Film Review: Clerks (1994)

Also known as: Inconvenience, Rude Clerks (working title)
Release Date: January, 1994 (Sundance)
Directed by: Kevin Smith
Written by: Kevin Smith
Music by: Benjie Gordon (music supervisor)
Cast: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonauer, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, Walt Flanagan, Joey Lauren Adams (voice)

View Askew Productions, Miramax Films, 92 Minutes, 87 Minutes (TV cut), 102 Minutes (extended cut)

Review:

“This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.” – Randal Graves

I’m that asshole that doesn’t love Clerks.

Yes, I do like Kevin Smith’s older work and I do appreciate this film and what it led to for Smith and his characters. However, out of the Viewaskewniverse stuff, this is my least favorite chapter. Still, it opened the door into a world that I came to love and it serves as a sort of prototype to what would become the norm for Kevin Smith, at least for a half dozen of his films.

I think that my biggest problem with the film is that Dante is such a fucking whiner. I like Brian O’Halloran but his Dante character is such a tense ball of angsty shit that it is extremely hard to give a shit about his shitty day. Jeff Anderson’s Randal is a total dick but at least he’s amusing and he isn’t a basket case like Dante.

What does make the film work though, is the chemistry of Dante and Randal. Neither are likable but their banter is funny and amusing, even if it does sound overly manufactured and they don’t talk like real people. But that was a trope of ’90s Gen-X slacker movies: characters that talk super witty, super sarcastic and think that everything sucks while somehow espousing some sort of nonsensical philosophy with every breath. In fact, one review of the film said, “…a script so full of words that it probably rivals the telephone book in size.” I can’t argue against that.

The film also only works as an absurdist comedy. There are too many scenes that just seem to be completely outside of reality. While everything in this film could happen, there is just too much weird shit going on for this to actually all happen in a single day. And the plot doesn’t seem to matter, as it is just scene after scene of random, strange things happening.

Now it may sound like I am harping on the film but I’m really not. I like the weird bits but it’s kind of unclear if the film is supposed to be absurdist or realistic. And you can’t really find that answer by comparing it to Smith’s other Viewaskewniverse films because they all have a different tone. Personally, I have to view this as an absurdist, almost surreal comedy.

I’m sure that a lot of these ideas came from Smith’s experience working Dante’s job at the same store in real life. And because of that, the film does capture a sense of realism in its critique of menial retail jobs. I’ve worked these jobs too but I wasn’t as much of a crybaby as Dante or as much of a dick as Randal. Although, I was pretty sarcastic and hated the sight of customers.

But that’s what makes this a hard film to process for me. There is a bit of realism and a lot of absurdism. The opening scene with the gum sales rep trying to create an in-store uprising just to sell more gum is ridiculous. I would’ve tossed that guy out on his ass in two seconds. Some of these characters just don’t act like real people. Okay, most of these characters.

Although, this was probably the most authentic version of Jay & Silent Bob ever captured on film.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: Ther other films set within Kevin Smith’s Viewaskewniverse titles: MallratsChasing AmyDogmaJay & Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks II. Also, the Clerks animated series.

Film Review: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Also known as: Nola Darling (alternate international title)
Release Date: May, 1986 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee
Cast: Tracy Camilla Johns, Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee, Raye Dowell, Fab 5 Freddy

40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Island Pictures, 84 Minutes, 88 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.” – Nola Darling

Everyone has to start somewhere and She’s Gotta Have It was where Spike Lee, one of the top directors of the last few decades, got his. It is also where his character Mars Blackmon originated from. You may remember Blackmon from all those Michael Jordan Nike commericals from the ’80s and ’90s. I think Lee still resurrects the character to this day, actually.

I wanted to revisit this film, as I haven’t actually seen it in at least fifteen years but I was always fond of it. Plus, Spike Lee has recently rebooted it for a television series on Netflix. Therefore, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with these characters before jumping into Lee’s new take on this story.

A lot of critics have referred to this as a romantic comedy with a feminist perspective but I think it’s more or less a romantic comedy with a realistic view. It isn’t just about Nola Darling (Johns) and what she wants, it is also about the men and what they want. You see, it is a story told from multiple perspectives.

You have Nola and you have the three men in her life, all of whom want her and her alone. Each man fills a specific need for Nola but ultimately, what this all comes down to is what does Nola really want and is it any of these three men on their own? It’s a film that explores sex in a way that popular romantic comedies at the time could not. And while most romantic comedies are Hollywood schlock, Spike Lee wrote something truly unique and exceptional here. It really isn’t a standard “romcom”, it’s a motion picture about relationships and people that is populated with amusing, charismatic characters.

