by Mindy Clegg
In 1994, Miramax Pictures released a small, independently made film by an unknown director from New Jersey named Kevin Smith. Made for a mere $27,000 (maxing out credit cards and the proceeds from selling his comic collection), the black and white film—replete with deeply offensive language, references to drug dealing and usage, and philosophical debates on Star Wars—grossed over $3 million and netted the young director not only a career, but accolades from the Cannes and Sundance film Festivals and nominations in three categories at the Independent Spirit Awards that year.1 It’s since been acknowledged as one of the best indie films of the 1990s.
Clerks, it can be argued, functions as a brilliant example of Gen X slacker culture that prized authenticity over slick production techniques and funny but insightful discourse over spectacle. Smith’s career has been built on that authenticity in community and self-expression, even in films that fall outside of his “View Askewniverse.” Generally speaking, Smith makes films that he wishes to see, not what he thinks will sell, and that was very generationally grounded. He infused his love of endlessly examining comic books and sci-fi/fantasy films/shows with the structure of the rom-com and buddy film genres to carve out a career catering not to all mainstream audiences, but to a like-minded audience of fans who love seeing themselves reflected on the screen.
Part of the enduring popularity of Smith’s work represents various shifts within film and TV making that centers on at least some Gen X sensibilities. His work also signaled a shift in Hollywood finally beginning to take speculative fiction seriously, in part to cater to Gen X (and later millennial and Gen Z tastes). The goal was never superstar status as a filmmaker, but a career that allowed Smith to make the kind of work he himself sought out and enjoyed, which mirrors the Gen X relationship to other cultural forms, too—the rise of the current subcultural society that we live in now.
A word about Clerks first for the uninitiated (spoiler alert for a 25 year old film). The plot follows Dante and Randal, two twenty-somethings laboring as clerks at a convenience store and a video rental shop respectively over the course of a work day. Dante gets called into work to cover a shift (his refrain in the film becomes “I’m not even supposed to be here today” as he encounters increasingly frustrating events over the course of the day). The rest of the film is a series of vignettes from the day (nine in all, not unlike the levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno): dealing with difficult customers, a visit by Dante’s girlfriend Veronica on her way to school and a subsequent fight over their sexual past, the interjections by the local drug dealers hanging around outside (Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself), a philosophical debate on Star Wars films, shutting down for a 12 minute hockey game on the roof and a wake that ends in disaster (off-screen), a visit from Dante’s ex-girlfriend Caitlin, and the discovery of a dead body in the store bathroom. All the while, the film contrasts Dante’s pessimistic outlook on life with Randal’s easy-going (albeit trouble-making) attitude. If a singular narrative thread can be pulled out of all this, it’s most certainly Dante’s romantic struggles. Veronica displays a clear devotion to Dante (bringing him a lasagna for lunch and reminding him of how she transferred to a college to be nearer to him, while also pushing him to do something more positive with his life), while Caitlin comes back to “try again” with Dante (despite having spent much of their time together cheating on him with a variety of other partners). The core message of the film can be found in the only lines uttered by Silent Bob, where he points out to Dante how awesome Veronica is, as “few women would bring you lasagna at work. Most would just cheat on you.” But before Dante can act on this epiphany, Randal has told Veronica that Dante plans to dump her for Caitlin. The film ends with Dante and Randal wrapping up the working day, after a fight in the Quik Stop. Dante expresses a hope that he can patch things up with Veronica. The film works as both a buddy film, exploring the relationship between two lifelong friends of different temperaments and as a romantic comedy, with Dante bumbling through his love life.2
Clerks remains one of the most authentic expressions of Gen X “angst” and general sensibilities. A few comparisons to similar films will illustrate the point. The 1992 film Singles, directed by boomer director Cameron Crowe plays off many of the Gen X/slacker tropes of the day, but in a very stereotypical way. It’s set in Crowe’s native Seattle (the heart of the grunge genre which became a popular face of “alternative” music associated with Gen X), and showed edgy musicians and young professionals rubbing shoulders. But ultimately, like many other young adult rom-coms, it’s about coupling up into real adulthood, while rejecting full compromise with the mainstream culture. Some of the characters come off as more of apastiche of Gen X. They also seem rather stereotypical. Scott Campbell’s young professional worrying over a relationship while in a business meeting comes off as far more authentic than Matt Dillon’s grunge pose, but largely due to him being more typical of rom-com young men instead of specific to Generation X. It’s a perfectly serviceable movie, but one that feels more like an impression of Gen X by someone who isn’t of that generational cohort. Ben Stiller’s excellent Reality Bites starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke hits much closer to the mark. It probably helps that it deals with real world issues more specific to the era, such as coming out of the closet and the impact of the AIDS crisis on the sexuality of the generation who came of age in the midst of it. Plus, Winona Ryder! Of the two, Stiller’s vision of love and labor in mid-90s Houston seems to work a bit better in terms of addressing the specific quirks and struggles of his own generation (Stiller was born in 1965, while Crowe was born in 1957). Both films got far more mainstream distribution, Warner Brothers and Universal respectively, while Clerks was eventually distributed by Miramax, the giant of indie distribution companies at the time.
