In 1994, I was a wide-eyed, church-on-Sunday, conservative evangelical Christian in my mid-teens. I was somewhat savvy when it came to coolness and wasn’t terribly sheltered socially or culturally but smoking, drinking, cursing, sex and any other vice you can think of was nowhere near my radar.
You can imagine what happened when I saw “Clerks” for the first time.
The concepts I was introduced to were shocking: hermaphroditic porn (and really, Randal Graves’ never-ending list of porn titles is one for the ages), necrophilia, cock smokers, weed smokers, you name it. (If you haven’t seen “Clerks,” I’m afraid this isn’t the best advertisement.)
As uptight as I was, I couldn’t look away. I wanted to cover my ears, but there was so much energy oozing from that movie that I couldn’t. I’ve seen it 29 times since, but I had to go back and watch “Clerks” this week with filmmaker Kevin Smith setting his sights on Durango. I needed to understand what it was that hooked me, not only on Smith for years to come but on comedy and writing.
The movie itself is far from perfect. There are the flubbed lines and comically bad acting. The script is overwritten at times, dialogue stilted and unbelievable. Even the unmistakable low budget has become legend. Smith maxed out every credit card he could find and made the movie for something like 50 grand. (I could research the precise number, but it’s legend; what does the truth matter anymore?)
What’s amazing still is the angst and energy Smith captured, starting with the gritty black and white and carried throughout with a metal-heavy sound track.
Though the world in “Clerks” was largely recognizable in all the ways of American suburbia, as a kid I was getting an intimate glimpse into another world so real and raw.
Though I found him repulsive back then, this rawness was captured best by the now-infamous character Jay, played by Jason Mewes, which Smith has since rolled out ad nauseam. Crass and vulgar in every way, Jay always had a few glimpses of sweetness, even when he’s, say, slamming stolen snack cakes while the clerks aren’t looking. Within moments of his first screen appearance, you got the sense that Mewes was doing a stellar impression of himself, making my young self realize that there are actually people like Jay out there, doing exactly what Jay did in that “Clerks” world – loitering, drug dealing, all the vulgarity – a wonderful educational experience for me.
Ultimately, it was Smith’s writing that had the biggest impact, setting me on a course few other writers have, combining the serious with the comical. My writing will never be as crude as Smith’s and seldom do I delve into lowbrow. But he taught me that you can write about anything and make it both intellectual and funny.
Through Dante and Randal’s discussion of contractors and collateral damage on the Death Star, or Randal’s teachable moment demonstrating that “title does not dictate behavior,” Smith showed how exciting and engaging cultural and behavioral analysis can be, tools I used as a professor years later to keep 18-year-olds learning and entertained. He taught me that a vulgar movie bordering on farce at times can get big and meaningful when it wants to, teaching us that we make choices about who we are and what we do from one day to the other, that complaining and moaning will seldom amount to anything.
Twenty years later, “Clerks” has become a part of my life. At work, I’ll whine out lines like “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” and look around hoping for some recognition on someone’s face. If there is, I know I have a friend.
David Holub is the editor for DGO. [email protected]