It's a strange time to be a Kevin Smith fan.
There was a period - not too long ago - when Smith was revered and touted as a major player in American cinema. Despite its aesthetic limitations, Clerks was a film that bristled with life and energy, capturing the voice of a generation that had been largely ill-defined. Later, after the failure of the studio-ordained Mallrats, Smith produced what many consider to be his masterpiece in 1997's Chasing Amy. Like Clerks, Amy was raw, hilarious and defiantly profound and it was this kind of truthful, heart-on-the-sleeve storytelling that began to endear Smith to so many of his fans. Here was a filmmaker who was unafraid to draw from his personal life to create art for his audience.
Even as subsequent films began to dwindle in quality, Smith recognized the value in having a vis-à-vis relationship with his viewers. This became especially apparent with the founding of the View Askew message board, where he posted regularly and engaged in discourse with his fanbase, as well as in the production of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, an apparent love-letter/in-joke designed to play to the director's most loyal devotees. Still, nothing informed Smith's future quite as much as his decision to begin a string of live Q&A sessions. These appearances - sometimes lasting three or four hours in length - revealed Smith as an engaging and delightfully candid speaker. Where most writers notorious for their dialogue reveal themselves to be awkward and tongue-tied in person, Smith seems endowed with a razor-sharp wit and an uncanny ability to make people laugh. So, when the filmmaker announced that he would begin a weekly podcast in early 2007, it seemed like a natural move. The show, dubbed SModcast, would unite Smith and his longtime producer and pal Scott Mosier for an hour or two each week. Here, they would riff on life, the biz, pop-culture and everything else in a predictably obscene and hilarious fashion.
Before long, more podcasts followed, featuring familiar Smith cohorts like Jason Mewes, Malcolm Ingram, Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan. Even as Smith continued directing films, there was a sense that he was building a personal empire on the side. Sure enough, after the commercial failure of Zack and Miri Make a Porno and the critical misfire that was Cop-Out, Smith shocked the film community by announcing that he would be retiring after two more films and focusing his time solely on podcasting. Here, the director wouldn't need to rely on anyone but himself (and his rock-solid fanbase) to carve out a living. In a move that would be unfairly maligned as "career suicide" by many of his detractors, Smith used the Sundance premiere of his horror film Red State as a platform to lash out at the studio system. Poised before a room of Hollywood dignitaries, he condemned their lack of originality and announced that he would be distributing the movie himself. The plan was simple. Smith would accompany his film on a nationwide road tour, playing it and then speaking to the crowds in a string of theatres across the country. He would use the money accumulated at these limited showings to strike enough prints of Red State to distribute the film nationwide later that year. The only catch? Tickets would be pricey, running $65-80 in some cases. Still, the View Askew faithful would come out in droves and the film made back its $4 million budget, if not quite enough to roll it out into a nationwide release. The film was released via VOD in September and was accompanied by a limited theatrical run and a home video release last month. The director, for his part, doesn't seem too concerned and he's turned most of his attention to the newly minted SModcast Internet Radio (or S.I.R), a 24/7 online radio station dedicated to providing his fans with an fathomless umbilical cord to the man. Listeners also have the option to join up for $Mod¢ost, a paid version of the service that offers them ad-free broadcasting in "CD-quality bit-rate."
I mention all of this because it's a large part of what drives me nuts about this release (and because there isn't very much to write about this release itself.) For those not in the know, SModimations are essentially short segments of SModcast, usually 3-5 minutes long, that have been brought to life by Canadian animator Steve Stark. This first season, containing 11 episodes and running just shy of 60 minutes, contains some very funny material, including riffs on Back to the Future, Canadian practical jokes and the rapture. Unfortunately, Stark's animation is pretty rough and feels more like the work of a semi-talented hobbyist than a professional. There's a pervasive cheapness to this product, evident from the seemingly shot-on-video intro by Smith and Mosier to the scant runtime to the realization that, at least until a little while ago, all of these segments were available to watch for free on YouTube. (The SModcasts that the animations have been culled from are all still available.) While the disc is certainly an interesting curio, the thing feels pretty spare. Most artists wouldn't release a product this underwhelming and perfunctory and even the director's most fervent apologists will have a hard time laying down the cash for SModimations. This marks a worrying turning point for Smith, who really seems to be taking his fanbase for granted here.
If the filmmaker wants to turn his back on mass appeal and focus on appeasing his huge following, that's totally understandable. After all, they've been nothing if not loyal. The real problem lies in Smith's willingness to push sub par product to make a quick buck. The director has always maintained that most of his success is derived from an open and honest relationship with his audience and it's hard to argue against this. If he wants to stay successful, though, Smith needs to be more honest with himself.
SModimations hits DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that doesn't necessarily impress, but serves the material well enough. The live-action bumpers with Smith and Mosier are especially rough looking, with a soft, low-fi image that kind of threw this reviewer for a loop. The animations themselves fare a little better with an image that is sharp and colorful, if slightly pixellated.
SModimations' audio doesn't fare quite as well, but it isn't for a lack of effort. Instead, the disc's sound is limited to its source recordings. While Smith and Mosier's discourse is mostly crisp and clean, there are occasional moments of distortion, usually prompted by bursts of manic laughter. Still, this isn't the kind of disc you pop in for audio quality and, for the most part, the sound gets the job done.
Included as extras here are two live, taped performances of Hollywood Babble-On (47min) and Jay and Silent Bob Get Old. (1h8min) Each of these performances was filmed before a live audience and Smith's boundless energy and gift for gab is on full display in both.
Hollywood Babble-On is a weekly entertainment podcast that Smith hosts with KROQ-FM's Ralph Garman and - to his credit - he is one of the only personalities who seems capable of verbally holding his own against Kevin. Employing a wide variety of celebrity impersonations and a seemingly endless well of pop-culture knowledge, Garman is the driving force behind this show and he and Smith are genuinely hilarious together. Unfortunately, the timely nature of the podcast renders this recording as instantly outdated. Smith and Garman spend much of its runtime eulogizing celebrities who died in early August and cracking jokes about the Arnold Schwarzenegger sex scandal.
Jay and Silent Bob Get Old fares a little better and it's a joy to watch Smith and old pal Jason Mewes wax about almost everything. There's an ease to their conversation that could only come from years of working and growing together and after years of heroin abuse, it's great to see Mewes looking so healthy and animated on stage. Here, he and Smith talk about such disparate topics as Lord of the Rings video games and Jason being peed on by a woman in a hotel bathtub.
These are very entertaining segments, but if you've already listened to the material in their original podcasts, the video aspect doesn't add much to the experience.
Kevin Smith is a master at catering to his fans and, until now, his brutal honesty has played a large role in bringing them closer together. A lot of people dig Smith because he feels accessible and close, like a best friend who made it into the industry against all odds and hasn't forgotten about the folks who got him there. While many may write off his earnestness as an act, I'm inclined to believe that he's the genuine article. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that SModimations is a blatant cash-in. This is a cheap product that has been made with little-to-no care and dumped on a following who will buy it regardless. People change, so it's hard to fault Smith for losing his passion for filmmaking but I'm praying that his integrity hasn't fled with it.