Kevin Smith directs Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes in this classic indie comedy about two store workers shooting the shit, slacking and dealing with unruly customers over a single work day.
I tried to make a no budget movie once. I would have been 17. I wrote a proper 90 page script, formatted and typed up. I “borrowed” some VHS cameras, tripods and lights from our college media department and filmed for one busy weekend at my parents house and the local park. It was about the devil making deals with people for their souls. It starred the other teenagers on my film studies course. I had sent a begging letter to EMI and they had given me the rights to include Radiohead’s High & Dry for free over the credits as long as it wasn’t distributed commercially. The twenty minutes or so of usable footage was poorly framed and amateurish. With the exception of one girl, the acting was dogshit. I cobbled it together into a short film. A short film festival in Coventry rejected it. And rightly so. That was that.
It was fun while it lasted. The mid-90s double whammy of Clerks and El Mariachi were definitely my greenlight for me to try and be a moviemaker with zero budget, training or resources. Robert Rodriquez gave his body to pharmaceutical testing to raise his minuscule budget to shoot his action packed neo-Western. Kevin Smith sold his comic collection, maxed out credit cards and used the actual convenience store he worked at to film his low key, dialogue based comedy. And the end products weren’t just inspirational stories for suckers like me and Hollywood careers for them but really fantastic debut movies. Both have stood the test of time.
You might want to lump people like Spike Lee or Tarantino or The Coen Brothers in with Rodriquez and Smith but their debuts had producers and crew with formal experience and connections plus professional actors. Clerks was made with whoever was available for shooting that day who could remember their lines… or read them in a way that wasn’t too obvious.
It is an excellent showcase for Smith’s true forte. Back and forth repartee. Smith’s writing is rude, caustic, verbose, rhythmic and fucking funny. He understands callbacks and escalation. There are at least a dozen memorable exchanges. Almost a hundred quotable lines. Sure, the acting is variable but the better performers get the most screentime and the drama churned up by a truly crazy but somehow still believable close-open doesn’t demand much more than subtle pantomime responses.
Smith is smart enough to break the action away from the main register often in the second half. And these more vibrant detours (a hockey game on a roof, a drive to a funeral and Randall’s pilgrimage to the extensive adult section of Big Choice Video) have an animated pump to them. The soundtrack rocks with distinctive basement grunge and garage punk. Whereas the static shop scenes allow the hip banter and rude shocks to be the stars, his “action” setpieces display either quick cutting montage or a unique pendulum camera move to take in both principals.
We even get two drug dealers outside whose day is a black mirror of protagonists Dante and Randall’s. Jay and Silent Bob have become the mainstays of Smith’s View Askew universe, very few of his films don’t feature the wayward pair in some capacity. He and Jason Mewes are cult icons among movie fans of a certain age, although less is probably more – cameos… great… entire movies based around them… desperate. Here they are the trenchcoated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the flannel shirted Vladimir and Estragon earning a paycheck indoors. They seem to love their illegal self-employed work, enjoy hanging with their customers, don’t hold grudges and to have life figured out. Maybe this is the key philosophy of Smith’s film… revisited over many encounters… enjoy what you do as what you do is your life. Dante and Randall see their jobs as inconvenient time-outs in the game of their existences. But what if there is only one ball in their games.
Not trying to be too deep about what is a foul mouthed sitcom, calling card cheapie featuring accidental necrophilia and toddlers smoking but Clerks is the best depiction of life in the service industry. An area Hollywood and arthouse auteurs show little interest in exploring despite pretty much everyone having clocked in and wore a name badge at some point in their careers. And his films in this mode (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Clerks II) all feel like they speak for a class of people who are well educated, well read and relationship orientated but don’t massively care about promotions or 9-5 security. People whose lives are not mapped out by goals and ambition so they are satisfied enough just ambling through jobs. In many ways Clerks is the best encapsulation of the Slacker or Generation X demographic. We care more about Spielberg and Star Wars than global politics or owning property. More about porn and hooking up than settling down or having kids. Maybe one day we’ll grow out of it but that day (26 years later…)probably is already too late. Life has enough drama and incidents without putting effort in to finding more. Best to noodle around with half completed creative endeavours in between work shifts and earn enough to go for “dinner & a movie” each week. And in all honesty, it ain’t a bad way to go about life as long as you don’t whine too much.
Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk
We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/