We revisit Kevin Smith’s debut peek at over-the-counter culture. Don’t let us down with part three, Kev.
Who made it?: Kevin Smith (Director/Writer/Co-Producer), Scott Mosier (Co-Producer), View Askew Productions/Miramax.
Who’s in it?: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier.
Tagline: “Just because they serve you, doesn’t mean they like you.”
IMDb rating: 7.8/10.
Kevin Smith, to me, has always been the Nerd Savant. After twenty-one years, he has made ten features, written numerous comics, wrote several books, opened a comic book store, morphed into a valued public speaker, and become the entrepreneur of a podcast empire. His filmography hit me at the right time in my teens, and his world of rapid-fire pop-culture references, slacker protagonists and general crudity seemed to speak to me directly. His work isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying he’s a true original.
Yet film pundits have grown increasingly leery of Smith, especially after entries like the admittedly rotten Cop Out, but I’ll defend him to the hilt for his earlier output (and, hell, I’ll even stake a claim for Zack & Miri). Clerks. is Smith at his absolute pinnacle. Not in terms of motion picture craft, of course, and although he’d no doubt disagree, he has (arguably) never written a better screenplay than this. His dialogue has always been so finely-crafted that it would work just as well as prose, and nowhere is that more evident than in Clerks.; an independent sensation in 1994 that propelled the New Jersey retail assistant into a Hollywood player. This is lightning captured in a bottle via $27,000 in credit card debt and an amateur crew discovering their filmic passions. Smith’s wholly unique voice supersedes the scratchy black-and-white photography, awkward supporting players, and even a last-minute cameo from his Mum to become the ultimate indie dream. This is a movie that makes you want to make movies, and for that, Clerks. will always mean a lot to me as a self-avowed cineaste.
What’s the story? Well, the forever exasperated Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is forced to work on his day off jockeying the register at Jersey’s lowliest convenience store. A day made all the worse by supposed friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) who delights in pissing off the customers and making Dante’s life more stressful than it needs to be. Over the next twenty-four hours, there will be annoying patrons, a game of hockey on the roof, and a dead man in the bathroom. It’s just another day at Quick Stop.
Clerks. has been described as a “wail of ennui,” and that’s pretty accurate. The universe (or “View Askewniverse”) inhabited by Dante and Randal wasn’t too indistinguishable to Smith’s at the time. He, too, was a dreamer sat behind the counter at Quick Stop/RST Video. Most men won’t cop to pitying Mr. Hicks, but he represents the Everyman better than anyone else in Smith’s oeuvre (defined by his repeated whine, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”). Smith’s dream of becoming a filmmaker seemingly happened overnight when a chance festival screening of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) got his creative juices flowing. That film was made on a tiny budget and launched a hundred indie imitators. Smith realised he could make a film if he really put this mind to it, and after a brief stint at the Vancouver Film School, he decided to make a picture at the shop where he worked. Selling goods by day and shooting at night, the idea proved to be a canny one. This film speaks to Generation X’ers and Americana like few studio films ever have. There’s also a lot of joy in seeing a film partly funded by a man who sold his formidable comic book collection to get it on the screen. No-one here is a professional, but like Dante, they’re all trying their best to make up for their no-frills existence. It really fucking works.
Never has a film about nothing been about so much, at least on a superficial level. Plot points, if you can even call them that, exist only to setup humorous dialogue exchanges that have entered the geek lexicon. The film is more like a string of vignettes than a real narrative, signified by inter-title on-screen watchwords ranging from “Vilification” to “Denouement.” It spells out that, while the film may be crude, it has a sharp mind powering it. Though ostensibly a comedy, the final script for Clerks. also has traces of Smith’s original intentions for a more Lynchian affair, with offbeat moments like Walter Flanagan’s guidance counselor sifting through cartons of eggs to find “the perfect dozen,” or a roofer lending peculiar insight into the construction of the Death Star during a conversation about Return of the Jedi. Let’s not even spoil the bit with the dead body.
Smith also gets to the heart of why serving the public is a thankless task, with many gut-busting bits like the video store customer asking for a film “with that guy who was in that movie that came out last year,” or Randal ordering a plethora of foul-sounding porn titles in earshot of a mother and child. It all smacks of truth. In fact, the frank sexual discussions still have the capacity to take you by surprise, and it’s the primary reason for why the MPAA wanted to slap it with an NC-17 back in the day. Fans only need to hear the number “37” to grin from ear-to-ear.
