Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CANON OF FILM: "CLERKS"

CLERKS (1994)

Director/Screenplay: Kevin Smith




Believe it or not, if I’m truly being completely genuine and honest, one of the biggest personal influences in my writing career, both in terms of the story of his success as well as his personal style, is Kevin Smith. Yet, despite having watched it approximately 30 times over the years, I’ve been reluctant to add “Clerks” to my canon, for various reasons, all of them, dumb trivial reasons.  

Smith has now made (INSERT NUMBER) feature films, the best of his films being “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”. He doesn’t always make a good film, and with “Cop Out,” he made the mistake of not writing the picture himself and just directing. It’s not that Smith isn’t a capable or even a talented director, in fact, with most of his recent films, which has seen him almost violently switch from comedy to horror, he’s actually proven that he can be quite the skilled and fascinating auteur, particularly with “Red State” and “Tusk”. Still though, I don’t watch Smith’s work for the directing. He’s never needed it before since he’s always been such as astute and talented writer, that you didn’t need much more than what was necessary visually to get a great film from here. That’s not a knock, in fact, I think that’s something that’s missing from film these days; as great as every other aspect of film can be, it should really work well on the page before anything else, and what’s better on the page than just great dialogue spoken by actors. Hell, great Smith dialogue can make some great actors out of some friends of his who literally weren’t actors at all.    

Still though, despite some evidence to the contrary, particularly when he decides to get his family involved, Smith is probably best when he doesn’t stray too far home. Home being the Asbury Park, NJ area where most of his films either are made or are close to taking place to some extent. The kind of place where everybody owns a hockey jersey, and everything goes back to, something that happened in high school, usually involving a party and something sexual. When connecting some of his films together, they create the Viewaskewniverse, an entire world of Kevin Smith films that each take place in the same universe as the other movies, such as the recurring characters of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith).  So, I don’t know why the fuck we’re crediting Marvel and the MCU for this idea….- Ahem…. Alright, sure Smith is a comic book fan and geekdom is definitely a part of his aesthetic, but still…. The great thing though, is that you don’t need to have seen any of his films to understand the other one, although it doesn’t hurt. (Something the MCU and DCU can learn from)

It’s a misnomer to say that nothing much happens in “Clerks,” a lot happens, but the protagonists don’t have much interest in forward momentum of any kind. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) is a college dropout who’s dating Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) but is still obsessed with his old high school girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer). In the meantime, he’s a clerk at a local convenient store. He isn’t supposed to work today, and his day begins with drinking coffee out of a cookie jar lid, writing a sign out of shoe polish to make sure everyone knows they’re open, and getting cigarettes thrown towards him by an angry crowd, riled up by some gum salesman. Randal (Jeff Anderson) works at the shitty video store across the street, both stores have the same owner, so it’s not uncommon for each of them to cover for the other. Randal’s basically your typical smartass laze instigator. He’s wants to do as little work as possible, and he works hard at it, and is able to justifiably argue his position, to basically everybody. I think most writers would’ve centered the film around his character, but Smith’s a better writer than that. There’s an unusual combination of typical daily lives coexisting alongside outrageous comedic events in “Clerks”. Some scenes are more famous than others. The hockey game on the roof, the intimate scene of Dante painting Veronica’s fingernails behind the counter, the unseen events that apparently occurred at a funeral,… then there’s an unseen sex scene in a bathroom involving Dante’s ex-girlfriend, that could almost surely only occur through a bizarre combination of events orchestrated by a Kevin Smith screenplay. The famous story of the making of “Clerks,” and the battle with the MPAA (The movie originally got an NC-17 rating for language alone) are too well-known and infamous to really bother recounting. It’s now the prime example of cheap, brilliant independent filmmaking. Kevin Smith has personally admitted to being the worst director in Hollywood. He might be the laziest, but he’s not the worst. Considering nearly every scene in “Clerks” is based around two locations, it’s amazing he keeps the film so fresh looking but he does.

“Clerks” is about the everyday bullshit of life. Whether that’s losing a girlfriend because of one’s own stupid obsessions with your ex, or whether it’s dealing with the same annoying customers that come in everyday. There’s a rhythm to it that’s both musical and comedic, and can only be as uniquely observed by Kevin Smith. Possibly Mark Twain, well a New Jersey version anyway. Famously, the film was made for less than $30,000 total and Smith basically went into debt on his credit cards to make the film. Amazingly the movie got into a couple film festivals and later won awards at Cannes and Sundance, allowing it to get distribution from the Weinsteins. Don’t think he isn’t aware of just how lucky his career is, ‘cause there’s definitely another universe where this film never caught on and he’d still be working at that convenient store, probably just now finally getting his debts paid off.

I think the thing is that distinguishes his best work, no matter the genre, especially when he’s writing it, is that you can tell he truly cares about the content. Whatever it is, he dives into the same amount of thought and complex over a discussion about whether independent contractors were killed when the incomplete death star was blown up in “Return of the Jedi,” as he does in “Dogma” over whether plenenary indulgences would allow fallen angels back into heaven hence proving God fallible thus negating existence.

Doesn’t sound like the same artist at work, but it is, it’s the same approach. Take a subject of interest, analyze it to death and write about people who talk about such things. Write what you know, and do it well, the fastest path to success, and Kevin Smith might be exhibit A for that. 

NOTE: I was in the process of posting this when news broke that Lisa Spoonhour had passed away. If I had time to change I would've put some other film up, but since I didn't consider this a coincidental tribute to her. :( RIP 
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