The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Kevin Smith
Like the rest of the world, I first became aware of Kevin Smith because of Clerks. It was 1994 and I was watching an MTV News segment where Tabitha Soren did a piece on this subversive, black-and-white independent film about two kids that work in a convenience store and have little patience for customers. I was immediately intrigued, though I knew I would have to wait to see it. I was 18 months from getting my license and, even still, it’s not like Clerks was playing at the multiplex in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember the first time I actually saw the film, but I know I loved it. In an era when blockbusters were beginning to not only become ubiquitous, but also predictable and shameless, here was a film that was different than almost anything else playing in the theaters.
The thirty-seven dicks exchange may be the funniest, but the line that stuck with me the most was when Dante explains why The Empire Strikes Back is better than Return of the Jedi: “Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader’s his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings.” For a fourteen year-old that was a disappointment to his parents and popular but still unable to get a date in addition to going through all the usual teenage angst and suicidal thoughts, that line spoke to me.
I never understood why every movie had to have a happy ending. Life sucked and was difficult for everyone. There is no happily ever after in real life, so why do we insist our films have it? It wasn’t just movies. I hated that Hulk Hogan and Superman always won. They were so boring. In his book On Writing, Stephen King details how Misery was originally a novella in which the writer is eaten by the pig at the end, but he changed the ending when it became a full novel, explaining that no one likes to root for the main character only to have him die at the end. Why not?
This was the world that Smith turned upside down, introducing Jay and Silent Bob, a duo that is a stoner version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meets Vladimir and Estragon, going so far as to have the film end with a thief shooting Dante and emptying the cash register. That final scene was cut (of course) and I didn’t learn about the original ending until a few years later, but it made it even better to me. [Plus, he wouldn’t have been able to make Clerks II, but we’ll get to that later.]
Kevin Smith was doing it differently. And a bunch of us hopped on for the ride.
For his next feature, he was given a budget of $6 million, also known as 222 times the budget for Clerks. An homage to ‘80s comedies like Porky’s that starred a post-90210 Shannen Doherty and pre-anything Jason Lee and Ben Affleck, Mallrats was doomed for a bunch of reasons, flopping at the box office and allowing the media to engage in its favorite pastime: happily pronouncing the end of a career that it overinflated in the first place. However, like many of Smith’s works, Mallrats gained a small, but loyal and rapid cult following in the VHS market, largely because, like Anchorman and Knocked Up, it became funnier with each viewing. I actually owned Mallrats before I owned Clerks and I watched that flick over and over and over and over. Whenever someone makes reference to an uncomfortable place, I immediately want to say, “What, like the back of a Volkswagon?”
Two years later, in 1997, Smith seemed to put it all together for Chasing Amy, an unorthodox romantic comedy that was shot on a shoestring budget ($315,000 or 1/19th of Mallrats) and managed to mix comedy and romance, hilarity and heartache long before Judd Apatow built an empire out of it. It was, in fact, the first “bromantic comedy.” To me, it is Smith’s best work and every time I watch it, I find something else in my life that can relate to it, if only indirectly, especially the beautiful Silent Bob speech from which the film gets its title. With its progressive take on sexual experimentation and its exploration of the relationship between male roommates, all amidst the backdrop of comic books, Chasing Amy was truly ahead of its time.
To me, that’s Smith’s lasting legacy, at least in regards to the New Jersey Trilogy: right place, wrong time. Mallrats belonged in the ‘80s; Chasing Amy belonged in the ‘00s; Clerks belonged in every year (not just 1994).
Although he had made three films and would make nine more (and counting), it was before his fourth film that Kevin Smith found his true calling on the medium that would best showcase his talents: the internet. The rise of the ‘net coincided with Smith’s ascension as the leader of the thoughtful slackers, most of whom connected online, often on the View Askew message board. The internet would ultimately prove to be not only Smith’s last refuge, but also the place where he found a home, a voice and, ultimately, a comeback.
But all of that was far in the future. Back in 1999, Smith and Quentin Tarantino were the poster boys for Miramax, the independent movie studio that would create the films that were too risky for the majors. Tarantino’s films were seemingly too bloody and controversial; Smith’s films were seemingly too juvenile and nerdcentric.
With his fourth film, however, Smith would cross over into the controversial side. Dogma, about two fallen angels that find a loophole to get back into heaven, was being picketed and boycotted even before it had been edited. Religion is a touchy subject and even when you are raised Catholic (as Smith was) and your film reinforces the idea that God is great (as Dogma does), making any jokes at religion’s expense or claiming that parts of the Bible omitted important figures (such as a black thirteenth apostle or Jesus’s siblings) are bound to get you noticed…and reviled.