Of the three films, Clerks more convincingly represents Gen X sensiblities. It does a little active signaling to its audience on its generational affiliation, but in a more approachable and authentic way. The characters are seen wearing boots and flannel which became short hand for the “grunge” look, but it honestly looks like that was what the actors wore to the set that day (and that was likely the case, given the movie’s budget). In the opening scene, Dante laces up his well-worn Dr. Martens, for example, staple footwear of many Gen Xers at the time wishing to signal their subcultural affiliation. Jay and Bob are seen sporting combat boots, cheaper alternatives to the more expensive Docs for the working class at the time. None of the clothing choices seem based on fashionable considerations, however. They are just the kind of clothing that people would throw on when called into work at a low-paying job with no uniform, in other words. It helps that the clothes looked very lived in as well, like the sweater Dante dons prior to his ill-fated date with Caitlin. None of the clothing in Clerks come off as calculated efforts to appeal to a broad demographic contrasted with Matt Dillon’s clothing being the worst offender from this trio of film).
Other aspects of the film feel equally as authentic to the era without seeming like calculated choices aimed at cynically appealing to a demographic. The 1970s sedan Dante drives looks like the kind of hand-me-down car common at this time. The sets feel like a convenience store and a independently run video store, because of course, they are. Smith worked at that very same store, and was allowed to film at night between 11pm and 4am (the reason why the metal shutters were closed during the film). Even the soundtrack feels less contrived, with bands a bit more off the beaten path like Bad Religion, Girls Against Boys, Golden Smog, Stabbing Westward, and The Jesus Lizard. In true Gen X fashion, a local indie band was also involved. The local band Love Among Freaks frequented Smith’s store and agreed to record several songs for the film, including the title song “Clerks” which they originally did on a four-track machine (though they later re-recorded at a professional studio after the film was picked up by Miramax). Back in 2012, Smith discovered the original tape in his home. Like many bands trying to make it, the copy they gave Smith had been dubbed on an old instructional tape.3
The Star Wars references throughout also give the film a level of discourse that rings entirely true to people of a particular age. It’s more than just a passing reference to a trilogy of films that left an indelible mark on Gen X; rather Dante and Randal are seen taking pop culture seriously. Although phrased in Smith’s particular structure of writing dialogue, the conversation itself represents one of those kinds of conversations that would be left out of most films, because they do not directly serve the plot (even as they do serve character development). Although the scene references Dante’s relationship troubles, the heart of the scene is a serious discussion on contractors working on the second death star. We know more about how pop culture helps Dante and Randal navigate the world philosophically. Last, Smith’s love of comics also finds expression (though not in an obvious way). After the ending credits, there is a note that says “Jay and Silent Bob will Return in Dogma” hinting at a shared universe to come as well as a reference to genre films like James Bond or other serialized works.4 Anyone familiar with such serialized films or comics in the 1970s and 1980s would have been familiar with a shared universe, a concept regularly employed by both Marvel and DC comics. This is another cultural shorthand shared with the audience. Such shared cultural references gave Smith a lifelong, committed audience that acts more like a community than a purely economic consumer/producer relationship, similar to the relationship between punk bands and consumers of punk music.
