Director Retrospective: Kevin Smith
For my last director retrospective, I looked at the work of a director (John Carpenter) who I associate with the 1980s. So for this retrospective, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the films of a director that I mostly associate with the 1990s: Kevin Smith.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 12 feature-length films by Kevin Smith.
Here’s the list: Clerks (1994); Mallrats (1995); Chasing Amy (1997); Dogma (1999); Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001); Jersey Girl (2004); Clerks II (2006); Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008); Cop Out (2010); Red State (2011); Tusk (2014); Yoga Hosers (2016).
The Top Five
Without further ado, below are my Top Five picks from Kevin Smith’s filmography (ranked #1-#5, with a few very brief comments about each film)…
Clerks (1994) – There are a couple contenders in my mind for the #1 spot, but I’m going with Kevin Smith’s feature-length film debut, Clerks. Inspired by Smith’s own history working in a convenience store (in fact, the very same one that is the setting for this movie) and starring a bunch of young, inexperienced actors, Clerks details a day in the life of two particular clerks / best-friends who work in neighboring stores: Dante and Randal (who man the Quick-Stop mini-mart and the RST Video store, respectively). With an episodic plot structured around the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, these two main characters spend their days arguing about movies, dealing with difficult customers, interacting with regular loiterers (Jay & Silent Bob), and, in some cases, lamenting their everyday routine as part of the capitalist retail machine. Because of the film’s structure, my guess is that most viewers will identify — especially those who have worked in retail/service industries at some point — with some of these episodes and the various types of problems that the characters face, whether it’s dealing with a belligerent customer or a persnickety one. And while the acting isn’t top-notch by any stretch, the cast does demonstrate a nice chemistry with one another — in particular Brian O’Halloran & Jeff Anderson (as Dante & Randal) and Jason Mewes & Kevin Smith (as Jay & Silent Bob), which are the relationships that need to work in order for the film to. One of the most enjoyable things about this Director Retrospective project thus far has been watching these directors’ first films. Sometimes, you can just tell — as in the case of Ridley Scott (The Duellists), Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave), and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple) — that the particular director, despite their inexperience, has a certain quality to their work that just feels different and worth following. [I know that people like to shit on auteur theory — and understandably so — but, watching all these films, there is some truth to the “it-ness” that you start to recognize, however difficult to name or define, in some directors’ early films.] And a film like Clerks has that same sort of “it-ness,” which makes Kevin Smith an interesting director to think about. Now, whether he’s lived up to that quality in subsequent films is another issue entirely…
Chasing Amy (1997) – Chasing Amy tells the story of two comics creators (played by regulars Ben Affleck & Jason Lee) who meet a fellow comics creator (played by Joey Lauren Adams). Affleck’s character, Holden, falls for Adams’s character, Alyssa, only to discover that she’s a lesbian — which fascinates / horrifies Lee’s character, Banky. Chaos ensues, etc. [At this point, let me sidebar for a minute to say that Chasing Amy is the film where Smith’s penchant for terrible male-character names really started to get to me: Holden, Banky, Dante, Brodie, Rufus, Ollie, Abin, TS, etc. If you’re a male in a Smith film, you’re likely to be named after an literary figure or a puppy, I guess.] Upon its release, Chasing Amy was a critical darling and hailed as a breath of fresh air in the rom-com genre. (To my mind, it’s less a rom-com than a rom-dramedy, but that’s another matter.) But in the years that followed, the film was oft-skewered by academics as providing negative representations of lesbianism. Personally, for what it’s worth (i.e. not much), my own feeling is that the film falls somewhere in-between — i.e. it’s neither the groundbreaking love story early critics praised, nor is it worthy of the animosity that it received afterwards. Rather, Chasing Amy feels like a very flawed and imperfect but sincere exploration of sexuality and/or love in all its messy, complicated dimensions. Clearly, the characters — notably Affleck and Lee — don’t know how to navigate these complex relational waters, a fact that we’re constantly reminded of since, even when well-intentioned, the film attempts to show that the actions (or reactions) of these two men are asshole-ish. Is this a perfect representation of love and sexuality? No, nein, nyet. Could it have been worse? 1,000x yes…it could’ve been much, much worse. While the film is certainly uneven and its characters sometimes deeply problematic, I couldn’t help but feel re-watching it that, while it’s outdated in many ways, it also feels paradoxically (perhaps accidentally?) progressive in other ways — notably in its seeming argument that perhaps we should not think of love and/or sexuality as a binary or even a closed-system but, rather, a mixture of slippery terms and ever-evolving landscapes. Because of its sincerity (and, if you read any interviews with Smith about this film, it sure seems that his heart is in the right place here) and its willingness to acknowledge the limits of its own understanding, I’d argue that Chasing Amy is still a film worth (re)viewing and (re)considering.
