Clerks (1994): Kevin Smith’s Rude Comedy–Highlight of Sundance Film Fest

Kevin Smith has been called “the King of Gen-X Cinema,” a label he embraces with a lot of joy–but also some ambiguity.  A satirist who writes deftly but lacks any sense of visual style, Smith makes a strong case for the importance of attending film school, if only to acquire technical skills.

Smith dropped out of college, returning to the Jersey shore with vague dreams of becoming a screenwriter. He applied for a job in a video store but ended up working next door, behind the counter of Leonardo’s Quick Stop Groceries. On the night of his twenty- first birthday, Smith saw Slacker. It was different: The people in it did nothing–they just stood in front of the camera and talked, exactly what they did at the Quick Stop. There was a bizarre trailer for another movie that night, Trust, by Hartley, whose debut, The Unbelievable Truth, was gathering dust at the video store next to the Quick Stop. In Trust, too, “people talked and nothing happened.”

After spending four months at a Vancouver film school, he decided to invest the rest of his tuition into making a movie. Back at his folks house with his old $5 an hour job at the Quick Stop, he wrote the script for Clerks, about a day in the life of two “do-nothings,” who work in a convenience mart and a video store. “I had things in Clerks I wanted to say about growing up in the Tri-City area,” Smith said, “but my idea to get money for more movies was to say that it was part of a trilogy, which was actually horseshit.” Shot in three weeks at the Quick Stop after hours, Clerks was made for a mere $27,575.

Anti-hero Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) plans to sleep late, play hockey, and enjoy his day off, but, instead, he gets called in to the Quick Stop, and is stranded when his boss never shows up to relieve him. Pelted with cigarettes by angry customers, he’s forced to listen to tales of lung cancers and is later devastated by the wedding announcement of Caitlin, the high school sweetheart he can’t forget. Shocked by the sexual revelations of his girlfriend Veronica, he blusters, “You sucked thirty six dicks Does that include me” “Thirty seven,” she calmly responds.

Dante quips that his job would be great if “it wasn’t for the customers.” Randal (Jeff Anderson), Dante’s reckless counterpart at the adjoining video store also insults customers. Together they philosophize about the Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back ended on a down note, Dante says, and that’s all life is, a series of down notes. The closest Clerks comes to existential truth, is Dante’s constant refrain, “I’m not even supposed to be here.”

Shot in grainy black and white, Clerks is cast with beginners. Inspired by Hartley, Smith’s script dog piles absurdity and obscenity on top of each other. The dullness of dead-end jobs is brightened with odd bits–a fat guy asks for softer toilet paper and then dies on the can. When Dante and Randall sneak out to attend the funeral, Randall outrages the mourners by tipping over the casket. “What kind of convenience store do you run here” a coroner asks as she collects data on a customer’s embarrassing demise. It’s a relevant question: by the end of the day, the Quick Stop lies in ruins.

Dante represents Smith’s id, and the spit-in-your-face Randal his ego, the director once said, though he allowed that it could also be the other way round. More happens on one lousy day than in most years on other job–it’s a convention of “do-nothing” movies that characters are always busy doing something. Clerks contains sex, death, and hockey, but mostly it’s about hanging out and talking in the manner of classic American comedies like American Graffiti and Diner.

Although Clerks depicts no graphic sex or violence, the MPAA initially gave it an NC-17 rating, making it the first film to get the restrictive rating based solely on its profane dialogue. But later, when high-profile attorney Alan Dershowitz and some influential filmmakers (Danny DeVito, Callie Khouri, Cameron Crow) petitioned for reconsideration, the MPAA appeals board granted a softer R rating. Miraculously, the “porno list and sucking your own dick thing” remained intact. No cuts were made except for a new denouement–albeit for different reasons. In the original ending, Dante was killed by an unidentified robber, but upon reading the script, producer rep John Pierson told Smith, “Cut it, and I’m in.” Smith was happy to oblige.

After premiering at Sundance, where Clerks won the Filmmakers Trophy, Smith barnstormed around the global festival circuit, presenting himself as a working-class intellectual who drinks Shirley Temples and wears a long thrift-store overcoat as befits a “true vulgarian.” Particularly important was the reception at Cannes, where the film won two prizes and chalked up strong foreign sales. Clerks was snapped up by Miramax, which released a 91-minute version–trimmed from 104 minutes. Miramax cleaned up the print, added a new soundtrack featuring Soul Asylum’s, “Can’t Even Tell,” and opened the picture with a beefed up ad campaign, including the tagline: “Just because they serve you, doesn’t mean they like you.”

Pulling in $2.4 million, box-office grosses were OK, but not spectacular, considering the hype. “A totally welcome blast of stale air,” raved one critic; a “grunge Godot,” said another. For Smith, “it’s easier to be daring in comedy–to really piss off people–because you fall into a pillow and the pillow is humor.” Despite the gross-outs, Clerks was disarmingly likable, making even necrophilia seem funny. Smith is aware that his specialty–verbal gyrations of the randy twentysomething–represents a tough sell for the studios that don’t know what to do with his work.