Right out of the gate, Clerks created a solid fanbase that has given Smith a successful career allowing him to produce the kind of work that he finds fulfilling. The film managed to be both a box office success AND a cult classic. Smith’s next few films filled out the details of what’s become known as the “View Askeniverse,” an inter-connected social universe centered around New Jersey. Although initially Dogma was meant to be the next film, rewrites put that on the backburner. 1995’s Mallrats came next, and included Jay and Silent Bob as a sort of connective tissue of the universe. Plus, the star of Clerks, Brian O’Halloran appears as Dante Hick’s cousin, Gil Hicks (a running gag, with others “cousins” in other films). Mallrats is also notable for the inclusion of Stan Lee, who at that point had only appeared as himself in a couple of other things.5 A character mentioned in Clerks was featured in the 1996 film Chasing Amy, Alyssa, a bi-sexual comic artist who falls for fellow comic creator Holden. Again, Jay and Bob make an appearance, as Holden and his friend Bankey write a comic based on the pair, Bluntman and Chronic. Recent years have seen several Jay and Bob films, with the most recent released just this week. There have also been a second Clerks film, some short films, a short-lived cartoon, and Smith just announced a third film Clerks (see below). Smith’s View Askeniverse films are deeply self-referential, which appeals to the subculture that exists around his work. He’s made other films, such as the underrated Red State (a religious horror film) or the hard to define Tusk. Even here, he appeals to his old staples of his film-making—he loves to reuse actors for his films for one. Michael Park appears in both films, as different, albeit similarly creepy, characters. Smith’s style of writing is also on display, such as in Park’s rapid fire monologue in Red State and the somewhat comedic back and forth between ATF Agents towards the end of the film. It’s that sense of interconnection that appeals to fans that grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, a time when comics were employing shared universes and Star Wars dominated cinema for young viewers. In other words, Smith’s hardcore fans were familiar with a shared universe and appreciate bringing that aesthetic to non-genre movies. Plus, his fans appreciate Smith’s writing style, which merges some higher concepts with pop cultural references and abundant scatological humor. Nearly all his films manage to work in references to both Star Wars and comics (both DC and Marvel). The opening scene of Chasing Amy has a black power explanation of the Star Wars trilogy for example. In Mallrats, Silent Bob is shown to have a working Batman utility belt. Such recurring motifs help create a sense of shared cultural experiences and references, yet their incorporation seems natural rather than forced or stilted.
Smith’s taking speculative fiction seriously in his films was part of a general shift in popular entertainment as well. In recent years, comic and other genre films have come to dominate our summer and Christmas movie landscape and have cropped on up television as well. The runaway success of both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films cemented the modern embrace of genre films. Star Wars has had a new renaissance after being sold to Disney. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) continues to dominate film and TV, a wide-ranging interconnected universe at its finest. The DC universe, though struggling to keep up with the more popular MCU, has produced several installments which landed successfully at the box office (if not with critics). The DCU TV shows on the CW (in which Smith has shown up in the directing chair several times) tend to be more well-regarded than the big budget films, with the exception of Wonder Woman.6 The high fantasy show based on the works of George RR Martin, Game of Thrones, set a new standard for genre fiction on TV, with a haul of Emmys over its eight year run (nominated for a staggering 161 emmys and winning 47 over that time (actor Peter Dinklage was nominated for an incredibly 47 different awards over the 8 years playing Tyrion Lannister, winning 8 of those, 4 of those Emmys).7 Following along with the success of Game of Thrones as a serious drama, several comic films in recent years have sought to elevate the genre, such as 2017’s Logan, which starred Hugh Jackman as the X-Men character Wolverine. The film deals with the aging of both Wolverine/Logan and of his friend and mentor Charles Xavier, who is suffering from dementia who is a powerful telepath. In addition to themes of aging, it deals with exploitation of children, as Logan attempts to transport a young girl with abilities similar to his own to safety.8 This year, Todd Phillips take on the classic villain Joker got people discussing the problems of violence in films and treating those who commit such acts sympathetically in the age of mass shootings. 9
The ability to more realistically bring these stories to the big screen or to TV explains some of this new mass media reality. Networks and production companies finally take genre works seriously as dramas. Special effects look far more seamless now than back in the 1980s and 1990s. But I would argue that more importantly is a cultural shift that occurred with Gen X and that Gen X directors and producers themselves helped to bring this into being. While boomers most certainly embraced rock and roll and films as important art forms, Gen X embraced comics as an art form because darker comics were part of the cultural landscape. The 1980s saw the last gasp of retailers abiding by the comics code which facilitated the rise of darker, grittier comics that tackled heavier issues regularly.10 Graphic novels like Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen illustrated the elevation in comics during this period.11 From a young age, Gen X readers grew accustomed to reading stories that did not talk down to them, such as selections from DC’s Vertigo line. They did not outgrow comics, primarily because comics grew up with them.
Smith, among other film makers and directors influenced by this cultural turn, helped to create this shift. He sought to tell funny, touching, and serious stories of real life influenced by how comics and films shaped his thinking about story and human connection. He’s not the only one, either. Other directors and producers such as Joss Whedon have likewise shaped modern storytelling by taking genre seriously. Whedon’s most recognizable contribution was his wildly popular show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a teen girl fated to fight vampires as the “Slayer.” Although relatively low budget at the time, and shown on a smaller network WB, Buffy drew a strong and dedicated fan-base (as did its spin-off Angel). Buffy and Angel were both self-referential plus always engaging in call outs to other kinds of pop culture familiar to Gen X and older millennials, such as Buffy calling her group of friends “the Scooby gang.”12
Both Whedon and Smith regularly employ references to pop culture both because they form their own cultural touchstones on what makes a good story and because they reinforce a shared sense of community between fans and the producers of content. While boomers had that shared community via music (and some films, such as Easy Rider), Gen X producers embrace various kinds of speculative fiction as both serious story telling and as a means of cementing subcultural community connections. Millennials and Gen Z today carry on that tradition, often via meme-making and the production of content in social media spaces.13 Smith and Whedon participated in this long-term cultural shift via their directing and writing work.
Kevin Smith carries on as a director, writer (of films, comics, and books), podcaster, and quasi-stand-up comedian (from a series of Q&As he did with fans over the years, often at college campuses). Most recently, he released another Jay and Silent Bob film, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which mocks the recent popularity of reboot films or sequels to films that came out 20 to 30 years ago. Smith worked out a deal for its release with Fathom Events (who host one night only simulcasts in movie theaters) and he and actor Jason Mewes (who plays Jay) are taking the film on the road in a series of viewings followed by Q&As, many of which are already sold out.14 He recently also announced a return to the Clerks franchise, with Clerks III. 15 Smith is a relentless self-promoter, which helps explain some of his enduring success. But he also has genuinely connected with his audience via his work. One man recently posted on Reddit at how laughing at one of Smith’s podcast saved him from suicide.16 Personally, I can’t think of any more affirming statement than this one—that one’s art can literally save someone’s life.
1 The IMBD has a list of awards and nominations for the film.
2 An overview of the film can be found here.
3 Smith told the story on Facebook a few years back.
5Lee’s cameo in the MCU film Captain Marvel, set in the 1990s, had him on a train reading the Mallrats script! You can see Lee’s acting credits on IMDB.
6 You can see Smith’s other directing credits on the IMDB.
7 See for example from 2016, when the show surpassed Fraiser for the most Emmy wins.
8 See the IMDB for the film Logan.
9 See also the IMDB for Joker.
10although it was still around as late as 2011, the erosion of it’s influence began way earlier with a decline from 1989. You can see the history of the comics code at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website.
11 Moore deconstructed the superhero genre in the classic graphic novel, which now has a spin-off series on HBO.
12 See this fan discussion board for a probably not exhaustive list of pop culture references.
13 For a recent example of how Gen Zers are engaging with culture as a memes of creating a shared culture, see recent controversy over PSAT memes.
14 A list of dates can be found here.
15 Smith made the announcement on his Instagram account.
16 The story can be found at at the website Screenrant.