Monday, August 10, 2009

Notes from the Richard Dutcher talk

I attended a talk by Richard Dutcher this past Sunday at a local Unitarian church. It was totally worth it. I took copious notes, which I have synthesized below. Be warned, it's long! But for those of you who aren't interested in reading all the details, here's a 64-word synopsis of the main message I took away. This may not have been the message Richard intended to convey, but it's what struck me most powerfully.

The search for truth will necessarily lead you down paths you never could have expected. In this search, a real artist must be willing to open the doors that he is afraid to open. In doing so, he will discover more about himself and about ultimate reality than he could have thought possible. It is a difficult journey, but the only journey worth making.

That's Richard Dutcher looking sophisticated and me looking goofy. Here are my notes from the talk. Everything in boldface is a direct quote; everything else is my own words.

Richard started out by asking whether anyone had ever had the experience of preparing a talk, only to discover two minutes beforehand that you don't actually like it. This happened to him, so he delivered page one of the "old talk" (that part wasn't so bad, in his opinion) and then decided to wing it.

In an email to an LDS friend, Richard encouraged him to attend this talk, saying, This historic speech will rock the very foundation of civilization and will be known as the turning point in the evolution of human spirituality. But apparently the friend had to babysit in primary instead.

The first movie Richard ever saw was The Cowboys, starring John Wayne, at age 7 or so. The reason he didn't see any movies before then was because he was raised Pentecostal and it wasn't allowed. TV was okay for some reason. When his mother married his stepfather, a Mormon, he discovered that Mormons were allowed to watch movies. A great benefit! He fell in love with movies and watched everything he possibly could.

An embarrassing moment, trying to get in to see The Exorcist while underage. The cashier asked, "Do you have ID?" Richard responded that he had forgotten it. The cashier grabbed his wallet, which Richard had set down, and Richard said, "Oh, there's one!" One of the most embarrassing things he's ever said.

The Holy Ghost was far better behaved in the Mormon church than in the Pentecostal church. Also, the story of Joseph Smith's martyrdom was the coolest story ever. They took him to jail, then they shot him, then he fell out a window, then they shot him some more. What a story!

Deciding whether to go on a mission, Richard really wanted to head to Hollywood instead. No one could convince him otherwise. Then he saw Return of the Jedi. He had a change of heart and decided that going on a mission was the right thing to do. It's all George Lucas's fault. (Incidentally, this reminded me of my own experience when I saw God's Army, which I mentioned to Richard later. I guess I can say it's all Richard Dutcher's fault I joined the LDS church.)

He almost made it two whole years on a mission in Mexico without seeing a movie. But he couldn't hold out, and went to see Splash. It was like giving a bowl of soup to a man who hasn't eaten for a week. He thought it was an outstanding movie that should be nominated for every award in the book. He convinced his companion to go see Police Academy after that, but 30 minutes into it, the companion was convinced Satan was in the theater, so they had to leave. If I ever meet Satan, I'm going to ask him how it ended.

After the mission, Richard went to Hollywood and spent some time writing vampire stories and other stuff that didn't make it big. His first movie Girl Crazy was where he learned filmmaking, and it took five years of his life, but the movie itself had no lasting importance. He wanted to make movies that would tell his story, say something important, something to be proud of.

When someone once asked a famous writer, "What do you think about X?" the writer responded, "I don't know, I haven't written about it yet." They all say "write what you know" but what we know is boring to us. So we avoid it, but we can't get by just writing vampire stories. Richard realized that no one had made a movie about what it's like to be a Mormon missionary, and that was his story.

He wrote about ten revisions of God's Army, and found himself weeping at times because it opened up thoughts and feelings that he didn't realize were unprocessed. His wife reviewed it and said, "It's good, but there's not enough of you in it." Finally, he decided to make the story his own and no one else's. I don't care if President Hinckley likes this movie.

At Q&A sessions, everyone always asked, "What does the church think about the movie?" He never knew how to respond until once he said, I don't know... you're the church; what do you think? Elder Haight's wife was in the audience and applauded his answer. So that was how he answered that question from then on.

He thought for sure he would get in trouble for the scene in which a missionary is reading "anti-Mormon" stuff and says, "What if they all know it's a lie? Damn them to hell!" But no one made a peep about that scene. They were all upset at the scene where a missionary is on the toilet. Apparently missionaries do not go to the bathroom. But I was a missionary, and I knew different!

Suddenly Richard was being compared to Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bresson; and he had never heard of them. He started exploring Tarkovsky's idea that film is its own language. It's not theater, not music, not photography. What is its nature? It's perhaps the medium where you can come closest to seeing the soul of the filmmaker. He doesn't particularly like Tarantino movies, because those movies show no soul.

He carries around a piece of paper with about 30 good ideas for stories that fascinate him. Subjects that interest him but he hasn't figured out yet. I probably shouldn't tell you guys this, but he is currently working on a project dealing with the prostitution problem in 1908 in Salt Lake City. Murders, how the culture responded to the problem, etc. Fascinating stuff.

Normally when Richard makes a movie, he loves to see a packed house. After the premiere of Falling, though, there was something so intensely personal about it that he had a strong impulse to go up to the projection room, take the film away and never show it to anyone again. It's like baring your soul for the world to see. If people don't like his other movies, that's no problem. But if they don't like this movie, they don't like me.

My notes get much more fragmented at this point. I think this is when the Q&A period began. The first question was about how Mormonism has shaped his storytelling, and Richard said that just after he finished up his talk, he realized he hadn't really touched on his journey through Mormonism at all!

No other art form besides film has such an ability to express a human soul. Art can transcend the specifics that normally prevent communication. Barriers of time and place. One person two hundred years ago in Africa can speak directly to someone right here, right now.

There's no arriving. When I made God's Army, I thought I had arrived. And I was so wrong.

Directors he would recommend: Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes.

I don't say I lost my faith. I say I lost my belief.

These virtues that religions coopt don't belong to them. They belong to humanity. Things like love, kindness, honesty, etc. They were not invented by religion and they are not exclusive to religion.

His spiritual journey has taught him to have humility about his own beliefs. He is no longer adamant that his own point of view is the correct one. I was so very wrong and so very sure.

It is very difficult to change one's beliefs, and it took a long time to deal with it. Who did this to me? Or did I do it to myself? He had a transcendent experience looking up at the Lincoln Memorial.

About whether the Joseph Smith story is on the list of ideas for stories he still wants to tell: Yes, I have to tell it. That's unfinished business. But you won't know about it until it's done. Someone interjected, "Which version?" Richard responded, "My version."

Why do Mormons struggle with creating good movies? Richard suspects that Mormons struggle because a real artist is searching for truth, and that will necessarily lead them out of Mormonism. There are some doors that dare not be opened. But as an artist, you need to go through those doors.

He told a Buddhist parable he recently read, about a man who was journeying through a forest and came to a wide river. He constructed a boat, which allowed him to cross safely. Once he reached the other side, he was faced with a choice. He was grateful for the boat because it had helped him on his journey. Should he therefore pick up the boat and carry it with him on his back? Or could he instead simply express his gratitude and move on? For Richard, Mormonism is like the boat. It helped him when he needed it, and he is grateful. But he has said goodbye and moved on.

I think this might be where I raised my hand and asked my own question. I started by saying that God's Army was my Return of the Jedi, and that it helped me decide that I should join the LDS church. I quickly followed up with, "But don't feel bad about that!" and everyone laughed. I asked Richard whether it has been difficult to deal with friends and family who are still believers, and how he deals with it. Then I quickly sat down, because although I don't normally get nervous when speaking, even in front of large groups of people, I realized that for some reason I was starting to shake violently.

I didn't hear much of Richard's answer, because I was too busy thinking about how weird it was that I was so nervous. But I think he said that it's not too much of a problem dealing with LDS friends because most of them don't want to talk to him at all. I think he said he tends not to talk religion with them, and if they want to know more about what he thinks about that, they can read about it in the paper.

Films with plenty of spirituality: Blue Angel, The Bicycle Thief, It's a Wonderful Life, To Live by Ozu. Trying to think of a modern example. The best he could come up with was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I wish someone would ask me a question like, "How does it feel to kill a person on-screen?" What about when the death is implied, off-screen? How does it feel? This is a very important kind of question to ask.

Richard thinks that when people see Evil Angel, they may think it contradicts what he's saying in this talk, but it doesn't. In filmmaking, one is always trying to come to greater understanding; what you are continually creating is yourself. Experiment! If there are brushes in your box that you "shouldn't use", then you should definitely use them! You will learn. Either you will learn why you shouldn't have used them and will never use them again, or you will learn that the people who told you not to use them were full of crap. Either way, you have learned something valuable.

So that's the synopsis. I apologize for the disjointedness of it. It's the best I could do in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute. Oh yeah, and after I left, I realized that although I went up and shook Richard Dutcher's hand after the talk was done, I never properly introduced myself. Richard, if you ever read this, my name is Mike. It was nice to meet you.


atimetorend said...

Nice write up, didn't intend to, but yep, read it all. I had actually never heard of Richard Dutcher previously.

I liked this note, which I think puts a very positive and accurate spin on changing beliefs:

"I don't say I lost my faith. I say I lost my belief. These virtues that religions coopt don't belong to them. They belong to humanity. Things like love, kindness, honesty, etc. They were not invented by religion and they are not exclusive to religion."

Saganist said...

Thanks, atimetorend! I agree, I think that was one of my favorite parts of the whole talk. Many people seem to take for granted that the only way to be a good person is to be religious, but I tend to think that being religious and being a good person are orthogonal concepts.

Lady Wisdom said...

I just want to say thanks for posting all your notes and I appreciate the time it took to do it. I really enjoyed reading them tonight.

Elaine said...

Thanks so much for linking to this! Yes that was the talk to which I was referring, which my Mom actually was able to make it to while I relaxed making breakfast with my wife. :) This write-up gave me a great summary!

Saganist said...

Thanks, Lady Wisdom! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks, Elaine! I'm glad you got to have your breakfast and eat it too. :-)

green mormon architect said...

At Q&A sessions, everyone always asked, "What does the church think about the movie?" He never knew how to respond until once he said, I don't know... you're the church; what do you think?

This is FANTASTIC. Thanks for sharing.

Saganist said...

Green Mormon Architect, you're welcome!

Corey Wride said...

Hey Mike - just browsing and saw your picture with Richard Dutcher. Corey from Attensity, nice to run into you on the web!

Saganist said...

Hey Corey! Sorry I never approved your comment - I just saw it for the first time a few minutes ago.