Say Something Nice: DOGMA (1999)

A re-meditation on Kevin Smith's most brazen film.

Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of "good movies" and "bad movies"; sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. Say Something Nice is dedicated to those gems - memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that...well, aren’t.

I think about 1999 a lot.

For one, I can't believe it was almost twenty fucking years ago. For two, it's because the '90s were my cultural genesis. They were when all that development and maturation took place. And they seemed like everything; the entire twentieth century coasting to its zenith, with the notion of any date beginning with a "2000" seeming like the inconceivable future. But by the end of the decade the culture that defined the '90's started changing in a way that I, nor many others, were really prepared for. Keep in mind, the arrival of the '90s itself didn't feel like an interruption in quite the same way that it did for some. I wasn't a hair metal kid. I inherited classic rock from my parents and mostly I liked The Replacements and The Pixies (older brothers are important). So when Grunge and Nirvana showed up it just felt like a natural extension of all that. Heck, it even felt a bit of a cultural course correction. And despite the fact that I loved school / sports, I also feel like I spent all my nights watching Alternative Nation with Kennedy and trying to figure out how to smoke weed like a cool person. All of this crested for years and morphed into the late '90's with what I will happily call an adolescence full of "Radiohead Brand Cynicism." Something that was a weird combination of sensitivity, jadedness, progressiveness, ennui, and somberness. And it absolutely defined the late '90s.

The weird thing about this is how certain and ubiquitous it all felt. Having a six to seven year grip on pop culture seems like a lifetime. Couple this with the fact the economy was kicking ass and the dot-com boom meant "money for everyone!" So we all felt that everything was great, so there was never a better time for members of young society to participate in the culture of being a sardonic know-it-all and above it. I know this is true of every generation, but you have no idea how ingrained this feeling was in the overall pop sensibility... And then it shifted. We started hitting the end of the decade and we were just on the cusp when all these middle school kids behind us who were going to rebel by listening to nu-metal Limp Bizkit and show up en masse to Times Square to listen to the poppiest pop that ever popped. This sudden shift made '90's culture act judgmental as fuck. Couple this with the looming dot-com bubble burst and the disastrous state of the 2000 election, which was fed by the popular sentiment that "both parties were just as bad" (guess how that went). I can say that the collective feeling of contempt and ennui was desperately real, but it was the kind of real that can only exist from those who have had it so damn good. Perhaps the whole dynamic is best personified in the much ballyhooed Y2K bug: the seeming end of the world, but one that was all conjecture. It didn't actually matter. And it's achingly indicative of the hubris of a pre-9/11 mindset. We fought over the stupidest things, while all the things that we were horribly ignorant of were about to get terrifyingly real. Which leaves 1999 feeling like the weirdest year imaginable, for it was the last gasp of a particular kind of collective cultural naivety.

And it was all reflected in a massive year for movies.

You could see the strata of the entire social discussion above. On one side there was the overtaking of so many movies designed 4 THA TEENZ, what with: She's All That, Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, American Pie, and The Mod Squad remake (with the remarkable 10 Things I Hate About You being the great outlier of the bunch). But it was also the year where highbrow fare was defined by a similar kind of adolescent streak that typified the ennui and naive cynicism. Like with Best Picture winner American Beauty, a sumptuous, gorgeously-made film that ends up feeling so naively profound or profoundly naive; a skewering of suburban society that spawned 1000 plastic bag jokes. Luckily for us, Alan Ball went on to make masterpieces in Six Feet Under and Towelhead, but there's a celebratory angle of juvenile rebelling in that film that really characterized the era. Then there was raucous, biting satires of The South Park Movie and Office Space, which fully captured the symbiosis of the Comedy Central / MTV generation. There was even the emergence of Guy Ritchie's hyper-attitudinal filmmaking with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels along with the dawn of found footage in The Blair Witch Project. Hell, this is the year where cyberpunk dystopia of The Matrix culturally dwarfed a little film called Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Don't forget that people were also crowning M. Night Shyamalan for The Sixth Sense, readily calling him the next Spielberg. And even the best of arthouse fare skewed this way as Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia felt like it was aiming for dramatizing an iota of happiness in a world of despair, but was still caked on with layers of maudlin ennui.

