Eddie the Eagle Crashes

by Danny Stout

There’s nothing wrong with the recent film, Eddie the Eagle, based on the true story of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards played by Taron Egerton. Despite lacking athletic prowess, and being perceived as “uncouth” by the British Olympic organization, he somehow makes it to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta as a ski jumper. I wasn’t bored. It’s basically mid-range entertainment; a nice story likely to be quickly forgotten.

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Despite a notable performance by Hugh Jackman playing a snow groomer and former jumper himself, the film struggles with its identity. The self-proclaimed, dramedy, leaves audiences on each side asking for more. Some will crave more drama, while others leave the theater unsatisfied that a good laugh never happened.

Who, precisely is this driven man Eddie? Why is he so consumed with being an Olympic champion? Few answers are provided, thus relegating him to flat character status. The same occurs with the Norwegian and British athletes that bully him incessantly. No doubt such teasing exists in the sports world, but there’s always an occasional, “Way to go!” or “Good luck!” Not here. Eddie’s teammates are reminiscent of the heartless high school kids in the original Karate Kid. Such characters provide necessary conflict, but do people like that really exist? That’s the question I kept asking about most of the characters in Eddie.

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     Lowering expectations elevates enjoyment. Think of it as a good TV show. If you’re expecting the depth of quality found in the best of the sports film genre, Eddie will disappoint. It falls considerably short of The Natural, Rudy, or Field of Dreams. Perhaps the filmmakers lacked clear agreement about what they wanted the movie to be at the outset. If they couldn’t figure it out, how can we?

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The Continuing Saga of Street Photographer Vivian Maier

by Danny Stout

For more than 20 years, Vivian Dorothy Maier (1926 – 2009) worked as a nanny in a Chicago suburb. A medium-format Rolleiflex always in hand, she took thousands of photos left in boxes upon her death at 83. In perhaps the most compelling artistic story in the last decade, historian John Maloof purchased the photographs, researched Maier’s life, and uncovered what some consider the most compelling street photography in American history.

vivian_1024x460The work, which captures everyday life on Chicago sidewalks, has, according to Roberta Smith of the The New York Times, “an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion.” Photographed faces of the young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, are drawing audiences to galleries and shows by the thousands. The phenomenon is chronicled in the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. “My goal is to put Vivian in the history books,” Maloof asserts.

This has not been easy. Despite immense public interest, large museums such as MOMA snub Maier’s work on the basis that posthumous art is difficult to introduce. Such reactions are no longer relevant with demand  transcending institutional validation. Lines form outside galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Germany. The Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and that of Jeffrey Goldstein in Chicago display and market the work.

The nagging question is did Maier intend for her work to be shown? She was a purist, some say; the sheer act of capturing the moment, that drove her. Others point to sporadic attempts to publish postcards. “Some people’s character prevents them from getting the work out. She just does the work,” says a photographer in the documentary. The film is ample pause for reflection about motivations in all professions. In pursuing wealth, approval or fame, have we lost sight of the Aristotelian notion of autotelics, or pursuing life for the sake of it. I asked my university students one day if they knew their college degree would be snatched away right before graduation, if they would they take all the classes anyway.  Just for the love of learning. They cringed at such an absurdity, at least in their view. Nevertheless, the life of Vivian Meier begs the question, “Is our work more inspired when our intentions are pure?”

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Unfortunately, her pristine legacy is becoming soiled by money seekers. Since the film, John Maloof is being sued by a Virginia lawyer representing a distant cousin in France for the possession of Maier’s collection. A retired businesswoman in New Jersey is doing the same, claiming the photographer’s brother is entitled. This, despite evidence that he died three years ago.

With everything tied up in the courts, Maloof maintains a website <http://www.vivianmaier.com> so the work can be enjoyed. A website on Flickr also exists. The posthumous legacy of Vivian Maier continues to unfold. The superb documentary unearths this fascinating story with balance and numerous interviews. Hopefully, the honorable work of John Maloof will move forward, and the world will enjoy the great artist that nearly wasn’t.

