Today’s film is one of the big names in 90’s indie cinema and its story is pretty well known among film fans. Made for under $30k, it ended up grossing over $3M just in the cinema alone (and pulling in way more than that in home sales). It launched the career of Kevin Smith and helped change the way that the filmmaking process was looked at. Today’s film is Clerks (and, as a plug, has also been covered over at Jaded Hope).
The first film in Smith’s Jersey Series, Clerks is basically the film that is held up as “the little movie that could” for non-mainstream filmmakers. And because Smith is a big subscriber to the school of Write What You Know, it’s set in a location very familiar to him –a strip mall in suburban New Jersey (and not even a good strip mall – all it has is a convenience store and a shitty video store).
The plot revolves around a day in the life of two convenience store clerks – Dante (Brian O’Halloran), the hapless and hopeless clerk at Quik-Stop; and the wisecracking and acerbic Randall (Jeff Anderson), video store monkey at the neighbouring RST Video. During the day, the duo wax lyrical on all manner of subjects, from love, to sex, to shitty customers, to the people working aboard The Death Star and all subjects in between. In addition to our heroes, we also have our first introduction of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) as well as Dante’s girlfriend, Veronica and ex-girlfriend, Caitlin.
Even though he is not even supposed to be there that day, Dante still gets strongarmed by his boss into coming in – and spends the day whining about it, as it’s clearly a job he’s doing just to make ends meet. Randall, on the other hand, makes no bones as to how much he hates his job and the customers it draws in. To prove how mind numbing and unfulfilling their jobs are, during the day the close the stores multiple times, to go to a funeral, to play hockey and even to go rent movies from a good video store.
Yes, long before Clerks was made people had been making and distributing films on a shoestring budget, going into debt to see their dreams become a reality. And hell, even in the few years before he hit the scene, so-called Indie Filmmakers were getting themselves known. But, Clerks was the first major time that the aspects of Indie Filmmaking had come together to strike a chord with more mainstream audiences – naturalistic dialogue, intimate locations, a plot that didn’t feel like it had been churned out after being approved by a committee.
Now, for a bit of controversy, as much as I dig on this film and can watch it pretty much whenever, I do find long stretches of it to be quite boring and even a little forced. As clever as a lot of the dialogue is (no, not in terms of witty wordplay, rather it’s more pop-culture centered which, for the time, was a breath of fresh air), some of it definitely comes off as clunky and even in a couple of places, a little WSD. For example, following a mixup that leads to Caitlin getting intimate with a corpse (a situation that I have always found to be pretty clunky in and of itself), in the ambulance as both her and the corpse are being removed, the ambulance driver says, “what kind of convenience store are you running here?” I am also not a huge fan of the gimmick of breaking the film up into chapters by the use of a big word that makes me feel that all Smith did was open a dictionary and find something vaguely covering what he wanted to do in that segment (I later found out that this is exactly what he did).
Don’t let that fool you, though, I don’t hate the film by any stretch. I just find that it has been surpassed by pretty much everything that Smith put out afterwards, as well it should be, given that Clerks was Smith’s first film. Plus, the main performances are all pretty likeable, even when they are being obnoxious douche bags. Both O’Halloran and Anderson are the kind of guys that you feel like you could hang out with for a while and just shoot the shit, and that makes for two darn good performances. And seeing Jason Mewes barely out of being a kid, you can see how he and Smith would become such fast friends that Smith even went to the wall for the kid during his long struggle with various addictions.
Seeing what Smith came up with for his first film, and just how strongly it resonated with people, it’s no shock that he picked up a LOT of very loyal fans, a lot who have stuck with him to this day (myself included). All in all, given what has come from Smith since then, especially within the Jersey Series, I feel that Clerks is possibly the weakest film in the series. It’s a nice introduction to some well loved characters, but some now-clunky dialogue and happenings push it to the lower rungs overall.