Influential Directors: Kevin Smith

I'd see movies, comedies, and I loved 'Animal House', I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

I’d see movies, comedies, and I loved ‘Animal House’, I loved all the John Hughes stuff, but I never saw me and my friends totally represented.

Of all the directors past and present it’s difficult to come up with one more influential than the guy who motivated me to pull out my credit card and buy merchandise from his website, so intensely enamored was I with the world he had created: the world which spanned from Red Bank New Jersey, to sunny LA and nearly reached the red sun of Krypton.  True, as a director he didn’t stand out a whole lot in the beginning; but what really made his work sing was the poetry he put on the page.  His scripts were so eloquent and unorthodox that half his cast usually didn’t know how to deliver the lines.  The rest honed in on the nerve of the somewhat unnatural dialogue and were able to unlock performances that others would only hope to imitate in the years to come.

An instant fan after watching Clerks I not only began snatching up videos and theater tickets for Kevin Smith films, I went after soundtracks, scripts, t-shirts, action figures, even a lunch box.  There was something accessible about Kevin, particularly in the early years, that I just felt like, “Yeah, this guy gets it.”  In a way, I think of him as a modern day Shakespeare.  The intelligence of his scripts may be called into question due to subject matter, but the targeted range of his audience is possibly wider yet more precise than any other auteur.

I was exposed to Kevin Smith a little late.  I believe Chasing Amy had hit theaters by the time I caught Clerks on VHS at my BFFs house.  I was disappointed at first that it was in black and white.  When I saw the View Askew production logo, it made me feel like I was having a secret sleepover at Neverland Ranch.  Before long though I realized that I was watching something special and it allowed me to dream about making a low-budget picture of my own one day and becoming a massive success.  Clerks and the Kevin Smith movies that followed resonated so well with me and came along at such a point in my development as a writer, that he had a lot of impact on my own style of writing as I tried to figure out what that was and how to do it.  To this day, two of my favorite stories that I have developed over the years can’t escape their Clerks and Dogma Roots.

There is also something admirable about the way Smith throws himself into the stories he writes.  The way Holden in Chasing Amy parallels Smith at the time.  Enthusiastic fans that love Bluntman and Chronic (Jay and Silent Bob), Equate them to Bill and Ted, or Cheech and Chong rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Vladimir and Estragon and all Holden wants is to put something personal out there like he did with his first success.  The primary differeces being that Bluntman and Cronic was a commercial success, suppressing Holden’s artistic side, while Mallrats ironically became a commercial Flop in its theatrical run, sending Smith in search of what made him stand out with his creation Clerks.  Next, he tackled his own ideas about religion and sought to arrive at a philosophy that was honest and true.  In spite of that deeper side, he never hid from the possibility of commercial success and was able to tell substantial stories just as easily as he could walk away when there was a disagreement.  An indie filmmaker who can walk both sides of the fence is pretty rare, indeed.

Though he never quite garnered the acclaim that Tarantino has and his career has taken an entirely different path, he still stands out as one of the greatest yet easily overlooked filmmakers of our time.  For starters, He has “The Jersey Trilogy.” Which is more of a trilogy than some things now that are considered such.  I love how original Smith is, while paying homage to his favorite movies.  Mallrats, like Temple of Doom, is the most disliked yet also my favorite of the three.  Also like Temple of Doom, it takes place prior to its predecessor, chronologically speaking.  Mallrats also alludes to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as does the later Clerks 2.  The first, with the boys trying to outrun La Fours, and the latter with a go cart montage.  Randal Graves also quotes Sundance in Clerks, responding to Dante’s whines with “Bitch bitch bitch.”  More than mere pop culture references, which I believe were widely popularized in the nineties by Kevin Smith.  These homages show us a kid at play riffing on the films that inspired him and keeping them relevant and timeless while creating something new to inspire others.  One of my favorite movies is Jaws, and the way that the scar comparing scene between Quint and Hooper is duplicated in Chasing Amy is truly something to geek out over.  Hooper X of course is also a character in Chasing Amy and the leads in Mallrats are Brody and T.S. Quint.

After the Jersey Trilogy, Smith went on to make three more films featuring the Jay and Silent Bob characters, plaid by him and Jason Mewes, including Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks 2, every one of them interconnected in the View Askewniverse as highlighted in the multitude of appearances in JASBSB.  Dogma was huge for me because it took on the topic of religion with an open, honest and artistically free approach, that allowed for a fully fictionalized depiction of Biblical characters and ideas, a sharp satirical look at the church, and a hopeful look at faith and the nature of God.  Of course you can’t do something like that without upsetting all kinds of people,, but he did it anyway, which is pretty cool.

Clerks has always been a big chunk of the parts that make the sum of Kevin Smith.  In between Clerks and Clerks 2 was Clerks the Animated Series.  I can’t confirm it, but I suspect the title is a play on Batman the Animated Series.  Though short lived it was a great attempt with beautiful art designs and a few really strong episodes.  My favorite of which intertwined the premise of The Last Starfighter with plots from The Bad News Bears and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Smith’s new AMC series Comic Book Men inserts some Clerks and Mallrats flare into a Pawn Stars type show set in his comics store Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank New Jersey.

