Tuesday 4 February 2020

Cult Cinema #22: Sects Education, Part Two

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Gentlemen Broncos bombed when it came out. It had almost entirely negative reviews and nearly ended the career of husband and wife team Jared and Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame). Its cast of apparent eccentrics and nerds was not embraced by the filmgoing public at large, and in fact AICN (remember them?) even accused the film of being “bully porn”, designed to make you laugh hard at the homespun, poverty-stricken weirdos, just as you might have done at school. For my part, all I saw in the film was affection for its subjects, and a meditation on creativity that hit a chord with me.

The film concerns teenager Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), who lives alone with his mum (Jennifer Coolidge, best known for playing one of cinema's most famous mums in American Pie) in circumstances of financial precarity. Benjamin writes science fiction, and has authored Yeast Lords: the Bronco Years, the hero of which, the grizzled Bronco, is clearly based on Benjamin's tragically deceased father, a park ranger, whose absence, although never vocalised by anyone, casts a shadow over the whole story. We see scenes from Benjamin's story, where Bronco is played by Sam Rockwell, and the paraphernalia of a desperately missed park ranger develops a sort of shabby cosmic significance. Benjamin goes to a young writers' camp. There, he meets Tabatha (Haley Feiffer) and her friend Lonnie Donaho (Hess regular Hector Jiminez), who fancy themselves as filmmakers, and con Benjamin into giving them the rights to his story. Keynote speaker at the conference is eminent science fiction author Dr Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, weirdly channelling Michael York). Chevalier announces a young writer's competition, which he will judge. Benjamin enters. But Chevalier hasn't written anything decent in ages, and seeing a spark of something he long ago lost in Yeast Lords, he steals it, changes the title and a bunch of details, and passes it off as his own, getting his first hit in ages. The resolution of this happens swiftly, and right at the end, and really Gentlemen Broncos is about the experience of Benjamin as the world descends on his young shoulders.

It's not a nailed-on classic, this film, but I'm very fond of it. I think it's an undiscovered gem in the rough and show it to people at pretty much every opportunity. I like how, despite gross stuff like its running joke about snake poo and its goofy, homespun aesthetic, the film has a bittersweet undertone of melancholy, of loss. I like how it presents the ways creativity can be soiled. I show it to people a lot. It's undemanding, more thought provoking than its reputation might suggest, and it's short. One of the people I showed it to was my friend Sue, and Sue, who lived and worked in Utah for several years, made an observation that cemented what I had already sort of wondered about peripherally for several years: although the Latter-Day Saints are not mentioned by name once, every important character in this film, without exception, is obviously a Mormon.
Far from being the freakish cartoons that the reviewers thought they were, the characters are no more than gentle caricatures of a world that is isolated, works on subtly different assumptions and is possessed of its own sort of kitsch. Only Roman Catholicism is so fond of its kitsch, and somehow it's no surprise that Jared and Jerusha Hess are themselves LDS, and of their first three movies, the one that isn't set in Utah (Nacho Libre, of course) is about kitschy Catholics rather than kitschy Mormons.

You could quite persuasively argue that Mormonism began with fanfiction. The story of how Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon is bizarre, and if you've ever looked at the book itself it more or less follows the principles of fanfic, with OCs mingling with canon characters (and here of course canon means the literal thing) and there being a slightly wonky invention of ersatz Biblical characters and places with names that only sound the slightest bit authentic if you don't know any Hebrew, like Zarahemia and Pahoran and Helaman and Paanchi. Mormons largely in my experience kind of know this and accept it as part of the territory. But there's something compelling about the Book of Mormon, about its continual narrative of journey, and it should come as no surprise that Mormons often write science fiction and fantasy. Stephanie Meyer (of Twilight) and Brandon Sanderson (who finished The Wheel of Time after Robert Jordan passed) are notably LDS, for example.
The most obvious one is Orson Scott Card, the writer of Ender's Game, and a direct descendent of Brigham Young. Dr Ronald Chevalier is a pretty obvious analogue for Card. Card judges kids' writing competitions. Card has been accused of plagiarism. And, crucially, Orson Scott Card is openly a really horrible jerk. Granted, Ronald Chevalier (unlike Card) doesn't keep spouting racist and homophobic aphorisms but he's incredibly prescriptive and joyless. Like Card, who is scathing on the subject of fan fiction (but who wrote a lot of it), Chevalier is a patronising arse when homemade creativity comes to play, even though that scrappy homemade creativity is what long ago made his name. There's a scene where he tells a little girl that she can't call the troll in her stories Teacup, and when she protests that she likes the name shuts her down because he's written a trilogy of fantasy novels about trolls, and frankly, if you can imagine any author of speculative fiction doing that shit, it's Orson Scott Card.

The one difference between Card and Chevalier is that we have hints that Ronald Chevalier may not always have been a jerk, and it's the recognition of a spark of honest wonder in Benjamin's writing that inspires Chevalier to steal it in the first place. Indeed, when we see some of Chevalier's juvenile paintings, as hilariously crap as they are, they all look like him; Benjamin's space hero, Bronco the Yeast Lord, is so clearly his dad. Chevalier, I think, understands that, and I think that's why he takes steps in his own version to remove the parts of Bronco – he renames the character Brutus, replacing the hero's pet wildcat with a wolf – that are most personal to Benjamin.
The other major adult character in the story is Benjamin's mother, Judith. And she is very Mormon indeed. She homeschools her son, and she and Benjamin work in a store selling modest nightwear, which seems utterly ridiculous, until you Google “modest nightwear” – go on, do it now, I'll still be here when you get back – and you realise that it's a real thing. In fact, she wants to start her own modest nightwear business and her travails as she tries to get her designs looked at provides the one major subplot in the film. She's a good person, genuinely solicitous and caring, and when she's exploited she reacts with real distress (“He wanted to bed down with me!” she sobs, after a businessman tries to do a Weinstein with her, which is a pretty Utah way of putting it). But it's her care for Benjamin, even if it's expressed in snacks made of sculpted popcorn, that provides the emotional core of the film and provides the happy ending, which feels like a deus ex machina, until you consider that what Judith does to save the day (and indeed, what she did to save the day before the story even began) is exactly what you would expect a loving Mormon mum to do.

