It seems that the movies of Kevin Smith have been on my mind since my return from Pensacon, and my brief meeting with Joey Lauren Adams. I always had a soft spot for the clever dialogue, pop culture references, and the poignant soft spots that defined the series of movies. that defined the “View Askewniverse”, so I thought I would ride some nostalgia and take a moment to revisit those early films.
I was in my late teens, early 20′s when I discovered the indie world of filmmakers such as Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise), and Kevin Smith (Clerks). While I wasn’t the Texan that spent a day touring Europe with a beautiful French girl, I absolutely was a video store jockey working with one of my best friends, renting Sega CD games, Cinemax level softcore “passion” films and anime, while mocking our unibrowed boss. Clerks really was life for us, grousing as to why any returned Cheech & Chong films always smelled like a mixture of feces and weed, the endless rush of customers freaking out because we never had enough Jurassic Park in stock, the time we kidnapped the store’s video camera to make low-budget Batman films and ran those instead of the in-store PSAs. There was also the time that some customer left an actual turd in the return movie drop box. When Clerks came out, it was like someone had “gotten” my day to day struggles with the retail masses, and I was every bit a “Dante”.
Mallrats was the next film, and while filled with memorable lines, wasn’t as strong as Smith’s first film. Again, it touched on familiar subjects near and dear, such as shopping malls and comic books, but it was here that Smith’s predilection for Looney Tunes-esque slapstick humor began to manifest. From Stan Lee to teaching the rather horrid way of smiting one’s enemies via the “Stink Palm”, Mallrats had its own charm, though the pacing was a little uneven, switching from “real world” to cartoony and back again. I never really thought about it then, but it was more noticeable now on how it was two distinct types of comedies.
Chasing Amy remains Smith’s best work for a number of reasons: The heartfelt dialogue, the perils of jealousy, the depths of loyalty, the wonderful feeling of being in love and baring your soul to another person mixed with the crushing grief when it doesn’t work or stupid things like insecurity and hang ups get in the way of making something work. At its heart, I also think it’s a bit of a fairy tale for men: The story of “turning” an absurdly cute lesbian into a heterosexual relationship. And yet, to say that the message it just that would be doing the story a disservice. It’s also about getting out of your comfort zone to not only find and accept love, even when it is unconventional. “Love conquers all” in some cases, and I think here, that was the lesson that failed to be realized, only to be taught later in retrospect. It’s a very personal piece, and it shows. It also awakened one of my first real deep crushes on an actress, but I’ve covered that a fair bit already.
Dogma is an interesting piece. I am predisposed to having a soft spot for it as two of my long-time friends are running background in one of the opening scenes, but it’s an earnest exploration in understanding religious faith, and isn’t afraid to ask questions. One of the more meaningful exchanges in the film that personally resonated with me was discussed thusly:
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier….
Another one of Smith’s “thoughtful” pieces, it still can’t fully escape from juvenile slapstick (such as a giant shit monster), but it is otherwise earnest and philosophical in its execution.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. This is where I believe that the “View Askewniverse” is truly its own reality well outside of our own. You can have love, and catharsis, and meaningful chatter about anything from life goals to Death Star contractors, to in this case, a literal live action cartoon. Jay and Silent Bob can work reasonably well enough as protagonists (see Dogma), but this film is ultimately Smith’s intended send-off to his world, and makes sure to cram in almost every single reference that he can to his previous works (yet, light on Dogma content). The film set out wanting to cheer everybody, offend everybody, and make a cinematic party for themselves. There are still absolutely funny moments, and it released a mere 2 1/2 weeks before 9/11, so you could easily make terrorist jokes and no one really cared, because really, what was there to be scared of?
Smith literally closed the book on these characters, and yet after Jersey Girl was a critical and commercial flop, he ran back to the beginning where he started his work.
Clerks II hit a resonant chord with me when it debuted: I was just into my early 30′s, getting into a then serious (and still going) relationship, and had just gotten out of a job that I had been doing a decade before, and into doing my own thing. Sarcasm, life observations, self analysis with a mild case of mockery still seem to be my forte, and I could and can relate to life changing and growing up. Again, for all the movie’s “life observations”, it still breaks character with an out of universe dance-off, and a “donkey scene that, while it leaves the perpetual horrors of that scene largely to the imagination, could have sufficed purely on the facial reactions of the protagonists. The last 10-15 minutes of the film are poignant and sentimental, and a reminder of the comforts of “home” with the fact that the more some things change, the more they stay the same. Even when you finally have to grow up.
With the universe again “closed” (well, at least until Mallrats 2 and Clerks III), it really became apparent how much of a “time capsule” these films are Video stores, once a weekend pilgrimage, are all but forgotten outside of Netflix and Redbox. The mall was once the primary source of all things commerce. People could greet and see off their friends and loved ones at the airport. Hell, you could walk up to the gate just 15 years ago. The phrase “terrorist” was a joke that no one took seriously, as opposed to some potential threat always lurking on the fringes and making people check your bags at theme parks. I was a video store clerk. I was a mallrat. I too harbored a crush on Joey Lauren Adams. And the “Askewniverse” for all its gross out gags and cartoon silliness, also spoke true for more than a few times.
I hope Kevin Smith finds his way back to that “truthfulness” and candid demeanor that he once held with his earlier works. The majority of his stories these days seem to veer more towards the numerous times he gets stoned these days (an irony in itself, considering that he was a straight-edge in real life merely played a stoner). And I’m not exactly sure what the Hell kind of mood that you need to be in order to watch Tusk (an issue that I’ve constantly had stonewalling me every time that I’ve even remotely considered watching Human Centipede as well. Seriously, what place do you have to be in to watch these films? It’s like “I wonder if…. Nah. I still can’t do this.” Dude. Seriously. I can’t wrap my head around it).
In any case, it was a fond revisit to an older time in my life, with friends both from a cinematic world and from my own personal experiences. And it’s reminded me that I still have some stories that I need to tell, and well, I’m not getting any younger. And there’s a lot to say.
I think it’s time to start finally writing and telling those stories for a change….