Clerks (1994)
October 23, 2014 9:55 AM - Subscribe

In Kevin Smith's cinematic debut, a bunch of jerks waste their day in and around two stores in a New Jersey strip mall.

Like a lot of people, I saw it when I was a teenager and loved it, saw it again a few years later and was annoyed by how problematic the homophobia, misogyny and so on were, and just re-watched it and now I have some rather complicated feelings and ideas about it.

Also I consider it probably the most true-to-life portrayal of working in a non-chain retail store.

It's on Netflix Instant at the moment.
posted by griphus (20 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I also saw it as a teen and loved it. I agree it is the most accurate depiction of working retail.

I think it was a genius move to make it black and white and look like security footage. Kevin Smith took what was a weakness of his indie flick (crappy cameras) and actually turned it into a strength of the movie, giving it a feel of realism. I think his work has steadily declined in quality since, and this is by far his best movie.

I haven't seen it in forever, but I agree and disagree on the problematic misogyny. Yes, it is there, but isn't it a point of growth for Dante? He slut shames Veronica, but in the end (thanks to the advice of Bob) realizes that her number of sex partners does not diminish her. And after she dumps him Randall points out that he should have been treating her better. So there is a positive message there at the end. Complicated feelings, I guess.
posted by I am the Walrus at 10:31 AM on October 23, 2014

It's not that he was using "crappy cameras". Smith just doesn't possess a strong visual eye. If you look at his later films with higher budgets, they still look amateurish. But you're right, in the case of Clerks, that lack of style adds to the charm.
posted by cazoo at 10:38 AM on October 23, 2014

I remember seeing this in college and loving it because it was the first film that sounded like someone pointed a camera at my friends talking to each other. It was one of the first films that felt young and new and hip and spoke to me directly.

I caught about 30min of it randomly several years ago and could barely stomach it. Randall's dialogue that I loved so much in 1994 sounded completely stilted and ridiculous, as if he was trying to fit 5,000 word college newspaper manifestos into 30 seconds. I might rewatch it today, just to see how it has aged.
posted by mathowie at 10:55 AM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

A lot of the dialogue of the main characters now just sounds like Kevin Smith doing a table read alone and just altering his voice slightly for the characters. All except for Jay, and man I am so, so grateful my life is no longer in a place where I have to regularly deal with people like Jay.

I don't think Dante grew very much. One of the most surprising elements for me is that I remembered the movie as Dante being maybe not admirable, but just a regular guy, and Randal being a big jerk making Dante's life difficult. Now, Dante comes off as a big whiny man-baby who causes problems for himself, and Randal is still a jerk but nearly anything he does pales with how Dante treats the people around him.

Also, I don't think Dante grew very much in light of the Dante/Caitlin thing. In fact a lot of the movie just seems like him regressing more and more as a person. My biggest problem with the movie is that I'm not sure how much of that regression was intended.
posted by griphus at 11:07 AM on October 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

A lot of the dialogue of the main characters now just sounds like Kevin Smith doing a table read alone and just altering his voice slightly for the characters.

I remember reading something he wrote, maybe the Clerks book, where Smith admits that he would give actors line readings -- he would literally tell them exactly how they he wanted the to say it, with timing and inflections and everything. He basically wrote, "I know I'm not supposed to do that, but I know how I want the dialogue to sound."

Considering how it came off, he wrote it in his own voice, he heard it in his own voice, and so he made the actors speak it in his own voice.

I have thought about this a lot, because I have read a lot of playscripts where everybody speaks exactly the same way. And people do speak the same way in the real world -- like-minded groups get together and pick up each other's idiosyncrasies, and they do start sounding alike, in the way pet owners and pets start looking alike.

But I think the ability to write characters with distinctive voices is one of those tricks of art, where it may not reflect the world as it actually is, but it uses a tool of writing to highlight elements of character. It helps us as an audience to define the different characters in a story, sometimes just through a quirk of language (like the girl who keeps saying "Ye Gods!" in The Music Man), sometimes because the dialogue identifies regional distinctions, and sometimes because the choice of language helps shape the character's goals. So nobody might actually talk like a Coen brothers character, but the heightened language they use works to make the characters pop, and keep our ears interested, which is valuable in a two hour movie.

A lot of scripts are written poorly, but the actors are good enough to really make the dialogue their own, so it doesn't get noticed. But Smithy wouldn't let the actors be actors, so instead we end up with this strange puppet show where Smith is playing every character.
posted by maxsparber at 11:50 AM on October 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm glad I'm not alone in that I thought this was the most amazing movie I'd ever seen when I saw it in, I guess my 20s. Now can't stand to hear anything Kevin Smith says or does.

I've been considering re-watching it recently but I'm not sure it would hold up. As others have said, Dante just sounds like a whiner who needs to shut the fuck up and realize he has the power to improve his life, and Randal is just every jerk I ever worked with when I had shit jobs.

It certainly is a great look into the world of working those sorts of jobs.
posted by bondcliff at 12:04 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I probably saw it a few years after it came out, so it immediately came off to me as people reading lines. The delivery was pained and forced but like the black and white, I just took it in stride and it was just part of that world, so to speak.

I still like the movie. It has major issues, as pretty much everything from "before" does. Even the Princess Bride. I'm not a big Kevin Smith fan but I like this film and Clerks II. I may be biased though because some of the characters remind me of people I know.
posted by cashman at 4:09 PM on October 23, 2014

This was on TV the other day. Two things struck me - how useful they are I don't know: Firstly, that Smith seemed to be speaking with absolute authenticity to an audience that happened not to include me; Secondly (and perhaps related), that it was like a webcomic before the time there were webcomics. Same sorts of character dynamics, same kind of dialogue.

Despite everything, I find Kevin Smith hugely likeable, more so than any particular manifestation of Kevin Smith I stumble across.
posted by Grangousier at 4:22 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Now, Dante comes off as a big whiny man-baby who causes problems for himself, and Randal is still a jerk but nearly anything he does pales with how Dante treats the people around him.

Yeah, true. I felt something like this the last time I watched it, which was at least a couple of years ago.

Like, Randal's a jerk, but at least he's a pretty self-aware jerk; he mostly knows he's being a jerk and so he could, at least theoretically, knock it off if or when he wants to. Whereas Dante's one of those guys who fucks things up and blames everyone else.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:40 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just realized the characters in this movie map pretty well to Dungeons and Dragons alignments:
Dante: Lawful Evil
Randal: Chaotic Neutral
Veronica: Lawful Good
Jay: Neutral Evil
Silent Bob: True Neutral
Caitlin: Chaotic Evil
posted by griphus at 5:54 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I loved this in my 20s" : check
"I find it difficult to love it as much [mumble] years later" : check
"Kevin Smith truly first and foremost a writer and... not much else." : check
"Man that act got tired, maybe even in the space of the one movie" : check

Everyone's said everything I needed to say. Thanks.
posted by aureliobuendia at 9:31 PM on October 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Grangousier: Smith seemed to be speaking with absolute authenticity to an audience that happened not to include me[.]
Precisely this. If you were a not-really-fit but still physically active, smart, nerdy, dude who really should have finished college by 1994 but were working a series of soul-crushing jobs instead like I was, Clerks was The Graduate to our generation. (It might also help to be several days younger than Smith, and born 21 miles from where he was.)

