Saturday, August 25, 2007

Big Love, Big Hate

Just a few days ago in a post entitled Love (American Style), Big, Bigamy, Bigamist I wrote about the HBO series Big Love, about how the Mormon religion is central to the program, and about the polygamist lifestyle that the fictional series depicts. So today, I see a movie review in the paper, written by the dean of popular movie criticism, Roger Ebert. You can read the review at Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times site, or just stick around here and I'll get it for you.

The name of the movie is September Dawn, and it's about Mormons, natch. But it's a far cry from the sympathetic portrayal that Big Love provides. But let me let Roger tell you all about it:

September Dawn
You can't get 'em up in the mornin'

Release Date: 2007

Ebert Rating: Zero stars

// / Aug 24, 2007

By Roger Ebert

Just to interject here, you read it right, Ebert is giving this movie no stars whatsoever. So, the point here isn't that this is a movie worth the effort of shlepping to the theater and shelling out 20, 30 bucks on (assuming a companion and a trip to the snack bar), and it may not even be worth a couple of hours of your time catching it on cable, although I must admit that I am intrigued. But the point here is Ebert's review. So, let's get on with it:

On Sept. 11, 1857, at the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a group of fanatic Mormons attacked and slaughtered a wagon train of about 120 settlers passing through Utah on their way to California. Can we all agree that the date has no significance? No, we cannot, because "September Dawn" is at pains to point out that on another Sept. 11, another massacre took place, again spawned by religion.

But hold on. Where did I get that word "fanatic"? In my opinion, when anybody believes their religion gives them the right to kill other people, they are fanatics. Aren't there enough secular reasons for war? But there is no shortage of such religions, or such people. The innocent, open-faced Christians on the wagon train were able to consider settling California, after all, because some of their co-religionists participated in or benefitted from the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

Were there fanatics among those who ran the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition or the Crusades? Or the Holocaust? No shortage of them. Organized religion has been used to justify most of the organized killing in our human history. It's an inescapable fact, especially if you consider the Nazis and communists as cults led by secular gods. When your god inspires you to murder someone who worships god in a different way or under another name, you're barking up the wrong god.

The vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don't want to kill anybody. They want to love and care for their families, find decent work that sustains life and comfort, live in peace and get along with their neighbors. It is a deviant streak in some humans, I suspect, that drives them toward self-righteous violence, and uses religion as a convenient alibi.

That is true, wouldn't you agree, about Mormons, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on? No, not all of you would agree, because every time I let slip the opinion that most Muslims are peaceful and nonviolent, for example, I receive the most extraordinary hate mail from those assuring me they are not. And in a Muslim land, let a newspaper express the opinion that most Christians and Jews are peaceful and nonviolent, and that newspaper office is likely to be burned down. The worst among us speak for the best.

Which brings us back to Sept. 11, 1857, when a crazy Mormon zealot named Bishop John Samuelson (Jon Voight) ordered the massacre of the visiting wagon train, after first sending his spokesman to lie that if they disarmed, they would be granted safe passage. Whether the leader of his church, Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), approved of this action is a matter of much controversy, denied by the church, claimed by "September Dawn."

What a strange, confused, unpleasant movie this is. Two theories have clustered around it: (1) It is anti-Mormon propaganda to muddy the waters around the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, or (2) it is not about Mormons at all, but an allegory about the 9/11/01 terrorists. Take your choice. The problem with allegories is that you can plug them in anywhere. No doubt the film would have great impact in Darfur.

Let me interject here that, holding aside the intentions of the filmmakers, whatever they may be, the important point is that this film obviously plays on and reflects post-9/11 America, but also reflects our increasing interest in the Mormon religion. This is true whether the portrayal is positive, as in Big Love, or negative, as it is here. Either way, the attention being paid to Mormonism parallels the rise of the first major Mormon candidate for the presidency. Now, back to you, Roger:

There isn't anything to be gained in telling this story in this way. It generates bad feelings on all sides, and at a time when Mormons are at pains to explain they are Christians, underlines the way that these Mormons consider all Christians to be "gentiles." The Mormons are presented in no better light than Nazis and Japanese were in Hollywood's World War II films. Wasn't there a more thoughtful and insightful way to consider this historical event? Or how about a different event altogether? What about the Donner Party? They may have been cannibals, but at least they were nondenominational.

