A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

CLERKS jjjj

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1994, R, 92 mins.

Dante Hicks: Brian O'Halloran / Randal: Jeff Anderson / Veronica: Marilyn Ghigliotti / Caitlin: Lisa Spoonauer

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith

I have never, ever had such complete and utter empathy for two characters than I did for the customer service associates in Kevin Smith’s CLERKS.  I say empathy and not sympathy for good reason.  

I too, like Dante and Randall, the two slacker clerks in the film, also worked in the convenience store industry.  When I was a college undergraduate I worked for a tiny and fairly marginalized video store with a depth and quality of selection that would equal most Shell gas stations.   Nevertheless, there I worked for nearly six years and it was, under most circumstances, some of the most enjoyable and personally degrading times I have ever spent serving the public while accepting a low, bi-weekly paycheck.  Of course, you create the most out of your time there, enjoying the company of friends or customers on those slow nights where there is nothing better to do than to wallow in a pool of you own self-pity while internally embellishing your place of work as some sort of neo-Orwellian hellhole. 

Yet, the job I had was by my choice and choice alone, as it is with Dante and Randall.  I empathize with them because I know their world and lives impeccably.  I don’t sympathize with them because, upon quiet introspective reflection, why the hell did I stay at the video store for six years if I did not like it all that much?   That is just some of the many colorful issues that Dante and Randal ponder as they try to slavishly make it throw one grueling twelve hour workday.   And let me tell you, work has rarely ever looked so non-compelling and needlessly sad as it does in CLERKS. 

CLERKS is an fine example of how to make a great comedy by having a wonderfully realized script where people are allowed to talk and talk frankly about absolutely anything.  It is also, even now, a fantastic emblem of how to make a great film with a budget that would probably not be enough to take care of the catering on a Jim Carrey set.    Kevin Smith was a relative unknown back in 1994, a New Jersey native who was a drop out from the Vancouver Film School in Canada (in the funny concert film AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH, Smith explains sarcastically, “Why should I go to a film school where all I hear is what Demme was trying to say in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!”).  He returned to Jersey with very little money and opportunities when he realized that his real  film education would be to make a film.  Thus began his small personal odyssey of raising financing to make his film that would later obtain cult status and catapult Smith’s career. 

The film was shot on grainy 16mm black and white film (maybe both to reflect the sort of surveillance-like feel of convenience stores and also to keep costs down).  Smith raised the low budget of $27,000 by himself, borrowing money from family, selling his comic book collection (ouch!) and by maxing out all of the credit cards he had at his disposal.  Ironically, the rights to obtain the ability to use the songs that permeate the soundtrack of CLERKS outweighed the actual production budget of the film, an amazing first in cinema’s history.  Smith cast himself humorously as the now widely recognized drug dealer Silent Bob  as a way, he then thought,  of pointing out to people that he was the man responsible for the film if it were a disaster. 

Smith used a crew of eager and able-bodied friends to make his film.  He also chose to shoot it in the same convenience store where he was working at the time.  I think using a set (which obviously would not have been cost effective at all) would have completely dimmed the film’s sense of claustrophobia and verisimilitude.  As a matter of fact, the video store that accompanies the store is also real, and Smith and producer Scott Mosier actually went there after hours to edit and put together their film. 

Smith also used a large number of unknowns in the cast, which is also a stylistic and cost-effective move on his part.  Recognizable talent would have forfeited the realism of the film and would have been distracting.  Brain O’Halloran plays Dante, loosely based on Smith himself (and, who several friends point out, appears to look a hell of a lot like me, but I don’t see it!) and his neighbouring video store buddy is played by Jeff Anderson, who had never acted before in a film.  That, in itself, is quite a testament to both Anderson the actor and Smith’s abilities to direct.  Anderson and O’Halloran might be a bit wooden and stiff, but they also come across as natural and enormously frank and earthly.  They feel painfully ordinary, which is the point, of course.  Smith’s best friend, Jason Mewes, plays pot smoker reject Jay to his Silent Bob.  Amazing in hindsight, but studio execs left him off of the film’s promo poster because they did not like his look.  Jay would grow to become one of the more popular of Smith’s creations, and those same execs were probably shaking their heads when they saw him headlining a film, 2001’s JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK. 

