by Casey Simonson
From the April 2015 Issue
Kevin Smith might be addicted to announcing projects. Just weeks ago, Smith announced his plans to make Mallrats 2; a bit of news that elicited a collective groan from even the most die-hard of Smith fans. This Mallrats sequel waits patiently in a queue behind the two films meant to round out the “True North” trilogy that Smith started with 2014’s Tusk. Of course, this appears to have pushed the previously announced Clerks 3 – the final film in Smith’s defining trilogy – back a few more years, disappointing anyone delusional enough to believe the film will live up to Smith’s earlier works, myself included.
Smith, now 44, seems to be content with his position as a filmmaker these days, settling for ideas he pitches in a stoned haze on his podcast: mostly half-baked sequels and spin-offs from the universe he established in Clerks. Smith’s recent films are full of the kinds of premises pitched by drunken college students after coming up with a quirky title. Some are funny, certainly, but once you flesh them out to a full idea, you start to notice holes. It seems as though Smith has regressed as a filmmaker over his career. While his early works find the perfect equation that is equal parts low-brow humor and genuine exploration of humanity (mostly through pop-culture references), his recent works eschew the “dramedy” tag to become more straightforward, over the top comedies. Even when Smith chooses to employ more philosophical leanings, they appear only for the benefit of a cheap joke or hokey heightened drama. His early films felt so life-like, and somewhere along the line, his filmography fell out of touch with reality, becoming just “plain old movies;” designed for your entertainment and not for causing an existential crisis in your dusty old basement.
Generally, as a director progresses, they start to truly flesh out their own unique style. Early Paul Thomas Anderson, while excellent, could easily be written off as a Scorsese wannabe, but his later career is distinctly PTA, all former mimicry now absorbed into an entirely new style that reflects and expands upon its influences. But as Kevin Smith treads further from his own influences, his films lose the touch that Roger Ebert once called “utterly authentic.” So, is Kevin Smith the world’s best plagiarist? Could his real problem be that his strength lies not in creating wholly original works, but in rehashing the art he loves in slightly altered forms?
Two years ago at a used bookstore, I stumbled upon a dusty book containing Smith’s screenplays for both Clerks and Chasing Amy. It was five dollars, and at the time, I was certain Clerks was my favorite movie. Although a year of film school had exposed me to better movies, Clerks had deeply resonated with me in high school. Smith captured the angst I had been feeling towards the banality of suburban America in such a way that it stuck with me.
Oddly, the Clerks screenplay included the full credits from the film, right down to the thank-yous, which list Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Linklater and Spike Lee as profound influences on Clerks and Smith as a filmmaker. Clerks doesn’t hide its influences at all, instead proudly screaming them at the top of its lungs. The single-day mechanic had previously been explored in Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused as well as in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Also like Do the Right Thing, the film follows one protagonist as he interacts with a variety of locals, exploring his own position in this setting, both in the micro and macro senses. The dialogue, a blend of philosophical explorations, casual observations and pop-culture references is ripped right from the pages of Slacker. The scene in which Dante and Veronica discuss romance behind the counter so obviously recalls the bedroom scene from Breathless. But, while Smith does absolutely rip the best parts from his favorite films, he manages to stitch them together in a somewhat new way; a slightly more skewed and grotesque version of these favorites.
But what makes Clerks so excellent, then, is not any product of Smith’s creative force, but rather his cinematic taste and his ability to take the best things from great films. When Smith first tried to take what little uniqueness he did bring to Clerks and expand it in his follow up, Mallrats, it ultimately failed, due largely to a lack of the kind of faux-innovation that Clerks so nicely appropriated from its influences.
But while Mallrats failed, Smith’s most underrated and understated feature comes from Chasing Amy, and it is no surprise that the screenplay came bound in the same book as Clerks’. Chasing Amy hasn’t entirely aged well. It reveals a pretty loose understanding of queer culture on Smith’s part in general, but the director’s exploration of love and romance is more profound here than it is even in Clerks. But even still, the film’s best moments are ripped right from the pages of other, more creative filmmakers. Smith admits fully to the film being “inspired” by a scene from Rose Troche’s LGBT drama Go Fish. While he puts his own spin on things, I can’t help but feel as though Smith’s portrayal of the LGBT issues within Chasing Amy come only from what he has seen in other films, rather than appearing to come from a place of personal experience. Even the film’s best scene – one in which the characters share sexual interactions that have gone south – is taken directly from the scene in Jaws where the characters recall their experiences and share their scars.
Smith’s first big failure came in the form of Jersey Girl, his first film to take place outside of the “View-Askew” Universe set up in Clerks. Jersey Girl suffered not from Smith going out a limb and trying new things cinematically, but from him pulling influences from the wrong sources. The film is rife with terrible cliches, resembling a cheesy 1950’s drama rather than the smart, quippy style of the director’s past work.
This same problem comes in Smith’s wildly unoriginal Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which comes off as a bad Judd Apatow imitation. Smith openly admits his desire for the film to be his big break, and he clearly did it in the only way he knows how: taking from someone else who did it better. Unfortunately, like Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri isn’t pulling from a myriad of beautiful and artistic older works. Instead, the heavy weight of Apatow’s Knocked Up follows the film around, making Knocked Up seem like a cinematic masterpiece in comparison. Honestly, upon my first viewing of Zack and Miri, I simply believed it was a mediocre Judd Apatow film. I didn’t even bother to check. Smith mimics the elements of films he wishes he made so precisely that at times, it’s impossible to see what he adds.
This is ultimately what I will call “The Kevin Smith Problem.” Watching all of Smith’s films in succession does not make his style apparent. Instead, you will find a series of works that all happen to reflect the styles of the times, re-appropriating them for whatever gross-out jokes Smith feels like making. Perhaps this deterioration shows Smith’s decline in taste; preferring the energetic independent cinema of the late 80’s and early 90’s in his younger years, and in his older age, preferring the Hollywood gloss of big romantic pictures, eventually leading to his current obsession with B-movie horror pieces. Even Clerks 2 feels stripped of the charm that won audiences over in with the first film. Instead, it resembles a Hollywoodization of the youthful energy that made Clerks so refreshing, as if you could capture that charm and sell it in a clean and packaged format.
Maybe Smith has just lost his energy as he’s aged, allowing his celebrity status to get in the way of what made him truly unique and original. However, while all of Smith’s unfortunate missteps show that he might not be a great filmmaker, we cannot deny that he at least has some great films. I just personally long for the days where it felt like Smith was bearing his all. Even though he copied others, he owned his plagiarism and turned it into a unique form of post-modern self-expression. Both Clerks and Chasing Amy left me questioning my own life and relationships, their themes sitting on me for weeks, while all that Red State left me with was a bit of disgust, confusion and a headache from the heavy handed liberalism. But, while I would love to live in a universe where Clerks never had a sequel and I never had to sit through an entire film where Jason Mewes talks about penises for 90 minutes, at the very least I can take comfort in knowing that at one point, Kevin Smith had decent taste in movies.