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?