Chris Heimerdinger's "My View" column (Sept. 4) argued that the Richard Dutcher "approach to filmmaking" is at the heart of the current crisis in LDS filmmaking. As someone who has spent his life in the world of LDS fiction, playwriting, film criticism and, now, filmmaking, I must respond.
What sins does Heimerdinger suggest Dutcher has committed? First of all, "making movies for (himself)." But surely artists can and should pursue their own unique vision and voice. Heimerdinger, it seems, considers himself "the servant" of the LDS market. But isn't this simply what Hollywood does spend time and money trying to figure out what audiences want, so they can create film product intended for large-scale consumption? Shouldn't we applaud an LDS artist who remains true to his own muse?
Heimerdinger calls Dutcher's films "patronizing and elitist" and calls Dutcher's most recent film, "States of Grace," "inherently offensive to most church members." But a discerning viewer of Dutcher's films will find them deeply rooted in LDS doctrine and religious practice. At the heart of "God's Army," Dutcher's first LDS film, is the idea of religious conversion. A young man, serving a mission without knowing why, discovers what "testimony" means. "Brigham City," though ostensibly a murder mystery, has at its core the LDS understanding of priesthood ordinances. In a stunning final scene, "Brigham City" shows the healing, transforming power of an LDS sacrament service.
Now, in "States of Grace," Dutcher delves more deeply into the heart of LDS theology. "States of Grace," as the title suggests, is a film about the atonement of Jesus Christ. Five deeply flawed human beings, having made some serious mistakes, who are in pain and in need of redemption, reach out to each other and to the Savior and, in the end, find peace in and through Christ.
Dutcher's exploration of these transcendent ideas is hardly esoteric. He crafts interesting, multidimensional characters and tells their stories with clarity and precision. In fact, I find myself at a loss to understand what Heimerdinger means by "elitist" or "condescending." I suspect that the differences between these two artists is simply cultural. Dutcher takes LDS doctrine seriously and places it at the center of his art. Perhaps Heimerdinger prefers his art simply to reflect mainstream LDS cultural preferences. That's legitimate, too, but my fear is that it doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. It therefore doesn't seem to me a very interesting approach to art.In any event, I can say that watching "States of Grace" provided me one of the most powerful, life-changing spiritual and aesthetic experiences of my life. I'm sorry more people in and out of the LDS culture didn't see it. And, of course, I wish Heimerdinger well with his film. Since the LDS film movement seems to be in a state of crisis, perhaps one solution might be better, more interesting films.
Eric Samuelsen of Provo is an LDS playwright. His play, "Miasma," is currently on stage at Plan-B in Salt Lake City.