Our review of Dogma, published May 4th, 2000, is also available.
No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater…than central air!
First he tackled the lame world of convenience store clerks. Then slacker teenagers hanging out in a mall. Then, male/female dynamics set against the world of independent comics. Now Kevin Smith takes on organized religion with Dogma. It's an ambitious film with a message for Christian believers and unbelievers alike, but unfortunately, it's also one of his weakest films. A very cool DVD set from Columbia sweetens the package.
Facts of the Case
Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) are a couple of angels banished to Wisconsin. They travel to New Jersey for the opening of a new Catholic church, hoping to take advantage of a loophole in Catholic dogma that will allow them passage back to Heaven. Enlisted to stop them is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker who happens to be a descendent of Christ Himself. Along for the ride are Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (director Kevin Smith); Rufus (Chris Rock), the thirteenth apostle left out of the Bible because he is black; and Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse seeking her own fame and fortune. Directing the forces of good is Metatron (Alan Rickman), the voice of God. Leading the forces of evil is Azrael (Jason Lee), a demon with an axe to grind.
First, let me say bravo to Kevin Smith for having the chutzpah to make Dogma. In these "enlightened," "sensitive" times, religion seems to be the one topic that is verboten from conversation in the media. Sure, you have people who talk about touchy-feely spirituality, but no one in the mainstream seems willing to discuss matters of belief and faith. For all its macho bravado and potty-mouth veneer, that's exactly what Smith tackles in Dogma, and I respect him for it. I also respect him for making a film about religious matters that is a cold glass of water thrown in the face of the religious community. I'll discuss that in more detail after going on one of my trademark personal diversions, though in this case I believe (pun intended) it to be warranted.
To say what I want to say about Dogma, I think you need to know where I come from religiously. Growing up, my family was very involved in church. I don't say that so you'll think I was forced to be around it—I threw myself into it. Later, in high school, I started to become jaded because of the stagnant, boring congregation we had been a part of. Even after my family left, that jaded outlook stayed. It became a hard, crystallized mass of resentment after five years in a Christian college, seeing people who either didn't care or were the open-mouthed, closed-minded sort. I gave up. I'm still a believer—it's who I am, there's no way to deny it—but I have a hard time bringing myself to participate actively with other people, mostly because I feel that if I ally myself with them, it means that I tacitly agree with them, and that's just not something I can bring myself to do. God made me me, and that's all I want to be. Of course, that's only a one-paragraph exposition on my religious history and viewpoint, but hopefully it gives you a sufficient window on my soul for this conversation.
I'm not one who generally looks for or cares about messages or morals in entertainment, because I often only seek entertainment for its base value: vicarious enjoyment. However, here Kevin Smith has something important to say about the role of faith in religious life, and it bears heeding. Kevin Smith is Catholic, so his own particular commentary on faith and religion is directed toward that venerable body. However, its message is one that the entire Christian religion should stand up and heed. The irony is, the very people who should be listening to it are going to be put off by Smith's trademark "dick and fart" jokes. Enough already…what's its message?
1) Faith and religious practice are two different things.
If those things mean anything to you—and it's to those people that the rest of this paragraph is dedicated—I hope you'll ponder them for a second. If they really mean something to you, and you haven't seen Dogma, I hope you'll upgrade your filter that makes the bad stay out but the good in, and you'll give Dogma a try. In many ways it's an eloquent look at what your beliefs should mean to you, and for those who do believe, it can (and if you're open-minded, should) strengthen your beliefs. Kevin Smith may have an unusual way of going about preaching a sermon, especially to those who are accustomed to dry pulpit theologizing…but really, if you think that this world is lost and need of saving, who are they going to listen to? The "wages of sin is death" guy, or the guy who puts it into words that they can understand? If you're going to accuse him of cherry-picking his messages from the Bible, I have to ask: aren't you doing that too? Doesn't everyone rationalize away one passage while using another to support their arguments? The people who quote Leviticus as a reason that homosexuality is wrong, do they also condemn men who don't have beards or people who eat shellfish? The religious intelligentsia of Jesus's day hated him because he hung out with the unwashed masses, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other "sinners." Even the people who followed Him sometimes didn't understand why He did what He did. Are you the modern day version of those Pharisees? Are you willing to deny getting the word to the "lost" because it doesn't conform to what you think the "law" says? My point is, if you really care about "the lost," try to understand this movie.
Whew. For the rest of you who don't care about its religious implications, thank you for sticking around. I'll leave that topic for the time being.
As someone who's been a fan of each and every Kevin Smith film or project, I have to say that I think Dogma is one of his weakest films. Yes, weaker than Mallrats, and for more or less the exact same reason: editing. Those in the film industry say there are three movies to every movie: the one on the page, the one that's filmed, and the one from the editing room. Mallrats was considerably longer on page and in filming, but when it reached the editing stage a large chunk of its story was left on the cutting room floor. You know that something happened to a movie when there's close to two hours of deleted footage. Parts of Dogma feel fragmented or disjointed, especially once you've seen the deleted scenes or read early drafts of the script (as I had, prior to seeing the film theatrically). Howard Hawks once said that a good film needs three good scenes, and no bad scenes. Dogma supplies at least three good scenes, but there's one in particular—an extended sequence in a strip club, starting by introducing Salma Hayek's character and culminating with an attack by a "shit demon"—that was bad in theory and even worse in execution, due to its particularly sloppy editing.