Confession time. When I wrote the post about Big Love, I was going to write that there is some question as to whether or not Mormons are Christians, but I chickened out. I remember reading that this is the case, but I felt that I wasn't entirely sure that I really knew what I was talking about in this instance, so instead I wrote that there was some question as to whether they are Protestants or not. I find it all more than a little strange, to be honest, and as far as I'm concerned, if your focus is Christ, you're a Christian, whether you're Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, or Christian Scientist. The Mormons Church (and using the term "church" is another strong indicator, Scientology excepted, from where I stand) is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, so that seems pretty clear cut to me. That one Christian sect considers itself to be the exclusive holder of the truth and discounts all other Christian sects along with non-Christians is an old story, after all. And from my perspective, Christians are indeed gentiles, but again that includes these LDS folks as well. Not that there's anything wrong with being a gentile, mind you, some of my best friends are, we certainly don't have a problem with that. Well, okay, now that I've thoroughly embarrassed myself fumfering around about religion and offending the vast majority of my countrymen, and countrywomen too, let me turn the mike back over to Ebert:

If there is a concealed blessing, it is that the film is so bad. Jon Voight, that gifted and versatile actor, is here given the most ludicrous and unplayable role of his career, and a goofy beard to boot. Stamp, as Brigham Young, comes across as the kind of man you'd find at the back of a cave in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Christians are so scrubbed and sunny, they could have been teleported in time from the Lawrence Welk program.

And isn't it sickening that the plot stirs in some sugar by giving us what can only be described as a horse whisperer? This movie needs human whisperers. And giving us a romance between the bishop's son and a pretty gentile girl? And another son of the bishop who dresses up like an Indian and goes batty at the scent of blood? And real Native Americans who assist the Mormons in their killing, no doubt thinking, well, we can get around to the Mormons later? I am trying as hard as I can to imagine the audience for this movie. Every time I make any progress, it scares me.

Right on, Rog, we don't want no haters round here! OK, time now for a still image from the film:

I'm think, Amish, how about you? Oh yeah, the gun. Well, as I said, I find it hard to tell the gentiles apart, they all kind of look alike to me. Oops, just kidding friends. Actually, the caption under this picture says:

Bishop John Samuelson, a crazy Mormon zealot (played by Jon Voight), orders the massacre of a visiting wagon train of Christians in "September Dawn."

Okay, now I know you're asking, what about the credits? Well, maybe not, but here they are anyway:

Cast & Credits

Bishop Samuelson: Jon Voight
Brigham Young: Terence Stamp
Joseph Smith: Dean Cain
John Lee: Jon Gries
Nancy Dunlap: Lolita Davidovich

Black Diamond Pictures and Slow Hand Releasing present a film directed by Christopher Cain. Written by Cain and Carole Whang Schutter. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for violence). Opening today at local theaters.

And of course, you're asking, what about the movie's official website, doesn't this movie have an official website, doesn't every movie have an official website? And yes, there is one, so if you want it, click here. And guess what, they don't mention Ebert's review--shocking! There's a trailer you can watch, which looks pretty cool (don't all trailers?), you can click on "Learn More" and there's over a dozen links to websites that provide documentation about the actual historical events depicted--the movie trailer says "Inspired by Actual Events" which is an interesting choice of words, especially since they are taking great pains to provide those other links to demonstrate the legitimacy of the events that the film depicts, er, is based on, I mean, is inspired by. And they make it sound like they are revealing one of the great cover-ups of all time. Watergate by the Salt Lake, it seems.

There's also a link where you can download a PDF of a New York Times article dated January 22, 2006, which is not and could not be a review of the film, but talks about the fact that the film is being made, and its significance. Odd, odd, very odd indeed. Well, as an academic with access to databases, I was able to track this article down in a form that I could add into my personal ConBlogRessional Record here, for the benefit of YOU, my faithful reader (singular used intentionally). So, here's the basic info first:

With Only God Left as a Witness
John Anderson. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jan 22, 2006. pg. 2.13
And now, the article, in its entirety, without commercial interruption:

AS the new year dawned, Jon Krakauer's ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' -- about a ''divinely ordered'' double murder in 1984 by two members of a breakaway Mormon sect -- was fresh off the best-seller list. Warren Jeffs, the polygamist prophet of this splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was on F.B.I. wanted lists. And the world's first-ever ''Mormonsploitation Retrospective'' (''Passion! Polygamy! Pamphlets!'') of vintage fear-mongering anti-Mormon movies had just finished at the fringy Pioneer Theater in the East Village in Manhattan.