 

 

 

Imagine Dragons in Concert

by Danny Stout

The movie-theater concert simulcast is an emerging art form, a creative synthesis of music, cinematography, and virtual simulation of live performance. Fathom.com’s production of Imagine Dragons’ “Smoke + Mirrorsshow in Regal Cinemas is intricately choreographed, with over 20 cameras and a mobile cam placing viewers on stage with band members Dan Reynolds, Wayne “Wing” Sermon, Ben McKee and Daniel Platzman. Sweat drips from Reynold’s forehead as you’re transported to the steamy Toronto venue with 15,000 fans.

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LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 30: (L-R) Musicians Ben McKee, Dan Reynolds, Daniel Wayne Sermon and Daniel Platzman of Imagine Dragons perform onstage during iHeartRadio presents “Imagine Dragons #DestinationUnknown, A Hyundai Tucson Experience,” at Clifton’s Cafeteria on September 30, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

American Music Awards, Grammy Awards, Billboard Music Awards, and World Music Awards were earned by the band from Las Vegas. LDS fans recall Dan Reynolds in particular, a returned missionary and former student at Brigham Young University. Reynolds is catalyst for a positive band culture. “I know you have pressures,” he tells the audience, “…but no matter what it is, work, financial, you can get lost in the music. It’s all about the music.”

Beyond the 20-song set list, which should satisfy the most ardent “Firebreathers,” something akin to a cathedral of rock is created. Performances of “Shots,” “Forever Young,” and “Smoke and Mirrors,” create the numinous. That is, the senses are engaged, the songs packed with meaning, and the crowd becomes community. Fans sing every word to every song. During “Shots,” Reynolds pauses intermittently, turning audience into chorus:

I’m sorry for everything
Oh, everything I’ve done
From the second that I was born it seems I had a loaded gun
And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through everything I loved
Oh, I shot, shot, shot a hole through every single thing that I loved

The band is noted for varied rhythms and tempo as in “I Bet My Life,” which moves back-and-forth between soft ballad and a more aggressive chorus. This blend of genres across and within songs is exemplified by “Radioactive” which builds to a crescendo, the audience shouting, “Welcome to the new age, to the new age. I’m radioactive, I’m radioactive.” The song evokes REM, but the Dragons’ instrumentation is carefully monitored. Nothing is louder than it should be. Percussion is always distinct and crisp, and guitar chords salient due to the superb sound system.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is perhaps the highlight, the crowd gently singing: “All that I’ve known…Buildings of stone…Fall to the ground without a sound,” and suddenly elevating their voices, but not losing the message: “But all that I hope is it just smoke and mirrors.” Imagine Dragons offer sensitive songs for those yearning for meaningful music. Yet it’s highly listenable for one just seeking well-crafted melody.

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Concert films are difficult to make, and the people at Fathom left nothing to chance with every scene meted to the flow of the show. The form has come a long way since the movies Woodstock and The Last Waltz. Computerized synchronization of cameras and sound transport the audience to the event in a state of hyper-reality.

Comparisons to religious experience may be problematic for some, but the film elicits deep listening, a state we’re hearing more about these days. Smoke and Morrors isn’t church, but it’s certainly blissful and some might say divine.

 

 

Is the “Bad One” Changing? New Dramedy says Maybe

by Danny Stout

In the new TV series, “Lucifer,” the bad one is thinking more deeply and thoroughly about what it means to be human. The adversary takes a vacation from hell to spend time in LA. His only power is to encourage people to fulfill their desires. And, of course, he focuses on the unsavory ones.

Avatar-Lucifer_2He owns a nightclub and is an extraordinary piano player.  Lucifer feels oddly fulfilled when questioning someone’s motives such as those of a murderer in one case. An angel is sent to retrieve him, but his interaction with humanity is intoxicating. His therapist says, “You’re changing.” The idea of the dark one developing the seeds of a conscience is an interesting plot line.