Keep in mind that my attitude at the time, along with many others, was one of jubilant embrace. When I saw these films, I felt they so genuinely reflected the times, and perhaps none so sharply as David Fincher Fight Club; a cool, slick-as-fuck rebellion against yuppie culture; one that was all about getting in touch with the aggressive male instinct underneath. Talk about a film that wholly embodies the inability to recognize when things are damn good (along with how much worse they can be). It's the ultimate pre-Bush / pre 9/11 movie (which draws a parallel a lot of kids who grew up with the safety of Obama just got a rude awakening with the horrible orange man). Only someone naive like that could fantasize about living in the Paper Street house without ever thinking about how many non-white americans have to live in Paper Street houses. It's so nakedly about the glorification of something they would never have to do, all out of guilt for having it so damn good. To the that, the film feels like adolescence unto itself. And it exemplified everything that seemed true about movies and life in 1999. Heck, they even originally wanted Radiohead to do the soundtrack.

But this overall classification of movies in 1999 is, of course, a lie.

Because the year was also littered with small movies that would go on to be more socially relevant by the day. I think about films like Boys Don't Cry and All About My Mother. Or weird comedies like Election and the supremely underrated Dick. Or the profoundly weird existence of The Straight Story, proof pudding that David Lynch perfectly understands traditional story and the subtlety of cinematic verve. I think about the haunting darkness of Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley and the punk-rock morality play of Three Kings. I think about the heart-rendering ethos of Toy Story 2. I think about the pitch perfect comedy of Galaxy Quest. I think about the range of films we saw, from B-movie-but-big-budget joy of Deep Blue Sea to the honor of seeing the last film of the great Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut...

Yes, all these movies really came out the same year. And even among these entries, I would happily argue that today my favorite film of the year is The Insider, were it not the fact that my favorite movie from that year is most definitely The Iron Giant. But these films were evergreen and timeless, far from the juvenile ennui and adolescent gasp of the larger trend. All because these movies were earnest, weird and honest to themselves. So when you look at the whole of it, it's hard to use any movie that sums up the whole spectrum that the year had to offer..

And yet, the movie I think that is both serves as the perfect outlier-to-and-yet-best-sums-up-culture-of-1999 is none other than Kevin Smith's Dogma.

And it's not just cause Alanis Morisette played God.

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For comprehensive thoughts on the career of Kevin Smith you can do no better than Movie Bob's epic breakdown in part 1, part 2, and part 3, and I am mostly in line with his take. Smith represented the modern movie fan in so many ways. His ragtag, amiable debut of Clerks existed at the pure nexus of shambling black and white arthouse aesthetics, ordinary schlubby Americana, and humorous discussions of the pop-culture lexicon. As a person, he was charming, funny, and self-effacing. And thus he was instantly beloved. But his next two films in Mallrats and Chasing Amy sort of represent the low / hi nadir of what would be his filmmaking capacity, with the first amounting to an arthouse-quality-stripped '80s sex comedy and the second being a movie that managed to find the right emotional balance and tap into (what was at the time) the edgy zeitgeist of gay politics. But it is everything that comes after that really defined his career. Whether they are the films where he tried to retreat inward to the safety of his own cinematic universe (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II), play to the middle crowd (Jersey Girl, Cop Out, Zack And Miri Make A Porno), or outright dysfunction in the name experimentation (Red State, Tusk, Yoga Hosers). So unsurprisingly, it was the middle of all this in 1999 that he made his most interesting film. 

I know it could be retroactively easy to lump Dogma into the group of "dysfunctional experimentation," but it is so much more interesting than that. The idea that Smith would take his good will from Chasing Amy and go off and make a film that was equal parts sex comedy, violence, scripture, supernatural, and featured acts of terrorism is audacious. And thus it drew instant anticipation. It's a film that also drew major talent, from Smith regulars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck fresh off their Good Will Hunting success, to the rapidly skyrocketing Chris Rock, to the high-brow dalliance of Alan Rickman, to even the comedic blessing of George Carlin. It would be Smith's first "professional" looking film as it was shot by Robert Yeoman, fresh off of Rushmore. From the outside looking in, there was something completely fascinating about all of this.

You also have to understand that there was an incendiary climate around the film's release. Dogma was drawing intense religious ire, not just from the Catholic league, but the burgeoning Christian Right. And, to be honest I get it. The film is downright blasphemous and intensely, directly critical of the church in a way that few films ever are. It is also a passionately religious film in a way that few films are, which in part makes it seem a glaring contradiction. Which is hilariously obvious in the fact the movie actually came out same day as Luc Besson's Messenger: Joan of Arc, but it's Dogma that actually feels like a French film. For its chutzpah is evident in all aspects of its inception, right down to the fact that Smith and his producers apparently clashed a great deal over the film's most controversial aspects.

Which meant going to see the film carried a certain kind of anticipation, expectation of controversy, and morbid curiosity. One that that film's (genuinely funny) opening disclaimers addressed head on. I can't explain how much this worked as relief when the film was released. It was immediately having a conversation with the audience about its intention and voice, right down the blunt honesty about the statement being made to save one's own ass. And then as the film unspooled, it actually prepared you for one of the weirder religious movies ever made. But whatever merits you could gain from the film...

It's best viewed through the prism of 1999 and today.

* * *

So I re-watched movie last week for the first time in 17 years.

It's safe to say it was fascinating. The first and most obvious thing about watching films in this way is you're struck with how much you don't find funny that you did 17 years ago. Surprise surprise, maturity affects your sense of humor. But it's even amazing to remember how many bad ogling lines got huge laughs in the theater. So it really felt like a time machine in so many ways.  Not only in the way the goofy DVD title screen promptly announces that "this movie is the work of the devil!" but more in the way that it's reflective of a time when the Catholic Church's biggest PR problem was that they just didn't seem hip enough (the spotlight story would come just two years later). Even then, it's the rare film that's critical about the Catholic Church and doesn't once mention the notion of abuse within the ranks. In other 1999-ness, it opens with a discussion about how airports feature humanity at their best, harkening back to a time when any old person could just walk up to the gate and greet and hug love ones. A time before airports were synonymous with terrorism, racism and shoe removal. Nothing screams bygone era quite like it.

It's feeling exacerbated when you see baby faced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, fresh off their declaration of being Hollywood It-Boys, now playing renegade angels from the Old Testament days, talking about shooting up civilians for commandment breaking. Likewise, there's nothing more strange than seeing the high / low of Alan Rickman donning the voice of God and then dropping trou to reveal his bald crotch (with this film and Galaxy Quest, 1999 was his Rickman's coming-out-swinging comedy year). The thing you immediately realize is the goofy audaciousness of all this. Kevin Smith somehow convinced these actors to come out and be equal parts insanely smart alec and dead serious. And with their utter trust, those actors sure as hell give it their all.

But the actual effectiveness of the film is seemingly measured second by second. One line lands, another screeches to a halt. All par for the course of an endless series of contradictions about the film. There's a big speech on the racism and sexism of the bible with black people and women being left out, which is pretty much the 1999 equivalent of being woke. But like most work of the '90s it's juxtaposed by a comedic modus operandi that just doesn't fly any more. Not just in terms of basic language use, but the movie's constant gay panic, the non-liberating-sexual-liberation of stripping, the partying with cartoonish black gang members. And of course the eeeeeeendless stream of base sex jokes. Keep in mind, it doesn't actually bother me. Time and place and all that. But that's the thing about crudity: it tends to a date a film in just a decade. It makes watching Dogma tougher, whereas I can watch 1941's The Lady Eve and still laugh my ass off.

Still, in all this contradiction I'm fascinated by what works and doesn't. For every awkward diatribe there's a prescient line about Catholicism like "you don't celebrate your religion, you mourn it." And it's actually fun to see Smith goofing around with the obscure parts of the bible, even though most of it lands with a dull thud when it comes to how they're brought to life. The film is constantly having explain itself, often in the moment; a labyrinthian set-up of rules, lore, and conjecture that's perhaps fitting in a film about religion. The contradiction all culminates in a weird as hell assassination scene where Damon shoots up a white male boardroom, demonizing the worst of humanity, not just for what they do but for the immeasurable sins of their private lives. The truth is I'm not even sure what the fuck the scene is trying to say, here. It sort of just generally equates all evilness as states the reason all these people are bad is becomes they "have nothing left to fear." Which I would argue is the complete opposite of true in that they are all absolutely acting out of fear of losing what they have. The scene itself is that 1999 brand cultural vehemence and cynical attitude where evil is just an assumed placeholder. While in reality, the only unifying sentiment of the scene is that fast-food sucks.

But while the first two thirds of the film features this incredible unevenness, it's strange how much the film starts congealing and working in the last act. Once the rules are all set up and they get on the train, everything can start playing out with actual conflict, meditation, doubt and dramatic irony. Meaning the movie can make good on its essential promise and act like a movie where characters talk to each other instead of the audience. It's amazing how much the conversation between Affleck and Linda Fiorentino on the train snaps the entire movie into focus, revealing itself as a movie that is very much about Smith's crisis of faith. There's something honest to the way it connects God, certainty and safety. The way the standoff goes on to create actual character arcs for Bartleby and Loki and switching their viewpoints. The way the ensuing argument in the parking garage actually perfectly expresses the anger of the devout in asking "what about me?!" and the way it metastasizes into violence against others. When Loki tells him, "you sound like the morning star" this is surprisingly prescient stuff on the the radicalization of religion. Because it understands the notion that anger at God (while still believing in him) is precisely what gets us to double down at our war against our fellow man...

