Hearing the letters “B,” “Y” and “U” strung together generally brings to mind quarterbacks, the LDS Church, rules about skirt and hair length and people starting families as undergrads. Two words generally not uttered in the same sentence with the Provo school are “environmentalism” and “Hollywood.” What would such traditionally liberal territory have to do with the conservative bastion of Utah County?
Much more than one might think, as it turns out, based upon BYU professor George B. Handley’s musings on our spiritual relationship to the planet, along with a history of Tinseltown’s ventures into Zion compiled by James D’Arc, curator of the Motion Picture Archive at BYU. In both cases, “Mos” and Gentiles alike will find that these seemingly disparate entities and ideas actually mix together very well.
Handley suggests, in fact, that Mormonism and environmentalism ought to be cooperating better than they currently do. In Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, Handley tells how a Jewish colleague asked him about the Mormon view of eco-theology. “I recounted that in Mormon doctrine all things were created spiritually before they were given physical form; animals and plants are ‘living souls’ with the right to enjoy their posterity; the earth will be heaven and is already the waiting place for those who have died; and that the Lord expects radical modesty in consumption habits.” The friend responds, “Do Mormons know this?”
This book could have easily fallen into the trap of being, “Al Gore gets the Melchizedek priesthood,” or a call to environmental repentance. Instead, Handley goes much deeper and provides a discourse—one that people of any belief system will find compelling—about what it means to exist in mortal form amid a natural world that will continue long after we have moved on to our eternal reward. Handley is able to embrace both God’s creation and man’s place in it as he writes, “Earth is an odd place to find myself and the oddness of it is precisely what makes it so intoxicating. This is a one-time affair, never to be repeated again, and I want all of it. ... Even without Moses striking the rock, God’s hot pebbles on human lips or stones illuminated by His finger’s touch, who can miss the earth’s glow?”
HOME WATERS: A YEAR OF RECOMPENSES ON THE PROVO RIVER
By George B. Handley
University of Utah Press, 2010
236 pages, $24.95 paperback
D’Arc provides not only the names and dates as to who filmed what where, but also a cohesive narrative about why they chose to bring their cameras to Utah and who was involved in persuading them to come here. For good measure, he throws in interesting anecdotes from those who were on set. An overall theme in the book is the uneasy romance between filmmakers (who were attracted by beautiful backdrops combined with low costs) and Utahns (who valued Hollywood as a source of revenue and tourism promotion, but were also wary of its values).
One interesting alliance came in 1947 when the Utah Centennial Commission used the film Ramrod—shot in Zion National Park—to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers. The celebration included a premiere parade of movie stars and studio executives before a crowd of 65,000 in downtown Salt Lake City. For the movie itself, Hungarian-born director Andre de Toth chose to film in black and white rather than Technicolor. His real-life wife, Veronica Lake, starred as a strong-willed woman who uses men to get what she wants, and turns a classic Western plot of good vs. evil into something much more complex. D’Arc points out that the movie’s “violence and frank sexuality, by 1940s standards,” have led to it being “referred to as the first adult Western.”
Who could object to a critically acclaimed film that broke new ground in a tired genre with a story of female empowerment? The Utah Legislature, of course. The day after the premiere, state senators gathered to bemoan a “fourth-class, trashy picture” they felt “exemplifies nothing of the pioneer spirit” and lamented they couldn’t find a way to disavow Utah’s connection with the picture.
That story illustrates how strange bedfellows can sometimes quarrel. But on the whole, Handley and D’Arc’s books both make a compelling case for environmentalism and Hollywood being able to co-exist with a conservative religion and state.
WHEN HOLLYWOOD CAME TO TOWN: A HISTORY OF MOVIEMAKING IN UTAH
By James V. D’Arc
Gibbs Smith, 2010
304 pages, $30 hardback