Don’t abandon Mormonism and Mormon cinema: It makes Kieth Merrill angry

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Kieth Merrill: You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Richard Dutcher’s commentary in last Thursday’s edition of the (Provo, Utah) Daily Herald sent shockwaves throughout the Mormon blogging community. (Of course there’s a Mormon blogging community. There’s a blogging community for everything.) I recommend reading it in its entirety, but here are some key excerpts:

The church would never allow shoddy, inexperienced architects and builders to create one of its temples. In its sacred commitment to excellence, the church searches for and employs those with the necessary talents, non-Mormons and Mormons alike. Some day, church leaders also will understand the power and potential of film. The cinema of a movement as great as Mormonism must be directed by great artists, not by inexperienced committees. Imagine the potential of images to convey the deepest, most sacred doctrines of Mormonism.

Look at the movies that play on the screen of the theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. These films are the introduction of Mormonism to hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe. Shouldn’t these be the most powerful films on the face of the earth? For whatever reason — nepotism, ignorance … who knows? — this opportunity is squandered. Why not share with visitors the beauty and power of Mormonism, rather than treating them to polite, remedial and not-so-factual recitations of Mormon History and scripture? Viewers should leave those films weak in the knees, their minds reeling, their spirits soaring. Film has the power to do that.

He also said he is no longer a practicing Mormon (a big shock to most readers), but he loves the church and its doctrines and has simply gone a different direction, spiritually.

On Saturday, the Herald ran a viewpoint by Chris Heimerdinger, a popular LDS novelist whose book “Passage to Zarahemla” is being made into a film to be released this summer. Heimerdinger’s comments don’t really interest me, so I’m not going to talk about them.

The real juicy response to Dutcher’s article was published right next to Heimerdinger’s, both covered by one central headline: “Answering Dutcher.” This one was by Kieth Merrill (misspelling of “Keith” is correct), who won a Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1973 for “The Great American Cowboy.” He was a little annoyed by Dutcher’s dismissal of the films that play at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. These movies, first “Legacy” and most recently “The Testaments,” are hour-long motion pictures that depict stories, dramatized but fact-based, pertaining to Mormonism. Dutcher described them as “polite, remedial and not-so-factual recitations of Mormon History and scripture.” This offended Merrill because, um, he wrote and directed them.

Merrill’s published response is here. I encourage you to read it. It is a masterpiece of angry, irrational, foaming-at-the-mouth straight-up craziness. That he fired it off to the Herald without stopping to collect himself is amazing; that the Herald would publish something they knew Merrill would soon regret having written is, well, not surprising. I mean, if someone gives you an awesome firecracker, you’re gonna light it, right?

Some choice excerpts from Merrill’s vein-popping tirade:

Dutcher has made five movies. One is pretty good. One is OK. The others are mediocre, depending on your tolerance. The “rave reviews” he loves to post on his Web site come from the same folks who praised “The Departed” — but Hollywood and its critics have long since ignored redeeming social value as a criteria of quality and entertainment that inspires as a measure of true brilliance.

(When did Hollywood turn evil, Kieth? Was it before or after they gave you the Oscar you’re so fond of mentioning? And Dutcher’s films are a lot of things, but to suggest they don’t have redeeming social value is to suggest that you have not watched them. They are ALL ABOUT the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the power of repentance and forgiveness. A person can disagree with the doctrine involved, but there’s no denying it has social value.)

Good, Richard. So your ultimate goal is to make a demented and despicable film like “The Departed” that is perfectly crafted and wins you an Oscar but assaults every virtue, value and sensibility you’ve ever known? You should have taken the insurance money when your building burned down and gone into real estate.

(Bringing up the sad case of Dutcher’s Mapleton, Utah, offices burning down last year: classy.)

I predict that Richard Dutcher will (1) find a niche by dropping deeper into the darkness of the hard-R market; (2) become a companion of commiseration with Neil LeButte; or (3) disappear altogether. On the other hand he may become a pawn of the anti-Mormons who are now making DVDs and passing them out door to door. How about “God’s Army Gone South”?

(For the record, none of Dutcher’s film so far has been anything more than a very mild PG-13. Also for the record, Mr. LaBute spells his name with one “t.”)

Here is the truth. More people have been inspired by “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” [another Merrill movie] moved to tears during “Legacy” and walked out of “The Testament” with spirits soaring than the total number of people who have ever bothered to go to Richard Dutcher’s movies combined. Your arrogance makes me bite my tongue to keep from turning a somber “goodbye” into a cheerful “good riddance.”

(It is worth noting, of course, that the reason more people have seen Merrill’s movies is that they are shown for free.)