As a film, CLERKS is very, very droll and has a keen and sophisticated sense of humour about itself and its world.  The characters are not caricatures that engage in gross-out physical comedy that embellishes far too many teen comedies these days.  No, the genius and inspiration behind Smith’s film is in its dialogue and characters.  Much like Tarantino did the same year with his masterpiece, PULP FICTION, Smith allows his characters to speak freely and reveal layers to their mentalities by the wonderfully spirited (and often scatological) conversations they have. 

Dante and Randal have some of the most inane, silly, and moronic debates, often punctuated with four and twelve letter expletives that begin with the letter “f”, but Smith writes these scenes with charm, wit, and a sly sense of self-reverence.   Despite there being no violence, sex or nudity in the film, CLERKS was originally given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA based solely on Smith’s fresh, quirky, and vulgar dialogue. The film's distributor Miramax hired attorneys that successfully petitioned the MPAA to lower its rating to R without any cuts.  That’s great - films should not been pummeled into the pits of the rating's pit because they contain dialogue that’s rich, invigorating, and revealing.  I am sure that any teenager under the age of eighteen has probably heard the conversations of Dante and Randal dozens of times. 

CLERKS, as a narrative, is deceptively simple-minded.  By Smith’s own admission, it’s rather a flimsy assembled piece of incidents that are fused together into a whole to act as a framework for the film’s terrific character moments.  It begins in the messy bedroom of Dante who seems to have been involved in an all-night orgy of drinking.  Dante is kind of the man I was feeling like years ago – 22 years old, a college dropout, and a man who felt disenfranchised by everything and everyone around him.  This, of course, is not helped by the fact that he works in one of those small and marginalized convenience stores that seem to occupy small neighborhoods across the globe.  Dante, unlike most characters in these types of films, is not stupid or clumsy.  He is a man who is intelligent, introspective, while being somewhat detached.  When he arrives for an early morning shift at the QUICK STOP convenience store and then realizes that he may be there for the entire day, I know exactly how he feels when he hangs his head in a self-pitiful moment of shame. 

Dante’s friend Randall is sort of the opposite of him.  He works at the video store next door to the QUICK STOP with a selection so appallingly bad that he goes to the competitors just to rent “good movies”.  He’s more extroverted,  especially in his smug and cheerful willingness to put down customers.  When one customer asks what the store’s cat's name is, Randal deadpans back, “annoying customer.”  His argument back to Dante for “ripping into the odd customer” is simple and inspired -  “Title does not dictate behaviour. If title dictated my behaviour, as a clerk serving the public, I wouldn't be allowed to spit a mouthful of water at that guy.  But I did, so my point is that people dictate their own behaviour.”  Randal is the cool and rebellious foil to the somewhat timid and straight shooter in Dante.  When Dante chastises him for yelling and upsetting customers, Randal takes it all in stride, “There's nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there?" 

The customers that come into the video store and the Quick Stop are quite strange to say the least and constantly beg for someone to jump out of their chair and scream gleefully “the customer is NOT always right!”  One particular customer is extremely odd in his patience and undying resolve to find the perfect dozen eggs, often testing each one from every carton.  Dante also stares stupefied at one patron who seems to have an unhealthy penchant for taking porno mags to the bathroom (this customer later pays off in one of the film’s best gags).  Randal also gets some interesting personalities at his video store, mostly just innocent and mindless drones that ask dumb questions like, “Do you have that one with that guy who was in the movie that was out last year?”  As Randal comments later, “It's like in order to join, they have to have an I.Q. that's less than their shoe size.”  In one uproariously funny moment, when a customer asks Randal if he has seen the film she is inquiring about, he responds, “Sorry, I don’t watch movies.”  When she probes him for more information on making a choice, Randal further retorts, “I find it's best to stay out of other people's affairs.” 

