Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Film Appreciation - This Failed Experiment Called Existence

Cody Hamman has a certain degree of Film Appreciation for Kevin Smith's 1999 film Dogma.

There are a lot of fans who count Dogma as their #1 favorite Kevin Smith movie, but it has never been one of my favorites. It has always fallen a little flat for me, and I wasn't sure if I should write a Film Appreciation article about it... But I do have some level of appreciation for it. Partly just because it's a Kevin Smith movie, and I appreciate it every time he puts another movie out into the world. There's also a bit of personal connection, because when it was first released it was fitting for what was going on in my life at the time. When it reached theatres in 1999, I was a fifteen about to turn sixteen year old kid who had received all of my education through Christian schools, but was beginning to question the religion I had been raised in.

A crisis of faith was what inspired Smith to write Dogma in the first place. He had been raised Catholic but was starting to waver, and he wrote this script to work through it. This is how you get the lead character, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who is a Catholic who still goes to church but feels nothing while she's there. She fears God is dead. A friend (played by Janeane Garofalo) tells her, "Faith is like a glass of water. When you're young, the glass is small, and it's easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn't fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled." If I remember correctly from somewhere within the thousands of hours of Kevin Smith podcasts I've listened to, I think that is advice he was actually given by a mysterious person who sat with him in a church one night. And when this movie came out, I was definitely feeling like my glass of water was no longer full.

Bethany soon comes to find out that everything she read about in the Bible was at least a version of the truth; she encounters a couple characters who dispute the details. God exists, and is alive, but is in trouble. Bethany meets angels and demons, talks to characters who actually knew Jesus Christ. She discovers she is related to Christ, the last of his bloodline. The Last Scion. It ends with her, because her crisis of faith began when an infection destroyed her uterus and her husband left her since she couldn't have children. And this troubled character who has issues with God is called into action by supernatural beings to literally save all of existence.

A pair of angels, "watcher" Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and former Angel of Death Loki (Matt Damon), were banished from Heaven when Bartleby, who sympathized with humans, talked Loki into giving up the Angel of Death gig. God decreed that Bartleby and Loki will never step foot in Heaven again; but after spending all of human history in Wisconsin, the pair have found a loophole in Catholic dogma. Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), head of a church in New Jersey, is spearheading a "Catholicism Wow!" campaign in an effort to draw more people into the faith. His church will no longer display the image of Christ crucified in the cross, instead they'll display the Buddy Christ figure, which has Christ winking and giving a thumbs up. (I had a small Buddy Christ on the dashboard of my car for a long time.) Glick is also having his church rededicated, and during the ceremony its doorways will serve as "a passageway of plenary indulgence". Anyone who passes through the doorway will instantly be forgiven of all their sins. Bartleby and Loki realize that if they pass through and are forgiven, they can then cut their wings off and become mortal, and then die and go to Heaven. They don't realize that by reversing God's decree they will be proving that God is fallible, thus negating all existence.

Yeah, even as someone who had to study the Bible for many years, a lot of this stuff is over my head. Smith obviously dove deeper into his Catholicism than I ever dove into my religion.

Why doesn't God just stop Bartleby and Loki? Because a trio of hockey stick wielding demon teenagers, the Stygian triplets, have caught Him while He was visiting the Jersey boardwalk in human form and beat Him into a coma. God is now trapped in a human body that's on life support. Bethany needs to reach Him and pull the plug so He can return to Heaven and get control of this situation.

Bethany doesn't have to do this alone. She gets assistance from Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th Apostle, who was left out of the Bible because he was black; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse-turned-stripper who inspired the writers of the Bible to do their thing; the Metatron (Alan Rickman), an angel who has served as the voice of God throughout history because the human body can't withstand the awesome power of God's actual voice; and a couple of human prophets. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). Bethany's starting point is McHenry, Illinois, and Jersey natives Jay and Silent Bob happen to be in Illinois because they were trying to move to Shermer, Illinois, the town where many of John Hughes' movies take place. They didn't know Shermer was a fictional location.

The end credits of Clerks had promised that Jay and Silent Bob would return in Dogma, it just took two movies (Mallrats and Chasing Amy) longer than expected. The wait was worth it, because the pair gets their most screen time yet in this one.

