Sunday, March 25, 2012

Betrayed By Kevin Smith?

Lebeau, from Le Blog (a most excellent place to visit, btw), has decided he's been "Betrayed By Kevin Smith," and he's penned a brief jaunt through Smith's career that outlines his disappointment that the filmmaker, whom he once regarded as "a voice for my generation," has "failed to live up to those expectations."

It's a good article and I'm with Lebeau on a lot of it. I, too, initially had high expectations for the Kevin. Mine maybe weren't as high as Lebeau's but I definitely thought Smith would go a lot further than he has. Smith hasn't lived up to his potential and his work has been terribly uneven.

Lebeau has decided CLERKS "wasn’t great. But you could see the potential for greatness." I disagree. CLERKS is a great movie. Anyone who has ever been trapped in those sorts of shitty jobs at some point in life can relate to it and, of course, that's most of us. That's why the film will withstand the test of time. It's Kevin's best movie.

Lebeau says MALLRATS "was basically Clerks in color" and that's a point at which I profoundly part company with his assessment. There are certainly patches of what made CLERKS work in the movie--there are patches of that in most of Smith's movies--but for the most part, MALLRATS is a very different rodent and it was pounced upon in its day as such a disappointment because a lot of the people Smith had impressed with his first film just don't care for that particular critter. Smith is enamored of a goofy, way-over-the-top, slapstick kind of humor and he pulled that out of the closet rather forcefully in MALLRATS. It's amusing enough but it's silly and juvenile, and while I'm not necessarily one to drop the hammer on something for being silly and juvenile, it is far removed--and a big step down--from his approach to CLERKS, which was much smarter. It's a kind of humor that wears quite thin over time.

More importantly, it's a kind that conflicts--and usually conflicts rather badly--with what Kevin does best. When he's at the top of his form and firing on all cylinders, Smith's films come from life. The humor in them is so funny in large part because it does as well. When it comes to generating laughs, his best certainly isn't things like Silent Bob in Batman gear sailing over a mall and crashing into a dressing room while Jay shouts mock Gumpisms from below. His best is things like Randall and Dante discussing the kind of customers who get on their nerves. It's funny and it's real. Anyone who has ever worked such jobs--again, most of us--immediately recognizes it and finds the frustration relatable.

These are two distinct and pretty much incompatible species of humor. The former clashes with the latter and, more importantly, undermines it, because it undermines its context, which is a world to which we relate because the people in it and their interactions seem and feel very real.[1] It's as if we're watching 12 ANGRY MEN and everyone suddenly breaks into a dance number. It instantly takes the viewer out of the movie at hand and into a different one, one that, while maybe itself entertaining, is completely out of character for the one we were just watching. Or, to use a Smith example, just look at CLERKS 2.

It's no coincidence that CLERKS and CHASING AMY, the two Smith films that are almost entirely free of the goofy slapstick stuff, are the ones regarded by pretty much everyone as Kevin's absolute best. Forcefully underscoring the fundamentally different approach Smith was using with CLERKS is the original ending in which the hapless Dante, having gone through this hilarious, exhausting day in which he wasn't even supposed to be there, is confronted by an armed robber and shot to death.[2] Hard to imagine Kevin even contemplating an ending like that for JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, right?

Lebau says CLERKS 2 is "pretty much exactly what you would expect a Clerks sequel to be like" but he's only partly right. Kevin keeps it real and plays to his strengths through some of CLERKS 2 but, again, he repeatedly undermines himself with the goofiness. It's not a bad movie but to the extent that it succeeds, it does so in spite of dance numbers and donkey shows.[3]

I'm with Lebeau on most of the rest of what he has to say. Smith's worst, most worthless films are the two he made when trying to go "mainstream." The goofier humor that works against him comes from being undisciplined and overly indulgent (a malady he shares with Quentin Tarantino). I don't think he needs a new approach; I just think he needs to go back to what works. That doesn't mean making the same movies over and over again. It just means he needs to reign in the excess and develop material that once again plays to his strengths. I don't feel "betrayed" by Kevin Smith but I know he has a lot better in him and as a fan, I'd like to see him get at it.[4]



[1] This is reflective of the current crisis in genre comedy in general. The goofy, low-grade stuff reigns, while the more thoughtful (and, for the most part, vastly superior) humor-from-life movies have nearly disappeared. Smith, poor boy, embodies the conflict in a single filmmaker.

