Latter Days and its aftermath

The film “Latter Days” came up a while back on the ol’ Eric D. Snider message board, and I said this:

“Well, I don’t know that it looks anti-Mormon. Anti-Mormon in the sense that it espouses a lifestyle that runs contrary to LDS teachings, I guess. Going by the trailer, and what I’ve heard about the film, it seems like it’s a gay romantic comedy, of which there are beginning to be many, with religion (in this case Mormonism) as the plot conflict. I doubt the filmmakers had much specific anti-Mormon sentiment. Probably just a general anti-fundamental-Christian (and that would include Mormons) sentiment, since that’s who isn’t so fond of the gays.”

Having seen the movie, I now realize I was wrong. The filmmaker — C. Jay Cox, an ex-Mormon — does seem to have anti-Mormon sentiment. In fact, it seems like Mormonism is in the film not to examine the personal conflict its gay adherents feel, but solely to rip it apart. Dozens and dozens of details are wrong — wrong in a way that makes the church look bad — and it’s not a case of outsiders not knowing enough about Mormonism to get it right. This is a former insider, someone who KNOWS the facts, intentionally distorting them.

Well, fine. You’re allowed to do that if you make a movie. It won’t earn you much respect as a storyteller, manufacturing falsehoods so that your villain can look like more of a boogeyman, but it may help you gain favor with particular audiences. Gay men, for example, who often like movies just because they have positive gay characters. (See also: Mormons who like movies just because they have positive Mormon characters; Scientologists who defend “Battlefield Earth”; the group of hockey players at the screening of “Miracle” I attended who were GOING to like that movie, NO MATTER WHAT!)

My review of “Latter Days” is here. In writing it, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I’m LDS and therefore noticed the discrepancies between the film and real life. Obviously that played a part in how I reacted to the film. It didn’t prevent me from noting some positive aspects, though, and I gave those as much weight in the review as I felt they deserved.

My review did not, however, take into account the things I’m about to discuss, as they are related more to the film’s marketing and distribution than to the film itself. I wrote this blog entry after I wrote and posted the review.

“Latter Days” was supposed to open simultaneously on Jan. 30 in New York, Los Angeles and — because of the subject matter — Salt Lake City. About two weeks before opening day, however, Madstone Theatres in Salt Lake chickened out and pulled the plug. Officially, the reason was that the film “lacked artistic integrity and narrative strength,” which may sound odd, considering Madstone — a local part of a nationwide art-house chain — has certainly run its share of lame movies in the past.

Off the record, the reason was that Madstone had received threats of boycotts from its members, and rather than deal with possible community backlash, they pulled the film. A Salt Lake film critic hypothesized to me that Madstone got a couple of calls, asked its headquarters what they should do, and the higher-ups said, “Well, it’s not a good enough film to go to the wall over, so let’s skip the hassle and cancel it altogether.”

In my opinion, this is very likely what happened. Certainly Madstone’s threats did not number in the hundreds, or even dozens, and it seems beyond logic that the LDS Church authorities themselves would try to exert pressure, as much as conspiracy theorists like to say otherwise. The film “Orgazmo,” about a Mormon missionary who becomes a porn star, has played in Salt Lake many times — including just a week after “Latter Days” was supposed to run — and Steven Fales’ one-man show “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” about his own experiences growing up LDS and subsequently coming out of the closet and being excommunicated, had successful runs in Salt Lake in 2001 and 2002. Both of these occurred without incident and without stern phone calls from church headquarters. (For surely if anyone from the LDS Church HAD called, those sponsoring the events would have immediately told every news outlet in the state.)

At any rate, whatever Madstone’s reason, the film was canceled. Brooke Harper, who programs the Tower Theatre and the Broadway Centre (Salt Lake’s other art-house options), declined to show it because she felt it was “embarrassingly” bad. I’m inclined to believe that’s what she really thought, too. She’s not one to shy away from controversy (the Tower is where “Orgazmo” usually plays), and she must have known the controversy around it would have meant high box-office receipts. So she’d have no reason not to show “Latter Days” unless she actually did think it was below her theaters’ artistic standards. (I think her theaters have shown movies that were far worse, but that’s just my opinion. She obviously thought they were OK.)

So why didn’t another Salt Lake theater pick it up? After all, the major chains, unlike art-houses, only want to make money, without regard for film quality. (That’s why “Bad Boys II” played on 11 of your town’s 15 screens last summer.) But the theaters at Salt Lake’s Gateway and Jordan Commons are owned by staunch Mormon Larry Miller, so they were out of the question. And the other chains probably didn’t think the film would make enough money — “high box-office receipts” for an art-house is very different from “high box-office receipts” for a multiplex — to justify the potential controversy and associated headaches.