The Jesus figure asks him to return to hell. “You’re time on earth is affecting you.” Unfortunately, the show is in the lowest common denominator genre trying to draw the largest audience possible. Which, of course, means lots of sexual innuendos and stilted dialogue. He’s no saint (duh), but it’s interesting the writers don’t mock religion or God. The issues raised are actually quite interesting.  Hopefully, as the series progresses, it doesn’t turn out to be a downer.

ENCORE REVIEW: “Who is Harry Nillson?”

by Dean Duncan

This film begins really well. Nilsson’s documentary biographers have arrayed their artifacts very effectively. The early photographs are utilized in a really revealing, really interesting way.

On the other hand, Nilsson’s actual life begins very badly indeed. Even if she don’t know the end of the story, the viewer gets a sinking sense of dire things to come. Par for this course? It seems that when it comes to behind-the-music, that’s what we always say. It’s true, I guess, but the response is still kind of insensitive, desensitized, even crass. These are dear, talented, troubled people here!

In addition to those fantastic photographs there’s some really great stock footage as well. Greater still is nillson headshotthe music itself.  The thesis of this film is correct, and very convincingly demonstrated: Nilsson really is exceptional. His voice might not be quite as angelic and perfect as they make it out to be—the witnesses oversell it because they love him, and the filmmakers oversell it for the film’s sake—but you can’t deny that the whole package is palpably special. And those first songs! (As in this two-fer +: http://bit.ly/18cfHw3) There are a couple of glancing excerpts where we see him at a party (there’s the distinguished film director Otto Preminger, looking ridiculous in a turtleneck and a great big necklace). He’s only singing, but these feints and gestures are so unique, magnetic, beautiful. He is an angel, actually.

Who Is Harry Nilsson …? turns conventional during the Richard Perry/Nilsson Schmilsson section, which is to say during the account of the artist’s popular peak. That’s okay, since it’s a good story, and there’s no reason to get in the way of its straightforward telling. But after that apex there’s a great deal of dispiriting decline, and we alternate between two kinds of boring, right up to the end.

John and Ringo didn’t help him very much, did they? Could it be that our beloved post-mop-tops were as bad for Nilsson as Keith Richards was for Gram Parsons? (See: http://imdb.to/1EAbiB4.) Are all those rock ‘n roll-hating Churchmen right, after all? Whatever the answer to that question, this biography is evidence not only of the dangers of that lifestyle, but of the catastrophe of success in general.

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The well-known story of the destruction of that angelic voice is still wrenching, terrible. The same goes, frankly, for the the accounts of Nilsson’s eventual and extended descent into Led Zep-type excess. Morbidity, or tragedy? It’s in the eye or heart of the beholder, I suppose. But after that promising prologue, and the story of that after-all very brief time at the very top, Who Is Harry Nilsson …? is mostly dedicated to watching someone go utterly to pot. During this long decline the filmmakers, like Nilsson’s loved ones, can’t seem to figure out what to do or say. They might well have pursued a few productive, even consoling avenues. Tell us about these six kids! Or maybe in the end our happiness should be as private as are our sins and sorrowing. Hope, aspiration, and the sparks flying upwards. Sometimes we just don’t know where to turn, do we?

 

Why So Many Mormon Trekkies?

by Danny Stout

The Star Trek TV show ended in 1969, but the Trekkie phenomenon endures. Each week there is a Trekkie convention somewhere in the world. The annual Trekkie convention in Las Vegas is one of the largest in the “entertainment city.” Mormon Trekkie websites abound, and the “I am a Mormon” page on LDS.org is replete with members disclosing their Trekkie affiliations.

