ReView Askew: Clerks (1994)

Filmmakers always put a little bit of themselves into their work. Why else create something if you’re not drawing from your own emotions, your own experiences, your point-of-view on the world? Even the biggest blockbusters, the successful ones anyway, have at least a little nugget of human truth to them, a specific voice by someone with something to say. Kevin Smith is an extremely clear example of this, as his movies, for better or worse, are populated by characters who represent himself, speaking from his perspective. The bedrock of this, of course, is Clerks, a movie he wrote and shot when he was 22-years-old working at a convenience store… about a 22-year-old who works at a convenience store.

If you mention Kevin Smith to anybody on the planet, the first word out of their mouth would be Clerks. Almost thirty years later and it’s still Smith’s most identifiable calling card, one that he’s most certainly embraced. There’s definitely a sweetness to the respect he holds to his seminal film, acknowledging how it made his career and never losing sight of that fact. But then he’s made many a joke over the years about how he never really progressed past Clerks and it’s all downhill from there, almost to the point that it feels like a defense mechanism for him. But forget all that, let’s just focus in on just the movie by itself, this little indie darling made by some kid on a shoestring budget about a bunch of slacker twenty-somethings yakking about Star Wars and cursing about the jobs they hate.

The film follows Dante Hicks, introduced falling backwards out of a closet (how he ended up asleep in there is a mystery), being called into work at the Quick Stop convenience store in Leonardo, New Jersey on his day off. He’s an aimless pessimist who’s not exactly thrilled to be a minimum wage cog in the capitalist machine, but isn’t motivated enough to do anything about it. He’d much rather let himself be bulldozed by others so he can complain about it to anyone within earshot, be it his boss who forces him to cover for him after closing the previous night, or placating the more caustic customers than put up any sort of a fight. His character is distilled perfectly in a story he tells late in the film about when he soiled his diaper as a toddler upon seeing the lid to his potty was closed (“I’m not the type of person who will disrupt things just so I can shit comfortably.”)  Additionally, his exasperated refrain throughout the film (“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”) is basically his mantra, a petulant cry out to a universe that “wronged” him. He spends the movie just trying to endure the day, balancing issues in his personal life with his obligation to man the store and deal with oddball customers, as the events of the film just wear him down more and more.

Despite being a big ol’ Debbie Downer through most of the runtime, it’s still pretty easy to empathize with Dante. A majority of people have had to work a shit job they hated, especially those that are customer-facing. I feel fortunate the closest I ever got was working box office and concession the few years I worked at a movie theater, and I can’t recall that many nightmare customer interactions, and nothing that comes close from the crazy shit I’ve heard friends tell me about. It can almost feel dehumanizing, where you’re looked at as just a blank tool that a customer utilizes for their transaction, to use and abuse as they see fit because, of course, “the customer is always right.” If anything, the customers seen in Clerks are actually nicer than some of the wild stories I’ve heard or read online, but since the movie’s not really about that, keeping them as mild-to-moderate annoyances fits the movie best. Dante hates where he’s at in life, and having to put up with weird shit like helping a guy pull his arm out of a Pringles can or waiting on a man obsessively searching through the fridge for the perfect carton of eggs isn’t helping his depressive outlook.
Twenty minutes into the film and in saunters our secondary protagonist, Randal Graves, who is in many ways Dante’s polar opposite: a man completely untethered to any feelings of responsibility or social considerations, a textbook slacker who prides himself in doing as little work in any given day as possible. He mans the neighboring RST Video, where he sits and watches movies all day, all while either ignoring or winding up potential customers, or closing the shop to walk next door to shoot the shit with Dante. In contrast to Dante’s endless complaining, Randal seems reasonably content with his lot in life (as he succinctly puts it, “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.”) He’s cool, he’s collected, he’s sure of himself, he’s just a really engaging and fun screen presence. Kevin Smith says he wrote Randal based on his friend Bryan Johnson, the person he wished he could be, and that feeling definitely comes across in the movie. It’s really impressive that the actor Jeff Anderson never had any interest in acting before this movie, and yet he’s probably the standout of the entire cast.

