Richard Dutcher opened the floodgates with "God's Army." Then came "Brigham City" and Mitch Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven." Big-screen movies that adroitly and rather tastefully moved Mormon culture into the mainstream, maybe not exactly in a "Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "The Sopranos" kind of way, but getting there.
But you were cringing. I know you were.
You knew it would eventually come to this.
You knew they would get around to making the Mormon pop culture book "Charly" into a movie.
It gets worse.
They didn't change the book.
"Charly" is the story of a worldly New York City girl named Charly who flies to Utah and falls for, in order, the restored church and one of its practitioners, who wears a BYU hat, named Sam. It was released to movie houses in Utah this week and barring some miraculous stroke of luck it will soon leave the borders of the state.
Just when the Olympics and Mitt Romney were making headway on the stereotypes.
This is like sending someone from Sanpete County to teach America how to say "fork."
Singing "One Bad Apple."
Imagine turning the Mormon Handicraft Store and the Missionary Training Center into a full-length film -- starring the staff at the genealogy library.
Introducing a whole new genre: the feature-length Mormon cliche.
If Clean Flicks gets ahold of "Charly," it will put stuff in.
The movie starts with Sam being bribed by his father, who works for Charly's father, to pick up Charly at the Salt Lake airport. Charly has a boyfriend back in New York her parents aren't terribly fond of. They'd like her to meet someone different. The plot thins from there.
I don't want to give too much away, but there are many rides on the Liberty Park ferris wheel.
As a book, "Charly" became a perennial Deseret Book best-seller after its release in 1979. Hundreds and thousands of adolescent Mormon girls spirited copies of Jack Weyland's book into their rooms at night and sighed. Every Beehive and Mia Maid wanted to be Charly and find their Sam. Fair enough. So what if there are maybe three men like Sam on the entire Earth? (And they are being pummeled as we speak by every other man). So what if Sam gets Charly to go fishing more than once?
But couldn't it have stayed in the bedrooms?
"God's Army" and "The Other Side of Heaven" artfully presented Mormon culture while telling a story; "Charly" takes Mormon culture and bashes you over the head with it. It's like seeing 98 minutes of "Man's Search For Happiness." It has all the subtlety of a missionary couple wearing tags and coming straight at you in a visitor's center.
Deseret News movie critic Jeff Vice says some may find "Charly" "maudlin," which is like saying some may find "The Sound of Music" "musical."
It makes you wonder, what's next? "Johnny Lingo" in its expanded, big-screen version? Will they move "The Testaments" to the 16-plex? Will "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" be coming soon to a theater near you?
In the meantime, there's Richard Dutcher to think about. A man on a mission to pull Mormon culture out of the cheese. I'll bet "Charly" made him cry.
Lee Benson's merciless "Charly" bash almost persuaded me to miss the movie. I'm glad that I didn't.
I was amused by Benson's hypersensitive "gag reflex" for effusively sentimental movies. His critique was terse and funny, but his knee-jerk reaction to "Charly" misses a couple of important points. For starters, if you get to the heart of Mormon culture, we are sentimental. We worry about dead ancestors, cry in church and believe that families can be forever. "Charly" explores the last of these ideas in an insightful and worthwhile way. I find it curious that often those nearest the geographic heart of the LDS culture seem the most defensive about the tender underbelly of how we manifest our theology.
Jeff Vice is right. "Charly" will strike some as being "maudlin," which means weakly and effusively sentimental. But I predict that the farther from the Wasatch Front the film may play, the more the members of the LDS Church -- and even some outsiders -- will find this movie a refreshing option. Despite its flaws, "Charly" has some moments of beauty and brilliance.
My final point is if you fail to support the movies by young LDS filmmakers who struggle to make a difference and who want to create family-friendly films that run counter to popular culture, you forever forfeit your right to complain about Hollywood and the steady decline of values.
Director of "Legacy" and "Testaments"
[NOTE: Kieth Merrill, in addition to directing many films for the Church, has also received two Academy Award nominations and one Academy Award as a director. His films have grossed well over $600 million worldwide.]
As one of hundreds of people invited to view a free screening of the movie "Charly" before it was released to the general public, and after reading Lee Benson's article about it, all I can say is, "DUH!"
Of course "Charly" is a movie that will make you cry! It's also a movie that had the audience busting up laughing at about the same time. I only wish the producers/directors had been able to put more of the book into the movie.
I really don't care what Jeff Vice has to say about the movie. My husband and I personally have been victims of one of his "good" movie reviews and ended up walking out of the theater. But I have to say I'm sorely disappointed in Lee Benson's movie review on "Charly," because I usually agree with what he has to say.
At a time when people are under attack from Hollywood and companies are being sued for editing videos, we should be cheering on clean, feel-good, warm-fuzzy movies such as "Charly." The movie will make you laugh, and yes, it will make you cry!
I have received a fair amount of mail regarding my recent review of the movie "Charly," challenging my critique of the film as "cheesy." In response, and in the interest of fairness, I have gone back over my reviewing criteria and revisited the issue.
I have carefully reconsidered.
I still think it's cheesy.
There are a lot of great things about America. One is you're free to have your own opinion about a movie, another is you're free to disagree with another person's opinion about a movie.
A lot of people exercised that freedom the past couple of weeks, many of them part of an orchestrated e-mail campaign -- popularly called a "letter tree" -- summoned via the Internet.
One of the letter writers left the letter-tree instructions attached to his e-mail, which said, "Charly needs your support!! In a recent column in the Deseret News, columnist Lee Benson attacked Charly, basically calling it a cliche devoid of artistic merit . . . please let the Deseret News know why you are dismayed at their misleading article."
So far, 57 people have dashed to their keyboards, leaving lengthy expressions of dismay, including the following excerpts:
"We are tired of people like you telling us what is a good thing."
"I publicly accuse you of being an arrogant blowhard who is clearly out of touch with your readership."
"I rebuke you in the strongest words I have at my disposal."
"Obviously Lee Benson is 'past feeling' and not in tune nor in harmony with true happenings in the 'Mormon' culture."
"I think that this world needs more 'sappy,' clean films."
"I found your article rude and childish. I am sorry for you! Charly was the best movie I have ever seen."
"Aww Lee Benson, would a naked bed scene have made you happy?"
"I am not a crier, yet this movie caught me completely off guard that I completely lost control of my emotions in the theater."
And let me add to that last one: I know what you mean.
Then again, getting 57 negative e-mails in two weeks is no big deal compared to the more than 15,000 negative e-mails my column colleague Doug Robinson has received for writing his opinion about marching bands, which can be summed up with one line from that column: "I'm guessing that marching bands were hip at sometime in history -- but so were leisure suits."
That was three years ago, igniting a letter tree that stretched from Maine to Moose Jaw. There are a lot of marching bands in this country, and a lot of marching band alumni. Doug's column sprang them all to action like halftime of the Notre Dame game.
"These marching band people would send it to other marching band clubs on the Internet and they'd post it on their Web sites, and every time somebody new saw it I'd get a bunch more e-mails," Doug says. "I still get some e-mails. I don't know the exact number, but it's over 15,000 now.
"I don't see that record being broken for a long time," he adds, wryly.
He's probably right. He's been told he's an idiot in more ways than even he thought was possible.
But, still, it's something for "Charly" lovers to shoot for -- 15,000 e-mails!
Consider it a kind of virtual gauntlet thrown down.
And that e-mail address again, just in case you've forgotten: email@example.com.
Lee Benson hated Charly.
Charly is a movie, based on the book by Jack Weyland.
Benson is a columnist for the Deseret News.
