Wednesday, August 7, 2019

I Finally Watched Clerks

How did I miss this in 1994?

How I Got to Clerks

For that, you'll have to read the introduction to this series. Screw it. I'll save you a click and post it here as well.

For twenty five years now, Kevin Smith has spoken about his love of geek culture. In the 1990s, it was his films and his comics. In the 2000s, he held court during live events where he could entertain an audience just by talking about the things that he--and they--loved. When podcasting became a thing, Smith effortlessly moved into that field, broadening his brand and reaching an even wider audience.

Somehow, I missed all of it.

As I look back on it now in 2019, I still can't figure out how. I’m in Smith's wheelhouse. We like the same stuff. We’re basically the same age, so the pop culture we consumed matched. Star Wars changed our way of thinking. Batman is our favorite comic book hero. And we both tear up seemingly when the wind blows a certain way.

But he didn’t land on my radar until 2012. Even then, it was only a side mention on a separate podcast and only because Mark Hamill was a guest on a then unknown-to-me podcast Smith hosted called Fat Man on Batman. I listened to the Hamill episodes and I was hooked on the Fat Man podcast. So hooked that for these last seven years, I’ve known Smith as a podcaster and occasional director of DC's television shows on The CW. In fact it was his directorial debut on “The Flash” that serves as the first visual medium thing by Smith I saw. I've written about him often here on the blog. Heck, I've even seen him live and had a wonderful time.

But I've never seen any of the movies.

Why Not Start?

One of the main things Smith has been talking about this year is his new movie Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It's coming out in the fall, according to his most recent interview with the Empire Film podcast. The hosts--and just about any audience member in his live podcasts--cheer with glee at the prospect. So, like I did with Harry Potter in 2007 (I had not read the books and decided to read the first six leading up to the publication of last novel), I decided to watch all of Kevin Smith's movies so I'll be able to watch Reboot when it lands in theaters.

How I Prepped

I didn’t. I did no research. I didn’t read up on any Wikipedia entry ahead of time. There are a few mentions in these reviews about stopping the process of reading Wikipedia while watching the movies, but I stopped cold with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Heck, I didn’t even watch any of the trailers until after I watched the film. I wanted the movie-watching experience to be as pure as possible.

And I never went back into an older review and revised anything I'd written in the moment on an aspect of a character or situation that a later film touched on. These are all reviews I wrote after viewing one movie and completed before I started watching the next.

But even I knew about Jersey Girl bombing. I knew Tusk tanked. Smith talks about Tusk and Yoga Hosers so much in all of his podcasts that I’ve got a general idea about them. But I’ll wait to weigh in when I get there.

With my days filled with the day job, the other job (I’m a writer and publisher of my own books), being a husband, being a dad, and everything else, I found myself watching these films here and there. On lunch hours for fifty minutes, then at night for the next fifty or so. A few I couldn’t wait to get back to. Others were different.

But I had to start where it all began: in a convenience store in Leonardo, New Jersey.

Clerks' Premise

Clerks is a day-in-the-life movie about two young twentysomethings who are working dead-end jobs. Dante works at the Quick-Stop convenience store, Randal at the video store next door. On his day off, Dante is called in to run the store despite closing the previous evening. When he gets there, he discovers someone shoved chewing gun in the locks keeping the garage-door security gates in place. Thus he has to craft a makeshift sign on a sheet assuring the customers the store is really open.

In real life, Smith worked at that very store, but was only allowed to film at night. Thus the gum conceit explains why there's never any outside light on in the store. Brilliant.

What follows is ninety minutes of Dante encountering all sorts of customers and friends. The film comes across as little vignettes with some clever and witty dialogue delivered by Dante and Randal. I can understand why the world (except me?) ate this up like it did in the mid 1990s. This was the same year, same month, that Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released, also a verbal plethora of witty dialogue. I still can't understand why I never saw Clerks at the time, but these two films certainly come from the same cloth.

