(View Askew Productions, Bondit
Media Capital, Mewesings, Destro Films, Three Point Capital, 2022)
Since 1994, the area surrounding the Red Bank borough has been an inspirational backdrop for filmmaker Kevin Smith. A New Jersey native, most of Smith’s films are indebted to Red Bank and its outer limits, including Leonardo, a town a few stone throws up the Atlantic coast. If ever there is a cinematic image attributed to Smith—who would most assuredly disavow the thought of himself as a filmmaker hailed by an image—it would be of the Quick Stop storefront in Leonardo, made famous in Clerks (1994), Smith’s breakout film, and seen most recently in the final installment of his Clerks trilogy and most heartfelt of all his work, Clerks III (2022).
The storefront has made several appearances across Smith’s View Askewniverse, a diegetic world consisting of his peculiar brand of New Jerseyans. Named after his production company, View Askew Productions, the View Askweniverse’s propensity for zonked out, foul-mouthed, unapologetically pop culture dialogue distinguishes Smith as a low-budget comedic filmmaker. With nostalgia for Jersey and the experiences of his youth spearheading his authorial vision, Smith’s body of work is bound by his commitment to friends, family, and fans, as well as their growth over the last quarter-century.
Clerks III is the latest and perhaps clearest example of this predilection, boasting a narrative trajectory that mirrors Smith’s real life more than any other film since his first. However, with this latest picture, Smith doesn’t just trudge back through the same old Clerks shtick for a quick buck. Although his films often recycle characters, jokes, and premises, his approach to each new film adjusts with the times and, thus, with Smith’s maturation. In fact, a generous consideration of Clerks III would recognize this maturity through Smith's undying love for friends and filmmaking. Though fans—many of which who are probably not die-hard Kevin Smith film fans, as they seem to value the man or podcasting personality himself as the best product—and detractors alike may have their doubts about Smith’s ambition (and abilities) as a filmmaker, his latest film puts into perspective that what has come before in a Kevin Smith film has always been more than just about him.
The latest Clerks sat in development hell for what seemed like a decade. Jeff Anderson, who plays Randal, one of two prominent leads throughout the Clerks trilogy, refused to commit to a third picture for years. It wasn’t until a year after Smith’s heart attack in 2018 that Anderson boarded the picture after a full revision and some convincing by Smith post-cardiac arrest. Escaping the clutches of a widow-maker, Smith found a renewal for his health and his art by going vegan, committing himself to a healthier lifestyle. Turning back to his filmmaking roots with Clerks III, now as a man long removed from the days of his youth, Smith produces a somber yet affecting vulnerable gesture of gratitude to those that have stuck by his side over the years.
As much as any other filmmaker, Smith’s films are marked by his willingness to explore his own vulnerability. A small town, hockey-loving, comic book geek, Smith’s peculiar gravitas is punctuated by his proclivity for life-affirming sincerity under the veil of dick and fart jokes. I know, I know—gravitas doesn’t usually get followed by dick and fart jokes, but a Kevin Smith film is typically situated between adolescent male humor aesthetics and more mature interrogations of relationships, consumerism, and aging. Though not always successful, these disparate elements coalesce into fusions of marketable raunchy gimmickry and indie-philosophical aptitude.
Smith’s hodgepodge style is perhaps best exemplified by his first feature, Clerks. Almost immediately heralded as a cult film, Clerks wears its Generation X ethos on its sleeve, boasting a series of intertwined vignettes surrounding two college-age retail workers: Dante (Brian O’Halloran), a narcissistic Quick Stop grocer who was “not even supposed to be here today,” and his condescending best friend Randal who staffs the VHS (remember those?) rental store (remember those, too?) next door. Shot primarily after hours in the Quick Stop that Smith worked in, the film explores everything from hetero young male insecurities, like Dante’s bitterness towards his girlfriend’s sex life (“My girlfriend sucked 37 dicks,” to which a customer quips, “In a row?”), to pop culture intellectual soliloquies, such as Randal’s rant on the neoliberal existential crisis at the climax of Return of the Jedi (1983). Structured like an Edith Wharton realist novel written for the screen by Quentin Tarantino, Clerks’s slice of life portrait is rooted in Smith and his friends’ experiences in Jersey.
