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.