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Revisiting the Kevin Smith library: 'Clerks'

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Emily Rowley and Bill Hanstock have decided to re-watch the entire Kevin Smith oeuvre. First up: his first film, naturally!

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EMILY: I originally got the idea to revisit Kevin Smith's films a few months ago when Tusk was released, and I realized I had absolutely zero interest in watching it. It made me wonder when, exactly, had Kevin Smith fallen out of our collective favor? A decade ago I, and a lot of my friends, worshiped the guy. He was a the geek made good, the no budget indie guy who got to make Hollywood movies. More importantly, he made awesome, funny movies.

But then l started to wonder just how good those early films are. Most of the "Jersey Trilogy" movies I hadn't re-watched in years. Are they still any good? Were they ever objectively "good," or is any remaining fondness just nostalgia on my part? How do I feel about these characters and these stories as 30-something, as opposed to a teenager or discontent 22 year-old? Do I even like Kevin Smith at all?

And so we begin with Clerks, which I'm happy to say that I did still like quite a bit. Like, not love. Once upon a time, Clerks was a top 10 movie for me. Not so anymore, mostly because (and I imagine this will become a theme in these reviews) I just don't like Kevin Smith's writing as much as I used to. Part of this could be attributed to the cast at that time being only semi-professional actors (if that), but the larger issue is that every Kevin Smith character talks like Kevin Smith. That's why they all veer from comfortable crassness to, "I have been to college and here are all the words I know."

Bill, you're an actual writer of movies and not just a couch-satisfied asshole like myself. How did you feel about the writing here?

BILL: Well, having recently re-watched former longtime favorite movie Garden State, I sort of knew what I was signing up for here going in, but excited about this experiment all the same. Much like Garden State, what I'm going into these Kevin Smith movies expecting is that I'll still be able to largely appreciate them for what they were at the time and what they meant to me as a 20-or-whatever-year-old, but I expect some of them to be very much artifacts of their time and dated. But that's the thing about historical context: it matters!

As for the writing, yes, Clerks is possibly (only possibly!) Kevin Smith at his Kevin Smith-iest. Clerks (and to a ... not really lesser, but different extent, Pulp Fiction) is the move that launched a million filmmakers ... or at least scriptwriters. With Clerks, an absolute assload of movie-loving kids and dorks (who were all really smart and made sure everyone around them knew at all times how smart they were) suddenly realized they could write movies, plays and stories featuring kids like them, sounding more or less like they sounded. More accurately, they realized they could write dialogue that sounded like an idealized version of what they imagined they sounded like. Suddenly, a million word processors and Windows 95-ready computers were bustling with dialogue that everyone felt was endlessly clever, brilliant, hilarious and snappy -- His Girl Friday, but with dick jokes. It all originated here, with this movie.

And in Clerks, you get the birth of a lot of the sins that are symptomatic of people who were inspired to write by Kevin Smith. I should know; I'm one of them. Dialogue that is a little too smart, a little too verbose, a little too clever and a little too crass. It's not all the time, and it doesn't hurt the movie overall, but every 20th or 30th line, you'll get a piece of dialogue that's a real mouthful. The repertory theater-level actors aren't quite ready for it, don't quite believe it and it doesn't sound like something a real human being would say. That's a lesson I never learned for myself until I started actually putting some of my own stuff on film. The dialogue looks clever and brilliant on the page, but when it makes the leap into an actual human mouth, there's a real disconnect there. That's a red flag that it's time to rework that line. But writers are stubborn and especially the Kevin Smith acolytes don't know why they should have to kill their darlings while Dante got away with delivering a line like "I believe I'm the impetus behind your refusal to wed."

And as you pointed out while we were watching it, all the characters sound the same. Like, all of them. I don't have a problem with that in Clerks, because all these people hang out in the same small Jersey town, and groups of friends WILL all generally sound the same. Blake Snyder talks about giving all your characters "a limp and an eye patch," which is shorthand for "give each character something BIG and immediately noticeable that will make them distinct from one another." I don't think it's necessary in Clerks, but it is worth noting.

Overall, the writing of Clerks holds up, because stuff like "Didn't I see her change your tire once?" and "I don't care if she's my cousin or not; I'm gonna knock those boots again tonight" are quasi-forgotten gems, the funny stuff is still (mostly) funny, and it was groundbreaking and important for a reason, which we can still largely appreciate. And little things like the reveal of the Chewly's gum representative is kind of sublime. From a story standpoint, I appreciate that it starts off seeming like a lot of little, disjointed, Slacker-type vignettes and gradually coheres as things progress.

While we're talking about craftsmanship, I think another thing we were struck by when we were re-watching is how surprisingly cinematic the whole thing was. You're with me on that, right?

Yes! I went into this expecting to still enjoy the performances and writing, but to find a film that was shot and cut with a level of skill usually seen in a local commercial for Grandma Pat's Upholstery Outlet. Even Smith himself has long derided his own skill as a director. He's a guy whose reputation is for movies with clever and unique dialogue, but utilitarian direction. So I was really pleased to find that, while my tolerance for the writing has diminished, this is actually a pretty gorgeous movie.

Now that I've said that, let me qualify it. This movie isn't Manhattan, and it isn't Ikiru. But to its credit, it was made well before the days when any kid with a digital camera and a Macbook Pro could make a decent looking movie. The Wikipedia fairies tell me that the budget for the movie was $27,575. For context, that's only $5000 more than The Blair Witch Project, which looks like it was shot by accident. In fact, a lot of the indie movies of this era look like shit, but get a pass because of what they were attempting to do. This doesn't. Clerks looks like a movie with a tiny budget, but it also thoroughly looks like a movie.