But I still get the sense that Dogma might have happened too early. The movie doesn't seem like Smith was ready to handle something on this level. He was working with his highest budget yet, but the scope of the story still exceeds the budget he had to work with. You can see that in the fact that most of the action occurs off screen, but that's not entirely a budgetary issue. Smith has said that he was not visually prepared for or interested in handling some of the bigger action and effects moments, so he just glossed over them. There's a feeling throughout that the movie isn't quite reaching its potential, held back by lack of money and lack of style.

I also feel that it is dragged down big time by Fiorentino. She is a total casting misfire as Bethany, her delivery and demeanor is all wrong, she sucks the life out of most of her scenes. And this is the lead character. Smith had trouble working with her, there were times when she wouldn't even speak to him, and that lack of enthusiasm for being on the set with her director really comes through.

While Bethany and her crew are making their way to Jersey, Bartleby and Loki don't know the forces of Heaven are out to get them so they take some extra time to go on a violent vendetta against the company behind Mooby the Golden Calf. As presented in this film, the Mooby company is like a mixture of Disney and McDonald's, there are bi-coastal theme parks and a chain of fast food restaurants, among other things. Mooby is their version of Mickey Mouse. The company is headed up by some horrible human beings, so Bartleby agrees to let Loki have some Angel of Death fun at their expense.

When Bartleby and Loki are shown buying guns and blades at a store, the clerk is Jeff Anderson, who played Randal in Clerks. Smith and Anderson had a falling out after Clerks and didn't speak for a while after, that's why Anderson missed out on Mallrats and Chasing Amy, but they patched things up in time for this one. Anderson's Clerks co-star Brian O'Halloran is also in here - and he's another member of the Hicks family. O'Halloran played Dante Hicks in Clerks, Gil Hicks in Mallrats, and now he's TV reporter Grant Hicks.

Bartleby and Loki have some assistance of their own on their mission. They were tipped off to this whole rededication thing by the central air-loving demon Azrael (Jason Lee), who is sort of the film's villainous mastermind. Bartleby and Loki think he was just giving them a friendly tip, but he wants existence to be wiped out because not existing is better than spending any more time in Hell. He sent the Stygian triplets after God, and he sends a demon made of excrement after Bethany and her pals.

Around the midway point, Bartleby and Loki finally find out what's going on... and things take a turn. Loki starts to question whether or not they should go through with their plan, while Bartleby becomes even more determined to see it through. Bartleby has always loved God and been a fan of people, that's why he wanted Loki to stop being the Angel of Death, but now he's had it. Affleck gets to deliver an angry speech about humans that I feel is the absolute best scene of the entire movie. It still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. "These humans have besmirched everything He's bestowed upon them. They were given paradise, they threw it away. They were given this planet, they destroyed it. They were favored best among all His endeavors, and some of them don't even believe He exists! And in spite of it all, He has shown them infinite f*cking patience at every turn."

That part of his speech helped me in my crisis of faith at the time. For a while. So did the end credits song "Still" by Alanis Morissette, who appears as God Herself at the end of the movie.

The characters are great, the writing is strong, there are great scenes, it provides a good amount of laughs - most of them courtesy of Jay and Silent Bob - but I feel that Dogma drags on too long at 128 minutes. I get tired of watching the movie well before it reaches its end. There are really good ideas here, but the execution is lacking. This story could have made for a better movie if there was a bit more money, better visuals, a better lead actress, and maybe a slightly shorter running time.

I'm glad it exists, though. I have watched it many times over the years, including three theatrical viewings. One when it was first released, the second a screening of the longer Cannes cut at one of Smith's Vulgarthon film festivals, and a screening at Studio 35 in Columbus, Ohio that was followed by a Q&A with Smith and Mewes and the live recording of a podcast episode.

I have owned the special edition DVD release of Dogma since it first came out in 2001, and my copy is not one that anybody else would covet. When the purchase was made, we had a mastiff puppy I named Hexadecimal, and while I was out one day she decided to use my Dogma DVD case as a chew toy. She managed to mangle the case pretty well without doing any damage to the discs inside, so I've kept that copy for the last eighteen years. Hexadecimal passed away a long time ago, but she left her mark on my DVD collection.

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