I wouldn’t call this a well acted film but each of the main characters feels authentic. And each character is likable in their own way. Well, except for Greer (Terrell), who was such a fraudulent and self-absorbed jerk that you kind of wanted to wish him away. Props to John Canada Terrell though, who gave Greer life and did a great job making him a total narcissistic asshat. Really, you just wanted to see this competition for Nola’s heart come down to Jamie (Hicks) and Mars (Lee). Although, Jamie is a bit of an overprotective meddler that gets a bit rapey there towards the end. Really, I was pulling for Mars.

The point is, it doesn’t matter who Nola chooses, if she even chooses anyone at all. It is a story about her journey and seeking out what it is she needs. Any of these men had the freedom to walk away at any time and Nola was usually brutally honest, even if it didn’t deter the men. At one point, Nola even hosts Thanksgiving dinner with the three men as her guests. It’s a great scene where a lot of the emotional baggage of the characters comes to the forefront and certain stands are taken.

She’s Gotta Have It is a simple movie but it is also complex because people, at their core, are complex creatures. Most people don’t know what they want. Nola is someone that has the courage to try and figure that out. While most would be quick to condone her actions, she has certain qualities that people should aspire to possess. She’s not afraid of her desires and pursuing them in an honest and unapologetic way. Really, that’s kind of badass.

I like this film and it holds up quite well. It’s timeless in a way and maybe that’s just because of how it was shot and the great music. Spike Lee wrote a beautiful script, his father provided soulful tunes and the actors played their parts to perfection. It is a short and sweet film and even if it doesn’t come with a storybook happy ending, it leaves you with a satisfying one.

Rating: 8/10

Book Review: ‘Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema’ by John Pierson

I came to know John Pierson through his show from the late 1990s Split Screen. While I had heard about it back then, through message boards and chat rooms (when they were still a thing), I never really had access to it until it was available on FilmStruck’s streaming service through their extra Criterion Channel add-on.

Having watched some of the earlier episodes, some of which featured Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, I got to know Pierson’s story and understand his influence and importance on 80s and 90s indie film. Because of that, I wanted to know more of the details, so when I discovered that he had written this book, I got a copy.

While the book tells these stories from Pierson’s point of view, they aren’t as exciting as one would hope. That’s not a knock against Pierson but he is sort of a bland guy and it comes through. This could also be my mistake for reading this after I just finished a string of Joe Bob Briggs and Hunter S. Thompson books, which put me on a colorful and charismatic high.

The best parts of this book are the sections where Pierson has conversations with Kevin Smith. Had the book featured more of this or just this, as Pierson tells the stories by conversing with those involved, it would have been a much more entertaining read. In fact, those sections feel more like an episode of Split Screen, which unfortunately could only fit in so much with its half hour running time and magazine style format.

Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is still worthwhile, if you care about the filmmakers involved and how they got their start. It is just very straightforward and dry.

Rating: 5.5/10

TV Review: Split Screen (1997-2001)

Original Run: March 10th, 1997 – April 2nd, 2001
Created by: John Pierson
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Hosted by: John Pierson

Grainy Pictures, IFC, 66 Episodes, 22 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

Now that I have the Criterion Channel, thanks to my FilmStruck subscription, I have access to episodes of IFC’s old show Split Screen. I never got to see it when it was current but I remember people talking about it online a lot back in the late 90s.

Split Screen is a mixed bag. I do enjoy it and I find its 4.6 out of 10 rating on IMDb to be a bit strange and kind of harsh. Truthfully, it is not a fantastic show but at its best, it is really fun and informative.

Hosted by John Pierson, a man who helped launch the careers of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Michael Moore, Split Screen is typically a show that interviews independent film directors about their projects, whether current ones or their past work.

The show also veers off into other directions and this is maybe what hurt it in the eyes of the people who rated it so low. Regardless, everything about the show is focused on some aspect of filmmaking.

The episode about the multiple film festivals in Park City, Utah was great and taught me a lot about what the film festival system is like and how the politics of it work.

Another episode I enjoyed was the one where Pierson interviews Kevin Smith in the actual Quick Stop store from his 1994 debut Clerks.

Like I said, Split Screen is a mixed bag but if you are really into independent film, especially from the 90s – where a lot of new filmmakers rose to prominence, then this is a show worth your time.

Rating: 6/10