Clerk plays out like a love letter from Smith to himself, not offering much for the rest of us involved in the film-watching process.
For movie nerds of a certain age, the story of Kevin Smith and his 1994 debut film, Clerks, is the stuff of legend. Coming on the heels of breakout indie successes from Tarantino and Linklater, Smith was, according to who you asked, the new John Cassavetes, the heir apparent to Jim Jarmusch, or a potty mouthed, Gen X Woody Allen. Smith was also “one of us” — the schlubby, overweight geek who made it. The new documentary Clerk. is an exhaustive, and exhausting, overview of Smith’s entire career, touching briefly on each of his feature films as well as his numerous podcasts and speaking engagements. It all culminates with Smith and longtime friend and collaborator Jason Mewes receiving stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a symbolic validation of Smith’s storied, love-hate history with the mainstream.
Director Malcolm Ingram, a longtime Smith associate, opts here for the simplest, least demanding structure for this filmed hagiography: a linear, chronological order. After a brief intro that recounts Smith’s childhood and religious beliefs, Clerk. retells, for the umpteenth time, the genesis of Clerks and the shockwaves it sent through the festival circuit. Linklater and Tarantino pop up in brief talking head interviews extolling Smith’s genius, while Smith himself is on hand to essentially narrate his own story. After being given carte blanche from the studios for his second feature, Smith hits a brick wall with Mallrats. This leads to some deep soul-searching and a return to his indie roots as Smith scrounges up money to make Chasing Amy, heralded as a “return to form” by the critical community. On and on the documentary goes, giving a brief overview of every Smith film, introducing a few interview subjects to talk about it, and then punting back to Smith for a kind of final summation. Anything of particular interest is either barely touched upon or glossed over entirely — Smith’s acknowledgment that much of his success came at the hands of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein is allotted the same amount of weight as Smith praising the virtues of the San Diego Comic Con. A fascinating chapter of Smith’s career involves a weird detour called Red State; there’s footage here of Smith premiering the horror film at the 2011 Sundance Film Fest and preparing to auction it off to a distributor before revealing that he’s actually distributing it himself, in an elaborate cross country touring road show. It was a premeditated publicity stunt that probably burned a lot of professional bridges which Clerk. presents as a cheeky prank instead of potential career suicide.
It all feels like an elaborate DVD extra, albeit one with virtually unlimited access to the man himself. Taken as a whole, Clerk. raises an important question that it can’t really answer: Who exactly is this film for? Too long and too enamored with minutiae for a casual viewer, one might think of an endeavor like this as a “for fans only” affair. But Smith’s legions of admirers know all of this stuff backwards and forwards. Smith himself has told these anecdotes countless times, particularly in his multiple An Evening With… DVDs. There emerges a conflicting portrait of a man who craves attention, often tailoring his films to appeal to a mainstream audience, and then lashes out at critics and fans who refuse to embrace his more outlandish proclivities. Neither Smith nor the film really digs into this seeming contradiction, and is poorer for it. Recent duds like Tusk and Yoga Hosers are commented upon entirely as positive experiences, a chance to goof around with friends and family while making a movie. A noble enough sentiment, but one which lets Smith and his decision-making process off the hook. These films aren’t failures, at least not in the insular world of Kevin Smith. They’re successes because his wife and kid had fun on set. Ultimately, Clerk. feels like a testament to Smith from Smith, a love letter to himself. That might be all well and good for anyone already in the tank for this once interesting filmmaker, but it’s not particularly illuminating for the rest of us.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | November 2021.