Why I Haven’t Quite Outgrown Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith... 40-ish, chubby, and bespectacled... wonder why I like him...

To start off this entry, I need to reference a similarly subjected story written by Mel Payne.  Mel is one of the coolest people I know, a lovely lady who appreciates the finer things in life: comic books, avant-garde comedy, Arrested Development, and good 80’s music (The Smiths, for example, as opposed to Def Leppard).  She also draws a consistently funny web comic based on adventures and experiences from her own life.  Check out her comic here (you won’t be disappointed). Recently Mel wrote a blog about how she has fallen “out of love” (her words) with filmmaker Kevin Smith. As she had prefaced the writing of this blog with a Facebook post informing her Friends List of her intentions (“I’m going to be writing a piece on how I have gone from a Kevin Smith fan to being put off and uninterested in Kevin Smith. If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, or if you feel the same way, please feel free to share them here.”) As a fellow Smith fan who had recently started to wonder whether it was still worth it to follow the filmmaker’s work, I was intrigued and wanted to see what she had to say on the subject.  You can read it here.

I have to admit that Mel makes some solid points, however she seems to have based much of her decision on Smith’s many podcasts – of which she admits to having listened to exactly one. Not a word about the somewhat clever but largely disappointing Zack and Mirri make a Porno or the completely valueless Cop Out (which Smith directed as a work-for-hire, but didn’t write).  She didn’t even take the time to diss Jersey Girl, a film that even many of the most die hard Smith fans hated.

I did respond to Mel’s call for opinions as well as to the posting of the piece itself, but I am not the Mike she quotes in the story.  My basic opinion was that I was awaiting the release of Red State, Smith’s latest film, which promised to be a vast departure from the kind of movie he usually makes.  Produced completely independently,  Red State has been released in an unconventional manner, with limited screenings around the country, often followed by Smith’s trademark Q & A sessions.  On September 1st the film became available for Video on Demand viewing and I have to say that I’m glad I chose to see it before just writing Smith off.

Red State is easily Smith’s finest work to date and, while it may not be an Oscar-worthy film, it includes at least one Oscar-worthy performance (from the immensely talented but often overlooked Michael Parks).  It also plays more like a film by Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez than one by Kevin Smith.  There’s no comedy here whatsoever.  Red State is dark, somewhat shocking, and action-packed.  It’s Tarantino’s Death Proof meets Eli Roth’s Hostel meets Smith’s own Dogma, but all without the snarky undertones.  In short, it’s a Kevin Smith movie for those who were getting tired of Smith’s sophomoric humor.

If I dare say so, it’s a Kevin Smith movie for someone like Mel Payne.

It’s also a Kevin Smith movie for someone like me.

I was older than Mel was when I discovered Kevin Smith.  Given that I’m about fifteen years older than her we likely discovered him about the same time, around the release of Chasing Amy, I’m guessing.  I was in my mid-twenties and a friend recommended that I watch Clerks, Smith’s indie debut film which had come out of nowhere and wowed the crowds at Cannes.  It was, of course, brilliant.  It was a movie by, for,  and about Generation X slackers which is what I most certainly was (am?).  Here was a film where the main characters worked in a convenience store and video rental shop (I spent two years working the graveyard shift at a Phoenix Circle K store while my brother and best friend both worked at a local 24-hour video store.  Nights I wasn’t working I was at the video store watching movies and playing Mortal Kombat II or NBA Jam with Jim and/or Greg), who had deep conversations about whether it was morally correct for the Rebel Alliance to destroy the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi (“My friend here’s trying to convince me that any independent contractors who were working on the uncompleted Death Star were innocent victims when it was destroyed by the Rebels.”)  In short, Clerks spoke to me at the time.

It’s also an impressive piece of work, Clerks, if for nothing more than the fact that it was made on a miniscule budget (approximately $35,000… most of it financed on credit cards that Smith would have never been able to pay off if he hadn’t turned this film thing into an actual career) by a twenty-two year old kid.  Spielberg was twenty-six when he made Jaws and George Lucas was twenty-nine when American Graffiti was released (over thirty by the time the world first saw Star Wars), if you need a point of reference.  I was still enjoying smoking dope and playing Sega Genesis while Smith was making C lerks… and he was making it for guys exactly like me.

Smith followed Clerks with Mallrats, a film that really drove home his nerdy slacker love while helping build the careers of costar Jason Lee and a young and still relatively unknown Ben Afleck (in a supporting role).  Smith also used the film to further develop the characters of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself). And he crammed as much of his life loves as possible into the story.  It’s impossible to watch Mallrats and come away not knowing that the driving forces in Kevin’s life were comic books, Star Wars, and hockey.

