Thursday, November 21, 2013

The quintessential New Jersey film

The quintessential New Jersey film: Dogma

Mob dramas such as "The Sopranos" or "Boardwalk Empire" on TV or "Atlantic City," "Wise Guys," "Color of Money," or "Owning Mahoney" have a long tradition in the Garden State but the gangster/casino genre has long been established as belonging to Chicago and Atlantic City can't hold a candle to Las Vegas. Even if Las Vegas' latest offerings in film (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Hangover, Waking up in Vegas) or TV (take your pick between the failed Michael Chiklis/Dennis Quaid series "Vegas", the moderately successful yet shallow Josh Duhamel/James Caan series "Las Vegas" or the failed Rob Lowe series "Dr. Vegas") fail to measure up to the Atlantic City-based dramas in terms of portraying the grandiosity of a casino town, that doesn't change the fact that Las Vegas is THE casino town in America.

Another popular candidate might be Zach Braff's quirky indie comedy Garden State. Braff is not the only New Jersey native who decided to honor his home state in his titling choices (Danny DeVito's production company is called Jersey films despite the fact he no longer lives in Jersey). He delivered a nicely convincing soliloquy on Jersey when he hosted SNL (complete with a song and dancing Prudential Center) but that doesn't mean his love of New Jersey translated into film very well. His film felt like it could be centered anywhere in the U.S. that has deciduous (you better believe I spell-checked the hell out of that word) forest.

New Jersey, the nation's densest and richest state, is the epicenter of suburbia in the U.S. Most of its residents are suburbanites of three of the country's largest metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Philly, and New York) and what's left over has formed an indistinct tract of the larger Northeastern megalopolis. People who drive between NYNEX and the Mid-Atlantic on a regular basis think of New Jersey as a series of rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway (taking your pick between those two is likely the most exciting thing you'll do while inside the state).

The state's biggest attempt at having a thriving city of its own, Newark, has been a complete failure for most of the past 150 years, despite the popularity of ex-mayor Cory Booker's Twitter account. One of the most notable moments in Booker's tenure was when he received a $150 million dollar donation to the school system from Mark Zuckerberg which isn't so much an indication of Booker's ability to charm Silicon Valley so much as Zuckerberg deciding that no municipal government was more hopeless than Newark.

In 1903, as the power of the suburbs increased, the state legislature froze Newark's municipal expansion and it became the country's first doughnut city (where the suburbs are bigger than the city center). Hence, New Jersey is where suburbs rule.

And no one knows suburbia better than blue collar director Kevin Smith. The suburbia of Kevin Smith's world is the place where bored teenagers escape into the world of comic books, pot, and sexual perversion (or if not actual sexual perversion, discussions about the topic). It's populated by foul-mouthed characters uninhibited by any sense of fear because they likely didn't grow up with any serious problems or boundaries. It's a place where the most glamorous place in town is the mall (see "Mallrats"). The mall is so iconic to suburban history that most textbooks on urban development or land use planning note a distinct phase in the evolution of suburbia called "malling."
In other words, Kevin Smith's suburbia filtered through the lens of his New Jersey experiences, is suburbia period.

Among his many Jersey-set films, I'm drawn to Dogma because of it's sheer self-importance. The film posits the scenario that Jersey is the center of the celestial universe. It's where God occasionally takes human form to play pinball along the boardwalk, where the devil's minions are are a street hockey gang, and where Jesus's thirteenth apostle is hanging out behind a Burger King. Most importantly, it's the nexus of Heaven and Hell where the universe's very existence will cease to exist unless a loud mouth New Jersey slacker and his sidekick don't act.

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