Dir. Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti
Mallrats might have introduced me to Kevin Smith and hooked me on his brand of humor, but Clerks literally changed my life. Not only did the film deepen my appreciation for Smith, who was one of my youthful film heroes, but it totally opened up my eyes to the possibility of a different kind of cinema. Of course I knew that there was such a thing as “independent cinema,” but it existed more as a nebulous concept than a concrete entity in my mind. I had seen a handful of movies on Independent Film Channel when I was 11 or 12, over a month when my parents’ cable offered a free preview of the channel when it became available in our area, but, for the most part, these movies just seemed like slightly less glossy versions of what I could see in the local multiplex. It wasn’t until I saw Clerks that I think independent cinema really clicked for me as something that could be radically different from the mainstream. Clerks turned me on to the idea of filmmaking existing outside of the Hollywood system, and the idea that anyone can make a movie if they really want to. At that time in my life, I really wanted to.
Even at 14 years old, I was an aspiring filmmaker of sorts. Most of my friends were getting into skateboarding and I became a de facto cameraman because my parents had recently bought a video camera, and I was also too uncoordinated to skate with any proficiency. At first, our videos mostly consisted of poorly shot and executed skateboard tricks and stunts, modeled after the MTV show Jackass, but I got more interested in learning how to edit the footage and add music. Seeing Clerks around this same time further cemented my interest in filmmaking and led to me trying some very basic narrative experiments in addition to the skate videos that I was shooting. What were once strictly stunt videos started becoming slightly more narrative with the addition of loosely scripted sketches and parodies. The “humor” contained therein was still overwhelmingly physical, but we were striving towards a more cinematic vision of our silly videos. My friend Mike introduced a distinctively performative aspect to the videos with his incessant mugging and rapping for the camera, and his various alter-egos, many of which were clearly influenced by Jason Mewes’s performance as Jay in Clerks and Mallrats. Our videos never really advanced beyond the most rudimentary experiments, and all of the tapes have been lost for over a decade, but I remember those days that we spent filming ourselves hurting each other with great fondness. I continued to dabble with filmmaking throughout high school in various forms, but it was largely something that I abandoned until I moved to Pittsburgh.
Of course, while my interest in making my own films waned in high school, my interest in watching them and consuming the medium was only beginning to peak. I don’t know if I used Kevin Smith and Clerks as a jumping off point, per se, but at this time in my life, I began to more fully explore the American independent film movement of the 1990s. I truly discovered Tarantino around this time, I saw Do The Right Thing for the first time at 15, Richard Linklater started to bubble into my consciousness through his comedies. Through these filmmakers I started to branch out, discovering their influences, and laying the groundwork for my later formal education in Film Studies. Even though it was a period of great exploration and discovery for me, I always came back to Kevin Smith. As I wrote last week in my Chasing Amy post, I was obsessed with the View Askewniverse all throughout my late teens. By the end of high school, I’m not sure if I would have mentioned Smith as my favorite filmmaker above Tarantino or, perhaps, Kubrick, but that would have likely been youthful posturing. In retrospect, I was always watching more Kevin Smith than anything else. That changed somewhat after I came to college and my expanding tastes and more crowded viewing schedule put an end to the ritualistic repeat viewings of Smith’s films. That time in my life also, coincidentally, dovetailed with an artistic low period for the filmmaker, whose post-2000 output has been of varying quality, at best. Clerks, however, has been the one film in his filmography that I’ve come back to over and over again, year after year. I still revisit the other 1990s Smith films, but Clerks is the only one that has become truly indispensable for me.
Clerks has been different things for me at different points in my life, but it’s always been a film that I watch once or twice a year. I’ve definitely seen it over 50 times in my life, and maybe even close to 100 times. When I was first introduced to it, it was inspirational, challenging in its simplicity. It was a film that dared me to want to make something of my own. In college, even though I often found myself thumbing my nose at Smith’s current films, Clerks was still the high water mark that my film school friends could all agree on. When I started my bartending career after college, Clerks gained a professional relevance that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I started managing bars in my late-20s. I don’t know how many times in the last five years I’ve found myself repeating Dante’s (O’Halloran) catchphrase from the film, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” It’s become a mantra to get me through the long nights and weekends. The beauty of the film to me is a malleability belied by its overall simplicity. I can appreciate a different aspect of Clerks every time I watch it depending on my mood or how my week has been going, and even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, it never gets old. Smith’s ambitions as a filmmaker have certainly grown since Clerks, and his technical prowess has greatly improved, but Smith has never made a better film than Clerks, and he almost certainly never will.
