Kevin Smith is the Richard Pryor of lo-fi independent cinema. No one in modern moviemaking works better “blue”. He is a sorcerer of scatology, a God of the dick and fart joke. And yet, just like the late, great comic, he’s a wiz at turning profanity into the profound. Unlike some who work in the medium of miscreance, there’s a meaning and a depth to his perversion. Smith is also one of the original “geeks”, standing alongside the Tarantinos and the Andersons of the craft in a desire to take film back for the true film fan. From the movies he’s made to the proposed projects that never really got off the ground, he represents the best of the genre’s original defining DIY spirit. While others merely grab their camcorder and create, Smith does something even better - he let’s his words, and by them his ideas, do the incessant talking.
So it’s odd for a medium that celebrates vision and “the image” (Blu-ray) to now house a trio of the writer/director’s least stylized turns - and yet there exactly is where we find early works like 1994’s Clerks, 1997’s Chasing Amy, and 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Smith will be the first to admit that he knows very little about the optical art of film. He has a journeyman command of mise-en-scene, but beyond that, he’s more My Dinner with Andre than North by Northwest. But when it comes to language, when it comes to making powerful statements out of some of the most repulsive concepts conceivable, he’s a genius. Argue over his ultimate success rate all you want, but Smith stands as a singular artist in an arena overloaded with copycats, wannabes, and deluded never-wills.
True, there is something to be said about the scruffy monochrome charms of Clerks. Smith used his own time in ‘retail’ to revisit the directionless lives of proto-slackers Dante (Brian O’Hallaran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson). The former works at the rundown Quick Stop convenience store. The latter avoids his responsibilities to the video rental place next door. Together, they pick on the customers and each other, using a combination of pop culture trivia superiority and four-letter denouncements to get their point across. When Dante is coaxed into working on his day off, he figures it will be a typical shift filled with idiots and weirdoes. Instead, he learns some shocking news about his current girlfriend and some equally upsetting information about the long lost love of his life.
With its focus on fellatio, its random lapse into implied necrophilia, and the nonstop curse laden assaults of its leads, Clerks would seem like the perfect candidate to have its motion picture mouth washed out with soap. As a matter of fact, as part of the many bonus features provided on this 15th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition of the title, Smith explains how the MPAA, horrified by the onslaught of F-bombs and graphic descriptions of genitalia, went and awarded an NC-17 to the film - not for hardcore sex or mindlessly gruesome violence, but for mere extrapolation of the English language. While he won the eventual legal battle, he set himself for a reputation that, often, he truly doesn’t deserve. Certainly there are times when Smith relies of crudity to sell his humor. But there are just as many laughs gained from Star Wars, dairy product expiration dates, and - of all things - lung cancer.
At its heart, though, Clerks is about relationships. In fact, almost every film Smith has made centers around friendship, love, the trouble with both and the devastation that comes with the loss of (or threatened loss of) same. For Dante and Randal, it’s all about being partners in crime, about wasting their lives in a mutually agreeable state of discontent. While they struggle against the connection between their shoddy life and their sense of self-worth, they are a cocksure illustration of the phrase misery loving company. For them, life is hockey, handing out, and complaining…a lot! Even when Dante goes off and deals with the various ladies in his life, we sense how out of place they are in his existence. Smith mines this material for lots of insights, as well as many moments of outsized wit. As a result Clerks remains a defining debut, a symbolic shot into the darkened domain of legitimate moviemaking. Oddly enough, it turned him into a rebel, a tag he wouldn’t shake until three years later, if then.
For most, Chasing Amy is Smith’s “mainstream” film, even though it deals with such unusual storyline topics as outsider comics, alternative lifestyles, and racial/gender intolerance. Artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and “inker” Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) are responsible for the cult creation Bluntman and Chronic, featuring the fictional adventures of two stoners based on real life dopers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith). While at a convention in support of their militant black (and closeted gay) friend Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), Holden meets up with fellow ‘funny book’ author Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). Instantly smitten, he tries to hook up with her. He soon learns that there is a barrier to their future love affair - she’s gay. In fact, she is adamant about not being “into” men. This doesn’t deter Holden as much as quicken his resolve. Of course, the eventual highs and lows of their courtship puts a strain on everyone…even Banky.
