Thursday, March 26, 2009

God and the Cinema Part III: Kevin Smith

It may seem odd that I chose Kevin Smith for the third part of this series, after dealing with Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg in the first two installments, but I actually believe that Smith’s film represent a certain modern take on religion, particularly in the Western world. It is clear that almost no one waits until marriage anymore before having sex, and yet a lot of people are still consider themselves religious. Lots of Catholics use birth control, even inside of a marriage, even though the Church tells them not to. In short, things have changed. What used to be considered “sinful” is now almost accepted practice. When I went in with my future wife to meet the priest who was going to marry us, he didn’t bat an eye when he found out we were already living together. No lecture, no tsk tsk, nothing. Kevin Smith, in a very real way, represents this idea of still having religious beliefs in the modern world, even as we seem to reject some of the basic tenets of the Church and it's teachings.

For this article, I am going to concentrate of two of Smith’s films – Chasing Amy and Dogma, as I believe they are most overt about religion of any of his films. They also have the added advantage of being far and away his best two films.

I’ve always thought that Chasing Amy was essentially Smith’s version of Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door? In Scorsese’s film, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), dumps the girl he is in love with (even calls her a “whore”), because she was raped. In his mind, she must have done something to ask for it. She is not a virgin, so she is no longer “pure”, and he cannot possibly marry her. He has two ideas about women – they are either “broads” or “girls”. A broad is a woman you can fuck, but not marry, a girl is a woman you can marry but not fuck (at least, presumably, until you are married).

Something similar happens to Holden (Ben Affleck) in Chasing Amy. Now, the movie is set 30 years later, so the definition of what makes a girl a “whore” has changed, but what hasn’t changed is the reaction of the man. When Holden meets Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), she is a lesbian. Yet, the two of them hookup anyway, and it doesn’t really bother him. She was a lesbian, now she isn’t; it’s not a big deal. But what drives Holden over the edge is when he finds out that Alyssa has had sex with men before. Even still, he’d be okay with that, but the story he hears is that in high school, she was involved in a three way with two other guys. This throws him over the edge. He yells at her, tells her they were using her, and essentially calls her a whore. He tries to explain that it was high school, she was experimenting, and it doesn’t mean anything now. It’s not like she’s still fucking two guys at once on a regular basis. She’s with him now, and the past doesn’t matter. Holden doesn’t see it that way.

Instead, Holden comes up with a “brilliant” idea. In his mind, he cannot get past the fact that she has done something in her past that he hasn’t. So he wants to level the playing field. His idea is that he and his friend Banky (Jason Lee) will have a three way with her. This way, he’ll have done something similar to her so they can get past it and Banky may finally be able to admit that he’s gay. It shouldn’t matter to Alyssa, because she has already done the same thing in the past anyway, so what’s the difference?

What Holden doesn’t understand, because he’s an idiot, is that while Alyssa never felt like a whore for what she did in high school, that is precisely what she would feel like if she did this for him. She determined a long time ago that this was not what she wanted. What she wants is Holden, and if he cannot accept her, then it’s over.

Chasing Amy isn’t an overtly religious movie (I think the only time the world Catholic is spoken is when Jason Lee says “I should have dated more Catholic girls in high school. As it is, I have no ‘And then she removed her jumper stories’”.), but I do think it speaks to something that at least some Catholics still go through. The idea that the girl you’re going to marry has to be “pure” has probably gone out the window for most Catholic men these days, but there is still a line somewhere. Holden draws his line, and it costs him the woman he’s in love with. The same basic thing happens in Scorsese’s films from 30 years before. The line may have moved, but it’s still there. In his own way, Smith is exploring the same issue that the greatest director in history has explored for much of his career.

Dogma is a much more “religious” movie, and it makes no effort to hide that. The film is about the last descendent of Jesus (Linda Fiorentino), who works at an abortion clinic, who is sent on a mission from God to prevent two angels who have been banished from heaven (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from walking through an archway that would forgive their sins, and let them back into heaven. Since God has promised to honor whatever is Holy on Earth being Holy in Heaven, this would prove that God is Fallible; it would mean the end of the world.

While I think that Chasing Amy shows Smith struggling with his own sexual morality – which has at least in part been shaped by the Church – Dogma is more concerned with looking for answers to the bigger questions about God. How do you reconcile a book that is 2,000 years old with the modern world? That is essentially what every character in the movie is trying to do.

Affleck’s angel is angry with God that he gave humans so much more than he ever gave them. They are free to do what they please – they can piss away their lives, and choose not even to believe if they want to. He knows that what he’s doing will destroy humanity, and he’s okay with that. Damon plays an Old Testament angel in a New Testament world. He doesn’t know why God doesn’t bring down his wrath more often, so he takes it upon himself. Yet, he still loves God, and his creation. He just believes that some people need to be punished.

The Church itself is represented by Cardinal Ignatius Glick (played, in a genius stroke of casting by George Carlin). They are trying to “modernize” the Church, to make it less scary. In addition to the arch, that will instantly forgive your sins, they have decided to replace the crucifix, which is “too violent”, with a Buddy Jesus – who is smiling and giving a big Thumb’s Up. The Church is losing relevance, and they need to do something, right?

And Fiorentino is much like Jesus himself. Allow me to compare her to a Scorsese character again; in saying that by working in an abortion clinic, although she is Catholic, is similar to the idea suggested in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, where as a carpenter, Jesus makes crosses for people to be crucified on. They both know that God would be unhappy with their decision, but they do it anyway. By the end of both films though, the character has accepted their destiny.

All of these characters are struggling with their own relationship with God, and what that means in their lives. I think the basic message in the film that everyone needs to find their own path. Everyone's relationship with God is different. It doesn't so much matter WHAT you believe, but instead, it matters that you DO believe.

In a way, I have been disappointed with every Kevin Smith film he has done subsequent to Dogma. True, I have enjoyed them all (even Jersey Girl – deal with it), and yet, like I sometimes feel about Quentin Tarantino, there has been a regression in his films. With Chasing Amy and Dogma, Smith explored some rather complex moral issues. The fact that he did so in an entertaining and comedic way in no way lessens the fact that he was dealing with his own personal issues in each film.

But truly, has he done that since? I can watch Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II, Zack and Miri Make a Porno at any time, and enjoy them. Yet to me, this represents Smith regressing into that kid on the playground who gets a kick out of saying “naughty” words. There is nothing really wrong with that, and yet I do think it ultimately lessens the value of his subsequent films. At one time, even Martin Scorsese saw Smith as a worthy successor to himself. I wonder if anyone still feels that way.

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