Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dutcher’s Howl
          I remember physically flinching when I read Ginsberg’s “Howl.” My breathing changed, my heartbeat quickened, and as much as I wanted to greedily dive into the feast of language, Ginsberg didn’t let me take freely. Like Aladdin’s booby trapped cave of wonders, distracting treasures hid dangerous things that couldn’t be taken without also taking the inevitable consequences, only there was no redeeming Jinni in the end.
          As I read the poem, I perceived a story of deeply religious yearning and faith wasting, desiccating over the sterile, barren ground of existential despair and a wasteland of shattered American ideals:  “and blew the suffering of America's naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio”
          I heard the same cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” in Richard Dutcher’s film, Falling. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
          At the April 27th “premier” (though originally released January 18th 2008 and brought “out of the vault” four years later) at the Broadway Centre Theatre in Salt Lake City, I watched and listened carefully, trying to understand why he would say this film was “my most personal, most favorite, why I became a filmmaker.” If I were to understand that he also might mean this was his best, I would have to agree—though I don’t ignore the beauty, depth and sheer art in God’s Army, Brigham City, and States of Grace.
          The story centers on Eric Boyle (director/actor Richard Dutcher), an aspiring scriptwriter and filmmaker who struggles to make ends meet chasing and competing for footage of police scanner tragedies on the streets of Los Angeles. His wife (Davey Boyle) Virginia Reece is an aspiring actress who “wants to be a star more than anything…the biggest fucking star in the whole world!” and is willing to do anything to get there.
          Falling isn’t the first falling-from-grace movie where the protagonist suffers a profound disillusionment and loss of faith in long held ideals, setting him on a journey to tragedy or personal destruction. Some say it’s a deep movie but don’t venture to go any further in explaining why. To understand what might make it unique and set it apart from other movies of the same subgenre one would have to have a little deeper glimpse into the Mormon mind and heart.
          Eric Boyle profits on other’s suffering. He witnesses the agony of physical trauma and can’t ignore the mental, spiritual and emotional devastation that comes with it. He’s well aware that his films contribute to a twisted form of passive entertainment for a corrupt American society—a business his best friend and coworker had died for, leaving behind a grieving widow and a little boy. For a “latter day saint,” a modern disciple of Christ, in spite of his “inactivity,” conflict is inevitable on many levels—which in no way ignores but recognizes and seeks to enhance the common human sympathy any person would or should (ideally) feel for another regardless of religion, culture etc.
            The Book of Mormon is very specific about the covenants a person makes at baptism. If a person is

 “…desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
Yea, and are to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?” (Mosiah 18:8-10)

Boyle would see himself exploiting others for gain, violating those basic covenants he had once cherished and even taught to others as a missionary. He wouldn’t be able to maintain an existence with one foot in “Zion” and the other in the “world.” Eventually he would have to choose. He would have to repent, which would mean leaving behind his cash cow, or he would have to embrace the exploitation of others, callusing over his guilt by saying to himself it’s all hypocrisy anyway. The world is what it is. That’s reality. Therefore it all must be a lie. It’s time to grow up and put aside innocent, childish ideals and live in the real world. The crisis moment would be very painful. A walk back to the savior would seem far longer than to simply embrace what he truly loves. To turn back would be to lie to himself.

“No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13)

Another major compromise comes along when he takes a screenplay he’d dedicated months to perfect to a sleazy movie producer. With bikini-clad women in the background, the producer dismisses the screenplay and starts into a speech saying, if he wanted “raw and violent,” he’d “get Tarantino and Scorsese.” He wanted Boyle to give him something he’d “never seen before.” He wanted to be “shocked” and “offended.” Shock the people, then “they’ll remember your name.” Boyle couldn’t just show blood and broken bones, he had to expose the “marrow” in the bones. “…rape and kill a kid, then I’ll give you some money.”
Not long after a new scene shows Boyle typing the title of a new screenplay: “Marrow.”

