It has been nearly ten years ago that Kevin Smith’s movie “Dogma” generated a whole lot of heated reaction and added incendiary material to the fires of the culture wars. “Dogma” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1999 and was released by Lionsgate Entertainment in mid-fall of 1999. Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) is most frequently credited with triggering the upsurge in interest in religion and film. I think a strong case can be made that “Dogma” contributed to the cultural discussion about movies and spirituality that supersedes “The Passion’s” influence. No doubt “The Passion” engineered a commercial interest way beyond “Dogma” but Kevin Smith made a movie that still invokes a spirited debate because the culture war is a protracted war. There seems to be no timetable as to when the cultural combatants can exit the conflict. “Dogma” raises critical questions about the utility of such a conflagration.
In the Spring of 2000, I conducted an interview/conversation with Craig Detweiler (see Purple State of Mind.) I am re-presenting parts of that dialogue which remains pertinent for today.
Craig Detweiler (CD): To me Dogma is a theological comic book. It has its own mythology, its own back story that informs the angels, devils, muses and all these supernatural, other worldly characters which are roaming about. Smith’s format is perfect for a generation raised on comic books. The film is niched for a younger generation struggling with questions of faith and culture, faith and art and the search for God. The older protesting generation either forgot when they went through that phase or have gotten beyond those questions or they’re offended by the way the questions are posed and processed.
Scott Young (SY): I like that point, and I’ll mention that Ella Taylor, in her review for the LA Weekly, made comments similar to yours. She said, “Dogma has all the gruesome cheek of a carton for the under-twenties.” Would you say, though, that Smith’s film, which certainly resonates more with Generation X, doesn’t exclude any generation who wants to join in on the fun?
CD: Not at all. He has raised every theological question that he has ever had. He finds a scene or a character to deal with everything. There are all kinds of unexplained phenomenon and doubts and creeds that probably never made sense to him as a person. They are all dealt with in one way, shape, or form.
SY: It’s kind of a theological vomit.
CD: Exactly. Some probably find it resentful vomit because there’s a lot of talking. It’s a very talkie film about big ideas.
SY: It’s talkie, but would you say that it’s preachy in any way?
CD: No, because I think the filmmaker’s voice keeps shifting. You can’t really tell who is speaking for him and what is really trying to communicate until the last five or ten minutes, which I think are ten of the most beautiful, poetic, profound minutes of film that I have ever seen. It’s one of the sweetest, most tender portraits of God, and in this case, her grace that I have ever seen on screen. You have foul-mouthed characters being embraced and hugged and obliterated all at the same time by a very playful, loving God that when asked a direct question just tweaks somebody’s nose and considers that a sufficient answer.
SY: I agree with you. It is a rather profound moment in film. Film critic Robert Horton says, “So, while the majority of Smith’s characters constitute the chattiest group in movies today, the people with the greatest wisdom are the two who barely open their mouths.” Of course, that’s “God” played by Alanis Morissette and “Silent Bob” played by Kevin Smith himself. Dogma operates on a lot of different levels. That’s one of the greatest features of the film. It’s multi-dimensional in all kinds of ways. But it seems to me that the thing Smith is attempting is an artistic treatise on idolatry: taking beliefs and elevating them higher than God, Himself, which is again back to the last ten minutes of the film.
CD: I think Kevin Smith is saying, let’s put the culture wars behind us. Where has it gotten us? It’s gotten us a lot of anger, a lot of heat and a lot of division. Nobody has drawn closer to God. Nobody is drawing closer to faith as a result of fighting and arguing. Let’s just try the ideas for a change. It doesn’t mean that we are wishy-washy about those ideas. It’s just that we believe in living our faith instead of arguing our faith.
SY: Smith seems to be raising an art form in the film and that’s dialoguing or maybe I should call it spirited discussion, which is a whole other way of dealing with ideas than getting two entrenched opponents and giving them heavy artillery and then seeing who comes out the winner. So instead of culture wars, we are back to cultural debate.