Let’s pretend there are two Kevin Smiths: Kevin Smith the Film Director, and Kevin Smith the Everything Else.
Consider the latter: Kevin Smith is a podcaster many times over. Take every podcast he’s ever recorded; beam it into space. Someday humanity will be dead, and somewhere, out there, the aliens will have still have years’ worth of Kevin Smith talking, talking, talking.
He is the producer/onscreen deity of a reality show, Comic Book Men, which gets good enough ratings that the network wants two more Kevin Smith shows just like it. One of the new shows will be based on a podcast. (Smith believes in recycling.) Smith was the host of Spoilers, a show that ran on Hulu before it got demoted to Canada. He releases documentaries where people ask Kevin Smith questions and he answers those questions. He is a playable character in LEGO Batman 3. He owns a comic book store in New Jersey. The comic book store is the setting for that reality show. (Smith believes in recycling.)
No one has written the history of Twitter yet—but you should also remember that, back in 2010, Smith helped invent an idea of what Twitter is. Southwest Airlines; “safety risk” reimagined as a body-shaming euphemism; “controversy” redefined as “something a celebrity tweets about.” (Don’t remember? It’s still happening, somewhere in time.)
And no one has written the history of cameos yet, but Smith spent the 2000s as an upper-level practitioner of the form. He’s a nerd in Daredevil, and a nerd in Live Free or Die Hard, and a god-nerd-philosopher-king-deus ex whatever in Southland Tales. Remember that Kevin Smith helped to invent the idea of Stan Lee as the Cameo God in Mallrats, before Stan Lee started his final-act career as the man who appears in the most popular movies every year.
But that’s getting into the other guy. Kevin Smith the Film Director: There are two popular perspectives. One is that Kevin Smith is Weezer: warly success leading to an engaged fanbase leading to popularity—leading to a weird phenomenon where every time he tries to be popular, his fanbase gets disengaged or even enraged; every time he tries to please his fanbase, the general public barely notices. (The former: Jersey Girl. The latter: Tusk.)
This perspective still requires a foundational respect for what Smith was in the ’90s. The other read on Smith as a Filmmaker is that he was never all that great. The arguments are old: Dull visuals, nonexistent plots, self-satisfied characters bantering self-satisfactorily. Smith was a ’90s indie filmmaker, coming up alongside Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson and a lot of other people who you don’t hear about much anymore, and also Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino and Anderson’s early work seems to get the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man halo treatment, while Kevin Smith’s early work is starting to get dismissed.
How could it not be, when Smith was always the most self-deprecating of the indie hotshots? Tarantino and Anderson came on like the messiah anti-christs of the approaching cinema millennium. Smith came off, accidentally on purpose, like just some guy from Jersey. He talked about retiring when he was 40. His ambitions were modest. He made a movie about nerds in Jersey, and then he made a movie about nerds in Jersey, and then he made a movie about nerds in Jersey. When his career hit a speed bump, he made a sequel to his first movie about nerds in Jersey. Lately, he tweets and podcasts about how he’s writing a sequel to the sequel to the movie about nerds in Jersey.
And then there’s Dogma. The movie turns 15 this week, which means 15 years ago I saw it in theaters. Afterwards, I felt a little bit like John; you know, the guy who had all those revelations. That’s a Bible reference! Dogma is full of Bible references. It’s hard to think of any other movie in the last fifteen years that talks so frequently—and so directly—about faith in general and Catholicism in particular. (Lost was a show so Christian that there was actually a character named Christian Shepherd, but most of the references were embedded motifs. Like, nobody on Lost ever chatted idly about the sex life of Mary and Joseph.)
I know why I liked Dogma then. The reasons are personal, but obvious. A suburban kid, raised Catholic, who loved comic books: I was Kevin Smith’s key demographic. Watching Dogma now is strange. The movie is so slow, and so so ’90s. The clothes are so baggy; the angels all wear hoodies; the demons are on roller blades. The film was controversial; it’s easy to watch it now, and wonder why. It’s easy to dismiss it.