There’s also the presence of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) lurking around in front of the store selling drugs and generally being up to no good. They are the Greek chorus wheeled in to spice up the comedy and present a world outside of Quick Stop. Their scenes, particularly in a moment featuring a boom-box and some typically 90s dancing, have become the most enduring icons of Smith’s career. It’s interesting to revisit the pair as they were originally, with all their indie grit intact. They would become cartoon foils in the considerably bigger-budgeted Mallrats, but here, they’re credible (not-so-sober) characters you might encounter on your next trip to Londis.
But we remember Clerks. because of Dante and Randal. This is perhaps one of the better movie friendships because I buy that Randal has given Dante grief for years. O’Halloran and Anderson occupy the roles of Straight Man and Comedian with a knowing relish, and while they are clearly beginners, they give plenty of layers to the duo’s dynamic that has powered two films, a potential third, and an animated series. Randal, in spite of his constant put-downs, clearly cares a lot for Dante. He might even be a little jealous that the poor schlub has two women fighting over him, Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer). They’ll always be there for each other, but that doesn’t mean they have to like it.
The actors also deliver the verbose exchanges back-and-forth so fast that you can’t help but praise them for doing the immensely quotable material justice. Smith’s script is such a constant delight that the film’s shortcomings are all forgiven. The inconsistent performances, spotty editing and negative grain only add up to a film that is hard-wired into the public’s consciousness. You’ll recognise a lot about Clerks. in your own life, and that’s probably why Miramax, after the film went down a storm at Sundance, purchased the flick and gave it a limited theatrical release. This tiny little movie, which didn’t even cost $30,000, later went on to make $3 million. Smith might have been inspired by Slacker, but in turn, Clerks. would inspire an entire generation to pick up cameras and shoot low-fi masterpieces of their own. Those turned off by low-budget fare and black-and-white visuals might not “get it,” but they can’t take that achievement away from a comedy film that is just as relevant now as it was 1994.
Clerks. is one in a million.
“What was better? Jedi or The Empire Strikes Back?”
- The Clerks. logo is made out of letters cut from various magazines and food items. The C is from Cosmopolitan Magazine, the L is from Life, the E is from Rolling Stone, the R is from Ruffles potato chips, the K is from Clark Bar and the S is from a Goobers box.
- As Kevin Smith was only allowed to film outside of business hours, and because bright enough lights couldn’t be afforded, the plot included an explanation for the shutters being always down (chewing gum in the locks).
- Smith’s childhood friend Walter Flanagan appears in several different roles. Due to this, Smith later said that Flanagan was the Lon Chaney of the 90s.
- Randal and the “Happy Scrappy Hero Pup” lady are not actually in the room at the same time. Jeff Anderson refused to read the list of porno movies in front of her, and particularly in front of the child (although the reaction shots of the lady were obtained by reading the list to her).
- Willem Black was supposed to be a collegiate type, but the original actor for the role, Dan Hapstak, changed his mind and opted out of the role. Scott Mosier was then cast, but since he didn’t look collegiate, they reworked the character into an idiot man child.
- Despite having almost no violence in the film (with the exception of the fight between Dante and Randal), it was originally given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA based solely on its graphic dialogue. Miramax hired attorney Alan M. Dershowitz (of the O.J. Simpson defence team) who successfully petitioned the MPAA to lower its rating to R without any cuts.
- Silent Bob is not so silent. In Clerks. and Mallrats, he speaks only once, but in Dogma, he speaks twice. In Chasing Amy he has quite a long speech while in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he becomes almost chatty.
- A lost scene, set in the funeral parlour Dante and Randal visit, was later animated in the style of the Clerks cartoon and was featured in the 10th Anniversary DVD set and Blu-ray.
- Smith directed the music video for Soul Asylum’s song, “Can’t Even Tell” which closes the film (below). It marked the first time he was paid to film anything, and the first time we saw the Quick Stop in colour. Miramax paid for the film’s rock soundtrack, which also includes tracks from Alice in Chains and Bad Religion.