Many saw the film as Smith selling out, casting movie stars instead of regular people, but to Smith they were regular people. He helped make them stars. Jason Lee was the lead in Mallrats and the sidekick in Chasing Amy. Ben Affleck was the villain in Mallrats and the lead inChasing Amy. Matt Damon has a cameo in Chasing Amy. These people were already ensconced in Smith’s storytelling world. In fact, Affleck read Dogma while waiting for Smith to finish writing Chasing Amy and, even back then, he said he wanted to play Bartleby. Doesn’t that prove that Smith wasn’t just trying to cash in on the fame of Good Will Hunting? Yes, he cast Salma Hayek and Alan Rickman and George Carlin and Chris Rock, but I would argue that he nailed all of those. The only one that missed was Linda Fiorentino.
While many saw Dogma as Smith reaching to do something beyond his skill set, I personally saw it as a natural maturation. Although not on par with the cinematography of the Cohen brothers, it is much more visually appealing than any of his first three films (partially due to a higher budget) and it mixed seriousness with levity, using Jay to break up the dire tone of much of the film. Maybe I like the film so much because at 19, I was doing the same thing, mixing serious philosophical discussions with dick and fart jokes, something that I still do at the age of 34.
After Dogma, I held Smith in the same regard as other writer-directors like Woody Allen that can move freely between comedy, romance, serious topics, and a combination of all three.
Then, it all fell apart.
In August, 2001 I returned to Philadelphia for my senior year of college. I had a top floor apartment with three balconies in a building that would be condemned soon after I graduated and a light class load. Moreover, the fifth Kevin Smith film was opening that same week. Life was fantastic.
Then I saw the movie.
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was the first film I’ve ever walked out on. I couldn’t believe it. I had spent the previous few days watching Smith’s first four films and I was aghast. Was this even the same person in the director’s chair? Did he hire a ghost director? The script could have fit on a post-it note: Jay and Silent Bob go on a road trip and encounter every famous person that will agree to be in the film. The only parts of the film I truly enjoyed were when the characters interacted with individuals from the other films like Dante and Randall, Holden McNeil, Brody and Banky. The rest? Puke.
For years, I couldn’t understand why Smith would make that film. It was so out of his realm. If Dogma was a reach, Jay and Silent Bob was a ballerina’s stretch. Then, I heard him say that he had priced himself out of his own films. Due to his escalating deal he was being paid more in salary than the entire budget of Mallrats, so he felt he had to dial it up.
Logically, this makes sense. Still, that film is utterly unwatchable to me. However, among hardcore Smith fans, I was in the minority, a trend that would continue for the next several years.
Jersey Girl was supposed to be Smith’s entrance into mature films, but, like Mallrats, it was doomed. The story of a widowed father trying to raise his daughter, Smith cast Affleck and Jennifer Lopez as the couple and an adorable girl that looked like a mini J Lo. The paparazzi swirl around Bennifer forced Smith to cut much of her role in the film, prevented the audience from getting to know her character or their (on-screen) romance.
I saw it in the theater and loved it. I was almost a decade away from having a child, but that picture moved me. I cry more than most men — I’m often locked inside my own head, wrestling with demons and regretting decisions from two decades ago — so it just clicked with me. In 2004, Smith was the same age I am now and he had a daughter, just like I do now, and I caught the flick recently on TV and it resonated with me even more this time.
Sadly, I was once again in the minority. Many of Smith’s most ardent fans don’t want to feel, they want to laugh and relate. Not only were critics bashing him, but now much of Smith’s loyal following had felt he had betrayed them. In need of a reboot, for both himself and his fanbase, Smith returned home to Red Bank and to Clerks.
I was never a hardcore member of the View Askew message board, but I would read Smith’s blog whenever I got the chance and when I heard he was working on Clerks II I was excited. When Smith wrote that it was “the funniest thing I’ve ever written,” I was overjoyed. I thought he had gotten both the Jay and Silent Bob cameo-fest and the Jersey Girl feel-fest out of his system and he was going to make a film that harkened back to the first.
Then I saw the movie.
This time, the only thing preventing me from walking out of the theater was my girlfriend (now wife) imploring me to stay: “We’ve already paid for the tickets. We’re here. Let’s just watch the rest of it.” I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I watched much of the film from between my fingers. Aside from the characters’ names and one or two references, the film was nothing like its predecessor. A musical number on the roof? A donkey show? A wisecracking third little brother-esque character? Dante, who couldn’t hang on to Caitlin Bree gets Rosario Dawson to fall in love with him? Most egregiously, Smith even recycled some of his best jokes from his Q&A sessions into the film, so I could recite half of Randall’s speeches after the first few words. This was not Clerks. This was not even The Flying Car. What was this?