Dogma (1999) – For me, there’s a pretty significant drop-off between the first two films on this list and the three that follow — and, really, depending on my mood, I could probably entertain an argument for any of the next three films in the #3 spot. But I’m going with Dogma here. I remember very distinctly when this film was released and both the critical excitement and the public condemnation surrounding the film. After all, from a film perspective, this was Smith’s first opportunity to make a “big” movie with two rising stars — Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — who were only a couple years removed from their meteoric rise with Good Will Hunting. (Of course, Smith had already worked with Affleck before, but now the actor was legitimately famous.) On the other hand, Dogma was thought to be, by many, an outright assault on religion with the Catholic Church going so far as to designate the film as being “blasphemous.” In the end, I think Dogma is somewhere in the middle — that is, it doesn’t really live up to its full potential but it also doesn’t feel, watching it again, nearly as transgressive as one might expect. [Perhaps this ought not be a surprise, as Smith himself seems to have ambivalent thoughts about religion, from what I can tell, rather than being totally in opposition.] While the movie — with its plot about two fallen angels who discover a supposed loophole to get back into heaven — has some amusing scenes, the real strength is the cast. Any movie that features Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, and the aforementioned Damon and Affleck (and Alanis Morissette, of all people, in a small but fun role) probably has a baseline of being fairly solid, which is what we get here…a solid flick.
Red State (2011) – For the #4 spot, I’m going with what may be a bit of a surprise pick and giving it to Red State (although the film that follows next is almost certainly better known in the Smith filmography). Throughout Smith’s directorial career, his tone and interests seem to have remained relatively consistent — i.e. you don’t get many true outliers in terms of the style or “feel” of his films. Even a movie like Cop Out (not a good film) feels somewhat at home within his oeuvre because of it’s “buddy cop” formula. [Male friendship looms large for Smith, as seen in his works like Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, and Clerks II.] Really…the two outliers in Smith’s career are Jersey Girl (a forgettable, pretty sappy father-daughter story) and Red State — the latter of which foregoes Smith’s usual brand of comedy for something much darker and much more sinister. Whereas Dogma today feels more like a (semi-)affectionate jab at some of the stranger and more absurd procedural elements of organized religion, Red State is a no-holds-barred, scathing condemnation of the most extreme forms of American religious fundamentalism. The cast here is strong with a wonderfully kooky and chillingly charismatic performance from Michael Parks, a predictably rock-solid role from John Goodman, and a relatively early turn from Kerry Bishe (who went on to do phenomenal work in the criminally underrated AMC show, Halt and Catch Fire) — as well as some smaller performances from the likes of Melissa Leo, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, etc. My biggest complaint is the ending, where it feels like they cheated a little to make the film more “realistic” (although, hearing Smith talk about the original ending, it seems that the film’s small budget played an important role in that decision). Still, Red State captures a particular strain of American sub-culture and remains an important anomaly in Smith’s filmic portfolio.
Mallrats (1995) – I feel that Mallrats is one of those films (like Empire Records, Clueless, Friday, White Men Can’t Jump, Reality Bites, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, etc.) that is so thoroughly “of its time” that its most effective appeals are nostalgic in nature and mostly / only to a particular subset of viewers — in this case, those who came of age during the early-to-mid 1990s. It’s futile to try and separate Smith’s film from its corresponding decade — everything from the setting to the characters to the humor is thoroughly 1990s era, which is to say that Mallrats is anything but a “timeless” comedy. If anything, the movie feels like a historical object, a relic that our robot overlords will one day watch in an effort to understand American consumer-culture during that particular moment in human history. Aside from Michael Rooker in a nice turn as the father of an ex-girlfriend, I don’t feel like the cast here is all that great in retrospect. (This film probably did more work than any other to create my bias against Jason Lee, as his character — ostensibly one of the protagonists — is so grating, annoying, and unlikable that I find myself rooting for his quest to fail.) That said, there is a kind of endearing charm to the film because the director’s love and embrace of “nerd” culture is absolutely palpable and, more impressively, at a time where it wasn’t “cool” or “popular” to identify with that moniker. Really…as I’m sure others have already noted, Mallrats feels, in some ways, like the first Marvel Comics film — its “dynamic duo” are the unlikely heroes Jay & Silent Bob, and it even features a Stan Lee cameo (and one that propels the plot forward rather than being his usual sight-gag). While it’s certainly not my favorite Kevin Smith film, Mallrats is also not necessarily a “bad” movie, though it does feel more important (I guess…) as a socio-cultural and historical document than an actual film.