Compelling is the “Star Trek Family Home Evening Group” <http://stfhe.jlcarroll.net/Klingon_BoM/> where a group of LDS Trekkies are translating the Book of Mormon into Klingon, a language in the fictional science fiction TV series and movies. The FHE site reads:

“As we finished watching yet another fun-filled episode of Star Trek, we found ourselves with little to do besides our mounds of work that we should have been doing. As we discussed Beth’s bizarre ability to speak the Klingon language, it suddenly hit us: Why not translate the Book of Mormon into Klingon? It was just quirky enough to be interesting. So Beth whipped out her two volumes of the Klingon Dictionary and James pulled out his scriptures and we set to work. Some may not approve of this project, but the Seventy to whom we spoke seemed to think it was a fun idea. Maybe someday, this crazy project will lead some Trekkie to read the Book of Mormon in their native Klingon language, but for now it remains an interesting scholarly exercise. We invite Mormon Trekkies from around the world to assist us in our monumental endeavor by translating their own favorite chapters…”

Trekkie clubs or “ships,” as they are called, are interpretive communities, or media-centered churches within a church. Several on the “I am a Mormon” page on LDS.org make it a point to say they’re not only Mormons, but also Trekkies:

Hi I’m Whitney. I’m a trekkie, an animal, sea creature and bug enthusiast and a student, but most importantly I’m a Mormon! <https://www.mormon.org/me/cthw>

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 Hi I’m Seth. I’m a trekkie, a gamer, but most importantly, I’m a Mormon <https://www.mormon.org/me/9pp3>

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            The documentary, Trekkies, reveals that in addition to wearing costumes and trading Star Trek paraphernalia, there is an emerging belief system. Trekkies are nonjudgmental, tolerating individuality and imagination. Creativity is always praised. A positive view of science is embraced as Trekkies visit schools, perform community service, and protect the environment.

Perhaps it’s time to ask why church members seek out Trekkie groups. How does the Church community compliment the Trekkie community? How do they diverge? Such questions speak to the postmodern condition where previously disconnected cultural categories are blurring in new ways. Take note, you might be sitting next to a Trekkie in Sacrament Meeting. Don’t forget the Trekkie hand sign.

 

Hidden Daughter: New Biography of Rosemary Kennedy

by Dan Stout and Kayna Stout

Kate Clifford Larson, biographer of Harriet Tubman, and Mary Surratt, collaborator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, fills gaps in the elusive story, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. The third Kennedy sibling born after Joe Jr. and Jack, she was the oldest daughter of the nine children. Rosemary was mentally challenged, functioning below Kennedy expectations. Never referred to as retarded or handicapped, parents Joe Sr. and Rose called her developmentally delayed, watching her fall behind in maturation milestones. Rosemary was the anomaly in America’s most powerful family, and, according to Larson, deliberately hidden from the public eye.

Based on reams of notes, letters, and records, this nuanced book uncovers surprising embarrassment about Rosemary bookmental illness, and a 1940’s psychology fraught with dubious treatment and unchecked medical practices. Enigmatically, Joe Sr. adored Rosemary; she was the first girl, very pretty. Yet he had the lowest of thresholds for public tantrums and refusals to reason with family members. Rose sent her to private school, hoping this would elevate her abilities. Within a year, the institution expelled her.

Convinced a cure existed, Joe Sr. ordered a lobotomy for his difficult daughter.  Without consulting his wife Rose, he left Rosemary in the hands of Drs. Walter Freeman and James Watts, frontal lobotomy specialists; they were confident she would improve. The outcome was disastrous: her speech was impaired, and considerable movement in both legs and one arm was lost.

The parents purchased excellent care at various facilities before Rosemary settled permanently in Wisconsin continuing daily physical therapy; she regained limited speech. Joe Sr. communicated mainly through his secretaries. “She is feeling quite well” he wrote to family members. By 1944, Rosemary dropped out of Rose’s family letters, a situation that lasted 20 years.

Tragedy after tragedy struck the family, from Joe Jr.’s death in World War II to the assassinations of Jack and Robert. Sister Eunice, however, continued to visit Rosemary, maintaining at least one regular family tie. In a 1980’s interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rose claimed Rosemary taught the family many lessons of life, yet this occurred at a distance. Goodwin, according to the author, was the first outside the family to learn that Rosemary had a lobotomy.