It's not righteousness, it's spite.

From here we shift into surprisingly touching scenes where Alan Rickman comforts our lead by telling the parables of comforting a young, despairing Jesus. I have no other way of justifying this other than "I believe Rickman when he speaks," which turns it into something powerful. Not just in the intellectual way it accounts for the missing 18 years of the bible, but the way it captures the humane and obviously-true idea that Jesus would desperately want to make it all not true. And only someone like Rickman could imbue this abstract parable with the power of a loving father, declaring that if it were up to him, he would have taken it all away. Echoing the moment every parent dreads where they are going to have to apologize for the realities of the world. It's a surprisingly beautiful moment.

And it's in the same movie where God screams and blows off someone's head.

* * *

Random tangent: Wanna know how weird 1999 was for movies? Here are some other films that were released: Baby Geniuses. Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Any Given Sunday. Angela's Ashes. Man on the Moon. Blast from the Past. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. The Anthony Hopkins Cuba Gooding Junior murder ape film Instinct. Joel Schumacher's 8mm. Schwarzenegger's devil action movie End of Days. The much ballyhooed Christmas release of Fantasia 2000 (name the last time someone mentioned that film). Mike Newell's competing radar analyst comedy Pushing Tin. Fucking robo-spider filled Wild Wild West. The surprisingly funny Drop Dead Gorgeous. The just ahead of its time Mystery Men. The Holocaust comedy Jakob the Liar.  Wes Craven's nice Oscar bait film Music of the Heart. The Gary Marshall-directed romantic comedy about disabled people The Other Sister. The bizarre Richard Pryor-inherited-turned-Eddie-Murphy-and-Martin-Lawrence-starring film Life. And finally if you've never seen it there's Simply Irresistible, one of the weirdest magical realism rom-coms ever made... There's a magic crab.

Okay now we return to our regularly scheduled essay:

* * *

You could argue that the most clearly expressed and didactic thematic point on religion in the film comes from Chris Rock's Rufus, when he declares: "You can change an idea. Changing a belief is a trickier."

The thing about Dogma is that it's made by a believer.

He's a Catholic who believes in a god and tries to fit all of it into his wildly varying inclinations, whether as a storyteller, as a humorist, or as a person. It makes the film feel like an outstretched octopus, thematically-speaking, eight arms desperately coiling around its divergent aims. It's no accident I'm still trying to figure out what the heck he's actually trying to say about God and the universe. For it's a film whose core notion rests on the entire notion that God is infallible, yet constantly chronicles the fallibleness. It's a movie that is demonized for blasphemy, but too indebted to faith to be lovingly embraced by atheists (but not really). Which makes it sounds like it's a movie "for nobody," but you would be both right and wrong about that too. It all doesn't add up. It's a movie that's a rambling diatribe and yet also the rare film where the best part is the the three scenes before the climax (Smith doesn't have the chops to quite pull off the ending sequence). In all of it, I keep using that word: contradiction. For we never really understand what God can do and can't undo. We see both the vengeful and the un-vengeful. We refer to God as a man. We see God as a woman. Yet we still refer to him as a man again. The definitions and personifications co-exist at the same time. And that's when you realize Smith's film is embodying the real deal point.

Faith is literally about being okay with contradiction.

Which means Dogma's merits do not lie in the fact that it is profound articulation of this messaging, nor in its attempt at being a skewering comedic take on religion. Its merits lie in its fearlessness to be itself. Both in the literal way he took his power from Chasing Amy and made one of the weirdest films about religion I've ever seen. But in the personal thematic sense where being fearless is largely about the courage to be wrong, which is maybe the most un-1999 thing I can think of (and something I wish we saw more of in his career). He's comfortable in this film's walking contradiction. Which is evident in the tonal dissonance of a movie that features horrific acts of mass violence, but ends on a gag clip reel. It embodies the glaring contradiction of the point. And looking back on Smith's career it's absolutely the thing I most respect him for: an achingly sincere and confused movie where a filmmaker swung for the relative fences.

And that is something I'll always believe in.