Now then. That’s some pretty angry stuff there. But it gets better! That is the toned-down version! Merrill sent his earlier draft to an LDS film e-mail group, and the moderator sent it out to the list. It is mostly the same as what appeared in the Herald, but features some angrier language. Some examples:

Richard Dutcher has made 5 movies. A couple are pretty good (as films go) the others are weak to mediocre depending on your tolerance. The “rave reviews” he loves to post on his website come from the edgy fringe of the movie business – and of course Hollywood is the “edgy fringe” of society anyway.

If Dutcher was truly a stand-out, unusual and brilliant filmmaker, his haughtiness might be tolerable and his advice worth a box of Krispy Kreme donuts. But even Mormons rejected his last two films and his latest Fallen Angel is so raunchy—according to some who worked on it— I suspect it won’t even open in Utah. Well it will open in Park City maybe or even Sundance where the films depicting the dark underbelly of society are hailed as magnificent art!

Here is the truth Dutcher, you idiot. More people have walked out of Legacy and The Testaments with hearts throbbing, tears streaming and spirits soaring [than] the total number of people who have ever even bothered to go to your stupid movies !!!!

I’m not going to bother dissecting the mistruths and logical flaws in this, since it wasn’t Merrill’s “official” response anyway. Also, something else amusing happened.

In Merrill’s version for the Herald, he wrote, “Give me a break! The guy’s gone mental!” In the paper, that paragraph got cut altogether. But the uncut version appeared on the Herald’s Web site, only with “mental” changed to “psycho.”

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Google’s cached version of the Herald’s Web site on Saturday.

Apparently, Herald executive editor Randy Wright checked with Merrill before making the change, and Merrill okayed it. Why did Randy want to change it? Maybe he thought “mental” was offensive to mentally ill people, but “psycho” wasn’t? Who knows. Having spent a year with Randy as my boss, I can only assume that the reason was something impulsive and flawed.

Anyway, the complete version of Merrill’s article appeared on the Web, including the “psycho” paragraph. But whoever oversees Web stuff for the Herald had to write a headline for the story (it didn’t have a proper headline in the newspaper version, so there wasn’t one already attached), and what that editor came up with was this:

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Google’s cached version of the Herald’s Web site on Saturday.

That’s the version Merrill saw when he looked for his article online, and it led him to write a blistering e-mail to Randy Wright. He forwarded it to that LDS film group again, with a note asking the moderator to pass it along:

Please make sure your readers get this official version.
FYI – I never said “Dutcher has gone psycho.”

BLIND-SIDED

Randy – Editor Provo Daily Hearald,

My request for no changes without my approval included the headline.

When you said you were changing my use of the word “mental” to “pyscho” I thought you meant in the text– in another context.

You did NOT tell me you were making that the headline.

I appreciate that controversy sells papers for you, but good grief, my article was bad enough without using THAT headline.

I FEEL TOTALLY BLIND-SIDED BY THAT CHOICE ! The headline is big and bold and in fact something I NEVER said.

Silence IS golden. I need to remember that.

Alas.

Kieth Merrill

This is one of my favorite sentences ever: “I appreciate that controversy sells papers for you, but good grief, my article was bad enough without using THAT headline.” In other words: “I look really, really bad right now, and 99.9 percent of it is my own fault — but I’m going to yell at you for the other 0.1 percent!”

If you look at that story on the Herald’s site now, you’ll see it with this headline:

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How it looks now.

And in the text, where Merrill wrote, “The guy’s gone mental!,” and where Randy changed it to, “The guy’s gone psycho!,” it NOW says, “The guy’s lost it!”

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How it looks now.

So back to the main story: The Herald ran Merrill’s very angry response to Dutcher’s comments. Now, if you’ve been following current events in the entertainment industry the last several months, you know what comes right after the public, rage-fueled rant: the contrite apology.

Merrill began his apology tour where it all started, on the opinion page of the Daily Herald. On Monday, a new article from Merrill appeared. It reads, in part:

My outrageous and over-reactive response to Richard’s editorial in the Daily Herald was inappropriate and wrong. I was wrong in doing it. I was mostly wrong in what I said. There were reasons, of course, but none of them qualify as an acceptable excuse for my bad behavior. I regret my actions and my words. I apologize for my sarcasm, criticism and condemnations. I am sorry. I have asked Richard and Gwen to forgive me.

My rant was destructive, venomous and arrogant. It is I who am “psycho.” Offensive words spoken are bad enough. Offensive words written and put on the Internet become an irretrievable poison in the cosmos. Retractions can never scrub it completely clean so going forward I will endeavor to find other ways to make it right if I am able.

Obviously, Merrill’s next step will be to enter rehab.

But I kid the director of “Legacy” and “The Testaments”! I give the guy props for apologizing. It takes a big man to do that. Of course, it’s a little alarming that he’s capable of such pettiness, judgmentalism, and meanness when he’s angry, but I guess as long as no one makes him angry, we’ll be OK.

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