Famously shot on a self-financed budget of just under $30,000, Clerks follows a day in the life of register jockeys Dante Hicks, who works at the Quick Stop convenience store, and Randal Graves (Anderson), Dante’s friend and erstwhile employee of neighboring RST Video. The two clerks deal with annoying customers, drug-dealing loiterers, and Dante’s romantic foibles as he tries to decide between his current girlfriend, Veronica (Ghigliotti) and his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer). He’s not even scheduled to work on this particular day, and Dante just wants to get through his shift and get home, but life keeps throwing obstacles in his way as he’s forced to live out his mundane, hellish existence. It’s a depiction of existential nothingness, and a perfect expression of a frustrated sense of arrested development. Clerks is the end result of a person deciding that they have a story to tell so important to them that they have to get it out there by any means necessary. Clerks is filmmaking by necessity, which makes it great.
The film is based on Smith’s actual job at the time, and was primarily shot in the convenience store that he actually worked at. It’s decidedly lo-fi, shot on 16mm black-and-white, and featuring almost exclusively non-professional actors. Rather than being hampered by the constraints placed upon him by his limited budget and lack of experience, Smith uses his technical simplicity and idiosyncratic cast to his advantage, and plays to his strengths. The film is conversational, broken up into nine vignettes (in reference to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno) that consist primarily of lengthy passages of conversation between Dante and Randal, or between one of the two and his customers. These dialogues are shot simply, often consisting of a lengthy master shot, broken up by a bit of shot/reverse shot, with the occasional reaction shot of an eavesdropping customer thrown in. The simplicity is surely due to circumstance and to Smith’s limited filmmaking experience, but it isn’t incompetence. Instead, the lack of edits and the largely static camera work to highlight the script, forcing the audience to pay close attention to the cascade of pop-culture references and vulgarities that the two protagonists exchange throughout the film. The languid visual style also exhibits Smith’s already developing sense of comedic timing. When he does make cuts for comedic effect, they work more often than not. Smith doesn’t over extend himself as he sometimes will later in his career, and it pays off. The film also gets some of its most memorable moments from the unusual shooting requirements. Because the film could only be shot in the middle of the night, after the convenience store closed, Smith had to fabricate a reason for the store’s steel shutters to be lowered. In the film, vandals have plugged the shutters’ locks with chewing gum, forcing Dante to write a sign on a bedsheet with shoe polish that reads, “I assure you, we’re open!” It’s my favorite running gag from the entire film, and it’s the result of forced ingenuity.
Clerks also manages to bring out the best in a cast made up chiefly of Smith’s friends and other non-professional actors. The performances in Clerks are not necessarily good, in fact, sometimes they’re not very good at all, but they are perfect for the film and for the script. Though it very much feels true to life, Smith’s dialogue is often somewhat off-kilter and affected, especially early in his career as a screenwriter. O’Halloran and Anderson manage to internalize those affectations and their line delivery feels completely real. I think that often when Smith employs non-professional actors, such as in Clerks or in the case of Jason Lee in Mallrats, they give more naturalistic performances and are able to translate the idiosyncrasies in Smith’s dialogue into speech patterns that read as familiarities between the characters. O’Halloran and Anderson, as Dante and Randal, speak in the language of close friends, which drives home the film’s realism. The rest of the film’s characters, who could broadly be described as the customers, with the exception of Veronica and Caitlin, provide a counterpoint to the chummy, laid back nature of Dante and Randal’s relationship. They’re shown only in glimpses but could largely be characterized as manic and reactionary, outsiders who are imposing their neuroses on the Quick Stop. As Randal says, “This job would be great if it weren’t for the customers.” This type of characterization of the retail customer and the sometimes antagonistic relationship between customer and employee will likely ring true for many who have worked in service.
I don’t know if there will come a time when I get tired of the movie Clerks. It’s certainly a film that is aimed towards people of a certain age demographic, which I am rapidly approaching the tail end of, now that I’m in my early thirties. Clerks is definitely a product of post-adolescent fury, and it speaks to concerns of youthful rebelliousness, but I think its anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian message transcends age demographics. It was a seminal movie for me at a time when I was starting to discover my own anti-authoritarian streak, and it’s adherence to DIY principles was inspiring to me. It’s stayed with me through the years as a reminder of one of my youthful obsessions, but also as a movie that has remained relevant and changed in meaning for me over time. Sometimes I sympathize more with Dante, a tired man clinging to a scrap of professionalism and optimism in a town full of savages, and sometimes I’m more of a Randal, openly antagonistic and despairing for the state of humanity. Clerks is an important movie in the history of independent cinema, and it set Kevin Smith up to be an important and influential filmmaker throughout the rest of the 1990s. For me it’s an important film because it’s a reminder of who I was when I first started getting serious about movies and filmmaking, and because it provides a symbolic throughline from the kid I was then to the adult that I’ve become.