This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Kevin Smith has always felt like an outlier on the indie filmmaking wave that crested during the 1990s, following his own unique trajectory that lead him to Jay & Silent Bob Reboot. And here’s a prime example of Smith’s singular nature: right at the end of the decade in which he made his name with the Jersey trilogy (comprising the interconnected R-rated comedies Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy), he came out with Dogma, a wildly imaginative genre-bender that tilted the relatively grounded View Askewniverse on its axis.
With a stellar cast of View Askew alums and major movie stars, the film follows a pair of fallen angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), as they become aware of a loophole in Catholic dogma that would allow them to re-enter heaven via a church in New Jersey. Regrettably, this will also contradict God and thus undo existence as we know it.
As the almighty is currently M.I.A., the Metatron (Alan Rickman) ordains divorced abortion clinic counsellor Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino) as a defender of the faith. Skeptical as she is, Bethany embarks on a road trip in which she encounters angels, demons, a lost apostle, an erstwhile muse, a monster made of shit, and of course, a pair of drug dealers called Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith).
This is lofty and ambitious material for any filmmaker, but for Smith, this comic fantasy feels just as personal as any of the films that came out of his own life experience. Dogma lives and breathes in the intersection between this altar-boy-turned-geek-icon’s twin obsessions – his Catholic upbringing and his movie fandom.
From the project’s inception to its controversial reception and eventual legacy, the film is a fascinating waypoint in the writer-director’s eclectic career. It’s both reverent and irreverent; beguiling and contradictory; violent and gross, but also funny and heartfelt. It’s just a shame that the film is now somewhat scarce, due to Harvey and Bob Weinstein personally owning the distribution rights to the film, which precludes its availability on any streaming platforms as yet.
If you haven’t seen it for that reason, we’re going to get into a few more spoilery details from this point on, but for now we’ll say this – it’s just about everything you’d want from a Kevin Smith movie about God and Catholicism, and 20 years on, it’s arguably the film that no one other than Smith could (or arguably would) make.
Smith wrote the first draft of Dogma around the same time as Clerks came into existence. At the point where he was borrowing from relatives and maxing out credit cards to get his convenience-store comedy made, the prospect of making a film on this scale must have seemed unattainable.
But first and foremost, the script was an exercise of Smith’s faith during a time of crisis. His goal was to create a playground or forum in which to talk about some of the issues that were on his mind. The cartoonish or comic-book quality of the world is imperative to understanding where he’s coming from with this, and it’s a tone that Smith actively intended to create.
But the director has always been self-deprecating about his limitations as a visual filmmaker, and so the script sat in a drawer until after Chasing Amy cemented his place on the indie map. But when Dogma came back around, the 28-year-old Smith had more of a grasp on the carnivalesque world he wanted to build, appropriating the unreality of his favorite comics and movies along the way.
While each film had represented a step up from the super-indie production of Clerks (Mallrats was a Universal picture with the attendant ballooning budget of a studio feature, even the Miramax-funded Chasing Amy cost almost 10 times more than Smith’s self-funded debut feature), Dogma truly feels like a giant leap forward. The visuals are one thing, but it’s the unique and nigh-unimprovable casting that makes it obvious.
Affleck and Damon had worked with Smith before, but perhaps it was their then-recent Oscar wins that helped them bridge the gulf between Jason Mewes and Alan Rickman. Famously, after being warned by his director that this movie would have real actors in it, Mewes went away and learned the entire script, cover to cover, because he didn’t want to “piss off that Rickman guy.”
Clerks stars Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson also appear in small roles, but the main supporting cast includes Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, and a divine cameo from Alanis Morrissette. Some have said Fiorentino is miscast as Bethany, but she makes an ideal foil to Mewes and Smith’s immaturity.
However, on repeat viewings, it’s Rickman who is the most valuable player in making the film what it is. More than any of his other films, Smith’s script is densely but artfully worded, combining his trademark geek philosophy with tons of exposition about Catholic dogma, but Rickman makes it sing.
As the indignant voice of God, he’s hilarious when bemoaning his stained clothes or snarking about human fragility, but when he appears to Bethany at her lowest moment and recounts how he told a 12-year-old Jesus of his destiny (“I wish I could take it all back”), it’s one of the actor’s best-ever screen moments, full stop. Throughout the movie, he epitomizes the exact combination of reverence and irreverence that Smith is going for.
“It started with me asking some questions about my own faith, but the flick doesn’t attempt to hold out answers to any of those questions,” said Smith in the film’s original production notes. “It’s meant to make you laugh.”
And what could possibly be controversial about that?
Crisis of faith
Dogma doesn’t mock God or the stories on which Catholicism is built, but from the moment that Cardinal Glick (George Carlin, in a casting coup even more ironic than that one Alanis song) reveals Buddy Christ as the new, more commercial symbol of the Catholic church, it definitely takes the piss out of organized religion. And so, the very idea of the film was met with a response somewhat reminiscent of the uproar which greeted Monty Python’s Life Of Brian some 20 years earlier.
Most notably, the Catholic League (an American anti-discrimination organisation that has no official affiliation with the Vatican) went all out on declaring the film blasphemous sight unseen. Dogma was originally in production from April to June 1998 and was earmarked for a December 1998 release, but the Disney-owned Miramax wound up delaying the film’s release and buying the rights back from its parent company to protect it from the brewing backlash. This decision directly led to the aforementioned rights situation with the Weinsteins.
