Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dante's Inferno


Major movie studios often seem to be labouring under the impression that a big budget equates to a quality film, but money does not always buy success and thankfully the opposite is sometimes true. One of the funniest American movies of the 90s, Clerks, is the proof that you can produce a great film with the most meagre of resources. Director Kevin Smith somehow funded the unbelievably low budget of $27,000 by selling his comic books collection, maxing out his credit cards and using part of the savings his parents had set aside for his college education.

Shot in grainy black and white, the resulting film is resolutely low budget, featuring shaky camera work, a few sound glitches and a cast of amateurish (first time) actors. Although the production is as raw as its language, making the movie on a shoestring only adds to the film’s desperate charm, as it spins its tale of twentysomething ennui in suburban New Jersey. Indeed, the movie was quickly picked up by infamous Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, who overlooked the perceived handicap of the dodgy cinematic quality, because he recognised the vitality and humour in its dazzling script and uncompromising dialogue. Though Clerks is awfully rough around the edges, it is not difficult to see why the film has become a cult classic in the years since its release in 1994.

"Over the counter culture"

Clerks is an outrageous, foul-mouthed comedy about Dante and Randal, two potty-mouthed cashiers set in a New Jersey convenience store. While Quentin Tarantino has a famous background as a video store clerk who found his muse by watching all the videos there, Kevin Smith went one better by setting his directorial debut in the convenience store where he actually worked with the owner letting him shoot scenes after the shutters came down in the evening. As Smith has said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just had to get it made any way I could”. There is some irony in the fact that Smith strived so hard to make a film about slackers with absolutely no motivation. It is one thing to dream about making a movie of your life experiences, but quite another to follow that up with the perseverance (and talent) displayed by Smith.

The story is thin, basically a contrivance that allowed Smith to make use of his place of work as a setting, but it also allows him to showcase his dry wit and wonderful sense of the absurd. Although Smith himself under-played his efforts, “I’m not a very original or creative person. I just crib from my life”, Clerks did have something all of its own – a looseness and informality, epitomised by Smith’s profanely funny dialogue and primitive technique. It may well have been the world’s first warm-hearted bad taste comedy.

"Why's my company called View Askew?"

By Smith’s own admission, there’s hardly any plot, only a loose framework for a series of bizarre scenes, most of which just feature a couple of guys sitting around talking. Convenience store clerk Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and his best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) don’t do anything terribly interesting, but that’s actually the point, as their lives are going nowhere – and they know it. All they are good at is putting the world to rights, while wasting their own potential, though it has to be said that their counter-culture diatribes are in turn screamingly funny and wincingly accurate – albeit not for those of a sensitive nature. Rather than do anything to escape their predicament on the wrong side of the till, these slackers prefer to chat about any subject that will keep them from dying of boredom, including the sexual escapades of Dante’s girlfriends, the merits of hermaphrodite porn, the infinite stupidity of their customers and the moral dilemmas inherent in the Star Wars trilogy.

"Empire" had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings. All "Jedi" had was a bunch of Muppets.

These endless, rambling conversations amuse and offend in equal measure, but the palpable charm of the protagonists ultimately proves impossible to resist.

"36 ... no, 37"

Dante is an affable college dropout in his early twenties, working at the Quick Stop convenience store, his own inner circle of (job) hell. An under-achieving clever man, he wastes his time fretting about life, but he’s a friendly, accommodating guy, so he agrees to help his boss by filling in on his day off, only to set himself up for frequent customer abuse and relationship issues. He is shocked to discover his girlfriend’s taste (sorry) for fellatio after she admits that she has sucked “something like … 36” dicks, before correcting herself to 37, including Dante. That’s a hell of a way to end a relationship, "Hey, Veronica, try not to suck any dick on the way through the parking lot!" If you think that’s bad, spare a thought for his ex-girlfriend Caitlin, who has sex with a corpse in a darkened bathroom, mistakenly believing him to be Dante. The man had died earlier from a heart attack induced by an untimely masturbation session, if you’re wondering. Dante neatly summarises his day from hell, purgatory at the very least:

Dante: I'm stuck in this pit, working for less than slave wages. Working on my day off, the goddamn steel shutters are closed, I deal with every backward ass fuck on the planet. I smell like shoe polish. My ex-girlfriend is catatonic after fucking a dead guy. And my present girlfriend has sucked 36 dicks.

Randal: 37.

His travails are all the more bitter, because, as he keeps complaining, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

"Let me explain"

While Dante attempts to get through his unrewarding non-career with as much patience, politeness and dignity as he can muster, his friend Randal is openly abusive to his customers. Randal ostensibly works at the neighbouring video store, but he spends almost the entire day at the Quick Stop. He does whatever he feels like, even closing the video store where he works, so that he can rent movies from a better shop. Cynical and caustic, he’s the opposite of Dante, insulting and offending any potential renter, though he does have his own dark, nihilistic integrity and is protective of his pal, "In light of this lurid tale, I don't even see how you can romanticise your relationship with Caitlin. She broke your heart and inadvertently drove men to deviant lifestyles".

