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|Liz Phair and the dilemmas of Mormon filmmaking|
Oct. 16th, 2006 at 7:43 pm
In 1993, Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville, an indie-rock album she called a female’s response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. It was a critical success; Phair received acclaim for her intensely personal lyrics – one reviewer compared them to the diary scribblings of a teenager locked in her bedroom – and the minimalism of her music. Though it did better commercially than many other critically acclaimed products of American art, Exile in Guyville was not a smash hit. It made Phair a fiercely beloved cult figure, but nobody was inviting her to do the Superbowl halftime show. She hovered on the edge of breakout through the nineties, sometimes going gold but never platinum.
Ten years later she released a self-titled album, and there was immediate protest. Phair had hired a songwriting team called The Matrix, purveyors of the sort of radio friendly teen pop that has perpetuated the careers of such luminaries as Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff, and Jason Mraz. For her fan base, she had committed the most grievous sin of cult favorites: Liz Phair had sold out, joined the indistinguishable horde of blandly attractive, carefully punk-clad, corporate spawned automatons cynically pillaging what was left of American culture.
Phair defended herself. Certainly, it’s unfair to expect artists to run out their careers reproducing their first successes. Further, she had always wanted to sing songs that would be “blasted out of cars;” she wanted a legitimate hit album. But she didn’t get it. Liz Phair the album sold not quite half a million copies, slightly more than Exile in Guyville and about the same as her second record, 1994’s Whip Smart. It also got the worst reviews of her career (those being, to be fair, mixed).
What’s the moral here? I’m not sure if there is one, but The Liz Phair Story made me think about the current state of Mormon film. There seem to be two problems raised whenever somebody brings Mormon movies up, the first being what exactly “Mormon film” is, the second being why it’s not making money anymore. I think they might be intertwined.
There’s a list of standard answers for the second problem – an oversaturated market, the low quality of the product. Sean Means, movie critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, has consistently criticized the insularity he sees in most Mormon productions; they’re overladen with inside references and take knowledge of Mormonism for granted. For Means, the worst threat to the success of Mormon movies is that they are too Mormon; they come with a built in and therefore limited audience. I wonder if he’s right. I also wonder if this is necessarily a bad thing.
It seems as though there there are two ways around the problem. The first is one I hear a lot. The gist of it is that Mormon filmmakers should use the Mormon experience as a lens to tell universal stories with broad appeal. The track record there seems to indicate that you need some really catchy songs about being a rich man or alternatively hilarious wacky ethnic relatives to introduce your fiance to in order to pull this off. In short, I suspect this may only work in genre movies, where the plot mechanics are familiar and provide the audience with a sense of security even if the movie is really about Mormonism. The Halestorm movies – Singles Ward, etc – seem to be following this strategy. However, I would argue they are rather about _being a Mormon_; they play off the novelty of seeing our own lives up on the screen rather than, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding did through the fiance, taking us by the hand and using the plot to lead us into a different world. Halestorm is comfortable with its insider status; MBFGW created enough distance to draw wider appeal. Overall, I like this solution. I suspect genre movies – like Dutcher’s Brigham City, or a Mormon version of Fiddler on the Roof (why hasn’t there been one yet? Saturday’s Warrior so doesn’t count) – may be the best way to go.
Another solution is to water down the Mormonism, as Saints and Soldiers and Napoleon Dynamite (and Liz Phair, maybe) did. Not coincidentally, perhaps, these are two of the more successful Mormon films. But there’s a distinction here between filmmakers who happen to be Mormon and filmmakers who want to explore Mormonism in their work. For the former – Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite and Ryan Little of Saints and Soldiers – this is a perfect solution. The latter, however, are confronted with Phair’s problem – what’s the line between seeking to appeal to a non-native demographic and being true to one’s roots? Should Mormon filmmakers accept the limits of their demographic and surrender to the fact that they’re not going to make a lot of money, but may be able to tell intensely personal stories without needing to fit in a lot of exposition about things like the difference between temples and chapels? I suspect this is the path Dutcher has chosen.
If Liz Phair teaches us anything it might be that if x = Liz Phair’s base of support and The Matrix = quest for broad popular appeal, x = x – (outraged boycotters who like (Liz Phair – The Matrix)) + (new fans who like (Liz Phair + The Matrix)). Is the attempt to broaden a fanbase for a niche product doomed to failure? Liz Phair says yes.
On the other hand, Metallica (and their breakthrough work, The Black Album, which saw the band drop their earlier thrash impulse and embrace MTV) says no. Which path for Dutcher and company?