Welcome to the Lighthouse:
Where Mormon Propaganda Movies Meet Battleship Potemkin and Wild in the Streets
by Bob Satuloff
Detrain the “F” at Delancey, walk a couple of blocks east—you’re headed in the right direction if you pass Ratner’s—then hang a left at Suffolk Street, make your way to number 116, and you’ll come upon the Lighthouse Cinema, Manhattan’s newest and most uniquely programmed movie theater. Through July 4, for example, the Lighthouse is playing The Mormon Church Explains It All To You nightly at 8 and 10 p.m. Minimalist in decor but very comfortable, the 75-seat, one-screen theater—once a children’s clothing store, the space has the indefinible but palpable feeling of sorely missed, Manhattan movie houses like the Thalia—is the purview of Dennis Nyback, whose Pike Street Cinema was something of a legend to adventurous moviegoers in his home town of Seattle, Washington. An archivist, many of whose unique programs come from his vast, personal collection of rare films, Nyback charges $7 a ticket and offers patrons the only money-back guarantee in America, plus what he de-scribes as “weird discount plans for regular customers.”
As for The Mormon Church Explains It All To You, the program can be described as a cinematic ragu of hard-sell, propaganda featurettes aimed at dim-bulbed high school and college-age kids of three decades ago. These rarely seen shorts work overtime to trumpet the triple-tiered joys—pre-natal, earthly, and afterlife—in store for those who give themselves over to the Mormon Church, and the misery, failure, and humiliation awaiting those who don’t. How Do I Love Thee?, Man’s Search For Happiness, For Time and Eternity, and You Make the Difference were produced in the otherwise tumultuous ’60s at Brigham Young University by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, the Presidency, and the Council of Twelve—not on the back lots of L.A., but in what I now think of as Utahlywood.
Keith Atkinson has Marilou Dyreng about to flip her Mormon wig in For Time and Eternity.
Life before birth in Man’s Search For Happiness. Notice the vase.
The films waste no time making the point that if you like Jesus, you’ll love Joseph Smith, his direct descendant, emissary on earth and, incidentally, the founder of the Mormon Church. All other religions are false, misinformed, or superfluous, and that’s all you need to know. We’re shown scenes of the pre-life existence that prepares us for the test that is earthly life. Those who pass—that is, live within the narrow confines of Church guidelines—will wind up in heaven, depicted here as a combination of ancient Greece and a subur ban furniture store. In one scene, a couple of Pat Boone and Sandra Dee lookalikes dressed in flowing, white robes discuss the challenges ahead of them as human beings and the moral strength it takes to eschew such earthly temptations as cocktails and dancing. One of the stories concerns two college roommates. A blonde, who’s regularly sleeping with her boyfriend, almost has her virginal, brunette roommate convinced that saving it for marriage is an arcane, useless concept, until the blonde leams to her shock and dismay that her boyfriend, who’s been badmouthing her all over campus as a slut, is now abandoning her to marry an unsullied girl from back home. Well, hey, nobody respects an easy lay.
In another, a young woman—her flip hair-do has such width and height that today, she could rent it out to a family of six for $1,200 a month—is in a snit because her fiance wants to marry her in a Las Vegas all-night chapel instead of the Mormon Temple. In case you didn’t know it, couples who marry in the Temple stay together throughout eternity, while those who don’t become—well, it’s the opposite of separated at birth. Our heroine gets all the way to Vegas—that’s after she recovers from the horror of being offered a champagne toast by her best man—before concluding that she’d rather be a dried-up, big-haired old spinster than risk not marrying in the Temple. Stressed in all the films is the way in which peer pressure can lead an otherwise right-thinking person astray. Identifying with one’s generation over one’s elders is seen as the first turn-off on the highway to hell. But despite their bludgeoning heavy-handedness, thematic nuttiness, and the unassailable fact that people who believe this stuff are all but running the country, the featurettes that comprise The Mormon Church Explains It All To You can be thoroughly enjoyed as decor movies. The sets, set decoration, clothing, and hair-dos can stand proudly with those in the oeuvres of Ed Wood and early John Waters as paradigms of no-taste. Along with the snake-oil sales pitch, therein lies much of the entertainment value in this extraordinary program of films.
July 5-25, in an attempt to stem the tide of what Nyback calls “the tacit conspiracy that gets people to watch Hollywood garbage,” the Lighthouse will present the “Give Me Liberty Psychedelic Summer Anything Goes Film Festival.” Among the slew of programs on the schedule are The Hippie Temptation, a 1968 TV documentary anchored by Harry Reasoner (5 and 6); Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (10) and Ten Days That Shook the World (17); Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (11); Wild in the Streets, the 1968 youth-rebellion movie in which everyone over 40—and that includes Shelley Winters—winds up on LSD in concentration camps (13 and 14); and Cross Dress Extravaganza: Men in Drag and Women in Revolt, a compilation of clips and shorts from the ’20s through the ’60s (16). Then there’s / Love You, Alice B. Toklas, in which Peter Sellers tunes in, turns on, and drops out (19 and 20); Marsha Brady Fetish Night, in which Maureen McCormick plays, in addition to her signature role, a high school slut and a girl who inadvertantly cures a young man of his Partridge Family obsession—the evening includes a lookalike contest (23); Mondo Commie, a series of rare, U.S. government shorts from the ’50s (24); educational film nights, including Teen Trauma: Dating, Driving, Delinquency (7); and two DADA nights (8 and 22).
At a time when your local fourplex is probably playing Mission Impossible on all its screens, with shows starting every half-hour, the Lighthouse Cinema (212-979-7571) is the kind of movie house New York needs.
THE NEW YORK NATIVE July 8,1996
Peter Sellers (center) is stoned in I Love You Alice B. Toklas