Starring: Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes
Director: Kevin Smith
The first film of writer/director/editor/star Kevin Smith's career, Clerks is a watershed film for the 90's indie film scene, following in the footsteps of Richard Linklater's Slacker to help bring indie film a wider and more varied audience. When it comes to the film, opinion generally falls into one of two camps. Either you A) think it a hilariously brilliant ode to DIY filmmaking, or B) think it a poorly filmed, poorly acted, overly praised amateur movie.
I mostly fall into the first camp, but can't deny anything said by the other camp. Clerks IS a poorly filmed, poorly acted amateur movie. Smith filmed the movie after taking a semester of film school by maxing out several credit cards, getting family money, and selling his comic book collection, with a budget of around $27,000. It looks like a $27,000 movie. In fact, it may look like it cost less than that. Smith's directorial style is to set the camera down, and let the actors play out the scene. He does a lot of long two shots of people talking, not so much as a style choice, but more because as a director, Kevin Smith is a great writer. The actors in the film are all amateurs, being either friends or family of Smith, or recruited from New Jersey Community College drama clubs. And, often, it shows.
I can't deny any of these flaws in the movie, nor do I feel the need to. Because what this film does well, it does really well, making it easy to push past the flaws and enjoy what it has to offer. Once you take what Clerks has to offer in, all its many flaws become quirky touches that help the film feel like a personal discovery. Primarily, what the film has to offer is the comedic dialogue and situations crafted by Smith and his cast of characters. The movie is laugh out loud funny, offering original, frank, and astute observations on the customer service industry, pop culture, sexual politics, and the role of Generation X in the world. The dialogue is delightfully vulgar and infinitely quotable, the situations are bizarre and fresh, and the observations should strike a chord in anyone who has ever worked in customer service or has suffered from the post-high school, early twenties malaise of those in the film.
Beneath the comedy of the movie lurks the true brilliance of the film. It is a very funny movie, accented by the superb comedic performance by Jeff Anderson as the smart-assed Randal Graves, scourge of the video renter, and the first appearance of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith). Beyond that, what gives Clerks its true power and cult classic status is its spot-on portrayal of the ennui and apathy that has afflicted our generation. Randal may be a hero to anyone who has every worked behind a till in their life, but Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) is the central figure of the story. He is completely unable to affect any real change in his life, for no other reason than the fact that he'd rather whine about how bad his life is than to actually take the relatively simple steps it would require of him to change it. The character so perfectly nails the prevailing attitude amongst many of my generation, with Dante's constant whining, self-pitying, and waiting for the universe to present him with his reward, that I recently found the movie a little hard to watch, since it reminded me too much of character traits and people that truly annoy me in real life.
Too many people miss this key message in the movie, that one needs to "shit or get off the pot" if they're so unsatisfied with their station in life. Which is unfortunate, because beyond the Return of the Jedi discussion, beyond the idiotic customers, beyond even the 37 dicks, it is this observation and portrayal that makes Clerks great. Sure, it's a funny comedy; I love "Olaf-- metal face" as much as the next guy, and one can easily enjoy it based on the humour alone. But this collection of quirky characters and comedy vignettes has something more to say if one looks beneath the surface, something our generation would do well to take to heart.