The Love is On the Screen

Everything Smith loved is on the screen or in the mouths of his characters. Dante misses his afternoon hockey game so Randal convinces him to close up the shop for a bit and play street hockey on the roof of the building. And, of course, Star Wars. In the years since I discovered Smith, the only scene I'd ever watched was Dante and Randal talking about the independent contractors building the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Namely, their deaths. It is just like discussions I used to have with my friends in those pre-internet days. I can remember three of us talking about time travel in Back to the Future while browsing in a bookstore, and a random stranger joined the conversation. Such were the happenstance things that occurred in those days before we all had our ears stuffed with earbuds, our minds a million miles away and not in the here and now of human contact.

Smith writes Dante's love life into the script. He still pins for his ex, something he realizes when he reads in the newspaper she's getting engaged. His current girlfriend and he have a fight about each other's past sex lives, something that every twentysomething male always does--no matter his own history. Dante talks about it with Randal and others, but it's the surprising source of truth that knifes through the banter and hits home.

Silent Bob Speaks?

After I discovered who Smith was, I also learned his character name, Silent Bob. All throughout the movie, Silent Bob and his friend, Jay, hang out and smoke. They're drug dealers, slackers, like most of the other characters in the film. Jay does all the talking and Bob is true to his name. Imagine my surprise when, toward the end of the movie when Dante's at a mental crossroads, Bob actually speaks. He utters one line, but boy does it ring true: "You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work. Most of 'em just cheat on you.”

Knowing the adult, happily married and happy dad Smith is in the 2010s via podcasts and interviews, it's funny that one of the slackers in Clerks has the presence of mind to clear the cobwebs from Dante's head. And probably half the viewing audience as well. It was almost as if 2019 Smith traveled back in time to 1993 Smith and wrote the line for him, letting him and all Gen Xers know it'll be fine. Just give it time.

But we know that's not true. What is true is that a twenty-three year old first time screenwriter and director looked at the world around him--his present life in a convenience store, his parents' marriage, his father's own unsatisfying job, his friends around him--and knew there was something better in life. He saw a void in contemporary film making--few movies focused squarely on Gen Xers, their lives and they way they talked--and shot for the moon to fill it. He did, and a couple generations of geeks, writers, and filmmakers have Smith to thank.

Experiencing the Movie at Fifty for the First Time

Can you be too old to discover something you should have consumed in your twenties? Maybe.

As I watched Clerks, I chuckled and laughed at the jokes and the way the characters interacted. I've listened to Smith talk this way on podcasts with Ralph Garman, Marc Bernardin, and others so the dialogue wasn't a surprise. But I distinctly remember my reaction to the dialogue in Pulp Fiction so I can understand how and why the folks in Clerks made such an impact. It was one thing to have gangsters (read: adults) John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss the merits of bacon or what a Royale with Cheese actually was, but it was something completely different when Gen Xers do something similar.

I've pondered what I might've thought about Clerks had I watched it in 1994. At the time, I was in grad school, ready to learn how to be a history professor and regale future students about how cool history was. I had gone straight from high school to college to grad school with no break. My membership in the University of Texas Longhorn Band gave me the close-knit group many kids lack when they leave home, so I was spared meaningless jobs and an uncertain future. I had my trajectory in my sights.

Was I too old even then? Surely not. Smith is less than two years younger than me, so our lives more or less experienced the same things. I read comics and science fiction books regularly. I watched just about every genre movie or TV show released. My friends and I talked geek stuff in much the same way Smith's characters did in Clerks. Mostly.

So how did I miss this movie? I have no good answer, but I finally got there. Seeing Clerks as a fifty year old in 2019 did not have nearly the impact it would've had on my twenty-five year old self in 1994. But as a writer, historian, and lover of most things geek, I can watch and appreciate the particular moment in time Clerks showcased, the way it was written and filmed, and look forward to the next installment, Mallrats.

No comments: