Then & Now: Clerks

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Geoff Harris

“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

Clerks (1994) is the first film by director/writer Kevin Smith. He’s gone on to make more films, work on television shows like Supergirl, and built a minor empire of podcasts called SMODCo. It all began with Dante Hicks, our protagonist, recieving the dreaded call anyone who has worked retail eventually gets: “Can you come in today?” What follows is an often comedic day-in-the-life of a register jockey and the odd cast of characters that come and go from the Qwik Stop convenience mart. Joined by his friend, Randall, Dante wallows away the hours dealing with a series of mishaps, blunders, and ultimately a death. In many ways this movie helped launch the indie film movement. Self-financed. Cast of relative unknowns. Filmed in black and white. Every inch an original.

Then

I enjoy character-driven stories. The ones where the dialog matters and moves the story forward. Now and again a good “Bang-and-Smash” is welcome but I prefer to know the people I am being compelled to care about. Clerks is such a film. Dante and Randall are opposites and yet balance each other very well. Dante is the by-the-book straight shooter who is tormented by the choices he makes and the ones he doesn’t. I really feel for the guy. He gets called in to a shit job on his day off. I have held my share of low-paying service positions and the last thing you want, on a day off no less, is being told there really is no rest for the wicked.  He stumbles through the day and puts up with a massive amount of crap from damn near every direction. Randall, however, is a force of one. He breezes in and out like he owns the place. He’s in charge of the neighboring video store, which he runs with a revolving door of sarcastic abuse like it’s his own personal movie collection. He’s brash, bold, and a big asshole to everyone. Having someone like him in my life at that time made for some really backward moments. Art imitating Life? Dante’s love life is a running plot thread that doesn’t really resolve. Having been single at the time, I did consider him a bit of a jackass for messing up one semi-stable relationship to pursue an older one that was already faulty to begin with. (I will eventually find and lose someone myself. I found love again. As does Dante in Clerks 2.)

This was one of the first real character driven movies I can recall having seen up to then. It is very still and fixed with most of the action taking place in front of the front counter. Occasionally the movie would change location, outside or off-site, but mostly was framed within the frame of the shot. It’s a visual metaphor of Dante’s World. He is the lord of all he surveys and master of none of it. Randall, the wandering sage and potential anarchist, offering half-hearted advice and, admittedly, wisdom. Day and Night. I wondered if this was just a fever dream Dante was having. Reality would blur from grounded serious talk of sexual relations to watching a man test cartons of eggs looking for “The Golden Dozen.” It’s a grim dark world but somehow made rich and full by the people in it. Plus I had a long coat long before I saw Silent Bob and it inspired me to pull it out of the closet and start wearing it again. Hipster before I knew what hipster was.

Now

Smith goes back to the opposing pair motif again and again in his later works. Two characters, both sides of a coin, who are the focal points around which the plot turns. Granted, in Dogma he does set the pair, Jay and Silent Bob, as secondary figures but they still manage to steal a scene or two. Dante and Randall are the Superego and the Id coming together to form the Ego. A gestalt of blind control and reckless abandon. Every time I watch this movie I see a bit of myself in both of them. Dante is my desire to maintain and manage the world around me but still give sway to my baser instinct to pursue when I should retreat. Randall is the middle finger I want to give to everyone who annoys, angers, or generally pisses me off. He is freedom without restraint because he just doesn’t give a shit about the consequences of his actions. Life is for the living. In my advancing years I can see the balance between them. Dante reminds Randall that actions have consequences and Randall reminds Dante that it is free will that drives those actions and not adherence to a strict paradigm invented by someone other than yourself. In the end, Dante ends the day perhaps a bit wiser and most certainly adrift but anchored to the walled in world around him. He’s everyman. A cog. Plainly, a clerk.

I have learned so much about Kevin Smith and this movie in particular over the years. He paid for it himself by selling off a comic book collection and establishing a sizable credit card debt. Dante is Smith back in his early days hustling cigarettes and dealing with humanity’s finest at a convenience store. Randall is based on Bryan Johnson, a long-time friend of Smith’s and a man of very caustic opinions. (Big shout out to my fellow TESD Ants!!!) Art really did imitate Life. Clerks is a trendsetter and a personal favorite. I own a copy and yet still watch it whenever I see it on cable. There is something new to discover almost every time I watch it. Little details. In many ways it set the template for the stories that followed. The cornerstone of the ViewAskew Universe. Smith, as a writer, is an inspiration to me. He says often to those who ask, “Just do it. Write down your ideas. Get some friends. Make it real.” Anyone can make a movie. Now making one worth watching…that’s a trick. He’s had a few duds. Nobody is one hundred percent perfect. Clerks is raw and unrefined but that is what makes it unique. It’s quirky in a good way. You can relate to some of the characters and marvel at the absurdity of others. He makes it look so simple. Maybe working on a day off will compel me to write my movie? Who am I kidding? I have nothing but days off!

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