[2] Indie-film guru John Pierson convinced Smith to cut the scene. The trade-off in doing so was what would have been a straight-up legendary masterpiece was reduced to a comedy classic.

[3] Smith's evolution of his Silent Bob character tracks with what I've been saying here. Bob is originally a laid-back, perpetually poker-faced enigma, an observer of events who may hang around with a ranting idiot all day but by the end manages to offer up some words of wisdom on what we've just witnessed, words that indicate there's a great deal more behind that silence than would be indicated by the company he perpetually keeps. Usually, they're the only words of wisdom anyone has to offer. And that's all he has to say. This is Bob in CLERKS and CHASING AMY. The very different Bob we see in the other movies is very animated, in on all the action and is just as much a clown as his sidekick. Decadent Bob!

[4] Smith announced, last year, he was retiring from directing. I suppose only time will tell if that keeps.


  1. I love that we get to have this conversation across sites. It's always fun to cross pollinate.

    It's funny. Most of the areas in which we disagree are cases where I was using shorthand. For example, when I compared Mallrats to Clerks, I was referring to the way in which Mallrats was viewed upon its release. You are correct in that Clerks is a better film because it is grounded in reality.

    Kevin Smith has said that his intent in making Mallrats was to create Porky's for a new generation. I think part of the problem with Mallrats is that nobody really needed a Porky's update.

    You're absolutely right that where Smith falls down is his reliance on cartoonish humor. The shit monster in Dogma, the donkey show in Clerks 2. This stuff is just lazy and stupid. But I guess Smith's cronies aren't going to call him on it.

    In truth, I don't so much feel "betrayed" by Smith. That's just the title of the column. I don't even really feel disappointed by him these days. But my 20-something self would have felt disappointment and maybe even betrayal. Especially if he watched the dreadful Comic Book Men.

    To some extent, I feel like Smith found his footing again with Red State. The dialogue is over-written. And Smith is not a visual story-teller which is a pretty severe short-coming in film.

    Red State feels like the Smith has something to say. That hasn't been the case since at least Dogma. And the last time Smith said something worth saying was Chasing Amy.

  2. I sort of figured we didn't really disagree on the matter of humor. J&SBSB is a pure goof-off, without much of the more grounded humor, and that's fine. DOGMA, though, has some fairly serious matters at its core, and I'm not using "serious," there, as "non-humorous." I mean it has a point. The serious parts of the movie are totally undermined by the stupid slapstick, though. This is even worse in CLERKS 2, because you can see something that had the potential to continue the original in a meaningful way, and, in parts, does, but again and again, it's undermined by that inappropriate goofiness.

    I hadn't heard that business about MALLRATS being his effort at a next-generation PORKY'S. I wouldn't say it was a bad thing he missed the mark on that one--the last-generation PORKY'S wasn't very good anyway.

    I don't think Smith's uneven career can be attributed to a lack of ambition (which is what one often hears). He does try, at times, to do something different. He just always picks the wrong kind of "different." His wife described his decision to abandon the Green Hornet project and go with CLERKS 2 as a retreat, after getting stung and perhaps a bit hurt by the reaction to JERSEY GIRL, but JERSEY GIRL wasn't bad because it wasn't a standard View Askew movie. It was bad because it wasn't any good.

    I haven't yet seen RED STATE, but it definitely sounds like a step in the right direction. He claims he has decided to retire from directing, but I read that as more a case of burnout, and suspect he'll be back.