By James Slaymaker.
The quality of Clerks III hardly matters. It is, by all conventional standards of critical assessment, a fiasco – a dramatically inert, visually flat, poorly paced mess from start to finish. Yet, for those of us susceptible to Smith’s charms, the handmade, ‘let’s put on a show’ quality is infectious enough that all of these shortcomings can be overlooked.”
Looking back, it’s genuinely remarkable to think that there was ever a time when Kevin Smith was considered a vital voice in the landscape of American independent cinema on a par with Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater. Catapulted to international success in 1994 with the release of Clerks, Smith was hailed in many critical circles as a poet of the quotidian, an astute chronicler of Generation X malaise, and an incisive analyst of straight male neurosis. Of course, the much-publicised story behind the making of Clerks was just as essential to the film’s appeal as the text itself: made on a shoestring budget cobbled together from the Smith family’s personal savings (along with a hefty amount of credit card debt), shot entirely within the convenience store in which Smith still worked as an employee during production, and starring nonprofessional actors – some of whom were personal friends with Smith before the concept of Clerks had been born – Clerks exemplified an infectious, DIY-approach to production which inspired many aspiring filmmakers across the decades which followed. And in capturing the purgatorial existence of two pop culture-savvy, under-ambitious twentysomethings, plunging head-first into the humiliations, frustrations and anxieties of minimum wage work, Clerks tapped into an aspect of American life rarely depicted on screen, and helped to popularise the cultural phenomenon of the ‘slacker’. The film’s technical limitations (the flat, black-and-white colour palette forced upon Smith due to budgetary restrictions; the often-stilted performances; the reliance on unmotivated pillow-shots to compensate for a lack of usable footage) oddly compliments the film’s interest in depicting the tedium and impotence which defines the lives of the central characters, and it seemed, for a while, as though Smith was a preternatural talent with a mature vision who would hone his style over subsequent projects.
Over the remainder of the 90s, Smith retained a high level of critical goodwill even as he failed to recapture the high of his debut film’s success. Mallrats, a studio-produced comedy which utilises a similar premise to Clerks but weds it to the tropes of mainstream teen comedies, was largely disregarded as a minor misstep by a young filmmaker momentarily led astray. Chasing Amy, on the other hand, was embraced as a return to Smith’s roots, and Dogma was celebrated as a project which, though uneven in places, expressed a desire on the filmmaker’s part to push his boundaries and critically explore complex thematic material. The extent of the praise heaped upon Smith during this period should not be understated: in the pages of Film Comment, Andrew Sarris declared him ‘The Next Scorsese’; Quentin Tarantino, in an appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, called Chasing Amy the best film of 1997; several of Smith’s features premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
It’s hard to think of another filmmaker currently working who has fallen so far from critical grace as Smith has over the past 20 years. Any attempt by Smith to move away from the View Askewniverse (the name given by Smith to the interconnected series of New Jersey-set films which feature recurring characters, settings and scenarios) has resulted in catastrophic critical and commercial failure, whether it be his forays into mainstream studio comedy (Jersey Girl, Cop Out) or his bizarre experiments with high-concept horror (Red State, Tusk). As a result, Smith – now in his early 50s – has found himself repeatedly returning to the characters he devised in the infancy of his career, despite officially ‘retiring’ the View Askewniverse way back in 2001. If Smith was once hailed as the future of American indie cinema, he now seems resolutely out of step with modern artistic and cultural currents. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, a belated sequel to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back comprised almost entirely of in-jokes and references to the films Smith made during the early stage of his career, failed to make even half of its already-minuscule budget back at the box office, and generated no fanfare outside the bubble of diehard Smith aficionados. This doesn’t seem to have bothered Smith, though, who now seems content to spend the foreseeable future producing rehashes of the movies that made him famous for an increasingly dwindling fanbase of dedicated supporters – in addition to Clerks III, Smith has announced that his next project will be Twilight of the Mallrats, a project which revisits the characters from a film Smith once publicly apologised for.
