Despite his less than stellar career (and rant against critics) as of late, I consider Kevin Smith to be a personal hero. When I was 14, I had seen a little bit of Dogma and after some internet (slow slow 56k) research, I found that this was the fourth movie in a series known as The View Askewniverse. This was a group of films that had central characters and all existed in the same world, and they were all the brain child of a man from Jersey named Kevin Smith. Being the OCD person I am, I had to now watch all of them in order as quickly as possible, so I headed to my local mall and bought the movie Clerks on VHS. That night, I settled down to watch this movie and to find out just why my sister and other older kids held these movies in such high regard. After finishing the movie, I proceeded to rewind it, and watch again. When that was done, I rewound it and watched it, in its entirety, once again. Soon enough, the sun was coming up and I had just spent all night watching and re-watching one movie. That is the time I can point to where I truly fell in love with film in a less childish “oooo that explosion is big!!!” way.

'I'm gonna break my crazy neck on this ladder!'
For the five people who have never seen or heard of Clerks, the plot is simple: Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is in his early 20’s and works a dead end job at a local store known as Quick Stop Convienence. On his day off, he is called in to watch the store and the movie follows his adventures through out the day. Along for the ride is Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), Dante’s best friend and fellow slacker who works right next door at RST Video. Randal, instead of actually doing his job, is content to lock up shop and hang out with Dante next door discussing all sorts of pop culture nonsense while showing nothing but contempt for the customers they serve. Although neither works at the two stores, Dante and Randal are also joined by Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), two lowlifes who deal drugs outside RST Video and not much else. Jay is foul mouthed and a pervert, while Silent Bob lives up to his name.

During the day, Dante and the crew deal with different, often whacky, situations. To start off, a man leads an anti-cigarette protest in the middle of the Quick Stop, and that’s within the first hour of being open. After that, Dante’s girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) visits and reveals something about her sexual past that causes a fight. Then Dante finds out in the paper that his high school sweetheart, and serial cheater, Caitlin Bree (Lisa Spoonauer) is getting married, which comes as a shocker because they have been talking for weeks on the phone. Add some hockey on the roof, a wake, discussions about the demands of building a new Death Star, and a perverted rabbi, sprinkle in stupid inane customers, and you’ve got one hell of a day on your hands.

The story behind Clerks has been talked to death, but here’s a very Cliff Notes (and Wikipedia researched eep) version: Kevin Smith saw the independent film Slacker in the early 90’s and decided he wanted to make movies. He spent a semester at a film school in Vancouver where he met future producing partner Scott Mosier, then decided to drop out of the second semester and use the money to fund his first movie. Smith proceeded to max out a bunch of credit cards and sell off pieces of his comic book collection to gather a budget for his first film, called Clerks (obviously), which amounted to around 28,000 dollars. He casted local theater actors in the leads and filled the rest of the cast with friends, many of whom play more than one character (Walt Flanagan plays around 5 different roles). He brought Mosier in to help him produce and they shot at the Quick Stop (where Smith used to work) while they were closed at night and shot in black and white to cut costs. After languishing for a little while, Clerks began to get some steam with the press and was sold at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival to Harvey Weinstein and his company Miramax, who put a mainstream soundtrack on it. Clerks eventually became a hit, spawning the Askewniverse mentioned earlier and turning Kevin Smith into a bonafide indie icon. Along with Tarantino and Richard Linklater, he is also credited for starting the new revolution in independent cinema of the 1990’s.

What made Clerks so appealing is the ability of the audience to relate to it. Working retail or any customer service job really is an experience that can best be described as “fucking horrible”. It is low paying and you work hours that kill any chance you have for a social life. Not only that, but the job itself is so easy that it becomes mind numbing and you can literally feel your life moving before your eyes. The worst part, of course, happens to be the customers. When you begin a retail job, you still have respect for humanity and think there’s good in everyone. That changes once you deal with the general public, whose stupid questions and actions will make you pray for the Eugenics movement to make a comeback. Retail is hell, and it’s captured perfectly in Clerks. The customers Dante and Randal have to deal with would make anyone become as bitter as they are. They are quizzed about such things as price, when there’s a giant sign right behind the person saying how much it is, and the availability of products no one in their right mind would carry. To these two, and to be honest to every retail worker, the customers are the real problem, captured perfectly by Randal’s quote “this job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers!”. Since all of us have had customers like this, it’s easy to understand what they are going through and to sympathize and laugh at the situations.

