Monday, June 6, 2011

Clerks - 1994

"Clerks" - 1994
Dir. by Kevin Smith - 1 hr. 32 min.

Official Trailer

When you've seen a movie more than a couple of times, it gets really hard to talk about it objectively. Everyone has films they like, but it's still probably pretty uncommon to see a film more than a couple of times. Above that level, there is a level of film enjoyment that approaches how someone might enjoy an album; no one thinks twice about listening to an album ten times, or even one hundred times. I've got a few movies that have reached that sort of status – far beyond just liking a movie, but to the point where it's more like a favorite, most comfortable pair of shoes. I'm not even sure how many times I've seen “Clerks,” at least twenty-five times. Fifty? I lost count a long time ago.

Released in 1994, writer/director Kevin Smith filmed “Clerks” on a budget of $27,000, financed largely on credit cards. “Clerks” was filmed largely at the convenience store where Smith had worked, at nights when the store was closed. The 1990's were a high-point for independent film-making (the filmmakers leading that charge at the time were Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, and Richard Rodriguez, to name a few); a lot of quirky, idiosyncratic work was being made on a shoestring budget, “Clerks” being one of the least expensive to make. Once the film was acquired by Miramax, the soundtrack budget alone was actually higher than the $27K it cost to film “Clerks” in the first place.

The story is pretty simple, Dante Hicks (played by Brian O'Halloran) is called into work on his day off, and things get progressively worse from there. There's a parade of unruly customers, punctuated by Dante and Randal's (played by Jeff Anderson) hilariously off-hand filthy-as-fuck discussions. Also, Dante is caught in a bit of a love triangle, mired in indecision on whether to break up with his current girlfriend Veronica (who wants him to return to school and find some direction in life) in order to try things again with his high-school flame (who did nothing but cheat on him the whole time). Jay and Silent Bob lurk outside the convenience store the whole time, engaging in various illegal activities.

I'm miles past being able to tell you how funny the movie is – the shock factor is long gone. I remember watching it for the first time and being blown away by how dirty the movie is (in fact, the MPAA awarded “Clerks” an X-rating based solely on dialogue before it was successfully appealed, which was both a first and a potentially crushing blow for a low-budget film from a first-time director). It did take a handful of viewings to get past that aspect of “Clerks,” but there's a lot more to the movie than just shock value. Even if the characters don't actually do much, they're in definite emotional peril. The sources of conflict feel real and legitimate. Dante is clearly making a bad choice, but it seems reasonable that he would try make a change in his romantic life because he feels powerless to change other aspects of his life. Veronica is frustrated with Dante because he's mired and in a slump, and won't let anyone help him. Randal is concerned about his best friend's well-being almost exclusively, even if he's clueless about the ways in which he tries to help him. Caitlin's up to her old tricks, even while trying to create a fresh start with Dante. And all of the characters are constantly being distracted from trying to figure this out by outside forces: customers, family, friends.

So look, there's likely no way that someone seeing this film for the first time now would get what I got out of it. At the time, and at my age, it made film-making feel accessible in a way that nothing else has (if you combine this with reading Robert Rodriguez' “Rebel Without A Crew,” you might find yourself staring at your camcorder, thinking “what if?”). And that's beyond the fact that it's an entertaining, hilarious film. It felt so unbelievably punk to just grab your friends and a fistful of credit cards, start filming on your off-hours from work, and end up with a movie that was in actual theatres, and that didn't suck. The whole thing sounds impossible. This movie, for me, is more than just a movie that I liked, it became important. Those lessons aren't the same now, the financial and technological barriers to film-making just aren't the same, and without understanding the context of the time when “Clerks” was made, I don't think you can understand just how huge Kevin Smith's balls are. That's okay, though, because it's still a really funny film, and if you're into off-color humor (which many people are – R-rated comedies are whole industry these days), you're going to dig this.

4.5 / 5 - DVD

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