Monday, February 25, 2019

Film Appreciation - We Lived Through Another Day

Cody Hamman rings up some Film Appreciation for Kevin Smith's life-changing 1994 debut Clerks.

I lost a lot in 2017 and 2018. My parents, just eleven weeks apart from each other. The house I lived in all of my life. My dog Zeppelin, who passed away at age 16. It's like I've been living the worst country song ever composed. And on February 26, 2018 I woke up to another scare - a news headline reporting that Kevin Smith had been hospitalized due to a massive heart attack. Thankfully he went on to recover and is now back to making movies, as a new Jay and Silent Bob movie just went into production the week this article is being posted, but I was worried for a moment there. Losing Kevin would have been another major blow to me... And while "major blow" may sound funny, they're not pleasant to receive.

There's no question about it, Kevin Smith is the #1 entertainer of my life. No one could possibly compete; no one's coming down the line that could ever provide me with as much entertainment as Kevin has over the twenty-four years I've been a fan. Ever since I watched his feature directorial debut Clerks when it was first released on VHS in (according to the internet) May of 1995, he has been a constant presence in my life - even though we've only spent a little bit of time in the same places, and have only directly interacted long enough for us to take a picture together when I was 18, at a Vulgarthon event back in 2002. His films have been part of my regular viewing rotation ever since '95, I have watched each one of them multiple times. Most of them many, many times. First it was the movies themselves on VHS, then when DVDs came along I would often watch them with the commentary tracks on as well. I have purchased the books he wrote, collected his comic books, worn shirts with his image on them. Once I got the internet, I started following his posts on his website's message board, and these days follow him on social media. In early 2007, his work started taking up even more of my time when he began recording podcasts, starting with SModcast and gradually branching out into multiple other shows. I have listened to every podcast he has ever recorded. A handful of those episodes I have even watched being recorded, as many of them have been done in front of live audiences.

For a while, Kevin was doing live broadcasts on his SModcast Radio network, a morning show with his wife Jennifer Schwalbach and another show with Jason Mewes. I listened live - and was in what was probably the best shape of my life during that period, because I would go on three mile walks while listening to those broadcasts.

The podcasts alone have taken up thousands of hours. I have devoted a lot of my life to allowing Kevin Smith to keep me entertained.

I'm 35 now, and was just 11 years old when I watched Clerks for the first time. I had been looking forward to it, having seen the trailer ahead of some other Miramax or Dimension release, and made sure to rent it as soon as it was available. It may seem odd that an 11-year-old could connect with Clerks the way I did, but I would say that it probably has a lot to do with the fact that Kevin is the age of my older siblings. He's 13 years older than me, my siblings are 13 and 10 years older than me. So I spent a good deal of time around people that were part of Kevin's generation, particularly my brother and his friends, guys who were frequently discussing sexual matters and making sex jokes, much like the characters in Clerks. The crude humor in the film was familiar to me, I heard people talking like that all the time in my own life. I was also a bit of a strange kid, in that I could already relate to the existential angst being felt by the lead character, 22-year-old Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran). At 11 the adolescent depression was settling in, and instead of enjoying childhood I was looking forward to the day when I could start building my best life. I'm still looking forward to that day, by the way.

When the end credits started to roll and I heard Soul Asylum's "Can't Even Tell", I felt like it was the song of my life. Those lyrics described my day-to-day mindset... Which was really no way for an 11 year old to be thinking. But that's how it was, and that's part of why Clerks struck such a chord with me.

It also happens to be hilarious.

The film begins with Dante being called to work on what was supposed to be his day off, the first bit of bad luck on a day that will be packed full of it. Dante works at the Quick Stop convenience store, and the majority of the film takes place within that store and the video store next door, RST Video, where his longtime friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) works. Well, Randal sort of works there. He spends most of his day over at Quick Stop, discussing various topics (personal lives, jizz moppers, Star Wars) with Dante. Kevin was actually working at Quick Stop and RST himself when he made the movie, and scraped together the $27,575 budget through methods like selling off his comic book collection and running up some high credit card bills. This is one reason why he's a filmmaker and I have yet to make a film; there's no way I would risk going into debt like that. Taking that risk paid off quite well for him.

The world really piles it on Dante (and some of the people around him) over the course of the day. Everything that could go wrong does, to a stunning degree. His boss swears to come in and take over at noon but then goes out of state instead, leaving Dante to man the register until closing time. Betrayed, Dante dares to close the store and go outside a couple times - once to play a hockey game he was scheduled to play at 1pm, later because he finds out a former girlfriend died and he has to go over to the funeral home. Both times, things go as horribly as possible.

Dante brings some of the bad luck on himself. For seven months he has been dating a nice, supportive girl named Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti), who has been encouraging him to go back to school and do something with his life. Behind Veronica's back, he has been having regular conversations with his ex-girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), who is off at college in Ohio, and wishing he could get back together with her. Never mind that Caitlin cheated on him all the time. Dante can overlook that, but he can't deal with the number of guys Veronica confesses she gave blowjobs to before she ever met him.

