Monday, April 16, 2007

Kieth Merrill On Richard Dutcher

Richard Dutcher's "parting words" to Mormon cinema -- and with it any
lingering allegiance to the LDS Church -- would be laughable if it
weren't so tragic. There is an old adage that suggests: "Never dignify
stupidity with a response." I should listen.

But hey! Dutcher flips off the films at the Legacy Theater and those
of us who created them.

My pointed retort is at the end of this note -- and Dutcher deserves every word.

With his latest tirade, Dutcher has become a wonderfully ugly poster
child for the pitfalls of Mormons who want to play in the movie
business but don't take seriously the warnings of scripture, prophets
and GOD -- that seeking "the honors of men" and "riches of the world"
are paths into darkness. Read apostasy. Dutcher's pompous
pronouncement is perfectly timed to spice up my commencement address
to the wannabe Mormon filmmakers in the BYU Department of Fine Arts
and Communications. [Friday, April 27, 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.]

I can't wait.

Dutcher has made five movies. One is pretty good. One is OK. The
others are mediocre, depending on your tolerance. The "rave reviews"
he loves to post on his Web site come from the same folks who praised
"The Departed" -- but Hollywood and its critics have long since
ignored redeeming social value as a criteria of quality and
entertainment that inspires as a measure of true brilliance.

The condescending tone and pretentious arrogance of this guy is
unbelievable. No self-image problem here. Or is it in fact the
opposite? Dutcher's reaction to his own failure and rejection by the
Mormon audience has obviously prompted him to take the stance that
everybody is out of step but him.

All of this started with Dutcher's second film, "Brigham City." When
Mormons stayed home rather than line up as they had for "God's Army"
-- and even dared suggest that the movie was "dark, disturbing and
inaccurate" rather than recognizing some deeper dimension of "honesty
revealed through edginess" -- Dutcher called the audience
unsophisticated, unenlightened, provincial and too narrowminded to see
themselves according to his unique genius. When Larry Miller pulled
funding for his Joseph Smith movie and no wealthy LDS stepped up with
the $10 million Dutcher wanted, he must have put a Post-It note on his
mirror: "Get even." Or more likely, "They just don't recognize my

Based on a conversation with someone who read Dutcher's "Joseph Smith"
script, we can all be grateful he never made that film. I met Dutcher
in his early years. He said all the right things about "never needing
to step outside our wonderful Mormon culture to tell great stories."
But to me he always seemed oddly out of sync with Mormonism even way
back then.

Dutcher's presumptuous ascension to the podium (Why does "Rameumptom"
spring to mind?), plunking a crown upon his own head and admonishing
"Mormon movie-makers" to be all that they can be (stating nothing but
the obvious, of course), must be his last grand effort to make sure
that every Mormon knows he is the only one worthy of giving such sage
advice. He wants to make sure we feel the pain of his leaving by
reminding us that since no one else approaches his superior talent and
vision he is the only one qualified to speak with wisdom and

He sounds as though he honestly believes that anybody gives a rip that
he's "leaving Mormon cinema" and will no longer "have the honor to
make these movies." Give me a break! The guy's lost it! Apparently,
unchecked arrogance is even better than Red Bull to synthesize
feelings of worth and self-assurance.

If Dutcher was an unusual talent, notable because of significant
acclaim or considered a brilliant filmmaker by the only board of
critics that matters -- the audience -- then his haughtiness might be
tolerable and his advice worth a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. But
even Mormons rejected his last two films. And his latest offering,
"Fallen Angel," is so raunchy, according to some who worked on the
film, that it may never open in Utah. Well, it will open in Park City
and maybe even get to Sundance, where films celebrating the slimy
underbelly of society are inevitably hailed as genius instead of

Think about it: This guy has never made a movie that anybody cared
about since "God's Army," and that film only rose to fame and profit
on the hot air of newness, not greatness. On the day he announces that
"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," he
suddenly presumes to be the high priest of Mormon moviemakers and
anoints himself the omniscient young shadow of Martin Scorcese.

Good, Richard. So your ultimate goal is to make a demented and
despicable film like "The Departed" that is perfectly crafted and wins
you an Oscar but assaults every virtue, value and sensibility you've
ever known? You should have taken the insurance money when your
building burned down and gone into real estate.

You honestly have to wonder if there was an open bottle of airplane
glue around when Dutcher shared this bit of wise counsel with the
rising generation of LDS filmmakers: "Passionately adhere to the
guideline that it is better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated

Does Dutcher honestly feel trapped between those two extremes? It is
possible he doesn't really know that between "an R-rated truth" and a
"G-rated lie" there is a vast and untapped treasure trove of wonderful
characters and stories that both tell the truth and entertain.

Oh. And you can do movies as G-rated truth by the way.

Or how about this line: "Stop trying to make movies that you think the
General Authorities would like." What? Is that what "Single's Ward,"
"RM," "Church Ball," "Baptists at the Barbecue" and myriad other
Mormon movies have been going for?

It is of course a great relief to know that the church has been a
"useful stepping stone" for Dutcher on his personal "spiritual
journey." I am gratified that he found a few fragments of LDS doctrine
useful in his creative quest so he can move to new and higher levels
of enlightenment. What is it the scripture says? Humility should be
easy for us because we are fools before God.

Not this guy!

I predict that Richard Dutcher will (1) find a niche by dropping
deeper into the darkness of the hard-R market; (2) become a companion
of commiseration with Neil LeButte; or (3) disappear altogether. On
the other hand he may become a pawn of the anti-Mormons who are now
making DVDs and passing them out door to door. How about "God's Army
Gone South"?

Even though, according to Dutcher, our movies at the Legacy Theater --
"Legacy" and "The Testaments" -- "squandered their chance to be
powerful" and didn't leave viewers "weak in the knees, their minds
reeling, their spirits soaring" when compared to his own unprecedented
brilliance and talent, I will press on in good faith and endure the
"limitations" of LDS virtues, values and sensibilities.

I am proud to say that every project in development at a new venture,
Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios, embraces traditional
standards and tells the truth.

Here is the truth. More people have been inspired by "Mr. Krueger's
Christmas," moved to tears during "Legacy" and walked out of "The
Testament" with spirits soaring than the total number of people who
have ever bothered to go to Richard Dutcher's movies combined. Your
arrogance makes me bite my tongue to keep from turning a somber
"goodbye" into a cheerful "good riddance."

° ° °

OK. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. Count to 10. Sleep on it. Too late.

Having erupted with what I confess is an emotional response to Richard
Dutcher's assault on the films at the Legacy Theater -- and ignoring
the wisdom of writing but not sending in the same fit of passion -- I
return to add a final reflective note.

I have carried the vision of Spencer W. Kimball with me since he spoke
these words: "Our moving picture specialists, with the inspiration of
heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce masterpiece(s) that will
live forever, written by the great artists, purified by the best
critics and that should run for months in every movie center and cover
every part of the globe in the tongue of the people. It remains for
inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They
must be faithful, inspired, active church members to give life and
feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy." (Address given
to BYU faculty and staff 1967)

Perhaps my anger is in truth deep sorrow. A sense of loss. The
ultimate great loss to Richard Dutcher and his family by his departure
from the church. The great loss of a truly talented filmmaker from the
league of "inspired hearts and talented fingers" seen in vision so
many years ago.

Kieth Merrill is an Academy Award-winning movie writer, director and producer.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.

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