Write on.

Two things happened to me yesterday which have kind of collided in my head and crystallized into a point of view.

It’s kind of impressive that these two completely separate events could be significant to me at all as I left the house yesterday only once and that was to get orange juice as I have a bastard cold and feel shitty. The two things were: a two minute conversation on facebook chat and watching a not-great DVD.

I think I’ll start with the DVD. The film was Clerks 2. I had watched it once before, when it first came out in 2006 and had left the cinema with a shake of the head and a hearty sigh. That was the moment I finally gave up on Kevin Smith. To say I ‘gave up’ suggests that I had made some kind of investment into the director/star of this movie and, truth be told, I had. An emotional investment. This is not his fault. I blame him for nothing. I have never met the man, never had any form of communication. Well, that’s not strictly true, but I’ll get on to that later. Where to start.

The 90’s were a brilliant time to come of age. People don’t talk so much about the 90’s. They didn’t have the social revolution of the 60’s, the cultural revolution of the 70’s or the craziness of the 80’s. The 90’s was when we just calmed down a bit and got cynical. I’m fine with cynical. People don’t talk enough about the cinema of the 90’s because it wasn’t very ‘landmark’ but it was an interesting time. Especially for American independent cinema. Miramax was born and finally quirky filmmakers of vision had somewhere to go and aspire to. They were being taken seriously.

The first significant one out of the gate was Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs was like nothing I had seen before – whilst being like everything I had seen before. It was a completely fresh form of film-making which had taken all the great gangster movies, masticated them and spat them against the outside edge of the window of the establishment. Independent cinema had existed for many decades but never had the realism and vim of it significantly impacted upon the mainstream. It was a heist movie but they were talking about Madonna. It didn’t feel scripted yet it was a water-tight story. It blew my mind. Tarantino was – rightly – lauded as a genius. This was the most impressive cinematic debut since Orson Welles.

As with all zeitgeists, other artists will get caught up and bunched in. The last time this had happened to any significant degree was in the seventies when Francis Ford Coppola had lead a rag-tag group of film school graduates – including Scorsese, Spielberg and George Lucas – to change the entire movie industry. Bringing European influences, grit and (unpredictably) the birth of the blockbuster with them.

Within about 18 months, Miramax had its hat-trick of indie visionaries. Tarantino had been joined by Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith – all 3 of them untrained film fans who had made incredible debut movies self-funded on miniscule budgets, picked up by Miramax and given high-profile releases. Rodriguez’s El Mariachi brought big-budget action set-pieces and style to the no-budget arena. Showing it wasn’t the equipment and stars that made the movie, it was the vision and passion of it’s writer-director. He could have shot on video and it would have looked masterful. Kevin Smith’s debut had no action, save for a hockey game on the roof of a convenience store. I missed Clerks in the cinema. It was my first year of film school, a whirlwind of activity. I wanted to see it, but missed it. When it hit VHS, I was working in a video store and gladly swiped the copy off the shelf (never did return it) and watched the film that had the biggest impact on me since seeing Star Wars at five.

Clerks was the best film I had ever seen. It  probably still is but I won’t acknowledge it as such for reasons I will go into later. It was my life on the screen. It was a film where nothing really happened at all. Documenting one day in the life of a convenience store and it’s neighbouring video shop and the two guys who worked them. Nothing happens, just a string of annoying customers, a girlfriend issue and a lot of banter. Tarantino had, to my mind, been the first person to really show banter onscreen but it complimented the action. This film Clerks was 100% banter. And it was funny and dirty and exactly how my friends and I conversed. It was hilarious and immature but also unbelievably insightful, honest and downbeat insofar as it captured a generation of slackers. Pop culture junkies with no obvious or easy futures. These were my friends. This was my sense of humour. So much pathos.

I was addicted. I watched Clerks endlessly. I hunted down late night screenings of it because it was so much better in the cinema (crappy black and white 16mm needs to be seen on as big a screen as possible to really see any detail) It inspired and focused me. I knew then that my calling was to be the British Kevin Smith. It didn’t hurt that I already looked like him to the degree that I would be mistaken for him at film festivals for many years to come. This was not by design. I wasn’t THAT obsessed. I didn’t ever steal from him or copy him but I felt his inspiration gave me license to write films about mouthy young British guys in dead-ends. I don’t know if the influence was even obvious but he was very very much my inspiration.

His second film – Mallrats – came out very quickly after I had seen Clerks. I loved Mallrats too, but differently. All of a sudden Smith had a big studio budget and produced a glossy slick teen comedy. Set in the same world as Clerks, the two drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob, who’d hung out outside the convenience store all day, were back in a supporting role trading their gritty edgy buffoonery for a more Laurel and Hardy form of silliness. It was an odd transition for those characters but it worked. It was so much fun to see them transplanted from one reality to another. To see two Jersey drug dealers as the comic relief in a big movie. A wonderful in-joke for Clerks fans too. In fact, the movie was peppered with in-jokes, references and cross-overs. It felt like what might happen if one of your friends had made a Hollywood movie and been allowed to just fill it with his own personal jokes. It was joyous. It had soul, big laughs and kind of made a point about vacuous teenage crap. I watched it a lot. We all did.

His third film followed quickly too. Apparently somewhat scarred by the big studio experience, he was back making a low budget indie – Chasing Amy. A lot of the publicity centred around Smith apologizing for Mallrats which seemed odd and I took a little umbrage because I really dug that film. But Chasing Amy was better. So much better. Chasing Amy is more watchable than Clerks (it’s in colour, the performances are snappier) and one of my favourite films of all time. The scandal that surrounded it was that Smith had made a film about a guy who turned a lesbian straight. That was ridiculous to me, he wasn’t making any kind of comment on sexuality. Hell, I know a lesbian who is happily married to a guy now, it can and does happen. The detractors had missed the point of the film. They focused on the wrong relationship. It was a film about best friends. About what happens to guys when they reach their mid-twenties and start getting into relationships. What happens to your best mate? How does that all change? Very few films have been intelligently made on this subject and Chasing Amy knocked it out of the park. It’s a really, really good film.

Smith was internet-active and had his own web-store. I ordered a Chasing Amy cinema poster, it arrived signed ‘To Jon, Had her, I swear! Best Wishes Kevin Smith’ the ‘Had her I swear’ line had an arrow that pointed to the face of the lead actress Joey Lauren Adams. I also ordered a strip of film from the workcut of Clerks. I still have it framed in my office. It’s a Jay and Silent Bob scene.

Smith was now bankable. He had a following, therefore he got to make films. That’s when he went a bit rubbish. As did his colleagues. Tarantino had followed up Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction – a good film, but one which set the template for him just making pop culture mash-ups in which faded stars of cinema past got reinvented into some hip new violent offering. He never made a good film again. They were lazy, doughy, horrifically over-long and indulgent offerings. Robert Rodriguez remade El Mariachi with a big budget then made a Tarantinoesque all-star sequel. He quickly descended into making fairly uninteresting kids films. Smith over-stretched himself with the lamentable Dogma which brought the forces of biblical wrath into the small-town universe he’d created. Jay and Silent Bob, whilst still being funny, were now biblical prophets fighting bad angels. The film didn’t know what it wanted to be. Part epic, part tiny indie comedy. He followed that with the detestable Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in which his two once-brilliant background characters became the full focus of a stupid big budget comedy. He has often identified himself as a purveyor of dick and fart jokes but they had previously been funny asides, here they were the building blocks. I was close to leaving halfway through as the film pointlessly threw flatulent sexy female jewel thieves and George Carlin offering blowjobs into the mix. It was self-aggrandizing cinematic swill. He hadn’t been able to leave behind the security blanket of his first film and now was just hashing out pointless tributes to it.

Then he announced that he was leaving that universe behind. Indeed, the film finished with Alanis Morrisette (reprising her role of God from Dogma) closing the bible on the ‘View Askewniverse’ he had created. I was excited.

His next film Jersey Girl was a flop. But a really, really good film. Although he’d left the comfort of the characters he’d created, it was still set in New Jersey and featured actors he’d worked with before. A simple story about a widowed husband who has to raise his baby alone. Ben Affleck in the lead role turned in a solid performance and it was a nice, small, honest film. It flopped, Smith apologised for it and he announced Clerks 2.