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Rosemary uncovers a number of cultural and historical insights. The field of pre-war neurosurgery reveals a blind modernist belief in scientific progress to the point of peril. Little consensus, few trials, and no reference to peer-reviewed studies led to a miracle cure mentality. This, coupled with gender inequity, (80% of lobotomies were performed on women despite over 60% of the institutionalized were male) permanently altered Rosemary’s life and destiny.

The rays of sunshine in this otherwise grey story is Jack’s support of the mentally challenged while president, and particularly, Eunice’s summer camps that eventually became the Special Olympics. Ted Kennedy took up the cause as a U.S. Senator, and today, several grandchildren keep Rosemary’s story alive through writing and volunteerism.

Larson’s book is a lamentation on society’s forgotten, and an emphatic warning that culture is only as strong as our love for those saddled with harsh adversity.

Mormons Searching For The Spirit in Popular Culture?

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 20: THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ep:

By Dan Stout

While at the University of South Carolina I met a professor who taught an Evangelical Sunday school class at his local church; he bewildered me with his tale. Each week they simply watched an episode of the “Andy Griffith Show,” a 1960’s TV situation comedy about a Sheriff in a small southern town. “There’s a moral in every show,” he said. “There is?” I replied. “Yes,” he asserted, “God can be found even in silly TV shows.” It wasn’t the program itself that took me aback; it’s dated and few people under 50 watch the reruns. As a Mormon, I was astonished that a situation comedy was part of a Sunday school worship.

Like the Puritan ancestors of Mormon pioneers, we draw a strict line between sacred and secular media. The Old Ship Meetinghouse of late seventeenth century Massachusetts is an example: no paintings, statuary, or stained glass. Such images might replace God, they feared. Today, LDS chapels appear similar, and unlike the aforementioned Evangelical Sunday School class, you won’t find secular TV programs or pop music playing during Mormon services. I’m not arguing for electric guitars and movies in sacrament meeting. Our interest in this digi-zine is in mainstream media outside church buildings. Do we overlook opportunities for personal growth by not tapping into moral dimensions of popular culture?

Besides Mormon film, theater, and popular music, it behooves us to probe beyond “The Singles Ward” for moral insight in secular media. The term, “family movie” is likely to invoke Disney or Star Wars. But, what about the edgy, grittier films that tell moving stories about families during rough times such as “Ulee’s Gold,” “The Polish Wedding,” and “The Road”? Similarly, romance is equated with Charlotte Bronte stories such as “Jane Eyre” (deservedly so) while many LDS teens prefer the “Twilight” movies (perhaps less deservedly so). Unfortunately, the compellingly honest film “The Age of Adaline” has not fared as well at the box office despite its compelling assessment of the value of love, and why some reject it. The point is, there is much in popular culture to connect with Mormon belief beyond the usual standards.

This doesn’t mean that all media are moral. In fact, the opposite is expected from Mormons Into Media writers as they advocate media literacy or set of critical skills necessary to maximize the moral experience of media, and thereby increase potentialities of enjoyment. Neil Postman warns that we are “amusing ourselves to death” in the media landscape, but what about amusing ourselves to a higher moral plane by becoming more adept critics.

Hopefully, Mormons Into Media, will become a worthwhile experiment perpetuating the adage seek after the best things.

Upon settling in the Salt Lake Valley, a theater was one of the first buildings erected; Brigham Young encouraged the Saints to enjoy plays – where the ramifications of good and evil could be played out. Spencer W. Kimball spoke highly of the power of musical theater. More recently, Gordon B. Hinckley challenged members to give patronage to venues of quality entertainment. Such admonishments are difficult without a sharp critical eye to separate the wheat from the chaff regarding popular culture.

With this first post, it is hoped that Mormons Into Media begins to expand interest in mainstream media from a moral perspective. Let’s see movies, read popular novels and watch TV! And above all remove the stigma that popular culture is banal and incapable of stimulating ideas about ideas that matter most. We live in a mediated society and must speak the language of popular culture to interact with those around us. This digi-zine moves us toward that end.