All of this left “Latter Days'” distributor, TLA Releasing, very frustrated. C. Jay Cox, the writer/director, was upset, too, as were various gay-rights and activist groups in Utah and beyond. TLA held a press conference in Park City — in the midst of the Sundance Film Festival — after Madstone made its announcement, and representatives from GLAAD, gay film festival OutFest and Equality Utah were in attendance.

Much of the press conference focused on explaining why the “artistic integrity” excuse was bogus. They told us, for example, that “Latter Days” had won awards at six film festivals! Which is true: But they were all gay film festivals.

Attending Sundance, which is just a regular ol’ film festival, I had seen many pictures that week that put “Latter Days” to shame in terms of writing, acting and technical aspects. I’d seen some that were worse, too, but my point is that if “Latter Days” had been accepted to screen at any non-gay film festivals — which, I add pointedly, it never has — it would have received no acclaim whatsoever. Not because its themes are taboo or anything like that, but because it’s a sub-par movie. It might be better than the other offerings at gay film festivals, but it falls more toward the bad end of the spectrum when you compare it to independent films in general.

Their other defense of the film’s quality was that it was written and directed by C. Jay Cox, and HE wrote “Sweet Home Alabama”! Which isn’t much of a defense, in my opinion, but OK. “Sweet Home Alabama” was really, really popular, so I guess it must have been really, really good.

The rest of the press conference was full of the typical hyperbole about how GREAT the movie is, as well as hand-wringing over how tragic it was that Madstone wouldn’t show it. The word “censorship” was used at least once, which is a stretch, but again, press conferences are all about hyperbole.

What interests me most is a formal statement written by Cox himself. He says this:

“At a time when the LDS Church is claiming a supposed newfound tolerance for gay members, I am deeply disappointed by such an intolerant stance. [Evidently, he believes that the church persuaded Madstone against showing the film, or else he believes Madstone and the church are the same thing.] For a church whose founder Joseph Smith believed in ‘teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves’ [quotation marks are his, though it’s really more of a paraphrase than a quote], I find it quite sad that they would attempt to take such a choice away from the people of Salt Lake. [Again, he’s assuming facts not in evidence. In fact, no one at this press conference ever suggested it was church authorities who put pressure on Madstone; that’s Cox’s assumption.] I truly hope that we will be allowed to screen this movie and give people the opportunity to discuss the issues it raises and to judge its ‘artistic merits’ for themselves.”

All of this is extremely disingenuous on Cox’s part. He doesn’t believe for a minute that the church really does have a “newfound tolerance for gay members”; his movie indicates his opinion is that this alleged tolerance is a load of crap! So why should he be surprised that a community full of Mormons doesn’t want to show his movie?

Scott Tobias, film critic for The Onion A.V. Club, sums up the controversy perfectly in his review: “Why would Mormons want to see a movie that doesn’t pay their faith a shred of respect, instead painting them as repressed, hateful, criminally unfashionable polygamists? Writer-director C. Jay Cox and his distributor are crying censorship, but they’re really trying to have it both ways: They release a movie that belittles a community, and then express outrage when that community doesn’t want to show it.”

The film not only makes the church out to be intolerant, bull-headed and abusive, but it distorts reality in order to do so! You could stick with the truth and still paint the LDS Church as being pretty intolerant, but apparently that wasn’t enough for Cox, who wanted the church to look downright mean. Even in matters unrelated to homosexuality, he distorts things to make the church appear worse than it is, as in a missionary discussion scene where blacks’ and women’s status in the church are brought up, only to have the missionaries make insensitive, poorly worded responses that no real missionary would ever say.

I get that Cox is no longer a fan of the LDS Church. He has made that clear, both in the film and elsewhere. But I believe in every instance that one ought to stick to the truth in fighting one’s opponents. Exaggerations and misrepresentations only work for as long as your audiences believe them. Once the truth comes out, your position is weakened.

Last summer I wrote a “Snide Remarks” column criticizing Andrea Lafferty and her ultra-conservative Traditional Values Coalition for distorting facts in order to make homosexuals look evil. Now here’s a homosexual doing the same thing back to the conservatives. I hope everyone’s enjoying the battle, because at this rate, neither side’s ever going to make any progress.