But if you visit just about any Internet message board or comment thread, you’ll find that Smith is a filmmaker that inspires fierce opinions: everyone seems to either love him or hate him. The passion he ignites among his detractors is somewhat befuddling—we’re not talking about a Michael Bay or a Brett Ratner, making mindless but ubiquitous tentpole blockbusters or fumbling beloved franchises. This is a guy who makes innocuous, low-budget comedies, basically utilizing a fairly tight crew of collaborators and aiming only to entertain some folks. Why does he inspire such vitriol?
The last, saddest refuge of someone under attack is the childlike response, “They’re just jealous,” but I think there might be something to that when it comes to Smith. When Clerks was released in fall of 1994, Smith’s backstory was as much a part of the marketing blitz as the picture itself—the film school dropout not only wrote the script (about a convenience store clerk who commiserates with his best friend, the video store clerk next door, over the course of a long and eventful day) from his own experiences, but shot the picture in the very stores where he worked, pulling day shifts and shooting during the overnight hours when they were closed. The meager production, with a price tag of around 27 grand, was financed by a combination of maxed-out credit cards, refunded school fees, a chunk of flood insurance, and the sale of part of Smith’s prized comic book collection.
But what it lacked in production value and professionalism, it made up for with real wit and intelligent writing. Smith’s dialogue (described at the time as “David Mamet meets Howard Stern”) was remarkable, a fast-paced mixture of conversational rhythms, pop culture references, high-minded wordplay, and low comedy. Like fellow Miramax kid Quentin Tarantino (whose monster hit Pulp Fiction hit a couple of months previous, with Clerks trailers attached to its prints), Smith wrote in a distinctive style that was very much of that moment in movies—post-post modern filmmakers, whose characters and dialogue were as informed by what they learned from TV and movies as what they had experienced in real life.There’s no question that Clerks has some problems. The performances are wildly uneven; Smith and his buddy Jason Mewes, in the first of their many appearances as Jay and Silent Bob, tend to fare the best, and while Brian O’Halloran (as Dante) and Jeff Anderson (as Randall) make for a good team, O’Halloran is frequently whiny and irritating (his “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” incantation is meant to be a funny running gag, but it’s merely annoying). Neither of the female leads is particularly good, and some of the bit players are just horrible (though, in all fairness, when you write that many speaking roles in a no-budget feature, you have to take what you can get). Smith’s script is, for the most part, structurally sound, but a key climactic event (involving Dante’s ex-girlfriend and her unfortunate trip to a darkened bathroom) is jarringly out of tone with the otherwise-realistic story. And the grubby black-and-white camerawork (heavy on long, uninterrupted takes and static, medium-wide framing) is utilitarian, but not terribly inspired.
The picture’s lack of aesthetic polish was a criticism that its detractors would continue to level at Smith throughout his career, though (in this case, at least) it was certainly forgivable when taking the next-to-nothing budget into account. But the idea that he wasn’t much of a filmmaker, at least from a visual standpoint, was an idea that Smith would attempt to diffuse by embracing it and making it a cornerstone of his self-deflating persona. It didn’t quiet his critics, though. It accumulated as part of the anti-Smith narrative: that he wrote a script about how his job sucked (which, they would say, anybody could do, if they just took the time to do it), scraped it together into an ugly, dumb movie, and got lucky. The director quickly seized on the best defense: in his interviews and public appearances, he would own those criticisms and perceived shortcomings, but shrug them off with a laugh. Whether he was a talented filmmaker or not, he’d say, as long as someone kept paying him to make films, he’d make them, and if you didn’t like them, there were plenty of people who did. And perhaps one of them would like to buy a Jay and Silent Bob T-shirt?
Both camps—those who had embraced Smith and those who had booed him—got a chance to take their shots with the release of his sophomore effort, the 1995 studio comedy Mallrats. Its six million dollar budget dwarfed that of Clerks, but the film tanked at the box office and with critics. Though it later attained a cult audience on home video (and was certainly better than the bulk of the scathing reviews would have you believe), it was a disappointing follow-up, swinging for goofy slapstick and formula hijinks, retaining Clerks’ vulgarity but none of its heart or wit.