After Mallrats Smith made Chasing Amy which was his most “grown-up” film at the time.  While it still revolved around a world of comic book geekery, its central story was one of real people involved in a real relationship (sure both of those people, played by Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams, created comic books for a living) and the tale of how a guy falls in love with an openly gay woman (and manages to get her to switch teams!) is a far cry from Jay and Silent Bob hanging out in front of the Quick Stop selling weed.  Jay and Bob do put in an appearance in Chasing Amy, but its near the end and serves primarily to tie the film in with the next one Smith would release, Dogma.

Dogma is Smith at his comedic best and it’s probably the most original film made in the last twenty years.  The story starts with the characters of Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), two angels who we learn had been exiled from Heaven by God centuries earlier and sentenced to spend eternity in Wisconsin.  Because Bartleby enjoys seeing the way people react to one another when they’re reunited after spending time away from one another, the pair is hanging out at the airport.  Bartleby informs Loki that they were sent information concerning a church in New Jersey which was planning a centennial celebration.  As a part of the festivities the church’s arch is to serve as a portal of Plenary Indulgence, a lesser known Catholic belief that guarantees anyone who passes through will have his or her sins forgiven and essentially be guaranteed a place in Paradise after death.Bartleby sees this as a chance for the rogue angels to return home.  All they have to do is trans-substantiate (by removing their wings Angels can become human) and then die to override God’s banishment and return to Heaven.

Some distance away, near Chicago, Illinois, we meet Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a young Catholic woman who is having a crisis of faith.  Bethany is approached by another angel (Metatron, the “Voice of God” played by Alan Rickman) who tasks her with stopping Bartleby and Loki from completing their pilgrimage to the New Jersey church.  Metatron explains to Bethany that the entire universe operates on the single premise that God is infallible and to prove him wrong would essentially unmake all of existence in an instant.  So Bartleby and Loki’s plans apparently have dire consequences of which they are not aware.

Dogma essentially becomes a road movie as it follows Bethany as well as the two angels along their route to New Jersey.  Bartleby and Loki become sidetracked a few times along the way due to Loki’s blood lust (he used to be the Angel of Death) and desire to get back on God’s good side by doing away with various sinners before they attempt to return home.  Bethany, meanwhile, learns that she will not have to complete her holy quest on her own, as she is joined along the way by various helpers.  First she meets the two “prophets” that Metatron told her she would come across.  “The one who speaks – and he will, at length, whether you want him to or not – will refer to himself as a prophet,” he tells her. “The other one, well… he’s the quiet type.”  These are, of course, none other than Jay and Silent Bob.  She also eventually meets Rufus (Chris Rock), the unknown thirteenth apostle of Christ, left out of the Bible because he was black, and Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a former muse who left Heaven of her own volition to go out into the world and seek her fortune.

Dogma was also the first time Smith worked with actual Hollywood stars in one of his films.  While he essentially launched the career of Ben Affleck (putting him in Mallrats and Chasing Amy) and had worked with Damon before (he had a small role in Chasing Amy), he had previously been mostly casting his friends in his films.  With Fiorentino, Rickman, Rock, and Hayek alongside Affleck, Damon, and Jason Lee (who had also been in Mallrats and Chasing Amy) and appearances by George Carlin and Janeane Garofalo, Smith was directing a number of seasoned film veterans for the first time in his career.  Even Alanis Morisette and Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) both appear as different forms of God.

Smith followed Dogma with a return to his dick and fart joke roots in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, another road movie that sets the Jay and Bob characters on a cross-country quest to try and stop production of a movie based on the characters of Bluntman and Chronic (which, in the Kevin Smith View Askew mythology were the characters created by Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil and Jason Lee’s Banky Edwards in Chasing Amy) which were based on their likenesses.  Affleck and Lee make cameo appearances (Lee as two characters, Banky Edwards from Chasing Amy and Brodie Bruce from Mallrats and Affleck as Holden McNeil from Chasing Amy and as himself alongside Matt Damon in a make-believe sequel to Good Will Hunting), as does Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) and countless other Smith friends and coat-tail riders.  As Dogma is Smith at his wittiest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back may well be Smith at his dim-wittiest, with many of the film’s gags pandering to the lowest common denominator of Smith fans.  At the same time, however, the movie seems more than anything like Smith just having fun and inviting us along for the ride.  He fills the film with multiple cameo appearances not only by people he’d worked with before (Chris Rock and George Carlin both make memorable appearances, as does Shannen Doherty who worked with Smith in Mallrats), but by people he has been a fan of for many years including Star Wars alums Carrie Fisher (described by Jay as a “hairy-bushed nun”) and Mark Hamill (as Bluntman & Chronic nemesis Cock Knocker… guess what he does…) and film directors Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven as themselves.  Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is undeniably fun and its one I will watch if I come across it on cable or locate it on Netflix or Hulu.

