First, he showed us life as a clerk. Then, we got insight into the world of mallrats. We chased Amy before finding Dogma. He and his pal struck back before finally bringing us back full circle to life as a clerk. My newest Geek Life Special takes a break from the superhero movies to look at one man’s films that took on a very special meaning for me as I came of age. SIR, let’s talk Kevin Smith Movies!
Geek Life Special #4: Kevin Smith Movies
Ever since I first saw Clerks in 1995, I’ve tried to put into words what Kevin Smith’s run of films set in and around his life in Jersey have met to me. It’s nearly impossible for me, to be honest. When approaching this Geek Life Special, I went back and watched these six films one by one. One thing I can say for certain is that each film carries with it a completely different feel from the other five. To consider these films a part of a true franchise or series isn’t exactly something one can do even if they are generally set in the same location (with a few exceptions) or have characters that are all part of a large nucleus that often finds each person mentioned in other films or related to other characters seen in other films. If you can say these six films all belong to one large “sextology”, then you also have to say this is the strangest franchise in movie history because the only characters outside of Clerks and Clerks II that appear in each film are two usually background characters played by Smith himself and Jason Mewes, but I’ll get into that a little more as we go through each film.
Because trying to put my emotions about these films into words is so difficult, and, as mentioned before, these films each have an entirely different feel than the others in this “series”, I think it’s best to look at each film separately. Unlike the previous specials I’ve done, I’m not so much going to go into the history of each film. I’ll touch upon some of the behind the scenes stuff when I feel it’s necessary, but since Smith is so open about his experiences in making these movies in interviews and in commentary tracks on DVD (everyone who grew up or came of age in the 90s knows how much Clerks cost to make, or how Universal wanted Mallrats to be more like a new Animal House or Porky’s of sorts, or how Smith didn’t always get along with all of his actors and so on), I’d just rather talk about the movies and how it felt to watch them when I did, where I was in life, and what going back to watch them again felt like now that I guess I can be referred to as an adult.
So, buckle up, kiddies, this one might be a long one…
To truly understand how Kevin Smith’s debut affected me, I should probably set the stage of what my life was like when I first saw the movie. When the movie came out in theaters, I had already started my Senior year in high school. During the course of that year of school, I opted to take a year off before starting college. In hindsight, that would be a mistake, but that’s a story for another time. When I graduated in June 1995, I immediately started working at a video store my oldest brother managed. Clerks had been out on video for only a few weeks by then, and it was a co-worker that recommended I watch it. Within the first week of working at the video store, I probably watched that movie three times.
The movie followed a day in the life of two friends and clerks, Dante and Randal. Dante, the main character of the movie, is an angst-ridden man in his early twenties struggling with his place in the world. He’s intelligent, if not an over-analyzer, and stuck in a dead-end job. The movie starts with him being woken up to come into work. What starts as a promise that he’d be able to leave to play a hockey game with his friends turns into working all day and all night. During the course of the day, he’s attacked by a chewing gum salesman lobbying against cigarettes, gets into a fight with his girlfriend over how many guys she’s gone down on, reconnects with an ex-girlfriend that isn’t really good for him, gets a citation for selling a four year old a pack of cigarettes (thanks to his pal, Randal), has to deal with a guy dying on the toilet in the backroom while reading a porn magazine, and has a knockdown, drag out fight with Randal. Most of the movie spends its time having Dante complaining about his place in life while Randal displays the uncanny ability to live life as he wants it regardless of his status as a service provider at a video store. The movie ends with Dante realizing he needs to get his life in order the best he can and find the more positive things to focus on before this day went the way it did. (NOTE: The first Clerks movie also had an extended ending found on laserdiscs of the time and on subsequent DVD releases that had Dante attacked, and killed, by an armed robber, but that ending would later become non-canon since Clerks II brought Dante and Randal back.)
It’s easy to point at some of the dialog as the most memorable moments of the movie. There are references to Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones. There are entire conversations that encompass whole scenes of hilarity (the aforementioned fight between Dante and his girlfriend Veronica about how many men she’s given head to or Randal trapping Dante into an embarrassing admission about something he’s tried to do to pleasure himself are two definite examples). It’s also easy for me to point out how funny the philosophy of customer service in comparison to the stupidity or quirks of the customers. After all, I have worked in the service sector my whole life. What gets me most about this movie is the use of characters and their relationships to each other and their location.
I’ve lived in pretty much the same area all my life. For almost the entirety of my first nine years of life, I lived in a suburb that was separated from Indianapolis by a four-lane street. Even though I’ve lived in Indianapolis for almost the rest of my life since, I’ve never lived more than five miles from that first home. So, to me, there’s nothing I don’t know much about the south side of Indianapolis. The old adage “small world” doesn’t apply to me because my world has been pretty small. People I met later in life knew people I knew earlier in life. All of these Kevin Smith movies have some connection to each other by way of characters. Some have more and some have less, but you can see in this movie alone that just about everyone who comes into the store seems to have some connection or history to another character.
I’ve reached a point in my life in which I find myself more often looking back fondly on experiences and people more than I look forward to things that await me in the future. It’s not an age thing or anything that resembles regret or sadness. I’ve always known that I’m a very sentimental person. The further away I grow from experiences I had in my teens or twenties, the more I look back at those things with adoration. Clerks is definitely one of those things. What’s really interesting is the sheer number of movies that came out between September 1994 and May 1995 (the span of my Senior year) that have true impacts on my life. Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, Tommy Boy, Friday, Billy Madison, and, yes, even Star Trek: Generations (for all the anger I often feel for that movie)… These are movies that have stuck with me all my life. Oddly enough, though, it’s Clerks that gives me the warmest and fuzziest of feelings.
I’m not sure how well the movie plays to generations after mine. I often think of Generation X as the last generation to feel that whiny angst that leads to apathy. We were the first to really feel the college pressure in order to succeed. We were bombarded with messages that would make us feel like complete failures if we didn’t go to college. The funny thing is that we were the slacker generation and we often didn’t take to those warnings all that well until later in life. There were a lot of us that lived life like Dante and Randal in the years immediately following graduation. I was definitely one of those guys. It was like the slackers had a real love-hate relationship with life in general. Subsequent generations seem to handle these feelings of angst much differently, even violently at times. Clerks is definitely a Gen-X movie that was of its time. It spoke to the Gen-Xers like me and also gave hope to young filmmakers that they could make movies during this new golden age of independent movies that Miramax (the “studio” that released Clerks) spearheaded.
Find anyone between the ages of 32 and 40, and you’re going to have a real hard time finding anyone who hadn’t seen Clerks before. They may not have seen it when it was newer, but most of them likely watched the movie before the 90s closed. For me, watching the movie is like going home after being away for a long time. It takes me back to that time when I was feeling the angst of a teenager, but instead of having me soak in those angry feelings, the movie acts as more of a happy memory. No matter the mood I’m in when I put Clerks on the TV, I’m bathed in good emotions and sentimental feelings about what it was like for me to be that 18 year old fresh out of high school with no idea what path I would take toward the future.
The success of Clerks led to Universal courting Smith, likely looking to cash in on his meteoric rise to fame and hoping he could take a small budget from the studio and turn it into a cash cow. There are stories floating around about what type of movie Universal wanted and how much nudity they wanted and how little cursing they wanted (which makes no sense because if you’re going to go for the R rating, why be prudish over language?), but despite all that, Mallrats turns out to be the movie that I find to be the funniest of the bunch. It’s weird, in a sense, because of the over the top sense of humor it uses, but the structure is exactly the same as Clerks.
It’s so much like Clerks, it’s not just another day in the life story of two friends (one stressed about the place his life is in and another who lives his life aggressively stubborn), but the main driving force to the story revolves around a situation first mentioned in Clerks – the death of a girl who was endlessly swimming laps until she died of an aneurysm. In fact, what’s even more connective is that Mallrats takes place the day before the events of Clerks.
So, here’s a movie in which T.S. Quint is going to ask his girlfriend, Brandi, to marry him, but she’s volunteered to help her father on his dating show after the original contestant died (see above). T.S.’s friend Brodie is also having relationship issues as his girlfriend, Rene, leaves him the same morning. So, the two friends head off to the mall, where Brandi’s father’s show will take place, to take their minds off their girl problems. However, everything they run into only escalates the issues until both have to man up and face their problems head on.
What makes this movie peculiar for 1995 is that never before had any movie really explored the comic book fan’s culture. Smith was a huge comic fan growing up and has collected (and, of course, written) comics to this day. Through Jason Lee’s Brodie character, he got to drop as many comic book references has he could – most of which came from popular mid-90s Marvel Comics. The scene in which Brodie has a chance meeting with comic legend Stan Lee, for me, was the most memorable moments from any Kevin Smith movie.
