Your Mother’s A Tracer (When We Were Young, Episode 18)

“It was a mistake. I didn’t hate her. I wasn’t disgusted with her. I was afraid. At that moment, I felt small, like… like I’d lacked experience, like I’d never be on her level, like I’d never be enough for her or something like that, you know what I’m saying? But, what I did not get, she didn’t care. She wasn’t looking for that guy anymore. She was… she was looking for me, for the Bob. Butby the time I figure this all out, it was too late, man. She moved on, and all I had to show for it was some foolish pride, which then gave way to regret. She was the girl, I know that now. But I pushed her away. So, I’ve spent every day since then chasing Amy… so to speak.”

Catch the latest When We Were Young episode on Kevin Smith here and subscribe here.

After a careful examination of the evidence, I’ve come to a conclusion:

Kevin Smith is not even supposed to be here today.

Back in 1990s, the New Jersey-born amateur auteur made Clerks, which — along with a handful of other titles — was a game-changer for independent cinema, and perhaps for comedy itself. Clerks was not the first film to put a couple of not-so-bright slacker dudes front and center. By this point, we’d already had two servings each of Bill And Ted and Wayne’s World, and other nerd-glorifying titles.

But Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth were the butt of the joke in their comedies, whereas Kevin Smith positioned his protagonists as laid-back heroes, of a sort. Smith isn’t afraid to call his characters out on their shit — in fact, that’s what the majority of the running time in his films consists of. And since most of Smith’s central characters are proxies for himself, he’s really just doing a lot of self-therapy and bringing us along for the ride.

This was fine — novel, even — in the 1990s, but pop culture grew up in the interim. Kevin Smith mostly didn’t. More than 20 years after the release of his auspicious debut, and exactly 20 years after the release of his most widely-praised movie, Smith is still more or less doing what he always did, with diminishing returns.

To be fair, Smith has stepped off his beaten path a time or two — witness Red State and Tusk (the latter of which I haven’t seen… but I think I get the gist). But to the degree that these represent a maturing of Smith’s stylings, they also still feel mired in juvenile obsessions and “see what I did there?” fan service, at least in concept.

In a perfect world, Kevin Smith’s early efforts might be quaint, charming signs of a greater talent to come. They seemed that way at the time. Instead, the “View Askewniverse” films like Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma are still pretty much the sum total of what Smith has had to offer over a nearly 25-year career. More often than not, his subsequent films have been riffs on the same ideas, often featuring some of the same characters, if not direct sequels.

I know Smith himself is involved in plenty non-cinematic efforts — podcasts, comic books — and I imagine they please a number of his fans. I don’t want to make any assumptions about Kevin Smith the person, nor condemn his overall value to pop culture. Here, I am looking only at his films — the three overwhelmingly considered to be his best films, at least historically — and making a personal judgment about how they hold up for me:

They don’t.

(Mostly.)

CLERKS

  • Release Date: October 19, 1994
  • Budget: $27,575 + $230,000 (post-production)
  • Domestic Total Gross: $3.2 million
  • Metacritic: 70

I’ll admit, this is a bad moment in history for me to be looking at a body of films that rather unimaginatively examine the psyche of the straight white male. A straight white male viewpoint is as valid and worthwhile as any other, of course. I know many straight white males. (Don’t we all?)

But the straight white male majority has asserted a rather cartoonish stronghold over our nation in 2017, somehow, and if there’s one thing we don’t need more of in our culture right now, it’s the “heterosexual Caucasian with a penis” perspective.

That isn’t Kevin Smith’s fault, of course. He made Clerks and Chasing Amy as a reaction to the cinematic heroes that dominated the big screen in the 80s and early 90s — Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. There was still a lot of celebration of machismo in mainstream culture at the time, to the extent that these bromances sometimes bordered on homoerotic (something Smith really likes pointing out in his films). But in the years since, we’ve seen the rise of Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow, amongst so many others. The lazy, not-so-bright, unremarkable white dude who somehow lands a supermodel by the end of the movie… through no action of his own, usually, but because an unremarkable white dude also wrote the screenplay.

In Clerks, we’re meant to sympathize with Dante and Randal, even if we aren’t supposed to condone everything that comes out of their mouths. Smith considers other points of view, sort of, but ultimately he’s siding with the titular clerks, because they’re him. Dante’s ex is so traumatized by an appalling sexual experience she goes catatonic, but she’s just the butt of a joke here. He wants to get back with her until that experience, at which point he decides to go back to the other woman who is too good for him in this story. Dante (and Smith’s) incredulity  that his ex might be better off with a smart, sensitive, successful Asian guy is problematic, too. In Smith’s View Askewniverse, average-looking guys with no money and dim prospects for the future deserve hot women because… umm… why?

Yes, Smith points this out in hid humor. He knows these guys aren’t worthy of these woman, but in the end he shrugs and gives them what they want anyway. It’s not that plenty of other filmmakers haven’t done this (and worse, like the date rape endorsement in Sixteen Candles). It’s just that Smith’s entire oeuvre rests upon this kind of entitlement. There was probably plenty of room to have fun with the “geek gets the girl” archetype back in the 90s, but in 2017, it’s grown tiresome to see a beautiful woman’s affection used as a reward… especially when the protagonist has done nothing to earn it.