Next Smith made Jersey Girl, a somewhat feeble attempt to break away (at least a bit) from the things he was best known and loved for.  There’s no Jay or Silent Bob in Jersey Girl, no comic book or Star Wars references, and no endless parade of longtime familiar faces in the background.  The film does star Ben Affleck (Smith once commented that he would cast Ben in just about anything) and also features George Carlin (playing Affleck’s character’s father).  The story is about a man raising his daughter as a single parent after the death of his wife and whether he should settle for the simple life of a blue collar worker and father in suburban New Jersey or if he should return the the high power life of a top PR man in bustling Manhattan.  The latter would provide a healthy six figure income but leave him little time to spend with his child while the former lacks the glitz, glamour and money that the New York job affords, but lets him be the father he knows his daughter deserves.  Go ahead and guess how it ends.

Most Smith fans all but completely hated Jersey Girl while critics panned it as well, but for different reasons.  I actually somewhat enjoyed it, feeling like it signified that Kevin had perhaps grown up a bit himself.

Despite Smith’s claims that “Jay and Silent Bob are fucking done,” the pair did in fact return in Smith’s next movie.  That film was a long-awaited sequel to Clerks which Smith cleverly entitled Clerks 2.  The film opens with the destruction by fire of the Quick Stop and adjoining video store from the original movie (“Terrorists?” asks Jeff Anderson’s Randall Graves character before realizing, “I left the coffee pot on again, didn’t I?”) and sees Clerks heroes Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall going to work at a Mooby’s fast food restaurant (an imaginary McFranchise originally created for Dogma).  Clerks 2 is another trip down memory lane for Smith and his fans, but makes up for the lack of substance in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back by ultimately being about growing up.

Clerks 2 seems to have finally closed the book on Smith’s “Askewniverse” films and it seems doubtful that we’ll see Jay and Bob and friends again anytime soon.  Smith’s next film was Zack and Mirri Make a Porno which was met with mixed emotions from fans and non-fans alike.  The film stars Seth Rogen and Smith seemed to be relying on Rogen’s star power to deliver his first bona fide blockbuster.  It didn’t happen.  Zack and Mirri is clever, but its likely that the subject matter coupled with a curious ad campaign (the poster had stick figures on it and many markets would not allow TV spots that used the word “Porno”) seemed to doom the film.  Like many Smith films it did better on DVD.

Smith later commented himself that the problem with the Zack and Mirri Make a Porno was that it was “Kevin Smith trying to make a Judd Apatow movie.” That comment seemed to hit the nail on the head.  Smith seemed to have lost his way and become lost in a sea populated with refugees dressed as him and Mewes as the Jay and Silent Bob characters.  I began to wonder if I had, in fact, finally outgrown Kevin Smith as I had clearly (against my will) finally reached actual adulthood (just after age 40!) and he still had not.

Clearly, Kev was wondering the same thing (whether he’d ever grow up) and doing so led him to, I believe one of the best and one of the worst decisions of his career.  Te best? To independently write, produce, direct, and release Red State, a film as far from the Smith norm as the East is from the West.  The worst was to take on the work-for-hire directing gig that resulted in the Bruce Willis/Tracey Morgan piece of celluloid shit that was Cop Out.  I do hope that one day I’ll be able to look back on a career of some kind in the same way Smith can.  If I can have a high point as high as Red State, it will be well worth a low as low as Cop Out, especially when the other projects include titles as noteworthy as Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma.

Smith has stated recently that he intends to get out of the film making business sometime soon.  It was when I heard that statement that I knew for sure that I wasn’t ready to write Smith off just yet.  While I hope he does still have some good flicks in him, I guess he could do far worse than Red State as a swan song.

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One comment

  1. tsonoda148 · September 16, 2011

    I saw Chasing Amy, Clerks and Mallrats, and only liked Chasing Amy. Never saw Dogma. I never followed Smith’s work…probably because I don’t fit the demographic. I did like Chasing Amy though.

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