Clerks Review

Clerks is a 1994 comedy written/produced/directed by Kevin Smith. This was Smith's inaugural film and has grown into a full-blown cult classic over the past twenty-three years.

The film covers a day in the lives of Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and his friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), two 22-year-old clerks who work at a Quickie-Mart and dirty movie store respectively. It chronicles several scenarios, mostly consisting of dialogue, that Dante and Randal must traverse throughout the day. They mostly involve hockey, dead guys with boners and annoying customers. On the surface, this seems like a really good idea for a sitcom type movie. However, it's a movie made by Kevin Smith so this promise is pretty much squandered. I'm not even sure where to begin with this one.

Let's start by talking about dialogue pacing, which, if done right, is something you barely notice in a movie if you notice it at all. It's the speed at which the conversation goes, involving pauses, speeding up and slowing down how the person is talking etc. This is used to make the dialogue sound more natural. It's something that you only notice when it's done badly, like in Clerks. Everybody talks at the same fast pace throughout the film no matter what the content or context of what they're saying. They say each line one after the other in rapid succession, like if they don't get it out now they're going to forget it. It makes the dialogue sound unnatural and really calls attention to the fact that you're just watching actors delivering their lines. It's a really shame, because with some proper pacing and direction many of these lines would've been really good. The biggest offender is the first and only line spoken by Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), which is really profound and could've left a big impact if only it was delivered differently.

That's not to say the screenplay is fantastic, because it's not. There are one or two really good laughs, but for the most part the script isn't funny, which is a real detriment to a comedy. It also sounds really odd; it's trying to be like the films of Quentin Tarantino, with both stylized and realistic dialogue, but it just sounds like somebody who has never taken a script writing class who was a fan of Tarantino trying to write a Tarantino script. In fact, with the release of Reservoir Dogs only a few years earlier, I'm not entirely convinced that isn't what happened. The dialogue sounds really contrived at times, with Randal specifically dropping really complicated, big words that I just can't see a 20-something porn addict retail clerk actually using off the top of his head and don't really flow within the conversation anyway.

The characters are ok, I suppose. They're obviously supposed to be self-insert characters for the target audience; 20-something underachieving retail workers who have to deal with life inconveniences and customers asking stupid questions all day. They talk about Star Wars, sex and all the other stuff that people talk about when they're bored on the job.

To the film's credit, it actually does have a profound message hidden somewhere in all the terrible dialogue and poor pacing. Throughout the whole film, Dante has been complaining about the way his life is going and obsessing over an ex-girlfriend who he thinks is getting married. Meanwhile, Randal, who seems perfectly content with his life, continues to tell Dante that if he doesn't like his life he should take some responsibility and actually do something about his situation. That's a really good message that the target audience for the film needs to hear probably more than anything else they've been told. Life isn't going to give you what you want. You need to grab yourself by the bootstraps and make something of yourself if you want anything to change. Unfortunately, it's in the hands of a director who can't really deliver it well.

Oh, boy... where to start with this one?

Even for a first time director, Kevin Smith shows a remarkable lack of basic film production knowledge. He has no idea how to compose a shot, the cinematography in general is awful and we'll talk about the acting a bit.

Let's start with the cinematography, which is my biggest complaint: it's god-awful! Every shot in the film has something wrong with it, the main one being that 90% of the shots are tilted slightly to the side. Was it too much trouble to make sure that it was level with whatever you were shooting? 80% of the shots have a counter as a point of reference, so I don't see how they have any excuse for not keeping them level. There's also the issue of shot composition, which, for you none film students out there, is basically arranging the background to look balanced so that it looks natural with the foreground. Apparently, this isn't something that Smith thought was necessary for his movie. All of the backgrounds look like they just said "Ok, this is where we're gonna film it. We're not gonna change anything, we're just gonna film it here. Ok?" Smith also doesn't seem to have grasped the Rule of Thirds, another aspect of shot composition. This is the idea that the frame is divided into nine squares by a series of invisible lines and your goal is to make sure that the subject of your shot is on those invisible lines. So many times in this film they come so close to actually obeying the rule of thirds, but it never truly gets there and it makes the shot look so awkward and distracting. A lot of the close ups are really bad as well. It's just a little too close to the person's face and most of the time it doesn't even have any meaning to it. It's not a response to a big event happening or a funny reaction shot. It's just a close up for the sake of one, I guess.

There's also the issue of editing; there's barely any in it. Editing can make a scene feel a lot more involved and dynamic than it actually is. It can help a scene of people just talking in a room seem bigger, more important or funnier than it otherwise might have been without it. However, Smith seems to have opted for just shooting most of the film in medium-long group shots, with most of the cast for each scene in the same shot as they're talking. On the one hand, this lack of editing keeps the conversations from seeming truly dynamic or engaging, but on the other hand the long shots actually create some kind of weird, laid back atmosphere. It invites you to just sit back and relax, inviting you into the slow pace of the scene and telling you its ok to turn your brain off. It's a comfortable feeling and creates the right amount of detachment to find some of the scenarios funny, but I highly doubt this was intentional.

The acting from everybody involved defines amateur. Their facial expressions rarely change regardless of context, their inflections are mostly monotone and wooden and whenever there's a scene that requires any physical acting you can tell that it's just two guys doing what they were told to do by a director rather than a spur of the moment thing.

Summary: I once heard Clerks described as "filmmaking as dive bar punk rock, where an enthusiasm and rawness is supposed to justify, or at least make up for, the lack of actual skill" and I think that sums it up quite nicely. This was obviously a passion project for Smith at least and probably everybody else involved and it has a good message to send to the cynical 20 year olds of the world, but it's kneecapped by a director and actors who just don't know what they're doing. I'm just left dumbstruck by the fact that this became the widespread phenomenon that it is. Maybe it's because the black and white aesthetic and mostly dialogue script touched a nerve with a certain stripe of film critic or maybe the pop cultural references and crazy antics of Dante and Randal satisfied some kind of wish fulfillment for a certain stripe of gen-Xer, but speaking as a 20-something millennial I can only recommend a single watch and then never watching it again.



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