Leading up to its theatrical release in 1999, a lot had been said about “Dogma,” much of that being negative. For all the talk I had heard about the allegedly inflammatory content of the religious-themed comedy prior to seeing it, what shocked me the most were those general accusations that writer-director Kevin Smith had committed a cinematic act of sacrilege. If you ask me, there is perhaps no other filmmaker working today who is more serious about his or her faith than Smith. After all, is there any other filmmaker who has thanked God in the closing credits of every single one of his films?
That said, after my first viewing of “Dogma,” I could see why people (namely the Catholic League) have raised some objections. After all, outrageous elements such as dialogue passages criticizing the Bible’s “bad storytelling” and a thread where a cardinal starts a ridiculous “Catholicism Wow!” promotional campaign are bound to raise eyebrows–even moreso when taken out of context, which is what the film’s vocal detractors had done (and how could they not, given the fact that they haven’t seen a frame of the film?). And context is everything when it comes to “Dogma.”
“Dogma” is billed as “a comic fantasia,” and that description should be taken to its core: it’s a comedy; it’s a fantasy. As in it’s supposed to be taken lightly. And not in a realistic fashion. As a hilarious typed pre-film disclaimer notes, this becomes clear within the film’s first ten minutes. Smith’s wacky plot revolves around the dastardly scheme of two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck). They discover a loophole in church dogma that will allow them to end their eternal exile in Wisconsin and reenter the pearly gates of Heaven. The added consequence, however, is that their success would spell the end of all existence. With God having been put out of commission while on a holiday, the fate of the world and all else rests with efforts of a ragtag bunch: Metatron (Alan Rickman), the angel who serves as the voice of God; Rufus (Chris Rock), the bitter, heretofore unknown 13th Apostle; heavenly Muse-turned-stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek); a pair of familiar Prophets by the name Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, reprising their recurring roles); and the reluctant key figure in thwarting the renegade duo, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker who, after a series of rough life experiences, has lost her faith.
The last sentence points up “Dogma”‘s central flaw: overpopulation. In addition to the aforementioned, also encountered along the way is a demon named Azræl (Jason Lee) and his trio of hockey stick-wielding henchmen; Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), who institutes the “Catholicism Wow” campaign; and cameo roles played by familiar faces such as Janeane Garofalo. Some characters could have easily been jettisoned, namely Serendipity; while it’s always a pleasure to see Hayek on the silver screen, her character is pretty much just the token female celestial being (or, rather, the token celestial being with breasts, for those from above have no gender). All the extra bodies also draw valuable time away from one of the story’s more primary concerns, which is Bethany’s winding road to rediscovering her faith; as such, her ultimate enlightenment doesn’t pack the punch that it should.
Much like there are characters that don’t quite work, there are also scenes and gags in “Dogma” that fall short. Jay and Silent Bob’s big entrance is a throwback to the over-the-top and largely unfunny comic book gags in “Mallrats,” and there’s one elaborate effects set piece involving a s**t demon (yes, you read that right) is a complete failure. Where “Dogma” excels, however, is in the area of verbal humor, arguably Smith’s forte. The most memorable moments are all in the written and spoken word, and the film has more than its share of great dialogue: Rufus’ rumination on Mary and Joseph’s sex life and his angry diatribe over being left out of the Bible; Loki and Bartleby confronting a boardroom full of execs on their wide variety of sins; and the general byplay between Jay and Silent Bob, and that between the pair and Bethany.
Along its lighthearted and offbeat comic path, though, Smith does raise (and in a fairly seamless manner at that) some serious and not-so-serious questions about Catholic dogma and organized religion in general. By virtue of their definition and the fact that they’re in regards to religion, these questions would understandably upset religious groups. But what those objectors fail to see that the questions raised, such as the dangerous differences between “beliefs” and “ideas,” are intelligent ones that would only spring from the mind of someone who takes his or her faith seriously. Smith isn’t labeling anyone or anything as being wrong, rather offering food for thought.
