As someone that frequently defends independent cinema, and have canonized the indie filmmakers that arose in the 1990s, it was always my secret shame that I had never seen Clerks, the film that launched Kevin Smith to auteur fame. It isn’t that I found the story uninteresting – in fact, the story fit right into my wheelhouse – but rather because I quite simply never got around to it. However, that recently changed, because I finally saw it, and I loved it every bit as much as I thought I would, and perhaps even more. It is quite simply one of the best independent films (if not the very best, perhaps only after Reservoir Dogs) to have come out of the 1990s, and proves that Kevin Smith is actually a very competent director, even when his budget is incredibly small.
What I love most about many 1990s (and early 2000s) independent comedies is that they have such humble ambitions – the vast majority of them resolve only on conversation and dialogue (which could be seen as an attempt to distract from the fact that these filmmakers didn’t have money for any special effects or flashy cinematic tricks that mainstream blockbusters take for granted). The best part is that these independent filmmakers are not only capable filmmakers, but fantastic writers. The sparkling writing in Clerk was absolutely brilliant, and some of the most hilarious and snappy dialogue to come out of any independent comedy. As someone who works in retail, I can safely confirm that this film had special resonance to me, because it describes some aspects of the life of a retail clerk perfectly, and is a testament to Smith’s brilliance, as it is evident that he, as a clerk himself, brought his own experiences to the screen, which is a rare thing to perfect.
Many filmmakers attempt to cast at least one notable and famous actor in their films – it gives their films a certain gravitas, and makes it seem less like a home movie and more like something that should be seen by the public. Clerks doesn’t even vaguely attempt to do this – the film casts complete unknowns in all the roles, including the main titular roles, played by Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson. Most of these actors were friends and acquaintances of Kevin Smith, and thus it gives Clerks that precise home-movie feeling that could put some viewers off, but what I found so gloriously charming about this film. It is the exact kind of film that Smith could have easily written up and sold to a studio, only to have them butcher the script to be less satirical and philosophical, and starring major stars of the era. It would have been so much easier to do that, but also incredibly foolish, and the fact that Smith cast his own friends in the film that was completely his own vision is the exact reason he has a career now (that career has had more downs than ups in recent years, but he is still a filmmaker I admire). O’Halloran plays the leading role of Dante Hicks (one of the best character names in cinema history), very well, and is a charismatic and endearing lead. However, Jeff Anderson steals the show as Randal Graves, and he gives a nuanced and hilarious performance, and this is the exact kind of role that should have launched Anderson to bigger things, but somehow it didn’t, and he remains confined to Smith’s View Askewniverse.
I really enjoyed Clerks, mainly because as I said previously, it has a really charming atmosphere of being unpretentious and honest. The fact that Smith filmed the film in the very store that he was working in at the time, after hours is itself an amusing anecdote. Consider that he also funded the film by maxing out all his credit cards, and used every resource he could. It is the epitome of true independent filmmaking – a film that really is void of every mainstream trick there is, and depends entirely on the writing and vision of the director. Not only does it appeal to me as a lover of independent films, it also appeals to my slightly geeky side, as there are many references to science fiction and cinematic folklore throughout, and it is clear that Smith was slightly selfish in the way that he inserted his own interests into the dialogue of the film, which is not exactly a bad thing – they say you should write what you know, so why is it any different when you make a film?
I loved Clerks. Smart, funny and endearing. It has a great sense of humour, is really a fun film and is the very epitome of why I love independent films. It may take a few minutes to get used to the way this film is told, and the low-budget visuals of this film may not be that exciting, but it is otherwise brilliantly made considering the extent of Smith’s budget, and it is a wonderful film, that I implore any independent film lover to seek out if you have not watched it. It is a great film, and the very reason I will defend independent filmmaking until the day I stop watch movies (which I doubt will ever happen). A wonderful film, without a shadow of a doubt.