In public relations terms, this is not the easiest time to have the words ''Latter,'' ''Day'' and ''Saints'' anywhere close together in your name. And the going may get rougher after the filmmaker Christopher Cain finishes his new movie about one of the darkest moments in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, in which 137 pioneers from Arkansas were killed in Utah by a raiding party whose ties to the Mormon church are still in dispute.

The film, ''September Dawn,'' stars Jon Voight, Lolita Davidovich and Terence Stamp (Dean Cain, the director's son, makes a cameo appearance). Two newcomers, Trent Ford and Tamara Hope, play a frontier Romeo and Juliet in a romance played out against a drama of a mass murder that continues to engender controversy almost 150 years after the fact. Financed independently by September Dawn and Voice Pictures, it is currently being screened for distributors.

An early look at parts of the picture -- viewed in a West Los Angeles editing room with Mr. Cain and his longtime editor, Jack Hofstra -- suggests that there will be fresh debate when it finally reaches the public.

As the story unfolds, a company of pioneers arrives from Arkansas. A couple of young lovers-to-be -- one a Mormon, the other part of the ill-fated wagon train -- meet amid a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and rancor. A Mormon raid ends with a castration, an enemy's testicles neatly nailed to a door. All the while, the territorial governor and president of the church, Brigham Young, played by Mr. Stamp, is heard in voice-over, encouraging vengeance, violence, ''blood atonement'' and divine justice.

''And by the way,'' Mr. Cain said, ''I didn't write any of his dialogue,'' explaining that it was all in the depositions that Young gave after the massacre. ''I sat here watching this a couple of weeks ago and I was thinking: 'Maybe I made that up. I don't think he would have said that.' And I went back and pulled it up and, man, he did.''

In a statement, Michael Purdy, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disputed historical claims that Young ordered the killings in a drive to keep non-Mormons out of Utah. Mr. Cain, whose movies have included ''The Principal,'' ''Young Guns,'' ''The Next Karate Kid'' and ''Gone Fishin,' '' had left filmmaking and retired to his home in Aspen. But he was lured back when a friend, Carole Whang Schutter, who now shares a writing credit on ''September Dawn,'' pitched him the idea of a film about the infamous attack.

That the 1857 massacre occurred on a Sept. 11 only added to the significance Mr. Cain found in the event: at a time when fundamentalist extremism seems to dominate political dialogue around the world, revisiting murders that occurred for religious reasons, he thought, seemed timely. ''You start asking yourself the question,'' said Mr. Cain, a soft-spoken and often dryly funny filmmaker of 62. ''What makes a young kid -- of any faith, in any part of the world -- strap a bomb on his back and walk into a school, or a mosque, or get on a bus full of innocent people, and blow himself and them all up? You ask yourself that question, and as you do, you start looking around and all of a sudden, it's what religious fanaticism can turn into.''

While Mr. Stamp plays the church leader in the film, Mr. Voight plays a fictional Mormon elder whose two sons fall on different sides of an age-old question that is hardly exclusive to pioneer-era Utah: Does one follow one's faith wherever its elders say it leads or does one exercise the free will and judgment presumably bequeathed by God?

Asked to comment on the making of Mr. Cain's film, Mr. Purdy, the church representative, responded: ''While no one knows fully what happened at Mountain Meadows nearly 150 years ago, we do recognize that it was a terrible tragedy for all involved. The church has done much to remember those who lost their lives there. We want to honor, respect and recognize them.''

''During the 1999 dedication of the Mountain Meadows memorial,'' Mr. Purdy wrote, ''Gordon B. Hinckley, current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: 'I sit in the chair that Brigham Young occupied as president of the church at the time of the tragedy. I have read very much of the history of what occurred here. There is no question in my mind that he was opposed to what happened. Had there been a faster means of communication, it never would have happened and history would have been different.' ''

Asked to elaborate, Mr. Purdy said, ''Regarding the reference to a 'faster means of communication,' Brigham Young sent a messenger by horseback to tell those at Mountain Meadows to not interfere with the wagon train. The messenger did not arrive in time to prevent the tragedy.''

This, like many key claims about the massacre, has remained open to challenge. As the Mormon Utah historian Juanita Brooks wrote in her 1950 study, ''The Mountain Meadows Massacre,'' ''The complete -- the absolute -- truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it, are all very inadequate at best.''

