DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Latter Days, God’s Army, September Dawn, Saved , Save Me, Adam & Steve

Title:  Latter Days

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 110 Min

MPAA Rating:  Not yet available (probably “R”)

Distributor and Production Company:  TLA Releasing, FunnyBoy Pictures

Director; Writer: C. Jay Cox

Producer:

Cast:   Wesley A. Ramsey, Steve Sandvoss, Jacqueline Bisset, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mary Kay Place, Amber Benson

Technical: 35mm, dolby digital

Relevance to Doaskdotell site: homosexuality and the church

Review:

 

This film provided the closing night event for the Washington, D.C. ReelAffirmations GLBT film festival in the historic Lincoln Theater in the Cardoza neighborbood. It is a serious dramatic film, compared to a lot of GLBT film festival stuff, and it ought to find a substantial mainstream “arthouse” audience. I said as much to the Director in the QA, and he indicated that he would be happy with a big GLBT audience first. But films like this DO need a bigger audience. I hope this film CAN be mailed as free samples to MPAA Academy members after the dust settles on that controversy, for it has real Oscar potential. And, given the platform commercial release scheduled for this winter, it probably will take some effort for critics to see.

 

The title gives away the subject matter. “Latter,” of course, refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Church. “Days” is accidentally, at least, an effective title word here, because in 1995 Kathryn Bigelow had directed the sensational Y2K thriller, Strange Days.

 

The logline is simple enough. A young Mormon missionary, Aaron (Steve Sandvoss) away from home (Pocatello, Idaho) for the first time in big, bad L.A. falls in love with a gay showbiz and waiter neighbor Christian (Wes Ramsey), and then gets caught and faces the full wrath of the Mormon church, including an excommunication trial, suicide attempt (that leads to a false ending) and attempted aversion reparative therapy. Okay, I have to talk about the ending here to vent all the issues.

 

In the early 1990s there was another, network TV film about Mormon missionaries, and the name escapes me now (a reader can email it to me and I’ll put it in here). In that film, one of the missionaries had a serious medical problem. This new film does document what is expected of missionaries. They have paid their own way, yet the Church owns a lien on their lives. They are never allowed to be alone, and not allowed television or other amusements. They go door to door to proselytize their religious faith, in an age that hates unsolicited telemarketing phone even more than door to door salesmen.  Here the direction of the plot is much more controversial.

 

But, rather than focus just on the church and homosexuality, this is a good place to ask what the real motives of the people in the church are. At his stark excommunication hearing in the Ward back in snowy Pocatello, Aaron is asked why he would insult his church, his biological family, and particularly his ancestors. Aaron rebuts skillfully, that one of his ancestor had engaged in polygamy. (I recall in the Army a fellow soldier who had converted to Mormonism and used to spend time in the barracks drawing genealogy charts.) But, why is this whole thing about ancestors and biological family so crucial?

 

Of course, Mormonism has a fascinating theology (which some even conservative Christians view as a cult), and it has led to a largely self-sufficient sub-nation that installs strong moral values and takes care of its own needy. Along these lines, it seems as though the filmmakers could have presented more background material about the Mormon church. For example, all the steps of entering the priesthood, and the notion of eternal marriage could be documented. Of course, this goes against the reluctance in film screenwriting of presenting too much “information” it that slows down the story or character development. What matters here is not just a religious doctrine that the faithful is not allowed to question. It is why, from a psychological perspective, the doctrine needs to suppress freedom and individuality the way it does.  A couple of points are clear. One is that maintenance of family and lineage is the one thing in life that most ordinary people can accomplish. An individual (Aaron) who takes it upon himself to satisfy his own psychological needs at the expense of his family is presumably demeaning the whole scheme of psychological fulfillment (“family values,” especially in the context of Mormon “eternal marriage”) necessary for most people. Aaron’s rather Clark-Kent-like protestations to his mother (Mary Kay Place) that this is just “who he is” only feeds the anger, resentment, and revulsion of the family that feels it is tainted. (She is particularly insulted because Aaron implies that he can find love without needing women.) The other point is that the whole idea of a community’s ability to take care of its needy is put at risk. The needy and the sick become perceived as a “burden” in a more competitive, radically individualistic society that Aaron has discovered and wants to join. In sum, the church seems to be fighting the reduction in valuation of the family as a personal motive when its young people enter the competitive outside world. For example, what if Aaron subsequently does succeed fending for himself in Hollywood, has a website advertising his success set up (of even a television show or movie), and other Mormon teens in his own community discover him this way? What happens to his old community then? Maybe another point is that the whole system of personal authority among the leaders of his former Mormon community is put at risk—supposedly justified by its compulsory moral and somewhat socialistic foundation—if he is allowed to desert publicly. Does he owe the community that raised him loyalty before he goes out on his own? His parents seem to think so.