Mallrats also increased the roles of two drug dealing miscreants from Clerks – Jay and Silent Bob played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself. In Clerks, they were the two guys who just hung out in front of the Quick Stop and RST Video stores throughout the course of the day. Here, they start taking on a little more of a cartoon character status. When T.S. and Brodie discover that the dating show Brandi is going on as a replacement “suitorette”, the duo enlist Jay and Silent Bob to stop the show by any means necessary. While this movie would be the start of a tradition of larger roles to them, eventually landing them as the starring duo in a future film, the next would dial them back to only being present in one scene with a harder attitude more reminiscent of their parts in Clerks, but I’ll be getting to the next movie soon enough.
If Clerks still holds the title as my overall favorite Smith movie, Mallrats would be still take the rank as the funniest. It’s over the top in a way that is much more fantastical way than Clerks. For a “mainstream” release, Mallrats is certainly far more in your face about sex, almost to the point of making it as much of a comedic device as the slapstick humor. I consider it a precursor to the heavier R-rated comedies that would come later in the 90s and hit it big in the late 00s and early 10s. I can definitely understand, though, why I would be in the minority (outside the comic geek set) in my love of this movie. It’s considerably lewd and immature, but I definitely think Smith took advantage of that. If this hadn’t been a studio movie, then I’m fairly certain Mallrats would either be a completely different movie or wouldn’t have existed at all. Every time I watch the movie, I can’t help but to think that Kevin Smith was writing and directing the movie from the perspective of “Well, you said this is what you wanted, so here you go, Universal!”
From that angle alone, I love Mallrats.
Chasing Amy (1997)
After the much more raucous Mallrats, Smith decided to do something completely different next. With Smith’s third movie returning to his independent roots, I think it would be a good idea to set the stage for what the 90s were like in cinema. Knowing a fair share of movie history, the 1970s were largely regarded as the golden age of independent film. Even when major studios distributed films made by independent production companies, the decade was largely known for edgy films that spoke to the social climate. It was an angry time with the establishment being bucked in society and an unpopular war in Southeast Asia. I mention this because the “second” golden age was believed to be the 1990s. While the decade wasn’t necessarily as angry as the 70s, a societal change had started to emerge.
The 80s saw a massive AIDS scare. It was believed to be a “gay disease” and a fear had arisen that AIDS would become an massive epidemic from just being in normal contact with a gay male. As more and more information and education became available, a new understanding of alternative lifestyles came about in the 90s. Independent filmmakers would take advantage of being able to tell some of these stories. There were a slew of movies made that featured transgendered people, drag queens, and the gay and lesbian culture.
1997’s Chasing Amy would become Kevin Smith’s most mature film of the series. On the surface, it seems like a normal romantic comedy. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Boy thinks girl likes him. Girl likes girls… A lot. Comic book writer/artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck – a new addition to the Kevin Smith series since playing a total jerk in Mallrats), is in love with underground comic creator Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), but Alyssa is full on gay. As Holden continues to be a close friend to Alyssa, Holden’s best friend, and co-creator of their comic Bluntman and Chronic (a parody of Batman and Robin featuring Jay and Silent Bob as the title characters), Banky (Jason Lee) becomes more and more agitated with their relationship and Holden’s unwavering feelings. Alyssa eventually does fall for Holden, but Banky’s concerns about how the relationship and Holden’s sexual insecurities turn out to be true as the trio reaches a heartbreaking climax leaving all of them changed.
This movie would prove to really be two completely different stories in one. The overall impression you are left with is the more heart-wrenching element of an ending that does not exactly work out well for any of the three major characters and their relationships with one another. However, that’s not to say there aren’t some very funny moments in this movie. The first half of this movie has as much comedy as anything else that Smith has written before or since. The moment Alyssa falls for Holden, though, the movie replaces the comedy with romantic drama.
Without a doubt, this is Kevin Smith’s best script and finest of his six movies in this series, and I’d say it’s his most controversial. While it doesn’t overtly oppose homosexual, or bisexual, lifestyles, nor does it make a statement that all people are inherently straight and make a choice to be gay or bi. Questions do come up, though, but not so much about Holden or Banky’s reactions to their situations. Straight men are some of the most inInstead, there is always one scene that made me wonder about some things. When Alyssa admits that she’s fallen for a man, her lesbian friends react somberly and in a disappointed manner. I’ve often wondered if friends would really react that way. A good friend is confessing that she is in love. Would a group of lesbian friends fret over “another one bites the dust”? I’ve known lots of different people, and sure there could be questions about a lifestyle choice, but I always wondered if a room full of lesbians would really react that way or not. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fly on the wall in a room full of lesbians to hear how this conversation would go down.
Either way, like Clerks, this movie always hits me when I watch it. What’s funny is that in between each viewing, I ask myself if this movie has become dated or not. The idea of the unconventional love story has been done so often that I always think this movie has lost some of its impact. However, after each time I watch the movie, it still works just as much as the first time I saw it fifteen years ago. Whereas Clerks always encapsulated the angst-ridden Generation X era, Chasing Amy still seems as fresh as it always was.
Smith’s next movie would be even more different than the first three. Being raised as a Catholic, Smith put together a fantasy film around the ideals of Catholic Dogma. It’s not only the longest of his “View Askewniverse”, but it is also, by far, the most ambitious. This is the first film to feature stars that are not specifically from Smith’s established stable of actors. While Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon had both been seen in previous movies, the rest of the main cast, Linda Fiorentino, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, and Salma Hayek prompted Smith to give Jason Mewes a pep-talk to make sure he was on point and came across as someone they could count on. It turned out to be a tactic that would pay dividends for the rest of the series.
While each of the previous films were quirky in their own rights, Dogma caught many by surprise. Smith and Mewes’ Jay and Silent Bob would actually play very large parts and instead of coming off as cartoonish characters like Mallrats, they are given a more classic foil role. Pretty much all of the low brow humor comes from them while the other characters are spouting rhetoric or Dogma, or telling more intelligent jokes. What’s surprising about the Jay and Silent Bob characters is that they get drug into this crazy situation with angels and God “herself”, but still have something good to do. They don’t so much trip or stumble into doing good things as they have as much of a role to play as the other characters with some purpose or mythological status. Even more surprising is how this movie, driven by Loki (Damon) and Bartleby (Affleck), is an interesting combination of horror, action, adventure, and this higher concept types of a movie.
This is a heady movie and makes it the one that is the hardest to truly “want” to watch at any point. It’s, by far, the movie in this series that I’ve seen the least. The other five films fit nicely into one genre or the other, or at least, like in Chasing Amy, has a distinct point in the movie where it shifts from a comedy to drama. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong, and I do appreciate any fantasy type of story that deals with ideology, but at over 2 hours with the other movies being much funnier, more accessible, and an “easier” watch, Dogma does come in as my least favorite of the bunch. Again, it’s not my least favorite because it’s not a well made movie. In fact, it might be one of the best made movies of this series. It started a trend for Smith that would feature much higher production values than his first three movies. However, even despite the use of an actual shit monster demon, when it comes to Kevin Smith, I’ll watch this movie if someone else really wants to, but I much prefer the slightly more immature straight comedies he’s made.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
When it comes to wanting the more immature comedies, Smith’s next movie in the View Askewniverse, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is about as immature as it gets. After Jay and Silent Bob proved they could play much larger roles than they had in Clerks or Chasing Amy, this duo takes center stage in an adventure that tie together the earlier films together. This one’s got adventure, Will Ferrell, babes, George Carlin (returning as a different character after having a role in Dogma), Luke and Leia, Morris Day and the Time, and a monkey. What more could you want?
In this road movie, Jay and Silent Bob are forced out of their “home” in front of the Quick Stop and RST Video stores. After learning that the comic book they inspired, Bluntman and Chronic (see Chasing Amy), was being made into a big Hollywood movie. Demanding the royalties that are promised to them, they also find out that fans of the comic were up in arms over the treatment of the movie. So the duo set out for Hollywood to find Banky Edwards to either stop the movie or get their money. They head out on the road and befriend a group of sexy animal activists who were actually jewel thieves. Despite being chased by a Wildlife Marshal (Ferrell) for their theft of an orangutan (the cover for the jewel thieves), they do make it to the production of the movie. After they get their money, they spend it to fly all over the world to beat up anyone who said anything negative about their fictional selves.
In a lot of ways, this movie is like Mallrats. While it’s much bigger of a movie than the earlier comedy, the funnier moments are very pop culture specific. There’s a lot of comic book references, including a scene in which Daredevil is fighting a bunch of bad guys, prompting Jay to hell, “I LOVE COMICS!!!” Even the style in which the Bluntman and Chronic movie is being made is similar to 1997’s Batman and Robin – a constant reminder of what happens when someone makes a comic book movie when they know next to nothing about the source material. Even former Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada (who worked with Smith on his run on Daredevil) made a cameo as a pizza delivery guy. Another extremely specific reference comes in the name of Will Ferrell’s character – Marshal Willenholly. That comes from the theme song of Land of the Lost naming the characters (Marshal, Will, and Holly) who go on the adventure against prehistoric creatures. Oddly enough, Ferrell would eventually star in a Hollywood remake of Land of the Lost some years later playing Marshall.