"Richard Dutcher opened the floodgates with God's Army. Then came Brigham City and Mitch Davis' The Other Side of Heaven... you knew it would eventually come to this. You knew they would get around to making the Mormon pop culture book Charly into a movie. It gets worse. They didn't change the book." Lee Benson's merciless Charly bash almost persuaded me to miss the movie. I'm glad I didn't.
Imagine turning the Mormon Handicraft Store and the Missionary Training Center into a full-length film -- starring the staff at the genealogy library. Introducing a whole new genre: the feature-length Mormon cliche. If Clean Flicks gets a hold of Charly, it will put stuff in."Granted, Benson is a glib and gifted writer, but in playing with his words Benson lost his perspective.
"Charly takes Mormon culture and bashes you over the head with it. It's like seeing 98 minutes of Man's Search For Happiness. It has all the subtlety of a missionary couple wearing tags and coming straight at you in a visitor's center."I was amused by Benson's hypersensitive "gag reflex" for effusively sentimental movies. His critique was terse and funny but his knee jerk reaction to Charly misses a couple of important points.
"Deseret News movie critic Jeff Vice says some may find Charly 'maudlin,' which is like saying some may find The Sound of Music 'musical'".
For starters, if you get to the heart of Mormon culture, we are sentimental.
We worry about dead ancestors, cry in church, and believe that families can be forever. Charly explores the last of these ideas in an insightful and worthwhile way.
I am the first to recognize how easy it is to rip these kinds of films to shreds. But as a filmmaker my ability to bash is tempered by my ability to remember.
Making a movie is much tougher than penning pithy words on paper. When it comes to film I am critically sympathetic. When it comes to Mormon Cinema my desire to be supportive overpowers both sympathy and critical perspective.
I am curious that it is often those nearest the geographic heart of the LDS culture that seem the most defensive about the tender underbelly of how we manifest our theology -- and yes, Mr. Benson, how we exhibit our sentimentality and feelings of the heart.
Jeff Vice is right. Charly will strike some as being "maudlin" which means weakly and effusively sentimental. But I predict that the farther from the Wasatch Front the film may play, the more the members of the LDS Church -- and even some outsiders -- will find this movie a refreshing option.
Way out -- where it will only venture on video -- it will become a favored classic among some Latter-day Saints who never read Jack's book, will never see Salt Lake City, never read the Deseret News and even if they could, would never understand what in the heck Lee Benson is talking about.
In a subsequent column Benson reported more than half a hundred angry letters scolding his sardonic lambaste. He promised to reconsider his critique. He did. For five seconds. "It is still cheesy," he concluded.
Tastes vary. Expectations are high. You can't compare a small movie made for a few hundred thousand dollars by a first time director with the experienced, expensive glitz of Hollywood, but of course we do it all the time.
Along the Wasatch front "cheesy" has taken on a meaning of its own that is vaguely connected to the curious state of cultural self-consciousness of a few main stream Mormons.
Besides the obvious meaning of the word "cheesy" -- suggesting or resembling cheese -- the application as slang means "shabby" or "cheap." Charly is not perfect, but it is not shabby and the low budget does not leave the movie looking "cheap".
The bigger point is this. That for better or for worse, for delight or disappointment, to whatever tastes or talents Charly may or may not appeal, it is significantly better than the vacuum existing before it was made.
I am the first to recognize that many -- if not most -- of the new offerings in "Mormon Cinema" are artistically compromised and technically misshapen. There are moments of greatness surrounded by "what the heck happened here?"
Access to digital technology has lured some would-be moviemakers into a false sense of security. There is -- as their audience and critics like Benson are telling them -- much more to a movie than a script you knock out with a couple of your friends and enough money -- begged borrowed or stolen -- to get it on the screen.
The excellent work of Jeff Simpson and his team at Excel Film Distribution are responsible for exploiting the market. "Exploit" is of course a term of art. Without the anomaly of a well-defined and accessible market among Mormons these movies could not be made at all.
