1994; written and directed by Kevin Smith; 88 mins
Whatever happened to the no-budget indie? In the 80s and 90s, you had a string of movies made for fuck all like The Evil Dead, Bad Taste, Pusher, Slacker and El Mariachi. Even into the early Noughties, you had things like Primer and Scott Ryan’s The Magician. Movies made with no profile whatsoever and nothing to rely on other than actual talent. Now, all we get are those fucking awful Asylum movies but nothing else seems to break through in the way they did. Strange when you think of the availability of cameras and the rise of special features on DVD and Blu-Ray. One of the shining, shitty beacons amongst all these is Clerks, the foul-mouthed, funnier and shorter B&W answer to ‘Ulysses’.
Shot on a reported budget of $27,000, procured from maxed out credit cards, car insurance and comic book sales, Clerks depicts a day in the life of two convenience store clerks, Dante Hicks and Randall Graves, as they talk shit about sex, relationships and Star Wars and occasionally deal with customers, including the young Jay and Silent Bob. And that’s it.
Apparently, this is very loosely based on Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, although, like the references to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and the topography of the United States of America, I am unfamiliar with this source. It doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to assume that Kevin Smith is, though. Some people may see that notion as laughable but to me, that is the same snobbery that says Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays. Whilst not wishing to compare Smith to Shakespeare (c’mon: Jersey Girl for fuckssakes!), it’s the kind of snobbery that can’t imagine someone being naturally talented or curious or able to understand, absorb and apply due to their background. Then again, maybe he hasn’t read it but still…! That prejudice falls down when you have Clerks and the no-budget indies mentioned above. Then look at Pirates of the Caribbean 5.
It makes an interesting counterpoint to Richard Linklater‘s Slacker (the release of which was apparently an inspiration for Smith to make his own movie). Whereas, that film – and this is no dig, by the way – is more obviously high-minded, this film does have depth and a what’s-it-all-about attitude. The difference is, this one does it through the medium of comedy, cynicism and hermaphrodite porn as opposed to the eternal dreamer, Linklater. Really, the connection should be with The Before Trilogy because of Clerks being an ongoing story (although, Clerks III still very much at mooting stage) but I’ve isolated the first Clerks and Slacker because of their production similarities more than anything.
Before I make this next point, I should admit that I’ve never even set foot in the USA, so this is as uninformed an opinion as I can muster (…maybe not): could it be that that difference between these two movies is a geographical/social thing? I hear that Houston, where Slacker was made and set, is a kind of a groovy, liberal enclave slap bang in the middle of right-wing Texas. Clerks is from New Jersey, which I understand is more in the mould of that Henry Rollins quote about East Coast America; “We think fast! We talk fast! ‘Fuck you!’ means; ‘Fuck you!’ not; ‘Hey, let’s go do lunch next week!'” Like the difference between North London and Glasgow, or Wellington and Christchurch, or the Bahamas and The Moon.
Anyway, enough wank for the moment, let’s talk about the cast because – honestly – there’s not a whole bunch else you can talk about in this typical 90s chatbag. Brian O’Halloran as Dante pulls off the trick of making him likeable despite the fact that he’s such a whiny bitch! The constant stream of shit that the screenplay piles misfortune upon Dante, he could still come across like he deserves it all because of his whingeing and two-timing but O’Halloran makes him an everyday, fallible twat like the rest of us.
Jeff Anderson as Randall is the most interesting, though. His is a performance that is perfect despite the fact that he’s not a very good actor. Everything else about him is right, though. His look, his voice, his attitude. All of these things scramble together into an almighty prick who’s an armchair revolutionary. Happy to fight against the oppressors whilst having absolutely no desire to go anywhere. I think we like Randall because he is at the bottom but knows what he thinks and says it as such.
The back-and-forth filth between the sexes is great too and when you watch this, much like with so many movies from the 90s, you realise what female characters have lost and why the Bechdel Test backlash is a necessary one (although Clerks wouldn’t pass, to be fair). As I write this, it’s only two days since the untimely passing of Lisa Spoonauer, who plays Dante’s returning ex, Caitlin Bree. Watching the film this morning was the fist time I properly appreciated how good she was in that role, particularly the scene in the Video Store with Dante. She wants Dante but she’s no doe-eyed pushover: she rips on him, takes his shit, stands her ground and with that, Spoonauer gives us a fully-rounded, smart, funny woman in a really engaging, unbroken, 5 minute, mid-2-shot, tête-à-tête with O’Halloran.
The nature of the shoestring production and the story provoke the question of what could possibly make this a cinematic film rather than a TV soap opera? Also, like a lot of those movies from the 90s, people shot the shit as people do rather than the rut of Metaphorland in which we are so often stuck these days, with every character leaving sentences half-finished to make way for meaningful pauses. I’m honestly not sure what it is but – like with Withnail and I, whilst it’s great to watch at home on a weekend with a hangover – there is something about that “hangout movie” vibe that feels like it should be shared in the communal space of a cinema.