I felt like I wanted to be a Hollywood social worker. Step in and tell him ‘I know you love your children, but if you really do, you should leave them alone and go and get help’. I didn’t want him to revisit and stomp all over his greatest moment of purity. The interviews he gave prior to its release offered me a little hope. He claimed that he had something to say, a reason to revisit these characters.

I sat in the cinema and disagreed. With the exception of the climax scene in a jail cell with brilliant performances from the original protagonists, it was a mess. There was dance sequences, grating celebrity cameos – every customer that appeared had the camp smugness of Sammy Davis Jr or whoever popping out of windows in every episode of Batman where he and Robin would climb up a wall. It said very little about our generation or where we were and offered a frustratingly ambiguous ending in which the two main character opted to buy the convenience store – which could be construed as an act of entepreneurship or an admission of defeat.

By now, Miramax is no more. Tarantino has made a string of crappy pointless movies (the fact that his latest – a nazi funfest called Inglorious Basterds is Oscar nominated – alongside Avatar – shows how bad standards for cinema in general have become) , Rodriguez is making his third Spy Kids sequel, his second and third chapters of Sin City and a film based on the fake trailer he made for the Grindhouse project. Originality does not feature strongly in his plans.

On the Clerks 2 DVD, There is footage of Smith inviting Tarantino and Rodriguez over to watch it. They enthuse boundlessly and it’s horribly clear how all three have lost that spark they had.

The facebook conversation I alluded to at the beginning of this was with a friend of mine – John Wilkinson. He’s been at film school in London for a few years now. This is his final year now. I met John first about six or seven years ago. I think he was only 16 at the time. He enrolled in a couple of my screenwriting courses. By the time he was 18, he’d won the young screenwriter of the year award – presented by Julian Fellowes. I take no credit for his success or talent whatsoever, he was a promising screenwriter when he arrived and, after years of hard work and commitment to his craft, a great one now. I work as a script editor and screenwriting tutor and can tell you exactly what white teenage boys/young men write – without fail it’s superhero films, gangster films and semi-autobiographical comedies about a whacky group of friends. John was above such dross as a teenager. At various times throughout his film school education, he’s shown me scripts he was working on and, without fail, they have been creatively deft, beautifully imaginative and thematically interesting.

He messaged me to tell me he’d won the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Kodak Commercial Awards for film students. I haven’t actually read that script but I know he deserves it. I can’t imagine there’s a better screenwriter at his current level in this country.

Will he succeed? I hope so. I don’t hold out a lot of hope because the industry is a strange beast right now, the mold cast by the Miramax generation has yet to be broken. Those whose names have become brands will always get funding, regardless of their inability to build on their initial raw-edged promise. Why are they unable? Well, I think because they skipped the step John has just devoted three years to. None of them studied. Their first successes were flukes – they had so much to say and such passion that they exploded onto the screen. But once that initial impulse was gone, it was replaced by complacency, arrogance and a lack of understanding of their own work or working. They weren’t equipped or experienced enough to build on their work, only to endlessly clone their first films. Compare them to the generation that preceded them, the film school brats Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg (less so Lucas, perhaps) have built mature, smart, interesting and varied bodies of work – and continue to thirty years later. The Miramax kids maybe deserve the term ‘brat’ more – wallowing as they still do in dick and fart jokes, comedy violence and pop culture references.

Miramax changed the way filmmakers embark on careers now. They’re expected to have an interesting life story and a groundbreaking debut feature film to be marketable. Experience and studying count for very little now. Indeed, Smith and Rodriguez have been very vocal in dismissing the worth of film school or training of any kind. Rodriguez becoming famed for his ’10 minute film school’ telling you everything you supposedly need to know to go on and make your first feature film.

I dread to think how many talents have been quashed by the encouragement to just jump right in and make a first feature film with no experience.

Kevin Smith could have been the wittiest most insightful filmmaker of our generation had he the confidence to assess his own work and build on it rather than pander to his image and ‘fans’. Same goes for the other two. But they weren’t equipped because they hadn’t been through the experience of a non-public education.

I guess John is ready to step into the industry now but I feel its response to a film school graduate will be less embracing than as to a ‘real life story’. His talent would be a terrible thing to waste.

