Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
Welcome to This Week in Mormons’ first post from Latter-day Saint Video Vault. Whether hard to watch or heartwarming, this bi-weekly column is going to look at the favorite and forgotten media of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LDS community. I’ll be recapping the videos as a vehicle to look at their strengths, flaws, and themes.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in the Northeast it’s cold, windy and dark more than it’s sunny and mild this time of year. Spring is on the horizon but is still so far away. In keeping with the bleakness of the season, I thought we’d lead off with the 1973 classic, Cipher in the Snow.
The film is decidedly depressing and darker than what one typically expects nowadays from something financed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It, and the film we’ll cover next time, represents something of “Mormon Film Noir,” even if it’s not a black and white crime drama.
Cipher in the Snow was originally published as a short story by Idaho teacher Jean Mizer in 1964. It even won first prize in a Reader’s Digest competition. In 1973, Brigham Young University adapted it into a short film based on a screenplay by celebrated novelist Carol Lynn Pearson. It was also shot by Reed Smoot (yes, of those Smoots), who won an Oscar that same year for Best Documentary Feature. So there were some capable hands all over this thing.
The story opens on a busy bus stop in winter. Kids are playing together but one young man, Cliff Evans, keeps himself isolated. Shortly after boarding a bus, Cliff asks the driver if he can get off. He immediately disembarks, falls in the snow, and DIES! They call an ambulance, which looks like it was used for ECTO-1 many years later, administer first aid when the EMTs arrive, but do no avail. Cliff is gone.
We then venture to a school administration office where one of Cliff’s former teachers, the bus driver and the principal talk about the death. The principal voluntells the teacher, Frank Collier, to notify the family of Cliff’s death and write the obituary with what he gleans from meeting the parents and clearly meticulous school records that evaluate a student with one sentence per year.
We learn that Cliff was a good boy but had few friends. He did well at school but then started to have problems in third grade when his mother and father divorce, and his mother remarries what seems to be the male version of Lady Tremaine from Cinderella. The stepfather regularly verbally abuses Cliff, taking digs at his intelligence and ability to do things correctly. As Frank Collier reviews progress reports, he makes the observation that Cliff simply started living up to the labels placed on him by others—an observation supported by various flashbacks. Frank even learns that he was Cliff’s favorite teacher, yet Frank barely knew him.
As Frank and others discuss Cliff they learn there was no medical reason for his death according to the autopsy report. Wait. What? Why do school administrators have a child’s AUTOPSY REPORT? Times they have a-changed. Frank concludes that everyone reduced Cliff to a zero—a cipher—and in turn Cliff gave up on life. The film ends at Cliff’s funeral, where Frank struggles to get even 10 people together who knew Cliff well enough to honor him.
After the graveside service (conducted by a priest with a collar in an effort to continue to ensure any Mormon connotations vis a vis BYU are avoided), Frank Cnearly brushes off a student asking for help but quickly remembers his experience with Cliff. He vows not to let another student suffer as Cliff did and engages with the student as the end credits roll.
Cipher in the Snow has a good message, albeit a heavy handed one. Everyone matters. The words we use to describe others matter. Words matter! And being ignored matters! If you are looking for an uplifting film to teach that for your next Bishop’s Youth Night, even with the dated production, look on.
Next time: 1977 was the year that gave us Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Annie Hall. It also gave us BYU Motion Picture Studios’ exploration of abandonment and loneliness with Cipher in the Snow‘s spiritual wintry twin, The Mailbox.