Part I of a three part series discussing the Christopher Cain film September Dawn. This part focuses on the craft of the film. Part II, discussing the film and history, can be seen here.

1) Last night, I became one of a select group of Americans – those few thousand of us who paid money to see September Dawn. The refrigerator door on this is closing; the thing lost half its showtimes in the DC area since it opened last week, and I’m imagining it will be gone by the seventh of September, when some good movies open. There were eight people in the theatre – myself, my companion, a young couple, and four portly middle aged gentlemen, all of whom came separately. I’m not sure what this says about the target demographic here.

2)It’s about as bad as you’ve heard. Most jarring, to me, was the editing, which has to be really screwed up for your average moviegoer to notice it. And the magnificent failure here certainly qualifies. Continuity of time and place was confusing; in one scene, days apparently passed in the time it took a character to stand up and walk across a field. In another, it was difficult to tell how far apart characters were standing, because the editor inexplicably chose to give us closeups of one character’s face and medium range shots of everybody else. Plus, hugely amateurish overuse of overlays. This is when we see cheery innocent members of the Fancher party gamboling about while a closeup of Jon Voight’s Portentious-Looking Wrinkled Brow (hereafter, PLWB) hovers semi-transparently in sky above. I’m calling you out, Jack Hofstra.

3)This is not, however, to let the rest of the folks here off the hook. The director, Christopher Cain, certainly deserves some partial credit for some of the achievements above (particularly, the overlays). But he also attains some sort of transcendent glory of his own, particularly when he strives to achieve art and leaps in front of the camera waving his arms and screaming, “Look at me! I’m a good director!” The moments in which he toys with the Blair Witch-patented Jittery Cam are a case in point. Everything’s sedate and normal; nice wide angle on the Late Night Mormon Meeting of Death. But, suddenly, we’re on a roller coaster headed straight for Jon Voight’s PLWB, swooping sideways; then we swing to the right and left, presumably because we are alarmed by the Mormon robots who have begun chanting, “Blood atone-ment, blood atone-ment” in the manner of stoned college cheerleaders. Cain apparently got the Jittery Cam in the mail that morning and broke it by the end of the day, because we have never ridden this ride before and will never again. Cain also does some other over-aggressive stuff; he doesn’t have a very good sense of blocking, his use of slow motion is of the same caliber as his use of overlay, and his manipulation of light is best characterized with the term ‘ham-fisted.’

4)This brings us to the plot. There’s not much of it. There are allusions to all the potentially interesting machinations among the local Mormon leadership in the days leading up to the massacre; Isaac Haight and William Dame get name-checked, but never actually appear on screen. John D. Lee is embodied in the person of Uncle Rico, and actually is gifted with more than one personality dimension; he gets to be Conflicted, presumably because he later got scapegoated and spilled his guts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. All of the scheming, plotting, politics and so forth are scrapped in favor of Trent Ford proving himself to be a horse whisperer and riding around on a finicky stallion. This goes on for about the first third of the film, by which point we suddenly lurch into the massacre, which apparently has been planned and organized while Cain was filming the horse stuff.

5)Characters. Mostly shallow and uninteresting. Trent Ford at one point tells Tamara Hope that he’s never met anyone like her, which proves that Trent Ford has apparently never met a female before, because poor Tamara doesn’t seem to have a personality. However, we are also informed at one point that Mormons don’t know how to love, so maybe Trent is just confused. There are some weak gestures toward interesting. Jon Voight, for example, gets to ruminate about his experiences in Missouri and once tells us why he converted to Mormonism (which, actually, opens a fairly intriguing can of character worms), but all of that goes away when Cain decides that the character is better served leading the Mormon robots in chants about blood atonement. Plus, Trent Ford’s brother might go insane at one point, which would be interesting if any sort of reasoning, pathology, or explication were given. There aren’t, so I use ‘might.’ He does leap about gibbering in Indian costume, though, so I just assumed.

6)Dialogue. The best stuff’s the pastiches from the Journal of Discourses, which, fascinatingly, makes Brigham Young seem the most intelligent person in the movie by light years. Remember how Trent Ford tells Tamara Hope that he’s never met anyone like her? He does it again later. Then again. Once, she tosses it back at him. This is the stuff of which true love is made. By the end of the movie, poor Jon Voight seems like a crazed nineteenth century Mormon version of a Quentin Tarantino character: he can’t open his mouth without uttering the same two words, which, in Jon’s case, are ‘blood atonement.’ There’s a minister of the sort that used to get high with his hippie buddies and ramble about peace and love, man, on the liberal arts campuses of 1971. He hangs out with the Fancher party and mumbles about how Jesus loves everybody through a cornpone, folksy southern accent. He also wears a cross that he bought at his local cheap Christian bookstore before he traveled back in time. He’s distributed them among the Fancher party, too. At one point, three people are lined up wearing matching crucifixes prominently over their clothes. It’s like a rap video, except with nineteenth century white people.

Oh, and Brigham Young has a British accent. No real explanation, except probably that Terence Stamp intimidated Cain enough that the director was afraid to ask him to drop it.

7)Good stuff? Yeah, there’s some. I thought Dean Cain was great as Joseph Smith. He first turns up in a flashback, standing outside the Nauvoo Expositor offices while Jon Voight and friends tear the place up, delivering a monologue that more or less boils down to “Burn, baby, burn” with a fantastic little smirk on his face. However, while Brigham Young speaks in a humorless monotone and Jon Voight does his best babbling crazy guy, Dean Cain’s Joseph has a sense of humor (the only character in the whole movie who achieves that, by the way). He’s slightly roguish, pleased with himself, and he absolutely drips with charisma. He’s big, lanky, and loose-limbed, casual of movement and aspect, but, beneath the surface, a man capable of ordering the Expositor destroyed. And he was on screen for five minutes. A pity.

Most of the flashes of style and art in the film were like this, emerging, suddenly, from the leaden morass that characterized just about every other aspect of the film, only to vanish into the mists like Trent Ford’s personality. But they were enough (along with the occasional burst of unintentional comedy), that I was entertained – though despite, rather than because of, the efforts of Cain and the crew.

To be followed by another post exploring the provocative theological and historical innovations of Christopher Cain.