This blog is never really going to talk about current movie news. I’m almost entirely uninterested in joining the echo chamber of movie blogs on the internet, regurgitating the same half dozen rumors every day. I read four movie sites regularly, but if it wasn’t for the personalities I could pick any of them and get the exact same news.
That said, after Kevin Smith’s speech after Sunday’s premier of his most recent film, Red State, I decided I would join in the voices talking about him. Many people are angry at Smith, saying he’s played the press and his fanbase in one big ego trip flameout. I don’t really want to be as inflammatory, though I can see where they’re coming from. Either way, it’s obvious there’s been a sea change in the way Kevin Smith operates. The man is not the same director he once was. And that’s what I find interesting.
A bit of background. Kevin Smith started making independent comedies during the big indie renaissance of the early 90s. His first movie, Clerks, was shot in 21 days for $27,000, mostly financed by Smith selling off his possessions, maxing out his credit cards, and dipping into his college fund. The movie was picked up by Miramax and went on to gross over $3 million.
More than that, Clerks is a genuinely good movie. It won plenty of awards in the year of its debut and has since been named among the best modern comedies. Clerks, with its firm grasp of the slacker culture of the 90s, directionless and bleak, rang far truer than most coming-of-age comedies of the era, still firmly stuck in the 80s. It’s easy to mock Clerks now, all no-budget and amateur actors and stark, black and white framing, but the movie was significant.
Smith’s next two movies, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, took that outlook on life and ran with it. Mallrats is something akin to a John Hughes movie, a day in the life of teenagers and 20-somethings from a variety of walks of life, all put in this mall to have madcap adventures. It’s raunchy, it’s funny, but more importantly it’s plugged into a post-modern sensibility that what makes us ‘US’ and fictional characters ‘THEM’ is the vacuum the fictional characters exist in.
Mallrats eschews this in favor drenching the screen in pop culture. Characters offhandedly reference Star Wars, TV shows, and comic books as if it was a part of their lives, because it’s a part of everyone’s lives. Stan Lee gives a cameo years before he became the token cameo of Marvel Studios, playing a version of himself that’s a cross between a mythic figure and the dirty old man hanging around where he shouldn’t be.
Mallrats wasn’t received as well as Clerks, but I feel it cemented the movement towards self-awareness that permeates the comedy landscape now. Shows like Community and The Office, or movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or Juno, all come from a place that was informed by the riffing, in-the-moment nature of Smith’s comedy all the way back in the 90s.
Chasing Amy, on the other hand, runs in the entirely opposite direction. It’s a movie about broken adults in broken relationships. It’s set up in the same terms as all of Kevin Smith’s movies, the driftless slacker generation Smith himself was a part of, but the movie itself bears more in common with some of the better Woody Allen romantic dramedies than it does the earlier work. People are broken, resolutions are tenuous and bittersweet but the characters have a weight and a finality to them that is more significant than Smith’s usual work.
Chasing Amy is my favorite Kevin Smith film, because I feel it’s the most real, coming from a place where things don’t always work out. It’s about a messy situation and complicated people, and it stands as a small miracle in the genre.
But from here on out it gets dicey. I’m not going to run down Smith’s full filmography. I think that there are still hits in the rest of it but it becomes obvious pretty quickly that given a budget and some clout the movies become less intimate and more broad. Clerks turns into Clerks 2, replete with bestiality jokes and a dance sequence. I’m not saying it’s not funny but it’s not the same. The man who made Clerks would never have made Clerks 2. In fact, I’m pretty sure that guy would have been actively insulted by Clerks 2.
Kevin Smith has a pretty well-known online persona as the guy who smokes a lot of weed and talks nerdy shit at anyone who will listen. It’s not a bad persona, but it’s the kind of persona that when it becomes the thing you’re about threatens to take the edge out of your work. I’m not sure artists can spend all day luxuriating in an adoring fan base and still have teeth in their work. It’s why the one-hit wonder is a thing. Fame is a hard thing to combat. Context gets lost.
The Kevin Smith who made those three leaner, scrappier films was in many ways saying something about the bullshit happy ending comedies that were coming out of the Hollywood machine. Unfortunately, as time wore on, Smith kept dipping back into the same well of characters and settings until he was making overly saccharine romantic comedies that were exactly what his first films seemed to be fighting against (I’m looking at you, Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri Make A Porno, neither of which I dislike but both of which are shadows of his earlier work.)
Which leads us to the Kevin Smith of today. The Kevin Smith of today seems confused about who he is and what his work has become. He left the universe of characters that made him famous, deciding to do a ‘real’ Hollywood movie. That movie was Cop Out, the Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop movie that was just this side of a root canal in terms of enjoyment. This is something Kevin Smith admitted in Sunday’s screening, which is ironic considering upon its release he had slammed all of his critics as misunderstanding the film and misrepresenting his work on it.
And so on Sunday night Kevin Smith trotted out Red State, a religious horror-action movie about a Westboro Baptist Church-esque family and some hostages they take. The movie’s received mixed reviews, but what’s more significant is that Smith himself announced that after his next movie he has plans to retire.
I’m not going to judge Smith’s decision, or his movie choices. It’s a strange thing when even the man in question realizes he dipped into his first, best well one too many times and never hit another one as good. The problem is the terms he’s coaching it in, saying that the Hollywood machine is what’s pushing him out, using is rabid fanbase to ignore any bad word much the same way the crazy extremist Christian sect his latest film lampoons does.
At what point does a person become self-parody and not realize it?
Kevin Smith might have started as an independent filmmaker, but it was the Hollywood machine that found him and gave him fame. And then when that fame began to dwindle, through shifting times or his own actions or the genres he worked in evolving, Smith took to tantrum throwing. It’s disappointing to see a director I respected the work of reduced to sending his fan base out to attack those he feels threatened by, but anyone who’s ever read his twitter knows that’s exactly what happens.
Maybe this retirement is for the best. Most artists reach a point where their best work is behind them, and they need to come to terms with that fact and find some new thing to tackle or get out of the game. Kevin Smith seems to be getting out of the game. If that means that Hit Somebody will be both his next and last movie, then I can only sit back and think that maybe it’s for the best.
It’s been a crazy ride, Mr. Smith. I enjoyed a great many of your movies. But part of me is glad that you’re going to say goodbye to a situation and a career that is obviously not as fulfilling to you as it once was. And maybe there’ll be some new place where Kevin Smith finds his niche. One can only hope and wish for the best.
Snoochie boochies, and godspeed.