Hitting rock bottom sucks, we can all agree on that. What sucks even more though is not actually realising you’ve hit rock bottom (or perhaps not even caring about it). This what Kevin Smith’s 1994 film ‘Clerks’ is all about: hopelessness and apathy hidden behind fart jokes and debates about 'Star Wars'. The story follows a day in the life of two store clerks, Dante and Randall, who spend their time dealing with weird customers, discussing movies and playing hockey – though they put very little effort in all three. The obvious response would be to feel pity or even disgust when witnessing the characters’ tedious lives, but I was immediately drawn to it. I found it shocking that I, whose idea of a fun, relaxing movie is ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, should consider a film that ends with the protagonist’s girlfriend having sex with a dead man one of the cinematic masterpieces of the 1990s. What movie was I going to fall in love with next? Adam Sandler’s ‘Jack and Jill’? So I set out to understand why it was I liked it so much.
My first point is that in many ways, ‘Clerks’ is a young filmmaker’s dream. A crucial aspect of it that made it so memorable for young viewers in the 90s was the same that made Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’ a cult movie in the 80s: their production stories. In the early 90s, Kevin Smith was a nerd from New Jersey who wanted to make films with his friends. He had nothing, except the comic book collection he sold to help him reach the whopping 27,000 dollars budget needed to make the picture. So long story short, no money, unknown actors who were just a bunch of Smith’s friends from New Jersey, but a lot of passion and perhaps even some recklessness: everything a young filmmaker dreams of. I would gladly sell my collection of ‘Lord of the Rings’ action figures to make a movie with my friends (but not Pippin, he’s my favourite). The movie enjoyed worldwide recognition, winning the Prix de la Jeunesse Award at the Cannes Film Festival and grossing three million dollars. It was also deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, which selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2019. Ultimately, it is movies like ‘Clerks’, ‘The Evil Dead’, and Robert Rodriguez’s ‘El Mariachi’ that give aspiring filmmakers hope of making it, and distract them from the fear of ending up living under a bridge or in their parents' basement.
The witty script and quirky characters are also all there in ‘Clerks’. Most of them are drug addicts, sex addicts, sometimes both. They live in a neighbourhood where the two most important figures are Jay and Silent Bob, the finest representation of Generation X’s nihilism. It’s all in all a dirty movie: dirty characters, dirty locations, dirty editing and dirty camera movements. Watching it is like walking into a McDonald’s completely drunk at two in the morning. But most importantly, it is non-apologetic in how rough it is. It’s shot like Godard’s ‘Breathless’ minus any artistic or intellectual intentions, and Smith’s script cuts straight to the point. It’s not sentimental, it’s not even trying to convey a message, and the movie’s ending is the biggest “it is what it is” in cinematic history. Despite this, it’s capable of setting off a good deal of unwanted sentimentalism in its viewers, no doubt both the most important point and the one I actively try to deny. By watching two clerks hit rock bottom, wasting their days making political statements about ‘Star Wars’ and fighting with their girlfriends for pointless and idiotic reasons, the viewer is invited to reflect on his own life, in relation to theirs. In this way, ‘Clerks’ forced me to take a look at myself in the mirror, break it, and rebuild it piece by piece. Thus, I formally apologise to Kevin Smith for being overly sentimental and reading too much into a movie that has a character named Snowball (and no, it’s not because of Christmas). I feel like the critic who said that the movie’s use of black and white photography was a stylistic choice made so that it would look like it was shot from the perspective of the store’s security camera, when in fact the filmmakers just had no money to shoot in colour and they just said “fuck it”. So yeah, I’m reading too much into it. Fuck it.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor