Losing My Religion, or, Dogma-tic for the People
Kevin Smith’s recent offering, Dogma, is truly the cinematic equivalent of Michael Stipe’s over-burdened generational angst and swollen lyrics. Indeed, Smith’s film is a veritable slackfest of Gen-Xy angelic types who shuffle their way towards the apocalypse with cynicism and an exhausted irony. Ousted angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartelby (Ben Affleck) cool their heels in Wisconsin for eternity (hee-hee, Wisconsin is a worse fate than hell), and spend their days watching the flow of humanity as it moves through the airport. A disaffected Muse (Salma Hayek) spends her time “inspiring” men by stripping at a low-rent club somewhere off the interstate. And Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a good fallen Catholic, spends her days working at an abortion clinic, obediently attending Mass, and vacantly reciting her professions of faith. A Catholic working at an abortion clinic? Ahh, the irony! Wait, a Catholic woman whose husband left her because of her ravaged uterus and inability to have children working at an abortion clinic? Ahh, the further irony!!
Briefly (which is something Dogma most assuredly is not; running over two hours, the film feels like an eternity in purgatory), the film follows the exploits of Loki and Bartelby as they attempt to get from Wisconsin to a church in New Jersey, where they can cut off their wings, become human, have all their sins forgiven, and reenter the kingdom of heaven. It seems through a loophole in Catholic dogma, “plenary indulgence,” the angels plan just might work, and if successful they will prove Gods word to be fallible, thereby nullifying all of human and earthly existence. Enter Bethany, who is distantly related to our savior and lord Jesus Christ, and must take up the family aegis and save mankind. To this end she is visited by Metatron (Alan Rickman), the voice/messenger of God, who charges her with this duty, and tells her she will meet two prophets (Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes as perennial Smith characters Silent Bob and Jay) who will help her on her way.
What follows is a relatively formulaic narrative in which the good guys and bad guys race towards the showdown, in which eventually, inevitably, the earth and mankind are saved. What is ultimately most disappointing about Dogma is that it is, in the end, rather trite. Even the fairly trenchant criticisms of the racist iconography of the church, the superficiality and image-obsessiveness of Catholicism, and the greedy idolatry of corporate America seem merely recycled from other venues. Finally, on a more stylistic level, the gen-x slack aesthetic which Smith developed and deployed to such brilliance in Clerks is tired, and has been for some time the Apocalypse never looked so boring.
All of this is not to say, however, that Dogma is completely without its pleasures. Chris Rock, as Rufus, the forgotten/erased black thirteenth Apostle, as always, delivers a frenetic and thoroughly enjoyable performance. Alan Rickman’s arch, bitchy Metatron steals every scene he is in, and his clear disdain for slow-witted, whiny humans might just as easily be Rickman’s own disdain for the film in which he has found himself.
The most enjoyable performances of the film by far are turned in by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck normally rather limited actors whose seeming excellence here perhaps says more about the shortcomings of Smith’s film than the boys’ abilities. What begins as merely Ben and Matt performing their celebrated friendship while wittily musing on theological minutiae, is transformed into a nuanced performance of angels Bartelby and Loki’s struggle with the ontological ramifications of their plan to prove God wrong. And what begins as a rather lame buddy road trip, becomes a full-on storming of the gates of heaven which ends in a disturbing betrayal and death. The obvious chemistry between Damon and Affleck as the bickering, old-married type couple of sexless angels should do plenty to whip up debates in queer circles about the precise nature of their relationship and the ultimate answer to the question “are they or aren’t they?” is really immaterial, for their performance of their friendship both here and in public, is certainly rather queer.
The best part about going to see Dogma, of course, happens well before the opening credits roll. Before entering your local cineplex to see Dogma, likely you will encounter any number of Christian zealots and Catholic dogmatists, prating on about blasphemy, affronts to Christian morals and ethics, and the “truth” of God (whatever that might be), an experience which offers a self-gratifying experience of intellectual superiority and extends an aura of liberal cache around you. When prodded about their objection to the film, these protesters will merely respond that it is blasphemous (apparently tautology is all the rage in Catholicism today: it is blasphemy because it is blasphemous), making it abundantly clear that they have absolutely no idea what the film is about, or how the narrative plays itself out.
Dogma is, in the end, a direct affirmation of faith rather than its rejection, and in this respect the film’s controversy merely repeats the mis-informed, or uncritical, public reactionism which has surrounded any film in recent memory which has tried to address sticky issues of Catholic faith. Bethany works through her crisis of faith and is, quite literally, filled by God’s love as her fertility is restored and she is impregnated by the Almighty of course, in Smith’s film, God is a woman, and the lesbian erotics suggested by Bethany’s “impregnation” by God Herself might be the scandal protesters are looking for, if they could see that far.
And speaking of God as a woman. Anything good or interesting about Smith’s film is directly mitigated by the performance of Alanis Morissette as God. Casting the queen of whiny, “angry” slack-rock as the incarnation of God was, at least to me, extremely ill-advised; or am I the only person who is entirely sick and tired of seeing and hearing Morissette? Her God-as-innocent-naif antics are horrifying and her acting reminiscent of some poor high-school production. On the bright side, as no human can hear the voice of God directly without being destroyed, we are mercifully spared at least listening to her. What in the world ever made Smith think Morissette’s involvement in this film would be a good thing? Oh, wait, but isn’t it ironic?