What is known is that settlers en route from Arkansas were attacked over a number of days -- either by Paiute Indians, a mix of Paiutes and Mormons, or Mormons dressed as Paiutes. After being deceived by a flag of truce, they were ultimately slaughtered. Children under 10 were spared, and adopted by Mormon families, until federal forces returned them to Eastern relatives.

Mr. Cain has chosen to tell a version in which the Paiute tribe was enlisted to help fight the supposedly hostile forces impinging on their land, but then quit the fight when they realized they were being duped.

In writing the script, Mr. Cain said, he and Ms. Schutter were helped by a great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, who has left the church and become a born-again Christian.

''But the entire massacre itself,'' he said, ''and the stuff with the Indians leading up to it, is taken from John D. Lee's confession, which was 25 to 27 pages long.'' Lee, a high-ranking lieutenant of Young's, was the only man prosecuted for the massacre; he was executed by firing squad in 1877 and went to his grave claiming that he was being sacrificed for other people's sins, a view echoed in the title of a 1961 biography by Brooks, ''John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat.''

The year of the massacre was an especially tense one for the Mormons of Utah, whose history in many parts of the United States had, from the start, been one of persecution. In the spring of 1857, President Buchanan replaced Brigham Young with a non-Mormon as governor and sent soldiers to enforce his decision. Young declared martial law, and on Sept. 15, just four days after the massacre,issued an order forbidding federal troops from entering the territory.

In the scenes that Mr. Cain and Mr. Hofstra were still molding into final shape, the violence perpetrated against the settlers' wagon train leaves very little to the imagination. And the intonations of the bearded Young -- Mr. Stamp plays him as austere, remote and steely -- give the narrative a sense of Old Testament wrath: ''Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood?'' he asks.

''I don't see any reason to soft-pedal anything,'' Mr. Cain explained of his movie's unblinking approach. ''This was a horrific act -- they murdered 140 men, women and children and they did it in a vicious, violent way, and if you're going to show that, I think you have to show what caused it. It's not like somebody got excited one day and shot somebody. They bashed their heads with rocks.''

Of his prospective Mormon viewers, Mr. Cain said he expected particular resistance to the film's treatment of Young. ''I mean, they don't like the fact that we're doing the Mountain Meadows massacre to begin with -- it's kind of a dark day in their history,'' he said. ''But I believe what we're doing is accurate. I believe that we're making a movie that has a certain power behind it.''

The picture's real power, Mr. Cain added, will most likely come not from history, but from its insistence on making the past personal. ''You can have all the rhetoric you want come out of your mouth,'' he said. ''But when you make it specific, a name, a beating heart, it becomes something else.''

Bottom line, this is certainly not good news for Mitt Romney's candidacy, but if Ebert is right, it will blow over without hardly making an impression. Me, I'm just looking forward to the next episode of Big Love.


Cara from myspace said...

Hi Lance,

Well...for sure, quite a read. My feelings about it are this: I grew up mormon. I have a huge mormon family history...I could write about....on and on. However, quite honestly, over time, with the help of a friend, I do believe I saw the truth for what it is. I walked away from "the church" and have forever since, decided that I am instead...and beyond a shadow of a doubt, Christian. I still have to remind myself constantly...that I will not be judged...the way the "church" has driven me to believe. And still, I also believe...that it does not matter what your religion...I believe that everyone's one...and the same! Mighty and always magnificant and open for all! That... is how I feel!

Shy said...

Hmmmmn....Sir cerebral, I am truly impressed :)

Devona said...

Hi Lance,
This is very good reading. I thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

I know and love several Mormans. I know and love several grocery store clerks as well - and there's a few I'm not too keen on. I've not met a Morman yet that I didn't like. Very family oriented. Lovely lovely people. But that's not too say there's not wack jobs out there too, just like everywhere and with everyone. Didn't Mattel have a toy recall? Perhaps the Mormons are watching; Good catalyst for discussion? I have a book of Mormon on the shelf: found it in the middle of the woods with a steak knife through it and affixed to the top of a fence post. I will admit, very strange reading. And where are those tablets anyways? Howard Hughes liked 'em enough though. Like I said, the ones I know, me too. And yes, in the end, I suppose you're right. Me thinks lots of us Gentiles look alike too.