Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Mormon definition of success?

I'm a filmmaker. I don't care if anyone decides to put any sort of adjective in front of "filmmaker" when referring to me, be it "independent," "Utah," "Mormon," "LDS," etc. As long they don't say that I'm a "bad filmmaker" or a hack, I'll accept whatever definition people want to throw out in reference to my work.

As a filmmaker, I do my best to be in the know when it comes to the local and independent film scenes. I keep tabs on the Utah Film Commission, the Motion Picture Association of Utah and a number of Utah-based filmmaking web sites, facebook groups and pages and e-mail lists including the LDS Film mailing list from which I received a link to a Mormon Times article by Lee Benson titled, "Utah writer/director finds his niche with PG family films" about a "Utah movie-maker" named Eric Hendershot--who I had never heard of despite his career spanning "over three decades;" and there's a reason I've never heard of him or his movies: from the research I've done, they're not really worth mentioning or recommending.

I'm glad that Benson referred to him as a "movie-maker" and not a "filmmaker" because I personally make a distinction between "films" and "movies"--basically, a film is a work of art that is to be appreciated, a movie is just a product to be sold--and from what I've learned of Hendershot's work, he is definitely NOT a filmmaker. He may write, direct and produce movies but so do a lot of people who contribute nothing to the art form and make a lot money doing it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I did not watch any of Hendershot's movies in preparation for writing this essay and while I doubt that I would pay to see them, or even go out of my way to see them for free, I'd be more than happy to give them a look-see and a proper review so if he gets wind of this essay, he's more than welcome to send me copies of his movies and I'll watch them and review them based on their merits. Some people might think that it isn't fair of me to critique Hendershot without having seen any of his work but this essay really isn't about his work, it's about how he approaches his work--his movie-making philosophy if you will--which is documented in the Benson article and how that approach is judged and praised--also without having considered any of Hendershot's actual work.

It should also be understood though that I'm not in Hendershot's target demographic so even if I had not read Benson's article I would not be foud among the typical audience for Hendershot's movies. Not just because I don't have kids but because when I do become a parent, I want my children to grow up watching films that are high quality works of art, not products that are designed to sell within a superficially-defined niche market. In other words, I want my kids to have a sense of taste when it comes to deciding what kinds of films and television programs are worth watching which is a lesson that is simply not being taught by most Mormons and Benson's article is a pretty clear indicator of why that is: a lot of Mormons are so obsessed with content--or the absence of certain kinds of content--that they disregard every other consideration when it comes to choosing the media that they consume, up to and including its overall quality and that's just sad.

Some of the more interesting reviews of Hendershot's movies that I found were submitted by viewers on the Internet Move Database and, frankly, I think some of them were planted there either by Hendershot's people or the companies that distribute his direct-to-video movies--yes, I said direct-to-video; a market that Benson called "ancient history," which isn't really accurate; the direct-to-video market is quite popular though with the advent of online services like Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV, film distribution is certainly evolving more quickly than ever before. The other "positive" reviews kept harping on what great "family movies" they were. As if that can make up for any flaws pointed out by other reviewers that probably ring a little more true to the overall quality--or lack thereof--of Hendershot's work. Some examples:

"Well, let's see. [based on the characters in one of Hendershot's movies] Men are stupid, living vicariously thru their sons and would rather pursue their hobby than enrich their marriage and family life; all married women have large breasts and shallow minds... yup, these are ideas that we want in the heads of America's boys and young men...It's appropriate that I write this review on Thanksgiving...what a turkey this movie is! It was and should be an embarrassment to the American Film industry... As far as the 'satire' and 'parody' comments, those remind me of the tired old line 'I don't know what you're talking about' when the murderer is uncovered (It's obvious he does). In other words, they call it a satire because deep down they know how BAD their work is."

"okay i'm 12 years old and i thogut [sic] this movie was pretty damn stupid, and the kid [sic] were f*cking crappy actors ..."

"...the movie becomes irritating rather than cute..."

"... boring, pointless..."

"...the moment's where your heart should go out to the kids, it doesn't. It just seems like there was no intention to really grab us at any moment in the film. The director seemed happy with just letting us grin and wait for the happy ending, which of course, was inevitable. The villains were typical goofballs, which definetly didn't help...this is simple kids entertainment, but not the best of simple kids entertainment that I've come across."

"The scenery is nice but that's about all the movie has going for it. Avoid, unless you like horses or pine for the scenery west of the Mississippi."

"Blech. Just how much of this stuff can the studios put out? Promark Entertainment struck out yet again with this flop. This is a kids' movie so the following rules apply: 1. All of the kids are quite smart. 2. All of the parents and police are totally clueless. 3. Poop figures prominently in a running gag. Seen it all before? So have I. The only positive thing I can say about this film is that the child acting is at least tolerable... Feel free to seek out better family fare than this."
Based on these reviews, I can totally understand why, as the Mormon Times article says, "...he's stayed alive and thrived all these years with nothing above PG ratings."

There's an old saying that you'll never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator. In the "Movie-making" business, the two lowest common denominators are pornography and family films. If you have a solid business plan, you can make a decent return on your investment by producing porn or direct-to-video-movies that are marketed as "family friendly."

That's because porn and family films actually have two key aspects in common vis-à-vis the business end of distributing movies:

1) Neither porn nor family films are artistic in more than the most superficial of descriptions and where movies are concerned, art just doesn't sell.

2) Each has a built in market of people who will buy them without so much as reading a review or looking beyond the rating. Some people buy movies exclusively for the G, PG or XXX that they see on the packaging.

