Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

How My View of Kevin Smith Ran Askew

June 4, 2011

Me circa 2001 meeting my heroes at Jay & Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Redbank, NJ. Yes, that's a Clerks: The Comic Book t-shirt beneath my sweet North Face fleece.

If I had to choose, 1999 was probably the year I started to get seriously into film. I was 14 – a year away from high school. DVDs were becoming cheaper, and my parents were cool with me seeing/renting any movie I wanted really.

My parents were always good film influences on me. My Mom tried to get me into Star Wars when I was 4 (but I didn’t go berserk over it until a year later when other friends had seen it). My Dad sat me down to watch The Producers and other Mel Brooks movies, and both of my parents were huge Woody Allen fans. Even my Grandma bought me an invaluable Time Life VHS set on Legends of Comedy from the silent era to the 50s. I watched it over and over again.

Heading into high school, I felt pretty well versed in film. I had respect for my elders. Still, the filmmaker of the moment that spoke to me the most was, without a doubt, Kevin Smith. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, an hour away from Redbank, AKA the Springfield/Mayberry/Newbridge of Kevin Smith’s world, the View Askewniverse. I owned all of his films on DVD, even Clerks: The Animated Series, which, like the films, I watched over and over again with and without commentary. I hadn’t ever smoked weed, but Jay and Silent Bob were my cult heroes. Cult is the key word here. And the fun of belonging to one. Being a Smith-phile was to be versed in an odd suburban New Jersey-centric universe of interconnected weirdos, losers and slackers.

At that age, I wasn’t very well versed with the technical aspects of making films. From the start of his career, Kevin Smith’s directorial abilities were dubious. His static shot sequencing, unchanging angles from cameras that never move. Basically, his unintentional ability to give anything he films the urgency of a mediocre three-camera sitcom – none of that mattered to me. Smith himself seemed to shrug off that type of criticism as well. He was a writer first and foremost, and his writing was so specific and phrased (however clunkily) with funny Star Wars references, etc. that it seemed brilliant to me at the time. Every other line felt like a memorable catchphrase – and to fellow View Askewniversites at the time, they were.

At the very least, it was distinctive. I wouldn’t find it distinctively cringe-worthy till years later.

I owned at least three different Kevin Smith-related shirts. Being the budding film nerd that I was, I gravitated towards attention-getting shirts with obscure references (to outsiders). I still have a black long-sleeve fake tour tee from the foreign “Berserker” dude who’s in Clerks for five minutes. With fake tour dates on the back and everything. In the wintertime, I rocked a replica Snoogins beanie like the one Jay wore.

I watched An Evening With Kevin Smith at least three or four times. It was like standup comedy to me. Looking at the box now – holy fuck that thing was long – Disc One is 128 minutes and Disc Two another 97 minutes. And he’s released MORE of these “lecture” DVDs since.

Looking back now, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which came out the summer before my sophomore year of high school, was the turning point. At the time, JASBSB was to be the “final chapter in the View Askewniverse,” a grand sendoff to beloved characters with a wacky cast of comedian cameos that was sure to be Smith’s first film to gross more than $30 million dollars at the box office. It didn’t. (“Oh what a lovely tea party” still makes me smile though.)

Then came Jersey Girl.It had the misfortune of starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and being released just a few months after the two of them starred in one of the most widely loathed film flops of all time. Perhaps it never had a chance. But hey, George Carlin was funny as the Dad, right? And Jason Lee? He’s always good! (He is to Kevin Smith fans as Nathan Fillion is to Whedonites.) Man, you all are just being cynical jerks. This was the movie where Kevin Smith bared his heart – we, the loyal, fanbase, could at least forgive, if not outright convince ourselves we liked the movie.

Jersey Girl (2004)

Forebodingly, Jersey Girl was the first Smith film I didn’t pick up on DVD. Even the pull of a hee-larious Kevin Smith commentary track wasn’t enough incentive. I could not have that (at the time hated to say this) piece of shit on my DVD shelf, next to classics like Chasing Amy and Dogma.