The film’s plot kind of meanders from one redundant, yet funny, incident to the next.  Dante has a run in with his current girlfriend, the very spunky Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), which is not helped when he discovers that his past flame is now going to marry an "Asian studies major."  Veronica and Dante's conversations are as frank as they get, going from everything like discussing politics to, in a very amusing climatic moment, engaging in a fiery argument about just how many men Veronica has performed a certain sexual act on.  Dante is shocked when he discovers the magic number is 37.  When she leaves and he blares out the number to an innocent customer,  he responds, “In a row!?” 

Even more funny and outrageous is the conversations Dante and Randal have.  They are kind of an R Rated, Generation X Odd Couple, constantly engaging in polite to exuberantly vulgar conversations that range from what janitors earn at strip clubs, to how its so eerie that all prices end in “9”, to how to self-pleasure yourself without the aid of your hands, as well as the philosophies and principles of the ruling class.  Their conversations are incredibly vulgar, but their is so much insight and wit behind them.  Dante and Randal may be slackers and losers without clearly defined goals, but underneath their lackluster facades are an intelligence and natural ability to be analytical about  anything. 

In the film’s most glorious exchange of dialogue, Dante and Randal discuss the possibility of all of the innocent contract labourers that needlessly died on the Death Star when it exploded in RETURN OF THE JEDI.  Since the station was still under construction, and it was blown up by the rebels, didn’t a lot of simple workers die?  Dante tells Randal, “All right, so even if independent contractors are working on the Death Star, why are you uneasy with its destruction?”   Maybe if when they both saw ATTACK OF THE CLONES and realized that the contractors were evil, insect like aliens, then their concerns about innocent lives being lost would diminish.  George Lucas, in his audio commentary for CLONES, says wryly that Dante and Randal should sleep better now with this disclosure of information.  Sure, many viewers may not like what  Dante and Randal talk about, but there is no denying that how they talk about things has a dizzying and intensely interesting cadence about it. 

The film is ostensibly a series of title vignettes (not too unlike the films of Jean-Luc Godard) with people standing around talking about nothingness.  Yet, Smith has crafted a small film that is smart, intelligent, and thoughtful with its characters, and one that most viewers can easily relate to.  He creates a real sense of realism to the proceedings, and his choice to shot in black and white, with minimal expense, gives the film a sort of pseudo-documentary feeling and atmosphere.  Despite the fact that there is very little, if any, action oriented moments in the film, it moves by at a surprisingly quick pace, which is made even more fast by the quick wits and conversations by its two male leads. 

Smith may not have had a budget to work with, but he demonstrates what a man of inspired invention he is and  he is able to carve out wonderful moments of human comedy, scenes of intelligence, self-reflection, and dialogue that ranges from strangely perverse to insightful and masterful.  Under his limited resources, Smith proves he is a winner by championing dialogue and characters, not dumb and idiotic plots with mindless slapstick antics.  Okay, some of his later films had that.  MALLRATS may have been a bomb, but at least there was sophistication and humor to the dialogue, and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK is, more or less, satirizing Smith’s films as a whole. 

CLERKS remains to this day an incredibly authentic portrait of Generation X'er angst, solitude, low self- worth and apathy.  It is also maniacally funny to its very foundations.  It really has not lost any of its edge in the last ten years and holds up well to repeated viewings.  More importantly, the film acted as a springboard for the career of Kevin Smith, whose status as a demi-god of the independent film scene has reached miraculous new heights.  For a film that was darn cheap, it sure is an accomplished piece, and is still miles better that most unintelligible comedies that come out now.  Perhaps the legacy and charm of the film is how well we, the viewers, can live ever so vicariously through its characters.  When Dante asks Randal which customers he could live without and he dryly responds, “All of them."   I think anyone who has worked in customer service knows exactly how he feels.  Not to mention that it sure would feel good to be as bold as Randal and spit water in a bad customer’s face.  No one would ever dream of doing that, but it sure must have felt good for Randal, seeing as he “believes in a ruling class,” especially since he thinks “he rules.”  

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