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NewCityNet Shaggy Dogma Story

Kevin Smith moves heaven, earth and Jersey.

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Believers have faith in the unseen.

Such as the protesters outside the New York Film Festival première of Kevin Smith's "Dogma," none of whom had seen his devout yet foul-mouthed comedy. An older woman pacing the protest area sloshed holy water left and right, a real-life John Waters caricature. A pierce-nosed girl shrugged at the ruckus, "What the hell's all that?" and the old woman keened, "Thank you!"

"Thank you for what?" "Thank you for 'what the hell'! You believe there is a hell! There is fire for the unbelievers!" the woman beamed.

When I tell this to the 29-year-old writer-director, he lets out a sigh. "Fire for the unbelievers," he says, taking a puff of his trusty cig. "That is just one of these examples of, 'God, save me from your followers.'" Smith, as he will, now takes the time to delineate the church's evolving picture of hell as metaphor and physical place. It's the same with "Dogma": Amid the expected pop-culture-stoked rhapsodies about love, sex, and comix, Smith unleashes a heady batch of ruminations on Catholic dogma that are clearly delineated for the non-Catholic viewer and studded with outrageous gags.

The sprawling story follows a pair of fallen angels, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who think they've detected a loophole in church doctrine that will return them to heaven. Affleck and Damon are shiny and mean as the fratboy angels; the large cast includes Linda Fiorentino as an abortion clinic worker who may be a distant descendant of Christ himself; Alan Rickman as a jaded angel who is the messenger of God; Chris Rock as the disenfranchised, black "thirteenth disciple"; Salma Hayek as a stripper who was once the Muse; and a girl-God whose identity won't matter once you see her hippie-chick purity schtick. My favorite knocks a different religion: While Mel Brooks parodied 1970s corporate takeovers in "Silent Movie," Smith is a harsher satirist, sending his avenging angels into the boardroom of a corporation that has made a fortune off a Mickey Mouse-style golden calf. Accusations fly, judgment is proclaimed, the angels take their bloody slaughter. It's shocking, if only because satire is usually defanged in our culture's cowardly deference to corporate power.

Of corporate power, Smith reflects, "If you read back on Catholic history, it's just kind of spooky or sad, the things that get left out and why. The corporate politics of the church are as scandalous as anything that goes on in Washington today. Something like the infallibility of the pope? It's been in existence for only 150 years or so. It wasn't divinely inspired so much as politically inspired. A pope would decree something and the pope who followed him would knock it out of the box. And so they decide, 'Well, if we do this, no pope can ever undo something I say.'"

Smith, who says he was raised a strict Catholic, remains independent in the best sense of the word, following not only the extremes of his writerly inspiration, but also his faith. "I just believe that if you're going to be part of a club, know all of the rules and know the club's history," he says. "I don't think looking at that stuff is blasphemy. It's not like I'm doubting God in any way shape or form, and it's not like I'm even doubting Catholicism specifically. I'm just talking about the politics."

Smith is amused by the serious articles written since the film's distribution shift from Disney-owned Miramax to independent Lion's Gate Films. "It's wonderful there are think pieces being written about a movie that has so much bathroom humor," he chuckles. "But it's by design. There's a little more going on. But it has that whole lowbrow humor element they do have to comment on about sooner or later. That's always fun for me. They're talking about the theology, then they're going to finally engage the discussion, 'Yes, there are a lot of dick and fart jokes.'"

"Dogma" is Smith's first movie in widescreen. I tell him I thought he'd made the choice because it was the only way he could figure how to get three people in the frame. "That's good, I'll take a good joke on my behalf," he says with a laugh. "I'll give you that I'm kind of a lazy visualist, but I think in this flick, we did use the widescreen [space]. There are people who are far more visual than me, but I'm always taking slaps across the knuckles for not being that guy. All right, I'm weak there, but how about the content? I'm all about the characters and dialogue. If the visuals sag, they sag." He pauses. "I don't know how much longer I'm gonna do this. I'm not a born filmmaker. I'm waiting for the day they look back and go like, 'Oh, the reason the movies look so bad, because that's what he does. It's not because of a lack of talent, it's because this is all he ever wanted to do or aspired to, visually.' A movie that doesn't look as brilliant as other movies, it has character to it. It's like what they say about ugly people -- 'He may not be beautiful, but his face has a lot of character.' I hope that's what they'll eventually say about my work."

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