At The Movies: 8: The Mormon Proposition

8: The Mormon Proposition

Directed by Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

(Warning: this column contains text that may be risqué by the standards of some readers, and acknowledges the existence of sex.)

Who is less popular with voters: gays or Mormons?

This cynical-sounding question could be key if California voters are faced with deciding the same-sex marriage question again in 2012. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court could make it all moot by then.

But the public face of the Mormon Church may never be the same after the record amounts raised and spent on Proposition 8 in 2008. The fact the Mormons were involved in the campaign to ban same-sex marriage will surprise no one. But this documentary aims to show that it was primarily a Mormon effort, conceived and funded at the highest levels of the church.

Part detective story, part social criticism, it largely hinges on the work of a man who is familiar to readers of this paper, Fred Karger. A Republican and a former big-time campaign consultant, Karger retired a few years ago to become a full-time gay rights activist. Much of the film is based on church documents that ended up in his hands detailing efforts to prevent gay marriage in Hawaii.

That effort in Hawaii in the 1990s provided that blueprint, on a much smaller scale, for what happened a decade later in California, Karger contends. In Hawaii, the church started out with polling that found that the Mormon church wasn’t exactly popular with voters. So, starting with overtures to the Catholic Church, the Mormons created a coalition of religious groups in which no one church was singled out in media coverage.

But when the Church became the primary proponent of the most expensive proposition effort ever in the nation’s most populous state, attention was unavoidable. When the smoke cleared, the initiative’s opponents were able to trace 71 percent of the donations to Mormons, who make up a mere 2 percent of California’s population. The conflicting campaign statements from the Church and the resulting FPPC complaint are also well known around Sacramento. So are complaints of harassment against Yes on 8 donors.

There is something kind of surreal about the spectacle of these two historically disfavored groups going at each other. From “Big Love” to “Angels in America,” the gay vs. Mormon fight seems to come up over and over. Karger and others have made no secret of their willingness to use anti-Mormon bias for their own ends. It never shows up in this film, but easily the most memorable No on 8 was produced by the Courage Campaign; it showed a pair of Mormon missionaries breaking into a lesbian couple’s home and stealing their wedding rings off their fingers. One thing the film does go into, extensively, are calls to repeal the Church’s tax-exempt status.

If one side can’t help but bring up images of polygamy and strange underwear, there’s one dominant image that seems to be stuck in the minds of many in the other camp – the idea of two men having sex, specifically anal sex. Many anti-gay rallies seem to feature the guy who is so fiercely straight he can’t stop talking about the subject. “The Mormon Proposition” shows one scene where the father of a gay married man tries to argue with a Pro-8 protestor that the question is love, not sex, but the guy just keeps going on about, well, butts.

Which would all just seem like cheap, lurid detail without the sections about how the Church used to buy gay pornography for use in reeducation centers for young gay Mormons. Bruce Barton, a middle-aged gay former Mormon, tells of how in the early 1970s he was plucked out of his BYU dorm room, stripped naked and forced to watch hours of gay porn while being given electric shocks and a double dose of ipecac, a drug that causes vomiting.

Another sequence shows several interviews with young gay Mormons who tried to kill themselves. Utah, incidentally, consistently has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates. We hear recordings of Mormon leaders arguing that homosexual acts should be punished by death, as well as a Mormon father talking about how happy he was that his gay son killed himself.

I seriously doubt that most religious people, or most Mormons, actually feel this way. But for both sides, this fight is about far more than whether or not two men or two women can live together, raise kids, etc. That’s happening anyway. For those who oppose same-sex marriage, it’s the last step in crossing a line to a society where their views about homosexuality can no longer be voiced, where children are taught about same-sex relationships in schools, and where religion is systematically marginalized in public debate (not that either side has a monopoly on religion).

The film, meanwhile, tries to make the link between denying some rights and denying all rights. Policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell” and “traditional marriage” only make sense in a worldview where gays are inferior to straight people. From there, the argument goes, it’s a slippery slope to the kinds of outright violence that gay people have been experiencing for hundreds of years.  

Much of the rest of the film focuses on actual gay couples with Mormon backgrounds, particularly Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, a pair of late-20s guys who married during that brief window in 2008 after being together for years. If there had been more images of people like them in the anti-Prop 8 ads in 2008, this documentary may have looked more like a victory lap.

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World

Directed by Edgar Wright
Tony says: Despite lackluster box office performance, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is well worth checking out. Named for the second book in a series of cult favorite graphic novels, it follows the largely unintentional exploits of Scott Pilgrim as he discovers that his new girlfriend has some fairly hefty relationship baggage.

