Film: In the name of the mother

Kevin Smith's films always feature strong women and weak men. Dogma is no exception. What is he trying to say? By Charlotte O'Sullivan
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The Independent Culture
In Dogma, Kevin Smith's saucy-smart comedy about the Catholic Church, a long search for God finally reveals Him to be a Her, an irrational creature given to alternately punishing and pampering humans; a sexy being so powerful that Her very voice causes mortals to explode. A number of Catholic groups in America have a problem with Dogma. But does Smith, I wonder, have a problem with strong women?

He has always been interested in them; the New Jersey director's beautifully lateral 1994 film Clerks - a $27,000 calling-card credited with kick-starting the Nineties indie film revival - ummed and aahed around the question of female experience. A sheltered nerd discovers, to his horror, that his girlfriend has had oral sex with more people than he has, thus making her, in his mind, more powerful. In Mall Rats, a woman who sleeps with hundreds of men in the interest of research proves all-wise. In Chasing Amy, a beautiful, promiscuous bisexual puts us, and her boyfriend, straight on the meaning of life...

Smith, 29, was famously dumped by Joey Lauren Adams, the actress who played Amy, once the film was over. Since then, he has married and is now the father of a five-month-old girl, but on the morning of our meeting he still looks more like a crushee than a crusher. A mole-ish, silky brown creature - a sort of munificent version of Martin Scorsese - he is swaddled in slobby sweat-pants and sucks on his cigarettes like an asthmatic with an inhaler. I ask a few polite questions about the weather, then cut to the chase: how does he get on with the women in his life?

"The kid is cool," he says firmly. "The wife is always saying how advanced she is, but I don't want to over-sell her." Does the baby like him? "Every time I walk in the room," says Smith, "she's like, `pssh' (he gives a little swivel of the head), but it was the wife who pointed it out. I don't think I have ego enough to pick up on that." He laughs. "I was saying, `The kid loathes me, I must try harder', and the wife's like, `Oh, she loves her father'. I'm like `You women, you're both lying! You harpies! You're trying to break my heart all over again'."

I tell him his phrase "the wife" is almost as bad as " 'er indoors". He looks greatly pained by the accusation, then asks if I mind if he lies on the floor because it's more comfortable. "It feels way too possessive to call her my wife," he goes on to explain. "I could call her the mother," he ponders aloud, " 'cos that's what she is. But that would be confusing.

"Are you married?" he asks abruptly. "Do you get on with your mother- in-law? Does she like you?" He barely waits for my answers. " 'Cos I've found that the stereotypical mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship you see in the sitcoms is kind of true. And it's weird, because, though I'd never say this in front of Jen, she and my mum are kind of cut from the same cloth. Jen will say `she's very bossy' and I'm like (Smith plays himself, muttering into his chest) `so are you'." Then he mimics his mother making a pinched-mouthed aside: "she's very bossy with you."

"And I'm like `Oh, is she Mum?' I just sit on the sidelines. I need a boss, I guess."

The Catholics who have been offended by Dogma (it has been picketed at all the festivals where it has been shown, most recently the New York Film Festival) will probably not recognise this paragon of humility. Dogma is not a film that sits on the sidelines. It's not just the references to Jesus being black, or the jokes about "dickless" angels, or the fact that the heroine works in an abortion clinic. By putting the Catholic church squarely at the centre of a story about the end of the world, it actually makes the Church look irrelevant. Plot hinges - a bishop blesses his golf ball, thus giving it the power to destroy the Devil - poke fun at how little it can do.

And, even today, Smith, born and raised a Catholic, is full of provocative remarks. He says he considered having his heroine, Bethany, drunk throughout the film, but that "having the main Catholic representative constantly drunk would have been a bit too honest".

On his mother's devotion he has this to say: "She goes every morning at 7.30 to get a quick fix, she's like a junkie!" He seems to have far more sympathy with his father, who goes to church on Sundays but is not "that happy about it any more. He had two strokes and he was like (puts on an exasperated voice) `Oh Lord... ' "

Once again, Smith is casting the women in his life as active and the men as passive, even as he shoots off his own witty mouth. It's a habit he can't seem to break. In Dogma, Bethany is played by Linda Fiorentino, the dark-eyed, jagged-edged star of John Dahl's The Last Seduction. When I ask how he and Fiorentino got along, Smith says: "She's probably the most difficult performer/actor that I've ever worked with." Guess what she was? Yep - bossy.

"She had this sense of injustice," he explains wearily. "It didn't sit well with her that she had cleared her schedule for months to do the movie and yet other actors were popping off to go and do other flicks." It's clear from what Smith says that Ben Affleck (who plays a disaffected angel) was Fiorentino's main target. "He'd just won an Oscar," says Smith, "and I didn't want to hold the dude back. I was like: `You want me to fire Ben? Number one, he's my friend. Number two, I understand why he's doing it.'

"She could have - and probably did, knowing Linda - seen it as a sign of weakness on my part, but I think it was understanding." He tries to get himself more comfortable on the floor, fails, and returns somewhat downcast to the sofa.

But she's so good in the film, I say. She's crucial to the film's best scene, in which she and Affleck (appropriately enough) begin by flirting with each other and end up spewing insults. It's wonderfully dark, and dripping with sexual unease. "Well, yeah, I re-wrote the whole script after I met her," agrees Smith. "I only met her as a courtesy to Miramax but after two hours with her, hearing all these horrible stories about her past - I mean, I've never seen anyone open up as much, I was like `lady, I just met you' - I walked away from the meeting thinking that she should be the lead."

So it can't have been that bad, I say. And she did let you make all those jokes about her flat chest. Smith's jaw drops somewhat. "Well, you reach a certain point in your life..." he laughs nervously. "I don't think she goes home weeping, saying: `where are my tits?' And what she lacks in cleavage, she makes up for in moxy - and moxy goes a long way."

How appropriate it is that Smith's favourite saint is Sir Thomas More, a man who lost his head for speaking his mind. And how fitting it is that Smith pops up in his movies as Silent Bob, a grebo who barely gets a line a film. In the world according to Smith, women do all the shouting, the seducing, the (over-) selling, the bossing, the exploding - all with the best of intentions, on behalf of their chosen ones. Good men just don't do it that way; on behalf of us all, they sacrifice their voice (Thomas More and Silent Bob are soul brothers).

Smith may have a problem with powerful women, but he has an even bigger one with top-dog men. And that's what makes him seem both subversive and adolescent as a filmmaker. He's very much in the latter mode as we say goodbye. "All that stuff about Linda's tits - that was pretty amazing," he says. "You've set a good tone for the rest of the day."

`Dogma' opens on Boxing Day