Editor’s note: With the release of TUSK today, Boston film critics Sean Burns and Jake Mulligan thought it would be interesting to reflect on the films Kevin Smith. What follows is a candid conversation.
Jake Mulligan: We need to talk about Kevin Smith. The other day, you texted me about his new film: “Even the positive reviews of that movie make it sound unbearable.” It got me thinking about the fact that we simply don’t get excited about “the new Kevin Smith movie” anymore (“we” referring to you and I, as well as to the mythical “online community of moviegoers” that we all construct via our social-media feeds).
That hasn’t always been the case. I grew up in the 90s, watching and rewatching what was then dubbed The Jersey Trilogy. You’ve given strong reviews to some of Smith’s work, notably Dogma. Fuck, sir: Clerks played at Cannes. This guy meant something to us, to our generation, and to the era of cinema history we lived through. On that particular note, I’d go as far as to say that Smith’s visually staid compositions and deadpanned-but-still-somewhat-naturalistic writing tendencies mark him – for better or worse – as the link between the Jarmusch/Linklater/Lee school of late 80s American independent cinema and the 2000s-era Duplass/Swanberg/Shelton quote-unquote “mumblecore” crew.
In light of that significance to the development of 90s-era cinema and cinephiles – which has now, to some extent, been retconned from the history books – lets set a challenge for ourselves. Can we talk about Kevin Smith, the artist? Can we look back at everything from Clerks to Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and get to the bottom of why he has had the ultimate love/hate relationship with online movie lovers? Can we ignore the feud with critics, the Twitter account, the podcasts and the pot? Can we?
Sean Burns: It’s tough to talk about Kevin Smith films without getting personal, in part because he seems to take these kind of things so personally himself, but mostly I think because for my particular generation he was “our guy.” I was nineteen years old when Clerks came out and it’s still impossible to overstate the joy of identification I felt while sitting in New York City’s stuffiest art-house cinema (the dreaded Angelika) and seeing characters just like my old friends and I up there on the big screen. The suburban ennui, the academic discussions of Star Wars and pornography, the non-stop masturbation jokes—these were “my people,” and Clerks felt like the closest thing I’d ever seen to my own life in a movie. (Hell, not only did I work in a video store, I worked in a video store where Kevin Smith bought LaserDiscs.)
Mind you, this was two decades ago, before Twenty-somethings Who Can’t Get Their Shit Together became a genre unto itself. Clerks felt fresh, and the rude energy was thrilling. Popular culture has coarsened so much during the intervening decades, it’s easy to forget that in those more Puritanical times the film was initially slapped with an NC-17 just for language alone. We were still four years away from Cameron Diaz rubbing semen in her hair in a mainstream blockbuster and Monica Lewinsky’s Presidentially jizz-stained dress had yet to become part of the National Conversation, so all three times I went to see Clerks there were furious walkouts in the audience— usually when Randall was talking about the kid who broke his neck trying to blow himself. Watching that movie at the Angelika felt like somebody farted in church, and I mean that as a high compliment indeed.
I think a lot of the antipathy towards Smith these days—at least for myself and the guys I knew in college, where we all practically wore out our VHS tapes of Clerks and Mallrats—is coming from a resentful sense of disappointment. Movies like Clerks II and Cop Out carry with them such a stench of indolence, like he’s not even trying. It’s extremely difficult not to conflate this with Smith’s unfortunate public persona of an artist so at ease with his shortcomings that he can’t be bothered to learn more about his chosen craft. No other filmmaker makes me feel like such a schoolmarm, constantly scolding the class clown for not applying himself and never living up to his potential.
Mulligan: Hold up for a minute. Let’s talk about that potential. Because it may have been more than just potential. Maybe this man actually made four truly strong films—personal, insightful, funny films—and then we started pretending we never actually liked them because, after a certain age, we just got too embarrassed to associate with him socially. (Kevin Smith is kind of like our parents that way.)
Anyway, Clerks. There’s more going on here more than just a relatable premise. For starters, this movie looks good. It’s got a grainy, ’90s-home-video texture that establishes the grungy, workaday mood before a single dirty or geeky word is uttered. There’s some admirable visual flourishes beyond the texture, too. I’m thinking of, say, the shot of Randall lazing off in the video store, surrounded by neatly organized commerce, all while Jay and Bob, and the rest of the uncaring world, goof off outside, framed in a window stashed in the corner of the image. That shot is dense, and there’s plenty more like it throughout the film. You suggest that Smith happened upon a sort of minimum-wage poetry—I’ll add that he found the visual language to match.
