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Nashville Scene Straight to Hell

Losing faith in Kevin Smith's "Dogma"

By Donna Bowman

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Two misguided villains with supernatural powers are trying to destroy the world. Superman has been incapacitated, and the rest of Earth's heroic corps have fallen one by one. The only person left between the supervillains and the end of everything is Batman--no special powers, no ace up his sleeve. Just a detective trying to figure out one last trick to stop the world from blinking out of existence.

That's the basic plot of Dogma, the new film from Kevin Smith, writer/director of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. Smith has renamed the characters, of course: Superman is now called "God," the supervillains are fallen angels, and Batman is a distant relative of Jesus who has to defeat the angels using her wits. But anyone who's ever read a DC Universe series like Zero Hour will recognize where Smith got his ideas. Dogma is a graphic novel with a Notre Dame book cover.

Some readers may be under the impression that the movie is a religious satire. It does make a feint in that direction during the first scenes, which feature George Carlin as a cardinal announcing a new Catholic program to make the Church more accessible. There's even a jokey disclaimer before the opening credits apologizing for any inadvertent blasphemy. But the Christian trappings are only loosely draped over what's meant to be an action movie.

The fallen angels--Ben Affleck as Bartleby and Matt Damon as Loki--have been stuck in Wisconsin ever since Loki, who used to be the Angel of Death, refused to follow God's command to wipe out some sinners. Now they've figured out a way to get back into heaven. The Church has declared a plenary indulgence (a get-out-of-Purgatory-free card) to everyone who passes under the arch of a New Jersey church on a certain Sunday. All the angels have to do is transubstantiate (which here means "become human"), go through those doors, and through Jesus' gift of the keys of the kingdom to Peter, they can't be refused entrance to Paradise.

The catch? Since God banished them for eternity, their return to heaven makes God a liar. And that's the kind of paradox that makes superintelligent computers spew smoke and shut themselves down in Star Trek. Here the consequence will be the instantaneous destruction of the universe. So God chooses Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a Catholic in the middle of a crisis of faith, to go to New Jersey and stop the angels. Along the way, she picks up two prophets, the ubiquitous Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself); the forgotten apostle Rufus (Chris Rock); and the former muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek). Periodically they battle the minions of Azrael (Jason Lee), a demon who sees a ticket out of hell in the situation.

If that sounds like a lot of backstory for one movie, it is. Smith has the entire cultural heritage of Western Christianity to draw upon, but he chooses to manufacture a whole new branch of mythology instead. This means that two-thirds of Dogma's dialogue is rapid-fire explanation of who the characters are, what's going on, why God can't stop it, and why we should care. Because Smith can't write dialogue, moreover, each of the lines he gives these fine actors to say has three or four dependent clauses, parentheticals, and awkward literary exclamations. The viewer gives up trying to process this supposedly vital information around the time that Salma Hayek, for whom English is a second language, starts spouting it as fast as her accent will let her.

Smith, famous for being a comic book fan, got a chance to write for the Daredevil series recently, and I picked up a few hoping that he'd found his medium. Unfortunately, his comic book writing displayed the same logorrhea that characterizes his movies. It might be thought, however, that some time spent with Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti, fine comics artists, would have taught Smith a few things about shooting action scenes; after all, a comic-book action sequence is basically a movie storyboard. But the paltry action scenes Smith manages to squeeze into Dogma are among the flattest and most poorly planned you'll ever see in a major motion picture.

What's going to get most of the attention in Smith's film is the theological tweaks that are the ostensible theme: Jesus is revealed to be black, God's a sometimes-female skeeball fanatic, etc. This stuff was tame enough to be sitcom fodder back in the '70s. Only Ben Affleck, who proves once again that he can light up a screen in a supporting role, gets a little deeper: His Bartleby reflects on the pain that comes with being rejected by the one you love. But in this same scene, he and Bethany manage to come to the world-shattering conclusion that people are bored by church. Stop the presses! Even the best parodies Smith comes up with--the glimpses of the "Catholicism Wow!" campaign, which includes a "buddy Jesus" to replace the crucifix--have already been outstripped by the reality of evangelical ad campaigns like the "got Jesus?" TV spots and "God's Gym" T-shirts.

Dogma has something in common with another film that opened last weekend: Luc Besson's The Messenger (see below). Both take as part of their setting the theological problem of how God acts in history: Why are we constantly confronted with human beings who claim a calling from the Almighty? Why can't God intervene directly instead of choosing surrogates? Neither film comes up with a satisfactory answer, but at least Besson addresses the question directly. Smith's answer is straight out of the climactic finale to a Justice League of America miniseries: God (or Superman) is missing in action (or chained next to some Kryptonite), and as soon as he's back, all will be well again.

You'd think Dogma would at least be more fun than a doggedly serious movie like The Messenger, but most of the time it's equally weighed down by the tonnage of its plot. Only when Jason Mewes--whose character Jay couldn't care less about all this God stuff--is speaking does Dogma surprise and delight. Tired, old-hat Jay the best thing about a Kevin Smith movie? Now, that's a sign of the apocalypse. --Donna Bowman

Message received

Carl Theodor Dreyer, the late Danish director, has been summoned to the office of a production executive in purgatory. A new version of the story of Joan of Arc is being planned, and a courtesy call has been placed to the maker of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, the silent 1928 film regarded as one of the best movies ever made. A secretary ushers him inside, and the executive sits with a treatment of Dreyer's film on his desk.

"Carl, babe, loved that vampire thing you did," the executive says, giving the director's hand a quick wring and motioning him to a seat. "Listen, I've gone over that Joan of Arc picture you made, and it spoke to me. Seriously. Goosebumps. I can only guess what you'd do with sound and a Joan who's a little less butch. I've gone over your treatment, and I think we're on the same page here. Now, where'd I put those notes...."

"Notes?" asks the director, nervously pushing his glasses back on his nose.

"Yeah, just a few. You know, you've got a great story here. A girl who hears voices, who fights like a man, who goes into battle and gets tossed on a bonfire--it's Braveheart meets Carrie. But your picture just starts with the trial. A bunch of ugly extras and that babe with the bad haircut. You're missing out on a load of backstory. I want to know what makes this Joan tick."

"Tick?" Dreyer replies, fighting back a growing panic. "She hears voices from God."

"Glad you brought that up," the executive says, producing a red pen. "Look, you've got this peasant girl who says God tells her to take France back from the British, and she's going to lead armies and whatnot. The talking-to-God thing works, don't get me wrong, but she also needs some kind of...payback. Suppose she's got some kind of sex trauma in her past? I see it now: She's a kid, and her sister's hiding her in a wardrobe from the British. All of a sudden, these big ugly rapist guys come in. While Joan's in the cabinet, one of 'em takes her sister, nails her to the door with a sword, and just starts banging her right there while the kid's inside. I can see the tagline now: 'Joan of Arc--This time it's personal.' "

"Dear God," says Dreyer, rubbing his eyes.

"About that," the executive says. "Without showing God, you did the best you could back then, with the spiritual close-ups, the upturned face, the yadda-di-yadda. But Carl, buddy--we've got ILM now! We'll do a CGI guy-in-the-sky, some time-lapse Close Encounters clouds, even this slow-motion dance I saw in a Sarah McLachlan video."

"But--but the presence of God is there in Jeanne's face!" Dreyer sputters.

"Jesus, Carl," says the executive, sounding hurt, "I'm starting to think you've never seen The Ten Commandments. But that's nothing. The battle scenes--nobody's ever shown what those fights were really like. Arms flying, blood spilling, all those catapults and cannonball contraptions--it'll be like that big fight in The Phantom Menace where all the robots got carved up. And believe you me, we've got guys who can do a decapitation that'll loosen your lunch."

Dreyer opens his mouth but cannot form words.

"Now the casting will be the key," the executive continues. "We need a Joan who can kick ass and wear short hair without looking like some Bulgarian women's pole vaulter. We got that chick with the duct-tape bra from The Fifth Element. Plus we've added a conscience who appears from time to time in the form of a stern cleric. I bet you're reading my mind on this one: Dustin Hoffman. As for the French king, only one actor could give the role of a treacherous 15th-century French monarch the kind of power and credibility it needs."

Dreyer looks up hopefully.

"John freakin' Malkovich," says the executive.

"Why are you doing this to me?" whimpers the director.

"Actually, Carl," says the executive, "I didn't want to break this to you, but it's already done. That French guy, Luc Besson--you know, La Femme Nikita? The Fifth Element?--wanted a crack at the story. He not only anticipated every suggestion we had to make, he added things we never dreamed of. I mean, who else would've thought of showing Joan's face getting roasted in the fire? And the scene where the guards rip off Joan's clothes? The guy's a French Joel Schumacher. He called his picture The Messenger. We'll have this baby on multiple screens in a thousand megaplexes come Friday."

"At last, I understand," says Dreyer, gathering his dignity and walking to the door. "I am in hell."

"Not yet," says the executive. "But if you'll take the escalator down to theaters 3 through 16, you can't miss it." --Jim Ridley

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