Sunday, January 07, 2007

Clerks vs. Clerks 2

“Clerks 2”: do we really need it? Some say that Kevin Smith vouched to make the sequel if Jason Mewes (Jay of Jay and Silent Bob) ever got off the drugs. Others notice that there’s a streak of selling out all values and squeezing all capital out of the charm his earlier films have and that he made his last really good film back in... was is 2000 or 2001?
Anyways, “Clerks” was definitely one of milestones of 90ies cinema: witty, edgy, shot on cheap black/white film, altogether very cheap, making it a sort of statement of underground cinema – stating that size of budget was in no relation to quality of the film; as far as low-budget films, public only allowed cheap horrors to became very successful. Hollywood made horror exploitation cinema a breeding ground for young directors with auteur pretensions (Romero, Carpenter, Tobbe Hopper, Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Abel Ferara, Joe Dante, Don Cossarelli – even Coppola, Altman and Bogdanovich all started as Corman’s for-hire directors), but this was one of a few dramas with this kind of budget that made it big, following Jarmush’s aesthetics where cheap production values and minimalist camerawork were considered appropriate to record everyday life of small people.
But “Clerks” didn’t also manage to make filthy language a form of art, and to find absurdities in everyday life, it also dissected the society it was talking about thoroughly, spotting causes without needing to stick them into your face. Clerks from the title were shown watching various bizarre characters walk through their shops, laughing at them or belittling them, but as the end nears, de-masking themselves as persons helplessly caught in the loop of suburban life, with no future to look forward, no self-worthiness, with only escape of watching customers to whom they were superior at least as long as they were in their shop. Dante’s character definitely sticks out as most complex, he is convinced that he deserves better than this, but he was no will nor self-determination to change something – not even to refuse his boss to work on weekend. Nor to choose between two girlfriends, he is attracter by conformity he has with one girlfriend, but also by inaccessibility of the other one (he gets interested in her after he hears about her engagement) and fantasy he built around her. Dante is a conflicting person on many levels, all of them displayed in the film. Randal is an opportunist, aware of his own hypocrisy but comfortable with it, too shallow to think about his own perspectives. Dante hangs out with him because he can interpret every personal failure as Randal pulling him down, and Randal doesn’t care enough to object to it.
Small-time drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob, at first intended to be a walk-through testifying of bizarre characters of New Jersey, were mostly a cliché: one guy who never talks, and the other one who always talks. Despite a certain charm, they weren’t full blown characters then, and they didn’t become ones later when they became a franchise. Those few character traits they had in “Clerks”, remained the only ones. Smith cameoed himself as Silent Bob, probably to save money and to skip the acting part.
Back then, when first waves of “Clerks” popularity hit in, Smith was very vocal about his own “sell-out” nature. He likes money. He is willing to make easier films for the same price. He’ll make the best of his job if he can. The situation was, for him, such that he actually could.
But let’s be strict about the term “sell-out”. Sell-out, as referred here, is not a person who makes his work approachable for wider audience. Nick Nave is not a sell-out for not singing about murders so often nowadays, nor is Jarmush sell-out for making films with bigger budget than before. Sell-out is anyone who actually compromises quality of his work. Some compromise it in hope of reaching wider audience that way, yes, but others compromise due to sheer laziness. It was most certainly easier to write a flat run-of-the-mill story of “Jersey Girl” than complex layers of “Clerks”. And here’s why: “Jersey girl”, though correctly executed drama, works by all rules of average Hollywood film: of course there is an unspoken romance, not too complicated because it’s not the center of the film. Of course there is a large fight and we can even guess all the words being said during that fight. Of course the celebrity mentioned all the time during the film is going to appear in a cameo as a sort of Obi-Wan voice of wisdom. Of course the father is going to get to daughter’s number in time. Parental drama by numbers. And, of course, it’s easier to pick up elements of a scenario already written hundreds of times, than to write a new one with original ideas.
But let’s go chronologically. Right after the success of “Clerks”, Smith makes his first attempt of cheap entertainment with “Mallrats”, wacky comedy flavoured with patented “Jersey mentality”. It flunked terribly so Smith had to return to making serious films. One was intelligent romantic comedy “Chasing Amy” and the other one was “Dogma”, spectacle that rewrote bible to a modern mentality, capturing doubts of many tortured believers who try to work out personal faith with cynicism of the era. Sure, it was too preachy and characters were jamming on about religion more often than ordinary people would, but it worked, somehow when Ben Affleck spread his wings or Allanis Morisset played God it was campy, but camp was what entire Smith’s generation grew on and that cultural environment was another element of the whole equation.
But by now Kevin Smith was popular enough; People would go to see formal parts of his films, even if they had to content whatsoever. The story was always happening in Jersey, even if characters weren’t reflecting Jersey mentality at all. Jay and Silent Bob were always there, and people were rather paying to hear Jay’s sexual barrage than the main characters. Then there were cameos of characters from his previous films, as well as of popular actors and directors – his personal friends. But he was free to take everything else by grabbing blindly from the box of Hollywood stereotypes. “Jay and Silent Bob” had the lamest heist plot ever; “Jersey Girl” was a standard parental drama a la Hallmark production - minus Jason Mewes who was, supposedly, so addicted that Smith didn’t want to work with him anymore; Others say that Smith simply wanted to move to more serious waters, and Jay and Silent Bob were too comical characters for that; And then there’s some thing that I didn’t even bother to watch, called “Jay and Silent Bob go degrassi”; Also some Smith-produced gross-out comedies and desperately unfunny “Clerks” the animated show, so “good” that it didn’t reach over sixth episode. A lot of selling out; how many films will it take until Smith spends all the credits he gained with only three films?
“Clerks 2”, whatever the reason for making it is, is the further statement that Kevin Smith isn’t even trying anymore. I kind of liked it the first time I saw it. It was sort of amusing. Some would say, “entertaining”. Second watching make all flaws and self-plagiarism apparent. So a few funny jokes are there, but can you really be entertained when there are some obvious problems sticking into your eyes?
The problems are most obvious upon comparison with “Clerks”. First, we see colour, and we see more free camera positioning. It’s as if they’re hinting of the less of actual content. And the story is now taken from repertoire of romantic comedy, just like “Jersey girl” was taken from family film repertoire. Now, the story is: Dante is supposed to marry one girl, but he is in love with the other one, without even realizing it. Resolution is simply a matter of him realizing where his “true love” is. Simply said, he’s not nearly complex as he was in the first film, and since he’s central character, that’s just devastating.
We have a huge problem with Randal too. In first film, he was annoying loser who only get sympathies at the end when he de-masks his stupidity as willful apathy and shows Dante that he understands his problems better than he is. Knowing that, we start the second film expecting to care for him, but Smith goes too far into caricaturing this character. He’s not simply a rude lazybag from the first film, now he is outright bully who harasses helpless victims and literally makes people puke. At times Smith tries to make us sympathies with him by making his “victims” stupid as if “they deserve it”, but it doesn’t work. Even as he delivers last, passionate statements in the prison cell, he is still just a bully.
Then there’s a character played by Rosario Dawson who is a rather peculiar choice for female lead. First of, she is best known for playing a walk-through sex bomb in films like”He got game”. Not that she shouldn’t get one as she holds rather well in this film and some others, but is the presence of the sex bomb really appropriate in a film about New Jersey losers? Is she really appropriate match for a guy such is Dante? Somewhere in-between she delivers a laughable monologue about how Dante is, despite apparent lack of any quality, really a guy for any hottest girl in the school, how great he is, etc etc, and we can really imagine Smith tapping his own shoulder there. She doesn’t sound like a character she is. She sounds like a fantasy of a highschool nerd, self-flattering and even vengenceful. But reality? I used to cheer Smith for being observant about reality. At the poster of this film, Rosario smiles at us from the sexy pose that’s very uncharacteristic of her character in the film, with innuendo-filled caption “we’re always open”. It becomes apparent that her purpose here is reaching for sex-starved audience and, indeed, she’s in because (and not despite) she is sex bomb.
One most irritating thing is how this film tries to repeat all steps of the first film, hoping that it’d draw enough parallels between youth and middle age of characters – and, of course, to not disappoint viewers of the first film. Once again, Dante and Randal and stuck in the dead-end job. Once again they talk a lot about gross aspects of sex, but here these subjects don’t come naturally, they seem like characters have a quote of nasty words they have to fill in. In first film, when Randal is talking about cum-rooms, the scene has a point and punchline in form of insulted customer. Here, scenes such as ass-to-mouth discussion don’t have any of that, and they don’t come naturally from previous conversation. Again, Dante is stuck between two girlfriends, but as I said, this time the dilemma isn’t nearly as complex as in his first. Again, there’s an activity on the roof (instead of hockey game, a dance lesson) – and that’s where we really start being aware that Smith plagiatrises himself. Again, the film ends with a deviant sexual act, but while in the first film, this act creeps slowly under the main story, here it is announced on the big door. As soon as in one of the first scenes, Randal practically announces: “This film will end with a deviant sex scene, just like the first one!!!” In first film the scene was not explicitely shown, in this one it was made into a spectacle. Again, the film happens in one single day, and is supposed to represent dullness of their everyday life, but this time, it’s not nearly as uneventful day. In fact, it’s a rather funny day full of happenings, even though it’s trying not to be.
This film goes further with the problem many of Smith’s films have, and that is breaking the golden rule of “show, not tell”. Smith isn’t very good at presenting character’s inner feelings by showing them, through camerawork or editing, so his mechanism is usually that one of supporting characters goes and spells it into their faces. That’s why “Dogma” gets so preachy, because Smith desperately needs to speak through his characters if he can’t through his camera. Here, it seems like everyone and their grandmother knows everything about Dante’s problems, has analyzed them thoroughly, knows the solution to all of them and has the need to spill it into Dante’s face in regular intervals. With Dante, of course, ignoring, because those explanations aren’t for him anyways. They’re for audience.
This film ends with a happy ending. First one ended with the open ending, hinting that characters will never solve their problems and how much they’re actually stuck in the root. When this film ends, characters aren’t just city losers anymore, they’re owners of a small business and happy ever after, ruining not only this film, but the point of the first film too.
As far as I’m concerned, he can go and ruin it. He made it in the first place, he’s free to ruin it and bash it into the ground if he wants. But let’s step back and call things their real name – he’s ruining it, and worse of all, he is wasting his talent.