Clerks (and Kevin Smith’s Career) Turns 25
A quarter century with the chronicler of Gen X geek culturePhoto Courtesy of Kevin Winter/Getty Images Movies Features Clerks
Full disclosure: When I sported a goatee, people kept telling me I was a Kevin Smith lookalike. I promise that hasn’t colored my current attitude toward him. I think the reason it offended me so damn much at the time was that I (unjustly) hated his films with the kind of unnecessary fervor reserved for stuff that you used to like but then grew up and found intellectual reasons to dislike. This is deeply ironic for the precise reason that Smith, in 25 years of filmmaking, writing and commentary that has seen him go from an indie outsider to an influential gatekeeper of popular culture, hasn’t let it turn him into a snob. His brand is that he’s not a snob.
Generation X Wasn’t Even Supposed to Be Here Today.
Having been born in the pitiless December of 1983, I exist at the inflection point between Gen X and Millennial, and have had a sort of front row seat for our shared frustration with the world passed to us by the Baby Boomers. The year Smith’s debut Clerks hit theaters, 1994, couldn’t have been a better stand-in for the crappiness of that time if everybody involved had stage managed it to be so. The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 saw a massive red wave hit Congress, making Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh the sudden arbiters of “civil discourse.” The deindustrialization of the country was well underway, and service jobs were becoming a larger share of the economy. The future seemed boring and square and run by the uncle who docked your pay because you missed a patch of grass over by his hedges. We had long ago stopped building or making things and everybody was a sellout.
That hopelessness pervades Clerks. For the teen set—because this was back when teens worked the shitty jobs lampooned in the movie, instead of the single mothers of today—it was a perfect expression of the injustice of retail. It follows Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), who is called in to his dead-end, grueling, meaningless job at a convenience store, slogging through the boredom of the day by bitching about his feckless, stupid customers with his misbehaved friend and fellow retail slave, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson).
I was introduced to Clerks by my coworkers at Blockbuster, which was a whole chapter of my life. The movie got its hooks into me immediately. I have no difficulty understanding why it caught on so hard. It was sincere, it spoke the language of the people to whom it was trying to speak, and it highlighted an unbearable side of life in a way that made it funny and gave a beleaguered register clerk a vocabulary to deal with that frustration. Over and over again, Dante whines, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!”
None of us were supposed to be there, and that’s what elevated the affection toward the movie into something resembling kinship with it in the minds of a generation.
Watching it again in later years, it loses some of its luster, even considering Smith made it for essentially no money, using actors he knew personally and filming in black and white for the simple reason that he couldn’t find sufficient, evenly colored lighting. A lot of it (like Tarantino or Whedon or Sorkin joints) is centered around dialogue that is way too pleased with how clever it is. It’s disjointed and sort of lacks a clear payoff or stopping point—though you can argue that this is an artistic trick that highlights the nature of bullshit retail work, which ends at a prescribed time rather than when you complete any particular task. (I don’t argue this—the thing kind of meanders.)
Then again, it also gave us “Berserker,” a song responsible for two decades’ worth of me professing my affection through freight vehicle-related simile.
A Universe Askew
Smith seemed to me, almost overnight, to have become a celebrity. Inducted into indie darling-hood by Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax (and we’ll get to that), Smith made a sort of instantaneous transformation from a struggling shoe-stringer to a moneyed hotshot director. Having been handed his golden ticket, he set about making more movies in his “Askewniverse,” (so named for his company, View Askew), all of which starred friend Jason Mewes and himself as Jay and Silent Bob.
On the one hand, this is self-indulgence, which was the part I hated. In all of these movies, Smith’s Silent Bob says nothing right up until the one scene in which he does. Sometimes it’s just a throwaway line (as in Mallrats). Others, he’s dropping some grand wisdom bomb upon a character, none more jarring than when he unloads an entire speech with the title call in Chasing Amy, the movie that marked Smith’s real first step into mainstream success.
At the same time, Chasing Amy is kinda bullshit. It looks like it’s going to be about Ben Affleck’s character Holden learning that he’s a presumptuous asshole for believing that his crush on fellow comic writer Alyssa (who by this point in the movie has firmly established the fact she’s a lesbian) will magically turn her straight. She ditches him and then comes running back to him like, two minutes later so they can make out in the rain. She’s been bisexual this whole time, I guess?