Smith’s full-fledged regression into the comfort zone of his 90s output may sound depressing, but there is a strange ramshackle appeal to his late work. No longer trying to broaden his horizons, appeal to the critical establishment, or keep up to date with moviemaking trends, Smith now simply pumps out shaggy love letters to his fans and his collaborators. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot and Clerks III feel like they’re pitched somewhere between sequels, home movies, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. In each film, a threadbare narrative is put in place merely as a vehicle for Smith to revisit fan-favourite moments from his early work, with cameos from Smith’s associates sprinkled throughout. Our immersion in the diegesis is constantly disrupted as Smith redirects our attention to either some other property in his body of work, or to events from his own life/career. Smith has always been a subpar visual stylist, but Jay and Silent Bob Reboot and Clerks III treat their technical ineptitude as a source of pride: images are captured in flat high-definition digital with no attention paid to composition or lighting; continuity errors and jarringly mismatched reverse shots are frequent; performances vacillate wildly in tone from moment-to-moment. It’s telling that Smith accompanied the release of both films with roadshows tours in which they would be followed by a lengthy Q&A and opportunity to meet the cast – in each case, the screening itself was treated as merely one element in a larger line of attractions. And it must be noted that, for all his faults, Smith has been adept at cultivating a fiercely loyal fanbase. From his podcasts to his social media feeds to his brazenly candid memoir, Smith has committed to making his followers feel privy to every detail of his personal life. This unflinching openness is compounded by his eagerness to communicate directly with his supporters, either through the View Askewniverse Message Board or through his regular attendance at fan meetups. The number of celebrities in any field who interact with their fans with such candour and regularity is incredibly small; smaller still is the number of famous people who have done so for such a lengthy period. Smith was one of the first big-name creators to enthusiastically embrace the participatory, dialogical nature of the internet to bring him closer to his supporters, and one could convincingly make the case that he has had a greater influence on vlogger culture than he has on cinema. An essential part of Smith’s success in building his brand is his ability to cast himself as a perpetual outsider – a regular dude who just so happened to strike it lucky in his career but is essentially still a fanboy who has the same interests, obsessions, and insecurities as his supposed. Smith’s inability to assimilate into Hollywood has contributed to his outsider status, heightening the impression that he is just a fanboy with whom his fans can identify despite their differences in wealth and fame.
All of this is to say that the quality of Clerks III hardly matters. It is, by all conventional standards of critical assessment, a fiasco – a dramatically inert, visually flat, poorly paced mess from start to finish. Yet, for those of us susceptible to Smith’s charms, the handmade, ‘let’s put on a show’ quality is infectious enough that all of these shortcomings can be overlooked. Its storyline is preposterous, the tone is discordant, and none of its constituent parts fit together into anything resembling a coherent whole. It’s also sincere, personal, frequently hilarious and, at times, oddly touching. I’d take it over a superficially slick, designed-by-committee studio comedy any day. The premise itself is astonishing in the boldness of its self-referentiality. The film picks up 16 years after Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) purchased the Quick Stop convenience store with his lifelong friend Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) using money loaned to them by local drug-dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who now operate the video-store-turned-weed- dispensary next door. After a particularly stressful day at the Quick Stop, Randal suffers a near-fatal heart attack. As he lies in the hospital, Randal becomes consumed with regret over the decades he’s wasted stacking shelves, watching movies and making wisecracks. Seeking a way to leave his mark on the world, Randal decides to make a movie about his life at the Quick Stop, starring his colleagues as thinly veiled versions of themselves and incorporating real-world interactions he’s had with enraging customers. Anybody who’s followed Smith’s career closely will know that this plot synthesises two different events in the filmmaker’s life: the much-storied production of his debut feature, and the severe heart attack he suffered in 2018, an experience that Smith credits with finally giving him the determination to get the project off the ground after multiple failed attempts. The bulk of the film focuses on Randal (acting as writer, director and lead actor) and Dante (acting as producer and co-star) as they re-enact scenes from the original Clerks, or dramatize behind-the-scenes incidents that Smith has already discussed at length in interviews and Q&As. The film is packed with details that will be of interest only to diehard fans, and will undoubtedly alienate anybody else: the movie Randal is making is called ‘Inconvenience’, which was the original title of Smith’s script for Clerks before a friend advised him to change it before production; the crew plan to shoot a scene in which Dante’s character is shot dead by an armed robber, alluding to an alternate ending which Smith was advised to cut by Miramax; the final shot of the film parallels the final image of Clerks II, but here it’s Smith’s daughter playing a customer who fruitlessly searches through a line of milk cartons to find the perfect specimen, rather than his mother. To further collapse the gulf between life and art, whenever rushes from Randal’s film are shown within the diegesis of Clerks III, it’s actual footage from the original Clerks.
The fact that Anderson and O’Halloran are over 50 years old in the diegesis of Clerks III, but appear in their 20s in the footage presented as being the product of the shoot is never acknowledged. Neither is the fact that it would make no sense for a fame-hungry, pop culture-savvy guy like Randal to shoot a movie on black-and-white film stock in the year 2022 when shooting on digital would be far cheaper, easier, and likely to open his project to wider audiences. In 1994, it made perfect sense for Smith to capture the humdrum existence of minimum wage work through the medium of the feature film, but surely, within the less centralised infrastructure of modern media culture somebody like Randal would turn to blogging, podcasting, or recording video diaries as a means of expression. That Smith was one of the leading figures in shaping the participatory, perpetually-open online mediascape which make a contemporary minimum wage worker far less likely to make a movie like Clerks is an irony sadly lost on him, and it’s this inability to be genuinely introspective prevents Clerks III from being truly self-reflective. But Smith will be Smith. It would be naive to watch a Smith film in the year 2022 and expect self-interrogation or a desire to wrestle critically with contemporary social, political, or cultural issues. Once you accept that Smith has retreated well and truly into a hermetic world of private jokes and self-mythology, there is something deeply comforting about sinking back – time and time again – into the View Askewniverse.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book is Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann (Telos Publishing). His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.