Besides the careless editing, another problem arises from poor casting. Salma Hayek is out of place as a fallen muse. Jason Lee was great in Mallrats and Chasing Amy, but as a demon he just feels out of place—in fact, his entire character doesn't make much sense in the context of the film. Worst of all is Linda Fiorentino. Smith has gone on record saying she was a prima donna on the set, and she doesn't seem to "get" the character. She smirks through the role, affecting an ironic air when Bethany should be the only person with strong feelings one way or the other about the spiritual manifestations appearing around her. It's another problem that her backstory landed on the cutting room floor, so her animosity to God goes unexplained.
However, not all the actors are weak spots. As the fallen angels, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are fantastic. Their ironic attitudes fit the characters, unlike Linda Fiorentino's performance. Their characters are the best defined by the script, going through a definite arc on their journey, their roles and attitudes reversing. It also helps that the lifelong friends have strong chemistry and play well off one another. Some people may have a problem with Chris Rock's black thirteenth apostle, but it's all in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of the movie, and he's one of the most enjoyable members of the cast. He's alternately funny and serious, and Rock proves that he can handle both. As usual with any movie that he's in, Alan Rickman steals all his scenes. It's unfortunately that most of them are opposite Linda Fiorentino, because the few that he has with other members of the cast play much better. And of course, there's Jay and Silent Bob. Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith have made these characters an indelible part of our cultural landscape. It's no wonder that Smith's latest film (and the last in his "Askewniverse"), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, was one of his best-received films by critics and audiences alike.
Columbia's release of this Dogma two-disc set was a long time in the making, and it was a case of double dipping advertised before the release of the original disc, making the double-dip less egregious. Fittingly, as this is Smith's most ambitious movie to date, this is also his most ambitious DVD. The dual-disc Alpha keep case is decorated like a Bible, while the booklet and DVDs inside bear the "Catholicism Wow!" and Mooby advertising used in the movie. The menus carry on the theme, while a crotchety old "church lady" pops up in the menu transitions warning of the errors of your ways. I have not seen the original DVD, so I cannot compare its video and audio presentation, but my impression jives with Judge Norman Short's review of the original disc. The movie, presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in anamorphic widescreen, shows occasional source artifacts or some edge enhancement, but is otherwise excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio has an expansive front soundstage, and nicely uses the surrounds and LFE.
Extras are plentiful and rich. The first disc contains two commentary tracks. One track is a "cast and crew" track featuring Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, View Askew "historian" Vincent Pereira, and actors Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and Jason Mewes. The other track is a "technical" track with Smith, Mosier, and Pereira. The cast and crew track is your typical Kevin Smith laughfest commentary, rife with anecdotes, jokes, and gentle ribbing. The technical commentary is drier, but has much more to do with the behind-the-scenes making of the film and the controversy surrounding it.
The second disc's menu list several options for your perusal: Deleted Scenes, Story Boards, Trailer, Outtakes, and Saints and Sinners. The 100 minutes of deleted scenes are presented with kitschy titles, and can be viewed in any order you choose. However, it only makes sense to watch them in the order presented. Kevin Smith and Vincent Pereira introduce each one, but sometimes the intro to one clip is tacked onto the end of the one preceding. The Story Boards section presents detailed storyboards for three scenes. The Outtakes section is 13 minutes of on-set fun. Saints and Sinners is your standard biography and filmography section, but presented uniquely like trading cards.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wish Dogma could be taken seriously, because it is quite obvious that Kevin Smith really has something to say. It's a Catch-22 for him: make a serious film and alienate his fan base, or make one that his fan base will love and alienate the rest of our uptight society. As much as I love his brand of low-brow humor, I'm looking forward to him making a serious film, perhaps even covering the same ground as Dogma. He proved with Chasing Amy that he could take things seriously, and in my opinion the result is his best (or at least my favorite) film.
The menus are cool and fun and all, but they grow old very quickly, and can be extremely confusing, for there is no logic to their flow, especially with the deleted scene menus. Simplicity never fails to deliver, and these menus are far from simple. Also, for some reason the menus are 4x3, while the film itself is 16:9. Most menus are formatted for 16:9 screens, with the sides cut off if the screen is 4:3. I don't know why Columbia made this choice, though I only found it annoying when using the discs on my computer.
When you're inside and very close to any group, it is very easy to take yourself and your group so seriously that you cannot see the things that outsiders (or even some insiders) might find humorous. Christians tend to be that way about their dogma and practices, and I think that's one of the problems Dogma encountered. Christians associate humor about their religion with hereticism—the same furor was raised by the Monty Python troupe's The Life of Brian, and "blessed are the cheesemakers" and some gratuitous full frontal nudity aside, it's hardly a sacrilegious film. People, lighten up! If I can make one last religion-based appeal, there is a great deal about God and Jesus and the Bible that we do not know. For all we know, it could be the work of aliens shaping our civilization, and then people writing down what they witnessed about these beings, and it's been interpreted incorrectly for thousands of years. If you can't question your faith, if you cease looking for the truth wherever it can be found, then your belief is little more than the rote memorization of facts handed to you by someone else, like the multiplication tables. Give Dogma a chance.
Oh, and as for the disc, if you like the movie, it's definitely worth adding to your collection, even if you already have the bare-bones edition. Find some other sucker and trade or sell it to them.
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