 

So Aaron will solve his problem in the end by moving across parsecs to another planet, at least figuratively. (One thinks of the different dominions in Mormon theology, like the Telestial.) His new society, however, will work out its own community limits (to some extent it already has). He is essentially forced to desert his family, and that seems like a moral problem it self, but the family would not let him be who he wanted to be. So the movie invites a sequel. I like the idea that other members of his own community learn about him from the media. (So maybe it’s not another planet!)

 

Yet, even before his transition, Aaron comes across both as the most charismatic of the young missionaries living together in the apartment, and as a moral focus for Christian, precisely because he has been brought up with strict moral values. Christian, in the mean time, has desperately been trying to pay his dues by delivering meals to a shut-in and very cantankerous person with AIDS with rather obvious Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

 

Aaron’s story of expulsion and attempted conversion bears some basic similarity to my own (1961 expulsion from the College of William and Mary for apparent homosexuality and mild reparative therapy attempted at NIH in 1962). In 1983 I had the opportunity to visit an entire Mormon Temple in Dallas before it opened (new temples are open to the public for a short time only).

 

There are stories that communities in Utah are already trying to ban this film. The Mormon church has a morally inconsistent history, with Mormons first a victim of discrimination and then, for a time, noted for practices like racism and polygamy while still taking care of their own flock very well. In an interconnected world, communities like the Mormon church are bound to come into “conflicts between civilizations,” and they will have to get used to it.

 

The reader may want to check out the out-of-print book The Mormon Mirage (1988), by Latayne Colvet Scott.

 

I think that one could make a good franchise sequel to this movie (“Latter Days 2”) by showing what happens to Aaron, his boyfriend, and his former Mormon family once Aaron is out on his own and living, probably in LA.  He could set up a website and create publicity that has repercussions—that’s how I would structure the plot. This is a movie waiting to be made.

Another issue that could come up is filial responsibility laws if some catastrophe happens to his parents. Or could be be emancipated first?

 

One reader wrote back to me in March 2004 that the film was inherently unfair to the Mormon church, presented the excommunication proceedings in a melodramatic light, and claims that there is often repentance. Also, he comments, “I believe it's best not to mix controversial sexual subjects with conservative churches just to make a good story.” The reader also mentioned the 2000 film God’s Army, from Zion Films, dir. Richard Dutcher. I did see this film in 2000 myself. There are some great lines as the young men assembler for their mission, like when one of the elder’s says “You’re not here to help yourself, you’re here to do something for other people.”  Indeed, there is a sense of obligation, that freedom is to be earned. Or when one a girl says, “You’re men, but you’re nice.” But then one of them decides to leave, and another one gets sick. The denouement is not as shocking as the other film, but still strong.

 

Another reader writes: “I agree Latter Days Is Oscar Worthy  And I LOVE how the song MAN ON A MISSION Is SO obviously A MAN SINGING TO ANOTHER MAN AND CAN IN NO way be a mistaken for a hetero song speaking of music if there is a soundtrack  out there I want it all the music.”  

 

I can imagine a sequel: Aaron, on his own, joins the Army to get a scholarship, has to deal with “don’t ask don’t tell” but winds up in Army language school and then Iraq.

 

I have another speculation about a possible sequel on blogspot, at

http://billsmoviereviews.blogspot.com/2006/10/latter-days-and-gods-army-raises.html 

 

For the record, LDS’s own side of all this can be gleaned from http://family.mormon.org/

 

Note, below, the blogger link to a review of the PBS American Master’s Film, The Mormons.

