Richard Dutcher leaves Mormon cinema and Mormonism

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Richard Dutcher in his upcoming film “Falling.”

Richard Dutcher, whose 2000 film “God’s Army” launched a new wave of Mormon-themed theatrical features, announced two things last week: that he’s leaving Mormon cinema, and that he’s leaving the Mormon church.

This is big news to followers of LDS cinema, and small news to people who didn’t realize there was such a thing as LDS cinema. But in Utah there has been no bigger film-related story in this decade than Mormon cinema — films made by, for, and about Mormons.

“God’s Army,” released March 10, 2000, was the first. Its $2.1 million gross showed Utah filmmakers that a movie with a niche audience (Mormons comprise only about 2 percent of the U.S. population) could be successful, provided they kept costs low and turned out a good product. Dutcher himself made the movement’s second entry, “Brigham City” (2001). By the end of 2003, 10 more non-Dutcher LDS films had been released, some good, some bad, some profitable, some not. As of this writing, another dozen or so entries have been filed, including Dutcher’s third film, “States of Grace” (2005), which is far and away the best of the lot and one of the best films of any kind of that year.

Most of these played only in Utah theaters. A few did well enough to move into other locations, mostly in the western U.S., where the highest concentration of Mormon audiences is. None ever managed to be the illusory “crossover success” that many directors were hoping for; in general, non-Mormons have shown no interest in watching movies they perceived as being for Mormons only.

But to Mormons, the movement was exciting and rejuvenating. Here were our own people, telling stories about us! And some of them were actually GOOD! The possibilities were endless: Mormon films could be nothing more than light entertainment, or they could inspire audiences with stories of faith and courage, or they could present important messages and themes. In other words, they could do the same things that Hollywood movies do, only from a Mormon perspective. If non-Mormons weren’t interested in them, fine. There are enough Mormons to sustain the genre.

The problem, as Dutcher writes in his farewell address that was published in the (Provo, Utah) Daily Herald on April 12, is that “diminishing quality has brought diminishing returns.” Many of the filmmakers that came along after Dutcher have sullied the marketplace, filling it with sub-par movies that have dramatically lessened the enthusiasm that audiences once felt for Mormon cinema. As a result, the genre has suffered, and the last batch of films have completely flopped at the box office.

Dutcher urges these filmmakers to do better, to learn from their mistakes, and to help the Mormon cinema movement live up to its potential.

“Stop trying to make movies that you think the General Authorities would like,” he writes, the general authorities being the leaders at the top of the LDS Church. “General Authorities buy very few movie tickets. Make films that the rest of the human family will enjoy. Stop being afraid that if you put something ‘edgy’ in your films then maybe you won’t get any important callings. Who cares? Someone else can be in the bishopric or the Relief Society presidency, but no one else can make those films, those very personal films, that only you can make.”

Dutcher ends his address by bowing out of Mormon cinema. He has two new movies, “Falling” and “Evil Angel,” finished and awaiting release, and evidently neither is Mormon-centric. He says he’s finished not just with Mormon cinema, but with the Mormon church:

“Mormon doctrines are powerful and beautiful and have given great meaning to my life for more than 30 years. [Dutcher’s family joined the LDS Church when he was a child, but he says his own personal conversion occurred when he was 14.] I’m sure they will always continue to inform not only my future work as a filmmaker, but also my private spiritual journey. But it does not appear that it will be my honor to make some of these films that the LDS community so desperately needs.”

He goes on to say:

“As many of you know, I am no longer a practicing member of the church. The private answers to the questions I have asked in my prayers, and in my films, have led me on an unexpected journey, a spiritual path which may ultimately prove incompatible with Mormon orthodoxy. This understanding has brought me some of the most profound surprises and also the deepest sadness of my life. It is very hard for me to say goodbye to something that I love.”

Now, I don’t know what this means. It sounds like wishy-washy bet-hedging to me, like when people say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” (I love comedian Daniel Tosh’s response to that: “I’m not honest, but you’re interesting!”) One of Mormonism’s central tenets is that, well, either it’s true or it’s not. Either The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “true” church acting on authority from God through direct revelation to his prophets — or it isn’t. Dutcher once espoused this black-and-whiteness, both in interviews and through his films.

I hasten to add, however, that I’ve always liked Dutcher, both as a filmmaker and as a person, and this doesn’t lessen my esteem for him. I’m just frustrated by the vagueness and floweriness of the paragraph I just quoted — in no small part because it’s the opposite of his movies, which are direct and unambiguous. Dutcher has always been a straight-shooter, and his adieu to Mormonism sound lofty, idealistic.

In other words: I’m not particularly concerned about Dutcher leaving the church. I just wish he could explain why in more practical terms. But oh well.

Some people have posted messages on the Daily Herald’s Web site in which they speculate — some even sound smugly certain of it — that the reason Dutcher is no longer an active Mormon is that he must have committed some grievous sin. I should point out, however (and I know this through personal experience, from when I wrote for the Herald), that the anonymous Utah Valley cowards who post messages on the Daily Herald’s Web site are generally petty, self-righteous, small-minded Pharisees. It’s certainly true that sinfulness is why lots of people leave lots of churches, but there’s no reason to assume that’s what happened with Dutcher. I’d rather be frustrated by his vague public declarations than satisfy my curiosity by coming up with an unjustified conclusion.

I once wrote an article for Irreantum, a literary journal published by the Association for Mormon Letters, discussing how Dutcher’s “States of Grace” and John Moyer’s “Mobsters and Mormons” reflect modern Mormonism in a real-world context. (You can read the article here.)

I talked about how both films depict Mormons as living among people of other religions, and how the movies don’t unrealistically paint all non-Mormons as misguided. Other faiths are treated as valid, positive systems in these movies. Then I said this:

“This acceptance of other religions doesn’t mean that Moyer and Dutcher are backing down from Mormonism’s assertion that it is the one true church. There is no ‘all paths lead to God’ wishy-washiness going on here. The films merely accept that in the real world there are good people of other faiths who, realistically speaking, are not going to convert to Mormonism anytime soon. The films don’t see a need to cast all non-Mormons as villains, or all villains as non-Mormons.”

With Dutcher’s announcement, I might have to rethink that. Maybe “States of Grace” had an “‘all paths lead to God’ wishy-washiness” after all. It is interesting how real-life events can change your perspective on a film … though “States of Grace” is STILL a great movie, and a Christian-faith-promoting one, regardless of whether Dutcher still goes to church now.

Dutcher hinted that he was moving away from Mormon orthodoxy in this interview with Christianity Today back in November. There was discussion at the time about what it all meant — Was Dutcher just downplaying his Mormonness for his general Christian audience? Had he been quoted out of context? — but now the matter seems to be settled.

Dutcher has often been an intense, impassioned speaker, critical of his colleagues’ lousy efforts. He speaks as the godfather of Mormon cinema, a position he deserves but which occasionally leads to his sounding a bit pretentious. He has been so devoted to his craft that it has impacted every aspect of his life, apparently right down to his spirituality.

I hope he finds happiness in his personal life, and I look forward to seeing his next films. Mormon cinema will go on, and he will only have contributed three films to it. But his contributions to the movement as a whole are monumental.

TOMORROW: The responses to Dutcher’s Daily Herald article, including an Oscar-winner flying off the handle.