Film: Blasphemy, the movie

Kevin Smith's new film, Dogma, is so controversial that Disney want to bury it. Good lord, what's all the fuss about? By Roger Clarke
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The Independent Culture
Today sees the most controversial film at Cannes receive its first public screening. Kevin Smith's so-called "blasphemous" satire of Roman Catholicism, Dogma, has already sparked heated debates about its content - which features a female relative of Christ working in an abortion clinic, a black, streetwise "13th disciple", Alanis Morissette cast as God and two angels (played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) who use an Uzi sub-machine gun to punish sinners. Not surprisingly, its makers, Disney, are squirming with embarrassment about it and are keen to dump it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

It turns out that Disney has a special clause in its contract with its subsidiary Miramax which states that Miramax cannot distribute films with a NC-17 certificate: this has enabled it to pressure Miramax to get rid of films such as Larry Clark's Kids (but not Antonia Bird's Priest, which caused Disney headaches with the Catholic Church before) without overtly appearing to censor Miramax's output. Along with Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (the serial-killer biopic which again looks likely to get an NC-17 certificate and has offended the families of victims), Dogma has landed Disney with a problem when it least needs one.

After all, Disney's chief executive Michael Eisner is currently embroiled in fighting off massive lawsuits from his former sidekick Jeffrey Katzenberg (who is claiming up to $500m in back pay) and a rearguard group action by thousands of disgruntled Disney employees seeking medical cover with their pensions.

An unusually tactful Harvey Weinstein - the Miramax boss who recently handed Disney such triumphs over Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful - has admitted that Eisner and Disney did not directly ask him to shelve Dogma but that "what they said is: we have a problem". His solution was to create a special one-off company, "out of respect to our parent company", to buy Dogma off Miramax for $12m and sell it on to another distributor less worried about offending religious zealots.

Kevin Smith himself (a mildly overweight and engaging 29-year-old from Red Bank, New Jersey), whose comic zero-budget film debut, Clerks, has won him a large and adoring "Slacker" cult following in the US, seems oddly bewildered by the fuss. Commenting on his fourth film for the Weinsteins (including the lacklustre Mallrats and the better received boy-loves-lesbian flick Chasing Amy), Smith has said: "It was from first to last always intended as a love-letter to both faith and God Almighty," pointing out that he is himself a practising Catholic. "It's mind-bending, as we come to the close of this century, that anyone would still attack a work that has yet to see the light of day without having seen it themselves."

But, as it happens, we have a pretty good idea what to expect; the third draft of the script has been available on the Internet for months.

There can be few directors so amazingly plugged into the Information Highway as Smith, who seems to draw his fanbase naturally from the people who cruise the Net and gab away in chatrooms. Not only does his own enormous official homepage direct you to the (unauthorised and leaked) site containing the script for Dogma, it has reams of information including Smith's own diary kept during the shooting of the film. There's even a large site containing dozens of accounts of the experience of working on Dogma written by its extras, all of whom were recruited via the Internet.

Rarely has so much raw information about an unscreened movie been so easily available to the public. Comparing the third script (the fifth version was the one filmed) with the brief accounts of private screenings Smith has sanctioned on his homepage, it is clear that some of the most controversial sequences have already been jettisoned after earlier Miramax objections. One, in particular, is a South Park-style cartoon advertising "Hosties" breakfast cereals - cereal in the shape of communion wafers, no less, being eulogised over by altar boys who confess to masturbation.

It seems hard to believe that Smith (who, despite cultivating a studied Slacker persona that berates "suits" and "corporations", makes ads for Coca-Cola and was paid $400,000 by Tim Burton to write an abortive Superman sequel) is genuinely unaware of the effect of such (no doubt amusing) spoofs at the expense of religious groups. "In my opinion," he said in a statement recently, "Dogma is in no way blasphemous or worthy of the mild controversy that seems to be brewing around it".

A tad disingenuous, perhaps. But the key to understanding Smith is not his wickedness or his questing intellect but his visceral appeal to the rebellious teen boy, a state of mind that he has clearly managed to preserve. When Playboy ran a feature on him, it noted that the atmosphere of his production office was "weirdly like high school never ended". And his director's diary is not the equal of, say, Bresson. "I got my first screen kiss," he records in an entry dated 3 May 1998. "Linda [Fiorentino] and I made out (okay - wishful thinking) for 14 different takes (for the various angles & whatnot - really... I swear). If you've never kissed (or rather been kissed by) Linda Fiorentino, I recommend it highly." Bear in mind that this is written by a man who was then 28. Meanwhile, in Dogma, he casts himself as Silent Bob, a man who hangs about abortion clinics to "pick up chicks".

So, as of today, you will be hearing more about Linda Fiorentino as Bethany; a demon made out of human excrement called the Golgothan; Alan Rickman revealing his non-functional genitalia as a seraphim; a psychopathic former angel of death played by Matt Damon; Alanis Morissette as a female God who sneaks down to Earth to play Skee-ball every now and then; and a priest whose attempt to forgive all sins will allow the devils back in to Heaven (the thrust of this particular satiric jab being much the same as Martin Luther's complaint about the Church of Rome 500 years ago).

Whether the film quite deserves its tilt at infamy is quite another matter: I'll hazard a guess that it hardly has the moodiness and clout of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ or the Marxist subversion of Pasolini's La Ricotta; it doesn't even have the light-as-a-feather irreverence of Life of Brian (because, yes, it does take the Church seriously). But, who knows, perhaps it will display some of Smith's trademark skuzzball charm that will have the Slackers coughing into their spliffs with joy.

I have another theory why Disney is ditching Dogma: never mind the whingeing Catholics, there's an attack on Disney contained within it. At one point Matt Damon turns up in the boardroom of a company clearly modelled on Disney called Mooby Productions International; it markets a dumb anthropomorphic cartoon character and runs theme parks. Damon, having run through the crimes of its boardroom members one by one, including incest and paedophilia, then shoots them all.

Michael Eisner is clearly in no mood for being laughed at by an overgrown New Jersey kid - and really, who can blame him?

from the Book of Kevin

An extract from a draft of the script for Dogma.

Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who works in an abortion clinic and is a "great niece" of Jesus, is talking to the re-materialised "13th disciple" Rufus (Chris Rock) about Jesus Himself.

Bethany: What was He like?

Rufus: Jesus? Black.

Bethany: Besides that.

Rufus: The brother was centred. I mean, He was God, right? But I think He felt left out because He was more than human, you know? We used to sit around the fire - me and the guys - and we'd be talking about what assholes the Romans were, or getting laid...

Bethany: Some things never change.

Rufus: ...and He'd just sit there listening and smiling. We'd ask Him why He never joined in the convo, but He said He just liked to hear us talk; about anything. Said it was like music. I think He just wished He had unimportant shit to talk about himself.

Bethany: How does He feel now?

Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, but especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

Bethany: Having beliefs isn't good?

Rufus: I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant. That was one thing the Man hated - still life. Maybe it had something to do with knowing when He was going to die, but Christ had this vitality that I've never encountered in another person since.