It’s also wrong. Dogma isn’t the best movie Smith ever made—that’s probably Chasing Amy. But it’s his biggest swing, his most profound statement. And as much as the movie feels rooted in the concerns of its moment, it’s possible to watch it now and remember something nobody ever gives Smith credit for: how, above all else, the man has a unique knack for being ahead of the game.
In Dogma, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play a pair of angels doomed to live on Earth, dreaming of returning to heaven. This is, without a doubt, the absolute peak of Matt & Ben as Cultural Iconographic Force: Two years after they won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, two years before they launched Project Greenlight, four years before a play called Matt & Ben opened in New York and launched the career of one Mindy Kaling.
Dogma casts Matt Damon as a preening, vaguely psychotic-yet-endaringly-childish narcissist; basically, Matt Damon as he appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live. But Damon’s character, Loki, has a backstory. He was the ultimate assassin—the Angel of Death—but one day, he decided he didn’t want to be an assassin anymore. You can see the outline of Jason Bourne there. Affleck plays Bartleby. He’s initially the straight man; he winds up as the villain.
Affleck was cusping on his most ruinous season—that run from 1999-2005 when Hollywood kept casting him as a boring hero. But in Dogma, you can see the Affleck of Gone Girl. Bruised, used, confused, vindictive, his good looks and dull stare indicate an insidious purpose. There was a time when Ben Affleck felt a bit like the John Wayne to Kevin Smith’s John Ford—the idealized version of the director’s self-image, the face in the mirror with a better chin. Smith always said Ben Affleck should play Superman, which is one of those roundabout ways that one man tells another man he loves him.
But Smith cast Affleck as a statutory rapist (who gets raped), and a Coded-as-Nerd comic book artist who ruins a relationship with jealousy, and a mass-murdering angel who willingly destroys the world out of spite. In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith gives Ben Affleck the following line: “Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.” Now that Affleck’s an Oscar winner and a superhero, it’s easy to forget just how important Kevin Smith was for him. He brought Affleck down to size.
When Dogma came out, Alan Rickman was still best known as the bad guy from Die Hard, or maybe the bad guy from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or at best the prickly dead boyfriend from Truly, Madly, Deeply. Smith cast Rickman as the Metatron, the exposition-spouting Voice of God. He plays on Rickman’s gravitas as a kind of joke, but also gives him some of the film’s most poignant moments. Rickman describes what was like to tell Jesus that he was Jesus:
It was a few years before Rickman became Severus Snape, a scary presence for a generation of moviegoers who nevertheless always sensed the lingering sadness behind his facade. The kinder, gentler Rickman starts in Dogma.
So does Judd Apatow, kind of, and the whole idea of “bromance.” It was there in Smith’s earlier movies—but Dogma goes full throttle, complete with the muted gay panic that defined the genre. Affleck swears that he and Damon aren’t gay; Chris Rock declares that Jay thinks about men when he masturbates.
The gender politics of Dogma play weirdly now, 15 years later. The good news: God is a woman, Salma Hayek gets a speech complaining about how the Bible is biased against women, savior-of-the-world Linda Fiorentino works in an abortion clinic. The bad news: God is a woman who lets a man talk for her. Salma Hayek’s first scene is Salma Hayek stripping. And practically every line of dialogue Linda Fiorentino has in the movie is a question.
No, seriously, here’s a sample:
“You were martyred?”
“So, you went to heaven?”
“You’re saying God’s a woman?”
“You have issues with Catholicism, I take it?”
“So if we’re wrong, what’s the right religion?’
“You’re saying having beliefs is a bad thing?”
“Do you two live together?”
“Why was I so easy to cast aside?”
“Wasn’t that plan good enough for God?”
“What about you? When’d you lose your faith?”
“What does that mean? Since when am I supposed to kill anybody?”
“Out of all the people on the goddamn planet, why was I tapped?”
“Does this mean no more cheating on my taxes?”
“So what do we do now about Bartleby and Loki?”
“You’re gonna unmake existence because you have a grudge against God?”
“What the fuck just happened?”
“What are you trying to prove?”
“What the fuck kind of deity gets kidnapped?”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Where’s the nearest boardwalk?”
