Was I Nuts?
That’s the thought that grows through my head when I remember movies that once meant so much to me, helped shape my taste in film, but also haven’t say down with in years. In this series, I aim to look back at a series of films from the mid-to-late 90s (aka my teens) and figure out if any of these films were worth a damn.
First up in the series, probably the most quoted movie of my high school days.
Clerks (1994) is the debut film of writer-director Kevin Smith, he of the sizable, cult following. It was made on a tiny budget, with no-name actors who largely remained such, unless you count being in other films by Smith a major career. The movie garnered massive critical buzz, seen as a wickedly smart, foul-mouthed indie that represented a perceived slacker American youth of the 1990s. Clerks launched Smith’s odd career, where he was – and still is too many – a comedic genius with few equals, able to make the dirtiest sex joke seem clever, while unleashing a swirl of pop-culture jabs steeped in all things geek before it became the defacto way of the internet world.
My mom, kindly, pretty much let me watch any movie I wanted growing up. The few that she was uncomfortable with (Pulp Fiction, Higher Learning) featured bountiful swearing and violence. Perhaps that lack of bloodshed let Clerks just barely slip through the cracks, though I do recall a slight bit of concern over the shear amount of times the word “37 dicks” were sad in tandem. Though no longer a disciple of Smith, I will say his original run of movies (Clerks through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) were all owned and watched religiously. Though Chasing Amy was my favorite, Clerks was the funniest, a source for my own personal humor and an inspiration to think it would be cool to carry a Silent Bob doll with me to classes in high school.
Obsessed wouldn’t be the right word; infatuated seems fitting. I didn’t need Clerks in my life, but it was shorthand for friendships in a way music tends to be for teenagers. To know what a “salsa shark” was made you okay in my book.
My close friend Charlie and I once made our way through Smith’s initial outing in a pseudo-Roger Ebert manner, mining the frames of the cinematic text for its secrets. We studied how many times does someone say ‘fuck’ or ‘Bunch of savages in this town’ for example.
Kevin Smith has become a whipper and a whipping boy in the roughly twenty years since his debut. He has famously – relatively speaking – stated that modern film critics are largely worthless, a comment emerging from his poorly reviewed, mildly successful and mostly forgotten comedy Cop Out. Smith still has his loyal followers, but it has been years since I’ve sat down with any of his early works and even longer since I’ve liked any of his films.
This one is an especially big mystery heading in, primarily due to the love it had from broad strokes upon impact. Critics, for the most part, praised Clerks and called Smith just what I thought he was as an 8th grader; extremely funny. Unlike the Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler movies of the time period, which I gulped down for all their zaniness, Smith’s picture is allegedly numerous rungs up the ladder. The question is whether Smith lost his way with words or perhaps never had them at all. I have no clue.
Considering that I literally know the last time I watched this film was ten years ago for the tenth anniversary of its release, Clerks came flushing back to me. Having spent countless evening with it, that distance didn’t keep me from anticipating the jokes before they even completed.
But is it still a great movie?
No, frankly, it isn’t. It’s still good though. The uniqueness of Smith’s takes, particularly the longer observations, hold up well. The diatribe about the contracted workers that worked on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi rolls out naturally. Smith’s characters discuss pop culture in a manner far more similar to how people actually do in real life versus cinema. Discussions get rowdy, goofy and loud.
Jeff Anderson’s Randall, the jackass best friend, is continually worthwhile. Where future Smith pictures tended to feature the prickly types more prominently, in Clerks Randall is a spice that comes in and briefly brightens or fucks up our lead’s life. The utter joy he gets out of being a shit-stirrer gives his every scene a crackling energry.
As for that lead, Brian O’Halloran as Dante is probably the biggest loser in terms of legacy holding. While O’Halloran was derided in a number of reviews and early takes on the movie, his occasionally awkward delivery and uncomfortably forced drama I admit to never noticing in my youth. O’Halloran can hit the comedic beats and moments of outrage fine; the quieter ones find the actor stumbling.
The episodic nature of it allows for this inconsistency to be somewhat less troubling. That element of Jarmusch and Linklater can be noticed with more seasoned eyes in the manner of the low-key aimlessness of some of its inhabitants. There are things that make one groan in retrospect, especially a series of gags that feel a smidge gay-panic-y. Smith ‘s filmography clearly reveals a man who supports the gay community, yet there are nevertheless several lines mentioned about how gross male-on-male sex would be through out the feature.
How the other works of the cult filmmaker hold up is a discussion for another time. For as large and as vocal as his followers remain, nothing created by Kevin Smith has resonated at large like his initial batch of efforts.