Necessary Sacrifice: Sundance, Mormon Movies, and the Race to Oscar Night

Let me tell you three things you may not have heard, but you already know.

In New York, 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown died at the hands of her stepfather. He readily admitted to the murder, saying in his defense that Nixzmary was an uncontrollable “little Houdini” who had stolen some yogurt. So he bound her to a chair with duct tape, forced her to urinate in a litter box, and beat her about the head. The stepdad’s defense attorney hopes that if he explains just how wicked Nixzmary was, papa will get off with mere manslaughter.

In Massachusetts, a Level 3 sex offender won $10 million in the state lottery from a $20 scratch ticket. Convicted six times of indecent assault and battery (including two counts for a child under 14), he may pay a heavy fine for failing to notify his parole officer of relocation, but worry not: The money will be his.

Finally, in South Carolina, a 10-year-old boy shot his 9-year-old sister when she failed to relinquish a bag of chips. Authorities say that when she refused him, the boy grabbed his father’s shotgun, loaded a shell, and shot his sister in the face. “I feel it was an accident,” one relative said, “He loves his sister.”

You may have missed these stories. They are third-page local paper paragraphs and lower-level sidebars that hovered, briefly, in the most e-mailed ranks of But you didn’t need to see them in order to know them. You recognize the combined idiosyncrasy (cat litter and yogurt, chips and shotguns, molesters and money) and diffidence (“he loves his sister”) as recognizably regular advents. If I gave you the indicating common nouns, you could prep the metro pages: take “toddler,” “hairbrush,” “rape,” and “sandwich,” and make yourself a swift sorrow.

But this is still no surprise. Our land is littered with more formal renderings of this banal trope. For example: several weeks ago the 2008 Sundance Film Festival came to a close. It was, by most critical and capital measures, a bust. “Sluggish Sundance Has Few Standouts” headlined CNN’s Tom Charity. “Signs of fatigue were everywhere,” wrote Gina Piccalo of the Los Angeles Times, as a “lackluster” Sundance produced not one breakout film. A Utah sojourn took me to one of the Sundance shorts screenings, a subset of the Sundance array that also includes independent film (documentary and dramatic) and world cinema (documentary and dramatic). “Shorts have the ability to transcend traditional storytelling,” explains Sundance propaganda, “Fueled by artistic expression, they are free from the boundaries imposed on feature-length films.”

“Shorts Program I” advertised itself seductively. “From the sublimely sweet to the downright raunchy,” continued the 2008 program, “here we meet friends, relatives, body parts, boys, and fish stuck together, for better or worse, in functional and dysfunctional relationships, to get through this thing called life.” As I sat in the theater, the lighting ebbed and flowed with each 15- or 17-minute presentation, the inhales and exhales of a room barely enduring its own exhibition. Every film included the same slow start, with an unflappable camera recording the quotidian: two African American cousins find work clearing a white man’s post-Katrina bungalow; a muscleman hefts barbells and stares at himself in the mirror; a Finnish farm wife tugs in crops and cleans stables; a set of Chinese-American sisters dress for a family portrait. This creeping start ends with a crash: a cousin slaughters the white boss with a child’s sword; the body builder creeps into bed with his clingy mother; the farmer Frau shoots her husband in the kitchen; one sister attempts suicide with her father’s razor. Another film even opened in bright Technicolor, tracing an adolescent as he wandered with a red wagon, smiling, to his dog’s death. The camera pulls back, emotionless, as the boy dumps the dog, strapped to concrete blocks, into a placid pond.

Violence interrupts domesticity, smearing the breakfast table with surprise blood. The audience gasped, sometimes, but mainly sat mutely. We were expecting the hairpin turn. We knew that no Sundance submission would linger in the long arc of romance or adventure, horror or crime. Contemporary filmic success relies on the unexpected shatter: Fido flailing in dark swimming holes, mama strapping on a shotgun to interrupt dad’s afternoon Laz-Z-Boy lookout. Take, as evidence, the 2008 Academy Award nominees for best picture: Atonement, glancing quickly at a once-upon-a-time (maybe) rape; Michael Clayton , distracting with an exploding car and staged suicide; No Country For Old Men, starring an impassive assassin who pauses only to wipe blood from his shoes on suburban porch steps; There Will Be Blood, blending boyhood play and death by bowling. Even Juno includes a near-miss violation, with the saucy lead actress narrowly escaping fetal murder (and adulterous misdeed) by the sheer coincidence of her own ironic conscience (and a good long roadside cry). Films are populated with phlegmatic faces pressing past unbelievable slaughter, the onward momentum of man no matter the carcasses that collect. Films seeking prizes need only a sentimental tour of death and redemption, shocking interruption and inevitable survival.