One of the greatest enjoyments out of the movie is just seeing how Dante and Randal bounce off each other through the running time, with Randal continuously needling Dante’s worldview and attempting to provoke him to react, while Dante tries to stand firm in his protests and self-flagellation. Whether they’re talking about personal matters, where Randal plays armchair therapist to Dante’s problems, to other topics like debating whether The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi is the better Star Wars sequel, all of the dialogue feels very natural. Sure, some of it feels a little overly written (which would be a Kevin Smith dialogue staple from this point forward), but at least between these two, it never feels like actors rambling off paragraphs of dialogue off a page to me, it just rings as normal conversation between two friends. Even beyond their heated back-and-forths, you can still sense their deep camaraderie. Randal teases Dante after he relents one of their arguments in his favor (“You know I’m your hero!”), and despite their big blowout fight at the end, they make up quickly after that to leave the store on good terms. Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson really feel effortless in these roles, and they have an incredible amount of chemistry together.
Early on, we get a visit from Dante’s girlfriend Veronica, rescuing him from an early morning mob of customers. A student at Monmouth University, she’s quick to rebut Dante’s grumblings by urging him to quit and go back to school, a conversation they’ve clearly had many, many times over (“Please, Veronica, the last thing I need right now is a lecture!” Dante sighs.) It’s clear there’s affection there from Veronica, but it’s definitely being taken for granted by Dante. After her introduction, we get a sequence where he glibly explains that women don’t really hold up as much weight in bed as men, since making men climax is much easier (“Insert somewhere close, preferably moist, thrust, repeat.” “How flattering.”) That later evolves into talking about their exes, leading us to famous scene when Veronica reveals she had oral sex with thirty-seven guys (“I’m thirty-seven?!”)

Veronica is played by Marilyn Ghigliotti, and I feel like of the core four cast members, she has the most difficulty with Smith’s overly verbose dialogue, having two or three obvious pauses and running through the lines too loud and fast at times. But Ghigliotti has a natural sweetness to her, imbuing this character who could have come off as the caustic pushy girlfriend with an authentic kindness. Veronica is basically swimming against the current with Dante at this point. They’ve been together for eight months, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Dante isn’t going to take any sort of charge with his life. She sees much more in him than he does in himself, but he’s too hyper-focused on the annoying minutia of life to actually do anything about it. Veronica transferred to a more local college to be closer to him, she brings him lasagna for lunch after their fight; it’s clear her “nagging” about wanting him to find direction isn’t born from any selfish reasons, but of genuinely wanting him to find something he actually feels proud of doing. Unfortunately, Dante has blinded himself to a incredibly supportive and forgiving force in his life until it’s too late for him to salvage it.
Unfortunately for Veronica, Dante’s miserable mindset on the present and future has led him to see the past with rose-tinted glasses, specifically his ex-girlfriend Caitlin Bree. Randal reminds him that she cheated on him multiple times in high school without remorse, but Dante doesn’t care. They’ve been talking on the phone for months now, and he claims she’s a much more mature person. At least until he learns that she’s engaged to an Asian design major, courtesy of an announcement in the paper. This leads to a scene late into the movie where Caitlin takes the train down to see Dante in person, informing him that her mother put the engagement announcement in the paper after she gave a noncommittal answer to her boyfriend Sang’s proposal. She doesn’t really want to get married, knowing Sang is a traditionalist looking for a mother and a housewife, and she wants to graduate college and start a career.

This five minute, one-take conversation tells us a lot about Caitlin, a character up to this point only spoken about in terms of her high school infidelity. She’s clearly under a lot of societal expectations from her parents and her boyfriend, but actively chooses not to buckle under them. She also can read Dante like a book, knowing he would be a wreck upon seeing the announcement (“‘Wreck’ is a harsh term. Disturbed is more like it, mildly disturbed even,” he feebly retorts), and summarizing Dante’s flair for the over-dramatic effortlessly in one quote (“You prefer drastic measures to rational ones.”) In getting back in touch with Dante, she too is looking back into the past, but almost out of a place of growth. It’s not spoken, but it seems like she reflected on her past transgressions and realized that a guy like Dante is someone she’d like in her life, alongside her educational and career aspirations. It really makes her ultimate fate pretty tragic, being psychologically traumatized having sex with a dead man she thought was Dante in the darkened Quick Stop bathroom. The framing of it is more from Dante’s perspective, as the one bright light of the day (Caitlin agreeing to go on a date with him) is snuffed out as quickly as it was lit, but it really is horrific if you think about what Caitlin actually went through. But despite all that, I still can’t help but laugh at the comically large erection protruding from the blanket draped over the body on the gurney. I’m only human.
There’s certain movies that can be categorized as “hang-out” movies, where there’s not so much emphasis on an intricate plot, but rather the experience of living within the world of the movie and enjoying the characters interacting with one another. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Licorice Pizza are two high-profile recent examples, and your mileage may vary on your enjoyment of these kinds of films. I personally wasn’t a big fan of either, but I think Clerks strikes just the right balance for me, where the bulk of the movie features disconnected exploits in and around Quick Stop, but there’s enough going on with Dante’s story throughout that keeps things feel like they’re actually going somewhere. Plus the film takes place over the course of one day, so you experience the progression of time through frequently recalled, time-sensitive events, like the hockey game at 2, the wake at 4, etc. The vignette-y nature of the film is assisted with title cards throughout the film, signaling turn of events to come (Harbinger, Purgatory, Lamentation, Juxtaposition, etc.), which feels a bit like Smith play-acting as a art house filmmaker, but they help to break up the film and signal what might be to come.

One of the movie’s biggest claims to fame when it started gaining traction was the risque dialogue, with characters swearing constantly and talking about all manners of sexually explicit topics, to the point that the MPAA was considering giving the film an NC-17 just for the language alone. There certainly is a lot of dirty talk in the movie, but it never feels like it tips over the line of excessive. Dante and Veronica talk about their sex life and their past romantic partners in a manner that feels naturally conversational. Randal rambles on about “nudie booths” and rents transsexual pornography, but all in an almost naive curiosity. Kevin Smith talks about how he just wrote the characters how he and his friends talked to each other, and it’s clear he hit upon a demographic of movie viewers whose social circles also speak so candidly. It definitely hit an untapped nerve; Clerks not only predates the boom of sex-charged comedies of the late 90s/early 2000s, but he was a decade early to the Judd Apatow school of comedy born of long stretches of dialogue about taboo subject matter. I gotta think that Smith was at least a little pissed that The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were huge critical and commercial successes for doing the same shit he had been doing for years to much smaller accolade.
It feels weird to be this deep into the review and having not brought up Jay and Silent Bob yet, here depicted as the two weed dealers hanging out in front of the stores all day, popping up every now and again throughout the film. They first appear very early into the movie right after Dante gets to work, complete with their own title card, as we see Jay doing a monologue about talking about wanting to “fuck anything that moves,” miming sucking off Silent Bob before fiercely re-affirming his heterosexuality. It’s all so bizarrely captivating, and you’re so quickly drawn into this weird character. Kevin Smith wrote Jay based on his friend Jason Mewes, who more or less is exactly like Jay, this weird little stoner kid from Jersey, and he created Silent Bob as a receiver for Jay’s rantings, eventually casting himself in the role. These two characters would quickly take on lives of their own in Smith’s ensuing films, but here, they’re these wonderfully weird side elements to the film, yet another source of mild annoyance on top of many for Dante, as at one point, he yells at Jay for dealing in front of the store, alluding to it being a common occurrence for him. Silent Bob ends up finally speaking toward the end about how fortunate Dante is to have a caring, faithful partner in his life, giving him a bit of clarity about his love triangle situation, which is still, after all these years, a pretty neat moment. Accidentally so, in fact, as Jay was originally supposed to deliver the line, with Smith only giving it to himself after Mewes wasn’t able to convincingly perform it.

As mentioned before, the movie is filled with all variety of unique customers coming in and out of both Quick Stop and RST Video. Some of them can function as their own little isolated segments, while some tie in directly with a large emotional narrative (such as Randal spitting water on a customer prattling on about tabloid headlines to win his argument over “whether title dictates behavior.”) There’s so many memorable characters: the man who nearly starts a riot at the counter over the dangers of cigarettes, who is exposed for being a gum representative hoping to push his product, the indecisive woman at the video store who gets huffy over Randal’s lack of help, the horny old Jewish man who request soft toilet paper and adult magazines to use the bathroom (before dying), they’re all great scenes. A stand-out for me occurs near the end Dante and Randal’s Star Wars debate about independent contractors working on the Death Star, with a customer chiming in about being a roofer and refusing to accept a job for a known mob boss, knowing the risk involved. He referred the job to a friend instead, who would go on to be gunned down in a turf war. So he basically inadvertently got his friend killed, and speaks about it with no emotion whatsoever, like hey, them’s the breaks!  I also like the subtle touch that some of the customers buy items that relate to the conversation being held, like the woman who manually masturbates animals to collect semen buys a stick of jerky, and the man who interrupts Randal’s discussion of cleaning up “nudie booths” is buying two rolls of toilet paper.Clerks is absolutely an amateur production, but that ultimately adds to the charm. It’s kind of like watching an interesting, well-executed local production of a play. It’s shot and edited well, and the black-and-white look definitely makes it the more memorable. The B&W look was born out of budget, as it was much cheaper to render and finish the film in black and white rather than color. Smith’s restrictions only served to hone his artistic vision. He shot the entire film in the dead of night when the store was closed, but with the giant windows at the front of the store being shuttered, how could he pass it off as day? He wrote in that the shutters were stuck shut because some local hooligan put gum in the locks. It’s just such a fantastic solution that adds to Dante’s frustrations of the day two-fold. First, being blocked from any natural light in the day to further his feelings of isolation. Also, in having to create his makeshift “I ASSURE YOU, WE’RE OPEN” sign with shoe polish out of his trunk, he’s constantly being asked by different characters throughout the film, “What smells like shoe polish?” which only reminds him of his shitty situation even more.