Mormon sentimentality notwithstanding, historic market forces will ultimately shape the future of "Mormon Cinema". Supply and demand are entrenched realities. In spite of initial curiosity -- and some elated sense of "a movie for us at last" -- mediocrity will quickly fade and quality will be required for survival.
Like some economic pundits of Wall Street who warn of recession with the market going up, I predict a fall out and settling of the Mormon movie market in the very near future. This notion -- when it happens -- supports the one brutal truth implied in the Benson assault -- wannabe filmmakers must ultimately "pull Mormon culture out of the cheese."
I know what he means. I would have said it differently. Ultimately, wannabe Mormon film makers must rise above the novelty of "Mormon movies made for Mormons" and dependence on the easy and inevitable laughs of a Singles Ward to achieve a level of movie-making excellence that allows them the right and the power to tell their stories any way they want to -- cheesy sentiment or no.
Mormon Cinema is a newborn giraffe, still wet behind the ears. It teeters on spindly legs of inexperience, but has the potential of becoming a magnificent creature.
Shortly after the release of God's Army, Richard Dutcher mused to me one day that he was surprised a cluster of LDS movies had not followed in the wake of his success. He need wonder no more. There are more new "Mormon genre" movies in release or being made than the market can likely support. Some will be great. Some will be OK. Too many will be disappointing. A few are likely to be awful.
From a really wonderful web site, ldsfilm.com -- kept up to date as a passionate hobby by talented LDS composer, Thomas C. Baggaley -- comes an almost shocking list of "Mormon movies" announced, in production, promised or being created in the most fanciful of day-dreams kept afloat by nothing but faith. Here is what Mormon movie goers can look for in near future -- presuming of course they get funded, finished and finely made.
Richard Dutcher. What have you started?
The list does not include several excellent productions from the Audio Visual Department of the church and the LDS Movie Studios in Provo, Utah.
The list does not name the few bright and talented young LDS film makers recently graduated from prestigious film schools who are rising in the mainstream world of Hollywood.
It becomes very clear that LDS filmmakers -- anxious to tell "our story" are learning their craft. They are plunging in where angels fear to tread. They will be seasoned by the reaction of the audience and moved forward even by the honest -- if awful -- criticisms of Lee Benson. They will be sobered by the ultimate brutality of the market place as the gargoyles of supply and demand awaken from their lair and stalk the Wasatch Front.
Most of these films will "leave Utah" -- or try -- but never play beyond the membership of the LDS church. One or two will hopefully cross over into mainstream. When they do I hope the integrity of the sentimentality of the culture is not wholly expunged.
Granted, such delicate matters must be masterfully handled, but if main stream movies, dealing with Mormonism, are to have the impact that these faithful LDS film makers have in mind -- filled as they are with faith and youthful idealism -- they must be made with the kind of pointed honesty -- even sentimentality -- that is possible and important.
Movies cost money. To make movies that will break out of the Mormon market in any significant way will take a LOT of money. In a free society, money ultimately is a great equalizer. For now the reported profits from God's Army, a sense of cultural identity and the irrational sense of "cause" may sustain the burgeoning flush of films that find fans on the Wasatch Front.
Sophisticated investors have quoted the results of God's Army as the reason to invest. Million plus profits on a film that cost $300,000 have fueled the boom and helped imitators find the cash. Some investors have confided to me that they have invested without expectation of profit because they "believe in the cause." They only do it once.
I am tempted to write an article entitled "How to Invest in Mormon Movies" to augment the inevitable sifting out of bad projects that must inevitably take place. High-net-worth Mormons with discretionary capital are beginning to feel besieged.
There is a huge chasm between where the fascinating new world of Mormon Cinema now stands and where everyone involved would like it to go. Filmmakers desperately want to "break out" and "break through". Even Dutcher's films -- among the best of the "less than a million" movies -- have had a difficult time attracting paying patrons beyond the membership of the LDS church.