"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous,
and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow
the admonition of Paul - We believe all things, we hope all things,
we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all
things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or
praiseworthy, we seek after these things
." (Joseph Smith, 13th article of faith)

The major realization he’d come to a crossroads is when he witnesses a murder he had the power to stop. Instead of reaching for the gun his boss had given him, he grabs his camera. The night the footage airs on the news, footage he was paid twenty thousand dollars for, he stays up late reflecting on his childhood, looking at a photo of himself as a young, innocent, idealistic boy. He reflects on his days as a missionary (Here flash scenes from God’s Army.) baptizing people he’d taught the gospel of Jesus Christ to, believing in the righteousness of his service to God, and probably taking great joy and comfort in his personal relationship with his savior. Turning to his increasingly distant wife for comfort, he sheds tears.
“I’m so far off. I’m falling,” he says. Davey reminds him of the twenty thousand dollars he’d made. He went on, saying, “I used to be such a different person. I used to pray. I don’t even pray anymore. I used to be a missionary.” He admits he could have helped the man who’d been murdered. When he says, “We’re not supposed to be like this; I’m not supposed to be like this,” she changes her attitude and coldly leaves him to grieve alone.
The story has enough background on Boyle’s life for the audience to see he hasn’t been completely faithful to his life’s mission as a “latter day saint.” He still follows some of the notable outward expressions of faith, such as keeping the Word of Wisdom by not drinking alcohol, but it’s become clear by his own choices he’s brought himself to this crisis of faith.
What’s seems not to be quite clear is if he had married another faithful latter day saint. The night he turned to her in tears, he said, “You wouldn’t understand.” It’s common for a member of the church to seek, if possible, to be “sealed” to his or her spouse by special authority for time and all eternity in the temple. Ideally, this would assume that both the man and the woman had been faithful to their baptismal covenants, especially being committed to being chaste before hand, meaning they abstained from sexual relations until after the marriage ceremony.

The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

While Boyle is off compromising his faith and standards to pursue his big, worldly, dreams, recording a murder he could have stopped, Davey is pursuing big, worldly dreams of her own. She wants to be a movie star. Her moment comes when she’s called in to audition for an independent film that would require nudity and sex scenes.

“The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

She is called in to stand before the camera and read some lines. “You’re fantastic! You don’t have to read again,” says one of the men behind the camera. Davey beams. Then comes the left hook; they want to see how she looks without her clothes on before they “make a final decision.” She begins by unbuttoning her shirt. The scene switches to the rapt, almost salivating men behind the camera—not failing to mention the woman authoritatively telling her to remove her underwear and turn around. Davey’s on the verge of crying. “She’s perfect,” they say. “Like the girl next door.” The scene switches to a moment with her alone in the dressing room in tears.
Jerry, probably the director, follows her out the door. “Davey! You got it! They love you! You got the part!”
Celebrating, she throws her arms around him…and kisses him passionately on the lips.
A profound, reoccurring symbolism takes place in the form of the appearances of young boys. The first is when Boyle arrives at the scene of a jumper/suicide. He watches a woman reporter coax a small boy through the crowd gathering around the smashed and blood-spattered body. She signals the camera man to record, sensationalizing the moment the sheet is lifted and the mess is exposed to the boy, who, up until that moment, had probably been innocent of such tragedy and death. She exploits his shock and terror.
Another scene is after Boyle records the murder, he’s shaken and becomes reflective. He sees a Jewish father tenderly spending time with his son. Boyle seems to long for a child of his own, for his family to grow.
When Boyle goes back to visit the widow and son of his best friend who’d been killed on the job, he takes the son on an outing for the day. They pass the time at the Los Angeles temple grounds, scattering birds and picnicking in the beautiful gardens. The moment is sweet and seems to illustrate a return to the peace and safety of the innocence Boyle had cherished but forgotten. They pause before a statue of Christ, a reproduction of the famous Christus statue, originally crafted in 1821 by the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, a statue that has become an important symbol of the resurrected savior for the Mormon faith. A sister missionary reads the following scripture:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This scene seems to give hope for Boyle, that his heart has been broken, and perhaps he might repent and turn to the savior for rest from his trouble heart. Unbeknownst to him the murderers he’d captured on camera are pursuing him, brutally tracking him down.
When he returns home, he accidentally spills the contents of a broken garbage bag and discovers his wife’s pregnancy test. He sees she’d tested positive. His joy increases as he believes he’s about to become a father. For a Latter Day Saint, that means something deeply sacred and profound. It means he will be taking part in the great eternal plan, that he will have posterity in the Lord, posterity that won’t end but continue on through the eternities. That tiny baby means everything, a deeply sacred hope.