As a debut feature and a time capsule, Clerks is absolutely fine. It’s still pretty amusing, for all its shagginess. Too many Kevin Smith wannabes have made films that look and sound like this in the interim, and technology has advanced enough that most amateur efforts these days are a lot more polished than Clerks ever was. Today, Clerks feels like a B+ effort from a sophomore in film school, and it’s difficult to think back to 1994, when so few were doing this sort of thing, and Smith would get an automatic “A” for being the only guy who showed up.

That’s a pretty good way to start a career, as long as the next effort has a little more polish…

CHASING AMY

  • Release Date: April 4, 1997
  • Budget: $250,000
  • Domestic Total Gross: $12 million
  • Metacritic: 71

“A little movie with big truths, a work of such fierce intelligence and emotional honesty that it blows away the competition when it comes to contemporary romantic comedy.” 

— Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas (perfect score)

“Whatever Miramax was hoping for when it decided to bankroll films by Kevin Smith, it surely wasn’t Chasing Amy, the awful third installment of his ‘two guys hanging out’ trilogy, begun with the over-praised Clerks, and followed by the ludicrously bad Mallrats. The words ‘written and directed by Kevin Smith’ are now an instruction to run very fast out of the theater. Do not pay money to see this movie. Do not rent it when it comes out on video.”

Washington Post, Eric Brace  (worst possible score)

I tried to watch Mallrats. It didn’t work out. That might be for the better, since I’d already watched four Kevin Smith films (and two episode of the Clerks animated series) in preparation for the podcast, and a little View Askewniverse goes a long way.

Clerks still has its charms, in large part because Smith’s stories align better with shoddy camerawork and low production value than they do with a more ambitious budget. When the scope of Smith’s stories gets bigger, his writing typically stays at the same small-scale level, and it just feels… off. And that’s apparent in Chasing Amy, which keeps the low-key vibe of Clerks but attempts a more emotionally ambitious storyline.

The 90s were an unfortunate moment when it felt like gay characters needed to be acknowledged in cinema, but every straight character had to steadfastly assert that he was not gay whenever the topic arose. Smith was far from the only straight white guy to use this to comedic effect, but I’m not sure anyone else dipped into to that well more often over the years. It’s forgivable in Clerks, but grows more problematic through Chasing Amy and Clerks II, the climactic set piece of which involves a leather-clad gay man having sex with his donkey.

In isolation, Smith’s gay jokes are harmless enough. In aggregate, it starts to feel like the guy has some issues he needs to work through privately before he unleashes them on us. This brand of comedy stopped being funny before Smith stopped abusing it, and what’s left is pretty aggressively obtuse by today’s standards.

Alyssa, played by Joey Lauren Adams, is an intriguing character. Smith obviously spent some time considering her point of view, and the way he renders her emotional dilemma is interesting. I’m on board for stories about fluid sexuality, whether those characters identify as gay or straight (or don’t identify either way). The problem with Chasing Amy is not that Alyssa, who identifies as lesbian, falls in love with a man — it’s that she falls in love with Kevin Smith.

Ben Affleck plays Holden, the Kevin Smith proxy we get in almost every one of his films. (In addition to the actual Kevin Smith, who plays Silent Bob in so many of them.) Like Dante from Clerks, Holden is a pretty simple dude with a love of comic books who’s most significant relationship in life is with his also-simple, also-white, also-comic-book-loving best friend, who is exactly like the protagonist except less sensitive and more of an outspoken jerk. But in Clerks, Randal was funny and good-natured underneath it all. Jason Lee’s Banky is an atrocious monster.

Part of this is 1997. Part of this is Jason Lee’s performance. Part of this is Kevin Smith. Banky was meant to be homophobic and misogynistic in 1997, but ultimately likable. The empathy hasn’t aged well, however. Using words like “bitch,” “dyke,” and “faggot” frequently and derisively, Banky’s behavior is pretty inexcusable, even if we’re meant to believe that this is due to his repressed homosexuality. The film itself does very little to convince us that this is the source of Banky’s anger — Smith had no problem imagining a rich sexual history for Alyssa, but stops short of considering what Banky’s sexuality really feels like. It’s not that we come away from Chasing Amy thinking Kevin Smith hates gay people — far from it. It’s nice that he tried, but his reach exceeded his grasp in Chasing Amy. He explores the straight male fantasy of girl-on-girl action, with a fleeting nod to male homosexuality.

Once again, the Kevin Smith proxy lands the woman who is hotter, smarter, and more appealing in just about every way. But this time, she sacrifices her entire sexual orientation to be with him! Why? What is it about Holden that drags a gay woman back into the closet? I can imagine a decent version of Chasing Amy about the Alyssa character falling in love with an entirely different man — one who doesn’t remind us of Kevin Smith. But the way it plays out here is so obviously a wish fulfillment fantasy on Smith’s part that it defies plausibility.

