Viking Night: Clerks
By Bruce Hall
August 7, 2012
What's the best part about watching Clerks again? Knowing that it was the last time. Several hundred words from now, I'll never have to think about this movie again. And yes, I know the ramifications of what I'm saying. There are a lot of fans out there who fell in love with Clerks back in the day, and still consider it to be some sort of cultural masterpiece. That's because there are people in this world who think that anything subversive is automatically ingenious, simply because it has an attitude. But it takes a lot more than saying the word "cock" without a rooster present to be funny. I can say with total conviction that the only smart thing I did in 1994 was develop a lifelong hatred of this movie.
It's supposed to be a film about Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a 22-year-old college dropout who works at a convenience store and hates every minute of it. A crippling fear of failure prevents him from taking the next step, which his girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) insists would be going back to school. But hard work is not an option for Dante, so he rots behind the counter of the Quick Stop, serving a wide assortment of eccentric weirdoes. His best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) works - sometimes - at an adjacent video store. Occasionally he locks up and comes next door to commiserate.
The difference is that Randal is happy.
And just like that, you can see the film’s objective, to explore the differences between the two. They’re both aimless deadbeats with dead end jobs, yet one is content and the other is miserable. I point this out only to let the Kevin Smith fans out there know that I come by my opinion honestly. It's not that I don't understand Clerks. I just think it's a really bad film. In fact, it's not even a film, strictly speaking. It’s an idea with a beginning and an end, and a lot of irrelevant noise crammed in between. Add the first 17 minutes to the last ten, and there’s your film. Forget "Clerks." "Twenty-Seven Minutes" is what Smith should have called it.
But at least it has a brain, right? Each scene opens with a title card announcing a theme, such as "Purgation" or "Perspicacity.” This is because in addition to making your film look smarter than it is, title cards are a convenient way to disguise your ignorance of story structure. It smacks of desperate pretense, and while I can understand a first time filmmaker wanting to strut his stuff, fancy names do not a smart scene make. It’s not the sizzle that makes the steak. I can almost see Smith now, asleep at his typewriter with the remnants of a badly dog-eared thesaurus still sitting in his lap.
Which brings me to the part of the film I think I hate the most.
Clerks is mainly a lot of random, gratuitously vulgar things happening for no particular reason while bad actors stand around making self consciously snarky observations. It's like Mamet Speak written by a stroke victim. A good scene is all about execution, and you can cram a segment with all the witty, rapid fire dialogue in the world, but if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s nothing but a waste of time. Nonetheless, Kevin Smith has the "Intrepidity" to believe that the ability to monologue about trivial things qualifies as intellectual discourse. If he didn't, he wouldn't have crammed a moderately amusing but irrelevant conversation about Star Wars in the middle of a segment called "Syntax.”
This is a movie is absolutely packed with scenes so obsessed with being clever, characters so fixated on being superficially quirky, that they lack any semblance of relevance. It’s all pointless filler that fails to move the story forward, and tells us nothing about the characters we don't already know. Why do Dante and Randall take off from work to attend the wake of a person who has nothing to do with the plot? So they can knock a body out of a coffin for no reason. Why do we spend three minutes watching a guy in a suit sit on the floor and play with eggs?
So a random girl can walk up and deliver a zinger about masturbating farm animals for no reason. The "Vagary" of it all sets your mind spinning.
If you don't think any of that matters, remember that Clerks has 92 minutes to tell a story, and it has to be at a pace that leaves the audience feeling they got their money's worth. So how many of those minutes can you afford to waste doing cartwheels and reading out of a thesaurus? It's a mistake amateurs make all the time, and I'd be more forgiving of it in Kevin Smith's first film if he wasn't still doing the same thing 18 years later. If it's not part of the story, it's part of the problem. And for 65 minutes, Clerks is part of the problem.