After what was essentially six Jay and Silent Bob movies, rather than go back and re-master them all with CGI or get right to work on an episode VII, Smith made a second foray into unfamiliar territory.  The first had been Jersey Girl, which I enjoyed, the next, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, introduced Kevin to Seth Rogen. Prior to the encounter, Smith reportedly didn’t really smoke weed.  In fact, so little was his interest in bud during production that it aroused concern from Rogen.  That story along with many others such as the Superman debacle with Jon Peters and the highs and lows of directing Bruce Willis is another reason I am such a fan of Smith’s.  Whether it’s a movie, a Smodcast, or a Q and A, he is one of the best storytellers ever.  Get the man talking about an experience out of his life and he will we’ve you an epic tale of fantasy and delights.  He’s taken on Hollywood for better or worse and along with the experience and the retelling of those experiences it seemed as though Smith had burned out on film just as he reached his pinnacle with the newly debuted Red State.  His first horror film, Red State, really showed how much he had grown as a director, but also has him at the top of his game as a writer.  Though unexpected in the wake of an entire career of comedy, Smith’s storytelling prowess in his latest movie is a triumph and yet he vowed to retire.

Fortunately, a Smodcast about a fake classified ad (a man seeking a tenant who would dress up like a walrus in lieu of rent) led to a “what if” scenario that captured Smith’s imagination and lead him on a journey to write, finance and shoot a feature horror script in a matter of months.  The script has Justin Long and Michael Parks attached and has created a lot of buzz.  More importantly, however, it seems to have rekindled the passion of one of my favorite, most influential filmmakers.

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Review: Much Ado About Nothing

bluray much adoMy impressions after watching Joss Whedon’s micro production Much Ado About Nothing are pretty simple, but my feelings about it’s creation are much more complicated.  If I separate everything going into it from the finished project in an effort to be fair to the production’s value, I may unjustly discredit the film just as I would taking all things into account.  All in all however, I found it to be pretty enjoyable.

I have not been so enamored with Whedon since he scripted and helmed the pivotal Marvel production The Avengers. Having seen how mediocre his direction can be and seeing a clip out of Much Ado itself, I was prepared for a terrible cheap look for the no budget movie.  I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of photography and the direction which showed more forethought and creativity than I expected.  The house was smartly used for the most part and created a very unique and special feel for the movie.  Alexis Denisof, whom fans will recognize as Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is superb as Benedick.  Though American, Alexis is known for his british accent and lived in London for some time.  It adds a small dose of irony to hear him speak shakespeare with an American tongue.  Aside from that, his whole performance as the character is admirable and he almost bore the entire movie on his back with the support of Fran Kranz as Claudio, and Reed Diamond and Don Pedro (Both actors from the Whedon series The Dollhouse). Not to discredit the rest of the cast, but I thought this unit was particularly enjoyable and really seemed to grasp the material.

The whole cast was assembled from friends of Joss who had worked with him at one time or another, the side effect of which is that they all have a special place in the hearts of the fans who fell in love with them in their previous settings.  It adds a sense of familiarity in the spirit the impromptu production conveys.  Some of the dialogue comes off a little rocky. I noticed the lighter moments were harder for some of the actors to pull off than the scenes that took a more serious tone.  One of the things that unfortunately did not work for me was the casting of Amy Acker as Beatice.  As much as I love Acker, I just could not be persuaded to accept her in the role.  I would think a more obvious choice was Marena Baccarin, Or even Alyson Hannigan, Alexis’ wife.

I realize of course that the nature of the production was somewhat prohibitive in terms of assembling the cast (Joss made it during a vacation from post production on The Avengers) and it’s wonderful how many great talents got together for this, including Acker, but that’s part of what I mean when I talk about the strength of the movie, as it is, without the distractions of how it came to be.  As a no budget movie put on by a big family of friends in the director’s house, It came out pretty damn good.  But– and this is a big but, like something Sir Mix-a-lot would only dream of– would you pay the premium ticket price or purchase the $20-$25 Blu-ray if it didn’t have Joss Whedon’s name attached to it?  There is even a $15 paperback written by Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare!  Come on.  Are you kidding me?

If a student film maker with limited resources and a passion for film pulls something like this together, then it ought to be supported financially by those who would encourage independent filmmakers.  But should a successful writer/director with a dedicated fan base who has landed (and is yet to finish post production on) the monumental Avengers gig not be held to a higher standard?  I’m not saying it should not have been made, but maybe he should have waited.  It seems to me like the fans are being exploited and taken for granted.  In time– perhaps sooner than later considering what a let down Agents of Shield has turned out to be– they will resent him.

One such lapse in the quality that might have been forgivable in the hands of an amateur is the locations used for the scenes with Dogberry and the watchmen.  It was an unfitting mess compared to the rest of the production.  But it was shoehorned in in order to shoot the whole thing on Joss’ property, with a minimum of preparation.

As a whole– though it is enjoyable and has a terrific cast and is shot beautifully in black and white– the settings and performances are inconsistent with the entire production and the momentum slows from time to time when it ought to be less indulgent and just keep moving.  It’s pretty good for what it is, but what it is is not what it should be.