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Who Goes To See Movies About Religion Anymore?

March 21st, 2010 · 4 Comments

Dogma 1999 poster Dogma DVD

Dogma (1999)
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith
Produced by Scott Mosier
130 minutes

Should I Care?
Hijacking various Judeo Christian symbols and myths to comment on the hypocrisies of religion, Kevin Smith’s fourth film certainly isn’t lacking in ambition. What it does lack is the resources and craftsmanship to pull any of its ambitions off. But en route to the kind of bug-eyed badness rarely seen in major motion pictures, Dogma hits a few bumps in the road: it’s provocative, it’s fearless, it’s in a class by itself. This cultural satire seems infused with the reckless abandon of the Delta fraternity from National Lampoon’s Animal House, who’ve decided they’re going to be thrown off campus anyway, so they mind as well take as many members of the status quo down with them as possible. That’s not to say Dogma is funny or should even be muttered in the same breath as Animal House, but you almost have to give it an incomplete grade. It’s all attitude — with some sound arguments directed toward religious lemmings — in search of a movie. “Incomplete” sums it up.

There seem to be endless pages of myth Smith forces his characters to explain for purposes of plot; none of it’s funny and none of it really moves the story anywhere. For the female lead, the filmmakers lobbied for and were saddled with Linda Fiorentino, whose barroom languor is a laugh killer (Janeane Garafalo would have been ideal). Smith’s trademark Jay & Silent Bob characters — fixtures at the corner store in laughers like Clerks — seem awkwardly dropped into a film that takes place around churches and engages in spiritual debate. As in any Kevin Smith film, the ones oriented around brutally honest and wackadoo dialogue (Chasing Amy) are quite good, while the ones with characters exchanging gunfire (Mallrats) are woefully bad. For a film with spurts of intelligence and the determination to inspire discussions of God, Dogma is inexplicably a member of the gun club. This approach ends up being a bullet to the head of what might have been a great film.

Dogma 1999 Chris Rock Salma Hayek Kevin Smith Jason Mewes Linda Fiorentino

So, What’s This About?
After successfully persuading a nun in an airport that religion is a fraud, Loki (Matt Damon), the Angel of Death, cast down from heaven by God, and his buddy Bartleby (Ben Affleck), a journalist who got Loki drunk centuries ago and convinced him to quit his job, learn that a Catholic church in Red Bank, New Jersey looking to boost attendance has offered to forgive the sins of all who pass under its arches. This is the loophole in religious dogma that the renegade angels have been waiting for in order to escape banishment in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, an Illinois abortion clinic worker named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) struggling with her faith is visited by the Metatron (Alan Rickman), the herald who does the Supreme Being’s talking because to hear the actual voice of God would cause human beings to explode. The Metatron gives Bethany the task of stopping Loki and Bartleby, whose return to heaven would invalidate the word of God and destroy all existence.

Accompanying Bethany in her journey are two “prophets”, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), New Jersey dope peddlers on a business trip to suburban Illinois in search of the town from the John Hughes movies. Dropping naked from the sky is Rufus (Chris Rock), the thirteenth apostle still upset he was omitted from the Bible; among Rufus’ revelations is that Jesus was black. In a strip club, the gang meets Serendipity (Salma Hayek), the muse. Bethany learns that she was chosen to save mankind because she is the Last Scion, the last surviving heir of Jesus Christ. Plotting against her is the demon Azrael (Jason Lee) who God cast out of heaven for refusing to take sides against Lucifer; as Azrael sees it, the end of existence beats spending any more time in hell. Azrael is assisted by the Stygian Triplets, who under the guise of street hockey punks have incapacitated God, a skeeball fanatic who took human form and was caught by the imps on the New Jersey boardwalk. The fate of mankind now rests in Bethany’s hands.

Dogma 1999 Linda Fiorentino

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Kevin Smith was working in a convenience store in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey when on his 21st birthday, he went to see a movie: Slacker. Impressed that Richard Linklater made a critically acclaimed film in his hometown for next to no money, Smith answered an ad for an eight-month program at Vancouver Film School. There, he met Scott Mosier. Dissatisfied that the course was all theory, Smith dropped out after four months, but made a deal with Mosier that whoever finished writing a script first would get help from the other to make the movie. The result was Clerks, which Mosier produced and Smith wrote, directed and co-starred. It was shot in Smith’s workplace on a budget of roughly $27,000, self-financed using eight credit cards, portions of Smith’s college fund, the sale of his comic book collection and insurance money he and his buddy Jason Mewes collected when a flood damaged their car. Nearly rated NC-17 for its sexually frank dialogue, the comedy was acquired by Miramax Films and launched Smith’s film career.