A couple of years went by. I graduated high school. Went to college, as a film major. By my sophomore year, when Clerks II came out, I had thoroughly drifted away from the View Askewniverse. I saw Clerks II in theaters, thought it was good enough – I liked the Mooby’s restaraunt for a setting – I remember thinking the excessive Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars talk felt like a sweaty attempt to feel like “classic” Dante and Randall bickering in the original Clerks. I only saw Clerks II once, in theaters. I never bought the DVD.

Two more years go by. Now I’m almost a college graduate. Zach and Miri Make a Porno comes out, starring a budding comedy hero, Seth Rogen, hot off his star-making summer in Knocked Up and Superbad. Zach and Miri became the first film since Dogma I didn’t even bother to see in theaters. I read shitty reviews of it, and when I saw it On-Demand a few months after it left theaters, I realized the reviews were right.

What had happened to my hero? My favorite director. The guy I might have once thought of as some kind of voice of my generation? This wasn’t a life-altering change taking place. But I did decide that the guy gave me a lot of entertainment over the years, and if he’s got nothing left to offer me, at least he’s already offered so much. Thanks for the memories.

Around the same time Zach and Miri came out, the AV Club’s Scott Tobias – via his recurring series “The New Cult Canon” – published a searing indictment of all things Kevin Smith in his entry for Clerks. The AV Club is my favorite publication – digital or print – and Scott Tobias, in addition to being the site’s film editor, is one of its best writers. I don’t treat the opinions of AV Club writers as scripture, but if any one piece of writing was going to really shake my world up about Kevin Smith, there’s a good chance it would come from the AV Club. I even thought the entry was going to be a positive one. Sure, people dump on Jersey Girl and Clerks II, but the status of the original Clerks was untouchable, right?

Scott Tobias starts off his entry questioning why Clerks caused such a sensation in the first place. It was shot on a low budget, but as he says, “Clerks may be the only $25,000 movie ever made that leaves people wondering where all the money went.” It had groundbreakingly funny pop-culture-laced dialogue like its contemporary, Pulp Fiction. But Tobias is unimpressed by it as well. The dialogue, and all the memorable moments from the film it is sprinkled upon – are to Tobias, “Just a crude assemblage of comic vignettes. Cut one away, and nothing’s lost but a few minutes of running time.”

The New Jersey tetralogy of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma were the untouchable films in the Smith canon – the ones any fan could fall back on if the veneer of Kevin Smith’s awesomeness was in danger of cracking. With this in mind, reading Scott’s review, it felt like my infatuation with the View Askewniverse was being killed at the source. I don’t know if I immediately agreed 100% with Scott’s systematic takedown of Smith’s writing and directorial abilities. But for someone who had already moved on from Smith, this article didn’t make me want to return any time soon.

In the same way that Smith’s first four films were untouchable, the other thing most fans always fell back on was that, even if they conceded he was not a very gifted director, you couldn’t fault the writing. Bullshit. Scott was right about Clerks‘ aimless plot – in hindsight, its clever chapters were really just awkward transitions between two scenes that really had nothing to do with each other as far as servicing any kind of plot.

Scott debunked Smith the filmmaker. But the guy who made an even more devastating attack on my childhood hero was Tom Scharpling on The Best Show on WFMU. I first got into the Best Show towards the end of 2008. It took at least a year to properly get caught up in the show’s history – 3 hours every Tuesday night since October, 2000, AKA nearly 1500 hours of radio! – but once I had gone through enough of it, one recurring theme was unavoidable: Tom Scharpling really, really can’t stand Kevin Smith.

In a way it’s ironic that Scharpling would have such hostility towards a fellow New Jerseyan – one who’s View Askewniverse really wasn’t that different from Scharpling’s fictional town of Newbridge. Newbridge, and its many oddball Jon Wurster-voiced inhabitants, also bear a resemblance to another favorite target of Scharpling’s: Garrison Keillor and his charming tales of life in Lake Wobegon.