A major aspect of Clerks’s appeal is attributed to its mundanity. Made in a time before the internet, Clerks and the bulk of Smith’s early films are largely hangout movies where people talk about sex and popular culture. Clerks III keeps with this trend without over stating it. The film opens in the Quick Stop, with Randal and Dante trying to wrap their heads around NFTs. Suddenly, Randal experiences the same heart attack that Smith endured. Surviving the ordeal, Randal contends with his mortality and eventual fade into obscurity. His loneliness inspires him to make a film about his life at the video rental store, which actually has more to do with Dante’s own experiences at the grocer. The film within the film consists of remaking the best scenes from the previous two Clerks entries. A funny and somewhat touching gag, some characters (now middle-aged) return to play their younger selves in Randal’s picture.
The film’s narrative may be structured by Randal making his movie, but it slowly reveals itself to be all about Dante. Clerks II ended with Dante ready to marry Becky (Rosario Dawson), become a father, and run the Quick Stop. In III, Becky is not around. Instead, we find Dante a widower, saddened and miserable as ever. With encouragement from Becky’s spirit, Dante reluctantly decides to help Randal with his picture, which eventually leads to an argument over Randal’s disregard for Dante’s life and emotions, climaxing in Dante suffering his own heart attack. Faced with his friend’s potential death, Randal reckons with the pain he’s caused Dante and edits his film. In the most wholesome sequence of Smith’s career, a sobbing Randal plays Dante their movie on his laptop, which is conveyed through a montage of their film intercut with footage from the actual Clerks films. Playing like a best-of reel, Dante and, essentially, Smith’s life flashes before our eyes.
Churning into the meta nostalgia, Clerks III might sound like Smith collapsing under the pressure of measuring up to his first film. His move into a reflective narrative trajectory, however, is not nearly as interested in feasting on the past for cheap laughs as it is in affirming that the memories we cherish of ourselves and those we love become what we leave behind once we die. Melancholic and endearing, Smith’s return to his roots in film through the apparatus of film delivers a sincere homage to the path of his career. Hindsight makes Clerks III into something more than just another View Askewniverse picture. It also makes sense of Smith’s orbit out of the studio system to the online personality he is now.
Clerks III works best when recognized as a film reflecting on Smith’s wild career and his loving obedience to his friends, family, and fans. No longer a sycophant to the Hollywood machine, Smith has been most recently making movies for those who care. And that’s good enough for him.
Making sense of Smith’s career puts into perspective the impetus driving Smith’s honor and ambition as a filmmaker. The 27,000 dollar Clerks, largely financed by Smith’s maxed out credit cards, liquidation of much of his comic book collection, and a personal loan from his parents (all of which he paid and bought back) found great success in awards circuits, winning prizes at Cannes and Sundance, where it was purchased by Miramax for theatrical distribution. Although his next film, Mallrats (1995) was made with Universal and failed critically and commercially, it has since achieved a cult status that tracks with much of Smith’s early filmography under the Miramax banner, including Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma (1999), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)—Jay and Silent Bob being Jason Mewes and Smith, respectively, who are undoubtedly the most frequent recurring characters of the View Askewniverse—and Clerks II. However, Smith was plagued by a few misses in the mid-2000s and 2010s, leading to a falling out with critics and general audiences. For example, Ben Affleck vehicle Jersey Girl (2004) was a dud in many respects and his endearing 2008 picture Zack and Miri Make a Porno (starring an at-his-peak Seth Rogen) failed to earn a decent box office haul.