The lack of different shooting locations locks all the action to the Quick Stop, but as I said before, it just adds to the feeling that Dante (and Randal) are trapped at this hell hole all day. There are a few breaks to this, though: Dante rearranging his hockey game to be played on the roof is a nice sequence, giving us some visual variety in a new setting without betraying the idea that Dante is stuck at work all day. Slightly less so is when Dante and Randal close the store to go to a wake of a girl Dante had sex with in high school. It does play into Randal’s speech about how title does not dictate behavior, that Dante could do anything if he so chooses but feels like he can’t for his own self-imposed reasons, but it kind of still feels like an unnecessary detour. Although we do get the driving conversation about Randal’s cousin who broke his neck and died trying to suck his own dick, so I guess it was worth it. A scene at the funeral parlor was originally written and cut very early in production, for obvious reasons of it being too expensive and a logistical hassle to film at a non-Quick Stop location. The scene was later adapted to comic form, and also an animated version was created for the Clerks special edition DVD. It’s fine as a standalone piece, but Dante losing his keys down the pants of a dead woman and fishing them out feels like too much, even for this movie.As we creep closer to the end of the film, Randal breaks the news about Caitlin to Veronica, thinking he’s doing him a favor of actually making a real decision for him. Veronica is furious at Dante, of course, leading Dante to be furious with Randal, provoking a big blowout fight between the two, trashing the Quick Stop and leaving them sprawled out on the floor. It’s here where Randal finally had enough of Dante’s constant bitching, unable to take another “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” so he tells him to fuck off. As bad off as Dante is in his life, a lot of it is stuff within his own control. There’s nothing stopping him from trying to find a job he doesn’t despise, or to be honest with Veronica and Caitlin on how he really feels, but that’s not as easy than finding a target to blame for the miseries in his life. Dante claims he “can’t” fix any of these things, but here it’s made clear to him it’s that he “won’t,” an actually active choice. Dante has been given a chance to actually right the course of his life, given as a great ending that’s left to the audience’s interpretation of what his first move might be the following day. Clerks II kind of tarnishes this small window of hope, as we learn that Dante and Randal were still stuck at the Quick Stop for the next decade, but for this movie as it is, it’s an excellent ambiguous ending.

I’m actually really surprised how much of Clerks holds up. Like, separated from the other sequels and spin-offs, and the rest of Smith’s filmography, it’s still a captivating watch, a unique comedy with memorable characters and a distinct style. Unless Clerks III proves to be an absolute masterstroke of genius (not holding my breath on that), but this is definitely my favorite Kevin Smith film, as it feels like it comes from the most honest and pure place as a writer and director, a young creative taking his life’s experiences and processing it through a film lens. It feels kind of like a slight to say a director’s best film is his first, but that’s not to say there’s more content of note to come. Or is there? Maybe. I dunno. We’ll see.

2 thoughts on “ReView Askew: Clerks (1994)

  1. Great to see this review!

    Technically speaking I might have seen ‘Mallrats’ first on TV (my memory is notoriously hazy about dates) but I did see ‘Clerks’ soon after, on video in the late 90s. Sixteen year old me was awed by it and as you rightly say it struck a chord with a certain demographic. Eve though I was just a kid from Dublin, Ireland for whom even hockey was an exotic sport played by Americans and Canadians (and girls schools here) it still felt very real in a way I couldn’t quite articulate.

    I know Jay and Silent Bob are probably more famous and iconic and I do find them funny and memorable Dante and Randal have always been the heart of this series for me. I agree Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson have fantastic chemistry and whenever I read the ‘Clerks’ comics (entertaining late 90s nostalgia in their own right) I always do it in their voices.

    Eager to see what you make of the rest of the films!

  2. No mention of the deleted ending where Dante is shot and killed? That would have not only completely changed the film, but a lot of what Smith did after.

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