Again, though, it’s easy to see why so many people reacted to that movie with adulation (and some still argue it’s his best). If you listen to that speech outside of the fact it’s the Hero Pep Talk and that Smith is the one giving it and that it might be based on something uncomfortably close to a real moment in his life, you’ll notice it actually has something mature to say about relationships.
And it’s also worth it to note that Smith himself has been publicly honest about how it holds up, saying, in a 2017 interview, that “some people are like, ‘Eh, it holds up, but some of it is kind of dated,’” and that it’s “certainly not an important film for the gay community.”
Jay and Silent Bob Become Overexposed
The high point of Smith’s mainstream success as a director probably came right at the turn of millennium, when he released Dogma in 1999, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001, and his nearly four-hour-long is-it-a-stand-up special…? An Evening With Kevin Smith in 2002 in which he wears shorts that I still consider to be a personal attack on me. Add to that the short-lived (but long-remembered) Clerks animated series that brought back the original cast in 2000, and it felt like Askewniverse overload.
This is the point things got way too self-indulgent. The animated series was just plain weird and scattershot, filled with the sort of humor particular to Smith. It’s no wonder ABC showed two episodes (out of order, of course) before freaking out and cancelling it. (It promptly raked in DVD sales.)
I was accused of being a contrary stick-in-the-mud regarding Smith’s work during this time. I maintain that it was at best pretty funny but not groundbreaking (like the parodic Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season part in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and at worst totally obnoxious (like the rest of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).
The Fatman Rises
It’s been nearly 20 years since that heyday of Smith’s, and I think two things have happened. First, geek culture conquered all media, and Smith was suddenly a guy whose expertise was worth real Hollywood money. The infamous conversation he had with Jon Peters about a Superman movie would not happen today.
Second, Smith matured. He’s not appeared in front of the camera in his own productions since Clerks II in 2006 (apart from one 2013 cartoon reprisal I’d never heard of before researching this article, Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie). He’s responded to vitriol from detractors pretty gracefully, and he minced no words in the wake of the Weinstein allegations that have kicked off the #MeToo movement.
He financed the first 14 years of my career – and now I know while I was profiting, others were in terrible pain. It makes me feel ashamed. https://t.co/T0hInW7EqJ
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) October 9, 2017
He didn’t merely wring his hands, either: The organization Women in Film confirmed to me that Smith did make a pledge to them in the wake of his public promise to do so.
Stumbling Past Jay and Silent Bob
After 2006’s Clerks II, which reviewed so-so and didn’t have much trouble earning back its minuscule budget, Smith’s directing career saw a few ambitious projects that just didn’t meet with success: Red State (2011), Tusk (2014) and Yoga Hosers (2016) didn’t go over particularly well. They’re each markedly different movies, entirely apart from anything like his earliest work. At the same time, he’s gravitated more and more to being a king among comics culture, writing comics and directing episodes of popular superhero shows.
It’s this role of gatekeeper, more than any producing or directing or writing that he does, that inspires in me the most frustration, still. He remains utterly uncritical of almost anything having to do with comics-related properties, even as people (quite rightly) look to him for guidance on whether something is true to the source material or the spirit of a character, or even just the tenets of good writing. Giving a movie like Suicide Squad a pass even if (especially if) you named your own daughter Harley Quinn Smith is not a great way to push creators to make better movies, or push audiences to demand them.
A Reboot on the Way
How, then, should we treat news that he’s gearing up for a return to his role as Silent Bob, as we’ve just learned? As our own Jim Vorel pointed out, 2018 has marked a major year for the man, who survived what sounds like a terrifying cardiac episode and has become a Weight Watchers spokesman.
Is it going to be a “return to form” that doesn’t reflect any change? Or can he find new relevance for the ’90s stoner in 2020?
I genuinely want to know the answer. The alternate ending to Clerks featured Dante getting shot by a random mugger, a fate he’d have avoided if he hadn’t been dragged into his thankless job. Smith thought better of it and went with a gentler ellipsis of an ending instead, perhaps sensing that the gut punch was cheap or colored the rest of the film the wrong way. He didn’t stay married to what was clearly a bad idea. It’ll be interesting to see which direction he decides to go in next.