In one of the bonus documentaries included in the new Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection, Chris Rock inadvertently pinpoints exactly why Smith is such a polarizing filmmaker. "Clerks is one of those movies that makes you write a movie for a couple of days," Rock notes of the director's first film, before going on to explain that after those couple of days, you realize that it's not as easy as it looks.
But if you visit just about any Internet message board or comment thread, you'll find that Smith is a filmmaker that inspires fierce opinions: everyone seems to either love him or hate him. The passion he ignites among his detractors is somewhat befuddling--we're not talking about a Michael Bay or a Brett Ratner, making mindless but ubiquitous tentpole blockbusters or fumbling beloved franchises. This is a guy who makes innocuous, low-budget comedies, basically utilizing a fairly tight crew of collaborators and aiming only to entertain some folks. Why does he inspire such vitriol?
The last, saddest refuge of someone under attack is the childlike response, "They're just jealous," but I think there might be something to that when it comes to Smith. When Clerks was released in fall of 1994, Smith's backstory was as much a part of the marketing blitz as the picture itself--the film school dropout not only wrote the script (about a convenience store clerk who commiserates with his best friend, the video store clerk next door, over the course of a long and eventful day) from his own experiences, but shot the picture in the very stores where he worked, pulling day shifts and shooting during the overnight hours when they were closed. The meager production, with a price tag of around 27 grand, was financed by a combination of maxed-out credit cards, refunded school fees, a chunk of flood insurance, and the sale of part of Smith's prized comic book collection.
But what it lacked in production value and professionalism, it made up for with real wit and intelligent writing. Smith's dialogue (described at the time as "David Mamet meets Howard Stern") was remarkable, a fast-paced mixture of conversational rhythms, pop culture references, high-minded wordplay, and low comedy. Like fellow Miramax kid Quentin Tarantino (whose monster hit Pulp Fiction hit a couple of months previous, with Clerks trailers attached to its prints), Smith wrote in a distinctive style that was very much of that moment in movies--post-post modern filmmakers, whose characters and dialogue were as informed by what they learned from TV and movies as what they had experienced in real life.
There's no question that Clerks has some problems. The performances are wildly uneven; Smith and his buddy Jason Mewes, in the first of their many appearances as Jay and Silent Bob, tend to fare the best, and while Brian O'Halloran (as Dante) and Jeff Anderson (as Randall) make for a good team, O'Halloran is frequently whiny and irritating (his "I'm not even supposed to be here today!" incantation is meant to be a funny running gag, but it's merely annoying). Neither of the female leads is particularly good, and some of the bit players are just horrible (though, in all fairness, when you write that many speaking roles in a no-budget feature, you have to take what you can get). Smith's script is, for the most part, structurally sound, but a key climactic event (involving Dante's ex-girlfriend and her unfortunate trip to a darkened bathroom) is jarringly out of tone with the otherwise-realistic story. And the grubby black-and-white camerawork (heavy on long, uninterrupted takes and static, medium-wide framing) is utilitarian, but not terribly inspired.
The picture's lack of aesthetic polish was a criticism that its detractors would continue to level at Smith throughout his career, though (in this case, at least) it was certainly forgivable when taking the next-to-nothing budget into account. But the idea that he wasn't much of a filmmaker, at least from a visual standpoint, was an idea that Smith would attempt to diffuse by embracing it and making it a cornerstone of his self-deflating persona. It didn't quiet his critics, though. It accumulated as part of the anti-Smith narrative: that he wrote a script about how his job sucked (which, they would say, anybody could do, if they just took the time to do it), scraped it together into an ugly, dumb movie, and got lucky. The director quickly seized on the best defense: in his interviews and public appearances, he would own those criticisms and perceived shortcomings, but shrug them off with a laugh. Whether he was a talented filmmaker or not, he'd say, as long as someone kept paying him to make films, he'd make them, and if you didn't like them, there were plenty of people who did. And perhaps one of them would like to buy a Jay and Silent Bob T-shirt?
Both camps--those who had embraced Smith and those who had booed him--got a chance to take their shots with the release of his sophomore effort, the 1995 studio comedy Mallrats. Its six million dollar budget dwarfed that of Clerks, but the film tanked at the box office and with critics. Though it later attained a cult audience on home video (and was certainly better than the bulk of the scathing reviews would have you believe), it was a disappointing follow-up, swinging for goofy slapstick and formula hijinks, retaining Clerks' vulgarity but none of its heart or wit.
The failure of his second film must've been a bitter pill to swallow, but two good things came out of Mallrats. First, he worked with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams, and second, that made him write a film for them. Chasing Amy was a deliberate return to his roots, a talky, low-budget comedy drama that is Smith's best work to date. What sounds like a high-concept sex comedy--straight guy (Affleck) falls in love with a gay girl (Adams), much to the chagrin of his best friend (Lee), shenanigans ensue--is instead an uproariously funny, blisteringly honest, and quietly moving tale of male sexual anxiety and the difficulties of trust in relationships (both between friends and between lovers).
Amy is still no great shakes to look at--the compositions are frequently flat and Smith continues to see the frame as a proscenium arch for theatrical-style staging--but the storytelling and dialogue are so involving, we seldom notice or particularly care. Smith crafts his edgy boy-meets-girl tale with flair, investing Affleck's crush and Adams' cautious response with genuine emotional stakes, and the film gingerly and expertly negotiates the line between light-hearted comedy and full-on drama. The performances help; Affleck has seldom been better, while Lee is every bit his equal. And Adams' work is a revelation (watch the way Affleck knocks the wind out of her the first time he utters the words "finger cuffs") that begs the question: why didn't we see more of her after this? When the film turns to serious matters--in Affleck's rain-soaked confession, in their bitter argument outside of a hockey game, in the stunningly risky scene in which he proposes a resolution to their sexual issues--Smith proves that he's no lucky-schmuck flash-in-the-pan. He's an honest-to-God artist, and in Chasing Amy, he paints his masterpiece.
Smith followed it up with the long-awaited Dogma (a project he'd been promising, in his closing credit crawls, since Clerks); that film, which dealt irreverently with Biblical themes, proved so controversial that distributor Miramax (a subsidiary of Disney) sold it off to Lionsgate. One can hardly blame the filmmaker for wanting to take on lighter subject matter with his next film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It was his first all-out comedy since Mallrats; it would also prove to be his weakest effort since that film.
The problem isn't that J&SBSB lacks humor; indeed, it has isolated moments that are as laugh-out-loud enjoyable as any Smith has committed to celluloid (like Jay and Bob's visit to the set of Good Will Hunting II). But on the heels of Amy and Dogma, it feels like he's slumming. He's at his best when his humor is at the service of a serious topic, whether it's religion, relationships, or working-class ennui (as in the Clerks films). Without a hook to hang his jokes on, Smith ends up wallowing in mindless vulgarity; J&SBSB spends too much of its running time indulging in fart jokes and homoerotic subtext. There is precious little of the rat-tat-tat back-and-forth that made his earlier scripts so memorable.
It's also too reliant on callbacks and crossovers to his previous efforts. Throughout his career, Smith has cultivated himself as a brand, doing numerous Q&A appearances (themselves collected on three DVDs and counting), marketing countless pieces of tie-in merchandise (from shirts to figurines to comic books), and engaging the kind of occasionally questionable hucksterism that makes one wonder if there's anything he won't sell (his most recent book consisted of transcriptions of his weekly podcast with producer Scott Mosier; the one before that was a collection of his blog posts). That's all good and well for servicing the fans, but Strike Back is pitched only at them--it ultimately amounts to a 104-minute inside joke.
What's well worth noting, however, is the strides he takes as a director; under the eye of cinematographer Jamie Anderson, J&SBSB is downright slick, full of polished camerawork and bold compositions. His more recent efforts have attempted to merge that newfound sense of style with a return to character-driven form; while Jersey Girl was indeed a misfire, it was a misfire with heart, and both Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno showed the director playing to his strengths while taking some interesting new risks. What remains to be seen is if he will ever recapture the passion and hunger of the best of his early work.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection assembles the new-to-Blu Clerks and Chasing Amy discs with the previously released, unfortunately bare-bones Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back disc. All three are packaged separately and housed together in a simple cardboard case.
Video presentations are fairly underwhelming. The no-budget, 16mm black and white Clerks doesn't seem like a film that's screaming out for a high-def presentation (a fact Smith owns up to on the disc), and it looks about as good as you'd expect; the primary factor here is heavy, jittery, often distracting grain. Black levels are good and grays are clean, but the 1080p/MPEG-4 transfer can only do so much with the original grainy image. Chasing Amy fares slightly better; it's a stronger image than previously seen on DVD, and through some may complain of occasional DNR, there's still more than enough grain to replicate the low-fi look. Some of the colors are bland, and the flesh tones are a little washed out, but again, those issues would appear to lie with the source materials and not with the VC-1 transfer. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the best-looking disc of the three--the MPEG-2 transfer sports good color temperatures, crisp details, and fine contrast and skin tones, though some of the night scenes are pretty heavy on the grain as well.
Again, it never felt like Clerks' audio fidelity was being shortchanged on standard-def DVD; the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a little thin, though music cues are well-distributed. Dialogue audibility is decent (particularly considering the less-than-ideal recording circumstances), though it is sometimes pushed to a point of distortion. Chasing Amy also gets the DTS-HD MA 5.1 treatment, though that track is pretty flat as well--again, the music gives it some pop, but there's not much separation or surround activity (though there is some effective immersion in the hockey game sequence). J&SBSB offers a 5.1 uncompressed PCM track, and it's a solid mix, with plenty of environmental effects spread throughout the soundstage and much juice for James Venable's brassy, punchy, energetic score.
