I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Clerks

tn_clerks

rookies-indieIn doing this series on debut indie features it seemed like I oughta do CLERKS. I remember it being pretty funny. It was never an important movie to me, but it was for alot of people, and seems like a notable step in the evolution of low budget movies turned pop culture phenomenons, for better or worse.

Most of the directors I’m doing in this series went on to become important or great. Here’s the rare indie smash where the director didn’t fizzle out or get much better. I’ve sort of stood up for some of the recent widely panned Kevin Smith films (like TUSK and even COP OUT), but there is no part of me that believes he’ll ever have anything near a DO THE RIGHT THING or an OUT OF SIGHT or even a SCHOOL OF ROCK under his belt. He does not strike me as a born filmatist at all, as he’d probly be the first, second and third to tell you on six different podcasts.

But back in 1994 – the same great film year that gave us PULP FICTION, HOOP DREAMS and ON DEADLY GROUND – he did have a head on collision with the ol’ zeitgeist. He said he was inspired by SLACKER (the zine-like credits also namecheck Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Spike Lee). CLERKS has a similar day-in-the-life, people-just-talking approach, but it’s much more scripted than Linklater’s, and it’s kind of the other side of the coin. It’s not the people who have the luxury of fucking around all day with no responsibilities. This is the people who do it while chained to meaningless, low-paying jobs.

Dante (Brian O’Halloran) is a clerk at the Quick Stop convenience store in suburban New Jersey who reluctantly covers for somebody on his day off. Randal (Jeff Anderson) is his filthy-mouthed doesn’t-give-a-shit-about-anything best friend who works the tiny RST Video store next door, and frequently just wanders over and hangs out with him. Dante represents all the angst of a 22 year old with no known job prospects: he still pines for his high school girlfriend, and takes it personally that she’s engaged; his current girlfriend wants him to go back to school, but he’s not interested; all he aspires to is playing street hockey with friends, but he has to work when they’re supposed to have a game.

Also they’re the type of dudes who weren’t exactly cool or on the chess team either. Dante proudly laces up his Doc Martens in the morning, a signifier that he sees himself as a little bit punk or new wave or countercultural or something. But otherwise you wouldn’t know. He’s just a standard dude. He wears a House of Pain t-shirt. He changes into a hideous Cosby sweater for a date. He’s only barely more fashionable than backwards-baseball-cap slob Randal. Because that was the type of dudes who made this movie, before one of them went on to make a living as a professional comic book fan.

still_clerks02

Both talk about pop culture in a way that was kinda new in 1994. People didn’t really know the BREATHLESS remake and its Silver Surfer talk, and RESERVOIR DOGS was recent, so three guys discussing the fate of the working men who built the Death Star in RETURN OF THE JEDI was a novelty. This was a few years before even the special edition re-releases, let alone confirmation of making the prequels, so a generation’s mania for STAR WARS was untapped and boiling over. Even at the time there was something a little self-indulgent about it, but it worked because these conversations are a part of life that people can relate to but had not seen much of in movies before. A million ha ha, that’s like me and my friends laughs rolled across the world.

mp_clerksSame goes for the minutiae of working a shit job. Many broad and cartoony things happen during the movie (some guy sways a mob of smokers into an anti-Tobacco Industry frenzy, Dante’s girlfriend somehow accidentally fucks a dead body in the bathroom, etc.) But it’s not surprising that this was filmed at Smith’s real job during the off hours. You wouldn’t really think that the drudgery and boredom of a job like that is worth making a movie about unless you’d experienced the drudgery and boredom of a job like that. The weirdos, the pains in the ass, also the friendships, the bonding, the mind wandering, the questioning of oneself. And most of all the feeling that you end up living only to work, since we barely even see the outside world. He gets home tired, crashes and wakes up having to go back. Probly not the same feeling Smith has now even if he’s working harder in his job as a podcasting mogul and part time filmatist.

Side note: if I had remembered that the main guy in CLERKS was named Dante I would’ve thought of some other name for the dipshit ex-co-worker who ratted out the protagonist in my book Niketown. Apologies if anybody kept picturing this guy while reading it.

Watching CLERKS in retrospect it plays different. It’s like a time capsule from a more naive time. We didn’t know the prominence that nerds and forced pop culture talk and raw, uncinematic movies (perhaps involving less speechifying and more mumbling) would eventually have. We weren’t used to Kevin Smith, so we didn’t see so much of his voice in the phrases, the dirty jokes, the stories they tell, the obsession with dicks and blowjobs and the sympathy for dudes who succumb to a hypocritical double standard about women’s sex lives. We didn’t know the wacky drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) was a real person who would later struggle with a serious addiction, so the boys romanticizing him as a guy who has life figured out didn’t seem as full of shit as it does now.

A familiarity with Smith’s voice now makes it seem even more like a school play. It’s non-actors with a certain charisma, but they can’t always make this talk feel natural. Compare this to Tarantino, whose dialogue is just as stylized, but his actors’ performances and his camerawork in his first feature were already stronger than anything Smith has done to date. He knows how to sell his world better.

But in a way the amateurishness contributes to the scrappy overachieving underachiever charm of the thing. And by coincidence I guess the grainy 16 mm black and white gives it a more artful look than if he could’ve afforded color film or was born later and made this with today’s clean-looking digital video. Imagine how badly he would’ve shot that fucking mini-mart! It was a good technology limitation for him to have. It brought a visual style to the ugliness of a New Jersey parking lot.

Before I wrap up there is one major error made in the movie that I’d like to point out in a special segment I like to call HOLLYWOOD’S BIGGEST GOOFS, FOUL-UPS AND EPIC WHOPPERS [three exclamation points] !!!

As fun as CLERKS is, it also contains the mother of all continuity holes that you could drive a truck over. If you pay close attention you’ll notice that in one scene Randal tells Dante he needs to borrow his car to go rent a movie at another video store. “I work in a shitty video store!” he says. “I wanna go to a good video store so I can get a good movie!”

BUT… in another scene later on, three (3) copies of UNDER SIEGE can clearly be seen available to rent in his store. So much for not having any good movies!

still_clerks01
WHOOPSIE! Talk about a blunder! How bout hiring some fact checkers next time, Hollyweird?

Obviously that’s the kind of huge error that a movie can never entirely recover from, and it’s kind of befuddling to me that they haven’t gone back in and fixed it digitally yet. Once they finally do that CLERKS will be a pretty good movie. In my experience it stands up to a watch once every twenty years.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 27th, 2015 at 8:51 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Clerks”

  1. “He does not strike me as a born filmatist at all, as he’d probly be the first, second and third to tell you on six different podcasts.”

    “WHOOPSIE! Talk about a blunder! How bout hiring some fact checkers next time, Hollyweird?”

    Both of these sentences delighted me to no end.

    I’m really enjoying this series of “first” movies. Thanks, Vern!

  2. Even though the dialogue is obviously a bit overwritten and the movie is full of outrageous hijinks, there’s still a legitimacy to this movie which really makes it. The world feels very real because, well, it IS real, and Smith was intimately familiar with it. The fact that the mundane and minute details of working a shitty job are so perfectly captured here gives the entire enterprise a sense of truth that probably makes it feel a bit weightier and more profound than it otherwise would be.

    Compare it, for example, to its sequel and you can see a huge difference: the fast-food joint in CLERKS 2 feels nothing like a real place where real people work, and it’s amazingly ignorant of who works that kind of job and what it’s like. I still think it’s a charming movie, but the unexpected poignancy and keen observations of CLERKS is totally absent. Smith’s dialogue is still funny, but his subsequent movies are so far removed from the real world they might as well be sit-coms. Heck, even TUSK, which is ABOUT PODCASTING, something you would think Smith would know a lot about, feels totally plastic and phony. I’ve enjoyed all his movies to some degree, but I think CLERKS is the best and most interesting, because it’s the one movie where Smith is as interested in reality as he is in funny lines.

  3. CLERKS 2 will always have a special place in my heart because in that movie Smith tells the world (something we know, of course) that it’s okay to stay in a shitty job just to be able to support a lifetime of watching movies, playing games, drink beer and have fun!

  4. Mr S, where CLERKS 2 really succeeds IMO is in capturing the feeling of being stuck in your shitty life, while all your friends are moving on to better lifes or at least lifes that society wouldn’t look down on and give you shit all the time. The feeling you have when you realize that you are in your 30s and you life the kind of life that you NEVER wanted to live and the only thing that makes you happy is the current status quo with your friends and your unimportant, but at least kinda fun job, which is all about to get taken away from you. The feeling when you have to decide if you gonna do what will most likely make your life safe, but yourself unhappy or if you dare to take the next step to chase your dream. I love CLERKS 2 to death and it’s in my book of fucking great sequels (because of all things mentioned and how Smith managed to make a REAL continuation of part one, instead of just copying it), but it’s very difficult for me to watch it, because of how close to home it hits for me.

    Minus the donkey fucking.

  5. C.J. — I like CLERKS 2 quite a lot, and I agree, it does a good job capturing the desperation of these two now middle-aged guys who were once slackers and now seem closer to total failures. I appreciate the movie’s affection for them and its good-hearted assurance that hey, you can go home again, and sometimes it’s all right to.

    My point, though, is that compared to the original CLERKS, CLERKS 2’s understanding of and interest in the actual details of the shitty job they’re doing is vapid and generic. Smith spent a long time working at that convenience stores, and he knew the little ins and outs and odd details to include in the movie that make it feel authentic and lived-in. I doubt he ever worked fast food, and if he did he’s clearly forgotten what it’s actually like. The fact that they’re fast-food workers specifically is not really important to the movie in the same way the actual jobs and the details thereof are important to the original CLERKS.

    Not that it’s a huge problem or anything. I find it a totally funny, good-hearted movie anyway, and it contains one of Rosario Dawon’s most overpoweringly adorable performances ever. But the emphasis is different, its on the quips and characters rather than the details of their day-to-day work.