Smith had already begun scribbling notes for another script. Titled God, he was influenced not only by certain comic books or standup comedians who commented on spirituality, but his own irreverence for his Catholic school education. Retitled Dogma, the technical challenges of the project spurred Smith and Mosier to get more experience before producing it. A poorly received mainstream comedy for Gramercy Pictures (Mallrats, 1995) and an enthusiastically received indie romantic comedy distributed by Miramax (Chasing Amy, 1997) followed. With the cache to attract an all-star cast and as much as $10 million in financing from Miramax, Smith finally produced Dogma. But the work in progress received such an outcry from the Catholic League that Disney sold the picture back to Miramax. Lions Gate Films stepped in and pushed Dogma to respectable box office and the best reviews of Smith’s career.

Dogma 1999 Matt Damon Ben Affleck

How’d They Do It?
During his stint at Vancouver Film School and before he wrote Clerks, Kevin Smith was scribbling notes for a script he hoped would spread the word of God in the way Smith knew best. In the liner notes for the special edition DVD of Dogma, he wrote, “All I knew was that I wanted to talk about the differences between religion and faith, and that I had to employ the Plenary Indulgence loophole as a plot device. The idea of the Plenary Indulgence had fascinated me since childhood, when my parish celebrated a Centennial. We received a special dispensation from the Pope decreeing that on the day of the parish’s hundredth anniversary, those who walked through the front door of the church would have all sins erased from their souls, giving them a clean slate, as it were. You might not think this would mean much to an eleven year old kid, because how much sin could he possibly be steeped in? But being educated in a Catholic school can make a kid feel like even the Venial sins (the tiny transgressions like white lies and hurtful sentiments expressed behind your parents’ backs) are one-way tickets to Hell.”

Smith cited his Catholic education as an influence, as well as the comic book Mage by Matt Wagner and the comedy of George Carlin and Sam Kinison, who reached into their Catholic roots for material. The initial idea was for the protagonist of God to be a high school jock. Rufus the 13th Apostle and Serendipity the Muse were also there. In the summer of 1994 — after Miramax picked up Clerks but before it was in theaters — Smith started a first draft of what he was now calling Dogma. “A high school jock no longer, Bethany became a woman, and she was a stripped in a nudie booth joint, where she met Jay and Silent Bob (enthusiastic clients, to say the least; hilarity ensues). Arazael was introduced only in the last thirty pages of the script, after having been referred to as ‘the Shadowy Figure’ most of the time. At the end of the flick, in an effort to keep Bartleby and Loki from passing through the archway, Bethany blew up the church (imagine the shit I would’ve gotten from the Catholic League for that). But aside from those major differences (and pages and pages of dialogue; the first draft — dated Aug. 4, 1994 — was 148 pages long), everything’s pretty much the same as it is in the finished film.”

Dogma 1999 Jason Mewes Kevin Smith

As far back as Clerks — when Smith slipped a title card into the end credits that read: “Jay and Silent Bob will return in Dogma” — he planned on making the film. It didn’t happen right away. “Scott Mosier (my producer) and I decided, after reading the first draft, that this was not a flick we wanted to tackle as our sophomore foray. We agreed that it was beyond us (probably still is), and that it’d be best to let it sit on the back burner, until we had enough talent to handle it properly. So we went ahead and made Mallrats in ’95, and during the course of that year, I took another pass at Dogma — this time adding an orangutan for Jay and Bob to hang out with, as well as shifting Bethany’s job from a strip club to an abortion clinic. In ’96, I took another pass at the script, this time dropping the orangutan and rewriting the flick to include Joey Lauren Adams as Bethany (we were dating at the time). Following that pass, I started writing Chasing Amy, and summoned Ben Affleck to Jersey (you could do that in those days) to read the first thirty pages of the script. He asked for something else to read on his way back to Boston, as thirty pages of Amy wouldn’t cover the trip. I gave him Dogma.”

Ben Affleck became vocal about playing Bartleby in Dogma. Smith polished the script with that in mind, as well as Jason Lee performing opposite him as Loki. Chasing Amy would be screened to raves at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1997 and Miramax gave a green light to Dogma at a budget of roughly $6.5 million. By that time, Jason Lee’s schedule had filled up. Smith turned to a buddy of Affleck’s named Matt Damon, who’d shown chemistry with Affleck in the dailies of a yet to released film Smith had godfathered at Miramax titled Good Will Hunting. Linda Fiorentino took a break from the press tour for Men In Black in the summer of 1997 to campaign for the part of Bethany. Impressing Smith and Scott Mosier with her grasp of Catholicism, the role was rewritten for an actress in her mid 30s. Smith offered Holly Hunter the role of God, but having just portrayed an angel in A Life Less Ordinary, the actress demurred. Alan Rickman was a fan of Chasing Amy and once he joined the cast, suggested his friend Emma Thompson play the Supreme Being. Thompson agreed.

Dogma 1999 Chris Rock Linda Fiorentino

Assuming he’d cast Samuel L. Jackson as Rufus, Smith was sold on Chris Rock after meeting the comedian. For the role of Serendipity, Miramax encouraged Smith to meet with Salma Hayek. “Salma Hayek was a meeting that I initially didn’t want to take. Serendipity had to be whip-smart, and I wasn’t sure if Salma was that at all. Imagine how stupid I felt when I found out she was a Poli-Sci major who could quote the Bible, chapter and verse. Add to that the fact that she was incredibly adorable and very sweet, and I went from resistant to slavishly devoted.” Smith chased George Carlin to appear as Cardinal Glick. The comedian’s manager maintained that the part was just too small for Carlin to work into his busy schedule. Booked with Carlin on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Smith slipped him the script; Carlin would agree to join the production. Emma Thompson chose to stay in England and have a baby. With God uncast, Smith would offer the role to Alanis Morissette, who had turned down the part of Bethany coming off a concert tour but was now game to join the cast.

In addition to loading the picture with bankable names — actors the studio expected to slash their fees for the creative privilege of working on cutting edge material at a prestige company like Miramax — Smith and Mosier were given an experienced director of photography. They had met David Klein at Vancouver Film School and used him to shoot Smith’s previous three pictures, each of which were savaged in various corners for looking terrible. No one accused Wes Anderson of making shoddy looking films and his director of photography Robert Yeoman came on board Dogma. Smith recalled, “Yeoman was really kind about the other films. Because I was like, ‘What did we do wrong? Why do they look so bad?’ And he was like, ‘Well it’s not like you did anything wrong, you just shoot everything against the wall. You know, and like, you line up people and shoot ‘em against a wall. If you just kind of go to the right, go to the left, you’re getting some depth and suddenly it opens up a little bit more.’ And he said, ‘That’s something we should definitely go for on this movie. More depth, left and right.’”

Dogma 1999 Salma Hayek Chris Rock

Dogma commenced shooting April 1998 in Pittsburgh, a city the filmmakers were drawn to for St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which served as location for the climax. In addition to the challenges of shooting a 165-page script in roughly 50 days, Linda Fiorentino and Kevin Smith would both admit difficulties working together. Smith commented on the message boards of his View Askewniverse website, “The interesting thing is, I never had to give a line reading to Alan Rickman unless he asked (which was maybe once or twice). Instinctively, the man knew how things should sound. We never had a problem. Linda, however, would sometimes read a line from another movie altogether, and for the first few days of shooting, her energy didn’t match the text nor anyone else’s in the cast. It was like she was in a different flick.” Smith added, “And while, as I’ve said, I don’t regret casting her, like Chief Brody said in Jaws 2 I never need to go through that hell again. Honestly, I gave very few line readings on Dogma. Linda was the only person who complained about it because she was pretty much the only recipient.”

A pair of Dogma test screenings were held December 1998 in Philadelphia. The only major criticism was that at two and a half hours, the film was running too long. A screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1999 compelled Smith to cut two scenes: a musical routine in a strip club where Serendipity inspires her customers to break into the theme from Fat Albert, and a speech by Jason Lee, who’d agreed to appear as the evil Azrael. While Smith’s fan base eagerly awaited his fourth film, the New York based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights — which opposes “anti-Catholic” depictions in the media and counted 350,000 parishioners as members at the time — were not amused. President William Donohue commenced a petition drive to pressure Disney to sever its affiliation with Miramax Films due to the studio’s perceived track record of insulting their faith.. The Catholic League had targeted ABC with one million signatures in opposition to Nothing Sacred, a sitcom about a hip priest played by Kevin Anderson. The series was canceled in 1998 after 20 episodes.

Dogma 1999 Ben Affleck

In April 1999, Disney CEO Michael Eisner sold Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein back their political hot potato for $14 million, allowing them to seek another distributor. In Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, Smith lamented, “We had Matt and Ben following Good Will Hunting, a movie that made $125 million, plus won them a writing Oscar. MGM watched it and passed. Columbia watched it and passed. Universal watched it and passed. Edgar Bronfman Jr. watched it himself, and was just like, ‘There’s no way we can put out this movie without seeing our stock drop.’ The unsung villain of all this is Blockbuster Video. Because Blockbuster has made it their mandate that they won’t shelve an NC-17 film, and then you have a company that takes up 85 percent of the video business, maybe more, it’s tough. Every distributor who’s looking to the ancillary market to make money or make up what the film didn’t make theatrically, has to take that into consideration.” Lions Gate Films — gambling on prestige films like Gods and Monsters or Affliction deemed uncommercial by Hollywood — agreed to distribute Dogma.

Promoting his film on The Charlie Rose Show in November 1999, Smith elaborated, “The Catholic League I think is upset because it was a Disney movie initially. This is my feeling. The film was a Miramax movie and by virtue of that it was a Disney film. The Catholic League as you know is an organization, they’re heat seekers; they love to go after stuff that raises their profile. Doesn’t necessarily go after things that are really, intentionally attacks on the faith, or the church, they go after things that they feel attacks them as Catholics. They feel that Disney attacks Catholics constantly, whether it’s with Nothing Sacred — the TV show that was on ABC a little while ago — or Priest — the Miramax movie that was out a few years ago — or Disney’s same-sex health benefits policy, or the alleged gay day they have at Disney World every year. Always going after Disney. And we were just the ripe, luscious opportunity for them to go after Disney, that week. We were kind of the target du jour.” When the film was screened at the New York Film Festival, hundreds of Catholic demonstrators picketed the Lincoln Center.

Dogma 1999 Linda Fiorentino Ben Affleck

Critics returned the best reviews of Kevin Smith’s career. Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle:Dogma is like an underground comics version of the eternal struggle among the inhabitants of heaven, earth, and the hell below. As the writer and director, Smith adopts a ‘what if’ stance, skewing some of the tenets of Catholic theology to create a storyline that looks at the religion from the other side of the rabbit hole. The film is funny, contentious, blasphemous, and surreal.” Ella Taylor, L.A. Weekly: “The screenplay is another foul-mouthed rehearsal of Smith‘s near-Dickensian genius for the slacker patter of his generation. Yet though Dogma plays like a live-action comic book for boys, it’s also shot through with wisdom at once juvenile and wizened, coupled with a sweetness of temper…” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “If the film is less than perfect, it is because Smith is too much in love with his dialogue. Like George Bernard Shaw, he loves to involve his characters in long witty conversations about matters of religion, sexuality and politics. Dogma is one of those rare screenplays, like a Shaw playscript, that might actually read better than it plays; Smith is a gifted comic writer who loves paradox, rhetoric and unexpected zingers from the blind side.”

Kevin Smith’s fans and the free publicity pushed Dogma to $30.6 million at the U.S. box office. Smith credited his cast for that. “At least in that first weekend, because we had, like, almost a nine million dollar opening weekend on only twelve hundred screens, you know, we didn’t have the typical kind of two thousand, twenty five hundred screen opening most films have. But this is a niche film. You know, this is a true independent film, which is why it sucks so hard to see it kind of get snubbed at the Spirit Awards this year. This represents everything that independent film is: It was shot on the cheap. It was a movie that lost its distributor and had to find another distributor, a distributor that is a very — a true independent distributor, not owned by somebody else, Lions Gate. People were working inexpensively and the content is not subject matter that appeals to everybody. Yeah, it’s very funny — hopefully — it’s entertaining, but it’s still about religion for God’s sakes, and who goes to see movies about religion anymore? Particularly ones that aren’t big budget.”

Dogma 1999 Alanis Morissette Alan Rickman

Where’d You Get All of This?
Dogma (Special Edition). DVD audio commentary by Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier and Vincent Pereira. Columbia Tristar Home Video (2001)

Down and Dirty Pictures. By Peter Biskind. Simon & Schuster (2004)

“OnFilm Interview: A Conversation With Kevin Smith and David Klein” By Bob Fisher. Kodak, November 2008

Tags: Alternate universe · Beasts and monsters · Black comedy · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · End of the world · Road trip · Train

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Porter // Mar 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    A lot of people still watch movies about religion. Some are intrigued by it, others just want entertainment but they also want to know how film makers view certain religious issues. An example of which is Angels and Demons. Press coverage is just diverting from talking about religion because of the diverse believers in the US

  • 2 Pat Evans // Mar 22, 2010 at 4:04 am

    OK – it’s a crocky film but bits of it make me laugh…

  • 3 Kim Askew // Mar 22, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Yeah, the film is nuts and imperfect, but I still like it anyway. It’s gutsy. Great write up.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Mar 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Paul: Thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment. I think that studios get nervous that religious subject matter will offend even the smallest special interest group out there and hurt their box office. Smith has admitted that Dogma probably would’ve grossed another $10-20 million if Miramax had distributed it. So pickets and protests have assured that more films overtly dealing with faith are not made. The exception might be when that content is disguised as something else, like Contact.

    Patricia: Thanks for giving me a new word of the week: “crocky”. That could either refer to the cheaply made and slap dash look of Dogma, or refer to it overall being a crock of shit. Not sure which you mean but it’s tough to argue against either charge. Thanks for commenting!

    Kim Askew: Welcome and thank you for sharing such a non-jaundiced look at Dogma. Your name being the inspiration for Smith’s business empire, it would have been easy for you not to. You also summarized the flick far better than I could.

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