As a character, Dante Hicks is absolutely fascinating. Dante is a lost soul, a man who is so afraid of change and afraid of messing something up that he refuses to take any chances. Because of this, he allows people to walk all over him, from his boss to Caitlin to Randal. He is a pushover who is afraid to “shit or get off the pot”. Instead of embracing his situation, which Randal does, he chooses to lash out at everyone else, refusing to take blame for his life. He thinks the world is out to get him, and uses them as a scapegoat as to why he is where he is, never once confronting the fact that he, and he alone, is in control of his own destiny. The only good in his life, his loving girlfriend Veronica, he is subconsciously trying to destroy because he does not feel like he deserves her. She brings him lasagna to work and is always encouraging him to make a better life for himself, but it falls on deaf ears. He is like every guy in the world; the nice one doesn’t matter because he really wants the evil one…and that don’t get more evil than Caitlin Bree. Through high school, all she did was treat him like crap and cheated on him repeatedly, because she could and knew she could get away with it. Even though he knows she is bad news, he still loves her because he feels like he deserves the bad as opposed to the good. His journey from pushover to being enlightened is absolutely captivating and you can’t help but root for Dante to finally grow up and accept that his fate is self-created and not the fault of others.

Randal is the polar opposite, and makes a great foil for Dante. Unlike Dante, he loves his job. He loves his place in life. He does not blame the world for why he works at a small time video store instead of some cushy office job; that’s how he wants it. While Dante is the guy many of us actually are, Randal represents the person we want to be. He has the balls to confront stupid customers and takes joy in the smaller things. Sure, he’s brash and kind of a dick, but at least he’s true to himself and his wants in life. Under that rough exterior beats the heart of a loyal best friend, and Randal is always trying to help Dante in his own way to shun responsibility and learn to actually have fun instead of moping. He is the devil on Dante’s shoulder telling him to yell at customers to let off steam and to take free food because he can. Dante is so sheltered and so morose and Randal feels like it is his duty as his best friend to do something about it.

O’Halloran and Anderson’s chemistry as Dante and Randal is pitch perfect, and even though Randal is such an ass, you can actually understand how they could be friends. They both are excellent and perfect in their roles and created some of the most realistic characters in the history of cinema.

Then we get to Jay and Silent Bob. Although their presence in the subsequent films increased as they began to develop a large following, they are merely the comedic side characters that occasionally pop in and mess things up. Clerks will occasionally veer from the main plot to join Jay and Silent Bob during a drug deal, trying to convince a girl that their “cousin” Olaf is part of a famous Russian metal band, or just amusing themselves by dancing around and making fun of Dante and Randal. Silent Bob is all facial mannerisms and cigarette smoking, while Jay is the horn dog who tries to bang anything that comes near him and is not afraid to say it. They are cartoon characters in a realistic world, but are grounded enough that they work really well and it’s obvious why Jay and Silent Bob are world famous now and why such words as “Snoogans” and “Noonch” are now in the lexicon.

Other characters achieved cult status from the film, including Willem Black (Scott Mosier), a burned out bearded druggie who says "That's beautiful man" a lot, and any of Walt Flanagan's roles (I think of his brief stint as a crazed man who has to test each egg before buying the carton as his best). To give everyone their due is impossible in words, you have to see it in action.

Clerks benefits from the cheap production. It doesn’t try to do a lot with a little; instead it embraces the little and makes it work. The black and white, which was just a cost cutting measure, actually helps the storytelling in ways I can’t explain because I don’t have film school-level knowledge. Smith also uses simple camera shots (which amount to a stagnated camera with two or more people standing next to each other and talking) to great effect, allowing the dialogue to carry the movie.

And make no mistake, the dialogue carries Clerks. It’s dirty, raw, and filled with jokes that most would find tasteless, but it’s some of the most realistic and smart stuff that has ever been written. The way everyone talks in Clerks is how you expect and hear others talk. Unlike something like Juno, it isn’t overly stylized; it’s simple, and it helps the impact. Clerks has also proven to be one of the most quotable movies in history, with such lines as “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” and “buncha savages in this town” still quoted to this day (I admit, I do on very frequent occasions, utter both of these lines).

Clerks has also proven to be the inspiration for the films that came after it. It showed that you didn’t need to have a big budget to make a good movie; all you needed was the drive and the idea. The low budget presentation inspired a whole generation of indie filmmakers, who finally believed that they could write and direct something on a small budget that would actually be taken seriously. Films like Empire Records and Waiting also owe a debt to Smith and Clerks. As good as Empire Records is (and it will probably be inducted here at some point), let’s face it: it’s Clerks in a record store. Waiting is Clerks in a restaurant. Its impact on the film world can still be felt today, as well as culture itself. Kevin Smith has become an icon to people everywhere, and has hosted spots on The Tonight Show, as well as contributing to the comic book worlds of Batman and Daredevil. Dante and Randal have become icons in their own right, and Jay and Silent Bob show up everywhere from Scream 3 to I Love the 90’s.

  I will not argue the merits of the rest of Kevin Smith’s film work (I liked Jersey Girl dammit!). It’s there, and it speaks for itself. As great as all of it is (with the exception of Cop Out, which he didn’t write so I don’t include), Clerks remains the landmark movie of it all, inspiring people everywhere and almost singlehandedly defining the independent film scene of the 1990’s.



11/03/2010 20:42

With your help, I can do it.

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