Fingers crossed, eh?

Best of luck, John. Congratulations for the award. You truly deserve it.

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 1:45 pm  Comments (9)  

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  1. Hey John! I’ve never met anyone who I completely agree with in their assessment of Kevin Smith movies. Spot on! This is good stuff, and I don’t disagree, but I’d like to challenge a point or two. I think that the Miramax ‘nouvelle vague’ comparison to the Coppola/Spielberg/Lucas(/Scorsese) group is completely apt, but it should be pointed out that all of these guys had their wilderness periods (which Lucas never really came back from). You can’t get much more unoriginal than Godfather III, more self-indulgent than 1941, or more misguided than, well most things Lucas has done. However, a couple of these guys have come back around to turn in their Schindlers and Departeds, and Coppola still turns in a decent effort every now and then. It’s disappointing, without doubt, but there’s hope that they’ll come back around (except maybe for Rodriguez, I think he’s been possessed by the marketing department).

    As much as I agree with your perspective on Smith, I disagree with Tarantino – I think he is coming around. I found Pulp Fiction a very underwhelming movie, but have enjoyed his later works more and more (though I was never a huge fan). I think Inglourious Basterds is a very clever film, mostly for the dichotomies it holds up to the audience. In the first twenty minutes of screentime, you have a very long, erudite, and rational argument for why Jews are no better than rats that need to be exterminated and you feel, rightly, disgusted. Then you have a four-minute speech by a very inarticulate Bard Pitt saying that ‘Nazzees’ are vermin and need to be destroyed – and you’re on his side. At the climax, you groan and shake your head at Nazis watching a shallow German propaganda film, just before QT offers you an orgasmic crescendo of fantasy violence perpetrated by Americans against the Germans. I don’t think that QT has a point here except to ask the audience ‘what the f*ck is actually going on here?’ It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that so deftly holds a mirror up to the audience and asks them to examine how they feel.

    You’re right about Avatar, though. Poor. Just poor.

  2. One thought about the non-schooled filmaker’s art (maybe an exception that proves the rule, although I must admit I’ve never had a clue what that cliché means…) – Peter Jackson, who never even bothered with a short film and went straight into making an awesome feature, and then proceeded to get better and stronger with each passing year. But maybe there is a point here – for me he stumbled when he finally indulged himself in what he really wanted to do (remaking King Kong). So is self-indulgence the real enemy here?

  3. Ross:
    I would argue that the Godfather 3, 1941 and (for the sake of naming a rubbish Scorsese film…) Gangs of New York are rare blips on long and varied careers (although I think Scorsese has become rather boring over the last decade). They were mistakes rather than changes of course. Smith, Rodriguez and Tarantino have steadily produced work of less worth and interest. I’ll admit to having not seen Inglorious Basterds but after the triple whammy of Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and Deathproof, I just didn’t have the umption. Even if it is better than the others, he seems stuck in a rut making these awful pastiches.

    George Lucas SHOULD have been the most interesting of that generation. THX 1138 was fantastic, as was American Graffiti, then Star Wars just seemed to knock it all out of him.

    I think Jackson displays a similar trait to the others. Bad Taste, Brain Dead and Meet The Feebles were kind of an amazing debut. The Frighteners was a mess, very strange film with that indie filmmaker/studio interference kind of feeling to it. The Lord of The Rings trilogy is a huge mess, though. The first film was great but the following two were terribly adapted and horribly structured. I found the third film almost unwatchable. After that, he became a victim/beneficiary of the same phenomenon as Tarantino/Smith/Rodriguez – he was a name now and could do whatever he wanted.

    King Kong is his Kill Bill – self indulgent, far too long. Both films could have been interesting were the filmmakers not so powerful they had nobody editing them or curbing their excesses.

    Self-indulgence is not the enemy. Indulgence is. When a studio knows the value of a director’s name above the title, they leave them to do whatever they want. Usually, the screenplay and edit have to go through several layers of studio brass before being approved. Directors like Tarantino and Jackson get final cut written into their contract – rarely a good thing.

    I think it’s the same reason Woody Allen hasn’t made a decent film in almost 20 years – his deal with MGM is that they don’t even have to know what he’s making. Each year, he gets a set budget to do whatever he wants because they know his films are cheap to produce, huge stars will appear in them for little money and his films will go into profit in Europe alone.

