Catholic Block

Writer-director Kevin Smith defends God, dirty words, and New Jersey

Some days, when he's not making movies, peddling comic books, or fighting denunciations from the Catholic League, Kevin Smith wonders when the time will come to quit the biz. He's spoken in the past of his admiration for Spike Lee's career, of the wily Brooklynite's ability to make all kinds of movies -- comedies, tragedies, and documentaries -- each bearing his own stamp. But Smith wonders if he's got that kind of longevity in him.

"In five or 10 years, I don't know if I'll be making films anymore," says Smith, who is not yet 30, and in whose hands the vulgar banter of teenagers and postadolescents becomes a suburbanized kind of lyric poetry. "I'm not like one of these born filmmakers. I didn't figure out I wanted to be a filmmaker until I was 21" -- the movie Slacker famously changed Smith's life when he was working at a convenience store in New Jersey -- "and I don't know if it's necessarily my calling. So for now, it's a good way to write and have the largest possible audience see what you're writing. But in five or 10 years? I always figured I would be a filmmaker until I had nothing left to say."

Well, for Kevin Smith, and for Kevin Smith fans -- the young audience that connects with his combination of love, sex, shopping, and Jersey in films like Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy -- there's good news and bad news. The bad news is, his new movie, the long-awaited and controversial religious comedy Dogma, is largely a mess, albeit a brilliant mess, with moments of disarming humor and an intellectual seriousness rare for the work of a young filmmaker. The good news is, the movie shows that Smith could have a potentially major career just from unraveling and reconciling the loose ends and contradictions and half-realized moments of this one film. Of all of Smith's movies, Dogma offers the best peek into his creative soul.

"I'm not like one of those born filmmakers," says Smith.
"I'm not like one of those born filmmakers," says Smith.

Like Chasing Amy, the widely hailed 1997 film about a comic-book artist who falls for a lipstick lesbian, Dogma ambitiously wrangles together the deeply serious and the shockingly profane. And, like that film, it is extravagantly foulmouthed and excessively pious simultaneously. The movie's plot -- and these last two are the only Smith movies that could be called plot-driven -- follows two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) traveling to a church in New Jersey in order to slip through a biblical loophole and return to heaven. Trying to head these two off is a ragged band that includes a descendant of Christ who's had a crisis of faith (Linda Fiorentino), the "prophets" Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), a lap dancer (Salma Hayek), and Rufus, the 13th apostle (Chris Rock), who claims he was "edited" out of the Bible for racist reasons. (Oh yeah, and Alanis Morisette plays God.)

Though the film is Smith's first with a big cast, a real budget, and mainstream movie conventions like special effects, it's hard to call it -- as some critics framed the sophomore slump Mallrats -- a sellout or compromise of his vision. Smith took the money given to him for the set and costumes, for instance, and made the film into what he calls "a living comic book." (Smith owns a comic-book shop in Monmouth County, New Jersey, the stretch of suburban seaside where he grew up and still lives.) Dogma's combination of big-time ambition with a young filmmaker's clumsiness may be this simple: Smith wrote the script at the very beginning of his career. He got the idea, in fact, even before Clerks, his 1994 debut that captured a slice of life at a Jersey convenience store and set new records for indie films' low-budget look. "We went to do Clerks because that was a far more executable film than this would've been at the time," says Smith. "You wouldn't want to make this movie on the cheap."

He began working on Dogma's script soon after the release of Clerks, writing most of it on the road while traveling to festivals to support his debut film. If not for a few quirks of history -- Smith's attempt to make a "critic-proof movie" with Mallrats and to write Amy for then girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams -- Dogma could have been made four or five years ago. But the result, he said, would have been a train wreck of a movie. "Some people will say that the film is visually inept now. I just can't imagine what they would've said then. Who knows? It would've been one-camera setups and a bunch of shit happening in front of it -- lining people up against a wall, that kind of thing. Visually I got to grow a little bit."

Another thing that grew for Smith in the meantime was his credibility, as he drew kudos for Chasing Amy and watched his capital soar after bringing the Good Will Hunting script to Miramax. That film, written by Affleck and Damon, went on to become one of the year's best reviewed and an Oscar-winner; at the time, both Affleck and Damon were just two joes from Massachusetts who had an "in" because they knew Smith.

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