“And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise…in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by…to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:9)

“We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed. We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God’s eternal plan.
Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3)…” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)

When Davey comes home, Boyle greets her with a celebration, a cake, balloons, and what seems to be a (possibly non-alcoholic) bottle of sparkling grape juice. The celebration sweetens as he takes her to the couch and tenderly kisses her belly. He tells her he found the pregnancy test. She begins to cry.
She says, “I’m not pregnant.”
He looks at her nonplussed.
She says, “I was pregnant…It wasn’t a baby…just a little bit of stuff…only six weeks along.”
He realizes she’d been lying to him, as she becomes more mean and defiant. “You didn’t have a meeting,” he says.
“I had an abortion today.”
The scene intensifies, both of them weeping. She tries to leave as his horror and grief continues to grow. “You killed my baby over a movie!”
“I’m not sure it was yours,” she says coldly.
His passion of horror and grief turns to violence as his world shatters around him. His ideals, the sanctity of the family, the sacred glory of children, all wiped away by her betrayal; the essence of wrong and right vanish in a murderous rage. He nearly chokes her unconscious.
Central to Mormon thought is the understanding that we leave the presence of a loving father in heaven to come here, passing through a veil, forgetting all our premortal existence. This earthly, mortal existence away from the presence of God is literally a spiritual death. We’re sent here free agents to do as we choose, but because of this freedom, we’re absolutely responsible for all our choices and the consequences thereof. God isn’t responsible for the sins of man. He doesn’t will the horrors, murders, wars, outrages, suffering, betrayal, even accidents and misunderstandings caused by man. Whether or not he intervenes, it’s to his own purposes, which for the most part still remain a mystery unless revealed.
But he does reveal his will through revelation and inspiration, through prophets, and a universal guiding influence or light Mormons refer to as the “light of Christ,” which isn’t to be confused with the guidance and whispering of the Holy Ghost. Whether a “latter day saint” or not, every human being is capable of being influenced by this light of Christ which guides God’s children to increasingly greater light in this world.
On the other hand, Satan and his dark influence is just as real and active, distracting, confusing, deceiving and carefully leading God’s children away from this light, this special influence from our father in heaven.
Boyle would also know that God is both Just and merciful. His plan is that we all will inevitably be brought back to his presence to be judged according to the light and understand we were given in this world. No unclean thing can be in his presence. Therefore he provided a savior to atone for our sins. Through him physical death is overcome by means of the resurrection; through him spiritual death is overcome by having paid the price for our sins. The only thing He requires of us is to repent and forsake our sins (sin no more) and turn to him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, keep his commandments and endure to the end.
Boyle, if he were in his right mind (spiritually speaking) he would recognize that everything that had gone wrong in his life was either due the consequences of his own choices or the choices of others. Not God. That’s the true “reality” of this life—“reality” seeming to be the buzz word associated with this movie. Boyle, at this point, ideally would have recognized this reality. You can’t trust in man, only in the redeeming graces of God, even if God doesn’t make all the consequences of our decisions magically go away. Whether or not we repent, the consequences of our actions are irreversible, even possibly reverberating into the eternities. Our lives are inseparably tied to the eternities. That’s why we need a savior and redeemer.

“…neither trust in the arm of flesh” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:19)   
          Boyle leaves his wife behind in a rage. When he discovers the murder of his boss, by then he also discovers he’s being pursued by the murderers he’d caught on camera. He sees they have his address. Once again he’s made a terrible mistake—one terrible mistake and personal decision leading to another. He tries desperately to reach his wife who, caught up in the cause and effect of her own choices, finds herself between a knock at the door and the ring of the phone. She chooses to answer the door. By the time Boyle returns it’s too late. He finds her hanging from the chandelier, dead.
          Though for this scene (and many other in the movie) which the acting alone could be nominated for awards, an analysis of the way it was made is very deserving; but staying within the dimension of Mormon thought, the tragic emotional wound of finding his wife hanging and being unable to resuscitate her, especially after such a horrible marital crisis and then all if it being left unresolved for him in this lifetime, Boyle, instead of recognizing his own responsibility in the events leading up to that moment, he throws all responsibility to the heavens with one terrible look and says, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” –recall the sleazy producer that said “shock them and they’ll remember your name.” This scene, indeed, would be shocking to some with certain understanding and faith.
          Here the character parts ways from such tragic characters as Job and Joseph Smith. Where Job, after losing everything important to him in his life, his riches, his family, his health, his dignity, he never once chose to “curse God and die.” The one thing he held, even as he held no promise that his own life would continue much longer, or of any physical restoration in this lifetime, he held his faith in God and a recognition that in all God’s dealings through the eternities, he’s just and merciful. He sought comfort in the only place left that it could be found.    