Aside from the uniformly strong work of the ensemble and Smith’s wit and ever-improving way with the camera (aided by ace cinematographer Robert Yeoman), that’s what makes “Dogma” a cut above most other comedies: the audacity to challenge the very audience that comes in for all the penis and flatulence jokes (and no, they’re not in short supply). A lot of people will come away from “Dogma” thinking back on its many laughs, but just as many, if not more, will come out reflecting on their own religious faith–people who, on any other given day, would probably not give the issue a single thought. And if that’s not an act of piety–as opposed to one of blasphemy, with which Smith had been so unjustly charged–then I don’t know what is.
Much like how the film itself was held up by controversy (unfounded and overblown at that) on its way to theatres, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment’s two-disc DVD special edition of “Dogma” has had a rather turbulent journey to store shelves. Disney, owner of original distributor Miramax, technically made a clean break from the film a full two years ago when ‘Max co-prez Harvey Weinstein bought back the rights to the film and sold them to Lions Gate, but the Mouse was still able to exert their mighty corporate power over the already-delayed (first fall 2000, then January 2001, then now) special edition DVD release. Consequently, all references to Disney, Miramax, the Weinstein brothers, and even the film’s biggest opponent, Catholic League head William Donahue (though a brief mention of him in the deleted scenes introductions emerges unscathed) in the two commentary tracks were bleeped out. More notably, an in-depth documentary on the controversy surrounding the film produced expressly for this DVD release was completely jettisoned, presumably due (at least in part) to that Disney legal pressure.
Even in its slightly censored release form, the “Dogma” special edition upholds the quality DVD tradition of Smith’s View Askew Productions. Generous supplements aside (more on those later), the film looks and sounds as good as it possibly could for the home theatre. The anamorphic transfer is superbly clean, bold as opposed to overly bright in day and in light and suitably dark and without any apparent artificial enhancement in night shots; and the 5.1 Dolby Surround mix give the film’s surprisingly action-heavy climax some added punch.
While a pristine copy of the film is what consumers should presumably care most about, it’s the wealth of extras that are the real drawing card for fans. In addition to housing the feature film, the first disc includes two running commentary tracks. The first, labeled “Cast and Crew Commentary,” is the type of jovial, self-effacing, sometimes self-mocking track one has come to expect from the Askew crew. Featuring Smith, producer Scott Mosier, View Askew historian Vincent Pereira (who did a lot of uncredited work on this DVD edition), and cast members Affleck, Lee, and Mewes, production details, while not completely absent, take a back seat to the infectious camaraderie between the six. The guys obviously have a good time revisiting and picking apart their own and (especially) each other’s work, and only the stuffiest of film fans will have reason to complain.
As with the commentary on Universal’s collector’s edition DVD of Smith’s “Mallrats” (which, coincidentally, features the exact same group of participants), there is also an optional feature to view video footage of the recording session. Unlike “Mallrats,” however, there are two separate cameras simultaneously recording the action, but more importantly this feature doesn’t employ DVD’s multi-angle capability. Rather, one must click on a “Buddy Christ” icon to access the video, à la the “Follow the White Rabbit” feature on Warner Bros.’ disc of “The Matrix,” making for a fairly cumbersome and not exactly seamless transition to the video. That said, watching the speakers offers some amusing bits that otherwise would not have been captured, such as Mewes leaving his seat and getting ready to leave long before the session is finished.
Those aforementioned stuffy film fans get their due in the second audio commentary, the “technical crew commentary,” recorded some months after the first and featuring only Smith, Mosier, and Pereira. While not completely serious (and how could it be, what with the sharp-witted Smith involved), the tone is decidedly less jokey, and overlap between the commentaries is minimal, for the trio cover a lot of ground left untouched in the first track. The major issue newly addressed here–which is somewhat surprising, given the very upbeat mood on the other track– is how difficult production on the film was. The controversy that erupted after the film’s completion was just one more bump in what had already been a turbulent road of constant shoot rescheduling (thanks to the busy careers of the cast members), personality conflicts (mostly with Fiorentino), and time and budget overruns.