Assorted directors over time have tried to capture the look and feel of comic books and graphic novels on the screen, from the visual “KAPOW!” of television’s “Batman” to Ang Lee’s surprisingly unpopular attempt at a multi-panel format in “Hulk” (2003).  But “Scott Pilgrim” raises the bar, not only capturing the graphic novel appearance better than most but also the video gaming environment.  That may be an off-putting comment for non-gamers, but all you really need to know to appreciate this aspect is that video games often come with various levels of difficulty and with various bonus features.

Although the film shares the written commentary of the 60s “Batman” TV series, this is far more elaborately realized and almost always successful in its comedic brilliance.  It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it won me over within the first couple of minutes.

Malcolm says: Watching this flick, I was reminded of an old joke line: “Life just gets meta and meta.” This film operates on so many levels, with so many gags and references coming at you so quickly that it might make you head spin.

Michael Cera does his mopey hipster thing as Scott Pilgrim, bassist in a power pop trio and onetime lady killer. He’s broken hearted over being dumped more than a year before by his now rock star girlfriend, licking his wounds by dating a high schooler he has never even kissed, when he becomes obsessed with the new-in-town Ramona.

Which all sounds like a standard Cera indie set-up, until everything turns magic realism meets Atari. It turns out Ramona has seven deadly exes, who want to fight Sc
ott in the style of video games–grimacing, levitating, invoking special powers. This works as a clever metaphor for struggles most people having coming to their partner’s past. Between Kung Fu moves, Scott’s reaction to each ex varies between being intimidated and asking “You went out with this guy?”

The result is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and takes some energy to keep track of. The pace is relentless. Transitions of hours can be instantaneous, especially when Pilgrim is sad or distracted, in a way that makes real life seem like surfing the Internet. The film maintains its own inner logic, establishing a set of rules and then sticking with them. Emaciated hipsters who never work out have Kung Fu moves Jackie Chan could only dream of, and that’s just the way it is.

Tony says: Aside from the fairly unique and well-utilized visual gimmicks, this is a movie that benefits greatly from not just a strong lead performance (Michael Cera) but an appealing ensemble. Of particular note are Kieran Culkin as Scott’s stereotypically promiscuous gay roommate and Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, a rival love interest for Scott.  I also got a kick out of Johnny Simmons performance as Young Neil, an ever-present and somewhat vacant sidekick to Scott’s band.

The analogy has been made between this film and screen musicals, in which members of the cast will often break out into song, seemingly well rehearsed, with even the background actors familiar with the apparently spontaneous choreography. Instead of singing, here the actors break into fights and, while seemingly completely illogical in a real world sense, it is no more nonsensical than the singing and dancing of any number of other films.

Malcolm says: The target audiences here, like Cera’s audience in general, is definitely Gen X and younger. While the characters are all teens and early 20’s, the aesthetic seems intentionally pixelated and dated at times. Watching it, I found myself thinking back to how simplistic and plodding television from 25 or more years ago seems now, how amidst w some older viewers might see this film as a pointless confusing mess is some challenging filmmaking.

“Pilgrim” joins “Inception” on my list of top films of the summer, and the two have quite a bit in common when it comes to multilevel storytelling. Of course, it seems to be tanking at the box office, so maybe audiences weren’t quite ready. It’s too bad. This one should still become a DVD classic, still watched long after many more commercially-successful films are forgotten.

Tony says: If you’re up for something a little different, I’d highly recommend this – it’s one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the movies all year.

The Expendables

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

In contrast to “Scott Pilgrim,” “The Expendables” won the box office competition over the weekend despite being a complete mess of a film. Before anybody accuses me of simply not liking films of this type, I largely enjoyed Stallone’s revivals of the Rocky and Rambo franchises and I admire his ability to produce, write, and direct films that seem to succeed with audiences. But this is little more than an excuse to blow up a small island nation, as well as assorted enemy soldiers who can’t shoot straight, and it’s a film desperately in need of a dialog coach.  Again, it’s not a genre problem – this simply has awful writing, including the exchanges during the much heralded but un-credited appearances of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a scene that would have been improved by being cut completely, if not for the inherent value of the stunt casting.  Similarly, in a cast of mercenaries (the characters, not the actors… I think) played by various action stars (Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke), only Staham’s character gets any back-story, and the movies suffers for it almost as much as the audience does. Watch it if you like explosions, although even the visuals seem low-rent, but don’t expect anything more than that.

Eat Pray Love

Directed by Ryan Murphy
“Eat Pray Love” stars Julia Roberts in the story of a woman who takes a year to travel the world in an attempt to find herself. Unfortunately, watching the movie makes it feel like it was shot and then replayed in real time. I found her journey to be largely insipid, although occasionally rising to the level of banal. I thought at first it was just my Y chromosome that was trying to escape the theater during the screening, but it was all of me that wanted to follow her example and simply get away. Whether or not the at times overtly religious content is appealing to you, the film is simply slow and dull. Eat the popcorn. Pray for it to end. And Love the performance by Richard Jenkins, which is the film’s only highlight.

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