The movie proved to me that Smith still had the zanier ideas for movies after a couple movies that had a much more mature tone. What actually makes this movie that much more memorable for me, though, has nothing to do with the movie itself. It was during this time that I met Smith at the 2001 Wizard World Chicago convention. Thanks to having a job at a movie theater at the time, I was able to see Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back a full two weeks (or more) before it was released. When I got in line to get the mini-poster I had autographed by Smith and get my picture with him, I was able to let him know that I had seen it and really enjoyed it. What makes Smith great with his fans was that he could’ve just told me that was great and moved along to the next person. Instead, he took a couple seconds to ask how I got to see it and was genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say about it and was extremely thankful for me letting him know I liked it. It’s one of those moments that fly by in an instant, but it was a good one regardless. I can’t help but to be reminded by both that moment and that movie every time I walk down the hallway because the poster and my picture with him still hang there today.
Clerks II (2006)
Five years after what we originally thought would be the close of the View Askewniverse, Kevin Smith returns to where it all began with Clerks II.
What’s unique about Smith’s View Askewniverse is how different each one is. I’ve said that a few times in this article already. Sure, there are similarities from one movie to the next. Clerks and Mallrats are both day in the life type of movies. Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back are both a little zanier than the others. Chasing Amy and Dogma both focus less on comedy in exchange for larger ideas – even though those ideas are extremely different in nature. To ignore the obvious similarities between Clerks and Clerks II would be folly. These are the only two movies of the whole series that 100% connected, but the feeling in both movies shows more about where Smith was in his life when each of these movies were made and that’s what makes Clerks II quite special.
Dante and Randal have grown a bit since their days of clerking at the Quick Stop and RST Video stores, respectively. A fire that took out both stores forced both men to take a job at Mooby’s – Smith’s fictional version of McDonald’s. Dante is heading to work on his last day at Mooby’s before he and his girlfriend move to Florida to get married and start a family. Wanting one last day to celebrate his friend, Randal sets into motion an insane stunt to have a donkey show take place inside the restaurant to send Dante on his way. Meanwhile, Dante struggles with the decisions he’s made and questions whether or not he’s marrying the woman he truly loves. In the end, with the help of Jay and Silent Bob (who have returned from a prior prison sentence with a new found belief in God), Dante and Randal find where they truly belong… Behind the counters of Quick Stop and RST.
If you watch this movie on DVD and watch the intro with Smith and his co-producer, Scott Mosier, he mentions this one was his favorite movie he’s done in this series. It’s clear to see why. While the production value is million times higher than his original Clerks, including the addition of a full-on dance sequence, this one may not have been as “difficult” to make as the original, but it feels a million times more personal. It’s all about growing up and finally realizing potential. After spending so many years raging against his station in life, Dante has finally found his place in the world. While Randal has changed little in the years between the first and last, he not only gets to continue life alongside his best friend and becomes a bit more than just a snarky jerk behind a counter.
From a viewer’s perspective, it feels as though I’ve grown with this series as well. The differences between who I was when I saw Clerks and what I’ve done and become by the time Clerks II came out give me a personal feeling when watching the movies. I’m incredibly sentimental and get all kinds of nostalgic feelings when I watch them. There are so many things about this sequel that I can appreciate on a personal level. Oddly enough, one of the most appreciated things is the use of Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers” as the opening song to show how much life has changed for Dante, and then the closing using Soul Asylum’s “Misery”, an obvious nod to that band closing out the original Clerks. When I hear that song and see Dante and Randal behind the counter at Quick Stop, I just sigh and smile. It’s such a fitting conclusion that, while I may never see another movie in this series that’s been with me for so many years, I’m happy because all these stories have come to a perfect end.
Since Clerks II, Smith has retired from directing. He’s made some other movies since, including the controversial Red State, but his distaste for the politics of how movies are made and edited and distributed has soured his enjoyment of filmmaking. On the other hand, Smith has continued to stay in the public eye. His daily SModcast Internet Radio shows continue to bring in fans. Of course, from that and his love of comic books, he’s been able to take the series Comic Book Men to AMC. That series has gained enough popularity that it’s coming back for a second season. While it’s not certain that he will make any more movies, Smith is still one of my favorite comedians. I’ve seen him live when he came to Indianapolis back in 2006. I religiously watch Comic Book Men and was so happy to hear it was getting a second season. In a lot of ways, he feels like he’s one of my friends.
I know that sounds goofy, but what can I say? I’d love to hang with the guy and talk comics.
That’s it for this Geek Life Special (I told you it was going to be a long one). I’ll be back on Labor Day to celebrate the greatest film monster to ever exist. Meanwhile, click the links below to check out more Geek Life articles and let me know what you think!