During seasonal bouts of deeply woven religious anxiety, often emanating from the pit of my irritable bowel, I find fleeting comfort toying with the idea of a conversion away from Judaism to a faith with less schmaltz in the traditional community meals. I'm still undecided whether my heretical religious flirtation is rooted in the speculative fear of burning in a lake of fire and brimstone for all of eternity for not accepting Mel Gibson's Jim Cavaziel personified Christ into my heart or merely the innocent promise of a snazzy Dockers wardrobe to wear to a weekly coeducational pot luck bible study group at the recreational center of my local Y. Maybe it’s just the simple fact that Christian iconography adorned tattoos and medallions embody that invincible tough guy look I'd love to flaunt on the city's grittier streets to diminish my nebbish factor since I am hardly likely to ever master the martial arts side of the Billy Blanks Tae-Bo video that I recently siphoned from a bit torrent in another one of my dim-witted schemes to develop an unstoppable fighting technique that does not require me to leave the sanctuary of my apartment.
Not too long ago, during a commercial break from a riveting episode of Family Feud, I found myself mesmerized by an advertisement offering a free DVD about living a good life from an organization called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It seems much easier to roll the word Mormon off the tongue than that theological word pageant, but I suppose outside of Utah that particular religious label connotes wholesome thoughts of the Osmond Family, a difficult sell for proselytism among today's culturally savvy heathen, assuredly stoned on drugs to willingly sit through a daytime rerun of a mind deadening game show like Family Feud.
Within moments of calling the toll free number to place my order, the technological force behind Caller-ID forever sealed my place inside the Book of Mormon's conversion contact list. I greatly appreciate phone calls from telemarketing strangers on a daily basis to quell some of my exquisite loneliness, especially when those callers are selling a more conversation worthy topic like deliverance instead of long distance services. However, there is no spiritual excuse worthy enough for calling during the sacred 8 PM dinner hour as has been frequently happening since my induction to the list.
The DVD took nearly four months to arrive, but like the emergence of a miracle, its golden cover, encased in gleaming shrink wrap, stood boldly apart from the day's other mail, which included such treasures as a Valu-pak coupon kit, an IKEA clearance catalog and my synagogue's thoughtful gift of multicolored Chanukah candles, more than half of which had been sadly pulverized to waxen dust in shipping.
Forsaking pressing domestic routines once inside my disheveled apartment, I nearly cracked the disk in half tripping over a growing pile of dirty laundry during my haste to load the film into my video player. I was in such a terrible rush to discover the potential for my conversion away from Judaism because the arrival of Chanukah candles flared my worst imaginations of an accidental menorah sparked building fire.
Despite my initial repulsion upon hearing the film's saccharine overture that accompanied the ornately gilded Old English text of the DVD's menu track, I decided to engage an open mind towards the filmmaker's blatant intention of spiritually transforming his audience. So I forced my film school snobbery to take a back seat to the repressed component of my psyche that is strictly governed by the sublime naiveté of a lobotomee. This thinking-cap-less screening method just seemed the wisest choice of suspending my disbelief towards unfamiliar religious hype. It was last successfully employed during my early childhood, when I devoted all of my religious efforts to worshiping the rock gods Kiss after having viewed their spectacular film debut in the paranormal thriller KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially sanctioned film version of their prophet Joseph Smith's life, The Prophet of the Restoration, is chalked full of much greater narrative fuel than Gibson’s theological opus, and unlike its theatrically released blockbuster contender, I found special favor with the manner in which this straight to video religious epic didn't contain any overtly anti-Semitic themes to stoke my easily accessible cringe-ability or fear factors.
For what is obviously a big budget independent film with lots of special effects, lavish sets and authentic 19th century period wardrobe, The Prophet of the Restoration producers would have been wiser to have spent the money on hiring more competent actors, especially to help better sell the supernatural aspects of their story. I suspect their religious convictions overtook their artistic vision to settle on a finished product that Northeast of Utah has the unintended potential to develop a Rocky Horror Picture Show like cult following that celebrates the movie as genuine camp more so than for its maverick religious message. But this really is the ultimate compliment for the Mormon Church’s cinematic religious outreach efforts because as all of humanities revered religious scriptures have proven for centuries, supernatural virtue is the ultimate camp archetype, and most often met with the least amount of logical resistance.
Upon its conclusion, I was struck by a twinge of the same earth shattering religious resonance underlying what I had experienced after a screening of Joe Esterhaus' camp piece de resistance Showgirls. Having viewed nearly every film in the Netflix catalog, I feel seasoned enough in the more esoteric complexities of film language to rightfully determine that Saved by the Bell's Elizabeth Berkley's sensational portrayal of showgirl Nomi Malone has the same prophetic, ne'er messianic redemptive qualities as the more modest Mormon religious order's founder, Joseph Smith as portrayed rather blandly by a forgettable newcomer in The Prophet of the Restoration.
In spite of their polar opposite lifestyles, the spiritual parallels in both Nomi and Josephs' respective struggles and ultimate triumphs are undeniably kindred. But as a narrative, I am far more drawn to the transformational lessons of a runaway stripper, headlining Vegas showgirl, feminist vigilante simply because this protagonist has more compelling reasons for spiritual renewal than a decent Christian boy, coming from an honest hard working family, whose greatest conflict, as revealed in the film version of his life, seemed to be his indecision about which church to join. If only the fictional Nomi Malone had actually lived to found a religious order, I suppose I'd have a much more persuasive argument to ditch my Jewish faith.
Fortunately, my prayer to constructively criticize this fairly obscure Joseph Smith biopic with someone that through divine providence also had the opportunity to view it would not go unanswered. One of my regularly telephoning Mormon outreach representatives, an affable guy named Jim, who claims to have "loved the film," was more than enthusiastic to begin a conversation about it. Unwisely, I opened the discussion with my thoughts on the redemptive themes shared by his holy prophet and my silver screen anti-heroine. This revealed a cultural impasse that would soon put the kibosh on our cozy telephonic interfaith film forum.
"I'm sorry, bud, but I don't watch any R-rated movies. It’s not something we’re allowed to do," he told me proudly in protest to my respectfully salacious comparison to his holy prophet.
This was the first time in my life that I carefully pondered the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system as a censorship meter. It never dawned on me that people actually use ratings to avoid seeing certain ideas in the movies they watch. Ever since childhood, I always assumed the ratings system was just a base film synopsis for those less cinematically inclined.
Rated G indicates cliché ridden misogynistic Disney content and/or excruciatingly boring. Rated PG is worth seeing only on a long transcontinental flight to pass the time. Rated PG-13 offers a mildly entertaining rest-stop for cable couch surfing. Rated R guarantees breasts and/or a nuclear explosion for multiplex popcorn chomping. Rated NC-17 promises a three second clear view of genitalia, in more than likely, a non sexual context and/or cannibalism in an art house cinema with crappy seats and a small, disintegrating screen. Although I am still unable to distinguish the differences between Rated X and Triple-X, and have yet to discover the double-X, these grades all seem to mark the holy grail of the ratings system, when the sacred promise of all orifice penetration is fully realized on the smaller consumer based video playback device.
Still determined to win me over for round two of my Mormonification challenge, Jim decided to send me a copy of the Book of Mormon. If only I could send my Mormon friend the Showgirls V.I.P. wide screen limited edition DVD in return, I know he would be much closer to feeling something more tangible than those spiritual highs he's been trying to sell me. I did not have the heart to mention that the door to my future conversion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints slammed permanently shut during our chat. I could never choose salvation over R rated cinema.