  4. Fair point. The thing that I think that all the directors under discussion have in common is that they got into the business initially to entertain. I’ve read enough biographies/articles to assert that with confidence. Now, whereas their early work was entertaining with an intelligent, cogent, and unique style, over time their voices became homogenized and they’ve blended more into the tapestry of Hollywood. I blame a lot of factors, but most of them come down to money (or ‘the returns’). In movie terms, money is the root of mediocrity. Which, of course, is evil.

    What directors do you think have maintained their cache? Even Brits like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Ridley Scott walked the steady slope downwards. I can only think of Wes Anderson and the Pixar people (barring Bugs and Cars) who continually turn in worthy works. Any others?

  5. I think it must be very hard to keep your artistry in Hollywood. It also should be said that these guys are not just artists, filmmaking is their living so I’m sure they’ve had to take jobs or make compromises just to pay the mortgage.

    But directors do go off the boil – that’s just the way it is.
    I’ve been racking my brains to try to come up with any who have kept their edge. I think Richard Donner is a hugely underrated director but you could easily hold Lethal Weapon 4 or Assassins up as evidence for the prosecution. Milos Forman, I would argue, hasn’t made a bad film, Billy Wilder was always great. I’m tempted to also name Terry Gilliam who, despite being a famous director, has always struggled to attract funding. I’ve heard his latest isn’t great but aside form that and The brothers Grimm being a bit iffy, he has never been less than brilliant. My personal favourite filmmaker Albert Brooks has never made a below-par offering but his films are small and humble and set the bar low.

    I think Wes Anderson is consistent but consistently dire. I very much lump him in with the miramax set. Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were wonderful but since then it’s been these horrible all-star ensemble films with two many characters, tiresome quirkiness and more effort going into the art direction than the script.

    Pixar are consistently amazing (I’d include bugs life and cars) but that proves my point. There you have a studio head who is ensuring and demanding quality in all areas of each film’s production. So you have story development departments and much collaboration. Apart from John Lasseter, could you name anyone who works at Pixar? That’s how a studio should be, they trade on an ethos and quality rather than names and past form.

  6. I could name a bunch of Pixar guys, but I’m a nerd. The point stands, however. They are the paragon. Gilliam is a good one. I’d need convincing on Forman. Do the South Park guys count?

    I’m still an Anderson fan. I think that he’s worse the more popular he tries to be, however. Tennenbaums was a low point. I keep watching Zissou however, and I still find Darjeeling to be a moving film. I would like to lobby that he comes down to personal taste, much like Gilliam. You may not enjoy the flavour, but I don’t think he’s been diluted.

  7. I don’t know. I think Anderson is flawed on a fundamental writing level. The concepts are great, the direction is great, the acting is great, always visually stunning but the story is usually completely lacklustre. In fact, it tends to be a narrative made up of small, unsatisfying sub stories. I think any one of his films would make a great pilot for a TV series where he could properly explore all of the characters.

    Darjeeling was his first film which felt like ‘Anderson doing Anderson’. Owen Wilson has become so boring now.

  8. That’s interesting. I really admire his writing, in which all of the drama is completely internal and generated by the main characters (however many of them there are). It’s more like watching really elaborate plays than movies. And the subjects are things I don’t see discussed much in film. Darjeeling is all about interruption, and what you do when plans get completely blown apart – and the story itself reflects that when they get thrown off the train, never to get back on. When they find their mother and she abandons them again. And you find that the reason these brothers are so far apart from each other is that they didn’t make it to their father’s funeral. It’s when they’re allowed to mourn the death of the Indian kid that they’re finally given the model for how to work through this stuff. I think his other movies show just as much rigour. I keep coming back to Zissou which is a more open-ended discussion on the different aspects of father/son-hood. Tennenbaums is about secrets. (Rushmore is basically my own life until I was nineteen.)

    Where do you stand on the Coens? Do you think they’re back yet? I think A Serious Man was a strong offering. Although I watched a bit of Raising Arizona last night, and man, that’s a movie that fires on all cylinders.

  9. Ace post, Jon. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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