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.