In the early 2010s, Smith veered away from the View Askewniverse and his brand of smart-yet-amateur hangout films that define the best of his career, resulting in shoddy receipts attached to mediocre pictures. First came Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan buddy cop flick, Cop Out (2010) for Warner Bros. Smith’s highest grosser (though not profitable), Cop Out is the first and only narrative feature of his that he didn’t write. By 2014, Smith pivoted into the realm of horror (with lesser known financial backers and distributors) with Tusk (2014), based on a story of a man in a walrus suit that emerged from Smith’s podcast, SModcast. Then came Yoga Hosers (2016), starring his daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, and her real life best friend, Lily-Rose Depp (Johnny Depp’s daughter). Arguably Smith’s worst film, the story follows two Canadian school girls (who happen to work as clerks, too) as they fight off Bratzis (Bratwurst-Nazis) with their yoga skills in order to get to a high school party.
A planned third horror film that ties into Tusk and Yoga Hosers was initially planned and written by Smith titled Moose Jaws, a scene-by-scene reimagining of Jaws (1975) substituting the Canadian wilderness for Amity Island. At a 2014 Comic Con in, of all places, Reno, Nevada, I was part of the audience that Smith pitched his version of Quint’s introduction (the nails on the chalkboard scene) from Jaws for Moose Jaws, this time featuring the would-be Quint-esque moose hunters, good ole Jay and Silent Bob. Fun and outrageous, Smith’s play with Spielberg’s master work speaks to another side of Smith’s “work” in the last two decades. His knack for idiosyncratic riffs on all things entertainment proffered a lucrative venture into live performance and podcasting.
As his filmography (d)evolved through the turn of the century, the allure of Kevin Smith found itself preserved in his uncanny ability to talk about anything. Smith began cementing a fandom through a series of live lectures and Q&As. Some of these found success in the video market (I had my copy of An Evening with Kevin Smith (2002) and its 2006 sequel, subtitled Evening Harder), appealing to a generation of filmbros hoping to be the next movie-loving-clerk-to-film-auteur, á la Smith and Tarantino. Eventually, by the time of his endeavor into horror pictures, Smith had developed a cult following dedicated to just hearing him talk at live shows and on podcasts. SModcast, mentioned earlier, is produced alongside other free podcasts, like Smith and Ralph Garman’s popular Hollywood Babble-On, under a Smodcast network banner. However, Smith’s following was rather niche and, turns out, unprofitable through the traditional theatrical film model.
While Tusk and Yoga Hosers boasted their connections to the Smodcast network—with in-jokes and references for the most dedicated of fans—their appeal to general audiences was abysmal. Smith’s days of studio backing and relatively healthy budgets are long behind him. Working with some self-funding and self-promotion, Smith now markets and distributes his pictures straight to his source of revenue: the fans. He began a limited release strategy by hosting tours across major US and Canadian cities where he would accompany screenings of the films with Q&As and live podcasting. Essentially Kevin Smith Comic Cons, the distribution of Smith’s latest pictures became part and parcel to his appeal as a podcasting personality. Clerks III is currently in the middle of its own theatrical roadshow model (and available on demand), playing in large venues to a few sold out crowds nationwide. It is rather interesting that a filmmaker renowned for his dialogue thirty years ago would morph into a podcast personality that just happens to make movies too. That isn’t to say that Smith’s fans today are not die-hard Kevin Smith film fans first—they just seem to value the man himself as the best product.
With the allure of Smith’s personality in mind, his trajectory of film in the past ten years makes much more sense. His horror films were conceived with his friends and made for his closest fans. Smith’s style of filmmaking is a sincere attempt at having fun, even if it is not the most financially ambitious way to make a feature. Smith’s last few films, including Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019), KillRoy was Here (2022)—a horror anthology released as an NFT—and Clerks III afforded Smith the opportunity to work with his closest friends and family to create flicks that didn’t need to appeal to the interests of deep-pocketed financial backers, prominent distributors, or erudite critics. This film, as is, would not exist were it made prior to Smith’s lifestyle change post-heart attack nor if his career had (d)evolved in some other way. A product of his thirty-year career and an homage to the film that made him and the people that care about him, Clerks III is Kevin Smith all grown up.