What Is Mormon Cinema? Defining the Genre

By Astle, Randy | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

What Is Mormon Cinema? Defining the Genre


Astle, Randy, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


Latter-day Saints made their first known cinematic appearance in 1898 in Salt Lake City Company of Rocky Mountain Riders, part of a series of very short motion pictures depicting American troops in the Spanish-AmericanWar. Since then thousands of films and television programs have dealt withMormonism; at present theMormon Literature and Creative Arts database lists 4,591 such items.1 This vast corpus includes a broad array of styles and subject matter, with motion pictures by non-Mormons, by Church members, and by the institutional Church. The diversity of content is evident in titles such as the independent missionary feature God's Army (2000), the inspirational drama Windows of Heaven (1963), the anti-Mormon video The Godmakers (1983), the cult favorite Johnny Lingo (1969), the prosaic instructional film Teaching with Chalk (1956), and even the temple endowment, which was first presented on film in 1955. Fiction films, documentaries, instructional pieces, experimental works, filmed sermons and presentations, and even home movies all hold an important place in the historical corpus of Mormon film.2

Since the 1910s, various terms have been applied to Mormonism's cinematic tradition and its various components: "Mormon cinema," "LDS cinema," "BYU films," "Church films," "seminary videos," "Sunday School films," and so on. These terms have been historically mutable. A "Mormon film" in the 1910s was a vastly different object than a Mormon film in each of the subsequent decades.

In 1912, for instance, the trade journal Moving PictureWorld ran the headline "Mormon Pictures in Demand," yet the pictures in question were the sensational 1911 Danish film A Victim of theMormons and six similar anti-Mormon productions that followed quickly in 1912, illustrating what the general public thought constituted a Mormon picture at the time.3 But by 1928 the Cleveland Ohio News christened the film All Faces West, produced primarily by non-Mormons under official guidance from Church leaders, "the first Mormon picture,"4 demonstrating a changing public perception. New manifestations of Mormon cinema could be seen in 1940 when Twentieth Century-Fox released its large-scale production of Brigham Young, in 1953 when the Church established a Motion Picture Department at Brigham Young University, and at other times until 2000 when Richard Dutcher released God's Army. At that point his website called God's Army "the first . . . Mormon film,"5 and commentators quickly agreed. As one example among many, in 2003 BYU's student newspaper the Daily Universe called Dutcher "the creator of the first LDS film 'God's Army.'"6

If both A Victim of the Mormons and God's Army couldbe hailedby the press as preeminent examples of Mormon cinema in their day, then it seems profitable to examine just what the term means, both historically and now. Before doing so, however, two important questions must be addressed. First, what can we gain by approaching Mormon film from a taxonomical perspective? Second, given the wide diversity of individual films (doctrinal, comedic, nonfiction, dramatic, anti-Mormon, etc.) and the plethora of generic labels (Church films, Mormon films, LDS films, etc.), each with its own connotation concerning production, content, and audience, is it possible to speak of one monolithic Mormon cinema, or is it a blanket term covering several distinct traditions?

To answer the first question, there aremany potential benefits to filmmakers and critics in identifying the center and the periphery of Mormon film. Many of these are endemic to the films themselves; for example, understanding Neil LaBute's relationship to Mormonism provides greater insight into his work. But other benefits move beyond the films to deal with the Church's place in the contemporary world. Mormon cinema, in fact, can often be seen as a synecdoche for all ofMormon society; along withmusic and temple architecture, it is the most prominent Mormon art form, continually invoked by the Church in its public relations and proselytizing efforts. …

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