          “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

          When Joseph Smith was unjustly held in the jail at Liberty, Missouri through the worst of the winter months, (December 1838 – April 1839) he and his companions suffered filth, sickness, hunger, outrages from guards, and were helpless to act on the news of the horrors and outrages committed by the mobs against the saints in Missouri, including the famous “extermination order” issued by governor Boggs. Falling into the darkest of sorrow, Smith pleaded with the lord:

           “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?  How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-3)

            The lord answered him, revealing the purposes of such suffering in his life. This revelation has also meant understanding in the worldly suffering of every latter day saint since, especially the suffering that comes uninvited by our own actions, but is simply due conditions of the chaos and unpredictability of this life. 

“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? ...fear not what man can do, for God will be with you for ever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-9)

Boyle descends to attempted suicide, which he couldn’t bring himself to pull off, but then makes good on his “fuck you” to God and goes into a bar and has his first drink of alcohol. As he leaves the bar, he seems to turn his rage and grief toward the thing loved and which had driven his life to that point, his cameras. As he smashes them into a dumpster, his wife’s killers attack him. He’s pierced in the side by a knife, but manages to fight them off in a vicious, bloody contest of life and survival.
He gets the best of his last attacker by hitting him with a brick. As the gangster lay stunned, Boyle straddles him and continues to pound the man’s face in murderous passion with the brick. Images of all that led to that moment, images of his wife, flash through his mind.
When he looks up, he sees a boy holding a soccer ball and staring in horror, but it’s not just any neighborhood kid. The boy represents his innocence. This is where the film dives completely into the symbolic realm as Boyle staggers to his feet and tries to reach out to the boy. The boy runs, birds fly, and Boyle stumbles after him, the boy alluding him at every turn. Bleeding from his pierced side, blood dripping from his hands and splashing onto his feet, Boyle manages to reach the Christus statue on the Los Angeles temple grounds.
He falls before the statue, an unseeing, unhearing, silent block of stone, and his cry, “Help Me!” turns into a guttural, pleading, agonizing wail de profundis, a wordless “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? Why art Thou so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?” (Psalms 22:1)

He finally falls by the side of the road, the boy gone for ever, the birds having flown away and the scene turns to darkness and the sweet sound of chirping birds into the credits.
As the credits ended and the dim yellow lights shone on the blank screen, people applauded, stretched, spoke and whispered amongst themselves, and I couldn’t help but ponder on a few last scriptures. Before the very “foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), there was an event that would determine the direction of the history of mankind for the eternities. God stood in the midst of his children and presented his great plan and declared, “…we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abraham 3:24-25) It was a time when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Though the stakes were high, and some wouldn’t return; some would fall; those who stayed faithful to the end would “have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” Abraham (3:26)
God had made it clear that because man would be free to choose and fall, justice would have to be satisfied, a saving atonement was essential to his plan. For the atonement to work, mankind would need to turn to the savior with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and keep his commandments and endure to the end. Some wouldn’t accept it out of choice. Even then, in the preexistence, a third of the hosts of heaven didn’t accept it. When Lucifer stood and spoke out in contrary to God’s plan, he said, “…I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost….” (Moses 4:1) I can imagine implied in that statement, at least as a deceptive argument to those he wanted to influence, he might have said, “It’s not fair.”
Implied in Boyle’s “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” was that existential question, if God were so just and merciful, then why doesn’t he end the terrible suffering in this world? Why doesn’t He, who had created the world we stand on, and had commanded the tempest, “peace, be still,” simply say the word and end all war, hunger, prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.? Why can’t you answer me?
The answer isn’t blowing in the wind. It’s not in Boyle’s howl to God beneath the dead, unanswering statue. It’s in the understanding that he cannot take away our freedom to choose or He would cease to be God. Even the savior himself, as he hung agonizing and dying on the cross, experienced that silence as the presence of the father withdrew, causing him to cry out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”
I ask, Boyle, art thou greater than he?