I felt cheated. I felt as if I had been duped. Walking out of the theater, I was sure everyone would agree with me. They didn’t. Clerks II exceeded critics’ expectations and reinvigorated his hardcore fans. For the third film in a row, my viewpoint was in the distinct minority.
Maybe it was me.
It was at this point that I finally accepted that I was only a casual Smith fan. I had never joined the message board, I never purchased any of his merchandise, never went to a meet and greet, and now it was clear that I was on the opposite wavelength of he and his fans.
Still upset by Clerks II, I took a step back from Smith’s work. It wouldn’t be long before he would do the same.
In 2008, Kevin Smith still felt like he was trapped in the wrong time. Judd Apatow had become a very rich man and a Hollywood power player by making the kind of overgrown boy-with-a-heart-of-gold films Smith had made in his early years. So, Smith decided to get in on the act because he could, as he said, “do that type of film in his sleep.”
Thus begat Zach and Miri Make a Porno, in which Smith even cast Apatow’s prodigy Seth Rogen and the endlessly charming Elizabeth Banks as roommates who film a sex tape to make money and, ultimately, fall in love. The film was a box office disaster, most likely due in part to having the word “porno” in the title, but also because it felt like an Apatow knockoff, something that may not have happened if Rogen hadn’t been cast.
I found the film enjoyable, but it was not as strong as The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up or Superbad and Smith had trouble toeing the line between humor and heart, something that he didn’t struggle with earlier in his career. The result sent Smith into a depression and, ultimately, the worst decision of his career.
By his own account, Smith will tell you that he’s a writer first and a director second (maybe even an editor second and a director third). He’s not Kubrick. I don’t go to a Kevin Smith film for the way he frames a shot. I go to a Kevin Smith film to see two people facing the camera talking about pop culture. So when it was announced that he would be strictly directing a buddy cop film, it seemed curious.
Cop Out (originally titled A Couple of Dicks) is a by-the-numbers action-comedy that could have been directed by anyone and is quite forgettable, remembered only because it was the film in which Smith directed his idol, Bruce Willis, and once again proved that you should never meet your heroes.
Just a step up from Smith directing a film he didn’t write is directing a horror film, a genre that is a director’s realm (comedy is a writer’s realm). In the wake of Zach and Miri, Smith decided he was done with the traditional movie business as constructed and distributed his tenth film, a horror titled Red State, himself after first announcing there would be an auction for the film. In the words of The Hollywood Reporter, “Smith had poured a liberal dose of gasoline on a pile of indie-film relationships and lit a match, and some observers took it as a sign that Smith might finally be imploding.”
Red State was a box office disappointment and a critical bomb, failing to appeal to awards voters as he had originally hoped. Immediately after, he announced that he was done making movies as the Red State experience had soured him on the business and his scorched-Earth exit had tarnished his name through much of the industry.
Clearly, he didn’t care.
He was already neck-deep into his new career, the one that would not only provide a new outlet for him, but would also bring him back to the world of film.
Kevin Smith is always at his best when he’s being Kevin Smith. If he had only presented himself through his work (like Woody Allen), I would have been done with him a decade ago. However, the more he put himself out there, I wanted more. I didn’t want Seth Rogen being Kevin Smith or Tracy Morgan being Kevin Smith. I wanted Kevin Smith to be Kevin Smith.
His fantastic An Evening With Kevin Smith series, taped at Q&A events all over the world, is equal parts hilarious, interesting, informative and inspiring. His books are some of the easiest reads you’ll find anywhere. And he’s a terrific dinner and talk show guest.
Above all of that, though, he is one of the most prolific and accomplished podcasters on the planet. Podcasting is still derided by certain bloggers, but it wasn’t that long ago that bloggers were derided, so give it time. Smith has many podcasts that cover a variety of topics including SModcast (with original producing partner Scott Mosier), Hollywood Babble-On (with La Salle alum Ralph Garman), Jay and Silent Bob Get Old (a conversation with Jason Mewes on his sobriety), and my personal favorite, Fatman on Batman, in which he interviews anyone associated with Batman, either through the comics or the TV show or the animated series, and occasionally does a running commentary of the Burton-Schumacher films.
He pops up on the podcasts of others, whether they are friends like The Nerdist or not friends like Adam Carolla. His two-part appearance on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast was the best episode I heard all year and I still listen to it once a week. In fact, it was during an episode of SModcast when they came across a story that would eventually turn into his new film, Tusk, the first film in his True North trilogy.
It comes back full circle for Kevin Smith. He began with a trilogy based in a specific location and he is now filming a trilogy that is based in a specific location. He’s even said that he now only wants to make films that he can make and, whether critics love it or hate it, they’ll all say “Well, that was different.”
Just like Clerks.