Because they do, of course, all end with a smile. Or a clown’s tear. Michael Clayton smirking at the back of a cab; Juno grinning as her lover’s duet concludes; even Tommy Lee Jones staring, knowingly, into the desert beyond. Sundance didn’t spare us, either: the suicidal sister sits amiably for Kodak, and Dennis the muscle-bound German dims the bedside lamp. The Finnish farmer felon bakes a great baker’s dozen, and the murdering New Orleans refugees march, sodden, into sunset. The afterlife of violence is scabbed, dignified, chin-up-now survival. Sentimental schemes, one and all: we are convinced that something necessary has been expelled, that the sacrifice has worked. A little murder goes a long way.

Of course, not all movies make such obvious ritual violence. A day before my Sundance sojourn, I stopped at the seventh annual LDS Film Festival, held at the Scera Center for the Arts in Orem, Utah. Besides feature-length treatments of Elvis as late-life convert (Tears of a King: The Latter Days of Elvis), Jared Pratt (The Pratt Brothers: Builders of Zion), and Austrian missionaries (The Errand of Angels), there was also a shorts program screened mid-afternoon. “Island Girl” tracked three Tongan sisters living in Salt Lake City; “Blind Faith” offered a parable about visions and blindness through one obsessively inquiring suburbanite; “Wrestling With God” documented three hipster Mormons debating viewpoints about faith. The movies mirrored their Sundance counterparts in monocular emphasis: one Tongan sister threaded the piece; one doubting Thomas ordered “Blind Faith”; and one camera steadied the conversational drama of the dialogic believers. The shorts format inspires self-conscious brevity and overstated simplicity, asking viewers to marvel at the petals of a flower, the placement of a lightbulb, and the making of a honeymoon bed. The specific is the craft.

Some time ago, Colleen McDannell proposed that the visual cultures of American Christianity are too easily conflated with kitsch, demonstrating how the art forms produced by ardent believers defied artistic categorization. Sitting in Orem, the connections between kitsch (LDS film) and modernism (Sundance), between precious decor and austere hauteur, were apparent. The main absent friend in Orem was explicit sacrifice. Film seeking mass distribution requires blatancy and the cold sudden shock of mortality (which is why The Passion of the Christ fared far better than The Errand of Angels ever will). Film proposes this expulsion as requisite to its own self-justification. “The sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence,” wrote Rene Girard, “it prompts the entire community to choose victims outside itself.” The ritual attendance (the darkness, the screen, the muted gaping crowd) is the set of a communal inevitability. Tickets pay producers to slaughter others so we may, if possible, evade (for now) our innocent death. What LDS knows, and Sundance doesn’t, is that there’s no reason to press our nose into human filth. The minute we sat down, we were already at Nixzmary’s deathbed. To attend a screening is to attend a sacrifice.

In less celebrated contexts, Milan Kundera mutters: “The brotherhood of men on earth of men on earth will be possible only on the basis of kitsch.” How, then, do we stop the loading of a shotgun shell, or the placing of tape on a young girl’s arms? Some might say that we interrupt previously scheduled violence through screenings, through viewings of Michael Clayton or The Tears of a King. Watching movies (and, as it turns out, e-mailing articles) offer us a colloquial ethics to bridge daily life, to bridge each other. Talk of Juno prompts talk of sexuality, adoption, and Alison Janney’s career. Talk of a murdering New Orleans refugee prompts discussions of race and respect. The hope is that the generative product of our filmic sacrifices is our kitsch talk of love, of meaning, of politics, as we stroll down the street for after show dessert. Movies sacrifice themselves to us so we might not sacrifice ourselves to their images. The increased violence in our films doesn’t make us more violent, it merely suggests that we are seeking excessive surrogacy for a culture of simmering sufferance.

Movie screenings and most e-mailed true crime articles offer the same genre of ritual satisfaction. We tool about news Web sites and newspapers looking for topics to murmur to our loved ones. “Did you see this, about the molester who won the lottery?” “Can you believe this kid shot his sister for some Ruffles?” Contemporary sacrifice is for mealtime marveling, shared to remind each other (beg each other) to be good, to be human, to try very hard not to tape (shoot, stab, maim, molest, rape, or burn) one another. Products of religious popular culture seek to imitate the structure (buy your popcorn, sit down, and watch) while denying the gluttonous satisfaction. Religious popular culture says take a break, already. Enjoy some flower petals. Stop it with all the dripping blood. Just by being here, by tasting this pleasure (darkened room, voyeuristic cameras, arms loped casual-like around accompanying lovers) you have done your part. You don’t really need to see it, too, do you? Do you?

We do. We need to see it, to watch the bowling pin make cranial contact, to see the rape, dimly, to track the seepage of another’s blood. We need it, too, as we sit in our swivel chairs, shuttling our computer mouse over the Web site crawl, onto our next tale of true crime dullness. We must want to imagine Nixzmary as she died, or to picture a face marred by a brother’s bullet. All of this is our striving effort to do anything, anything at all, to evade the tick-tock in our ear. The pounding, present fear that the next link might not be someone so far away. That it might not be some virtual abstraction, someone you mention to your wife over crumpled paper and coffee, someone over whose casting you muse while strolling to post-show gelato. This is, of course, the fear that the next one to be sacrificed is you.