I Assure You We Are Open
We've spent a far bit of time crapping on Kevin Smith over the years on the site. That's not because we hate his movies -- far from it, at least from his early ouevre -- but because at this point it seems like what Kevin Smith is really selling now, more than anything, is Kevin Smith. There was a time where the guy would amiably put out movies, talking to fans about them from time to time before going back and making his next fun little adventure. At a certain point, though, the brand of Kevin Smith became more lucrative than anything else he did and (along with him getting deep into pot smoking) it seemed like his artistic edge, such as it was, disappeared.
The reason why fans liked his works was because, early on, he had talent. Sure, even he will admit his talent wasn't in cinematography as his camera work is pretty terrible. But the man can get good performances out of people, and his authorial voice struck a chord with a very specific demographic, the youinger set of Gen Xers and the older Millenials (that nascent Gen Y group). It felt like he know our voice, was speaking right to us, and for a few movies there Kevin Smith was the guy any film nerd wanted to me. "He gets us, man!" That's not really the case now but that doesn't take away at all from his early works, for sure.
His earliest is, of course, 1994's Clerks, made on a shoe-string budget in Smith's off hours when he wasn't working as a clerk at a convenience store/video store. The movie is inspired by his own life and interactions, following the adventures of two dude, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as they sit around at work all day hardly doing anything while the world passes them by. Largely they heckle the customers and have long talks about pop-culture and other things that actually interest them because, frankly, their jobs are tedious and stupid.
What Smith managed to capture with Clerks was a melancholic tone, the tragedy of misspent youth. Of course, when you were one of the youths going throug the same daily grind that Smith went through (before making his film) you know all too well exactly how Smith felt. Hanging out at a retail store, doing the same grind over and over for customers that don't give a shit about you at all, just so you can come back and do it all again the next day, and the next... That's what kevin Smith knew all too well and it's what he perfectly captured with Clerks.
In fairness to the film, and to writer/director Smith, the film does actually hold up really well despite being almost three decades old at this point. While the 1990s grunge fashions and music aren't the norm anymore (although they are making a comeback), the feel of disaffected youth trapped in their churn still feels all too real. Whether you're still in a retail job or just rememberhow bad they could be, this film manages to nail its setting, tone, and style all too well. You understand the characters and where they're coming from as they're trapped in this store for this one day (and will be again for all too long after this).
It's also really funny. Smith does have a way with dialogue, and while at times it might feel a tad overwrought, it has a distinctive flow and style that makes it work in its own way. The charatcers have cnversations that most people wouldn't have (unless you spent all day in a comic book shop or movie store) but it still somehow manages to feel like its coming from real people... even if one of those people is an absolute asshole (looking at you, Randall). Smith could get solid laughs out of totally mundane material and it just worked for scene after scene, effortlessly.
It helps that he had two solid actors playing the leads in his film. Dante, on paper, is a real sad-sack, someone that lets the world run them over time and again, and frankly he'd make for an awful lead in most films. If Clerks were a romantic comedy it would focus on Dante's girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and it would be about her ditching the loser that's holding her back -- Dante -- to find someone better as she gets her groove back. But because O'Halloran manages to find just the right tone with Dante, still put upon but with a loveable quality that makes you want to see him do something, you end up rooting for him.
Randall, meanwhile, is brilliantly played by Jeff Anderson. Randall is a shit-heel, not a good guy in any sense. And yet Anderson manages to make him the dark knight of the film. He's foul mouthed and awful, abusing customers because he's at the end of his rope and no longer gives a shit anymore, but again you don't hate him. Anderson plays him perfectly. It does help that Anderson has a way of spitting out Smith's dialogue that makes it sound as interesting and intelligent as it probably sounded in Smith's head as he wrote it.
The film's low-budget qualities actually help it out a lot. Instead of having some magical set to film on, one that feels somehow sanitized to make it "Hollywood palateable", Smith had to film his film in the very locations he worked at during the day. The sets are grungy and lived in like any good retail location giving the vericimilitude Smith needed to sell his story. Yes, the movie is filmed in black and white, a choice made because Smith had to work on the cheap, but that too works for the film, letting you focus not on the splashiness of the film (of which there is none) but instead just enjoy the characters and the dialogue.
All these years later Clerks still works. It's a film that shows the strenght of Smith's voice and his ability to craft real characters with real stories to tell. Over the next few films Smith would, to greater or lesser extents, continue to craft these kinds of films and, to a point, it seemed like he thrived in this ecosystem. As long as the budgets were small and the stories were personal to him Smith could craft a winning film time and again. But you can also see the exact moment when he bought in too hard to the Hollywood system and everything changed... but we'll get to that down the road.