I admire Smith’s aim to include gays and lesbians in his Askewniverse. Hooper is a refreshing, worthy addition to this otherwise familiar cast of characters. In 1997, it was hard to find stories that represented these people well. But now that we see lesbians and gay men telling their own stories more often, Smith’s attempt to squeeze them into his rather limited worldview feels clumsy. Ultimately, both Alyssa and Banky’s sexualities are primarily used as obstacles for the Smith-like protagonist to reckon with, and he ends up alone because… that’s too much work for him? Smith’s discomfort with female sexuality is raised again, more seriously and less comedically than in Clerks. He gives Alyssa a fair shake, but did we need another story about a guy who can’t deal with the fact that the girl he likes wasn’t a pure and innocent virgin before they met.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the one scene I truly liked is the one that Holden doesn’t figure in — Alyssa, having to tell her (gay) friends that the new love of her life is a man. Smith works best when he gets out of his own way — imagine if the whole film had been proxy-free?

DOGMA

  • Release Date: November 12, 1999
  • Budget: $10 million
  • Domestic Total Gross: $30.7 million
  • Metacritic: 62

Dogma stands apart from a lot of Smith’s movies for having a real plot, even though the juvenile sense of humor remains intact. It also features a more talented and diverse set of actors than any View Askewniverse movie before (or since?). Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek, Chris Rock, and Linda Fiorentino bring a little something different to the sameness of Smith’s previous movies. (It’s amazing what you can do when you cast real actors, isn’t it?)

The execution is still pretty shaggy — the film makes a $10 million budget look pretty cheap, and the dialogue is rambling and exposition-heavy. In Dogma, Smith wrestles with his Catholic upbringing the same way he wrestles with sexual insecurity in Clerks and Chasing Amy, but the former lends a little more mileage to a feature screenplay.

In my eyes, Dogma is still Smith’s best effort at doing something “different.” He assembled the best cast he’s ever worked with, wrote a story with actual stakes, and managed to represent a spectrum of competent, empowered women who weren’t first and foremost romantic/sex objects pretty well in the process (for what I’d venture to say was the first and only time). It’s telling that Jason Lee’s apocalypse-craving demon Azrael seems somehow less evil than his Banky character in Chasing Amy, and Matt Damon easily bests Ben Affleck in the Matt-and-Ben scenes, as you might expect by pitting Talented Mr. Ripley-era Matt against Forces Of Nature-era Ben. Overall, the film is a funny, entertaining ride with just enough gravitas to sustain Smith’s cruder comedic beats. (I could do without the shit monster, though.)

Following Dogma, Smith fell down the Jay-and-Silent-Bob rabbit hole again by giving them their own movie, in addition to a Clerks sequel and a Clerks animated series. He also made hit-or-miss titles like Jersey Girl, Cop Out, and Zack And Miri Make A Porno. (Cop Out, the first movie he didn’t write, sadly remains his biggest box office hit.) It was around this time that Smith probably became more notable for his podcasts, comic books, books, and other endeavors than his filmmaking output. Films like Red State and Tusk have been interesting departures from the View Askewniverse, but box office success has eluded him, even when filmmakers who capitalized on his brand of slacker comedy went on to make blockbuster hits. He was also long-rumored to be involved in a Superman movie, long before the current wave of superheroes continually smashed box office records.

Smith’s films are reminiscent of a halcyon time before comic books dominated the pop culture landscape. It’s hard to remember an era when being a “nerd” was actually nerdy. Keeping this in mind, it’s a little easier why Dante, Holden, Jay, Silent Bob, and the rest of these guys are so glorified in Smith’s films. At the time, they weren’t the dominant force in pop culture.

But now they are. Reality TV became popular in the years after Smith’s debut, and now we’re inundated with stories about unambitious, unremarkable people doing poorly in their humdrum jobs. Many of the biggest comedians of the 2000s are also dead ringers for Clerks‘ Dante — like Seth Rogen, and just about every character he’s played. Of course, we now also have web series, many with the rambling dialogue, low production value, and juvenile humor Sundance deemed cinema-worthy in the 90s. Smith was bold in 1994, showing that just about anyone can make a movie about anything. (His movies are, in a way, a less skillful version of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.”) Now, we live in a world where everyone is filming and showing off their very average lives via social media.

In the 90s, Smith was a chill white dude making movies for other chill white dudes, and it worked — he grew a devoted fan base, and for a brief moment, seemed poised to take Hollywood by storm. He was the It Slacker. But then he kind of slacked on that. The various sins of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma would be easy to shrug off if Smith had gone on to bigger and better things afterward. Unfortunately, so many of his movies seem tethered to Smith’s own limited world view — which, contrary to his branded “View Askewniverse,” is basically the very opposite of askew at this point. The titles of his books, like My Boring Ass Life, could easily be reality TV series. Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good could be the autobiography of our current president. It’s not Smith’s fault that what once was niche is now so mainstream… or is it?

Smith makes movies about guys like him, hanging out with the same handful of characters, many of whom are his real-life friends. That’s fun for him, and occasionally the audience. But I, for one, have lost interest in Smith’s shtick, at least until pony learns a new trick. I don’t know if any filmmaker’s entire body of work has ever aged so poorly in such a short time.

I still like Dogma, though!

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