Of course, as your look-at-the-walkouts memories prove, what really shook people in Clerks was the script. I think there’s more going on there than just filthy words, too. The film is acidic, astute, and above all else, deeply aware of its own smallness, and of the smallness of its characters’ aims. Randall is our id, always making snap judgments, causing break-ups, searching out sex—he’s a selfish pleasure drone. Dante is the ego: He’s just as much of an unambitious pleasure-seeker (the cheating, the cutting-work-to-go-play-hockey thing), but he knows how to present his laconic misbehavior in a slightly more socially acceptable manner. Clerks is more than just a comedy featuring casually sexist, privileged, unaccomplished ’90s slackers—it digs in and investigates the selfish attitudes and behaviors that fueled the creation of that mindset in the first place.
I’m not quite as high on Mallrats, but it offers more evidence that Smith has a literary bent that his contemporaries and successors lack almost entirely. (You’ve got to dig through quite a few VOD offerings from Magnolia and Roadside to find an exchange as sharp as “They call her Trish, the Dish.” / “Nobody calls me that.”) This has been oft-touted as Smith’s attempt to do a filthy John Hughes movie, and Jason Lee’s Brodie may indeed be an alternate universe Ferris Bueller. He abuses his girlfriends, his best friends, and even his community—but hey, he’s a charming white “nice guy,” so everyone should, and does, love him anyway. In making Brodie so damn unpleasant, while simultaneously retaining the structure and sentimental payoffs of a Hughes-style script, Smith manages to put a pretty damning twist on this particular scampy male archetype.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to present some grand unified theory where Kevin Smith is a studied critic of the chinks in masculinity’s armor—he’s hardly Philip Roth or anyone like that. But there’s something striking about the way Mallrats manages to reveal the self-absorbed mindset that lurked behind the protagonists in movies like Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, by having the will to make its own charismatic male lead a huge asshole. In these early Smith films, the male id has come out to play.
Burns: Well, I’m honestly not sure how much of a masculine anti-Ferris auto-critique is going on in Mallrats and how much is just Smith following established genre tropes of smutty ’80s comedies. Remember, the male lead is actually charisma vacuum Jeremy London and Brodie’s the comic relief sidekick, like Stiles in Teen Wolf or Jackie Earle Haley in Losin’ It. We just think back on Brodie as the star because Jason Lee so dominates the movie with his heroically obnoxious performance. For the first 15 minutes of Mallrats, I was wondering why anyone would ever allow this loud jerk in front of a camera, and by the closing credits I wanted him to be my new best friend.
I just think it’s a damn funny movie—a smarter version of the junk I grew up watching on HBO late at night, hoping to see some boobs. It scales great heights of Ben Affleck douchebaggery—his anal sex fixation is the movie’s best running gag. My heart was broken when Smith apologized for Mallrats at the Independent Spirit Awards (“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said to great laughter and applause, then later claimed he was joking). There were a lot of accusations of “selling out” at the time, back when such a thing was looked down upon instead of aspired to, but I think it’s a perfectly acceptable example of an indie filmmaker applying his own personal sensibility to a studio product.
Mallrats arrived a couple years before that whole Kevin Williamson-fueled teen boom really kicked in and took over the box office for awhile, when suddenly every other movie starred Freddie Prinze, Jr. or Rachel Leigh Cook. I’ve always wondered if the movie might have fared better just a little further down the road when such throwbacks became more fashionable. (Personally, I’ll take this over American Pie any day of the week.)
Mulligan: Someday we’ll pull a Haskell Wexler, break out the stopwatches, and determine once and for all whether Jason Lee or Fake Randall Floyd is the true protagonist of Mallrats. (Also: I don’t think I’m reaching when I say the movie is casting a critical eye towards all the horndog men it depicts; Tricia’s book is titled “Boregasm: A Study of the 90s Males’ Sexual Prowess,” after all.) Either way, whether you take this as genre reconstruction or just some-yuks-and-some-tits, you’re certainly right: Mallrats was preferable to its peer group of cheapo Dimension Films teen movies.
The reason why is that “potential” you mentioned earlier on. It’s preferable because Smith has a handle on structure, genre, and all those elements of the craft you can pick up from watching a lot of movies. That potential was palpable for a while: Smith’s 3rd and 4th films can’t be called unambitious, either. Chasing Amy, in retrospect, feels almost like an essential pre-millennial movie: a melodrama about a bunch of subculture-obsessed part-time artists navigating the trouble that comes along with not having the terminology or the support system required to define their shifting, and culturally marginalized, sexual and gender identities.
Affleck’s alpha-bro character makes a laughable amount of horrible decisions throughout the script; Amy’s almost explicitly a tragic narrative caused entirely by the actions of a dumb, entitled, and thoroughly uncultured white male. (Sensing a trend? Three movies about underachieving white dudes who say whatever pops into their mind, and destroy basically all of their interpersonal relationships in the process.) Smith, again, pushes hard on the dumb-obnoxious-male angle, letting his three characters clash up against their own prejudices and mental blocks throughout. Amy is like a grungified ’90s take on Douglas Sirk material.
