I won’t lie: I am not much of a Kevin Smith completist. Prior to this week’s Movie Klub screening I had seen only Dogma and the latter two-thirds of Mallrats. I liked both of those films a fair amount, so I was expecting big things from my first viewing of Smith’s 1994 debut, the micro-budgeted Clerks. To put it bluntly, I was let down.
Dante (Brian O’Halloran) is called in on a Saturday morning to cover for one of his fellow employees at the local convenience store. It shares a building with a now-extinct beast: a store that rents VCR tapes, staffed by the abrasive Randall (Jeff Anderson). Clerks follows Dante and Randall through the length of that Saturday, through the various strange adventures and customers that they encounter.
Of course, the two most famous characters from Clerks are Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), the small-time drug dealers who ply their trade outside the store. Although O’Halloran and Anderson returned for Clerks II and Clerks: The Animated Series and they have appeared in small roles in the other films that make up Smith’s View Askew-niverse, only Jay and Bob have made it into non-Clerks movies as themselves, to the point where they had a whole movie made about them (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).
Therein lies the biggest problem I had with Clerks: Jay and Silent Bob, who have something like 15 minutes of screen time out of 90, are much more interesting than its two most important characters. Dante spends the entire movie making bad decisions: with his love life, with his “career,” with the goofy plans that Randall tries to rope him into. His girlfriend (Marilyn Ghigliotti) seems the much more complicated person, even though she’s in the film mainly to be taken for granted by Dante.
And Randall? He might well be a sociopath, casually despising every stranger he meets and showing complete indifference every time he does dirt to his friends. The film culminates in a big argument between Dante and Randall, but after it’s over I didn’t feel like anyone had learned anything. Even though I have had crappy jobs like these two guys have, and even though I caught every single movie reference they made, they weren’t a fun time for the entire 90 minutes.
The knock on Smith for much of career is that he’s not a big visual stylist (I haven’t seen his latest, Red State, but I’ve read reviews saying it’s his best-looking film yet). Clerks might be the start of that knock: it doesn’t look too special, save for its black-and-white photography. The camera is in the most obvious location for every shot, and on the whole it just seems like Smith isn’t doing anything visually to sell the problems that Dante is facing in his life.
According to lore, Smith made the film for just $27,575 by maxing out several credit cards, selling most of his comic book collection, and shooting in the actual convenience store where he was working at the time.* So it’s easy to say that the film looks very basic because it didn’t have much of a choice. However, that would discredit many filmmakers who have turned out visually impressive films on budgets as small as this one or even smaller: Robert Rodriguez with El Mariachi, or Shane Carruth with Primer. The fact is that Clerks values its dialogue much more than its visuals.
There’s a reason for that: it’s pretty damned good dialogue. Consider the justifiably famous scene where Dante and Randall talk about whether innocent contractors were killed when the Death Star was destroyed in Return of the Jedi. I don’t especially like the look of the scene, or the way that O’Halloran and Anderson deliver the dialogue, but still it’s impossible not to laugh. Clerks connected with a whole generation of people who were living lives like Dante’s and Randall’s, but not because of how it looked. It was because the screenplay was wired into their thoughts in a way that no Hollywood movies were at the time.
Thus Clerks definitely gets points for dedication and innovation, and I do not deny that it has some laugh-out-loud lines, such as “In a row?!” However there were more than a few moments where I sighed my way through an awkward line delivery, or checked my watch when the heavy dialogue turned into a slog. This was one of the definitive debut films of the 1990s, but like a lot of debuts it leaves something to be desired.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*It’s always hard to tell what part of the lore is true and what isn’t. In the cases of micro-budget films like Clerks, El Mariachi, The Blair Witch Project, and Primer, some argue that the quoted budget could not possibly include the costs for film stock, permits to film in certain locations, or in the Clerks case the rights to the various punk songs on the soundtrack, which reportedly pushed the budget up to $230,000. Regardless of the true number, there’s no question that you could have made about five hundred Clerks for the budget of another 1994 hit, True Lies.