That number is 37, a very important number in the Kevin Smith legend.

So he would occasionally have the option to cut away from Dante and Randal, Kevin also put some characters outside the store, casting Jason Mewes and himself as the most iconic characters he ever created: the manic, foul-mouthed drug dealer Jay and his cohort Silent Bob. Silent Bob tends to live up to his name, usually only speaking one line in each movie. I'm very quiet myself and bear some resemblance to Kevin, so I've been referred to as Silent Bob many times over the years. The first time I wore a shirt with a drawn version of Silent Bob on it in the presence of my paternal grandmother, she thought it was a drawing of me.

Jay and Silent Bob are a rough version of themselves in this film, they would get figured out as the movies went along. Jay would become more likeable, he's off-putting at times in this one, and Bob would become more expressive. They would both basically turn into living cartoons, which made them characters that could be put into all sorts of outrageous situations.

The cast of Clerks was made up of Kevin's friends and stage actors from around New York / New Jersey, with Kevin's mom and sister even appearing in the film, as does his ex-girlfriend. Some of his friends took on multiple roles - Walt Flanagan, who would go on to run the Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash comic book store and star in the TV series Comic Book Men, plays several different customers, while producer Scott Mosier plays two characters, one of them a memorable fellow called Snowball. There are some cast members who come off a little awkward and trip over their lines, but as a fan of low budget filmmaking I find that stuff to be endearing. The lead cast did great work bringing their characters to life.

O'Halloran's long-suffering Dante is a bit of a pain, occasionally deserving of some of the suffering, sometimes whiny to an annoying degree, yet we can still side with him through most of what he endures because everything that happens around him is so insane. I can relate to this character more than I would like to admit, especially in the scene in which he discusses his inability to make changes in his life. Here's another reason why I'm not currently making movies.

Anderson was an incredible find. Sure, he did recently disappoint a lot of fans when he torpedoed Clerks III just weeks before filming was supposed to begin, but that doesn't take away from the performances he delivered in Clerks and Clerks II. He had never done any acting before getting cast in this movie, but he is a natural in the role of Randal and made him one of my all-time favorite characters in cinema.

Sadly, Lisa Spoonauer passed away in 2017 at the age of just 44. I always liked her performance as Caitlin in this film and would have liked to have seen her do more acting over the years.

I don't think Clerks ever earned much praise for its visual style, but that's not a knock against Kevin's frequent cinematographer David Klein, as there were a lot of restrictions on what could be done in this scenario. There weren't many options outside of just pointing the camera at two people as they hung around the stores. Clerks was shot in black & white, which I'm in favor of - I wish more movies were black & white, as I find that black & white cinematography can be quite beautiful. The black & white 16mm film stock used for Clerks, however, didn't result in a very beautiful image. Still, that's another part of its low budget charm.

The element that really makes Clerks shine is the screenplay. I could connect with the characters because they spoke in a way I was familiar with. At the same time, the dialogue is more clever (and more vulgar) than the conversations I would overhear, and the characters had a better vocabulary than most people I have ever known. Kevin is a master of dialogue, and it was the scripts for his early films, along with Quentin Tarantino's writing on his own early films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) that helped me improve my writing and discover my own dialogue skills.

Clerks is one of my favorite movies and one of the most important movies in my life, as it began my life of Kevin Smith fandom. I have to thank my mom for allowing me to pursue that fandom. She's the reason I was able to get so much Kevin Smith merchandise in my teens, she was my ride to all of the events I've attended. Those weren't just Q&As, movie screenings, and live podcast recordings in my home state of Ohio, those were also a trip into Michigan on a snowy night to see a special screening of Red State and multiple trips to New Jersey. Mom became a fan of Kevin while helping me get to these events. She didn't just drop me off, she was with me at most of them. We spent her birthday one year watching Kevin and Mosier record a SModcast episode in Cleveland. The first time I was in the same room with Kevin, mom was there, sitting beside me. That occasion was the 2000 edition of his Vulgarthon movie marathon in New Jersey, and we were even interviewed by someone from a local newspaper while we were standing in line outside the theatre:

Susan Hamman drove more than 600 miles from her home in Ohio, with her son, Cody, 16. 
"I like him [Smith]," Hamman said. "But Cody’s the real fan." 
"The characters are kinda like people you know," Cody said.

We returned to New Jersey for another Vulgarthon in 2002, and went back again for an outdoor screening of Clerks in 2006. These were very long drives, but mom endured them for me. We bonded over my interests and went on a lot of adventures. I miss going on those adventures.

I've had a rough time lately, but I don't want to end this article on a down note, even if Dante does say that life is "a series of down endings", much like the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. The good news is, Kevin Smith is still with us, seems to be healthier than ever, and he's still making movies. As long as he keeps making them, I'll keep watching them. And I'll keep listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and enjoying whatever else he puts out into the world. I've been a fan of his for most of my life, and will continue being a fan for the rest of my life.

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