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Non-Review Review: Clerks

There’s a sense of life experience in Clerks – the undeniable feeling that the people involved in the production have actually been in situations similar to those being portrayed here and are writing from experience. The directorial debut from Kevin Smith, the film has a very weird feeling to it. It is as if the script (the words and the setting) are very casual and natural, but the performers are undoubtedly conscious of the camera. It creates a weird dichotomy between the very colloquial script and the relatively stiff performances. That said, there’s a charm to the film, which never really pretends to be anything more than what it actually is, and sort of cheeky rebellion which makes it endearing.

Dante's (profane) comedy...

The film follows two low-paid convenience store employees, Dante and Randall, through an ordinary working day. Dante just tries to get through the day causing as little disruption as possible, while Randall is an overgrown petulant manchild. Of course, over the course of the day, both characters do things that would get either of them fired by any sort of management figure, but it’s all handled with such ambivalence that it doesn’t seem ridiculous that the pair are still working at their respective shops. You get the sense that nobody really cares because – well, to be honest – none of this is actually that important.

The film, shot in black-and-white, looks very rough. There’s a consciously underground artsy feeling to the film (undoubtedly helped by the fact that Smith uses titlecards with words like “Vilification” and “Paradigm” and “Syntax”, as if they were chapter headings). In a way, it feels almost like a documentary – as if we’re being treated to an insight into the weirdest day in the lives of the convenience workers who we take for granted every day of our lives.

This is helped by the fact that Smith populates his film with actors who don’t really have too much experience. They don’t feel like actors. His leads, Brian O’Halloran and – to a lesser extent – Jeff Anderson, struggle a bit to figure out the tone of their delivery (often delivering what should be organic speech in a very measured and considered way), but it lends the movie a legitimacy. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a bunch of performers delivering witty monologues in a carefully rehearsed manner. In a funny way, the inorganic delivery of these lines feels almost organic.

Even watching the film now, I have to admit that I am caught a little off guard by the casual profanity of it all. I’m familiar with Kevin Smith’s work (and I’ve seen the film before), but I was amazed by the sheer volume of swearwords and taboo topics up for discussion. It’s hard to imagine, looking back now, that it was Smith who really made it acceptable for characters to talk like that on film – to discuss sex in a candid and casual manner, perhaps sounding a bit crude, but never ambiguous. It’s remarkable to look at it now and imagine that this film was among the very first to adopt that approach to dialogue.

They just don't give a puck...

And yet it’s the geekier stuff which stays with me – for example, a discussion of the fates of the “independent contractors” lost in the Rebel attack on the second Death Star at the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Smith establishes himself as a nerd early on, but never seems ashamed – that’s perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this, that Smith doesn’t ever feel ashamed.

He’s unconfined by most conventions one would associate with the comedy. He’s willing to throw in character development with nerdy trivia with physical comedy with crude sexual references with jokes about dead bodies, in an attempt to see what works. He ends up with a rather strange cocktail, but it works. If you don’t find this particular segment funny, you might find the next one hilarious, or the one after that.

On top of that, Smith just writes good characters. Dante and Randell feel like real people, with their own foibles and fears and perspectives. It isn’t a case that the two are generic or interchangeable – Smith actually puts Dante through a character arc over the course of the day which feels natural and organic (all without Dante leaving the story for more than an hour at a time). Even Randell makes an interesting character, serving – as he does – as a mouthpiece for Smith’s more radical observations about life, the universe and everything. I think we all have one friend like Randell, who never stops talking – but has a few interesting ideas mixed in there with the absolutely insane ones.

Clerks manages to take a fairly straightforward premise and execute it with skill and grace. It single-handedly confirmed that Smith was a talent to watch, and set up most of his career that followed. While I contend that Chasing Amy is the best piece of film Smith has produced, Clerks definitely belongs on the shortlist. It’s not just a stunning debut, it’s a great film.

2 Responses

  1. Ahh I disagree about Chasing Amy. I think Clerks is a remarkable little film that definitely outshines it. I would even go as far as saying that I preferred Clerks II to Chasing Amy. I think it has absolutely everything to do with the story though. I could never get into the ‘confused lesbian’ plot

  2. I’d also agree Chasing Amy is better. “Snowballing” is about where I deemed Clerks became too childish.

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