As a teenager in the nineties, I spent a lot of my time (as I’m sure most teenagers in the nineties did) quoting Kevin Smith’s movies. They are after all endlessly quotable, appeal to a specifically teenage—not to say puerile—sensibility, and are laden with nineties pop references. Clerks premiered in 1994 and name-checked everything from the construction workers on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi to what exactly “snowballing” is. Mallrats was universally panned, but certainly wasn’t charmless to a teenager looking for cheap laughs (“Wow,” says a character, reading a break-up letter, “she calls you callow.” “So?” “Well, it means frightened and weak-willed.” “Shit. I thought that was the only part that was complimentary”). Chasing Amy moved beyond potty-mouthed pop culture (though it has that, too, in a great discussion about Archie comics and the “Nubian god” Darth Vader) to something realer, when Smith famously found “something personal to say.” And Dogma tackled religion in general and Catholicism in particular, subjects no one would have guessed an indie schlub from New Jersey like Smith would ever attempt.
“Attempting,” though, doesn’t mean “successfully confronting,” and re-watching Dogma last week, I can see that this might be the place where Smith’s films started to go downhill. Because the thing is, I spent most of the twenty-first century (as I’m sure most teenagers from the nineties did) alternately ignoring and being disappointed in Smith’s later work. These later films are examples of Smith’s coming to terms with his limitations. He must have recognized that he doesn’t do so well outside of his own insular universe, and so reveled in familiar “Jersey trilogy” characters (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II) or representations of his own family (Jersey Girl). By the time he got to Cop Out he wasn’t even writing the scripts anymore.
The recognition of his limits must have come from his attempts, and subsequent failures, to spread his wings earlier on. Chasing Amy is sweet and poignant, but it’s also surprisingly immature considering how aggressively it tries to push the idea that it’s a sign of growth in the filmmaker. Holden, the main character who Smith makes clear stands in for himself, gripes throughout that people love him only for creating cartoon characters like Jay and Silent Bob, and he wants to create something more meaningful. But the “meaningful” thing that both Holden in the film and Smith (famously) in real life found was dating a girl with a promiscuous past, a girl whose own sexuality he finds himself having difficulty coming to terms with. You have to give Smith credit for earnestness—it’s clear that he really did struggle with real-life girlfriend Joey Lauren Adams’ past—but you also have to wonder how seriously you’re supposed to take the problem, since the stakes are remarkably low. Does anyone over the age of, say, sixteen, or who wasn’t raised in a convent, really try to guilt their partner for having a lot of sex in the past? Are we supposed to identify?
And Dogma is kind of shocking to return to, considering not only how much I loved it when I saw it at sixteen (I had the title engraved on my class ring!), but also because of how many adult critics praised it when it came out. It’s amazing how poorly-paced and –staged it is; nearly two thirds of the film is just people sitting around talking, mouthing expository dialogue that Smith obviously finds brilliant (over and over again, Smith wants to slip in a funny footnote to the Bible, and the only way he can think of to do this is to have Bethany say stuff like, “There were twelve apostles, not thirteen!” and “Jesus wasn’t black, he was white!” and “Mary was a virgin when she had Christ!” and “God’s a man, not a woman!” so that another character can correct her with a monologue—and none of that makes sense, since Bethany knows all of these characters come from Heaven, and therefore she probably wouldn’t try to correct them).
But revisiting Clerks…well, you have to wonder whether there might have been another, better path for Smith to have gone down, because his debut film has real genius in it. It’s the only one that has any visual ideas, for one thing—unless you count the rip-off of Spike Lee in Chasing Amy, which I don’t—as the whole thing looks like a surveillance camera from a convenience store, and is interlaced with title cards saying “Juxtaposition” and “Denouement” on them. It is also, yes, an entire film filled with people just talking, but here it actually works, since here that’s what the entire film is about: like the characters in Slacker, the Linklater film that inspired Smith to make Clerks in the first place, the point is that these characters are lost, insecure, inquisitive, and frightened, and their best weapon against the world is their articulateness, so they find their footing by talking rather than doing.
Like a lot of nineties writer/directors—from Linklater to Baumbach to even Tarantino—Smith peoples his film with characters who avoid action by endlessly talking. Smith also allows his characters to be completely aware of this avoidance technique, even to name check it: “When I was four years old, my mother told me that my potty lid was closed once, and rather than lifting it, I shit my pants. The point is—I’m not the kind of person who’ll disrupt things in order to shit comfortably,” notes Dante.
That line is a solid example of what Smith does correctly here and subsequently does wrong in all of his other films. While it sounds on the surface like an infantile heh-heh-he-said-shit line, it actually speaks directly to the plight of these characters, who use vulgarity to mask the sincerity of their fears and concerns. Most surprising, watching the film twenty years after its release, is how disciplined the screenplay is at relating everything back to the film’s central theme: the importance of work, and the choice between a career that’s easy and a job that means something. As Roger Ebert noted in his review at the time, while most films rarely let you know what their central characters do for a living, nearly every character in Clerks, even the walk-ons, are defined by what they do. The first customer of the day pretends to be an advocate against smoking but is in fact an undercover gum salesman. Jerk Rick Derris is a trainer at a gym. Jay and Silent Bob go from being dancing buffoons to representatives of how to work and live well (“That guy Jay has it right,” Randall says, “he has no pretensions about what he does for a living”). A seemingly gratuitous pop-cultural discussion about Star Wars ends with a man who settles the debate by pointing out that, as a roofer, he loves his job and listens to his heart, not his wallet. A man testing eggs is discovered to be a guidance counsellor, who acts strangely because, as a customer points out, “If your job was as meaningless as theirs, wouldn’t you go crazy?”
And that very customer leaves Dante and Randall by telling them, “It’s important to have a job that means something, boys,” underlining the film’s thesis (and adding, to keep the film’s flavor, “that’s why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination”). Dante is continually faced with subtle little pushes toward the idea that he has to do something substantive for a living in order to be happy, even if that means leaving his comfort zone. His ex-girlfriend tells him that she’s chosen not to get married—the easy route—because she wants to make a contribution to the world rather than have babies first and then figure all that other stuff out later, and that’s exactly the choice Dante has to make.
Clerks was, as I’ve said, inspired by Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and in the credits not only is Linklater thanked, but also the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Hal Hartley, independent filmmakers who Smith used to watch and worship at New York’s Angelika Theatre during the completion of his screenplay. One rather wishes he continued his film education rather than turning inward, because after Clerks, the only filmmaker he seemed to listen to was, well, Kevin Smith.