The two characters bicker non-stop, working off each other brilliantly, especially when dealing with the steady stream of mindless oddballs that dare to cross the threshold. Randal declares that “this job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers”. Given that he has clients who ask questions like, “Do you have that one with that guy who was in that movie last year?”, his attitude is a bit more understandable. Anybody who has ever worked in a shop, which is almost everybody, will surely sympathise. However, the film does confirm the suspicions some older folk have about the young punks serving them – they really don’t like you. Even an innocuous customer is vulnerable to Randal’s biting sarcasm:

Customer: Cute cat. What's its name?

Randal: Annoying customer.

"I hate guys. I LOVE WOMEN!"

Outside the store, Jay and Silent Bob take up residence every morning. These bored, aimless losers form a "Geek" chorus that comically echoes the clerks’ plight. Jay (Jason Mewes) is a skinny drug dealer, who cannot stand still or be quiet for a moment, but spends his time spewing out a never-ending torrent of profanities. His partner in crime, Silent Bob, is almost the exact opposite: he hardly moves or speaks, maintaining the epitome of (fat) cool. This near-mute character is played by Kevin Smith himself, despite his renowned loquaciousness in real life, though he is allowed a couple of lines of wisdom, “You know, there’s a million fine-looking women in the world, dude. But they don’t all bring you lasagna at work. Most of ‘em just cheat on you”.

Chock-full of quotable dialogue, Clerks is an extremely funny film but it is very, very rude. Although it was released in the same year as Four Weddings and a Funeral, the humour is very different and this film is not for the easily offended. The comedy runs the whole spectrum from off-colour to truly tasteless, but its willingness to flaunt just about every cinematic taboo is one of the reasons why it’s such an unqualified success.

"Food fight!"

If there’s one moment which captures the outrageous humour of Clerks, it would be just after Dante and Randal have finished a highly detailed discussion of live sex shows, obviously offending a nearby customer. While Dante is apologetic, Randal responds by shoving a porno mag in the customer’s face, “Well, if you think that’s offensive, check this out!” Not far behind is the scene when Randal telephones the distributor to order around twenty porn videos with the most graphic titles, while a mother and young daughter stand nearby patiently waiting for their copy of “Happy Scrappy Hero Pup”. Clearly, this store has little in common with the gentle humour of Are You Being Served?, but what Clerks lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in laughs. It’s funny throughout and even clever in parts:

Veronica: You’re making a broad generalisation.

Dante: No, I’m making a generalisation about broads.

Crammed with witty social observations, movie references and spot-on asides, the brilliant dialogue is reminiscent of Tarantino, though Smith has a more natural feel for comedy. Dante and Randal can be charged with having strong opinions about things of no consequence, but these crude Jersey boys cannot be accused of a limited vocabulary or offering no insights among the insults. As Randal says to Dante, “That seems to be the leitmotif of your life, ever backing down”. On occasions, obscenity will even make way for some homespun philosophy:

Dante Hicks: You hate people!

Randal Graves: But I love gatherings. Isn't it ironic?

There’s also a warmth beneath all the profanity. Under his dour, hard-edged layer, Dante is basically a gentleman and an old-fashioned romantic. Even the nasty Randal is obviously devoted to his friend Dante, warning his ex-girlfriend, “Oh, hey Caitlin, break his heart again this time, and I'll kill ya. Nothing personal”.

"Find some balls!"

Cheap as chips, Clerks is the ultimate cinematic tribute to slackers and remains popular with disenfranchised youngsters (and shop workers) everywhere. Kevin Smith described it as a “vulgar, thinking man’s film”, but said that he did not intend it to make any cogent observations about society. Nevertheless, it’s clear that a theme about the world-weariness of today’s youth slipped in anyway. Even though a lot gets packed into one day, you still get the feeling that nothing is really going to change with these guys and they don’t have a clue what’s “in store” for them. On one level, it’s a hilarious comedy about everything and nothing, but it also looks at that awkward stage of your life when you have to make the best of a poor hand without knowing which cards will be dealt to you next.

Kevin Smith has typically under-played Clerks, “It was just dudes talking about sex and Star Wars”, but it launched him on a prolific film career, though this has been a mixture of the good (Chasing Amy, Mallrats), the bad (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and the ugly (Jersey Girl). Dante and Randal’s laissez-faire approach to life is a reflection of his own lack of ambition; “I’m a dude who likes to set the bar real low. I like to put it on the floor and step over it. I like to have people regard me as the retarded kid who just learned to tie his shoes, That way people will always be pleasantly surprised”. With Clerks, we weren’t just surprised – we were astonished.

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