The markets for pornography and family films consist of people who, for the most part, have no taste or even a sense of what a "good" movie actually is. All they're looking for is something with which to kill time, whether it's lazy parents who rely on their televisions as the sole entertainer and educator of their children or... people who are addicted to porn and have time and money to throw away on it. Either way, the products are designed to distract people who have no taste... or in the case of the family films, destroy any sense of taste that an otherwise intelligent kid might potentially have had to begin with, thus creating a future consumer of poorly made, direct-to-video family films.

The point I'm trying to make is that, as a rule, family films are not worth watching.

Nowhere in Benson's article was anything said about the quality of Hendershot's movies. I don't trust the reviews on the IMDb--even the positive ones that appear to have been written by actual viewers--because the audience for family films, as I said, has no sense of taste and wouldn't know a good movie from a bad one to begin with. There is a brief reference in the article to Herndershot's latest film but the article is not a review and even when it mentions similar films in Hendershot's resume, little more is said about them than the fact that "His plots revolve mainly around kids. Kids getting into predicaments, kids getting out of predicaments, kids having adventures, kids teaching life's lessons to everyone." You'll recall from the user reviews above that the kids have to teach the lessons because the adults are usually written as idiots.

Nothing is said about whether or not Hendershot's movies are any good. In fact, the only time the word "good" appears in the article is to describe the family film market as a "good niche" for Hendershot and that's only in reference to how lucrative the market is which probably says more about Hendershot's skills as a producer than as a "movie-maker." We've already established that art is not a factor in what he does.

To quote Benson's article: "Throughout his career, Hendershot has specialized in making movies emphasizing the F word, as in Family. He is yet to make a movie you couldn't sit down and watch in a convent." That's actually pretty descriptive but, again, it says nothing about the movies themselves, certainly nothing to suggest why I should even bother to watch them. I'm pretty sure I could watch a two hour DVD of paint drying in a convent without worrying about offending anyone but that doesn't mean that I should actually waste my time watching it. I watch a lot of independent films, I've seen shorts that amounted pretty much to watching paint dry and while they weren't offensive in any way, they were not worth watching for five minutes, let alone the 90-minutes to two-hours one usually has to commit to watching a mediocre family film.

Benson also says of Hendershot, "He's been just as strict about never creating content that goes against his own personal standards."

What standards are those again? Oh, yes, the standards that are arbitrarily set and just as arbitrarily defined by the Ratings Board of the Motion Picture Association of America. Hendershot has apparently turned down offers to direct projects that could "qualify" for an R rating and bases his decisions on the fact that "I've got too many grandkids I have to look in the eye."

Just because the movies a person makes aren't rated R doesn't automatically mean that it's work they can be proud of. Some of the most awful movies I have ever seen in my life, in terms of writing, acting, themes, morality and overall quality have been rated G and PG and have all been marketed as "family films." Were I involved in any way with such productions, I wouldn't want to look anyone in the eye and admit to it. I wouldn't even include them on my resume. It should also be understood that just because a movie is rated PG-13 or R doesn't mean that it can't be something one can take pride in and want to share with family and friends as long as one feels they are mature enough to appreciate it.

Alas, this attitude is typical among Mormons. For various reasons based primarily on remarks made by General Authorities and repeated time and time again and taken completely out of context, a lot of Mormons have come to believe that any movie that is rated R is "bad." The problem with that logic is that these same people use it to justify an equally false belief that any movie that isn't rated R is automatically okay to watch by anyone, or at least somehow morally benign. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

So, why is Eric Hendershot being held aloft as a successful "movie-maker" who has "thrived"--other than my personal belief that Lee Benson may only have rewritten a press release and added his by-line to it? Probably because a lot of people--not just Mormons--equate financial success with moral validation for what they do. I'm sure that Hendershot feels that way. I'm also pretty sure that pornographers like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt feel that way too. But when it comes to art, real art--and that includes filmmaking--validation for the work of the artists does not always come in the form of financial success. In all fairness, it doesn't always come in the form of a positive review either--there are a number of films that were initially panned by critics that eventually found their way into the hearts of those same critics upon subsequent viewings months and even years after their initial release. For some, validation comes with the completion of a film project. For others with the way their films are received by audiences who know and appreciate the genuine art of filmmaking.

Eric Hendershot may be a financially successful "movie-maker" but he's not an artist. He's not a filmmaker. He hasn't made a single movie that has had broad enough appeal to escape his "very good niche" market which doesn't pride itself on appealing to distinguishing consumers of cinematic art. He has created nothing that is in any way challenging or thought provoking. He is a one-man factory of products directed at family consumption, not even appreciation. How can one genuinely appreciate a product that is purchased solely to placate unruly children without having to worry about what they're watching being "inappropriate"--again, the lack of quality in the product hardly playing into the purchasing decision to begin with.

When I think of a successful and thriving "Utah writer/director" I'm more apt to consider my friends like Richard Dutcher who is an artist, who creates challenging and thought-provoking films. His resume isn't as long as Hendershots, but he's accomplished more artistically in a dozen years than Hendershot could ever hope to accomplish in his entire "thriving" career of churning out family-friendly, pedantic, direct-to-video fodder for whatever the latest craze is in electronic baby-sitting.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. As a parent of 4 children, I get frustrated by the dearth of good films for children. I do admit to letting them watch a fair bit of drivel just because.
    But I do get very frustrated with the ridiculous message in the majority of kids movies. Adults are stupid and incompetent, men are strong, women are weak and always need to be rescued by a prince, having power means you don't have to play by the rules. And the other implied message: kids aren't worth good editors and writers.