Millennial Malaise 27: Dogma

In Which God is a Women, and she is Alanis Morissette.

The tale of Kevin Smith is the story of arrested development, of an artist who’s success was so intrinsically tied to his personal musings and slacker persona that to revoke those identifiers would be to remove what makes him distinct. Smith could only make the films he made in the 90’s in that time and place while also being considered a cultural renegade and boundary pusher. But the cutting edge of his material is now the mundane dialog of a viral Twitter exchange. His work, out of all of the 90’s indie darlings, has aged, not the poorest, that seems too mean for works of such obvious passion, but perhaps the oddest.

Dogma is the exception. Not in that it eschews Smith’s signature potty mouthed humor, hang out philosophizing, and pop culture acuity, but that it feels like the only time he pushed himself above and beyond what was expected of his work. Dogma isn’t just the evocation of a listless job, or listless mall, or listless relationship, it’s a profound search for meaning from that listlessness. A sincere and earnest attempt by Smith to reconcile his vulgar sensibilities with the world of the divine.

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This sincerity is what really makes Dogma not only stand apart from Smith’s other films (which also frequently wear their heart on their sleeve), but the entire indie film movement in the 90’s at large. The yearning of angels Loki and Bartleby (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck respectively) feels like genuine postulation. A honest attempt to revamp paradise lost for the MTV age. The crisis of faith experienced by Beth (Linda Fiorentino) is a thoroughly modern evocation of the struggles of somebody who wants to believe but can’t. The motley crew of demons and figures that tag along for the ride are Smith trying to find truthful, and foul, mouthpieces for a debate about spiritual belief.

Dogma then sits as the hinge of Smith’s career. I personally wouldn’t say it’s his greatest achievement (that honor still goes to Clerks) but it’s the last time he pushed himself as an artist instead of retreating back to the structures of previous successes or being caught in some sort of studio comedy limbo. Smith has always been one to admit modest aims, but it’s fascinating to see him force himself to actually work outside of the model that he set up for himself. Dogma is a high concept feature that needs a sense of control and certitude to manage the tonal and thematic tightrope its working on, and Smith strives for that goal even if he doesn’t quite make it.


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What’s fascinating about Dogma, is at the end of the day it’s a reaffirmation of faith from Smith. It may be hard to tell what with all the hoopla and outcry the film caused during it’s initial release (there are four jokey title cards at the top quasi-addressing the controversies), but the end product has a fairly positive outlook on Christianity and it’s place in a person’s life. It’s the the kind of Christianity espoused by a youth pastor sitting backwards in a fold-up chair: with room made for things like gay people, women, and minorities, but it does feel like a sincere attempt to bridge actual faith with slacker cool.

The religiosity of Dogma does provide a unique lens from which to view late 90’s spiritualism. In many ways Dogma is another flick about the coming apocalypse, brought about by cast aside heavenly hosts gripped by bits of existential nihilism. In fact Azrael (Jason Lee), and his quest to unmake existence to avoid going to hell, feels like he’s snipped from many of the loners and layabouts strewn across the decade in cinema. he’s an elevated demonic presence who speaks the gospel of Ethan Hawke from Reality Bites. Smith’s end times are brought about by the same cloth of people that he fancies himself an expert in, and the end of Dogma proposes that some form of sincerity is needed to go forward.

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The jocular forms of Christian and Catholic belief presented here also feel tied more to a time and place than I anticipated. While the discussions present (God is a woman, Jesus is black) are eternal, their presentation feels in line with some of the more new-agey spiritualism of the time. A kind of faith system built on shooting the shit with friends in a dorm hallway. But one that is alleviated from the full knowledge of what’s to come. Dogma fully blows past any abuses done by priests (even if it has some fun by joking at their self importance). And while there has always been a form of highly bigoted, fire-and-brimstone Protestantism, Dogma swerves around it, carving a religious niche that gets smaller and smaller as the years go on.

These earnest appeals to a form spiritual idealism are where Dogma finds most of its charms. This is a grand scale movie that plays out in the lowest fashion possible. Angels and Demons chat it up in bus stops and Mexican restaurants, and the fate of the world hinges on a trip to New Jersey. Dogma then achieves the highest form of low-brow, high-brow mashups, sincere theological exploration with poop demons and exploding bodies. And this tonality is what makes the movie Smith’s most exciting production.

But it doesn’t fully come together. Smith’s ambitions are high, but his execution still feels like he’s making Mall Rats. Even the heavenly and demonic can’t escapes Smith’s tactic of planting a camera and letting people talk. I can see why this might be appealing in the abstract, after all we are bringing the spiritual down to earth, but the format fails the story when it reaches the big moments. For example Smith indulges in a bit of hyper-violence, with splashes of blood and bodies riddled with bullet holes. However Smith’s technique leave these squib filled sequences feel more like perfunctory bits of bloodletting rather than anything purposeful. There’s no real charge or tension to the violence, just streaks of crimson across the screen.

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This becomes an even bigger problem when Smith tackles the stuff that’s supposed to be transcendental or actually awesome. When Alanis Morrisette finally appears as God from a New Jersey cathedral it doesn’t fill the audience with fear and trembling. Instead invokes more of “hey, neat” response, that Smith was able to use his clout and coolness to rope in a beloved and respected singer (whose voice we never hear) to do bit part in his movie. It’s more, “look at my cool friends” than, “we want to shake up your understanding of the divine.”

Dogma then is a tad hollow, and that might be okay. It’s fine that Smith wanted his cool friends to play cool parts in his cool movie. I mean that fits right in line with Smith’s ethos as a film maker, just to sit down and recreate what it was like to sit around and chat with a bunch of people you know. And sitting around and talking is a foundation for religious thinking, getting people together and debating the ins and outs of existence. If Smith had really honed in on that aspect Dogma might be more fully realized, but it stands now as an ambitious mish-mash of aspirations and ideas, striving to some sort of slacker transcendence.

Odds and Ends

  • My favorite joke in the movie, Jay has not only seen The Piano, but seemingly was also fairly engaged with it.
  • Alan Rickman gives the best performance in the movie, which is not surprising, but his combination of gravitas and comedy is pitch perfect.
  • It might be because I have him on the brain, but this feels like the closest Smith ever got to Tarantino. It might just be the copious buckets of blood, or genre mash-ups, but it seems more in line with Smith’s compatriot indie bad boys.
  • I will not be doing another smith movie for quite a while.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

I haven’t decided on next week yet. I thought about doing Pulp Fiction, but enough ink has been spilled on that. Throw down a suggestion in the comments.