Judith introduces Benjamin to Dusty (Mike White). She's concerned that Benjamin doesn't seem to have many friends, so she gets a guy from church to come and befriend him. And yeah, Dusty is a dim bulb and a wet blanket, but he's a nice guy, with a chaste crush on Judith that is equally chastely (but obliviously) reciprocated.

It is no accident that Dusty also vaguely resembles Benjamin's dad, and so gets roped in to play Bronco in Lonnie and Tabatha's terrible, tone-deaf amateur movie version of Yeast Lords. Lonnie and Tabatha are also, in their own way, very Mormon.
For much of the first part of the movie, Tabatha and Lonnie take Benjamin for a ride, over and over, bilking him out of what little money he has (she asks for cash to buy sanitary towels, which kind-hearted Benjamin freely gives, and then spends it on an armful of snacks which she shares with Lonnie and, pointedly, not Benjamin). Later, they con him out of his time, merchandise from the modest underwear shop and his intellectual property. It would be easy to see this as a sign of Benjamin's weakness, but Benjamin is the hero of this film. He is a good Mormon boy. He is trusting, forgiving, and obeys his mum. And Tabatha and Lonnie exploit that because they're Mormons too, in dress and attitude – especially Lonnie, who is screamingly, obviously gay.

Now, the LDS have historically followed what we'll euphemistically call a “traditional” line on LGBT issues (see the controversies sourrounding Orson Scott Card) but this doesn't stop the peculiar phenomenon of a hell of a lot of Mormon young men being gay, albeit in a nice, clean, and well-lit closet. I don't know why this is, and making suppositions quickly gets you deep into issues of nature versus nurture that don't help anyone. Let's just point out that I've met a number of very camp, gaydar-triggering Mormon boys from Utah on the annual missions they have in my home city every year, and it leads a person to wonder.
The fact that Tabatha and Lonnie are so obviously coded as Mormon is the exact reason why Benjamin is so obviously a mark for them. Affinity fraud is basically when you use the bonds of family, community and friendship to exploit your own people. It works because victims think that because you're one of them you're going to be square with them, and even when you're caught out, they're inclined to think it's a misunderstanding and try to sort it out without getting the authorities involved. The largest and most famous affinity fraud case in history was Bernie Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme that came to light in 2009, where Madoff defrauded billions from investors, including literal Holocaust survivor charities, and got away with it for so long because he was also part of the Jewish community on which he preyed. But affinity fraud is a quintessentially Mormon crime, and in fact Utah has the largest per capita rate of affinity fraud of anywhere in the USA. This is because, superficially at least, Mormons are really nice.

They are polite, and friendly, and understated, and accommodating, and honest. Sue told me a story about an incident where a young LDS man hit her car. He stopped, admitted responsibility, confessed he wasn't wearing a seatbelt and then called the police on himself. And that's a good Mormon boy, with Mormon standards. People tend to default to the assumption that other people have the same basic moral principles that they do, which is why right-wingers seem to believe that people who stand up for the rights of others must have some angle, because they can't imagine how people can be better than them, but it works in both directions. Honest people are the easiest marks in the world. If you're a Latter-Day Saint, then this nice, polite LDS boy giving you a cheque couldn't possibly be taking you for a ride, because you know him from church and he is obviously as honest as you are. And he is so, so nice. So polite. When you are a polite, honest Mormon, it is the easiest thing in the world to mistake decorum and charm for goodness.

Benjamin, though, is obedient, honest, polite and good, and in that he is the ideal Mormon boy. He is a good son and a good friend, and when he finds success, Lonnie and Tabatha are forgiven and his mum's business is the main beneficiary. That's pretty Mormon too, the sense that it's good to take your community along with you. The moment when Benjamin really smiles for the first time is when he realises that it is his mother's love that has saved him. It is the most affecting moment in the film.
I genuinely, unironically love Gentlemen Broncos. I will grant that a lot of its delights depend upon your tolerance for basic gross-out gags about the utilities of weaponised snake poop or a teenager having their first kiss seconds after vomiting, and the sight of Jemaine Clement being whacked upside the head with a commemorative cushion by a boy in modest nightwear, but for all of that, I think it's oddly affecting, and generally misunderstood and underrated.

Apostasy was a movie that wasn't really interested in showing the good bits of being a Jehovah's Witness beyond superficial things like sweet old ladies giving you buns in meetings. Gentlemen Broncos, conversely, is a film that really isn't interested in the bad parts of being a Mormon. We've got a blatantly queer-coded character, but we're never going to see how crappy his life is in this film. Far from being a cartoonish takedown of small-town freaks and nerds, it's a gentle celebration of imagination and community, and if the occasional chancer exploits that community, there's a solution, and that solution is the community, the family, the human relationships of which you are a part.