Film: Oh for heaven's sake

Dogma (18) Kevin Smith; 130 mins

K evin Smith's Dogma has nothing to do with Dogme 95, the modish hairshirt currently sported by a number of international film-makers. More's the pity. No one set of doctrinal guidelines, however rigorously applied, could have turned this dog's dinner of a movie into anything resembling a work of art. But a little humility on its director's part, humility vis-a-vis his own all too limited gifts, might have made it a less punishing experience.

Its picaresque, corkscrewy narrative defies easy synopsisation, but here goes anyway. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, as two fallen angels, Bartleby and Loki, decide that their best hope of regaining the haven of Heaven is to pass through the portals of a New Jersey cathedral during its upcoming rededication ceremony. Determined to thwart them is a campy, English- accented seraph (Alan Rickman, doing what sounds like a Frankie Howerd impersonation) who enlists the reluctant aid of Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an Illinoian abortion-clinic worker of wavering if not yet lapsed Catholic faith. En route to New Jersey, she in her turn picks up a pair of freaky drug dealers, Jay and Silent Bob; a jive-talking black, Rufus, who claims to be the 13th apostle, written out of the Bible on account of his colour; and a Muse, Serendipity (all played by actors you've never heard of and would never want to see again). From that point on, you're on your own.

Where to start? One feels like a schoolmaster confronted with an exam paper so unsalvageably hopeless he's tempted to slash a big red X across it and pass on to the next. Nothing, absolutely nothing, not a single idea, not a shot, not a camera movement, not a performance, not a gesture, not a gag, nothing at all, I repeat, works in this movie. Even nowadays, that must be some kind of a first.

You could argue that Smith deserves at least one out of 10 for chutzpah (an incongruous word in the context, but there is no other word for it). On its own infantile level, Dogma is indeed a movie about religious faith, a rarity not merely in the American but in any cinema. In the States it was vilified as blasphemous, and such church-affiliated organisations as the League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Sons of Italy and something calling itself the National Cops for Life lobbied for it to be boycotted. Smith, on the other hand, termed it "my love letter to God", albeit, he concedes, "with a few dick and fart jokes thrown in".

They're all right and they're all wrong. When one sees the movie, one realises that Smith has his priorities completely reversed. As yet another Hollywood farce gigglingly obsessed with bodily functions - it could have been entitled not There's Something About Mary but There's Something About Jesus - it's basically a collection of dick and fart jokes, albeit with a love letter to God thrown in. As such, yes, naturally, it's blasphemous (though it's also fundamentally conformist, even reactionary). But since the blasphemy is of the mooning variety, closer to the far funnier Life of Brian than to Bunuel's L'Age d'Or, the Catholic church really shouldn't have bothered getting its silken knickers in a twist. Blasphemy, after all, is a capacious offence: it runs the gamut from Nietzsche announcing the death of God to some pimply youth scribbling a moustache on the Virgin Mary.

Nor is Smith as intellectually sharp-witted as he manifestly fancies himself to be. The characters' ongoing debates on the paradoxes of faith remind one of nothing so much as half-stoned teenagers collectively musing about, like, what's going to happen when we're, like, dead, you know? And how seriously can one take a movie whose dialogue (by the director himself) allows Rickman to refer to himself as "a seraphim" (which would be like describing Kevin Smith as an assholim) or Affleck to complain of having had to hang around earth "for a millennia". A millennia? To commit so elementary a solecism! And in 1999, of all years!

At the end, God herself (yes, herself) makes a brief cameo appearance. She's played by Alanis Morissette as a frumpy plain Jane in a frilly Sandra Dee party frock. So what? It's blasphemous all right, but that's all it is. And blasphemy without a coherent context, blasphemy for its own nose- thumbing sake, is a pointless and ultimately depressing expenditure of energy.

That said, I confess I'm glad I saw Dogma because, while watching it, I myself had a revelation of sorts - not what you'd call a divine revelation but a nice one nevertheless. It suddenly dawned on me that, along with several of my colleagues, I've been attacking the American cinema for all the wrong reasons. Week after week, we've been bemoaning its debilitating lack of ambition, its readiness to pander to the lowest common denominator, its insidious dumbing down of the public's tastes and expectations. How could we have been so obtuse!

Dear Hollywood, pay no attention to the admonitions of your critics. If ever one of your big fat blockbusters, one of your gross teen comedies, is attacked, just drop your pants and turn the other cheek. Pander away. Dumb down. Content yourself with being a pretty face, darling, and forget all that nonsense about ambition. Let's have more special effects, more shattered plate glass, more explosions, more dick and fart jokes, more sequels and prequels, Titanic II, American Pie III, The Second Blair Witch Project, There's Something Else About Mary. More trash, please, and less art. And, whatever you do, for God's sake stop trying to "think". You know it just gives you wrinkles.

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