In 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.
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.
Same 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!
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.