The failure of his second film must’ve been a bitter pill to swallow, but two good things came out of Mallrats. First, he worked with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams, and second, that made him write a film for them. Chasing Amy was a deliberate return to his roots, a talky, low-budget comedy drama that is Smith’s best work to date. What sounds like a high-concept sex comedy—straight guy (Affleck) falls in love with a gay girl (Adams), much to the chagrin of his best friend (Lee), shenanigans ensue—is instead an uproariously funny, blisteringly honest, and quietly moving tale of male sexual anxiety and the difficulties of trust in relationships (both between friends and between lovers).
Amy is still no great shakes to look at—the compositions are frequently flat and Smith continues to see the frame as a proscenium arch for theatrical-style staging—but the storytelling and dialogue are so involving, we seldom notice or particularly care. Smith crafts his edgy boy-meets-girl tale with flair, investing Affleck’s crush and Adams’ cautious response with genuine emotional stakes, and the film gingerly and expertly negotiates the line between light-hearted comedy and full-on drama. The performances help; Affleck has seldom been better, while Lee is every bit his equal. And Adams’ work is a revelation (watch the way Affleck knocks the wind out of her the first time he utters the words “finger cuffs”) that begs the question: why didn’t we see more of her after this? When the film turns to serious matters—in Affleck’s rain-soaked confession, in their bitter argument outside of a hockey game, in the stunningly risky scene in which he proposes a resolution to their sexual issues—Smith proves that he’s no lucky-schmuck flash-in-the-pan. He’s an honest-to-God artist, and in Chasing Amy, he paints his masterpiece.
Smith followed it up with the long-awaited Dogma (a project he’d been promising, in his closing credit crawls, since Clerks); that film, which dealt irreverently with Biblical themes, proved so controversial that distributor Miramax (a subsidiary of Disney) sold it off to Lionsgate. One can hardly blame the filmmaker for wanting to take on lighter subject matter with his next film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It was his first all-out comedy since Mallrats; it would also prove to be his weakest effort since that film.
The problem isn’t that J&SBSB lacks humor; indeed, it has isolated moments that are as laugh-out-loud enjoyable as any Smith has committed to celluloid (like Jay and Bob’s visit to the set of Good Will Hunting II). But on the heels of Amy and Dogma, it feels like he’s slumming. He’s at his best when his humor is at the service of a serious topic, whether it’s religion, relationships, or working-class ennui (as in the Clerks films). Without a hook to hang his jokes on, Smith ends up wallowing in mindless vulgarity; J&SBSB spends too much of its running time indulging in fart jokes and homoerotic subtext. There is precious little of the rat-tat-tat back-and-forth that made his earlier scripts so memorable.
It’s also too reliant on callbacks and crossovers to his previous efforts. Throughout his career, Smith has cultivated himself as a brand, doing numerous Q&A appearances (themselves collected on three DVDs and counting), marketing countless pieces of tie-in merchandise (from shirts to figurines to comic books), and engaging the kind of occasionally questionable hucksterism that makes one wonder if there’s anything he won’t sell (his most recent book consisted of transcriptions of his weekly podcast with producer Scott Mosier; the one before that was a collection of his blog posts). That’s all good and well for servicing the fans, but Strike Back is pitched only at them—it ultimately amounts to a 104-minute inside joke.
What’s well worth noting, however, is the strides he takes as a director; under the eye of cinematographer Jamie Anderson, J&SBSB is downright slick, full of polished camerawork and bold compositions. His more recent efforts have attempted to merge that newfound sense of style with a return to character-driven form; while Jersey Girl was indeed a misfire, it was a misfire with heart, and both Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno showed the director playing to his strengths while taking some interesting new risks. What remains to be seen is if he will ever recapture the passion and hunger of the best of his early work.
"The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection" and the individual releases of "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy" street on Tuesday, November 17th.