Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
– Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices
Kevin Smith shot Clerks in black-and-white because black-and-white film was cheaper than colour. You could probably guess that, because it’s not lit properly for black-and-white. It doesn’t look like a classic Hollywood movie: it looks like security camera footage, particularly because the film’s camerawork is so simple and basic, consisting mainly of static medium shots of characters talking to each other.
If some established and acclaimed auteur with money to burn made Clerks, deliberate and purposeful, it would be easier to recognise its brilliance. Even if I’m not talking about the people who actually made the film and made the decisions, I still find myself reaching for the language of on purpose, as if the artist has to consciously put something into a piece of art for it to be really there. Clerks looks like security camera footage, and that’s perfect for a film set almost entirely in a convenience store and a video store: it both makes everything seem relentlessly ordinary and makes us feel like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to. But since it only looks that way because it was cheaper, it’s harder to talk about. The shutters are closed because they could only film at night, when the store was closed, and accounting for that within the story both creates one of film’s most striking images – “I assure you, we’re open” written on a sheet with shoe polish hanging on the storefront – and contributes to a feeling of claustrophobia in what is basically a bottle-movie. They weren’t able to film the scene Smith had written where Randal knocks over the coffin at a wake, and it’s so much funnier just to hear Dante describe it after it happens.
Clerks is a film made brilliant by limitation and circumstance. It’s an accidental masterpiece, and the accidental part doesn’t diminish the masterpiece part.
Clerks is anyone can make a movie. Films, when I was growing up, always seemed like things that just sprung from the ground whole, not something made by clumsy human hands: I could understand how someone could write a book or put on a play, but films were something else, something inconceivable. It didn’t surprise me at all many years later when I learned that the first movies were magic tricks. The more I learned about films and filmmaking, the barrier to entry seemed to only get higher: it wasn’t magic, but it was money and equipment and knowledge about lenses and lighting and it would still come out shit nine times out of ten. But Clerks is a fuck you to all of that. Clerks is anyone can make a movie, and it’s not a platitude from some rich asshole giving his Oscar speech, it’s a defiant snarl.
Clerks is punk-ugly and anarchist, making a virtue out of lack of technical skill. The original punks wanted to break down the separation between performance and audience, tearing down barriers to participation, embracing sloppy and raw and alive over extended guitar solos. The first time Johnny Ramone met The Clash, bassist Paul Simonon said he was afraid to hold a gig because he didn’t think The Clash were good enough. “Wait till you see us—we stink, we’re lousy, we can’t play,” Johnny told him, “Just get out there and do it.” Punk as a subculture bled across all forms of art, but music was its natural home, because all you really need is to pick up a guitar and start screaming. Film is different: even now, with a HD camera in all of our pockets, it’s hard to pull off “we stink, we’re lousy… Just get out there and do it” in film. But Kevin Smith was just some guy working in a video store who maxed out his credit cards. Clerks looks like shit, and it’s beautiful. The boom mic operator is credited as “whoever grabbed the pole”.
But Clerks is also great in the straightforward sense. Anyone can make a movie, but what a once-in-a-generation lucking out to make this movie, to have assembled this particular collection of talent and happy accidents. It’s a hangout movie, and its characters shine so brightly that I always enjoy hanging out with them. Part of that is the whip-smart dialogue – twenty-five years later, the entire internet is saturated in nerdy twenty-somethings talking about Star Wars, and yet nothing has ever come close to Clerks’ instantly iconic contractors-on-the-second-Death-Star conversation – but a huge part is the two absolutely extraordinary performances at the film’s heart. Most of the bit actors in Clerks range from not great to really, really bad – very punk – but the two leads are doing something really special, something that feels at times too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
Jeff Anderson as Randal has the showier role. Randal works at the video store adjacent to the Quick Stop: he’s openly contemptuous of all his customers, he comes in late and closes up to go across to the Quick Stop and hang out with Dante as often as he can. “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers,” he tells Dante, flicking through a porn magazine behind the counter. Anderson lights up the screen in every frame he appears, a completely magnetic presence, so much so that it kind of blows my mind he didn’t become the biggest comedy actor of the decade. Randal is the film’s wit, and it would be easy for him to be just a joke delivery system – the film’s “plot”, such that it is, is entirely Dante’s – but in Anderson’s hands, he feels completely alive, with the perfect deadpan of a very smart but completely unambitious twenty-two-year-old guy. There’s a moment when Randal talks about his Cousin Walter breaking his neck trying to suck his own dick, and when he says that he made it – “balls resting on his lips” – there’s a tear in his voice. I mean, it’s possible that in reality Anderson was trying not to laugh, but it sounds like he’s trying not to cry, and who could care about whether it’s “on purpose” when it’s perfect.
