Mormon Fray
The Archive of Incidental Mormon References in Pop Culture...

Missionaries

Last Days (2005)

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2005 Dir. Gus Van Sant

The last film of Gus Van Sant's so-called "Death Trilogy", along with the equally austere and inscrutable Gerry and Elephant. Like Elephant, this movie is a kind of film à clef, chronicling the final days/hours in the life of a fictionalized Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's gifted frontman.

Context: Blake, the thinly veiled Cobain surrogate in Last Days, spends most of the running time of the film avoiding everyone, including the people living in his own house. So when Mormon missionaries arrive at the door, Blake slips out, but his housemates invite the young men in for a bizarrely long and eerily accurate chat.

Last Days

Exegesis: This is simultaneously one of the most accurate depictions of LDS missionaries on film, and the most bizarre. Perhaps it is bizarre precisely because it is so accurate. That's not to say that these Elders are especially good - their delivery could use some serious work, but they even quote from Joseph Smith's history, just like many real missionaries do! In other words, the doctrine seems to be more or less sound. They even point out the scripture references they have written in the front cover of the Book of Mormon that they leave behind, encouraging the people to read it, and inviting them to church on Sunday. That's Missionary 101.

It's a little weird that the two missionaries are both named Elder Friberg. (The twin actors who play them are actually named Andy and Adam Friberg.) The Internet Movie Database points out a few minor inconsistencies in its "Goofs" section, viz.: "One of the LDS missionaries that visits the house is wearing a light blue shirt. LDS missionaries are only permitted to wear non-decorative white shirts with dark pants/suits, and a conservative tie. The missionaries also carried no pamphlets, visual aids, appointment books, or their own complete sets of scriptures, which is highly unlikely for door-to-door proselytizing." But really, those are fairly trivial complaints considering the gross liberties that most films take when depicting Mormon missionaries.

It's hard to pinpoint the reason why this rather lengthy scene was included in the film. Van Sant is regarded as somewhat of an auteur, but as I pointed out in the intro to this piece, I find some of his, shall we say, "less commercial" work a little difficult to parse. Much is made of the Elders' ability to talk to God. At the end of the film when (spoiler alert!) Cobain kills himself, his naked soul emerges from his corpse and begins to climb a ghostly ladder, so Van Sant may have been trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of spiritual or redemptive message. Or it could be that Van Sant was visited by missionaries once and thought the idea of young men who dedicate themselves to spreading the message of the restored gospel was an interesting counterpoint to the life of the protagonist. The Elders are played by twins, identical in every way except shirt color, which could be an illustration of their conformity and a suggestion that their "sameness" extends back to all those who follow an organized religion rather than one's own mysterious spiritual path, like Blake. The Elders also talk about Christ's purity and sacrifice, perhaps as a means whereby Blake's sacrifice (by suicide) can be seen as a redemptive act.

Is it significant that contemporaneously to this scene (and intercut with it during the film), we learn that Blake/Cobain is upstairs, strung out, listening to terrible 90s R&B, wearing a strappy black cocktail dress and army boots? I don't know. Van Sant's inclusion of these missionaries in the film could be totally random, which is a cop out explanation I know, but the IMDB also maintains that the Yellow Pages salesman in the film was actually a Yellow Pages salesman who simply wandered onto the set.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen the film in its entirety, so there could be themes I'm missing that would shed some light on why this particular scene was included. I love Nirvana, but frankly, I'm not sure I have the patience to actually watch this movie all the way through. After watching both Gerry and Elephant, I think I get the idea, Van Sant. Fool me twice...

In the absence of insight into this passage in the film, I will humbly offer a few points on the Elders' technique. Asking to come into the house in order to "tell you a little about our Church, give you information on our religion," is not going to open many doors. And to begin the discussion by pointing out that "alcohol is bad for our bodies" while the host pours himself a glass of wine is poor form, (and a few discussions early). Explaining the atonement and prayer simultaneously by (briefly) referencing Old Testament laws of sacrifice is perhaps not the best tack either. They also don't seem very engaged or enthusiastic about the message. Then again, I remember having companions like this, and for all I know, this is exactly how I sounded when I delivered the discussions in French.
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Hustle & Flow (2005)

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2005, Dir. Craig Brewer

Context: Aspiring rapper DJay (Terrance Howard) is setting up a make-shift home studio with friend Key (Anthony Anderson), when there's a knock at his door. One of his prostitutes (Shug, played by Taraji P. Henson) – DJay is a pimp, you see – answers the door, and then comes to fetch DJay, who is displeased at being interrupted. He goes to the door, and mistakes Key's musician friend Shelby (DJ Qualls) for someone else, after seeing his white dress shirt and neck tie.

Hustle & Flow

Exegesis: It's hard out here for a pimp, and apparently hard in DJay's neighborhood for a Mormon. Despite a missing name tag and no companion, DJay mistakes Shelby for a missionary. Shelby opens with the decidedly un-missionary-like "Hey Man," and DJay remarks that Mormons are "brave motherf***ers" presumably for showing venturing into a tough neighbourhood like DJay's.

DJay doesn't seem antagonistic towards Mormons exactly, but it's unclear how receptive he would have been to the message had Shelby actually been a missionary. This is clearly a light interlude in the film, played for humour. DJ Qualls, the actor playing Shelby, certainly looks out of place in that neighbourhood, and with a little shorter haircut might even pass as a skinny young missionary. Is the movie suggesting that Mormon missionaries are inherently funny, or that they would necessarily be harassed or abused in certain neighbourhoods? I don't think so - I think this is just another humorous juxtaposition; the ol' mistaken identity gag. And I think it works, for what it's worth. Besides, DJay's declarative observation is kind of a compliment.

Censor's Note: I know we're (probably) all adults, and I wondered about what to do when I inevitably got to those clips that contained foul or questionable language. Should I post an uncensored version and a bowdlerized version and let people choose according to their own personal comfort level? In the end, I decided I'd just mute the offending word. I kind of want everyone to feel comfy coming to this site and watching these clips. The missing words are probably obvious, and maybe I made the wrong decision, but when you start your archive of incidental references to Mormons and Mormonism, you can make it as filthy as you want. It's not like Hustle & Flow is hard to find, if anyone wants to watch this clip in its original glory – it won a bunch of Oscars, for crying out loud.

To clarify, I'm talking about expurgating the big ones, the F-bombs et al. If you can't even stomach the occasional "hell" and "damn", then you should probably use your own discretion, because I'm leaving those in. My favourite clip on this site (from Cheers) has Kirstie Alley saying "damn".
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Beavis and Butt-head (1994)

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Season 4, Episode 12
"Late Night with Butt-head" 

Mike Judge's seminal creation: Beavis and Butt-head; a show embraced by the very demographic Judge was mocking, the show was inescapable in the 90s, as were irritating impressions of the title characters (both voiced by Judge). Judge would go on to create the TV series King of the Hill, and the movies Idiocracy, and Extract, as well as his masterpiece (so-far) Office Space.

Context: Beavis and Butt-head, the two adolescent slackers, are enjoying their favourite activity, criticizing music videos, when Donny Osmond's Sacred Emotion comes on. Beavis and Butt-head are apparently aware of the Osmonds' religious affiliation... sort-of.

Beavis and Butt-head

Exegesis: This clip is so juvenile (as was intended), it would be even more reductive than usual to pursue anything more than a cursory exegesis.

It's that old canard again: "Mormon" kind of sounds like "Moron", if you're an idiot. This joke is more or less identical to the one used in the "Married With Children" clip. Butt-head does correct his friend's malapropism (although he has just suggested that Donny's dad, "Lee Harvey Osmond", killed JFK), and points out that Beavis means "Mormon". How to describe Mormons to someone as simple as Beavis? Butt-head: "Those are those dudes who come up to your house on bicycles." Unphased, Beavis asks if the music he's hearing is the Moron Tabernacle Choir...

So we've got "Moron" for "Mormon", missionaries on bikes, the Tabernacle Choir... the only easy Mormon reference not mined for laughs in this clip is polygyny, and I'm not sure how that oversight was made.

With all that said, Donny Osmond (and his family) were real ambassadors for this Church in the 70s. There wasn't anyone as famous at that time who was a faithful member of the Church, let alone someone who was idolized by a lot of young people. (Not all young people, obviously.) To this day, their Mormonism tends to be mentioned whenever any of them are interviewed. In fact it may be the one salient detail most people know about them, along with the fact that Donny has a sister named Marie.
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Yes Man (2008)

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2008, Dir. Peyton Reed

Context: Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) is an asocial guy who says no to everything in his life. He is content to watch videos alone at home, avoids commitments, and neglects his friends. Eventually an acquaintance forces Allen to a self-improvement seminar where the mantra is "yes". Slowly, Allen comes to embrace "yes" as a way of life, and resolves to say "yes" to every opportunity. This leads to a montage (excerpted in the clip below) where we see some of the things Allen is willing to say "yes" to...

Yes Man


Exegesis: It used to be that Jehovah's Witnesses were the go-to religious missionaries for a door-to-door gag. Mormon Missionaries have been cropping up a lot more, it seems. In most of these instances, with very few exceptions, movies and television shows get one (or more) of the following three things wrong about missionaries:
  • They are not wearing black name tags.
  • They identify the Church incorrectly, usually as "The Church of Latter-Day Saints," (omitting the less-funny "of Jesus Christ" part).
  • Utterly uncharacteristic (and usually fanatical) rhetoric.
Incidentally, on that last point, Mormon missionaries-at-the-door seem to be portrayed mostly as clueless moon-eyed zealots, spouting generic born-again platitudes or asking inane new-age questions. (Last Days was one movie that actually gave the missionaries things to say that some [albeit less-effective] Mormon missionaries might actually say.)

Yes Man only misses the first point in that list – no black name tag. Surprisingly, the movie does give the full, correct name of the Church, and doesn't even follow it up with a clarifying "You know, 'The Mormons'!"

The only other logistical problem I can see with this scene is that if Jim Carrey's character has to say yes to everything, (and assuming the missionaries were doing their job), he'd definitely be baptized into the Church before the end of the movie...
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