The difference of course was the quality of the comedy. The world of Newbridge and Scharpling & Wurster vastly exceeded the Askewniverse in terms of intelligence, originality, and also it just wasn’t nearly as embarrassing to like. It felt mature without being pompous, smart without getting too cerebral, and funny. Did I say funny? So fucking funny.

If Scott Tobias was the debunker of Smith as filmmaker, Scharpling’s job seemed to be debunker of Smith as a person. Around the buildup to Cop Out, which Smith had wanted to call A Couple Of Dicks until the man stepped in and ruined it, Smith had become something of a mediawhore. His rise in notoriety dovetailed nicely with the ascendancy of comedy podcasts and movie blogs – of which he seemed to be the prince of both. His podcast did (and still does) huge numbers and his every showbiz-move is chronicled breathlessly by dozens of fawning movie blogs.

As directors-as-celebrities go, Smith’s name recognition easily matches that of a Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher or Chris Nolan. But does anything in his filmography match the output of those three directors? Kevin Smith is like the Paris Hilton of movie directors. As the cliche goes: Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. Kevin Smith is a famous director because he is a famous director.

Smith’s phony campaign over the past year to show he’s a cool stoner now has been a frequent topic of Scharpling’s. He brags about it like a teenager who just discovered the stuff (he’s pushing 40), has the pomposity of an overly-forward member of NORML, and then there’s the hypocrisy – Yeah, go ahead and throw shame on your best friend Jay Mewes when he’s going through a drug problem, then turn around and try to make yourself the new Tommy Chong. Oh, and he says it makes him more creative, meanwhile he’s talking about retiring from filmmaking forever. (To sit around and smoke all day?)

I sense my tone is becoming mean spirited. Pause for a moment – Here’s honestly what set me off to blurt out this rambling blog post in the first place. I was listening to Marc Maron on this week’s episode of The Best Show. Maron is talking about how eventually he’s going to get Kevin Smith on the show – but during a phone call planning for the episode, Kevin Smith asked Marc Maron – sober for 10+ years – if it was cool that he smokes weed during the interview. As if this phony, who, again, just “decided” to become a stoner only about a year ago, literally couldn’t go an hour without lighting up? Isn’t that just plain unprofessional? And kind of arrogant? (Still more obnoxious considering Smith would surely know the interviews are conducted in Maron’s garage.) Even Snoop Dogg, or maybe Wiz Khalifa, wouldn’t pull shit like that. They’d have the decency to smoke right before the interview.

Kevin Smith at Sundance

When you compound behavior like that with Smith’s bafflingly-defended filmic output, I’ve just come to find him a detestable person in the film industry. His tired stunt at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, staging an auction for Red State only to cheekily acquire the distribution rights himself. Where does this at best marginally-talented guy, who’s coasted through a career in Hollywood for nearly 20 years now, get off indicting the system? When in fact he is one of the system’s most egregious benefactors! His movies make no money and get average-to-abysmal reviews. Yet he’s still getting work. He should’ve thanked all those distributors who lined up for hours to his fake-auction. Instead he mocks them, and he doesn’t seem to get the irony whatsoever.

Maybe Smith’s films were always destined to be something I’d grow out of. I don’t know. I feel like my tastes have evolved since I was an 8th grader. (When Dogma came out.) Maybe I evolved, but Smith didn’t. But couldn’t you also make the argument that he’s actually devolved? Am I being too harsh?

For Kevin Smith, and his legion of fanboys who live in his world, ignorance is bliss. They just love the stuff they love! No need to overthink it!

Tom Scharpling often repeats the notion – on things people like that are terrible – that, hey, “Life is short. This world is hard. You found something you like? I’m glad. Enjoy it.” And that’s pretty much how I feel today. It was fun while it lasted. I used to think Clerks was maybe my all time favorite film. I also used to wear JNCO’s.

Until next time, snoochie boochies, little noochies.

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