“Why are we here?
Dogma feels like a dude movie, even with Fiorentino as the nominal protagonist. (She’s playing a descendant of Jesus’s family; Dogma is also The Da Vinci Code four years early, sans literary pretensions and funny on purpose.) There’s one scene without any men, between Fiorentino and her abortion-clinic colleague. The colleague is played by Janeane Garafalo, dropping some tart-tongued truth bombs. They talk about faith, about their job, about how Fiorentino needs to get laid. You wish Smith could’ve made a whole movie about Garafalo and Fiorentino; you wonder if Smith could’ve made something halfway to Bridesmaids a decade early.
The movie ends with Fiorentino immaculate-impregnated by God, which happens without her consent. So much of Dogma is like that: Things happen that feel very casual, as if Smith didn’t really understand how many landmines he might step on.
Or maybe he did. You don’t just accidentally cast beloved atheist uncle George Carlin as a vain Catholic Cardinal. And you don’t accidentally cast Chris Rock as the thirteenth apostle, who says bluntly that Jesus was black. (This, fourteen years before that.) And you don’t accidentally make a Disney movie filled with scathing, bloody, Hard-R satire about Disney. But that’s what Dogma is: Produced by Miramax, which was owned by Disney. Dogma features a scene set in the office of a major corporation which has grown rich off the beloved character Mooby the Golden Calf. Mooby isn’t just Disney—it’s McDonald’s, too—but the parallels are there. And in Dogma, Ben Affleck tells the faux-Disney executives that they are all sinners, and then Matt Damon blows them to hell. And this is meant to be funny.
And it is funny. There’s that punky side to Dogma, that sense of slacker anti-authority that ran throughout the whole decade: You remember that the ’90s were a time when even lame people pretended to be grunge.
Five years after Dogma, Disney got angry at the Weinsteins again, for Fahrenheit 9/11. The Weinsteins left; Disney kept Miramax. Today, Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, which means that every mention of the Death Star’s janitors or The Thing’s thing in a Kevin Smith movie has been retconned into a Disney reference.
Have people already forgotten how important those references were—how the way that people talk about pop culture in Kevin Smith movies is the way people talk about pop culture now? At the beginning of Chasing Amy, a black comic book artist hilariously and brilliantly argues that the Star Wars trilogy is actually about gentrification; he also claims Archie and Jughead are gay. This week, someone explained why no one can lift Thor’s hammer. The internet treats pop culture as a mystery to be solved, replete with theories and hidden agendas. (Imagine what the clerks from Clerks would do with Christopher Nolan.) All this was around before Kevin Smith, maybe, but no other filmmaker so perfectly captured the moment when pop culture became the new religion for a culture of baby-boom grandchildren who stopped going to church. Kevin Smith didn’t invent Comic-Con or the internet, yet both of them feel an awful lot like a Kevin Smith production.
The best thing about Dogma is how it takes all those conversations that treat pop culture as a religion, and changes the subject to actual religion. It is hilariously on the nose, like the knight playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. And I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that Dogma really does feel like what happens when a genial nerd who laughs too hard at dick jokes suddenly decides to make his own version of The Seventh Seal.
In the best scene of the movie, Ben Affleck and Linda Fiorentino talk about how it feels to get dumped. Fiorentino’s husband left her; God pushed Affleck out of heaven. It’s a bit like Fiorentino is flirting with Affleck—or like she’s trying to do anything besides ask another question—but you can also feel the vivid sense of betrayed melancholy. What does it mean to feel abandoned by God?
That strain of abandonment runs through the great indie-hip movies of 1999: the soldiers betrayed by their own nation in Three Kings, the young men betrayed by everything in Fight Club, the doomed campers betrayed by their own compass in The Blair Witch Project. Smith’s film feels more optimistic than any of those. Dogma is not a lacerating anti-religion screed; it’s a movie that argues that, basically, you should be excellent to each other. But if Smith believes in people, he’s also skeptical of organizations—he believes in God, but not the church.
Am I talking too much about ideas? Dogma is full of them. You can feel Smith trying to expurgate a whole lifetime of Questions Without Answers. Dogma‘s sheer slowness makes it feel almost avant-garde now. Characters talk, and talk, and talk. Most hotshot indie filmmakers today try to impress with everything besides their dialogue—they shoot things in a way that is generally referred to as “stylish.” Smith is anti-style: Shot-reverse shot, long dialogue takes. He never shows; he always tells.
Something to think about: There will never be a movie that looks as cheap as Clerks again. Or if there is, it will be a purposeful artistic choice. Put your iPhone on a tripod, and you can make a movie that looks better than Clerks. Hell, any child born today will probably develop cinematography as a sixth sense.
So the anti-style of Smith’s early movies has aged weird but well—better, in some ways, than stuff like Fight Club or The Matrix, which retroactively look like every advertisement from the 2000s. (Some of Smith’s stuff does feel like early Mumblecore, except with scrutable dialogue and characters you don’t want to punch in the face.)
Is Smith a great filmmaker? Does he shoot things in an interesting way? I don’t think those questions are interesting. Smith writes dialogue, hands it to actors, follows the conversation. When he tries to make a genre movie, this can feel off-putting. His horror movies feel especially off-key. No genre depends more on visual storytelling than horror; no genre feels more awkward for a filmmaker who just wants to watch people talk.
But the talk in Dogma is heavy, and so Dogma benefits from the dissonance of having lots of Heavy Talk mouthed by slackers and future superstars pretending to be slackers and stand-up comedians and Linda Fiorentino. Fifteen years later, every movie looks better than Dogma and yet so few movies try half as hard as Dogma.
And even Smith has never really made a movie like it. Immediate follow-up Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was a victory lap, the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album. It’s funny, and the final act is basically the final statement on the Miramax era, and there’s a basic transgression to the idea of someone making a $22 million movie starring Jason Mewes. But Jay and Silent Bob also feels like the moment when Smith became his own mini-Walt Disney: the head of an Empire. (Add “cinematic universe” to the list of Things Kevin Smith Did A Decade Before Anybody Else.)
His attempts to make movies outside the View Askewniverse didn’t really please anyone. Clerks 2 is the best movie Smith made in the 2000s—the first time that Smith seems to figure out that not having a plot is the whole point of a Kevin Smith movie—but it’s also dangerously sentimental. Smith’s gone independent now, and seems content to make slow-paced horror movies while he works on Clerks 3. Red State comes close to Dogma, but there’s an uncanny valley effect at work. Red State looks so much like a horror film that you’re extremely aware of just how unscary it is, while Dogma looks like somebody took a picture of the apocalypse with an out-of-focus disposable camera.
You watch Dogma now and you want Kevin Smith to take another big swing. You wonder what it must be like for a guy who used to talk about geek icons to be a geek icon; you wonder if Kevin Smith ever feels a little bit like Mooby. There’s a youthful quality to Dogma, the chain-gun satire you only get when the writer’s old enough to know his parents lied to him and still young enough to be angry about it. Dogma feels like a movie that was pointing in one direction; Smith went a different way. Now he’s one of our great raconteurs, a model for personality-as-brand, a pioneering multihyphenate in a multihyphenate age.
Pop culture feels so much like Kevin Smith now. You watch Dogma today and realize that, if Kevin Smith got his start today, his fourth movie wouldn’t be a shaggy inquisition into the meaning of faith. It would be a Spider-Man reboot, or a Jurassic Park sequel, or whatever the hell Skull Island is.
I wonder if Smith secretly wishes he could make one of those movies. Or not so secretly: He worked on a script for Superman, after all. And the process of working on that script has given Smith years of hilarious stories about Jon Peters and the final-act giant spider. (Maybe the best way to understand Smith is as a realtime memoirist.) I wonder if Smith looks at the Hollywood of Right Now—a Hollywood of superheroes, a Hollywood where Seth Rogen keeps making reasonably-budgeted movies about how much he loves James Franco—and feels a bit left out.
He led us here, like Moses; like Moses, he watches from outside the Promised Land. (Bible reference!)