(It’s a great physical performance, too: Randal dropping to his knees when he goes to another, better video store to rent a movie, or the weird little shimmy thing he does, frequently pop into my head for no reason at all, and make me smile every time.)
Brian O’Halloran as Dante is the lead, and yet it doesn’t really feel like his film: relegated to second place in his own story. Anderson is so obviously doing genius work that O’Halloran gets obscured. Partly this is because he’s doing the largely thankless work of being Randal’s straight man a lot of the time, partly it’s because Dante is such an absolute sad sack (with whom every character in the film is in love for some reason) that you’re set up against him. Randal is funny and clever and delightful; Dante keeps whining that he’s “not even supposed to be here today”, and you get to wondering why Randal likes him so much. Yet the more I watch Clerks, the more impressive O’Halloran seems. Roger Ebert wrote that he plays Dante “on a perfect note of defensive detachment”, and yeah, that’s about right.
O’Halloran makes Dante’s boredom and frustration less a bad mood than something deeply embedded in his character. Randal does his job badly as a form of rebellion, a declaration of his own autonomy, but has an almost Zen acceptance of his life as it is. But Dante expects something else, some vague amorphous more than this. He wants at times to do his job well and be a good employee, but in practice does his job badly, not out of a desire for his autonomy but mostly because he just thinks he’s too good for it. The kids he graduated high school with are finishing college, and it’s starting to seem like this is all his life will be. Dante freaks out that his high school girlfriend is getting married, and yeah, it’s about how he’s still hung up on her after all this time, but there’s something bigger there, too. That the world has turned and left him here. He says “I’m not even supposed to be here today” over and over again, and O’Halloran somehow manages to make it the irritating whine it is and, deep underneath, a kind of existential cry of pain.
Smith wanted Clerks to mirror Dante’s Inferno – hence the protagonist’s name – but if anything, it’s Waiting for Godot: these two guys, who fight and bicker but love each other more anything, who could never split away from each other. “He was mine first,” Randal tells one of Dante’s love interests, and Anderson has the good sense to not play it as a gag. Here they are, on the cusp of something or nothing or anything, and you get the feeling that, even with all the extraordinary events on the day Clerks takes place – necrophilia among them – tomorrow will be just the same, and the next day, and the day after that.
But it’s also basically Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, grown up into something with sharper edges. Where Ferris and Cameron cut class on a school day, Dante is called in on his day off, the tragedy of adulthood that looms in the corners of John Hughes’s teen movies looked dead in the eye. Dante and Randal are twenty-two – they say so specifically during a conversation about the death of a girl they went to high school with – and Clerks recognises the pain and humour and uncomfortableness and freedom of being that age. It sits in it with its characters, soaks us in it, instead of trying to ferry them into the next life stage. It doesn’t get stuck in the trap of thinking being twenty-two feels that way because of college – can’t get stuck in that trap, because it’s about guys who aren’t in college, who don’t get to be in this kind of movie once they graduate high school. Randal and Dante argue over if title dictates behaviour – if they must act a certain way because they are shop clerks – and Randal spits water in a customer’s face to prove it doesn’t. It’s basically Ferris trying to teach Cameron to be less uptight, worn down into something raw and ugly: they’re a little older now, less easy to excuse but just as or more directionless and disaffected. They don’t have that big scary cliff-edge of graduation coming up, but that’s a kind of scary cliff-edge in itself. Maybe that just means they’ll be stuck like this forever.
John Hughes’s teen movies were able like nothing else to just sit with teenagers where they were. He didn’t turn all teen narratives into coming of age stories, because teenagers are worthwhile in themselves, not just as the adults they will become. Clerks does something like that for your early twenties, all static medium shots and gen-X cynicism. John Hughes’s teen movies are the Ronettes, and Clerks is the Ramones: taking something skilled and intricate and turning it into something simple and harsh and somehow just as wonderful.
Kevin Smith wanted Clerks to end with Dante getting shot by a robber when he was closing up the Quick Stop for the night. The Star Wars conversation about downer endings and innocent lives lost in the crossfire would become foreshadowing; “I’m not even supposed to be here today” tragically ironic. It would have made the film seem capital-i Important, like it was about something. Instead, it ends with Dante closing the store for the night, and that’s all you need. It becomes a film that isn’t about anything important, where characters can just talk about Return of the Jedi without needing a reason – where “anyone can make a movie” is reason enough to make your movie.