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Review: Clerks (1994)

Clerks (1994)

Directed by: Kevin Smith

Premise: A day in the life of two convenience store clerks (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson).

What Works: Throughout the 1980s the business model for theatrical production, distribution, and exhibition began to change. Independent and drive-in theaters were folding and were replaced by national theater chains which tended to only book major Hollywood releases. Studios catered to them with big budget spectacles and relatively safe—and frequently bland—historical dramas. By the early 1990s this process was mostly complete, resulting in a dearth of creative or edgy films from Hollywood studios. Into this void came several independent filmmakers who took advantage of more economical filmmaking technology, newly formed film festivals, and specialty distributors like Miramax that aggressively distributed art house and offbeat features. This gave birth to an insurgency of independent movies that shook up the Hollywood establishment throughout the 1990s including Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Larry Clark’s Kids and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Released in 1994, Clerks was a slice of life tale about the plight of two convenience store employees: Dante and Randall, played by Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson. Dante is stuck in a dead end job and is dissatisfied with his life; he has a girlfriend (Marilyn Ghigliotti) but he dreams of reconnecting with his high school sweetheart (Lisa Spoonauer) and the movie consists of him moaning about his job, dealing with eccentric customers, and pondering his love life. Randall is his foil, a man who shares Dante’s professional and economic station, but he accepts his lifestyle and relishes the lack of responsibly. At the time of its release—and even now—Clerks was unique because its tone and characters were so different from Hollywood movies; typically the closest that Hollywood gets to envisioning blue collar work are stories of hip young people working in the offices of a fashion magazine. The characters and content of Clerks were recognizable to many people as was Dante’s dissatisfaction with his life. But as depressing as that sounds, Clerks is very funny. The movie has a lot of reality to it and it sends up that reality to comic effect. The complaints about work are recognizable to anyone with customer service experience as are the characters’ discussions of sex, cigarettes, and absurd minutia. Clerks is a lewd movie—it was originally given an NC-17 rating on the basis of its language alone—but the coarse dialogue is also quite funny and exactly why the film connected with audiences. Clerks was a movie with a distinct filmmaking voice and Kevin Smith spoke to people in a way that got their attention.

What Doesn’t: Clerks was produced on a miniscule budget and made by filmmakers who were inexperienced. That shows in the movie. Clerks is black and white, and the contrast varies and is sometimes very stark. The sound quality is also irregular, with the mix of dialogue and music sometimes muddled and louder moments occasionally distort. The crude nature of the movie is part of its effectiveness. Its technical flaws and patchwork look give Clerks a humanity and a liveliness that more polished films lack. However, the picture sometimes betrays that naturalistic style. Whenever the filmmakers attempt to stage bigger, action oriented scenes, such as the blowup between Dante and Randall at the end of the picture, the action gets awkward and it looks like less like a feature or a documentary and more like an amateur home video. The movie also suffers when the performers are overwhelmed by Kevin Smith’s dialogue. Like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith is a very skilled writer who is able to create longwinded but very clever verbal exchanges. However, the dialogue is both an asset and a liability. Clerks is grittily realistic but the dialogue is ultra-stylized, creating a disconnect between what is seen and what is heard. The actors of Clerks, many of them inexperienced, struggle with the delivery of this dialogue and the exchanges between Dante and Randall are sometimes stilted.

DVD extras: The 15th anniversary blu-ray edition includes the 92 minute theatrical cut and the 102 minute “first cut,” as well as a commentary tracks, a trivia track, an introduction, featurettes, outtakes, interviews, promos, a music video and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Clerks is one of the essential titles in the cinema of Generation X and it’s been very influential with its impact seen in later movies like Office Space and Waiting. This film may not be pretty but Clerks is very funny and one of the most important pictures in the recent history of American cinema.

Episode: #508 (September 14, 2014)