOT show any signs of understanding anything deep or real or important. In "Falling," you had a character giving up her body to Hollywood, and you feel bad for her and hateful toward the people who are using her. Then in "Evil Angel," you have Dutcher doing exactly what the sleazy Hollywood guys did in "Falling": exploiting women and their bodies and showing tons of flesh purely for sensationalistic reasons. In "Falling," a character cradles his dead wife and yells out "F--- you" to the heavens. You really feel for him, although you know that his lack of wise choices got him where he is. By making "Evil Angel," Dutcher is pretty much doing the same thing as the "Falling" character did: giving a big F-U to God. But we don't know why. For me, observing Dutcher's public career and life is like watching any other drama, and there's a big plot point missing as to why he turned into this "Evil Angel" director.

In "Evil Angel," evil is all powerful, and religion is weak, with no sign of protection or anything from God. Lilith is able to run rampant and do whatever the hell she wants--even if you manage to kill the body she's in, she just hops to another body and continues her rampage. There's no sense of anyone opposing her, beyond a few pitiful human attempts. There are some "good," supposedly sympathetic characters in the movie, but they are very weak. One ends up with his head in a pot of tomato soup, and the other escapes Lilith's wrath for reasons I'm not entirely clear about, but he isn't really a very strong character, more of an observer to whom women seem to happen. I really don't know why Lilith spares him.

(I have to admit, I'm not that great at following the plots of movies and plays, and I'm getting worse as I grow older, so if I'm missing logical connections that would explain some of this, let me know. I hate getting lost in movies, though. I even got lost in the recent "Iron Man 2"--I had little or no idea what Samuel Jackson was doing in the movie or what his organization was about or how/why Tony Stark was apparently on some kind of house arrest at some point. Someone told me, "Oh, they're just setting up 'Avengers'," but for me it was a real botch in story development, not making that more clear. I hate it when movies don't have great stories, and so many movies today don't, possibly because filmmakers want you to view the movies over and over again to figure them out. But to me, if I can't fully appreciate and enjoy and understand a movie on the first viewing, I'm not going to spend more time on it when there are so many other movies I want to see.)

In "Evil Angel," Lilith is pretty much omniscient and omnipotent, as far as I remember. In a plot development I didn't fully understand, the main protagonist, an EMT, falls in love with a woman who he first meets, I think, when she is almost dead. I do not remember if this woman is possessed by Lilith or what--I was confused. Somehow he forms this mystical bond with her that I really don't get--for me, this is one of the weakest logical links in this whole story. Then later on Lilith somehow knows all about this, and after the protagonist's bad wife dies, Lilith possesses the wife's body but pretends that her spirit belongs to that girl who the protagonist loves. How the heck did Lilith know and do all this? Did she somehow trick the EMT into falling in love with her back when she was in the first girl's body, and if so how and why? Again, no one can or does really oppose Lilith.

For these reasons and others, the film's first 10-15 minutes were rather hard to follow and sort out, at least for me. The opening credits linger for several minutes on a woman writhing and undressing herself in a rather explicit way, but this turns out to have no connection to the movie that I can remember, except for a cheap scare at the end, and then we're thrown into an action scene in which a guy keeps seeing Lilith's demonic face on several different women, which doesn't really make sense when you later learn that Lilith possesses only one person at a time. (Come to think of it, this film is pretty misogynistic too, with all women having the potential to transform into Lilith-bitches. I admit for a day or two after the movie, I worried that women around me might suddenly start sporting Lilith's horrible face, so I guess the movie was somewhat effective on that level.)

I agree with one of my friends who observed that one big missed opportunity is the character that Dutcher plays himself. He plays this former-EMT crackpot who keeps guard dogs and is paranoid about everything, and he apparently has techniques for dealing with supernatural threats. In reality, this character is a total mockery of religion, because his ideas don't even work--he's just a laughable goofball. Dutcher could have used this character to show some real opposition to Lilith, to give some insight into those who use godly means to oppose evil. But Dutcher doesn't allow any room for God or true religion in his film, except a weak priest whose only role I can remember is to provide info on the Lilith legend. For a film this cynical and irreverent and unfaithful to come from a guy who used to know how to explore a realistic spiritual dilemma is just so disappointing. I'm not at all opposed to an R-rated horror film based on the Lilith legend, but jeez, why does it have to be so one-sided toward evil and so irredeemably pandering and sensationalistic? Now we're getting into the realm of personal preference, but I would have liked to have seen this film be taken a lot more seriously, something more in the mode of "The Exorcist" or "Poltergeist." This horror-humor thing doesn't usually work for me personally, except maybe with zombies (I loved "Shawn of the Dead," didn't like "Zombieland" as much).

