At this point, most people are familiar with the “Cinderella story” of how Kevin Smith’s 1994 indie Clerks was made. A movie funded by selling a comic book collection and maxing out several credit cards, amassing an overall budget of $27,575; Smith made a flick that grossed $3M in the box office. The film was a triumph in independent filmmaking and was the beginning of Smith’s View Askew universe, the world in which all of his stories take place. His earlier films, like Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, were concerned with the trials and tribulations of your early twenties – from holding down shitty jobs, to trying to keep old friendships together – and always, always, being concerned with love, where to find it and how to chase it. His later films like Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back stray more into the ridiculous, expanding the confines of Smith’s style and skills.
These movies shifted in genre but still maintained his flagship motifs: dick jokes and nerd culture rants, all spun together in the vein of dialogue he is oh so famous for, a style I like to call “Punk Rock Shakespeare;” over the top, bloated dialogue that makes even some of the most crude, crass conversations sound beautiful. It was Kevin Smith’s brand on everything he’s made, his super power that brought life to all of his characters. Smith continues to make his own movies, flicks like Red State or Tusk, which dip into the horror genre, and he constantly is putting out content that he is arguably even more famous for nowadays: podcasts. Kevin Smith’s career path is an interesting one, and if you take the time to listen to the thousands of hours of him talking about it, it’s a fairly transparent one that could teach any young filmmaker where to start in his or her career. None of it would have been possible however, if not for that independent darling, Clerks.
I ASSURE YOU; WE’RE OPEN
Clerks is the story of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), a register jockey at Leonardo, New Jersey’s own convenience store, the Quick Stop. Next door, Dante’s best friend, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) runs and operates a video rental store. It’s a tale all of us (who don’t have rich parents or some shit) can relate to. You get called into your garbage, mediocre, human cesspool of a customer service job on your day off and you say “yes” because you might not have any self respect left and you definitely need the money. We’ve all been there, and in Dante’s case, he’s about to have the worst shift ever. Hilarity will ensue and the phrase, “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” will be said, a lot.
Dante is the type of character that’s very relatable even fourteen years later. Though he doesn’t want to be at the Quick Stop on his day off, he treats that job with a fair amount of responsibility. Sure, he may close up shop for a hockey game or a funeral, but he wasn’t even supposed to be there that day. Folks that think he’s better than a cashier at a convenience store surround Dante. His girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) spends much of her screen time trying to convince Dante to go back to school. Randal spends much of the last few moments of the film trying to shake Dante from his mediocre job paralysis. As far as Dante himself though, his only concerns seem to be running the Quick Stop to the best of his ability, not missing his hockey game (he wasn’t supposed to be there that day), and potentially getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, Caitlin Bree (Lisa Spoonauer). All of his concerns are in direct contrast to those that surround him. Veronica and Randal want Dante to move forward, but all Dante wants to do is stay in his little purgatory, despite his constant complaining about his current position in life. It’s easier to be a cashier at a convenience store than it is to chase your dreams. It’s easier to spend your days off waiting around for your friendly hockey game to start. It’s easier to find another girlfriend who doesn’t care about making you better, the new one likes you just the way you are. There’s a reason Dante is trapped in a convenience store; it’s convenient. Towards the end of the movie, towards the end of Dante’s shift from hell, Randal tells him to “shit or get off the pot,” continuing with this exchange:
Randal: “Oh you’re comfortable, right? This is a life of convenience for you and any attempt to change it would shatter your pathetic microcosm.”
To which Dante responds, “I can’t make changes in my life like that! If I could I would but I don’t have the ability to risk the comfortable situations on the big money and the fabulous prizes!”
Dante is afraid, and therefore feels ill equipped to move on from his situation. Everyone grows up with dreams, and a lot of the time reality, life, bills, and growing up present such hurdles that we let those dreams fall by the wayside, and sometimes even die. It’s the tempting hook of doing the same thing everyday, to find something easy that you excel at and make enough money to survive on, and maybe even afford some comfort. It’s a trap, but a very tempting trap. It’s this fear that is the most relatable for those struggling during those early years of adulthood.
TITLE DOES NOT DICTATE BEHAVIOR
Kevin Smith worked at both the convenience store and the video rental store locations in the flick prior to filming Clerks. Smith has gone on the record as saying that Dante is based off himself, and if this is the case, then Kevin Smith is one of the best cases of “shitting and getting off the pot” ever. Smith dropped out of Vancouver Film School early to save money for Clerks and it was his time spent working in the Quick Stop that inspired the setting for the film. There’s a point in the film where Randal goes on a rant about how “title doesn’t dictate behavior.” Just because he’s a cashier doesn’t mean he can’t do whatever he wants, he can be rude to people, and he can go to other video rental stores; he’s “the master” of his own destiny. Being a cashier somewhere doesn’t mean you can’t follow your dreams. Working a shit job doesn’t mean you’re a shit person. You can do something mediocre, and still chase and follow what makes you special. It’s a balancing act that like most things is easier said than done. For Kevin Smith, working those shit jobs was just a stepping-stone to his own destiny. Being a cashier didn’t dictate his behavior; he followed his dreams, took risks, put himself $30,000 in debt and made something honest. That’s all we young creatives can do. Working somewhere we don’t want to, doing something we may be overqualified for to find the time to do what we really love.
When I was attending undergrad, one of my screenwriting professors explained what imagination was to him. He said imagination was like a candle we hold really close to our chests, and the world is constantly trying to blow it out, but it was up to us to keep that candle lit, to keep it safe. I’ve worked customer service jobs for ten years, and I’ve complained through all of them. I’m still very much on the pot. A lot of my desire to write about Clerks was an attempt to work out some of my own feelings on the matter. It’s hard to navigate what to do and where to go when you’re trying to break into the world of film. I’ve used the excuse, “I’m so tired from work I can’t work on what I truly love” more times than I can count. Maybe I’m simply not cut out for the world of film because I’m so easily dissuaded from doing what I think I love: writing stories.
I don’t want to admit that reality has blown out my candle, because I feel like it still burns, weakly but warm enough. I’ve been trapped in my own convenience store for a long time. Every day I worked, I wasn’t supposed to be there that day, I wasn’t supposed to be there at all.
Co-Head of Podcasting
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae