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Dissecting the Classics – Clerks

April 13, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Image Credit: Miramax

This week’s film was not the original plan, or even the second choice. My first pick was just too long to fit into my WrestleMania weekend schedule. (Or is WrestleMania just too long?) You’ll get that film next week. The other one was going to be Hot Fuzz, a movie I adore, but found my friend Michael hadn’t seen. So we’ll be covering that film on From Under A Rock in a couple of months.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: October 19, 1994
Written and Directed By: Kevin Smith
Produced and Edited By: Scott Mosier and Kevin Smith
Cinematography By: David Klein
Production Company: View Askew Productions
Distributed By: Miramax Films
Brian O’Halloran as Dante Hicks
Jeff Henderson as Randal Graves
Marilyn Ghigliotti as Veronica Loughran
Lisa Spoonauer as Caitlin Bree
Jason Mewes as Jay

What Do We All Know?

…okay, okay. I’m sure there’s a few people who scrolled by this and thought “Clerks? Really?” And I’m not going to pretend that isn’t a valid point. Unless you fall in a specific age range, Kevin Smith’s debut feature probably isn’t much more than an indy film who probably heard of but didn’t care to watch. In retrospect, it’s almost weird to consider that this wasn’t just a cult hit for Kevin Smith devotees, but a critical darling.

But it does make a degree of sense; not many films meet at the cross-section that Clerks does. Made for almost nothing, shot in black and white and featuring long takes full of dialogue, it appealed to old school cinema fans who saw potential in Smith once he matured as a director. On the flip side, it perfectly captures white middle-class Generation X men, their nostalgia and their malaise. Dante and Randal have stupid conversations about Star Wars, yes, but they are also dealing with the reality that they are stuck in go-nowhere careers and getting very close to being thirty and full of regret at having accomplished nothing. So… yeah it’s kind of a classic and something I wanted to discuss here.

What Went Right?

Clerks is a ninety minute movie that was shot in twenty-one days at the Quick Stop Kevin Smith was working on, the majority of it shot at night. Consisting almost entirely of random conversations between Dante and Randal, the film is in some ways just a collection of comedy sketches that all take place on the same day. Dante is a pushover, running the convenience on his day off and sorting out trouble with his girlfriend and a former girlfriend who may be back in the picture. Randal is a dick who “works” at the adjacent video rental store, antagonizing customers and coming over to the Quick Stop whenever he feels like it. They deal with weird customers, complain about customers, complain about each other, talk about Star Wars, talk about theoretical dick-sucking, and talk about how pathetic they are. And that’s pretty much it.

That all sounds pretty simple and arguably cliche today, but Clerks really was ridiculously fresh in 1994. The whole idea of just showing customer service workers in their day to day lives, while also capturing the thoughts preoccupying the minds of twenty-somethings, was new and exciting when the movie came out. Movies that were just ninety minutes of talking weren’t this lowbrow and accessible, they were Woody Allen movies and the like. Movies about the workplace were about blue collar jobs or white collar jobs, not the in-between space that is retail work. And considering most people Kevin Smith’s age and younger have worked in these jobs, the day to day insanity and boredom of customer service is relatable, and so is the sinking feeling that you could be doing more with your life… or maybe not.

What Went Wrong?

Truthfully, it feels weird to even have this section for a movie like Clerks. What’s wrong with the movie is fairly obvious; it’s an amateur indy film that lacks any polish whatsoever. The acting would just barely be acceptable at a local theater. Smith has no real gift for shot composition, the editing is atrociously slapshot, and the script is honestly not all that great either. But these are also all the things that give Clerks its charm. Yes, Kevin Smith made better movies since (and far worse ones), but the basic appeal of this movie is that it’s such a rough film. Movies that are this unpolished rarely make it this far, and that Clerks is entertaining and even thoughtful enough to be successful? It’s a tribute to the dreamers and what can be accomplished with almost no professional experience.

And In Summary…

The main reason I wanted to tackle Clerks is because it gives me a chance to talk about its director. Kevin Smith was a significant part of my cinematic diet as a teenager. Despite the twenty year age gap, his stuff was popular with my older brother and his friends and I just kind of went along for the ride. Overall, I don’t consider Smith an especially talented director, nor do I consider myself a fan. He’s a good performer who knows his audience well, and I don’t begrudge him that. Doing podcasts on Batman and directing CW shows is where he should be and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

But the reason Clerks stands out to me as a cultural artifact is that it was a hit with contemporary critics and an even bigger hit with audiences happy to see themselves portrayed on screen. Kevin Smith was the projected self-image of the people who latched onto Clerks; a schlubby, sardonic, nostalgic and the kind of bum you expect to smoke pot and read comics but not to make a movie. He had great success and he did so on his terms. Film academia may have had buyer’s remorse when they realized that Smith’s passion was more for the content of Clerks than the barebones presentation, but Smith more or less created his own niche in the entertainment industry. Is Clerks a cautionary tale about wasted potential, or is it a calling card for individualism and not caring about the Hollywood machine?

Maybe both?

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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