As mentioned earlier, the behind-the-hubbub documentary was dropped (though a passing reference to it remains on the technical commentary), but the second disc offers just about everything else any “Dogma” fan could hope for. The highlight is the 100 minutes worth of deleted and extended scenes, introduced with characteristic candor by Smith and Pereira, who are joined at various points by special guest stars Mosier, Mewes, Smith’s wife Jennifer, and their daughter Harley. A few of these bits are of the throwaway variety, restoring beats and lines here and there, but of the more substantial inclusions, two sequences stand out for wildly different reasons. First is an terrific dramatic showcase for Fiorentino where Bethany recounts her personal experience with abortion. Second is what the disc calls “The Now-Legendary ‘Fat Albert’ Sequence,” which I find more noteworthy for Mewes’ perfect delivery of some choice dialogue and Smith’s expert reaction takes as Silent Bob than the pair’s showstopping performance of the TV cartoon series’ theme song. As effective as these scenes are, it’s easy to see why they were cut. The Bethany scene, which was to appear early in the film, is a bit too weighty for the beginning stages of a comedy; and Jay and Bob’s song and dance is indeed a showstopper in the literal sense, holding up the progression of the story.
Two more interesting extras are included on the second disc. One is a set of storyboards drawn by Mosier for three different action-oriented sequences: Loki’s (Matt Damon) slaughter of the Mooby fast food executives; the attack by the No Man, a.k.a. Golgothan, a.k.a. the s**t demon; and the attack on Bethany by the Stygian Triplets, that demonic trio of hockey-stick wielding skaters. The first two are particularly interesting since the corresponding scenes in the movie don’t go quite as far as was initially planned. The other extra is a spot for Smith’s comic shop Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash; featuring Smith and Mewes, it’s a hilarious take on those cheesy, no-budget TV commercials for local businesses one comes across primarily during late night viewing. One feature alluded to elsewhere on the discs but nowhere to be found anywhere is an animatic for a scrapped commercial for Hosties, a communion wafer breakfast cereal that was to figure in the “Catholicism Wow!” campaign (a print ad for Hosties does appear on the label of disc two).
The supplement disc also includes features one would typically find on other DVDs, albeit with some new spin. In the case of the talent bios and filmographies, this is a good thing; they are presented as “Saints and Sinners” trading cards, accompanied by either heavenly harp music or a devilish strum of an electric guitar. Also, the outtake reel, capped off by a mad-libbing segment between Affleck and Matt Damon (Loki) titled “Why Kevin Smith Doesn’t Like Improvisation,” is fairly entertaining. What is called “the theatrical trailer,” on the other hand, isn’t quite what it says. While the visuals and narration are the same as they appeared in theatres, the original score has inexplicably been replaced by some ill-fitting, jazzy music.
Already a solid achievement in terms of content, the “Dogma” special edition further distinguishes itself through its snazzy presentation. On the physical end, the double keep case, which is done up like a Bible, comes in a slipcase featuring new painted artwork created exclusively for this release; disc one, like the Hosties-pushing disc two, is labeled by a faux ad for Mooby’s Egg-a-Moof’n; and the booklet features more production art in addition to a new two-page essay by Smith. On the digital side, the menus are creatively designed, brightly colored and showcasing Mooby and many other Mooby-like characters. There are also some nicely off-kilter touches such as disc one’s “Mrs. Harriet Wise”; prior to each submenu, an older woman scolds the viewer with lines such as “This film is the work of the Devil!” “Mrs. Wise” also gets her own little section, “My Opinion,” where she makes more comically sanctimonious jabs at the film and those who watch it.
As impressively loaded as this special edition is, the loss of the documentary makes for a less-than-complete picture of the story surrounding “Dogma.” But perhaps it’s just as well, for in only making minor references to the controversy over what narrowminded people thought the film was, maybe this DVD edition will enable Smith’s film to finally be seen for what it is: an outrageously comic but ultimately heartfelt celebration of faith.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English, French, and Spanish Dolby Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)