Film Reviews

Clerk Review: Sympathy for Kevin Smith

SXSW doc chronicles the work and fandom of the ‘Clerks’ director


Clerk
(United States, 112 min)
Dir. Malcom Ingram

Clerk is a sympathetic, feature-length look at the remarkable and varied career of Kevin Smith, the gregarious filmmaker and raconteur whose embrace of geek culture foreshadowed its current cultural mania. The latest documentary from Canadian director/producer Malcolm Ingram (The Phantom of Winnipeg), the film both serves as a look back at a quarter-century-long career and provides a strong argument for Smith’s continued relevance for those long outside the bubble of fandom.

Tracing Smith’s rise from Vancouver Film School drop out to cause célèbre at Sundance and Cannes is no less remarkable all these years later. The early ’90s were ripe for this kind of neo-auteurism, where the likes of Linklater, Tarantino and Soderbergh felt the most exciting voices of an indie movement. Smith’s contribution with 1994’s Clerks, the black-and-white rumination on comic books, porn, Star Wars, stoners and the vagaries of late-period capitalism, became an immediate critical hit and garnered attention from the critical intelligentsia.

The follow up film Mallrats (1995) proved a major flop financially, but as Smith details in his openhearted conversation with Ingram, the story surrounding the project is far more complicated than dismissing it as a mere sophomore slump. This bifurcation between the critical community and the nascent audience fascination with the constellation of characters that would become part of the “View Askewnaverse” illuminates Smith’s perseverance and the tenacity of many of his collaborators. (The cinematic universe of sorts is named after Smith’s production company and ties many of his characters together from project to project.)

The argument Ingram’s film makes – that the world changed by moving towards some of Smith’s obsessions – is a strong one. Throughout the years, there was an attempt at engagement rather than the kind of aloof iconoclastic dismissal that characterises many who eschew critical acceptance in favour of composing for the choir. Smith’s connection with fans has always felt genuine, firmly established prior to social media firms controlling and curating the tweets and Instagram feeds of those too busy to engage fully with fans who buy the tickets and merch.

An entire film could be made about the role that Harvey Weinstein played in shaping a decade of cinema, including Smith’s films, yet it’s equally clear that to deal with that nuanced conversation would derail this particular project. Instead, Smith overtly acknowledges what he knew and when. The reports of what he has done with the proceeds from the films distributed by Weinstein following the revelations and criminal proceedings of the mogul is addressed directly without lingering on that element.

The talking heads provide engaging and positive reflections about Smith’s work, from those closest to him like his wife, his daughter, and the Jay to his Silent Bob, Jason Mewes. Podcast pal and fellow VFS alum Scott Mosier is definitely given his due, and it’s clear how the connection between producer and director continues to shape Smith’s journey. The inclusion of Joey Lauren Adams is particularly important, given the somewhat tumultuous connection the actress had with Smith following Chasing Amy (1997). Another project worthy of a full examination on its own (with stories surrounding it covered extensively in Smith’s later podcasting adventures), the film remains a perfect reflection of the director’s naiveté and drive. Chasing Amy exposes his skills and limitations in a film that, for many, remains Smith’s most accomplished work, while for others, remains exactly the kind of puerile nonsense they can easily dismiss in today’s environment.

It’s this collision between those fans that gorge on all thing Smith, versus those who readily reject anything that this boisterous white bro has to say, that energizes much of the documentary. For those with a narrow view of the man from either perspective, there is a lot to glean here, from the connection of Amy’s narrative to Smith’s gay brother as much as to his relationship with Adams, to his deeply felt religious beliefs that drove the likes of Dogma under the guise of a shock comedy.

In short, there’s a lot more there than many have given credit, especially for those on the outside of the last decade of weirdo cult films and long-form, weed-fueled on-stage talks and podcast convos. While others from his generation have maintained a different kind of status in the film community, Smith’s own works have retroactively lost some lustre. While certainly not the direct intent, the film reminds audiences not only of the era in which these films were crafted, but also of their charms and successes. It remembers a group of friends who had the temerity to mix high and low culture, deeper philosophical conversations with poop-infused chocolate pretzels, all crafted by a writer-director with a keen eye for character and an even more focused gaze on his own limitations, struggles, prejudices and missteps to which he knew others could relate.

Throw in a couple tunes from a fellow Jersey boy named Bruce along with drone shops of the Quick Stop and you have all the poetic scope one could hope for from a documentary about Kevin Smith. Ingram’s Clerk checks all the right boxes, but more than simply a talking head traipse down memory lane, it encourages old fans to revisit some of these works with fresh eyes, while hopefully schooling those who dismissed the phenomena from the outset.

Smith has always been an open book and often wore his heart on his sleeve (or, in the case of this film, has one embroidered on one of his innumerable hockey jerseys). The doc invites genuine admiration for the man and his work without descending into mere fanboyism. It’s a fine line, but one that Ingram’s Clerk manages to toe deftly.

Clerk premieres at SXSW 2021.