In his prophetic vision of a Mormon movie masterpiece playing in movie centers around the globe, President Kimball added this qualification; "our motion picture specialists must be purified by the best critics."
He is right of course. I therefore and hereby grant to Mr. Lee Benson his right and important role as an "official Kimball critic in the evolution of Mormon Cinema".
In the end we cannot compromise. LDS filmmakers who wish to tell the story of Mormonism must become excellent by every standard. They must compete head to head with the finest films being made. They must get SO good that Lee Benson will stand up and cheer.
The wave of films in development, production and day dreams is the essential first step to ultimate achievement. If for no other reason this is sufficient ground to champion a movie like Charly.
After bashing Charly, Benson lamented:
" What's next? Johnny Lingo in its expanded, big-screen version? Will they move The Testaments to the 16-plex? Will Mr. Krueger's Christmas be coming soon to a theater near you?"
Hold on to your laptop Lee. Johnny Lingo is on its way to the silver screen. It was re-tooled as a feature film and shot this summer in the South Pacific by producers John Garbet and Jerry Molen with Other Side of Heaven editor, Steve Ramirez at the helm. The same people who loved Charly can't wait.
The Testaments -- which I wrote and directed for the First Presidency -- is playing in the IMAX Theater at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. Not exactly a theater "near you", but a theater open to the public and not directly related to the church.
Mr. Kruger's Christmas, which I also directed, has played on commercial television for many years.
If these films are among those that fail your "cheese test', you must at least be willing to measure your critique against the millions who have been moved by "maudlin Mormon moments".
Not all critics agreed with Lee Benson. For one, Ron C. Eggertsen, Journal Publications, said of it, "A Must See Film... A well-done modern romance... Heather Beers is not only exceptional, she's a find."
If you miss Charly you will miss some lovely moments. I tell you that even though in being true to the book the story is not perfectly structured as a film and the music unduly accentuates the abundant sentimentality.
Despite its flaws, Charly has some moments of beauty and brilliance. It is well worth the time and money. It might touch your heart and remind you why you loved the book that launched a whole new genre of teenage Mormon fiction.
Without the curious anomaly of a market for Mormons, genre movies like Charly would likely never reach the big screen. But against those odds, Charly has reached commercial theaters -- at least in the "Mormon market" -- and is being well received. The movie deserves the support of anyone who believes in the future and the vision of President Spencer W. Kimball as I do.
"Mormon cheese" will not infect a non-LDS public. Done well it will touch hearts and change lives. Meanwhile what young, passionate filmmakers learn from the process is sifting wheat from chaff and honing talent.
The best and the brightest will continue. Looking back some of them will wonder how they manage to survive on the strength of the movies they are making now.
I am enthusiastic about what is happening. The number of LDS filmmakers leaping into the forbidden arena excites me. Not all their offerings are equal by any means. It is unfortunate for example that Other Side of Heaven and Singles Ward are so easily lumped into the same conversation, or that the recently announced Book of Mormon Movie , Volume I -- exciting as it may be -- is front and center in the media while another much bigger and more expensive epic on the Book of Mormon is being prepared by seasoned filmmakers, Steve Devore, Peter Johnson, Scott Swofford and Reed Smoot.
I am a great believer in the notion that as members of the LDS church we not only share a common theology but a shared set of goals and objectives in most areas of popular culture.
We have different tastes but common goals. Each of us must find a way to be supportive of the efforts being made without the responsibility to endorse the products that result. We must be champions of intent without the obligation to like the results.
We must find a way to be critical with an eye toward excellence and constructive with a hand toward helping.
My final point is one I've made before. If you fail to support the movies by LDS film makers who struggle to make a difference and who want to create family friendly films that run counter to popular culture -- however imperfect and flawed their early attempts -- then you forever forfeit your right to complain about Hollywood and the steady decline of popular culture.
1 "Charly will make you cry," Deseret News, October 2, 2002.