It told us that we may be a fuck-up, a misfit, a loser, a layabout, or just unlucky, but we weren't worthless. The OGXers and the Blanks turned the world we grew up in into a blasted hellscape of economic insecurity and it really wasn't our fault. Our hopes and dreams didn't have to be focused on having Saturday off or trying to stick it to our idiot bosses. We got validation for our relationships with our friends, as dysfunctional and co-dependent as they might be, be

Dante and Randal — and Jay and Silent Bob for the metalheads and pot fiends — weren't role-models. They were yardsticks to measure yourself against. Were you still hung up on your girlfriend's old boyfriends? Cursing in front of toddlers? You had work to do, brother. Still wasting your days smoking dope and doing nothing. Time to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Many of us found our way into the burgeoning tech industry, although most of us didn't get rich. As we wasted our youth in the fin de si├Ęcle, we could always go back to Clerks and at least have that.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:23 PM on October 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

The more I watch this film the more I wonder just how someone could have sex with a dead man and somehow not realise it at any point. Its a sick gag, but when you think of the logistics of it it just doesn't make a great deal of sense.

The men in Smith's films tend to be much less together than the women: if we look at Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, even Dogma the women tend to be a lot smarter and together than the men, who are kind of uniformly jerks. The question might be why these women are choosing to date these men who aren't capable of being anything other than emotional two year olds? Good question. Steven Moffat'sn show Coupling pulled a similar trick, where the men are all children who need to be looked after by women.

I think you can end up with a kind of reverse sexism, where women are so wonderful and men just can't help being pathetic messes. Which is somewhat putting women on a pedestal and clearing men of responsibility of cleaning up their acts.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:26 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


we're gonna need a bigger boat
posted by tomboko at 3:59 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

This, and Pulp Fiction were the first time I noticed Hollywood not talking down to me. Not dumbing down the dialog to the same tired tropes all the idiots at the chain restaurants and boring bars I was frequenting. I've grown tired of the type of dialog now, but it *felt* like a breath of fresh air at the time.
posted by DigDoug at 6:59 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

It makes me sad that Kevin Smith hasn't improved much in the past 20 years. Zack and Miri is such a missed opportunity. It could have been about the most interesting thing that ever happened to Kevin Smith (making a low-budget movie--essentially a stylized Making of Clerks) with the comedic talents of the big names acting in it. But due to Kevin Smith not understanding what he's good at, it's a pretty typical romantic comedy with stilted humor and dialogue (the "puppet show" comment above is dead-on) that doesn't make use of the cast.

I still think the Clerks cartoon is one of the better things he has made. I remember being angry about how much they "censored" his vision (I was young), but honestly, it's the funniest stuff he's written. He works best when there are constraints on him that force him to make something besides Jay and Silent Bob Self-Indulge. It's too bad that he seems content to keep making that, over and over, as we all age out of the demographic it's targeting.
posted by almostmanda at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not even supposed to be here today.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm actually kind of surprised Kevin Smith hasn't chimed in with a 4000 word rebuttal to this thread.
posted by bondcliff at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by Chrysostom at 3:17 PM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Clerks was The Graduate to our generation.

When I worked at Blockbuster Video from '96-'00, there was an official company policy that employees got up to 5 free rentals of library titles (e.g. anything not on the new release wall) per week. There was an unofficial store policy that any new hire's first free employee rental needed to be Clerks, and that they wouldn't be able to redeem their other 4 for the first week until they'd watched the movie and returned it. Essentially, it was our most important training video.

Part of what made it so effective as a subversive retail training film was the fact that Kevin was the assistant manager for the video store they filmed in. He used this to his advantage when opening up the credit cards that he used to fund his filming budget, as he knew he'd be there and in charge during the day when the credit card companies would call in to verify the employment portion of the application, and would confirm whatever lies he'd written down to be the gospel truth.

Even with all that credit fraud, this really was a no-budget film. To put it in perspective, when Soul Asylum did a music video for their track "Can't Even Tell" that Kevin had asked to use on the Clerks soundtrack, that video, which pretty much recreates one of the key scenes from the movie, but in color, cost more to film than the original movie did.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:20 AM on October 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

« Older Nashville: Road Happy...   |  Black-ish: Crime and Punishmen... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments