Thursday, August 17, 2006

Clerks (1994) and Clerks II (2006)

It has been well recorded that the mid-nineties are best known for sudden popularity of independent cinema, but independent from what? The term "indie" is as slippery when applied to films as it is to music. The studio at the vanguard of this "revolution" was Miramax, which was long a subsidiary of Disney, and as for the "revolution" itself, it unleashed more painful and derivative Pulp Fiction clones than it did anything truly revolutionary. It was bled dry, turned inside out, repackaged, and sold back to the masses until it became the paradigm of unhipness. This seems to be the nature of all revolutions, from the Soviets to the Sixties; the bullshit always comes full circle.

While it's easy to be cynical of all so-called revolutions in hindsight, what one can't be cynical about is the intense enthusiasm audiences had for the so-called independent cinema of this era. To every person who ever dreamed of being in the director's chair, it seemed like all one needed to have the new hit movie was a vast knowledge of pop culture, the ability to write pages worth of rambling dialogue, and a Visa card.

Kevin Smith was one of the directors that exemplified that DIY spirit. A film school dropout, Smith financed his first movie Clerks with credit cards and loans from his family and further reduced his budget by using his job at a convenience store as the primary set. His gamble paid off tremendously. Smith's ode to arrested adulthood connected with audiences and put him at the top of independent film royalty along with Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Robert Rodriguez.

It's easy to see why Clerks was a hit; its anomie connected solidly with the Generation X demographic. But more than just accurately skewering the nineties "slacker" zeitgeist, Clerks has become a metaphor for Kevin Smith's career. While his contemporaries expanded and matured their styles, Smith has used the last decade to present to us to variations on his adolescent, potty mouthed "Askewniverse".

Because he's been stuck in this particular dimension of New Jersey for so long, the fact that Smith made a Clerks II seems more inevitable than crass. Smith is as stuck in the universe he's created as his characters are stuck in their dead end McJobs. Clerks II barely feels like sequel, but that's mostly because Kevin Smith's films all seem to run together anyway.

When stood up next to each other, the first Clerks comes off better than the second. Most people will say "the first movie just had more charm." While that's undoubtedly true (and I submit that Clerks is probably Kevin Smith's best film because of this), defining what "charm" is is a more difficult matter. The best way is to think of it in terms of punk rock; it's at its best when the guitars are slightly out of tune, the singer sounds like he's strung out on heroin, and the songs are recorded on a boom box purchased at a pawnshop. Despite the rough edges, the mess sounds more glorious and impassioned than when the band gets signed, gets time in a professional studio, and the singer goes through rehab.

Clerks details one day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) a character whose name comes pre-loaded with allusions to Hell. Called into his job at a New Jersey convenience store on his day off, Dante deals with the typical humiliations of the work day: shady bosses, annoying customers, loitering drug dealers, and friends who always want to mooch free Gatorade. His best friend Randall (Jeff Anderson) works at the video store next door which he frequently closes so he can talk with Dante and borrow his car to rent hermaphrodite porn from a better video store. Spitting on customers and selling cigarettes to children, it requires some extreme suspension of disbelief to imagine how Randall could hold *any* job. Still, he is an appealing character; the ultimate Id for anyone who has ever worked in the service industry.

Besides the usual workaday annoyances, Dante also has to deal with choosing between two women; his girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who has a predilection towards the act of "snowballing", or his ex-girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer) who he still talks with on the phone and is distressed to find out is engaged to a fellow with the unfortunate name of "Sang" (but more often referred to as simply "The Asian Design Major"). It's with this thread that we see Smith's uneasy method of mixing the poignant with the profane. While the torn-between-two-girlfriends plot only really serves to illuminate Dante's maddening wishy-washiness, it only slows the movie down in a few spots, and doesn't engage in the painful sentimentality that would have ground a film like Clerks to a halt.

Clerks is a low-low budget film. It cost more to license the music (an uninspired selection of mid nineties alt-rock) than to get the film in the can. Its grainy black and white, 16mm look screams pretension, as do the occasional title cards that pop up, with words like "Perspicacity" and "Catharsis". Despite this, Clerks is aimed more at the frat house than art house. Kevin Smith has never been a particularly visual director; the majority of his set-ups could be replicated on any multicamera sitcom. Still, considering that the majority of the movie takes place in the single setting of the convenience store, Smith gets enough mileage to make it look, if not inspired, then not painful.

Acting wise, the film is similarly amateurish. While the leads get the job done well enough (with Jeff Anderson's Randall being particularly hilarious at times) the rest of the cast looks confused trying to get their mouths around the reams of dialogue Kevin Smith throws at them. It can be rough since "talk" is pretty much all the characters do. Despite the often clunky delivery, dialogue is clearly the star of the show. A few sequences are clunkers. While Smith is clearly at home when the tone is crude ("What's snowballing?") he's less adept at getting subtler ideas across through words. If you need to use the bathroom during the film, do it whenever Dante starts talking about love life. Similarly, I'm less enamored of the Death Star Contractors monologue than many people are. It is neither profound nor particularly funny and feels like more of an attempt to name-check one of the director's obsessions than to illuminate a point.

Clerks is also the first appearance of Jay and Silent Bob, the characters that Smith uses to tie all his "Askewniverse" movies together. In Clerks, they are neither as funny as they were in Dogma, nor as grating as they were in Mallrats. Jason Mewes can be one funny motherfucker at times, in spite of the fact that he is quite obviously stoned during all his scenes (note to all aspiring comedians, humor is best watched stoned, not performed.) This is clear if you listen to the director commentary, where Mewes is clearly wasted in the recording booth. Kevin Smith's Silent Bob is much better in this movie than in all his other appearances, if only because he doesn't subject us to his overwrought facial expressions that look like a sugar hyped kindergartener playing charades. Note to Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino: you are not actors. Stay behind the camera where you belong.

On pretty much every DVD version of Clerks in print, the original ending where an armed robber kills Dante can be found in the deleted scenes. Kevin Smith was wise to excise this unnecessarily bleak ending, which was clearly aimed to make what happened before somehow more profound. While I'm no fan of tacked on happy endings, tacked on depressing ones work no better. Despite its odes to slackerdom, Clerks is hardly nihilism by way of nachos. It finds a lot of humor in its claustrophobic setting and in the conversations of bored twentysomethings. Its point is ultimately that wherever you are isn't nearly as bad as you think it is.

Clerks is certainly not the type of movie that screams for a sequel. After all, there's not much about the lives of minimum wage workers that the first film doesn't cover. While Clerks II doesn't have the same grungy attitude as the first film, enough thought and care has gone into it for it not to feel like a crass, cynical cash-in for a director quickly becoming starved of ideas.

Clerks II picks up approximately a decade after the first film. After the Quik Stop and video store burn down in a freak accident, the laterally mobile Dante and Randall move to jobs at the Askewniverse's resident fast food chain Mooby's. This change in setting doesn't animate the film much. The first Clerks sold the reality of its characters' workday since Smith was a clerk himself while shooting the movie. It's obvious that Smith has never worked in fast food since Clerks II doesn't have quite the same minimum wage authenticity of the first, if only for the noticable lack of Mexicans working in the kitchen.

While the setting is different, the conflicts are roughly the same. Dante is again torn between two women and two possible branches in his life; his ex-cheerleader fiancee Emma (Kevin Smith's real life wife Jennifer Schwalbach) and a life managing her father's car wash in Florida, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), his manager at Mooby's he's been having an affair with. Clerks II doesn't present this as much of a choice (after all, who is gonna turn down some Rosario Dawson action? Her tits were the only things that got me through to the end of Alexander). We don't get to see enough of Dante's fiancee to really have much of an opinion of her, and thus the conflict feels lopsided. Then again, Mrs. Smith's acting here is particularly weak, so perhaps more of her character would not have benefited the movie.

In the meantime, when Randall is not insulting customers or doing some generation gap inspired arguing with his virginal Christian co-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman) about the merits of The Lord of the Rings vs Star Wars, he is busy trying to arrange Dante's bachelor/going-away party. While the MPAA erroneously slapped the first Clerks with an NC-17 rating for language (it was later appealed down to an R) what is puzzling with Clerks II is how it avoided that dreaded rating. Clerks II works overtime to be shocking, and while I'm hardly a prude, it does create problems for the movie. The donkey show scene at the end probably sounded like the most incredible thing to grace the silver screen this year on paper, but it is rooted in a fundamental miscalculation: the scene is guaranteed to send the easily offended running towards the door (provided they survived the "ass to mouth" discussion in the beginning) and those who aren't offended by the idea of "interspecies romance" have likely seen the act in numerous video clips on the Internet, and will find the movie's depiction of it relatively tame.

Clerks II avoids being the annoying fan service of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Jay and Silent Bob do make an appearance that is notable only for its totally non-sequitor Silence of the Lambs in-joke) but still trots out the Kevin Smith regulars. A haggard Ben Affleck makes a pointless cameo, as does Jason Lee, sporting his My Name Is Earl grease and facial hair, as well as a popped collar that screams "douchebag". The only noticeable difference between the camera work in Clerks vs. Clerks II is the fact that it's in color and Kevin Smith can afford a crane. Then again, flat visuals are practically his calling card at this point, though I could have done without the swirling camera during the argument behind Mooby's, which is nearly as vomit inducing as Irreversible or The Blair Witch Project. And perhaps I'm a joyless cynic, but did we really need a Jackson 5 song and dance number in the middle of the film?

For all its flaws though, Clerks II does have some virtues. Like the first film, dialogue is the star of the show, and Clerks II's script feels tighter, more polished, and the monologues are just as memorable as its predecessor. Also, the dramatic core of Clerks II feels more real than it did in the first film. Kevin Smith feels more comfortable with giving his characters arcs. While Randall is always a joy to watch as the resident wise-ass, he also gets the most poignant moment in the film. Rosario Dawson, probably the most prolific actor of the cast, is also appealing and animates whatever scene she's in.

The virtues and vices or Clerks II nearly cancel each other out, leaving the viewer at an uneasy stalemate of "love it" or "hate it". Kevin Smith movies are always a mixed bag of the inspired and the godawful. Clerks II is not the best film in his canon, but it's not his worst either. Perhaps this is the last of his Askewniverse movies. I certainly hope it is. Whatever flaws Clerks II may have, it is a more dignified coda to the series than the wretched Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I guess I'm just a Kevin Smith diehard ... While I'll concede Clerks is superior to Clerks II in almost every way, I still thoroughly enjoyed the sequel, mostly because it was still very funny, especially Randal's rather unfortunate "Porch Monkey" tirade

3:13 PM  
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11:03 PM  

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