The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Dogma (1999)”

01 Sep

There’s a scene in 1996’s ‘Trainspotting’ where Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller) sit on a grassy knoll shooting BBs at a dog’s rectum and discussing the slow decline in quality of the James Bond films. By way of explanation, Sickboy offers the following platitude:

Sick Boy: It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
Renton: What do you mean?
Sick Boy: Well, at one time, you’ve got it… and then you lose it… and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…
Renton: Some of his solo stuff’s not bad.
Sick Boy: No, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it’s actually just… shite.
Renton: So who else?
Sick Boy: Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…
Renton: OK, OK, so what’s the point you’re trying to make?
Sick Boy: All I’m trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Renton: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don’t rate that at all.
Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means fuck all. It’s a sympathy vote.
Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore. Is that it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Renton: That’s your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.

It’s a speech that could probably best describe the career of Kevin Smith, the director of tonight’s edition of the Sunday Cult Film Corner. I mean, what happened to the guy? When he first burst into the consciousness of cinemagoers all the way back in 1994 with ‘Clerks,’ we were seeing a guy who managed to make a film with zero money that was an instant mega cult classic that was both witty and sharp directorialy. It was so good that film critic Mark Kermode said ominously, “I´m slightly concerned that maybe Kevin Smith has made the best film he will ever make on his first attempt.” And alas for the best part those words have come true. Despite some good flourishes with ‘Chasing Amy,’ which really delves into the world of comic book geek culture (Check out the scene with the rant about Darth Vader as a symbol of black oppression!), but for pretty much the last decade he’s been trading increasingly diminishing returns. ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,’ ‘Jersey Girl,’ and ‘Zack & Miri Make A Porno,’ have all really misfired badly, while the less said about ‘Cop Out,’ the better. Nowadays he’s more well-known for his wonderful spoken word gigs, rattling forth the now legendary stories of trying to get a film about Superman made, or working with Prince.

Which is a shame because when he was on form, Smith was a really funny, incisive direct. And it shows with tonight’s film DOGMA. made in 1999, it stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, as two angels, Bartleby and Loki, who’ve been cast down to earth for defying the will of God. Desperate to get back to heaven, they see their chance when a New Jersey catholic church’s centennial anniversary provides them with a doctrinal loophole, whereby if they pass through the church’s doors, they will be absolved of their sins and be allowed to go back to heaven. Unfortunately if they do this, it will also overrule the word of God and therefor destroy all existence.

To stop them the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), chooses Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino), with the task fo stopping them. Sloane, a lapsed catholic who works in an abortion clinic, has lost her faith however due to her being infertile and is initially reluctant to take part. But on her quest she goes, aided and abetted by a cast of unorthodox religious characters, including the muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek) who in the film is working as a stripper, Rufus the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), who was left out of the Bible for being black, and two apostles i the for of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith). However certain parties, including the demon and former muse Azrael (Jason Lee), will stop at nothing to make sure that Loki and Bartelby complete their task and destroy all existence.

Naturally with a film such as Dogma, which deals with religion and faith in an openly satirical way (along with a smattering of shit(demon) and dick jokes), when it wa released it came under fire from religious bodies for blasphemy and attacking the church. Indeed there were protests at premiere screening, which took a surreal turn when Smith himself actually turned up to one of the protest to protest his own film, with none of the protesters actually realising who he was!!

But if many of the protesters could actually look past their own blinkered dogma, then they would realise that DOGMA is actually a very intelligent film. Like Ken Russell (Who created that other scathing anti-church film ‘The Devils’), Smith is a practicing catholic and knows his religious law. He also knows that these rules are often the cause of some of the greatest problems facing the church in modern times. Indeed one of the main messages that comes from Dogma is that it’s not about what religion you have or adherence to doctrine, more that you have faith and focus on what really matters, such as living life to the fullest, helping those in need, honoring and respecting all, expecting respect in return.

Of course for all non Catholics there is a lot of explaining to do, and DOGMA contains a LOT of exposition in the script. the different types of angels, the story of doctrinal law, the real reason for Gods will, etc.  Well you need to cover 2000 years of religious history, but it also shows how the doctrine meddling by man had caused the church to veer away from the original message. For example as Metatron points out, why is it that in the bible we read of Jesus’ birth, and his preaching in the last few years of his life, but nothing about his time growing up? Worth thinking about that.

What does indeed lift the film from something that could have been a bit boring and preachy, is the quality of the acting across the board. Fiorentino, throughout most of the film seems to have a permanent “O RLY??” sarky look on her face, which you realise is only a front as she struggles to actually take in the fact that not only does God exists, but almost everything she hold true about the church is based on at best a falsehood. Meanwhile Affleck and Damon portray Loki and Bartleby as a couple of bro dude from Southie, hoodies and all, the scenes with them dispensing religious justice on the corporate execs of a cartoon entertainment company for religious idolatry (in a barely concealed swipe at the craven materialism of Disney), and other assorted sins, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Other performances of note is the wit displayed by Rickman all acidic tongue and rolling of eyes at us stoopid hoomans, and a cameo by George Carlin, as the arrogant bishop of the church. The only false note in my opinion is that of the Jay & Silent bob characters  Maybe it’s me, but I’ve just never found their whole schtick funny in the slightest, and the parts of the film when they are all about blunts and bitches just bored me senseless, almost fast forwarding through the film. 

But that aside, DOGMA is a thoughtful film with a fairly cynic free heart at it’s core that wants to do good along with enough of a goofy edge (Including casting Alanis Morrisette as God!) to keep your interest. Indeed as far as films go, DOGMA would prove to be the last highpoint in SMith’s career.

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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Film


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