CHRIS: Clerks (Smith, US, 1994)

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“Buncha savages in this town.”

There was a brief time in the early 1990s when a new era was emerging in America thanks to a several of high profile film-makers who caught the imagination. A new spirit of independent cinema encouraged by Sundance Festival and the ebullience of Weinsteins provided a platform for film makers to get their low-fi, micro-budget films to huge audiences. I was completely seduced by the guerrilla style used by Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith. They were truly inspirational. Rodriguez wrote a book and provided a “10 minute film school” demonstrating the his method of producing EL MARIACHI (1992) on a credit card bill. I wanted to be a film maker. If he could do it, then so could I!

CLERKS was a similar story. Smith produced the film on a shoe-string, by selling his comic-book collection and by maxing out credit cards. He shot the film at the convenience store where he worked overnight (providing a running joke bout the shutters being closed due to some vandals sticking gum in the padlocks) and based the film on ‘what he knew’: the hum drum life of working in the service industry.

It tells the story of Dante Hicks working in his local Quick Stop convenience store after he is summoned to work on his day off to cover for another employee who is sick. The film covers a day in his life as he tries to deal with odd-ball customers and the irritations caused by his friend Randal (who is supposed to be running the neighboring video store, but seems to spend most of his time insulting the customers or nipping to see Dante for the next round of conversation). He is in a rut that he does’t seem to be in any shape to escape from, his sole motivation for the day is to ensure that he gets a game of hockey that he had planned. He doesn’t get any relief so he has a game of hockey on the roof of the store. The film is composed of some wonderful set-pieces as he attempts to survive the demands of the customers and the revelation that his his present girl friend has sucked 36 dicks (37 including him) and that his previous girl friend has been traumatized by ‘an incident’ in the store.

There are some celebrated moments such as the discussion over the building of the second Death Star in RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) and how ‘the contractors’ rather than the genuine members of the evil Empire get killed by the rebel alliance. There are some great moments with the customers too. I like the sequence involving the gum salesman who is telling people of the perils of smoking as he drinks coffee at the counter. There are many others, such as the man who is desperate to reach for the final chip in the tube, and the desperate attempt to play hockey on the roof of the store.

Rodriguez has found a role as a mainstream director for hire, Smith remains a ‘fan-boy’. The follow up to this film was MALLRATS (1995) which is not as funny as it thinks it is. I have also found it hard to like DOGMA (1999) and CHASING AMY (1997) despite my best efforts, although I know people who like them very much and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001) even better. His comic book sensibilities have created a universe for his popular characters. There is a third installment of CLERKS due to be produced which is going to be Smith’s last film as a director.

Watching this film again after almost twenty years, it has been diminished by hind-sight. There is something about the way that they talk to each other that no longer seems convincing. Film critic Joe Queenlan debunked the idea that a film could be made and distributed on a credit card bill in his funny book The Unkindest Cut: How a Hatchet-Man Critic Made His Own $7,000 Movie and Put It All on His Credit Card. The notion that Robert Redford and the Weinstein’s were some kind of benevolent force for good was torpedoed by Peter Biskind in Down and Dirty Pictures. Perhaps I have become inured of the pop-culture repartee that has now become standard in films aimed at younger people . Perhaps I am no longer impressed with the lo-fi film production thanks to Youtube. Perhaps the knowledge of what Smith did next is too much?

I never did become a film-maker, however CLERKS provided inspiration for life as an an anonymous ‘work blogger’ back in the early 00s and for that reason alone, it deserves a place on my list.

3 responses to “CHRIS: Clerks (Smith, US, 1994)

  1. Good piece. Agree with you about Smith in general, ‘Clerks’ is the only film of his I actively like. The whole idea of his ‘View Askewniverse’ vaguely irritates me, perhaps because as it went on his films seemed less like stand-alone works and more like strings of inside jokes, culminating in ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’ which is just one big $30 million self-indulgent in-joke. Other filmmakers have made multiple films in the same world without giving it a stupid name and patting themselves on the back so much about it. But I can enjoy ‘Clerks’ without this baggage because it’s the first film. Also he’s much, much better at writing banter than he is at writing “serious” “dialogue” about “issues”, although the endless bloody Star Wars references actually spoil the Death Star scene you mention. I suppose I was never going to be a big Kevin Smith fan as he seems to be too much in thrall to 80s shit like ‘Porkies’ and John Hughes films that I can’t stand. This has turned into a bit of a rant hasn’t it. Oh well. I like ‘Clerks’!

  2. Pingback: STARBURST MEMORIES: Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind (2004) | Dirk Malcolm's World of Film·

  3. Pingback: CHRIS: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, US, 1980) | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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