When the film eventually hit cinemas in December 1999 (distributed by Lionsgate in the US and FilmFour in the UK), the occasion was marked by protests at its premiere and, to a much lesser extent, at screenings across America. Smith has remarked that the Catholic League made his life a living hell for six months, but at least he managed to have some fun by appearing (not very) incognito in local news coverage of a sparsely attended protest to denounce his own movie.
It would be disingenuous to say we can’t tell why some religious organisations were upset or affronted by the film, but it’s a highly conservative response to a movie that’s not designed to preach to the converted. In a cinematic landscape where big movies tackle history and mythology routinely, Smith cuts through the dogmatic contradictions and pretensions and tells a modern story.
It’s undeniably a film about faith and one which is open-minded and inclusive about how women, people of color, and people in homosexual relationships are excluded from that faith by the texts’ original authors and their subsequent gatekeepers. The core message, the “Love One Another” of it all is still in there, but it’s also a film that sensibly posits that Jesus was more than likely a black man or that Mary and Joseph might have enjoyed a normal sexual relationship as a married couple after the immaculate conception.
Smith is doing the relationship movies that he’s always done, but he goes a long way towards humanizing the stories on which faith is built, rather than lampooning or commodifying them. When a drunken, atheistic Bethany sits across from Bartleby at the exact mid-point of the movie and they ponder their respective crises, the film takes it seriously. One character comes away from that exchange still uncertain but no less determined to do the right thing, while the other becomes hell-bent on cutting off all of existence to spite God’s face. Smith knows whose side he’s on.
The greatest stories ever told
The fact that Dogma is so refreshingly free of the pretensions that accompany a lot of other faith-based movies is down to Smith’s inflexible filmmaking style. While this looks fantastic for only $10 million and the director’s one-night-only collaboration with cinematographer Robert Yeoman and composer Howard Shore sets this apart from almost all of his other movies, it’s still unmistakably his.
But referencing other people’s movies is part and parcel of that, and one of the early scenes with “prophets” Jay and Silent Bob acknowledges the View Askewniverse’s debt to John Hughes’ interconnected comedy movies. Specifically, they’re visiting Illinois to try and find Shermer, the fictional town “where all the honeys are top-shelf, but all the dudes are whiny pussies.”
Before that scene is even over, Jay also compares himself and Bob to Han and Chewie with Bethany as Princess Leia (a reference that Hayek’s Serendipity, who apparently had a hand in inspiring that movie, repeats later on by calling Bethany the princess) because of course Star Wars is a sacred text to some as well. So is The Wizard of Oz. But you could make a case for the structure resembling any number of movies without calling it derivative, because that’s sort of the point here.
This was a while before comic-book movies reached their current golden age, but when you view it through the same prism as Lucas and Hughes’ movies, it’s impossible not to see this as a celebration of the stories Smith grew up with. Granted, it’s one that got a Last Jedi-level response from a certain vocal sector of his fellow God fans, but that seems especially ridiculous when you consider that 1999 also saw the release of more exploitative films like Stigmata and End of Days.
For at least part of his life, these stories and their characters were more important to Smith than Batman and Luke Skywalker and you rarely see someone make a cool, fun movie about them like this one. So instead, Smith made one, as only he could. Where practicing Catholics may not get as much from it, it’s fascinating for us lapsed Catholics to take a look at what is ultimately a fan film about the stuff we were into as kids.
Or, to refer back to Smith’s own words again: “Predominantly, what I’ve always done is relationship movies and [Dogma] is a farce and a fantasy about the relationship with God. But no one can mistake it for any sort of tome or a text. The absurdity of the characters sticks a pin into any potential didacticism.
“All along, I’ve thought, how seriously can you take a movie that has a rubber poop monster in it?”
There’s something enlightening about the moment in Dogma’s third act where Jason Lee’s smug, demonic Azrael puts on a shit-eating grin and urges Smith’s Bob to take a swing at him with a golf club that has (unbeknownst to the demon) been blessed by the Cardinal. It’s a capsule of the entire production – Smith himself shrugging his shoulders, picking up a blunt yet blessed instrument, and taking one big swing.
The result is naturally a bit messy, but whether you love or hate it, there’s no denying that it’s the most unique and original of all of Smith’s films. It’s a shame that we won’t get the 20th-anniversary edition home release that other View Askew films have enjoyed, but hopefully, someone will find a loophole in the sticky rights situation before the movie reaches its centennial.
Smith has discussed the possibility of making Dogma II in the past, but freely admits that the film was the result of 28 years of ruminations on the subject and he may have said all he had to say. The unexpected multimedia franchise that is Clerks will continue with a long-delayed third instalment, but as it stands, Jay & Silent Bob Reboot marks the first time he’s revisited Dogma specifically, in a character cameo that we won’t spoil here.
The director did take a shot at another form of organised religion in his underrated and similarly unclassifiable Red State in 2011. This takes the opposite tack from Dogma in trying to be as unlike a Kevin Smith movie as possible and is understandably harsher in its Westboro Baptist Church allegory. Around the same time, as he embarked on the gonzo, Smodcast-inspired spree that produced Tusk and Yoga Hosers, Smith also mooted a Rapture movie called Holy Christ, in which the returning Jesus is Godzilla-sized, but that remains one of his unrealised projects.
However, free of any sequels or direct follow-ups, Dogma remains the word on Kevin Smith’s geeky religious philosophising, and the word is good. Hugely rewatchable after all this time, its surrealism and silliness are backed up by an impeccable cast, a funny script, and a near-matchless perspective on the contradictions of existence. Amen to that.