October 31, 2008

Localizing "The Parent Trap" (part 2)

Continuing my previous post, I will argue that one reason, as Tyler Chadwick states it, for "the insistence on measuring [Mormon art] against the standards of Mormon culture/theology [and] against the letter of God's laws" is that this approach attempts to create a culture legalistically where none of substance actually exists.

My case study in this analysis is the NHK Asadora series Dan Dan, a culturally "localized" version of The Parent Trap that not only puts this old plot in a whole new cultural light, but adds additional layers of its own. In particular, Nozomi's life as a maiko is as unique to her twin sister Megumi (and most Japanese) as it is to me.

I worked similar "cultural singularities" into The Path of Dreams by incorporating "temple culture" (though editorially cleansed of explicit references that could illuminate that culture more fully for non-Mormons, but which Mormons consider heretical), polygamy, the returned-missionary subculture, conservative mores, and Utah history.

But you can push the polygamy/Utah history/RMs/conservative mores thing only so far. In Angel Falling Softly, the conflict between works and grace and giving the devil his due are not unique to Mormonism, and most of the "peculiarities" arise out of social, not religious, culture of a type that could be found in, say, Lake Wobegon.

As my sister Kate puts it, "a large part of Mormon culture is expectation-oriented rather than gospel-oriented." To be sure, seeking out people with similar expectations can be very entertaining, but meeting expectations as a matter of course isn't very revealing. Rather than creating or adding to a culture, doing so only freezes it in amber.

And if the ultimate goal is to "blend in" with mainstream Christianity, then Mormonism loses the ability to contribute a unique perspective to the human comedy beyond those expectations. As with Vanilla Sky, why remake the original (Abre Los Ojos) if it adds nothing meaningful or new except a bigger budget and a famous actor?

Is the story exploiting quirks in the culture to set itself apart? Is it reflecting the culture in order to say something important about it? Or rather, is there a culture there substantial enough to have important things said about it? As things stand right now, I'm pessimistic about "Mormon culture" reaching meaningfully beyond "Utah culture."

To be sure, "Utah culture" has a lot going for it, starting with the Mormon migration, polygamy, the ethos of the American West, and all those unwittingly multicultural and reluctantly virginal returned missionaries. But like Shinto, these cultural singularities are inextricably bound to geography and demographics.

I must emphasize that this isn't a bad thing. Tony Hillerman created a whole literary world in the Four Corners area of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona just telling stories about the Navajo Tribal Police. Faulkner did the same with his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, approaching the infinite by looking very carefully at the minute.

Speaking of Shinto, Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have entertained and inspired audiences far beyond Japan's borders, as have Shinto-inspired anime series such as Inuyasha and Kamichu! But as Jean-Marie Bouissou observes, "the very idea of a [non-Japanese] Shintoist would strike the Japanese as absurd."

Instead, I'm talking here specifically about a religious culture with catholic aspirations that must reach beyond the confines of the Wasatch Front, and in its success cease to be an anthropological curiosity.

It must draw universally-recognized lines in the existential sand and defend them. My alternate-universe solution? For starters, Mormon marriages would thus become "public"--to the extent that non-Mormons would be invited, and photographs of Mormon weddings would become distinguishable from those of the generic Christian ceremony.

Second, the "low church" needs something akin to a Bar and Bat Mitzvah (as opposed to Eagle Scouthood) and a Mormon version of the butsudan, which would fit nicely with the whole genealogy business.

Third, the church would forcefully declare itself to NOT be a Nicene sect, and to be thoroughly uninterested in the theological approval of the Nicene community, thus divorcing the "Mother Church" and creating a huge, unavoidable and unbridgeable rift in its place. No true ideology, religion or culture compromises itself with glad-handing.

Of course, I'm speaking from authorial self-interest. Conflict, not uniformity, makes for good fiction. Literarily, I want to pick fights, not play well with others.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
Reposting! Sorry!! I hit the "Publish" button too soon.

It could be the Superman problem. How do you create conflict when Superman can fix everything? How do you create conflict when the aspects of Mormon society that conflict with mainstream Christianity (at least theologically) are private and Mormons are encouraged (thank goodness) to not be strangers to their secular and/or other religious neighbors.

I don't know the answer to that, but I would agree with Th that the differences that supply the conflicts are there, if unstated or currently unknown.

