The mythos about how Kevin Smith financed, shot and got distribution for his debut feature, CLERKS, has entered movie legend, not least because Smith has written a book about it. It's the film student's ray of hope - that you can make a movie financed with credit cards, exhibiting zero production values but still get picked up by the Weinsteins and become a cult classic. CLERKS is the indie circuit's American Dream.
Once you strip away the hype, what you're left with is a movie that's full of wooden acting and looks terrible, but for all that stands the test of time because of it's brilliant dialogue, intricate plotting and the audacity of its central premise - to talk about the shit that we all talk about - failed relationships, careers that never quite get going, people who annoy the frack out of us at work, and the stupid stuff that happens in movies.
Like most people I first watched CLERKS years after it was released. It was like a potty-mouthed dirty secret, passed on from one friend to another on rented VHS tape - a student bonding moment like listening to DEREK AND CLIVE tapes. In my case, it was Fast Jimmy who rented it from our very own local video store, about as crummy as the one in Clerks and manned by a similarly permanently pissed off clerk. At first I was unimpressed. What was this crappily shot black and white nonsense? But as soon as we got to the first argument between our protagonist, Dante Hicks, and his girlfriend Veronica, I was hooked. It became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite films. You see, the whole shining path for indie film-makers mythos is pure sentimental bilge. Kevin Smith made it against all odds not because Sundance has forged a path to the then-Miramax but because Kevin Smith is a bloody brilliant writer who trains his byzantine plots and ear for the black humour on our every day lives.
Dante Hicks: I'm stuck in this pit, working for less than slave wages. Working on my day off, the goddamn steel shutters are closed, I deal with every backward ass fuck on the planet. I smell like shoe polish. My ex-girlfriend is catatonic after fucking a dead guy. And my present girlfriend has sucked 36 dicks.
Randal Graves: 37.
And that's basically it. CLERKS is about two best friends, Dante Hicks and Randal Graves who work in a convenience store and a video store respectively. Randall knows his life is stuck in a rut, but languishes in the petty victories of a life amidst the inane. By contrast, Dante is caught between a misplaced sense of responsibility for running the store and his hatred for his loser existence. His deep sense of dissatisfaction manifests itself in the fact that he wants to trade in his loyal girlfriend Veronica for his unfaithful high school sweetheart Caitlin, who's engagement to an Asian design major triggers her arrival in town and many of the events of the story. The point of the movie is that Dante needs to stop bitching about the stuff that happens to him and make some hard choices. It's a message that cuts home to anyone in their early twenties, clinging onto their teen years and reluctant to slide down the razor blade of life.
Given that the movie is set entirely in a convenience store, it's amazing how much action Kevin Smith manages to pack in and how all the seemingly ridiculous and implausible events seem to tie up and reinforce each other in creating a richer universe that underlies the action shown in this particular film. I seriously don't think it's too far to compare this movie to something like LORD OF THE RINGS where we feel that there is a rich back-story of characters and lives and that we're just seeing a slice of the potential craziness that could be depicted. And there's the paradox of CLERKS. By talking about normal neuroses with such complete honesty, Kevin Smith gets away with ludicrous plotting. And that in shamelessly depicting in belly-laugh-inducing profanities, Smith sends out a pretty moralistic, conservative message.
CLERKS played Sundance, Cannes and Toronto 1994. It was released over the next two years and is available on DVD.