Film Reviews

Catholic Block

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.

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.

The Dogma script (originally called God) changed little as time went on, despite being revised every year or so and trimmed from its nearly 200-page length. By April 1998, it was time to shoot. "We were at like the sixth draft. And not much really changed. It just got shorter and shorter, year by year, as it was like, 'I'm gonna throw this out 'cause it's a lowbrow joke that I'm a little bit above at this point.' "

Dogma debuted at Cannes to extremely mixed reviews. The film took on a profile broader than most indie films when the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York-based group that compares itself to the Anti-Defamation League, saw the movie and began a campaign against it. William Donohue, the Catholic League's president, began to put pressure on Disney to cut all ties with the film and its studio, the Disney-owned Miramax. Threats flew back and forth. Instead of bailing on the movie, Miramax producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein bought the picture for their own private company, then auctioned if off to Lions Gate, a Canadian indie with no corporate parent that might serve as a target for boycotts or pressure. The Catholic League was only partly satisfied.

"The position of the Catholic League is that the content and characters of the film are extremely offensive, despite the denials of its writer-director, who has claimed that the movie is pro-faith," says Patrick Scully, the group's director of communications. The league wonders, he says, which part of the film is pro-faith: "Is it the descendant of Christ who works in an abortion clinic? Is it the character who says the abortion clinic is a good place to meet chicks?...It's another example of a pattern of films that are anti-Catholic. We're saying enough is enough."

Smith's longtime producer, Scott Mosier, who met the director in Vancouver during Smith's sole semester at film school, says the controversy really took Smith by surprise. "When you're making a movie you've got a million different things to think about, and you're working 18 hours a day. And you're worried about the cast, and the CGI guy is flying in....You're always looking right in front of you. We didn't sit around and say, 'Wow, this is really gonna drive people crazy.' "

When Smith discusses the Catholic League and the ensuing controversy, he grows engaged and angry but argues philosophical points instead of dwelling on his own feelings. John Pierson, the indie angel who helped Clerks get sold and helped out unofficially on Dogma, says Smith has been personally hammered by the conflict. "Everyone who thinks that controversy is part of the successful marketing of this film is crazy," says Pierson. According to Pierson, who hosts the Independent Film Channel's show "Split Screen," Smith was hurt when Miramax backed away from Dogma. "He won't admit it," Pierson says. "I tried to get him to admit it on my show, but he wouldn't." Pierson attributes Smith's reluctance to talk to his loyalty to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who have produced each of Smith's films.

The Dogma controversy caught fire only briefly, never quite becoming the Elia Kazan-sized brouhaha it threatened to. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Catholic League has no plans to picket the film when it opens next week, though the group has told its members it finds the film unacceptable. "All we're looking for is the same respect afforded other religions," says Scully.

The Catholic League's opposition still stings Smith, who doesn't politely back away from the issue the way other artists might. He calls the league "a splinter group," adding: "It's one guy who's frustrated, who says, 'I've had it up to here, as a Catholic, with getting bashed.' As if any Catholic has known persecution! I don't think any Catholics have known persecution since the last apostle was martyred. The Catholic church has pretty much ruled the known world for the last 2,000 years. So when Bill Donohue gets up on a podium at a press conference and talks about how Catholics are a minority and should be treated like any other minority, and if Jews can be upset by anti-Semitism and blacks can be upset [by racism], why can't we be upset by Catholic humor? I'm just like, 'What're ya, high?' It's not the same thing!"