This collection is clearly being pitched to Smith fans, so I'm going to make a leap and assume that the primary point of interest is what's new to these Blu-rays (and what's left out), without dwelling on extras that have been previously reviewed on these pages. For the so-called "15th Anniversary Edition" of Clerks, for example, Miramax has thankfully ported over all of the copious bonus features from the Clerks X: 10th Anniversary Edition DVD. So you get your first cut, your commentaries, the "Lost Scene," Smith's first short film, the feature-length Snowball Effect documentary, all of it.
To that, one new feature of note has been added. In one of the most uproariously candid introductions in DVD history, Smith calls the Clerks Blu-ray a "vulgar cash grab," but notes that they've "gotta keep wringing pennies out of this little black and white movie." So, for what he calls the "15th Anniversary Give Us Your Money DVD," he says he begged Miramax to let him add something new of value, in order to "take the sting out of having to buy Clerks for the 19th time." (Although, he notes, "do you know how many times I've bought T2?") What he added was "Oh, What a Lovely Tea Party: The Making of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" (3:18 intro, 1:27:17 feature), an intimate, fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Smith's wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, and his friend and fellow filmmaker Malcolm Ingram. It captures Kevin and the gang joking around on-set, supplemented by on-the-fly interviews with cast and crew (Affleck and Rock's interviews are the highlights). It's a tad overlong, and certainly feels homemade (Affleck's interview is noticeably out of focus), but is a nice added treat for fans, even if it is, indeed, on the wrong disc.
Chasing Amy was originally released on laserdisc and DVD by Criterion, and unfortunately, that disc's first-rate, uproarious commentary track is property of that label (as are the intros to the deleted scenes and a few other scattered extras) and therefore doesn't make the leap. However, Buena Vista has done the right by the movie and worked up some excellent new bonus material. First of all, Smith and Mosier provide a new, "SModcast"-style Audio Commentary; they dub it a "technical commentary track," and while it has some interesting technical information, it is also, in the style of their podcast, a pretty free-form ramble (my favorite detour was their way off-topic discussion of the pedophilia episode of Diff'rent Strokes). It's a funny track, though not quite the scream that the Affleck-infused Criterion commentary was.
The treat of the disc, however, is "Tracing Amy: The Chasing Amy Doc" (1:21:15). Produced and directed by Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa (who directed the similarly spiffy making-of docs for Clerks II and Zack and Miri, in addition to Smith's most recent Evening With DVD), it is a well-constructed and compelling look at the making of the film, from their mindset coming out of the failure of Mallrats to the creation of the script (influenced by Mosier's crush on Go Fish star Guin Turner, and Smith's real-life relationship with Joey Lauren Adams) to the casting and budget woes, as well as Smith's intensive rehearsals and Mosier's stressful attempts to keep the film under budget. Most of the key players are interviewed--Smith, Mosier, Adams, Affleck, Lee (on the My Name is Earl set, in full Earl garb), Jason Mewes, cinematographer David Klein, associate producer Bob Hawk, Miramax acquisitions manager Mark Tusk, film critic (and Smith booster) Amy Taubin, and more--and wonderful vintage behind-the-scenes footage supplement the genuinely warm memories of the experience (check out Affleck's sincere and heartfelt closing interview).
"Was It Something I Said?: A Conversation with Kevin & Joey" (18:07) is a well-edited chat between Smith and his former girlfriend and muse. It's interesting and funny, while a little voyeuristic and occasionally awkward. The "10 Years Later Q&A" (27:46) assembles clips from a Q&A following an anniversary screening, with Smith, Mosier, Mewes, Adams, Affleck, Lee, and Dwight "Hooper X" Ewell chiming in. It's enjoyable and insightful, somewhat making up for the loss of the Criterion commentary. The outtakes, deleted scenes, and trailers from that disc round out the special features.
Much venom was rightfully spewed when Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back hit Blu back in 2006 over the bonus features (or lack thereof). The 2002 DVD release was stuffed to the gills with extra goodies--a full 90-plus minutes of deleted scenes, plus outtakes, a gag reel, promo featurettes, music videos... and, by 2006, "Oh What A Lovely Tea Party" was presumably complete (it wasn't done in time for the original DVD). But the Blu-ray dumped all of that, leaving only the Audio Commentary track and something called "Movie Showcase," which appears to just be a couple of randomly selected scenes, plucked out of the body of the film. Buena Vista's refusal to go back and do the right thing for this set is a real disappointment.
So the quality of the content isn't the issue on The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection; it's got two great films and one that's not bad (if far from perfect). Anyone who hasn't sprung for these titles previously will want to grab them here. The question for Smith's fans, who have opened their wallets for these films more than once before, is: to buy or not to buy? For the entire set, the answer is a thumbs-down. The Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back disc is a dud due to the dearth of special features; Clerks doesn't benefit much from the HD upgrade, and while the "Oh, What A Lovely Tea Party" documentary is pretty good, it alone is not worth the hefty price tag. Chasing Amy is really the only disc with enough new bonus material to warrant the re-up (and even then, you'll still want to hang on to your Criterion DVD); however, it's available on its own, and that might be the best possible buy for View Askew aficionados.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.