While thanking God in the credits of his films has always been the trend for writer-director Kevin Smith, his Catholicism-themed 1999 comedy “Dogma” makes not only the thematically appropriate shout-out to the Lord, but to those who inspired him-be they comedians like Sam Kinison, comics writers like Alan Moore, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese… or people a little less ingrained in today’s popular culture, such as scholar and statesman Thomas More or literary legend Cervantes.
We start in our discussion of “Dogma” and how it changed my life at the credits, at the end, which is appropriate, because I missed the beginning. I was stuck in the snack line and missed the first scene. Not that I didn’t know the overriding premise of the movie, sort of; it was about Ben Affleck and Matt Damon playing fallen angels and Alanis Morissette playing God. I knew little or nothing about the rest of the movie, or about Kevin Smith’s work, but that was enough for me to plunk down eight dollars.
Sure, I’d known Kevin Smith was the “Clerks” guy, and I’d promised myself I’d see “Clerks” one day (a budding filmmaker, I had to educate myself), but mostly I was there waiting for Alanis to show up as God. And, to be sure, by the end of the film I’d reached an interesting point in my search for God.
Without turning this into a movie review, let’s get one thing out of the way: the film’s hilarious. Two hours of insightful and bitingly witty commentary on religion, history, spirituality and Christianity deftly crossed with jokes on such equally lofty subjects as the “Star Wars” trilogy and women’s initial physical reactions to anal intercourse. I immediately fell in love with Kevin Smith’s unique ear for dialogue and delightfully bent take (or, as his production company name may suggest, askew view) on the world. And certainly it’s important, particularly for a writer-filmmaker, to find someone new to look up to, a new body of work to track down and study and voraciously appreciate. But that’s not life-changing. For a filmmaker, that’s just life.
I was halfway through high school in 1999, about the age where a young man starts to ask the really big questions. If he’s lucky, he never runs out of questions to ask. I wouldn’t say I was struggling with my thoughts on God or the universe. And despite the lack of church-going in my upbringing, I wasn’t feeling a need for religion. But there was a tickle in my brain that had never really gotten addressed.
Upon seeing “Dogma”, a film that dared to confront the big questions about God and man and the tenuous link between the two we call religion, I realized that someone else was asking those questions.
And upon seeing the sections of that film that dared to summon a monster made of excrement from Golgotha and have apostles make masturbation jokes, I realized that that same someone else was doing so in a way I never quite thought possible: with humor.
My kind of humor.
As we left the theater, I commented out loud that “Dogma” was “am God” backwards. An odd thing to say under any circumstances. My only excuse was that a thousand thoughts were going through my brain just then.
“Dogma” is a surprisingly spiritual movie where love for God pretty clearly comes out on top, even if Holy Mother Church takes a few beatings along the way. Smith isn’t shy about slaughtering a sacred cow or two in the name of seeing the forest for the trees. Its protagonist, Bethany, ruminates on faith being like a glass that needs to be filled; to see “Dogma” is to have the proverbial cup filled until it runneth over.
But for me it was more than that; my big connection was not with God but with man. I felt like someone had taken me aside and told me that it was okay to think the big, scary thoughts about the world that I was thinking-that sometimes I didn’t even admit I was thinking-and that it was okay to tackle them in a way that meant something and made sense to you. It was like a door I’d never known existed had not only been opened, but pointed out to me halfway through the opening just in case I’d missed it.
As a filmmaker, I believe the medium has the responsibility of being about more than entertainment; the best movies are those that address some sort of theme. They don’t need to do so heavy-handedly, or even explicitly-indeed, more often than not, the film is better and the message is more effectively communicated when things are kept subtle-but when I tell a story, I try to make it about wider issues than just the select group of characters portrayed. (If, like “Dogma”, said films can contain a showstopping joke about a certain part of the male anatomy, so much the better.) Cinema, even comedic cinema, is too key an element of our culture to let lie fallow.
As a person, I believe, as Kevin Smith evidently does, that God has a sense of humor. I’ve developed many other thoughts on God, on Jesus Christ, on Christianity, on religion and on the nature of the universe, most of which have anything in particular to do with “Dogma”. That is okay. I don’t credit “Dogma” for shaping my views on God, but I credit it with encouraging me to develop views in the first place. To think about the concept of God, as terrifyingly large as it may be. To believe something-or, as Chris Rock’s character puts it, to have ideas. And to conduct this quest for how I think about God on my own terms. Thinking back, I don’t think God would want it any other way.
Oh yes, and while I don’t think God actually comes across as Alanis does in the film, I was quite charmed by her performance. So it all worked out quite well. Sometimes everything just clicks in the right way and changes your life at just the right moment… God only knows how.