Thursday, December 13, 2012

Movie – Clerks (1994)

For all the talk about Cinemax being “Skin-emax” because of playing a softcore movie on Friday nights back in the 80s and 90s, they also had a great selection of smaller movies that sister channel HBO wouldn’t run.  I saw a number of foreign films, documentaries, and independent films for the first time on Cinemax back then.  One series they had was the first movies from independent filmmakers.  Among those films was Clerks, a laugh-so-hard-your-sides-hurt comedy.

Writer/director Kevin Smith was an actual store clerk when he made the film.  He now famously sold his comic book collection and maxed out his credit cards to raise the $27,000 budget for the film.  Clerks is in black and white not because he was trying to be an “artiste”, but simply because it was less expensive than color film stock and developing. 

He also used a number of friends and family members in the film.  His mother is the “Milk Maid” who takes out every milk jug trying to find the one with the best expiration date and his sister is the “Caged Animal Masturbator” who collects sperm samples in a science lab.  You know that any movie with characters named like that, and with others such as “Egg Man”, “Tabloid Reading Customer”, "Olaf the Russian Metalhead”, and “Happy Scrappy Mom”, that you are not going to be watching a drama.

Common advice for creators is to “write what you know”.  Smith did just that.  He was a store clerk that was employed in the actual store where the movie was filmed.  He would work his regular job during the day, and then shoot the film at night when the store was closed.  The movie Clerks is filled with wry observations of all the different kinds of customers that he and other clerks had to deal with.  As the tagline for the film says, “Just because they serve you doesn’t mean they like you.” 

The movie is also filled with numerous movie references and discussions.  The “independent contractors on the Deathstar” topic?  It originated in this movie.  So did the whole “Empire Strikes Back is better than Star Wars” opinion.

The movie opens with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) being woken up by the phone.  It’s his boss calling him in to work on a day off because another clerk is sick.  Throughout the movie whenever something frustrating happens to Dante he laments, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”

Dante is a clerk in a convenience store.  (Trivia – the “CLERKS” title on the poster is comprised of letters from products commonly sold in a convenience store; see if you can identify them.)  Next door is a video rental store clerked by Randal (Jeff Anderson), a guy who doesn’t seem to be too interested in actually manning the counter there.  He spends a lot of the movie in the convenience store talking with Dante.

In addition to dealing with customers, Dante also has girlfriend troubles.  His former girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer) has gotten engaged.  Even though she cheated on him, he still has feelings for her.  And he gets a shock when his current girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) clarifies that when she told him she had only had sex with three guys before him that didn’t include oral sex.  Dante does include that under “having sex” so he asks her what the total is with that.  Her response after thinking for a while – “Around 36”.  Stunned, Dante asks, “Does that include me?”  Her response – “ummmm, 37.”  His response – “I’m number 37?!”  Every film that Kevin Smith has directed since this one has had the number 37 appear in it at some point as a reference back to this conversation.  He even convinced the female director of Catch and Release, the 2006 film he acted in, to let him wear a sports jersey with the number 37 on it.  And yes, he did explain to her why.

Clerks has an R rating.  If you are offended by bad language then you may want to skip this movie.  In fact, the film originally received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA solely on the basis of language.  Miramax basically responded to the MPAA, “Are you f*cking serious?” and the rating got changed to an R with no cuts in the film.  Smith himself actually changed the ending, though.  The original one was more downbeat with Dante getting killed at the end of the movie by a robber.  You can see this alternate ending on the DVD.

I haven’t mentioned the two characters that became larger than just this movie – Jay and Silent Bob.  Jay is played by Jason Mewes and Silent Bob is played by Kevin Smith himself.  They are a couple of stoners who hang out outside the convenience store, smoking cigarettes.  Smith didn’t actually smoke at the time, but after this film he became addicted and turned into a two packs a day smoker.

Smith went on the write and direct five more movies that had these two characters in them – Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Clerks II.  They were the connecting links for the six films that make up the “View Askew-niverse” – the coined term for the setting for all these films.  While only Clerks II is a direct sequel to Clerks, there are references across the films to events from the others.  By the way, Smith has recently announced that he is going to be making Clerks III and that that will be his final film. 

As I mentioned above, Clerks has a lot of bad language in it, so it is not for everyone.  If that doesn’t bother you, then you should really see this film.  It is laugh out loud funny and shows why Smith has received more notice for his writing than for any other aspect of movie making.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good review Chip. Loved this movie from start-to-finish and it's no wonder how Smith was able to keep up all of his writing skills throughout the 90's, and even a bit to today.

    1. Thanks. When I read Smith was going to direct someone else's script (Cop Out) my first reaction was "Why?" I figured he wanted to show he could work with someone else's material, but if so it backfired on him. I haven't seen Cop Out yet, but I know it didn't get very good reviews.

  2. The story behind the making of this film is really intriguing. I need to add this to my list. Great post. LOVE Miramax's response to the MPAA!

    1. Thanks. For the record, what I wrote for Miramax's response was my attempt at humor, not an actual quote. While I am sure they were thinking something close to that, they hired a famous lawyer and went through all the proper motions of the MPAA mandated appeals process.

      I find it interesting that almost no film wins its appeal with the MPAA, yet Smith has gone three for three in successfully getting films dropped from NC-17 to R. It might be because all three films were rated NC-17 on the basis of language and nothing else.