The Kevin Smith Nightmare

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Every story from my teenage years starts with a cassette tape but so be it: I had the entire audio track to the film Clerks on a Maxell Type II tape — with all the interstitial vocabulary words written in Uniball pen lettering as the “song titles.” Great for road trips, and you could even play it for people who hadn’t seen the movie since the content was almost 85% audio-based anyway. Once time I popped it in the tape deck of a van on a class trip up to Georgia, and I was very surprised the teach let us get all the way through the “snowballing” etc. Golden times: that level of authoritarian negligence would be lawsuit territory in this day and age.

In the late-mid-’90s during the decline of the Alternative Nation, I turned my attention away from indie music and onto indie film. Young director Kevin Smith was the cinematic equivalent of Lo-Fi: DIY, self-financed, all for $25,000. Grainy B&W. Legitimately funny. Maybe I respected David Lynch et al. more than Kevin Smith, but Clerks felt like a movie that anybody could make — including me. Nothing is more exciting at 16 than the flash of possibility.

Of course, Clerks does not qualify as a perfect movie. In general, Smith shows little interest in actually using the possibilities of the film medium: He arranges actors and constructs visuals solely for creating wooden comic panels to illustrate his radio play. The acting is so literally amateur. But again: DIY, lo-fi. The mistakes are endearing, remember. But let’s be honest: the film won me over immediately because it feels like what a clever teenager would put together as his fantasy high school play.

While trawling the torrent sea torrents last week, I ran into a DVD rip of Clerks II (The sequel to Clerks) and felt compelled to illegally download it for free — that was the least I owed the director for three-to-four years of inspiration. Without really making an explicit attempt to do so, I have ended up seeing every other Kevin Smith film and found them all *blah* with the exception of Chasing Amy, which again, worked for me as a 17 year-old American teenager. So why not Clerks II.

I don’t mean to spoil Clerks II for you, but it’s bad. Really terrible, and I don’t even care that it’s a sequel to one of my favorite childhood movies in a Ghostbusters II / Meatballs II / Cruel Intentions II disappointment kind of way. No hyperbole: The acting quality falls somewhere beneath Japanese network television comedies. The jokes feel like cutting-floor material from 1994 — as if no one realized that the Internet made all over-analysis of nerd movies pedestrian about seven years ago. The direction is bland…. blah, blah, blah, read an actual review if you want more explication on the serious illness that plagues this film.

I would rather discuss something more fundamentally unsettling: the Kevin Smith Nightmare. The idea that you as a young creator could start out as a Horatio Alger type with a lot of promise and moxie, get the big break, receive access to huge budgets, real actors, color film, Jason Lee, make six other films, become a folk hero, have a pretty good cartoon made of your original movie, become such a revered face that you sit in for Roger Ebert, epitomize creative success for a whole generation, and then, make film after film that manifest nothing approximating artistic maturity or growth — if not becoming hostage to total descent into hackneyed retardation of your original material. And this is not, Musician Gets Worse As He Gets Old Syndrome. Catching the Kevin Smith Nightmare means our youthful shortcomings are permanent and not a result of our limited circumstances, and no matter how hard we try to move up and beyond, we just end up being worse and worse at what we nominally do best. And this is a scenario that could become a habitat for all of us “young creators waiting for the world to sweep us off our feet.” Hard stats are unavailable, but one of every four could fall prey to KSN every year.

I remember a disgruntled filmmaker saying once: “For every Kevin Smith, there are 100 failures that go nowhere.” Where do we go now that Kevin Smith was also a failure?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
November 21, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

24 Responses

  1. clh Says:

    yeah..how do you get access to Jason Lee. That’s all im interested in. (sorry…relapse into teenage obsessions and totally off the point)

    dont worry, Marxy, it does not mean that you are bound to be a failure, too. Just think about it. There’s two possible explanations for you being disappointed by Clerks II:
    a) you outgrew your teenage-humour and simply dont find this stuff funny anymore. Also, Jay and Silent Bob simply arent Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau. You dont want to watch them grow old together.

    b) Smith outgrew his teenage-humour after the Jersey Trilogy, but was pressured to make another teenage-humour-movie, yet he long lost touch with that world (starting with Dogma…an early version of the Da Vinci Code, yet, nobody expected such depth from Smith, so it never got the recognition and outrage it should have..except for the death threats)

  2. Momus Says:

    There’s a simpler explanation. Everything is TERMIAL. It’s built into the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  3. statiq Says:

    >our youthful shortcomings are permanent and not a result of our limited circumstances, and no matter how hard we try to move up and beyond, we end up just being worse and worse at what we nominally do best.

    Interesting, though I would not restrict that to just artistic creation, but apply it to life in general. The thought that you can fundamentally change if you try hard enough is the big delusion of our time.

  4. alin Says:

    that’s got to be thermial othersise we’re talking termodynamics (the study of the dynamics of terminality, a branch of teleology)

  5. alin Says:

    trevor, don’t mean to be rude but a bit of tickling to set the page to automatically refresh once the comment is posted, as it is it returns the cached pre-comment page. you might be aware of this.

  6. alin Says:

    gee it fixed itself instantly. sorry. last few times i posted it did that. maybe it’s some advanced programming to tell trolls they’re being ignored.

  7. marxy Says:

    (Re: Technical issues. We have no idea what we are doing.)

    Best thing about Clerks II is that ends with a shitty album track from Soul Asylum, circa 1993/4 I haven’t heard since 1993/4. Also – the “thanks” in the credits might as well be my “Personal” in the yearbook of my summer nerd camp.

  8. jnal Says:

    This is what a lot of people say about Hemingway. Very quickly everything became a self-parody of ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘A Farewell to Arms’.

  9. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    The fevered, overclocked brains of a lot of artistic geniuses just seem to simply burn out. I refer you to the famous debate between Renton and Sick Boy in “Trainspotting”: First you have it, then you don’t.

    It’s really quite fascinating how some artists can continue to grow throughout their careers: Bach, Haydn (still open to new artistic influences at age 70), Titian, Goya, etc., while others show extraordinary promise but flame out early: Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, the French painter Gros, Richard Strauss, pretty much every rock-n-roller. It’s fascinating to study the ascent, apogee, and fall of these artists.
    Bob Dylan’s apogee: Blonde on Blonde
    Gene Clark’s apogee: Eight Miles High
    Vivaldi’s apogee: The Four Seasons
    Kurt Vonnegut’s apogee: Breakfast of Champions
    …all downhill from there

  10. DH Says:

    But is it burnout? My own version of KSN is DeNiro’s Syndrome, and like KSN, it applies to other fields besides film. Basically, an artist hits upon a formula that seems to work, and continues to repeat it ad nauseum–or ad self-parody, really. Ultimately, the (unaware?) self-parody gets so bad that it calls the artist’s entire body of work into question. In terms of film, I can’t watch DeNiro, Nicholson, or especially Pacino anymore. I can’t even tell you if they were ever good. I just don’t know.

    (And that’s just a few generally respected Hollywood actors who I was never a huge fan of anyway. The list of novelists, musicians, and visual artists I once admired who suffer from this disorder is much longer.)

  11. marxy Says:

    For the record, I misidentified that Soul Asylum track (how cool is that?). It’s “Misery” – their comeback single that no one in the world actually liked. Except for Kevin Smith apparently.

  12. trevor Says:

    i like the fact that of all the things you link. you link the cassette brand and type..

  13. marxy Says:

    What can I say? I love the Internet.

  14. marxy Says:

    First you have it, then you don’t.

    This is also probably an accurate reading of the phenomenon.

    I think my issue is that I tend to perceive “filmmaking” like novel-writing in that maturity and age tend to improve the craft – opposed to pop music where youth and inexperience are also highly valued. Kevin Smith may be more of a “lo-fi pop filmmaker” rather than an “artistic filmmaker” (you think??) so I am applying the wrong standard to the guy. He’s not Lars von Trier – he’s Pearl Jam. (But wouldn’t Pearl Jam fans say that Pearl Jam matters even though they are under the radar these days? Bad metaphor on my part.)

  15. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    He’s getting a kickback on those sweet Maxell Points.
    Also acceptable: TDK-SA 90’s.

  16. marxy Says:

    I got it: Kevin Smith is the Liz Phair of indie film.

  17. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Well just goes to show that not all good writers have good taste. I found Clerks II to be incredibly funny and well made. Then again I also liked Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back so maybe its just that I still enjoy toilet humor while you have gone on to more obscure things.

    Or maybe its just sour grapes that you are now a salaryman and your former lo-fi inspiration is making movies for hollywood. If that the case, dont worry, eventually the meat grinder of corporate life will relieve that pain. I promise.