Rather than being some remote, unknowable Oz ensconced in the emerald city of Hollywood, Dutcher is a real, down-to-earth person who walks among us here in Podunk, Utah, and makes his human dilemmas and disappointments publicly known, with frankness and integrity that I often admire. You can spot him at the local malls, and he gives small workshops at places like Sunstone. So having seen a fair bit of Dutcher the real guy without becoming personally acquainted with him, it's tempting to psychoanalyze this public character and try to figure out what his big beef is. He's talked about his troubled upbringing, so maybe he's still carrying a lot of baggage from that and feels pissed off that God allows so much evil and suffering in this world, as if Dutcher never understood or has forgotten that God allows both good and evil during mortality in order to test us. Just because evil often gets the upper hand in this world doesn't mean good and God aren't still part of the equation, and of course we know that God will eventually shut down this testing situation and put evil in its place. In the meantime, it's up to God's children to try to keep good in the dominant position rather than let evil grow stronger in any form. Mormons know that in these last days evil will grow so strong that it would completely overwhelm and destroy the world, were it not for the Second Coming. With "Evil Angel," Dutcher is definitely feeding the evil side of the equation with mindless, graphic, carnal entertainment that is not edifying in the slightest. It's just another foul entertainment that is preparing and conditioning people to increase this era's growing degradation, which will eventually help lead to the fall of our civilization.

If you judge by Dutcher's departure from the LDS Church followed by "Evil Angel," he apparently now has this idea that evil is the only supernatural power there is and God is absent and people are just on their own--or more likely, he's now agnostic/atheist about supernatural things altogether and therefore sees no harm in glorifying the evil side. Yeah, "Evil Angel" was supposedly done all in good fun, but in my opinion you simply can't believe in God/religion and still make a movie like that. I really don't get what went wrong with Dutcher. From the time he emerged into the Mormon consciousness in about 2000, apparently the only thing that hasn't gone well for him is that his post-"God's Army" movies haven't been embraced by Mormons. (There was that fire at his office, but judging by the new office, I think he may have come out ahead on that one.) To me, he seems like he leads a charmed life. He apparently has a wonderful wife and kids, and I haven't heard anything about any of his immediate family members getting cancer or undergoing some other great trial. Judging by his Facebook updates, he gets to travel the world to go to film festivals. I've been to his new office, a beautiful historic house in Provo equipped with the latest film-editing technology. I heard he has a nice house in Mapleton, and he obviously eats and drinks well.

So with such an apparently blessed life, what made him turn away from God and do this big celebration of evil called "Evil Angel"? He's like the opposite of Job. I can only guess that it's artistic pride, the idea that he should be rich and famous for his work. Since the Mormons didn't give that to him, he's now giving the bird to the whole religion/God thing and turning back to Hollywood like a dog to its vomit, and Hollywood may indeed give him fame and riches in return for making a degraded movie like "Evil Angel," although I don't think the film is quite good enough to find any real mainstream success. Dutcher is apparently simply caught up in today's secularism, atheism/agnosticism, carnality, etc. I don't know how much of that is true, if any, but that's how it comes across to me, from what I know based on Dutcher's public persona and story over the past decade.

If there's some better explanation, I'd like to hear Dutcher defend his pathway and his choices sometime. Yeah, he left Mormonism and Mormon filmmaking, but for what? The fact that "Evil Angel" was his first film out of the chute post-Mormonism tells me everything I need to know, as far as I can see at this point. Is this rock-bottom for him and he climbs back out of the pit from here, or is this the new Dutcher? Perhaps my opinion will change as his story and his career take different turns in the future and more worthwhile movies come along, but for now, talk about a cautionary tale!

1 comment:

Doug Gibson, Steve Stones said...

The over-the-top turned-to-camp violence at the end sank the movie for me. Also, leaving a trail of mayhem across LA with minimal police interest was very unrealistic