For instance, in terms of taken-for-grantedness, there is a difference between the Wasatch front and us Mormons out here in the hinterlands. Simply being a Mormon on the East Coast makes you odd ("Why don't you live in Utah?" I was asked recently). Believing that God has a body makes you even odder. Believing in Joseph Smith's visions makes you certifiable (not that anyone would say so). Believing any part of the Bible even remotely literally makes you bizarre in the extreme. (As Bernard says in Yes, Prime Minister, "It is one of those irregular verbs. I have an independent mind. You are an eccentric. He is round the twist.")

Couple all that with a healthy dose of worldliness (no ascetics or cultists--in our ward, at least!) and people really don't know what to think. Which is good--keep 'em guessing, I say!

Can that create good fiction? Hey, that's up to you writers of Mormon fiction! I stick to fantasy and sci-fi.

(I did think of an idea recently where a die-hard-must-marry-a-member Mormon marries a die-hard-Mormons-are-a-cult Baptist (insert futuristic catalyst that makes this happens). That would cause many conflicts and raise, in my mind, the interesting problem of how far one should compromise belief for the sake of tolerance. Could these two die-hards simply agree to disagree? Would they decide that hey, we get along so well in most respects, what does belief matter? Would one member give in for the sake of the marriage? Would the marriage (the two die-hards are bound to take marriage seriously in and of itself) outweigh any sense of religious outrage? Would human, worldly and frankly natural needs and desires outweigh the theological import?

Would only a woman ask these questions?)
10/31/2008 2:42 PM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I mean "outrage" from the religious communities and/or family & friends.

In other words, is the answer to Mormon culture to be found in the strictly personal--character X grapples with a specific situation. If enough characters have similar experiences does THAT denote a culture?
10/31/2008 2:49 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
I think it's a matter of how much the "expectations" set and the "culture" set overlap. The farther you get from Utah, the less they do. When you get to Japan, the differences between this Christian sect and that one are so much background noise; everything gets reduced to "big C" culture symbology: crosses and wedding ceremonies and the Pope.

At that point, you could say that a whole new set arises: people who believe in the supernatural--regardless what what supernatural they believe in--are more likely to take your supernatural seriously. That's why the telling question is whether Mormonism remains defined by the expectations of its Utahn/U.S. membership, or becomes truly "catholic."

If the latter, then it must create a standalone culture to accompany it.
10/31/2008 3:26 PM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
What if the culture is not to impose a culture? I'm thinking out loud (well, online anyway) and if, to an extent, the lack of ceremony is largely the result of Mormon history--the unique twist of 19th century experimentation, rampant American individualism, and a dearth of wealthy popes (where's our Sistine Chapel, darn it all!)--the what of the culture IS what it is. NOT having a wedding ceremony in a church becomes noticeable in its own right (in the U.S. at least).

In New York City, non-Jewish kids will often have Gentile Bar Mitzvahs, so they don't feel left out of their friends' Jewish culture. And that seems kind of strange to me--but maybe WASPs have no culture, so they have to borrow from other people's culture. Except maybe they DO have a culture--take the kids to an amusement park already! In any case, is adopting outside pieces of culture really the answer? (It did work for the Romans.) But if the church is torn completely from its cultural beginnings, does it lose any cultural capital it may have had in the first place?

For instance, going on a mission (expectation) used to be ceremonial cultural event (big party, big send-off, big applause on the return). No longer. Which is good. And rather remarkable, if one thinks about it. Maybe not so good in terms of creating age milestones but good in terms of Utah mommas not competing for who can throw the biggest shindig.

So if the aim of the church is to squash worldly excess and pride, how does the culture get started?

(Like I say, a dearth of wealthy--and occasionally--corrupt popes.)

Actually, I think President Hinckley was trying to start a ceremonial culture using the pioneer stories, and to an extent, he succeeded--not only did kids in the United States go on pioneer treks but Russian kids went on pioneer treks: bonnets, handcarts, and all. That's exporting a culture rather than importing one, but the effect is the same: the use of a cultural icon to bring together the membership of a group. And, at the risk of sounding very non-politically correct, considering the church's origins, it seems more appropriate and, to sound more politically correct, less exploitive to export an American image (however historically inaccurate) than to try to mold a non-American one to fit the church's needs.

In any case, being a Mormon is rather like being a libertarian. I was always grateful that the church DIDN'T have a church service the night of 9/11. They had one later in the week, televised from Salt Lake, but it was really nice NOT to have to attend something that night to show my support. I felt supportive, you know; I just didn't feel the need to go show my support to anyone.

A culture of non-ceremony-oriented people (except in private). Hmmmmmm.
10/31/2008 5:50 PM