  18. alin Says:

    lacadutadegiganti: richard strauss ‘metamorphosen’ or vier letxte lieder are very fine pieces , (somewhat along the lines of david sylvian’s blemish). he was 86 or something.

  19. trevor Says:

    i dont believe in burnouts creativly. you can burn your brain out.
    and you can burn out temporarly. i did that recently. to much work.
    but i think your passion can burn out. one day, your all into it. and the next, for whatever reason, your not as much. but there you are. people want to pay you make movies, you know how to make a movie. so you do it. what else you going to do? be a banker? if you even once think about the money, you’ve already comprimised. you either want to sell more tickets. so you go for what you think you know works. or you don’t wanna sell tickets and “self desctruct”. i don’t find there to be anything wrong with “burning out”. a lot of the time people just go on to do other things. maybe you just don’t hear about them. or they are just not AS good at the new thing as they were at the old thing. its just what it is. do i seriously need to do music and graphics untill i die? man i hope not. would like to get some space travel in there. maybe own a store.

  20. Laotree Says:

    As an NJ native, Clerks had a lot of resonance with me when it came out. Although I didn’t have the audio track on tape my friends and I had it pretty much comitted to grey-matter analog. Every subsequent KS film I saw was pretty disappointing, kind of like when a band like Guided By Voices abandoned the tascam and started putting out slickly produced albums. Still funny enough that I didn’t feel like my time was wasted, but in the be tamer thaabsence of those flaws that made Clerks charming, Mallrats seemed like another contrived “teen” movie. I never bothered to see “Chasing Amy” although I know a lot of people who swear by it.
    A few months ago, one of my students gave me a copy of Shukan ST that had a story about Joel Siegel from Good Morning America walking out of a screening of Clerks 2, a first in his 40-year career, saying that it was the most cruel and offensive piece of trash he had ever (half) seen.
    Then a quote from Kevin Smith saying that if you make a living from watching movies, you should at least have the courtesy to stay until the credits roll. My first reaction, being somewhat out of touch over here, was shock that they even tried to make a sequel to Clerks, and then curiousity at what could horrors could possibly be contained within that would make a bow-tied film critic get barf-chunks in his stalinesque moustache. (A sidenote, I think the entertainment guy on Mezamashi Terebi copped his collar steez from JS, Joel not Josef.)
    So after locating an .avi of the flick, I watched it before work one morning. Having braced myself for something horrible I was a bit relieved.
    I couldn’t figure out what Siegel was so upset about; except for maybe the Donkey Show bit I thought the subject matter was tamer than the original, and more infantile. As far as the acting goes, Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson are pretty much non-actors who have rarely appeared in a non-Kevin Smith project, so calling their acting into question is a cheap shot. Rosario Dawson was capable enough in her role, I thought. There’s a reason that Japanese network television dramas have such lousy acting; people don’t watch them to appreciate art, they want to have something to look at while they are eating (or digesting). Clerks 2 was passable accompaniment to my breakfast that day, (and the ending even made me feel kinda good in a sappy way) but I can’t say much more than that. Certainly no inspiring moments like the conversation about innocent plumbing subcontractors dying on the Death Star…

  21. marxy Says:

    I had forgotten about the Joel Siegel thing – and yeah – what in the world could have been so upsetting? Maybe only that the vulgarity seems to detached from humor in this one.

    The acting looks awful because Rosario Dawson is so capable. The total amateurship of Clerks made Jeff Anderson look like a genius. Fear relativity, DIYers.

  22. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    The Joel Siegel thing was a chuckle and a half. Joel Siegel is a smarmy turd puncher to begin with, I dont see what he gained from throwing a drama queen tantrum about Clerks 2. Seems he did his little thing even before the donkey show bit, so whats worth all the fuss anyways? His horrid puns and smug smile, who on earth could really care about his movie reviews?

  23. Laotree Says:

    Turd Puncher! Nice!
    Yeah I’ve hated the guy since I was in elementary school. I think knowing that he hated Clerks 2 made me more determined to find some redeeming qualities in it…

  24. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    “richard strauss ‘metamorphosen’ or vier letxte lieder are very fine pieces , (somewhat along the lines of david sylvian’s blemish). he was 86 or something.”

    They ARE fine pieces. Kudos to ol’ Rick for waking up from his artistic coma to write them. A “Flowers for Algernon”-style brief awakening, they’re just about the only significant things he wrote after “Salome” in 1912 and until his death in 1948.

    Had it, then lost it.