Burns: Gawd, I wish I liked Chasing Amy more. It’s so damn sincere and well-intentioned, and I recall, at least the first time around, being quite taken with the searching quality of Smith’s screenplay—it’s the work of a guy who is really putting himself out there and trying to figure some difficult shit out. That said, I find Chasing Amy impossible to sit through on repeat viewings because the thing is just so bloody horrible to look at—I mean, it’s just visually abysmal. The flat staging, all those disjointed insert shots, sloppy hand-held whenever anybody yells, and Affleck constantly fumbling with his cigarettes as if reaching for a life raft during those cramped, monotonous, endless dialogue scenes (even the audio is lousy). I can never, ever make it past the hockey game when Smith keeps cutting to the same couple of extras in an otherwise obviously empty rink. I understand Chasing Amy was made on the cheap, but Clerks found clever and inventive ways to work around budgetary limitations, while this one just suffers from them horribly, at the most pedestrian angles possible. It is a very sweet movie that hurts my eyes.
Mulligan: Then, what is there even to say about Dogma? It’s a 130-minute religious satire that opens with a nod to Once Upon a Time in the West and ends with Alanis Morrisette, as God, exploding Ben Affleck’s head. It contains both lines like “the whole of existence is in jeopardy because of the Catholic belief structure” and scenes like one in which Kevin Smith himself conquers a demon made of shit with a small Febreze canister. Dogma is a juvenile film, but the juvenilia was the product of a particular mindset, not the product of market research. Dogma, like Amy and the other two films before it, was trying to do something.
Burns: I have a soft spot for Dogma, but it is a case in which I don’t think Smith the writer was well-served at all by Smith the director. It’s a really exciting and provocative screenplay, taking a cue from Garth Ennis’s Preacher and playing up the comic-book-fantasy elements of Catholic theology. This is a wonderful piece of writing, full of lowbrow humor yet deadly serious about questions of faith at the very same time. You mentioned how Amy deals with people lacking the terminology for their shifting identities; here’s a film in which such strict terminologies—following the letter of God’s law instead of the spirit in which it was intended—will result in the apocalypse. I adore the central argument in this movie about beliefs versus ideas, and Dogma is very much a film of ideas.
But it’s also quite poorly made. (Sensing another trend?) The actors are all over the map, with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck knocking it out of the park, Chris Rock and Alan Rickman looking lost, and if this isn’t the performance that ended Linda Fiorentino’s career then it damn well should have been. The production is dogged with cheapo special effects, bad angles and poor choices: Why on Earth, for instance, would anyone (a) give Salma Hayek all the important, heavy-lifting exposition, and (b) have her deliver it while running? The poop monster probably played better on the page.
Ah hell, I should just come out and admit the whole damn thing played way better on the page when I accidentally might have gotten my grubby hands on a copy of the script that was floating around online during the insane controversy ramping up to Dogma’s release back in 1999.
It’s tough to convey to you youngsters just how crazy people were going over this movie back then. (I recall Smith saying in an interview that Martin Scorsese called and told him: “Get ready for the worst year of your life, kid.”) Bill Donohue of the Catholic League kicked up such a massive media shitstorm, there were death threats, protests at the New York Film Festival, and eventually the Weinstein brothers had to invent a whole other corporation with the sole purpose of buying the film back from their own company, Miramax (then a subsidiary of Disney, who obviously wanted nothing to do with this particular hot potato) so they could sell it to a different distributor capable of getting the picture into theaters while attracting slightly fewer bomb threats.
At the time, I was running an art-house cinema just outside of Boston, and on the day Dogma opened, sure enough, our sidewalk was clogged with protesters waving signs, hours before my staff had even arrived for work that morning. I eventually went outside, introduced myself as the manager and asked how many had seen the movie they were protesting here today. Of course nobody had, so I invited them all to come inside and watch Dogma for free, as my guests; this way they would not be contributing any of their money to a project they considered offensive to their beliefs, and after seeing the film for themselves they could make up their own minds and protest from a position of authority.
No takers. I was shouted down, told by the group’s spokesperson that they didn’t need to actually see the movie to know that it was sinful and against God, and they would pray for me. I replied, “Your loss, as this is the first Hollywood film to make me think seriously about my faith since The Last Temptation of Christ.” (Yeah, I know that was exactly what they wanted to hear, but fuck it, I never did take rejection well and the line got one hell of a response from the crowd.)
Funny thing about those protesters, though: It was a cold and rainy-ass November when Dogma was playing, so they didn’t spend much time on the sidewalk, instead choosing to hang out in their cars or in coffee shops and only assemble out front to chant prayers for the patrons exiting our building when the movie let out. But they never did get the showtimes right, so all their Bible quote signs and “Our Fathers” always ended up waved and bellowed at folks who had just seen Being John Malkovich.