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Friday, July 7, 2000


An altar boy's spitballs

"People don't go to church to feel spiritual anymore," claims fallen angel Bartleby in the catechism comedy "Dogma." "They go and feel bored." Well, if U.S. indie director Kevin Smith was hoping to put a little zing back into Catholicism with this rude little satire, he certainly succeeded. The film -- full of the foul-mouthed monologues that Smith is known for ("Chasing Amy," "Clerks") -- spawned protests even prior to release, and Disney caved in to the Catholic pressure groups and forced its subsidiary Miramax to drop the film.

"Dogma" eventually opened anyway. With hot properties Matt Damon and Ben Affleck together again, there was no way it wouldn't. While it's important to decry the attempts to censor this film, it does raise another question: Is the film deliberately offensive? Smith, who calls himself a practicing Catholic, claims otherwise, and indeed his detailed knowledge of scripture and practice shapes the jokes.

The plot turns on the church's rather obscure practice of "plenary indulgence": Fallen angels Loki (Damon) and Bartleby (Affleck) realize that they can have all their sins forgiven by merely passing through the gates of a specific New Jersey cathedral, at which point they will again be able to re-enter the Pearly Gates. The problem is, since God is deemed infallible, if the angels exploit this loophole, they will prove He screwed up and hence undo all of Creation.

As God's voice, the seraph Metatron (Alan Rickman) comes to earth to round up a posse of crusaders to prevent this apocalypse. Surprisingly, "Dogma" endorses the values of faith and belief in a way that would probably please the church -- that is, if its lead crusader Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) wasn't a dope-smoking abortionist who also turns out to be a direct descendant of Jesus.

Yes, that's right, descended from Jesus' brothers and sisters, a fact long covered up by the church. The person revealing this wisdom is the 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock), similarly absent from the Bible because he was black. Joining him are Serendipity (Selma Hayek), a divine muse who's now working as a stripper, and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and the director himself), a pair of immature stoners with overactive libidos who turn out to be prophets.

It doesn't take a genius -- or anyone who remembers the outrage that greeted Monty Python's "Life of Brian" -- to realize that this is going to piss people off. The Catholic Church is not exactly known for its sense of humor, while Smith's wit usually revels in things considered deadly sins, fun stuff like blow jobs and necrophilia.

Of course, many of the saints weren't exactly saints: Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, while St. Paul was a rascal until he got whacked on the head and saw the light. So the idea of having fallible characters used as servants of God has its precedents, but clearly some of this material -- angels revealing their lack of genitalia, the rejection of Mary's virginity and God as a woman -- is designed to inflame the literally devout.

Now this is fair enough: The push and shove between atheism/agnosticism and fundamentalist belief systems is both necessary and good, and the updating of biblical phenomena -- angels and demons walking the earth, the voice of God emerging from flames -- is a particularly effective way to accentuate how ludicrous such beliefs can appear to nonbelievers.

But here's the rub: Smith is a believer, or so he has claimed, once the protests erupted, but this seems a bit ingenuous given the nature of the material. Give me the good old days of Luis Bunuel's "L'Age d'Or" or John Waters' "Female Trouble." If you're going to disparage people's beliefs, your convictions should at least be strong enough to take the heat. By apologizing for his satire -- in both interviews and in a prologue to the film -- Smith robs the film of its bite. The church is either infallible or it isn't, but Smith lamely waffles between the two -- to be fair, though, this is probably typical of many Catholics nowadays.

While "Dogma's" humor may be too specific to appeal to audiences beyond those with particularly resentful memories of parochial school, "Clerks," Smiths' no-budget 1994 indie film which is receiving an extremely belated release in Japan, should appeal to a wider audience. Shot entirely during off-hours at the N.J. Quick Stop where Smith was working at the time, the film's success made Smith the poster boy for '90s DIY cinema, showing that attitude and pure will could triumph over money and technique.

"Clerks" features a couple of counter clerks named Dante and Randall who have a lackadaisical approach to their jobs and a haughty contempt for their customers. This smart-aleck attitude ensured instant appeal to every college student and slacker who ever had to take on a McJob they considered "beneath" them. As Randall, the video-rental chain employee puts it, "This job would be great if it wasn't for the customers," and Smith makes a point of portraying them all as ignorant unthinking rubes or obnoxious demanding boors (not hard in New Jersey, mind you).

The film meanders through a number of inspired sketches, taking in conspiracy theories on why every price ends in "9," a Russian wannabe metal singer hanging out in the parking lot, an egg-obsessed customer and a great rap on why "Return of the Jedi" sucked.

There are some classic lines too -- Randall: "I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of a ruling class, because I rule" -- though Smith's penchant for sharp dialogue takes a few too many detours into Farrelly brothers' land, with slightly overplayed bits on oral sex and "chicks with d**ks" videos. No doubt, this too has something to do with Smith's Catholic upbringing. As John Waters once said, he was glad he was raised Catholic, because sex is so much more fun when it's dirty.

"Dogma" opens tomorrow at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan and other theaters. "Clerks" will be the late show at Cine Amuse in Shibuya late July.

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