Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sketching the Prophet: Portrayals of Joseph Smith in Film

I recently re-watched the DVD of Christian Vuissa's film Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold, which confirmed to me once again why I loved the film. I originally saw the film in a movie theater in Mesa, AZ during its limited theatrical release and I came out of the theater with a quiet, pervading sense washing over me. I left introspective and thoughtful about Joseph Smith's early history, as well as how my role as a Mormon and my role as a playwright/screenwriter/artist interconnect. But I also thought about how absolutely refreshing it was to see a faithful Mormon portray Joseph Smith with a degree of honesty and complexity. That is too rare a quality and I commend Christian Vuissa for making a film that is both candid and faithful, showing that the two are not mutually exclusive qualities.

My experience in watching the LDS Church's official film some years ago, however, was quite the contrast. I went in with rather moderate expectations for Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration when it was originally released for tourists and visitors to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. I had seen previous Church films like Legacy and Testaments and had enjoyed them for what they were--faith affirming films of a moderate quality. Those films weren't high art in my opinion, but they were enjoyable on a certain level and I felt the Spirit in watching them (although I must say Tim Gail, who played Legacy's Joseph Smith, was the most awful on record. Mercifully, Joseph Smith was relegated to a small role in that film).

So I was expecting something along those lines, and was pretty excited if for nothing but the simple fact that I am a big Mormon History buff and had wanted to see a real Joseph Smith biopic produced for some time. I thought it was especially important after the discouraging news that Richard Dutcher was no longer going to make his Joseph Smith film due to lack of funding (this, of course, was before Dutcher left the Church). So in my mind at the time, this was probably the only real Joseph Smith film we were going to get for a while. So when my wife Anne and I went to see it I had moderated expectations, but I also had the slightest sense of hope that it would at least be as good as something like Legacy. Not a hard standard to beat, I thought. Unfortunately, as the film progressed I became increasingly frustrated and distraught.