Dogma

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Film * Kevin Smith * None of This is in The Bible * 1999

Synopsis

Oh snap, Kevin Smith almost died. I wouldn’t have liked that, I much prefer the dude to be alive. This is despite the fact that I haven’t really watched any of his films in quite a long time and don’t really listen to his podcasts. It’s weird to think about, considering that if podcasts were a thing in 2001 I would have compulsively listened to anything this guy wanted to talk about. I’m not sure what happened. I categorically despise the idea of “growing out” of something you used to like. I just hate the baked in condescension that phrase carries with it. There’s no objective maturity scale of taste, so you can go ahead and miss me with that bullshit. So I dunno, I guess after Clerks 2 depressed me (and not because I didn’t like the movie, I did) with its relentless ennui I just kind of moved on. Plus I don’t really know anything about comic books so there’s that. All that aside, it occurred to me when I heard the news of Smith’s not-death that I haven’t written about Dogma for the site, which seems like an oversight.

Dogma is Kevin Smith’s fourth movie, and is something of a departure of the smaller scale of his previous films. There’s an ambition to this movie that the previous films (and arguably his later movies) lack, a larger story to tell. Clerks, which will always be my favorite, is obviously as small of scope as you can get. Mallrats, which I don’t really want to rewatch because I’m positive it doesn’t hold up to my late-90’s memories, expands its scale to what is essentially a feature length sitcom plot. Chasing Amy, if I recall, was something of a critical darling at the time. The first indication that Kevin Smith had more going for him than foul language goofs (counterpoint: fingercuffs). I don’t want to rewatch that one either, because I bet the way LGBT issues are handled are embarrassing at best. That said, it was still a better-than-average romantic comedy. This all brings us to Dogma, which is delightfully strange, full of excellent people, and ups the stakes to the fate all of known reality.

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Has anyone else noticed how things started falling apart after Alan Rickman died? I assume if all this is true he’s giving God this look pretty much the entire time.

The basic idea behind the movie is that the method for undoing all of God’s works are held within Church doctrine as opposed to the holy texts themselves. The plot is on the convoluted side, but here’s a rough sketch of what to expect. The protagonist is an apathetic Catholic who works at an abortion clinic (I get it) named Bethany who is visited one night by a very on-fire Alan Rickman. He is the Metatron, or the Mouth of God, and he gives Bethany a holy quest. A quest, it should be noted, that she wants nothing to do with because she’s lost her faith. Anyway, she is tasked by God to track down two fallen angels, Loki and Bartleby, who have been alerted to a loophole in Catholic doctrine which would allow them to return to heaven against God’s express wishes. Since God is infallible, such a paradox would end up unmaking reality. Which is bad. So Bethany teams up with a bunch of weirdo religious characters to thwart the two angels and their demon ally to save the universe.

I appreciate Kevin Smith really going for it, here. Dogma is pretty much an examination of weird Catholic beliefs viewed through a comic book lens. Most of the characters are some variety of supernatural, and although nobody really exploits their superpowers, we all know they’re there. Still, this is a Kevin Smith movie. Mostly people are just talking at each other. Jay and Silent Bob are here in probably just the right amount (Clerks featured them too little, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back too much). Really, though, the casting is legit. I’ve already mentioned the incomparable Alan Rickman, but you’ve also got George Carlin, Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo (I had such a crush back in the day), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon back when they were still fun and not insufferable, Salma Hayeck, and the weirdest, best choice for God, Alanis Morissette. It’s a fun, good time. And even if the plot doesn’t really hold up beyond a cursory examination, just roll with it.

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If nothing else, Kevin Smith has given the world Buddy Christ. Catholicism Wow!

Discussion

I don’t understand religion. I wasn’t brought up with it, for one thing, so the very concept of faith never really crept around my brain until I went to school and was introduced to kids who went to a place called “church.” I dunno, it sounded crazy when I was eight and the intervening thirty years haven’t done much to shift my position on the whole situation. I’m not going to go on some big atheist rant now, relax. There’s like a thousand fedora-wearing chuckleheads on Youtube if that’s what you’re looking for. Rather, I bring it up because Kevin Smith is on record stating his belief in God and professes some amount of spirituality. Which is fine, whatever. Dogma makes it clear, however, that Smith’s relationship with God is a curious one, because there is no universe in which anyone could claim that he’s some kind of fundamentalist. This is a familiar concept to me. I’ve met many people over the years who claim to believe in God yet reject “organized religion,” or the dogma. This entire story is told from that precise position. I still don’t quite understand it.

For reference, I’m about halfway through the King James Version of the Christian Bible at the time of this writing. I haven’t got to the New Testament yet, so maybe there’s some revelatory information there, even if I pretty much know what to expect via cultural osmosis. However, so far, I haven’t come across any mention of a Metatron, much in the way of named angels, or any other supernatural beings, really. Even Satan only shows up like twice, in the beginning and in the Book of Job. So far, the Bible is mostly rough history and page after page after page or repetitive scolding. Honestly, nothing in here so far is making go oh boy oh boy, sign me up for that good shit. Basically, our only function is to tell God how fucking rad he is, and if you don’t then he kills you. Sometimes, you might want to tell God what a cool guy he is, but God reaches into your heart and makes you say mean things to him, so he can then punish you. That’s fucked up! Plus there’s just so, so much genocide. Anyway, the point of this little aside is not to dump on the Bible, but to juxtapose it with the kinds of stories that have been devised out of the source material.

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Next to soccer.

All the weird, comic-booky silliness that happens in Dogma is based from centuries of add-ons to the Scriptures by the Catholic Church. By no means are the Catholics the only religion to freestyle on the source. Most religions have been around long enough to accumulate a great deal of adjacent material, and more often than not, this is where all the fun supernatural stuff comes in. It’s also fairly ridiculous in the cold light of modern thought. Yet people who have feelings of deep spirituality exist, and just because it’s not a thing I’ve ever felt, it would be irresponsible to disregard how most of the world feels. Back to Kevin Smith, he seems like he’s a good dude. He’s not out to discriminate or hurt people with his films. Quite the contrary, most of his public output has been exceedingly positive. Chasing Amy might be embarrassing in 2018, but his heart was in the right place. The point being, it doesn’t seem like Smith is the sort of guy who would be into either genocide or dogmatic beliefs.

Over the course of the film, it is reiterated that belief is what keeps people from truly appreciating religion. There’s a point when Chris Rock, who is the reanimated corpse of the 13th Apostle, takes Bethany aside and has little talk with her. The gist of his speech is simple: Jesus had good ideas, and people turned them into beliefs. It’s the belief that kills, not the idea. Therefore, don’t worry about the beliefs (or the dogma), just embrace the idea. And that sounds great, but I’m sorry my dude, that’s not how it works. That’s not how it works at all. Meanwhile, Bethany is like cool cool, but I’m here trying to reconcile fundamental proof that God is real and the Christians were right all along even they’re dicks about it with the no less fundamental fact that bad things happen. Again there is a split between what the actual Scripture says and what Smith would like it say. In the Book of Job, there is one major question, which Job himself asks after his life is destroyed on a whim: Why do terrible things happen to good people who follow all that stuff you say to the letter? God’s answer, when he finally deigns to give one, is brutally simple: Because just who in the fuck do you think you are? That’s pretty much it. It’s like a cosmic ‘because I said so.’ Smith, however, seems to think that bad things happen to good people because really it’s a good thing in disguise, which is why at the end of Dogma, Bethany ends up pregnant. Because it was God’s plan all along that her good deeds are rewarded.

That’s sweet, but in no way is that representative of how the concept of God or religion works. Dogma is obviously a fantasy. There’s an anthropomorphic shit-monster in it, for crying out loud. Yet the spirit behind the film is one which is trying to compromise with religion. It’s attempting to cherry-pick out the good stuff and discard the less good stuff. The problem is, a lot of that stuff that we consider to be horrible is fundamental to the faith. I assume we can all agree that genocide is bad, but it’s commanded time and time again to eradicate those who do not embrace the correct faith. The original conception of God is not of peace and love and forgiveness, but as a ruthless taskmaster whose first priority is ensuring you don’t worship anyone else. And you know what? I think it’s great that religion and faith have evolved over time to allow someone like Kevin Smith to make a demarcation between what he believes to be right and what the dogma (and the actual sacred text itself) says. Where I get a little lost is why we need to bring that belief along at all. Because despite the nice speech of the Apostle, faith is still faith. It’s an idea, sure, but it’s an idea based on centuries of shared belief in something which by its very nature cannot be proved. That’s the whole point. If you need to fight an anthropomorphic shit monster in order to accept God, you’re doing it wrong.

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Word.

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