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Sunday, February 15, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 10 - Clerks (1994)

Clerks (1994; Miramax)
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith

In the early months of 1994, a young independent filmmaker named Kevin Smith would release Clerks, a massively influential black and white Generation-X film centering on the employees of neighboring convenience and video stores.  The worn-down and entirely passive Dante struggles with his boss, his personal life, his distrust of just about everyone and a slew of bizarre and unstable customers.  Jay, on the other hand, is cynical, bitter and entirely disinterested in just about everything, especially his customers.

Clerks is a portrait of the early 90’s.  It captures the cynicism, the uncertainty and the narcissism of the young working class while reflecting a period in time where the music was great, the attitudes were bad and the film industry essentially abandoned the idea of a good comedy.  Keep in mind that, just months after the release of this excellent low-budget movie, Hollywood would release a $40-million disaster called North.  This film is one of my all-time most hated movies and it tanked; I mean, it bombed bad.  Clerks, with around a $350k budget, grossed just over $3 million (while never getting a wide release; only being shown on just over 50 screens) but not only was it better, but most people forgot about North before its home video release (everyone except me it seems) while Clerks spawned a massive cult following, an excellent animated series and a list of other films from the writing talent of Kevin Smith including the excellent Chasing Amy and the lesser (but still hilarious) Mallrats.  

Pinning down an overall plot for Clerks is hard.  The film is told in vignettes separated by title cards with simple titles reflecting the tone or theme of the preceding scene.  While the overarching but simple story of the day in the life of an employee forced to work on his day off plays out, there are a lot of subplots and character moments that range from the slightly eccentric to the absurdly mad.  Outside the Quick Stop are two more working men, dealers Jay and Silent Bob, creations of Smith who would become omnipresent supporting characters in almost all of his films.  Bob stands coolly while Jay dances hits on female pedestrians, and acts boorish to the point of being rather likable.  

There is not one scene in Clerks that isn’t funny.  What’s better is Clerks is not tied down by many of the tropes that so often handicap the comedy genre…  Smith was saving a lot of those for Clerks II.

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