  6. I had a book that had the screenplays for this and Chasing Amy so I think I read the screenplay before I actually watched it. I think both this and Chasing Amy are sort of more entertaining as screenplays than actual films.

  7. I discovered another UNDER SIEGE-related whoopsie the other day while listening to Rob Cohen’s producer’s commentary for THE RUNNING MAN. He said that he hired Andrew Davis as the original director on the project because Arnold liked the performance Davis got out of Seagal in UNDER SIEGE, but UNDER SIEGE didn’t come out until several years after THE RUNNING MAN. Even ABOVE THE LAW, another Davis/Seagal joint, came a few years later. He must have been thinking of CODE OF SILENCE, in which Davis got a decent performance out of bearded slab of redwood Chuck Norris. Apparently Arnold was bummed when Davis got shitcanned for being wishy-washy and holding up the production, but at least they got to work together on COLLATERAL DAMAGE.

    Anyway, yeah, CLERKS. Seminal movie, still an entertaining little curio to this day. I was one of those people blown away by it when it first came out. You could just have people talking about normal everyday shit for a whole movie? And it didn’t suck? I don’t think 90s cinema really started for me until that day.

    Of course, I quickly became sick to death of 90s cinema, but you know. Not that day.

    It’s funny that Dante is the professional actor in the cast but Randall blows him away at every turn. The guy’s just got natural delivery.

  8. CJ, you’re telling us you’ve never f***ed a donkey?!

  9. I don’t know, I think RED STATE is a pretty impressive, angry, offbeat movie. I was really impressed by it, especially after the awful COP OUT. I think it’s better than SCHOOL OF ROCK, anyway.

  10. Agree, the podcast line and Under Siege error are classic.

    As for the Death Star talk, what appealed to me about it in 1994 was not that I felt it was like I talk about movies, but rather the opposite. I loved and talked about movies endlessly but even I never thought about a movie on the level of Death Star construction and independent contractors.

    Maybe now a lot of bloggers and tweeps do that so much it seems common. Maybe they always did in private and I didn’t know until Clerks, or maybe they all do it now because of Kevin Smith movies and podcasts.

    Btw: Franchise Fred approves the Mallrats 2 he hinted about.

  11. pegsman, I know, how weird is this, right? :D

    Mr Sublety: Noted, but the “adventures in having a shitty job” angle isn’t really important that time anyway.

  12. The Original Paul

    March 28th, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I feel like I should have something interesting or profound to say about this movie or how it affected me or something, but it really didn’t. Perhaps because I’d already had a string of shitty (in some cases literally; you try having a job where you spend the last half-hour of your shift every day unblocking the public toilets in the place where you work) jobs by the time I saw this movie, shitty enough that what Dante and Randall were doing seemed pretty damn tame in comparison. But maybe that’s the point. A job doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever to make you feel like you’re stuck in a rut.

    I liked it though. And I liked the sequel. Looking back on these two films reminds me of a time when you could have those “nerd discussions” without feeling like a complete arsehole because nowadays the “nerds” have gone from being the quirky plucky underdogs to the obsessive control-freak villains. (Not an exaggeration: how many movies have there been recently where the main villain or villains were self-conscious nerds / geeks? There’s a reason for that.) There’s a bit of that aspect in CLERKS 2, but it’s largely played for laughs (the “trilogies” comparison). I don’t know if you could necessarily write a scene like that nowadays, at least not without it coming across are more uncomfortable or obnoxious than funny.

  13. I think a saving grace of Clerks is Randall’s speech at the end where he points out that Dante is full of shit, and that he’s just got a regular boring life the same as everyone else. It really speaks a level of self-awareness that I think is lacking in some of Smith’s later works.

    (And here I don’t mean “self-awareness” like, “this is a joke that we know that we’re making, isn’t that funny?”, I mean it more like, “I recognize the tendency in myself to want to dramatize my own life into High Tragedy, and this tendency informs a lot of this movie, but I also recognize that it’s bullshit.”)

  14. When I first watched Clerks it blew my mind. And the second time. And the third… It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. Clerks 2 is a piece of shit though.

  15. ‘We didn’t know the wacky drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) was a real person who would later struggle with a serious addiction, so the boys romanticizing him as a guy who has life figured out didn’t seem as full of shit as it does now.’

    I think that aspect is pretty interesting. I have known people who lived life by their own terms or had this mysterious ability to get by without buying into a typical adult life of responsibility or who exuded an antisocial charisma that seems so glamorous…for a while. I’m sure some of those people go on living a life of dynamic rebellion or successful non-conformity, but the ones I’ve met all crashed down to Earth and then kept going, their failure as spectacular as the potential they’d squandered. Their wildness becomes tragic as they become addicts and deadbeats. Poor, damaged people. But, when you’re young, you envy them. They’re the rock stars of your social circles. My heart breaks for them. Kevin Smith could really do right by his friend by writing that story.

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>