 

Here, in fact, is what I wrote originally in 2000:

Another interesting film produced by a church in order to present its view is God’s Army (2000), from Zion Films, produced and written by Richard Dutcher, and starring Dutcher as Elder Dalton and Matthew Brown as the 19-year-old Elder Allen.  Zion, of course, represents the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Days Saints, the Mormons, and this film presents the life of young Mormon missionaries, who actually do two years missionary work, unpaid and even at their own expense, between high school and later college or career.  And, indeed, missionary work comes across as kind of informal conscription, with moral “pay your dues” overtones.

In fact, the film makes the case for its moral view rather compellingly. In an early scene, young Brown is told “you didn’t come here for yourself, you came here to do good for others.”  And here we have it, a moral question over “selfishness,” defining one’s purpose.  The world in which these young men live is a closed one, and the message is clear that God takes care of them, rather than their taking care of themselves.  Perhaps one believes that turning things over to God is the only way to higher Truth.  The film is actually very effective dramatically, because the characters themselves are interesting: Allen himself is quietly charismatic.  A number of the scenes are well done, as when what seems like an earthquake turns out to be a tragic medical incident on a lower bunk bed.  (In fact, the story resembles the 1985 cycling movie American Flyers).  The scene where young Allen prays is quite touching: a young man’s prayer rather than a child’s prayer (as intended by the slow movement of Beethoveb’s very first piano sonata, which I would have used here.)  So can one write a script to expostulate ideas and make it work as a “story.”  That works here, except that the Mormon world seems so closed.  I would have broadened the film with flashbacks, such as possibly with accounts of Mormon history.  And thanks to Carmike and other theater chains for showing this film. 

I’ll add that the film does demonstrate another example of non-military “unit cohesion” requiring non-sexual male bonding in close living quarters (a “poverty” apartment with a roach display). There is one scene where Dalton says, as the boys look down a waitress: “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.”  Indeed.  Heterosexism denied.  Those good Mormons carry their clean living to eliminating even caffeine; lemonade and rich food (there is a scene where greasy food is deliberately ordered, and most prophetic)—as I have discovered myself in Mormon-owned restaurants in Utah.  The male bonding was indeed non-erotic: the young men never even get their shirts off (they’re always in white shirts and ties), and they even belong to the garter stocking crowd, as scene in two comic scenes on the toilet (no Chucky underneath). 

Not explained is what happens to a man who never has the chance to marry (that is, in the Mormon doctrine of “eternal marriage” those who never marry become subservient).  Not mentioned is the Monday “family home evening.”

September Dawn (2007, Black Hawk / Slowhand, dir. Christopher Cain, 110 min, R, 1:85:1, Canada). The massacre of "gentile" pioneers at Mountain Meadow, Utah, 147 years to the date before the 9/11 attacks, at dawn on Friday, September 11, 1857 by a group of "fundamentalist Mormons" is a fact of history. The central axis of the story is the love story between eldest son Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford) of the Mormon bishop Jacob (Jon Voigt) and one of the gentile settlers Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope). Jonathan rejects the polygamy of the group: his younger brother Micah (Taylor Handley) already has three wives; the movie leaves unanswered the question of what happens to young men who wind up with no wives. Jacob even taunts his son, "You need a wife." Jonathan is determined to make up his own mind on moral matters, and incurs his father's wrath by questioning the "revealed" teachings and absolute authority of Joseph Smith. (In opening and closing sequences, Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) denies knowledge of the massacre.) The movie develops the Mormon paranoia of gentiles, especially those from Missouri, through flashbacks, of all the abuse of Mormons in the Midwest as they were chased west. In the opening, when the settlers pass through and want to pay for a place to stay, the Mormons insist on looking them over, fearing that they are spies. Jonathan, in fact, has been asked to spy on them and reports to his father that the settlers have no knowledge of the past abuses and are just ordinary Christians. Jonathan also proves that he can ride a wild horse sire of the settlers; he seems to bond to the animal that senses his moral integrity.

The massacre builds up in some stages, using native Americans at first (the pseudo-Mormon "tribe" first pretends to be "defending" the Christian transients from the Indians), but is horrifying, with women and children gunned down on camera. At the end, Jonathan and Emily face a "Romeo and Juliet" conclusion, although the plot takes one last twist that gives some home (a child that Emily had been caring for because of the childbirth death of another settler is a clue -- again, other people's kids turns out to be a lot element).

There is a lot of theology in the film. Jacob insists that some sins are not forgiven by Grace, but that the sinners must atone for their sins by being slain so that they can get into the Mormon version of heaven. 

This independent film is an odd combination of western genre and political and religious analogy. It is distributed by Slow Hand, a small company that specializes in films with very focused political or social appeal (like "Kids in America").  It is very professionally made (DGC), has stunning digital stereo and crisp photography (shot in Alberta) that looks like VistaVision (it is always in sharp focus and conveys a sense of depth), and is showing in major movie chains, apparently from Blu-Ray digital projection (the effect is similar to that of DLP).

Saved (2004, United Artists, dir. Brian Dannelly, 92 min, PG-13) presents a “TheWB” style young people’s drama – more specifically, a satire on teens trying to play out their Christian duties in a Christian school in Baltimore, the American Eagle school. From the getgo, this is a bit of a problem because the situations seem stilted and forced into Godspeak, in a way that breaks up any real beats in the story. The main “logline” of the plots seems to be: a Christian teen queen Hilary Faye (played by Mandy Moore) tries to “cure” a gay teen Dean (Chad Faust) by going to bed with him and – ooops!! – she starts throwing up with morning sickness and tests positive for pregnancy. Then the story wanders with the other characters, especially her wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone), bad girl Cassandra (Eva Amurri), Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) and his appealing son on the Christian skateboarding team Patrick (Patrick Fugit). There are some moments, such as Patrick’s “crucifixion.” But what I wanted to see was more about the stay of Dean at the no-mo-homo “Mercy House.” In the final confrontation at the prom, Dean shows up with his boyfriend, and finds out he will be a proud papa after all. Hooray for family values.  They could have capped this off with a wedding scene.

Save Me (2008, First Run Features, dir. Robert Cary, story by Craig Chester and Alan Hines, 94 min, R). Two men in an "ex-gay" church-run rehabilitation center in New Mexico meet and may fall in love. But the film is actually a balanced look at the ex-gay issue and thinking. Blogger.

Adam & Steve (2005, TLA/Funny Boy, dir. Craig Chester, 99 min, R). Well, the religious right says “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” So why not a comedy on this phrase, ending in a gay marriage? Indeed it does (although in New York I don’t think the marriage is legal yet). The story starts seventeen years before, in 1987, when the two meet at a rainbow drag show after snorting cocaine (the men with their shaved bodies are covered in fairy dust); Steve invites Adam back, and has an incontinence episode, dumping diarrhea pooh on the floor when Adam vomits. (They show the World Trade Center photo-ed back in). In 2004, they’re respectable: Adam (Craig Chester) is a Central Park guide, and Steve (Malcolm Gets) is a psychiatrist. They meet when Adam takes his dog, which he has accidentally stabbed, to the emergency room. Their affair gets going again. Now Steve, 36, looks, on close inspection, to have shaved his chest and let it grow back just a little for a grizzled look; it’s not too effective. Why is he living with a straight roommate Michael (Chris Kattan) who dates Rhonda (Parker Posey)? Both men meet their parents, which turns into a satire of “Meet the Fockers” perhaps, with plenty of situation comedy. In the end, though, this film is too puffy to add much. (There was an unrelated short called “Adam and Steve” from Malaysia in 2000.)  

Bad Education (which certainly would fit on this page) is reviewed on another file Mysterious Skin is also reviewed on that page.

 

Related reviews: The Trip   Luther  Five Lines Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House Dogma et al.  Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss   Gods and Monsters; Kinsey   Gerry; Elephant   Good Will Hunting  Bad Education and Mysterious Skin(important!!); Death in Venice; The Music Lovers  Far from Heaven  Advise and Consent  Chuck&Buck (Swimfan on that file), The Closet  Water Drops on Burning Rocks  Beefcake  The Next Best Thing  Boys Don’t Cry Dear Jesse Homo Heights; also Crash, Magnolia  OTHER MAJOR GLBT FILMS   OTHER OLDER GLBT FILMS   The Mormons (blogger)  Mormons Exposed (video interview)

 

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