It’s hard to explain the importance of Kevin Smith to anyone who was not a teenager in the 1990s. Smith was one of a vanguard of successful independent filmmakers that helped to form what is now referred to the ’90s Indie Boom. American filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Todd Solondz flourished during this time, and arthouses were booming with all manner of zeitgeist-rattling, narratively daring passion projects.
Kevin Smith was seen as the cool frathouse brother of this movement. His 1994 film Clerks, made for a measly $230,000, ended up grossing over 3 million dollars, making it one of the most successful independent movies of all time. And while other indie films had become hits before this, Clerks kind of cemented the indie movement, and proved that filmmakers, working with their own scripts and possessing their own voice, could be Hollywood successes. Sadly, this model eventually withered, and the more recent consensus seems to be that it’s harder than ever for indie filmmakers to get anything in theaters or even into a Netflix queue.
Smith’s voice may be considered the voice of the 1990s. His films were all about twentysomething Gen-Xers who were well-equipped with pop culture trivia, and could expound eloquently on old movies and TV shows (a model that first saw light in Richard Linklater’s seminal film Slacker), but were naïve and even a little backward when dealing with a rapidly evolving dating scene of more free sexual activity, and a dwindling presence of the male. Smith’s scripts are marked by filthy, frank sexual talk, but the dick jokes are delivered with a flip wit and a distinct voice, making them seem bubbly and relatable as well as shocking. The ’90s was when self-awareness was the note of the day, and Smith’s films wholly reflect that attitude.
Smith’s production company is called View Askew, and, after just two movies, it became clear that his movies all took place in the same universe, complete with common characters, commonly alluded-to events, and a similar tone and slacker milieu. Every film to take place in this “Askewniverse” features a pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern like stoner fools named Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself. The fifth film in this Askewniverse (Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) will feature these characters as protagonists, but all the others feature them as supporting characters. Other characters occasionally recur as well, these two will be the face of the series.
The films in the Askewniverse started low-budget and low-concept, and grew in size and scope over the course of a decade. There are six films in the series (to date). This week, we’ll be looking at the first three: Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
Clerks (dir. Kevin Smith, 1994)
Clerks tell the story of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), a shiftless twentysomething who lives in a messy room, and who works at a low-level convenience store in New Jersey. Dante is weak-willed, whiny, and seems to be stuck in that numbing half-job retail awfulness that so many young people find themselves caught up in. At the same time, though, the job is easy, and it’s too comfortable to leave. Working next door at the world’s crappiest video store is Dante’s best friend Randall (Jeff Anderson). Dante is not scheduled to work today. He reminds people of this endlessly.
Over the course of a single day, Dante will bond with his girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), but not-so-secretly pines after his high school ex Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer). He will be beset by customers, close the store to play hockey on the roof, and have existential conversations about the Star Wars movies. Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) hang out in front of the store all day, occasionally entering to shoplift.
The central story of Clerks, and of most of the Askewniverse movies, is essentially a romance. Dante’s relationship status is perhaps the most important thing to him. He’s dating one girl and has to content with her sexual history (the number 37 will be used a lot). He pines pathetically after another girl who may be engaged to be married, is perhaps lying about it, and who cheated on Dante several times in the past. Randall, meanwhile, seems to harbor a somewhat unhealthy but helpful philosophy of apathy, constantly encouraging Dante to be irresponsible and perhaps take charge of his deaden existence, but only once he rip into customers.
There’s a weird cosmic injustice to the relationship between Dante and Randall. Dante, despite being a sad sack and kind of a slob, still feels beholden to the rules of good manners. He keeps his job, stays when he doesn’t need to, and treats his girlfriend well enough, even if he’s not as in love with her as she is with him. For this, he suffers all manner of indignities and punishments. A group of customers pelt him with cigarettes for no good reason, he gets a $500 fine for a crime Randall committed, and he almost loses his best friend, and perhaps loses his girlfriend. Randall, meanwhile, is flip and uncaring, constantly mouths off to strangers he clearly hates, and doesn’t once feel sorry for how rude he is. He is not punished for anything he does.
Dante is Job. Randall is Falstaff.
Weird that I’ve been using this well-known and notoriously dirty slacker comedy to draw such classical allusions. Maybe that’s because Smith is so well-invested in his characters. He has likely been through what the characters are going through, and wants to tell a real and relatable and humorous story about bad jobs, indecisiveness, and infidelity. Also necrophilia. That’s in there too.
Clerks is notoriously shabby – it looks like it was made for its low budget. But one can’t get past its earnestness, it’s sincerity. Smith isn’t faking it. He has a good ear for dialogue, a good sense of cinematic pacing, and passion for the material. As such, he made one of the most successful films of all time.
This led to a greater presence in the public eye, and a chance to make a relatively much more expensive studio film. A film that, sadly, bombed.