Richard Dutcher, a polarizing LDS filmmaker

Back when Richard Dutcher’s God’s Army burst onto Utah movie screens in 2000, marking a complete revolution in LDS cinema, I don’t think anyone realized at the time what kind of primal creative force had just been unleashed. Dutcher brought to audiences an unflinching, warts-and-all perspective of Mormon missionaries and LDS culture that some found refreshing, while others declared his work had crossed the line in terms of what was appropriate to portray on film for a predominantly secular audience to sneer at. Before God’s Army, no one dared depict Mormon missionaries as anything other than squeaky-clean, hard-working, faithfully devout young men. And the depiction of a priesthood ordinance treaded dangerously on secularizing the sacred in the eyes of some.

But the overall effect of the film was undeniable. It was a huge hit in Utah, which meant that Dutcher was here to stay. However, anyone hoping for more of the "spiritual Dutcher" without any more of the "controversial Dutcher" had another thing coming.

Dutcher’s next film, Brigham City, was perhaps the first genuine "LDS thriller," featuring Mormons in a creepy plot involving a serial rapist and murderer. Dutcher played the lead role as a small-town sheriff doubling as a ward bishop, facing a difficult separation of duties when those whose spiritual welfare he is responsible for find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Brigham City was rated PG-13 for its violence and disturbing theme, another first for the heretofore all-ages LDS film industry. Dutcher also depicted the sacramental ordinance during a Sunday service, which again fanned the flames of controversy among Mormon audiences.

Then Dutcher disappeared for a few years. Rumors abounded that he was working hard to secure financing for a project tentatively titled "The Prophet," a biographical sketch of Joseph Smith starring Hollywood star Val Kilmer. The film never got off the ground, despite Kilmer’s interest in playing the role. Some felt the actor was too "worldly" to do justice to this larger-than-life figure. Others complained that Dutcher’s script, which did not shy away from Joseph’s more controversial dealings, would tarnish the image of such a revered man.

Dutcher rebounded from this disappointment with States of Grace (foolishly titled "God’s Army 2" in Utah to create box office appeal, despite a lack of continuity with the first film), another portrayal of LDS missionaries in Los Angeles with its fair share of "uncomfortable" elements, including a gangland shooting and a missionary flirting with an investigator. This PG-13 film garnered heaps of critical praise, but few people saw it. It has yet to arrive on DVD, despite being out of theaters for over five months.

Maybe people have learned that you can’t separate a Dutcher film from the typical Dutcher controversies, so they’re staying away. At any rate, he’s not taking the collective snub very well. In fact, he continues to say things that have the potential to distance him even further from his LDS base.

From The Daily Universe’s excellent article on Dutcher dated Feb. 1, 2006:

"There will always be people that won’t agree with what I do," he said. "I’ll show ordinances in my films, I’ll make a PG movie, I’ll make an R rated movie."

Saturday’s Deseret News featured a story about a panel discussion of the HBO polygamy series "Big Love" at the annual Sunstone Symposium, where Dutcher was a participant.

"All I can say is — I love it," said panelist Richard Dutcher, the LDS filmmaker whose credits include "God’s Army," "Brigham City" and "States of Grace." "I want to direct it. I wish they’d give me a call."

For the record, the LDS Church issued a statement calling the show "lazy and indulgent entertainment," as it contains graphic sex scenes between the central male protagonist and each of his three wives.

And in today’s Deseret News, Dutcher addressed an audience of LDS book and DVD sellers, as well as fellow Mormon movie producers, telling them "You guys are in trouble."

[Dutcher] recalled going to see Mel Gibson’s "Passion of the Christ," which was playing at the same theater as "The Best Two Years," a movie about a young man on an LDS mission. In "Passion," every frame was about Jesus Christ, Dutcher said.

"Much as I loved ‘Best Two Years,’ where was Jesus in that film?"

Hmm . .. I think I remember seeing a picture of Him on the wall in the missionaries’ apartment. :mrgreen:

Dutcher may have a valid point, but he picks an obvious example with The Passion to prove it. And while he’s certainly within his rights as an individual and an artist to shower praise on R-rated fare, he’s also actively isolating himself from both his peers and his audience base.

In the most recent Deseret News article, the reporter stated that Dutcher "seemed to be addressing other producers of LDS movies" and "was the most strident of the speakers." That he may actually be alienating his audience is hinted at by the comments of two separate booksellers attending the conference:

One man said he lives in Canada and feels his store represents the LDS Church. When customers see something questionable in a film, "They think it reflects on the church as a whole," he said. "That’s the position you put us in as store owners."

Later, a woman in the audience stood and said, "We don’t have to become part of the world to tell good stories. We can still show passion, anger, pain."

If Dutcher intends to continue polarizing his audience, then he mustn’t be surprised if people begin to distance themselves from him. One can already see a difference between his films and others currently in the LDS genre or forthcoming. That’s not to say that everything that’s been put out there has been golden: the last HaleStorm movie Cassia and I saw was The R.M., and don’t even get me started on The Home Teachers, Mobsters and Mormons or Church Ball. Outstanding efforts like The Best Two Years and the documentary feature New York Doll, together with well-meaning films like Saints and Soldiers, prove that LDS cinema still has a lot of life left in it.

I’m just not sure how much Richard Dutcher wants to be a part of it, or if audiences are willing to follow him wherever he goes.

"I’m not comfortable with the title of the father of LDS cinema because the children don’t seem to want to listen," he said. "If you did a DNA test you’d see that I had nothing to do with their conception."

[E]ven though he said his movies have become more Christ-centered, the end of the current era is in sight.

"The end is in sight absolutely," he said. "In some ways I’m prepared for it the way you have an elderly parent. It’s profoundly sad for me. Mormon cinema has become nothing like I thought it would be. It’s like any personal loss, you roll with it. It will just become more difficult." (article)

As my friend and fellow film buff Joel Frost once wrote, "The biggest problem with Mormon cinema right now is that its leading voices are becoming increasingly godless and/or hopeless."

I’d prefer if Dutcher weren’t leading the charge.

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