I've Lost the Faith
Kevin Smith is a screenwriter who, due to the success of American independent cinema movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, seems to have fallen into directing. The Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch, all three of them writer-directors, effectively started the movement with Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise, respectively in 1984. Ever since, the writer-director, in the form of Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape, The Girlfriend Experience), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds), or Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) has been with an industrial staple of the movement into its commercialization in 1993 with the acquisition of Miramax by Disney. Yet Kevin Smith has always struck me as the odd-man out, a filmmaker with little visual style, a glorified director of radio theater.
That's not to say I despise Smith's work, nor do I dislike watching his films. In fact, one of the films that pushed me into the film studies discipline and spawned my interest in American independent film (which I've published articles on numerous times since) was Chasing Amy (1997), his strongest and most heartfelt work as a wearer of both artistic hats. Yet, as the years went by, I began to notice that Smith suffered from an ailment that seems to have plagued a number of his independent film colleagues (Anderson and Tarantino especially ... but more on that in the coming weeks) as of late. Quite simply, he found himself in an artistic comfort zone, rarely risking his ability to crank out obscene comedy. Sure, there's Jersey Girl (2004), but after that outside-the-box failure, Smith went right back to the well with Clerks II (2006) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008).
That said, there's no doubt in my mind that Smith's second-strongest film is Dogma (1999). For those of you unfamiliar with the film (which I doubt there are many, as I'm aware of the polarizing position Kevin Smith occupies at Pajiba), I'll offer up an incredibly brief plot summary. Thanks to a new marketing campaign on behalf of the Catholic Church by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), two dispelled angels by the names of Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) may be allowed back into the heaven they were cast out of. The only problem with this situation is that if Bartleby and Loki make it back into heaven, they will have proven God fallible, unintentionally ending existence. Hoping to stop the duo from negating all of life as we know it, heaven sends Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a doubting Catholic and abortion clinic worker, on a quest to New Jersey to terminate the angels before they reach heaven. Bethany is not alone, as she is aided by two stoner prophets, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the black 13th apostle (Chris Rock), the voice of God (Alan Rickman), and a muse (Salma Hayek).
I give Smith credit for being rather ambitious in scope here as Dogma is a film that spans genres: comedy, fantasy, road movie, philosophical inquiry. We're provided with the usual Smith material: quotable and hilarious dialogue, nods to Star Wars (1977), and amusing story riffs (purgatory is Wisconsin, something this Milwaukee native can agree with). Smith even provides some well-intentioned critical analysis of organized religion here as well, which is both faithful and heartfelt. Yet, for all the usual positive traits of his work that Dogma provides, we're also with his checklist of largely directorial weaknesses.
First and foremost, Kevin Smith is not a visual director. His gift is for dialogue, which Dogma possesses a lot of, not for shot composition. Sadly, film is not merely an audible medium but a visual one as well. What we're given in this film is a lot of standard shot-reverse shot patterns, which, for a film over two-hours with an emphasis on the spoken word, is far from engaging. The most strikingly staged dialogue scene comes in the film's opening as Bartleby and Loki provide the exposition while roaming an airport. During this scene, Smith utilizes a moving camera and tries to vary the scenery, which is well choreographed.
More problematically in the entire scope of the film, however, is that Smith either lacks the knowledge of how to stage an action scene or lacked the budget to compose them. While my feeling is that it is a little bit of both, Dogma does pride itself on an adventure film of sorts and it largely fails in that department. For instance, the fight with the Golgothan (aka "Shit Demon") goes on for too long for having little payoff, as we don't seem him take down the other inhabitants of the bar. The climactic battle in front of the church fails for similar reasons as well, only being relayed to us via static-laced news coverage and shots of its aftermath. Now, to be fair, I was not expecting an action sequence on par with a summer blockbuster, but if the audience is to grasp the repercussions of the antagonists' plot, we need more than speeches for the message to follow through.
Secondly, and less significantly, Smith has major editing problems here. The film runs 130 minutes, roughly 20 to 30 minutes too long. Looking at the DVD, and Smith's track record with DVD more generally, he often leaves a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. He needed to excise more footage here, as Dogma has many comedic peaks and valleys. Moreover, even a comedy with adventure elements that creeps over the two-hour marker begins to drag (take a hint Judd Apatow!). I realize Smith loves his dialogue and his characters, but they remain much closer to him than to us due to one final flaw in his directorial ability.
Quite simply, Smith is not an actor's director. This is quite possibly due to his experience as a director of non-actors, as in Clerks. He has assembled an excellent cast here and while he was critical of working with Linda Fiorentino, she actually has the most range here thanks to Smith's ability to pen a vivid female character. The rest of the cast feels like they're playing themselves and never seem to inhabit the characters except, of course, Jason Mewes, who is essentially playing himself. The biggest disappointment here is Salma Hayek. Now, at the time of its release, it may have been rather easy to write Hayek off as a beautiful woman (From Dusk Till Dawn anybody?) but ultimately not an actress. Yet, her amazing, Academy Award nominated performance in Frida (2002) is ample evidence against that claim. Sure, she's a secondary character, but her line readings are stale as a bag of jalapeño infused potato chips and Smith never attempts to push beyond that. Instead, he takes the standard approach of utilizing her only for her physical beauty, a rather gross injustice.
Now, despite these criticisms, I will admit that Dogma is a largely enjoyable experience. Ten years had passed since I had seen the film, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would but it still was far from the film I had admired as a high school student in 1999. Yet, it is not a well-crafted film and I lament the path Kevin Smith's career has taken over the past decade. I think the following exchange serves as an excellent conclusion and is sadly prophetic of Smith's career path.
An interview between John Pearson and Kevin Smith in Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes (pages 200-201):
John Pearson: [On the topic of Straight Out of Brooklyn film director Matty Rich opening his own clothing store.] Matty's unbuttoned overalls clothing line didn't last too long either. He was competing with Spike's Joint. When Matty's store closed, Spike [Lee] called it, "straight outta business." Did you think about opening a boutique for Clerks-wear?
Kevin Smith: Clerks grossed $3 million. How much did She's Gotta Have It gross---$13 million?
Pearson: I've never had a movie go over $8 million, and that was it.
Smith: The difference between $8 million and $3 million is a boutique. At least with Mars Blackmon you've got a character who can sell some clothes. What am I gonna do? Put Silent Bob on a shirt?
Sadly, Smith chose to make films that would sell shirts with little artistic effort. He's been resting on his laurels for too long. I hope his forthcoming projects A Couple of Dicks and Red State do finally push him permanently outside of his comfort zone, but I fear he is favoring the wrong artistic ability. Kevin Smith is a good, sometimes great, screenwriter; he has yet to impress as a director.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.