e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


blasphemy on friday night

Last night I re-watched Kevin Smith's Dogma, which I hadn't seen in years. Recall that Dogma takes an irreverent, at times profane, look at Catholic dogma, and not surprisingly got negative attention from various Christian groups (the members of which apparently do not understand 1) satire, or 2) the hypocrisy of their subsequent attacks on the "intolerance" of Muslims who took offense at those Danish cartoons). The film centers on two fallen angels who plan to take advantage of a plenary indulgence to cleanse their souls and get back to heaven, thereby negating God's decree and hence destroying the universe. The motley crew trying to stop said angels includes the thirteenth apostle (left out of the Bible because he's black), the metatron, two bumbling human prophets, a divine muse, God herself, and the great-great-great-etc. grandniece of Jesus, a receptionist at an abortion clinic who is divinely chosen for the mission although she is also a Catholic who barely goes through the motions (the film shows her at Mass balancing her checkbook from the last pew).

I have never seen another film that has such intense fascination with both the good and the bad of organized religion. Dogma manages to strike a curious balance between respect and irreverence. The profanity comes from a place of knowing and inquiry. You laugh at the ironies and the dirty jokes. But especially for Catholic viewers, you can't help but marvel at how much the film gets right. Smith genuinely understands Catholicism and there's something balanced about the film's worldview. You get the distinct sense Smith wants us to think, not just accept pat dismissals or acceptances of Catholicism. Bethany's co-worker at the abortion clinic and later the muse both ask her why so many of her fellow Catholics look at their faith as a burden instead of a source of joy. Rufus (the apostle played by Chris Rock) suggests that faith can be about ideas, not just beliefs. You won't see another Hollywood film that gets into so much minutiae of Catholic tradition (albeit with a heavy dose of hysterical liberties), all the while challenging viewers to think, challenging us not to laugh at things we hold dear. Moonstruck is to Italian as Dogma is to Catholic.



I have to admit that I'm looking forward to the halftime show at tomorrow night's Super Bowl. Improbably, The Who is still around. Sure, half the original band died due to excess and drugs. Of the survivors, Pete Townshend is by most accounts deaf and Roger Daltrey doesn't quite have the wail he had forty years ago at Leeds. Both make more bank these days singing over the opening credits of tv shows (um, on the same station that airs the Super Bowl) than they do playing live.

So why anticipate the show? Even a mediocre rendition of "Substitute" or "I Can't Explain" defines rock and roll in three minutes: attitude, rebellion, youth. Yeah, youth. Townshend and Daltrey are pushing 70, but the lyrics and the licks of their greatest songs are full of youth. Confusion, angst, sticking it to the man (like Jack Black tells his students in "School of Rock"). Little wonder The Who provided such a great soundtrack to the tv show "Freaks and Geeks," notably the episode where the freaks all get tickets to see the band at the Silverdome and the concert becomes an event, complete with a magic bus and some impromptu guitar smashing.

Sure, critics call for the band to hang it up, suggest Townshend should let his body of work stand ("hope I die before I get old" anyone?) on its own and not defile the band's catalogue with poor performances. But watching the band and its career is like watching the Terminator movies. Even when they played Woodstock in 1969, the band looked kind of old next to its peers. There they were, a six-year-old-or-so British invasion band, next to the (slightly) younger hippie bands coming out of California. And that was forty years ago. As I worked in my home office this morning, I listened to the band's 1981 record Face Dances and heard the line, "I drink myself blind to the sounds of old T. Rex and 'Who's Next'," whistful and nostalgic references to rock from a decade earlier. And that was nostalgia being expressed nearly thirty years ago, a year before their first farewell tour.

I can't accept The Who as nothing but a dinosaur act. The music's too good. The tenacity too impressive. Even the punks appreciated The Who's embodiment of the great themes I mentioned earlier...and who was more critical of nostalgic dinosaurs than the punks? The Clash and David Johansen opened for The Who (what a line-up...why, God, was I only nine years old?!) during part of that 82 tour. The Sex Pistols covered "Substitute," though that was arguably because it's easy to play. The Who even returned the favor and covered "Pretty Vacant." So get the geriatric jokes out of the way and enjoy a halftime show that won't be as good as a Who show from the 70s, but will be better than the haters will have you believe. Rock on. And if you're taking requests, how about a little "Gettin' in Tune" or "Love Ain't for Keeping"?