Dogma is Smith's first film with what he calls "an A-list cast." He decided to pack the film with famous actors after speaking with Harvey Weinstein at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. Weinstein told him to get some "faces" in it, since he thought it would be a difficult sell. Affleck, who'd been in Mallrats and Chasing Amy, was one of the first to sign on and brought his sidekick, Matt Damon. "The whole cast of the movie really came together before everybody blew up. Ben and Matt were in before they became 'Ben and Matt.' We got [Chris] Rock in before he exploded, before he was on all the covers of magazines. It made us look really smart, but it had nothing to do with shrewd choice. It was just like, 'We like these guys, we can spend time with them, they can definitely do the role.' "

As the films have ranged from convenience stores and shopping malls to lesbian bars and holy sanctums, one thing that's stayed constant is the duo of Jay and Silent Bob. Smith himself plays Bob, a soulful fellow who rarely speaks, while longtime Jersey homeboy Jason Mewes plays Jay, a dope dealer and all-around slacker genius. To call him an amateur actor would be generous, but Mewes gives, with Chris Rock, the best performance in Dogma. Pierson calls the film "the grand triumph of Jay and Silent Bob," emphasizing the important of comic relief in a film that includes scriptural debates. Certainly, the appearance of characters who go back to the beginning of Smith's career adds to the film's personal quality. (Not everyone loves Mewes' character. One review of Clerks suggested he crawl back under the rock he came from.)

Smith wishes -- as do legions of Mewes fans -- that his shaggy blond friend acted more. "I did a series of Nike spots and put him in it.

They were like, 'Can you get someone to be in the commercials?' And I was like, 'Yeah, hold on,' and Mewes was on the couch. 'You want to be in a commercial?' and he was like, 'All right.' But he doesn't do enough. He should really concentrate on acting -- that's really what he's good at. He's not much good at anything else, but sometimes he works in our comic-book store, down in Red Bank. And before that he used to deliver pizza and do roofing, like between flicks.

"He's just not an actor like the other guys in the movie. Mewes just likes to go to the set and get free breakfast burritos and keep clothes that they buy him for the movie. That to him is like, 'This is great!' He's not really made that 100 percent commitment to the art form, to the craft of acting."

Smith recalls meeting Mewes only after hearing his legend spread through the malls, one-stops, and rec rooms of Monmouth County.

"The Jay character is more like Jason when he was about 15 than he is now. He was one of those cats who all he ever would talk about was pussy, though he'd never kissed a girl. But he's a great character, I think, because you get away with saying a lot of things with him that anyone else saying would come across as offensive. He's kind of got this gentle naïveté about him. It's definitely a gift. I don't know anyone else could pull it off. If we had Affleck saying the things that Jay says, it would probably be bad for his career."

Smith first developed an interest in matters of faith years before he made the film. After growing up Catholic, he began to have doubts about the perfection of the Bible. He became aware of the fact that the Good Book was written and organized by mere mortals. "So how could the Bible be God's word, especially if you have people pick up the Bible, flip to a passage, and go like, 'This passage is why we hate blacks, why we're supposed to hate blacks. And this passage is why God hates gays, fags.' So I was just like, 'Yikes.' This is not of God if you can make that kind of case.

"And around that time, people started to say, 'Well, you can't be a loosey-goosey Catholic. If you're Catholic, you've got to follow all the rules, you've got to agree with everything the church says.' You know, like in regards to abortion or in regards to the persecution of the gay community. Tithing, even. Sure, I don't mind giving my money to a worthy cause, but I don't know if the church needs my money."

Smith went looking for another faith, roaming far and wide, from a Calvary church that held services in abandoned warehouses ("like a Christian rave") to the Pentecostals ("too fire and brimstoney"). But eventually, he realized he was still a Catholic at heart. "I can disagree with them about a lot of things. Who's to say I can't be a loosey-goosey Catholic?"

Smith made Dogma, then, mostly for young people who've gone through similar ups and downs about their faith. There's no running dialogue on religion, he says, between the subculture of young people who hang out at malls, buy underground comics, and make dick jokes. He hopes the film will raise questions, spark discussion, and allow young people to speak about religion without being deviled by images of holy wars and pedophile priests.

"If you're looking for answers to the eternal mysteries of faith and God, don't look to a chubby 29-year-old guy from New Jersey -- I know about as much as you do. But by virtue of that, I know about as much as the church does. We're all human beings, we're all fallible. So I can hazard a guess as good as the next guy."

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Scott Timberg