Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Retro Double Feature Review: Being John Malkovich and Dogma

 Let's jump back to November of 1999, somewhere in the greater Guilford County area of North Carolina. A young Cap'n was a... sophomore (?) in college*, living on campus in a dorm with like-minded film geeks and friends nearby with similar interests. We had some friends in town, some cars available, and The Janus Theatre not far away. They just so happened to be showing both Being John Malkovich (just opening) and Dogma (out for a few weeks). We had internet access, were acutely aware of both films and the buzz surrounding them.

 One one hand, music video director Spike Jonze's first feature film, dealing with puppeteer John Cusack discovering a tunnel into the head of John Malkovich. On the other, Kevin Smith's fourth film, comparatively epic in scope, about the descendant of Jesus trying to stop two rogue angels from wiping out humanity. The Catholic League had already condemned one of the films, and strangely it wasn't the one about being able to control another person by inhabiting their mind, or even the moment of meta brilliance when Malkovich climbs into the tunnel and enters his own head.

 You already know all of this, because I doubt there's a person reading something called Cap'n Howdy's Blogorium that hasn't seen both films - probably several times. We were a jubilant bunch of college kids ready for a fun time with some pals from out of town, and it only made sense to stick around and watch them in one night. Not everybody stayed, but those of us that did were in for an experience. Want to venture a guess which one we saw first?

  If you guessed Dogma, you would be smart to think that. We weren't so smart, so we watched the decidedly unique, eccentric Malkovich first, and then stumbled into Smith's Dogma, gobsmacked by the fiercely idiosyncratic debut from Jonze. Oops. Looking back on it now, knowing what I know about each film, I would have flipped the order (if not removed Dogma altogether, but we'll get to that), but the reason we went to The Janus in the first place was to see Being John Malkovich. That Dogma was playing there, in such close proximity, scheduling-wise, was an added bonus for Kevin Smith-philes who wanted to stick around. Malkovich was always going to come first, and regardless of how into Kevin Smith you were, there's no comparison.

 Let's say that somehow you knew exactly how Being John Malkovich unfolded, with all of its unexpected turns and "Ma-Sheen" cameos. Even knowing all of that, including how it plays out with Malkovich the puppeteer or the baby with John Cusack trapped inside, you still wouldn't be prepared for how well Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman unfolds this madness and compounds it as time goes on. It's such a joyfully strange movie, a curio that pays off with repeated viewings and paved the way for Adaptation and the Kaufman / Michel Gondry team-up that produced Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the eventual solo Kaufman magnum opus Synecdoche, New York (not to mention the tonally similar Be Kind, Rewind, Where the Wild Things Are, and even The Science of Sleep).

 After a few friends took off, we went back in to see Dogma, the hotly anticipated, apparently forcefully recut, dropped from one studio because of backlash from religious groups and picked up by another fourth film from Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy). To say that we were massive Kevin Smith fans in 1999 is frankly an understatement: I firmly believe we watched Clerks as frequently as we did Army of Darkness and Cannibal! The Musical on weekends and followed any and everything that Smith said online. In fact, during one online chat, young Cap'n managed to get a question in about working with comedians and improvisation to the slacker auteur, and he answered it. It was as close a brush with greatness as when Henry Rollins let a good friend of our grab his butt (true story).

 So anyway, Dogma itself. Oddly, but the thing that sticks out from that screening was seeing the trailer for American Psycho for the first time - I didn't really know who Christian Bale was (sorry, Empire of the Sun fans, the Cap'n was ignorant) and was vaguely aware of Bret Easton Ellis' novel and the film's turbulent production history. And then Dogma started.

  Do you remember how you tried to convince yourself that you liked The Phantom Menace or House of 1000 Corpses even when you secretly understood it sucked? How you couldn't process looking forward to something so much that when it didn't live up to lofty expectations (or even the deliberately lowered expectations that come technically from a Kevin Smith fan in the 1990s)? If you were like me, you probably kept talking about things that were immaterial to the quality of the film itself: like how it was pro-faith without being pro-organized religion. It lampooned Catholicism as an institution but not faith in principle, etc. That's true. It also had a shit monster, Jason Lee shooting people, some hockey playing teenage monsters, more vaguely homophobic comedy, more sex jokes, a contrived and tenuous connection to John Hughes as a means to get Jay and Silent Bob into the film, and a runtime of 130 minutes.

 The longer version that doesn't actually exist because Smith decided he liked keeping the additional deleted footage deleted doesn't necessarily make much of a difference. At two hours and ten minutes, Dogma is too long, to leisurely paced, and not funny or interesting enough to sustain interest. Not that I didn't keep trying for another three or four years after that. It wasn't until a point well after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that I went back and realized that between Clerks and Clerks 2, I didn't actually enjoy any of the Kevin Smith films as much as I told myself I did. I've been down this road before so I'll keep it brief, but Dogma was possibly the moment that began the shift in perception. I may have told myself I really liked it, but I can't remember what it was about Dogma that sent me out of the Janus happier than after Being John Malkovich.

 I sure miss The Janus - it's no longer in existence, and while the "Bistro" section of the Carousel tries to replicate it's atmosphere, it's off by a mile. The Screen in Santa Fe came close, and possibly the Colony or Mission Valley are similar, but I do miss that theatre. It split the difference between arthouse theatre and multiplex very well, and we saw some fantastic films there.

 Talking about all of these double features really makes me want to have another one, if I could think of two movies I really wanted to see playing closely enough together. That, and finding friends who have the time to do that (increasingly difficult) or want to spend that much time / money on what can often be seen as a calculated gamble. Seriously - ask anyone who went with us to see Idle Hands.

* Second year for sure, but I'm not positive the credit hours would technically count me. Hrm...

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