“MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
— Dante Alighieri, Inferno, I. 1-3
“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.”
— Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
“All they’re doing is cursing; that’s not dialogue!”
— Kevin Smith, talking about Clerks
Before working at the Quick Stop and RST Video, the real-life New Jersey convenience store and video rental store featured in Clerks, Kevin Smith had a dozen different minimum wage jobs, ranging from pizza maker to gravedigger. For Smith, the convenience store, as much as it was a purgatory, served as a respite from the other drudgery. The jobs were easy even if they were go-nowhere. At the convenience store he could do his best to ignore customers and make his own fun. At the video store he could watch movies all day and rent for free. And, his friends could (and often did) visit him. He later recalled “Our time there was not really spent working as much as it was spent trying not to work,” a sentiment anyone who’s stood behind a counter for barely any pay can relate to.
In 1991, Smith and his film fanatic friend from the video store closed the Quick Stop at 10:30 pm and drove the hour up to the Angelika Film Center in New York City (a journey that had become a ritual) to see the midnight screening of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Smith found himself inspired; the movie was great, it was about people and things familiar to him, and it had been made with virtually no money. Smith was convinced he could do the same thing. Linklater had made a film about a lost generation living in Austin, Texas and Smith would make one about Leonardo, New Jersey. Following the first rule of writing, he wrote about what he knew: feeling stranded at a dead-end job with no apparent prospects for a better future and salvaging any sense of dignity along the way. He wrote about the places he knew, the people he knew, the things he had conversations about, and he wrote about dealing with impossible customers. And, he did so with the total freedom (and financial limitations) of independent filmmaking.
Clerks follows a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), his co-worker and friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), and their various exploits working, begrudgingly, as clerks at the Quick Stop and RST Video respectively. Dante has been called in on his day off (“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”) and feels slighted. The sudden engagement of a former girlfriend to an Asian design major and the lackadaisical indifference of his best friend only augment his exasperation. The film weaves in and entertains several plot lines but mostly while working up toward a punchline. There is a central character development which is substantially edifying, but the movie’s strength rests in the rebel attitude and not infrequent philosophical musings of Randal, who, dispensing juvenile wisdom, becomes an unlikely guide to Dante and the embodiment of the anarchic, uncouth attitudes of the film largely. (If Randal embodies the film, Jay & Silent Bob [Jason Mewes & Kevin Smith] are its mascots, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention them.)
Randal, while despicable, is no less likable, and the intensity of his lack of ambition or self-regard reach a point of zen. Dante’s counterpointed uptightness and self-centered pitying are played for laughs, but also with a sense of tragedy. Their friendship and its various complications hold the film together and their differing views (and resulting debates) on work and duty give the film its most existential qualities. But the duo’s antics, witty jabs, irreverent takes, and bad behaviors animate the film, and Smith’s regionally specific and personal touches provide a realism (sometimes surrealism) unavailable in more Hollywood imitations.
The early ’90s here are starkly portrayed as grey, everything the same texture of the concrete islands of the commercial strips of suburban America. Between Smith’s film and Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead, which began airing on MTV a year prior, there is a cultural barometer foretelling the dissatisfactions now so surely familiar to millennials. If we’re to find some refuge from the daily indignities of menial customer service and the perpetual malaise of capitalist society (did I mention this is a dark comedy?), we might adopt attitudes rejected by polite society and we might be helped along by our friends. Clerks is bleak from one side (Dante), but perversely hopeful from another (Randal).
One scene encapsulates the entire problem at the core of Clerks. Randal, a continuing source of irritation for Dante, asks to borrow Dante’s car. Dante refuses and begins lecturing Randal on their responsibilities as employees and the duties of title. Meanwhile, a customer reads aloud to them from a tabloid magazine. Randal rejects Dante’s “rationale” and, in demonstration, spits water in the face of the tabloid-reading customer. The customer tries to jump the counter, furiously cursing and threatening Randal who sits stoically as Dante fends the gentleman off, eventually paying him off. “Title does not dictate behavior,” says Randal.”If title dictated my behavior as a clerk serving the public, I wouldn’t be allowed to spit water at that guy, but I did. So my point is people dictate their own behavior.”
For whatever reason, Dante finds himself unable to dictate his own behavior, unable to move past a former relationship, unable to go back to school, unable to get out of his dead-end job. Randal indulges in his freedom, no doubt to the bane of others, but to the nutriment of us all, to the re-imagination of the work space, or the larger imagination of political possibilities, even if those possibilities are grotesque or ultimately unfavorable. The imagination alone inspires and shows us another way, a chance out from the drudgery through sheer force of will and a little irreverence.
In order to finance Clerks, Smith, a dedicated comic book nerd, sold his entire collection of books. He maxed out about eight credit cards, borrowed $3,000 from his parents, and used money from insurance collected when his car was destroyed in a flood. The film was made for approximately $27,000, a shoe-string budget. Comprised mostly of non-actors (or first-time screen actors), shot in black and white to save on film stock and complicated lighting, and utilizing locations immediately available to the filmmaker, the production of Clerks is a classic example of making a movie for no money, of doing it yourself. It’s also the beginning of maybe the last round of a certain kind of American independent film product, one unburdened by international pre-sales, “indie” studio interference, and the emerging, new-spirited Sundance-industrial-complex. This is a messier, less audience-friendly, and, as a result, more satisfying vision of the American indie. And, one that inspires, even 23 years later.
Clerks will screen on August 25th at IU Cinema as part of the single-run Essential B&W Indies from the ’90s series, which also includes must-see classics like Jim Jarmusch’s Johnny Depp vehicle Dead Man and the weirdo western/sci-fi/adventure/musical The American Astronaut.
If you’re looking for a more contemporary, but no less cynical, take of working in the service industry, check out the August 31st screening of The Off Hours, starring the stellar Amy Seimetz as a truck-stop waitress. Writer/director Megan Griffiths is scheduled to be present at the screening as a part of her visit for the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series.
For an older, more experimental, and slightly more ornate (but still B&W!) take on people stuck and going nowhere, don’t miss the one-of-a-kind, Alain Resnais-directed, Alain Robbe-Grillet-penned puzzle of a film Last Year at Marienbad, which is screening on December 4th as part of the continuing President’s Choice series.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.