The Underrated One
Not many options for me to choose from, as you’ll see below. For me, the choice here is obvious — as I think there’s only one movie in Smith’s oeuvre that’s not quite good enough to crack his “Top Five” but also not quite bad enough to be a contender for “The One to Avoid.” That film is Tusk (2014). If I’m remembering correctly, this film began as a rambling brainstorming session (or something) on one of Smith’s podcasts and, because fans kept talking about the idea, he decided to make a quick movie version of the plot — taking only a couple weeks to shoot everything. The premise is…ridiculous. But it’s also so ridiculous that you sorta, perversely, want to see where things go. There are certainly flaws here — e.g. most of the characters are undeveloped or (boringly) stereotypically “uber-Canadian” and it continues the long, inexplicable streak of films where Johnny Depp relents to the compulsion to wear a costume. All that said, Justin Long (an actor who I’m typically very hit-or-miss on) is effective in his role and, most notably, the late Michael Parks is absolutely phenomenal as the totally insane Howard Howe, whose backstory and psychosis provides one of the most bizarre and thoroughly engrossing psychotic characters since Norman Bates. (Really…this might be Parks’s most balls-to-the-wall nuts performances in a career that had a few.) If you’re a horror film — and especially a camp horror film — then it’s probably worth seeing Tusk at least once.
The One to Avoid
There are several contenders for this “honor” in my opinion. Movies like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno were all pretty forgettable to me, although each of those films is passable enough and has some sort of redeeming quality (whether it be a particular performance, a particular scene, etc.) that saves it from being a serious challenger in this category. Jersey Girl is early-peak “bad-Ben” in terms of the poor choices and questionable performances that plagued Ben Affleck’s career in the early 2000s. However, that film does feature a good, subtle, and (mostly) dramatic performance from George Carlin, which is just enough to save it from winning the crown here. Cop Out is often listed as the “worst Kevin Smith film” by critics, and there’s a convincing case for that — after all, it was an awkward film production (i.e. Smith has spoken openly about how he clashed with Bruce Willis in this film) and feels over-long even at 1 hour & 45 minutes. That said, I suppose there are a few (not many) amusing gags and a few (again…not many) fun quirks here that could hypothetically lead one to believe that, while this certainly didn’t work as a film, it could’ve conceivably worked as a 22-minute one-off episode of a TV show or something like that. So…I’m declaring the winner here as Yoga Hosers (2016). Honestly — and I’ve racked my brain about this because I actually don’t like saying that a movie (any movie) is truly, truly terrible because I know that it’s tough to make a movie and requires a lot of time and effort BUT… — I can’t think of anything redeemable or worthwhile or interesting, etc. about this film. It’s bad, and you should never watch it. I regret watching it.
The Place to Start
This is a surprisingly tough one for me to figure out. Thinking of his best films, it’s a little tricky to know where one ought to start with Kevin Smith. A film like Mallrats is probably his “easiest,” but it’s also, to my mind, a clear step down from some of his other work. Movies like Red State and Tusk are worth watching at least once — though they feel, in some ways, out-of-character for his overall tone (especially the former film). Ultimately, I think that if you decide to tackle Kevin Smith’s oeuvre, you’re going to have to deal with his ViewAskewniverse — which is his self-contained universe / franchise of films that all take place in the same world and often feature recurring characters and interconnected references. And if you’re going to enter the ViewAskewniverse, then I guess it’s best to start at the beginning with Clerks (1994). It’s certainly not the most accessible of those films, but it is arguably his best work to date and will serve to introduce a viewer to Smith’s brand of humor and dialogue, his particular interests, and his recurring themes. From there, you can, if you so choose, watch the other subsequent films in this cinematic universe — i.e. Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, and Clerks II.
The Final Word
On the one hand, this was a difficult Director Retrospective for me to watch and then write about. I am definitely not a Kevin Smith “fanboy” in terms of his films — they don’t really resonate with me at all. In fact, with the exception of a couple of his movies, I don’t really feel the need to ever re-watch any of them in the future. [To be fair, however, as part of this retrospective, I also watched a bunch of interviews of Smith; and he strikes me as being a very sincere and thoughtful person and is clearly cognizant of the type of movies that he’s made, is making, and wants to make in the future. So even if his products don’t do much for me personally, I find that approach to be pretty admirable.] On the other hand, I think that it was likely valuable to spend a significant amount of time engaging with a director whose work falls outside of my own preferences and aesthetics. Basically…even if I don’t adore the work, it seems beneficial to occasionally watch films, read books, hear music, eat food, etc. that exist against or beyond our type. *shrug*