One scene which particularly stands out for me is at night, outside the Quick Stop. Jay is under the lone street light, dancing to music from a nearby boombox. Silent Bob leans against the brick wall, half-cloaked in shadow. It's naturalistic, but still cinematic. Which is an incredibly pretentious thing to say, but I'm going to roll with it. It shows that Smith was actually invested in trying to make his movie look pretty, and not just a catalyst for getting his writing out.

The scene also illustrates how well Smith worked with black and white in the film. Like I said before, this isn't beautiful Hollywood black and white, which is really a palate of fluid greys. The contrast here is sharp, and harsh. As it should be in a movie about kids in a crappy town who work menial jobs. The B&W cinematography also serves to elevate the proceedings, I feel. That community theater vibe that you touched on would, I think, be far less acceptable in full drab color. As I mentioned when we were watching the movie, black and white hides a lot of sins. And this movie has A LOT of them. From Randall's acid wash jeans and fanny pack, to Caitlin's belted suspender dress, to Dante's date-night Cosby sweater (do we have to start calling those something else now?), to Veronica's literal everything, this movie is a showcase for a decade of terrible decision-making. Paul Simon said everything looks worse in black and white, but he hadn't yet lived through the 90's.

What (aside from Dante's jeans tucked into boots look) stood out to you?

What stood out is how exceedingly competently the movie was directed, which is difficult for almost all first-time directors. Hell, some directors never get to the level of craftsmanship that this film exhibited. The composition of nearly every shot is really well-done. All the two-shots (of which, as Smith has noted incessantly, there are many) are terrific, in large part because the real-world backdrop of the cluttered-by-nature convenience store -- when captured in black and white, with no garish colors to distract -- is at once urban, utilitarian and strangely gorgeous. When Dante and Caitlin hasten to the video store for a heart-to-heart late in the film, the background comprised of the spines of black video cases is absolutely lovely.

While there are questionable decisions directing-wise (most notably some of the coverage choices, such as the Dante POV of customers winging cigarettes at him and the close-up shots of Dante during the Rick Derris scene), almost all of the inserts are great and almost all of the shots are well-composed. As you noted, the editing is top-notch. A veteran director would have attempted to make things move or come up with more "business," but that would have ruined this film. The sedentary nature of the directing in turn mirrors the life-on-a-treadmill everyday lives of the characters. The camera sits, but so did we when we were that age and trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do with our lives.

Similarly, film grain has never been grainier than in this film. This also helps deepen the emotional aspect of the film itself. Nothing was ever more serious than how shitty life was when we were fresh (or not-so-fresh) out of high school. Filming these mundane, too-clever-for-their-own-good conversations on some wholesale film stock that might have been otherwise used for a stag reel really carries that perceived weight of what the characters thought they were going through.

Anything else I'm forgetting? Don't want to give Clerks short shrift, because eventually we're going to be up to Jersey Girl and then who knows what the hell will happen.

Aside from looking at the film as a film (and it seems we're pretty much in agreement that this guy holds up), one of the biggest questions I had going into this was how I would relate to these characters at this point in my life. Clerks was originally released when I was about 12, and I didn't watch it until my later teens. But I then I proceeded to grow into a 22 year-old college drop-out who also worked a serious of jobs which would have been great if it wasn't for the fucking customers. So I worried the movie would suffer from, "Holden Caulfield Syndrome." Caulfield seems revolutionary when you're a kid. Then you become a real, actual adult and realize, "nah, that kid's just an asshole."

Our friend (and Progressive Boink Emeritus) Brandon Stroud once told me that Clerks is Kevin Smith's only truly good movie, because it's the only movie where he had something to say. I'm not sure I agree with that, but this is certainly the movie with the most heart. Because while Smith might be comfortable with dick jokes and screwball comedy (if necrophilia counts as screwball), he's actually telling a really personal, painfully honest story. Dante Hicks isn't a particularly likeable person, but he is a relatable one; a smart guy who is unhappy with his life, knows he probably deserves better but can't figure out how to make things BE better. Every whiny repetition of, "I'm not even supposed to BE HERE today!" is a reminder not that he got called in to work one day, but that every day his life is far worse than the one he'd imagined for himself. This is even reflected in his shoddy treatment of poor Veronica. His obsession with getting Caitlin back is not some misguided attempt to recapture his glory days; it's an attempt to self-sabotage the one good part of his life because it doesn't mesh with all the relentlessly shitty parts. Like I said before, I relate to that. Those feelings of angst and disappointment still color who I am now. I may not like Dante, but his struggle still hits me right where I live.

If anything, I found that age has changed my perception of Randall more. Jeff Anderson famously auditioned as a joke, but he's the only one in the movie with a true handle on Smith's sometimes unwieldy dialogue. Randall Graves is a terrible employee, far worse friend, and all around unrepentant dirtbag. Though he still gets all the best lines, I just can't fully embrace such an unlikeable character anymore. Which is not to say that a character must be likeable to be enjoyable; as stated, I don't think Dante is a particularly good person, either. But whereas I can still connect with Dante's motivations, Randall's worldview just feels hollow. I know this is me showing my age. As a disenfranchised 20-something I might've cheered when Randall spit water in the face of an annoying customer; as a mostly franchised 32 year-old, I would write a strongly worded email to corporate. I just feel like ... "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke" is a great in theory, but it isn't really how the world works.

Any final thoughts?

No, I think you pretty much nailed it. Although I feel like a lot of Kevin Smith's movies actually have a lot of heart, particularly Clerks 2, which Smith often says is his personal favorite of his films. I'm interested to see how THAT one holds up on a re-watch.

At any rate, we'll see you next time, when we handle Mallrats.