Like a raw nerve tweaked over and over again by emotions both radiant and revealing, Chasing Amy is as close to a masterpiece as Smith has ever created. While Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno also share such a tag, the writer/director delivers a devastating deconstruction of the male ego with this ‘penetrating’ portrait of affection and defeat. Smith knows the territory - the accompanying commentary track makes it very clear that Silent Bob’s title “tale” hits rather close to home. He also finds actors in Affleck and Adams who aren’t afraid to bare it all - including their most intimate fears and vulnerabilities - in service of a narrative which finds them fluctuating between the joys of passion and the anger of insult. Even Banky gets involved, his narrow view of Holden’s feelings turning a childhood spent inseparable into suspicion and subterfuge.
Of course, Smith keeps everything bubbling away with his standard flurry of foul-mouthed inspiration. Before their friendship turns sour, Banky and Alyssa share a Jaws-inspired conversion over cunnilingus-derived injuries that is priceless, while a high school nickname - “Finger Cuffs” - gets any equally unhealthy going over. Adams does lipstick lesbian chic really well, but she’s also great at what Smith labels “the experimental chick.” You see, Alyssa is not all she claims to be and by his horrible actions, Holden turns equally questionable - and inexcusable. Yet we care about them and want to see their relationship blossom. While the last act decision by our hero on how to “solve” things seems shockingly stupid, the rest of Chasing Amy is magnificent. It reminds even the casual Smith fan of the man’s mastery with people, and the particulars of their lives.
It would be nice to say the same about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. However, this full blown “fan film” (as former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein labeled it) really has its weaknesses. When our two pot dealing dipsticks learn that Bluntman and Chronic has been optioned for a Hollywood movie, the boys seek out old pal Holden McNeil (Affleck in a funny cameo) to get their movie check. They soon learn that Banky (Lee) owns the rights to the property and that there are hundreds of Jay and Silent Bob hating fans on the Internet. Determined to silence Messageboard Nation once and for all, the guys decide to hitchhike to California and stop the production. Along the way, they learn some ‘rules’ of the road, befriend a group of gorgeous jewel thieves, and wind up confronting their clueless onscreen doppelgangers - James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs.
Like one massive inside joke that only regulars to the View Askew Universe will get, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the ultimate measure of Smith’s undeniable nerdiness. It is top heavy with homages to everything the filmmaker holds dear - genre types, character cliché, longstanding personal and professional friendships, spot-on satiric spoofs of Tinseltown types - that when it ends up less than successful, you wonder where the problem lies. Of course, you have to have a working knowledge of 2001 popular culture to get some of the jokes (like why Biggs is constantly called “pie-f*cker”) and the Good Will Hunting sequel stuff is obvious in a still rather clever way (no one does self-effacing better than Matt Damon). Yet these are mere moments in a movie made up of lots of Jay and Silent Bob buffoonery - and while it may seem sacrilegious to say it, the pair tends to wear out its welcome.
It’s not just the incessant talk about “feline femininity”. It’s not the whole acronym as dirty joke dynamic. Heck, we even buy the duo as craven monkey caretakers (or in this case, a great ape). It’s just that, with all the things Smith could have had his iconic duo participate in, a weird hybrid of hot chick crime spree, road picture, and dweeb romance just doesn’t seem to work. Sure, we’re laughing, especially when Wes Craven and Gus Van Zant show up, but we aren’t getting the reciprocal depth that usually comes with a Kevin Smith movie. There are no grand insights here, no interpersonal inspirations of epiphanies. You want to hear Luke Skywalker curse like a sailor? No problem. Need Chris Rock to relish in his pissed-off African American activist bit? You got it. Want cameos from almost every Smith film and character to date? Here you go. But if you want the same kind of emotional impact of Chasing Amy, or even Clerks, you’ll be looking for a very long time.
All the while, Smith and several in his cast and crew offer alternate narrative overviews of the productions. Each disc comes with these definitive conversations, chances to hear the true dirt behind the frequently filthy get-togethers. Smith can be self-deprecating to fault and he tends to point out things we’d otherwise ignore, but he is such an exceptional storyteller, so swollen with the gift of gab that he can’t help but be enchanting. The rest of the scattered features tell the rest of the tale. The same goes for his movies as well. Be they no budget or Summer blockbuster, heavy with star power or captained by capable nobodies, Kevin Smith makes movies that are a triumph of talent over taste, of linguistics over lewdness. Even if a 1080p transfer and beefed up audio do little to amplify these titles limited artistry, they can’t dilute Smith’s scribing superiority. It’s what makes him this generation’s fresh prince of the foul.