THE opening credits of “Clerks II” feature a travelogue montage of suburbia, as a song by Talking Heads gently croons, “Years ago I was an angry young man.” The same might be said of writer and director Kevin Smith. Since bursting onto the scene 12 years ago with the first “Clerks” -- a rowdy, melancholy-laced comedy about dead-end jobs financed largely on credit cards -- and over the course of six more features, Smith has become a curiously divisive figure, somehow symbolizing tremendous success and total failure.
His notoriously dedicated fan base, feverishly reciting quotes and rabidly buying up his merchandise, sees him as a regular guy made good. Critics, by and large, have come to see him as self-satisfied and lazy. Coming off the critical and commercial implosion of his previous film, “Jersey Girl,” which was a conscious attempt at making a more conventional mainstream movie, Smith finds himself back where he started. Though it may be easy to dismiss the dour reception of “Jersey Girl” as simply a part of the backlash against the tabloid romance of its stars, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, there is certainly more to it than that, as the film exposed cracks in the foundation of Smith’s work.
As if to encapsulate the rather uncertain position Smith now occupies in the Hollywood landscape, HBO’s insider comedy “Entourage” recently dropped Smith’s name (alongside Michael Bay, no less) as shorthand for sloppy, soulless filmmaking. By reviving the characters from his first feature in “Clerks II,” Smith now takes stock of his emotional life in his mid-30s in the same way “Clerks” surveyed his 20s. A freewheeling farce on lack of direction, stillborn ambitions and a life of mindless drudgery has given way to a rueful examination of unfulfilled promises, dashed dreams and the resigned acceptance of one’s lot in life.
Though he often projects a demeanor of laid-back affability, there is also a free-floating air of anxiety and discontentment that hovers near Smith as well. He has an astounding recollection of his own bad reviews -- hello, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- and exhibits an uncanny knack for diffusing criticism by preemptively turning it into a joke. Over the course of two encounters in the span of a few days, he wore similar-looking athletic jerseys with slogans emblazoned across the back -- one read “Hack” and the other “Sell Out.”
The first “Clerks” came about during that time just before the Internet (yes, such a time existed), the era of grunge and “Slacker,” when many of those upon whom the Gen-X label was being imposed found themselves grappling with a heightened awareness of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t choices that ambition brings, the inescapable compromises of trying to achieve success on one’s own terms. That ambivalence remains very much at the core of Smith’s films, as the overarching structures of his work are derived from an essential tension between the rowdy, fan-pleasing trash talk and a searching, yearning need for a deeper emotional resonance. The results are often something like an existential shrug.
“At the end of the day I can only do what I can do,” he says. “You read a lot of reviews where people say, ‘You should stretch. He should learn to stretch as a filmmaker.’ After a dozen years now, don’t they get it?
“This is what I do, this is the storyteller I am. Do I let myself off the hook by saying, ‘I’m just not that talented?’ Probably. But also I think it’s important to know your limitations. I’ve kind of embraced mine. And I’ve had seven films’ worth of practice to figure that out.”
As “Clerks II” begins, the convenience store where Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) continued to work has burned to the ground. Both in their mid-30s, they soon find themselves working at one of the few jobs worse than the one they had, at a fast-food restaurant named Mooby’s. Dante is planning to move to Florida soon with his fiancee (played by Smith’s real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach), where her parents will give them a house and a carwash to run and they will live a respectable, regular life. But his escalating infatuation with the manager at Mooby’s (the film’s secret weapon, Rosario Dawson) makes him rethink his plans. (The film also features, as have all his films except “Jersey Girl,” Smith himself as the character of Silent Bob, along with his sidekick, Jay, played by Jason Mewes.)
On a personal level, in the years since his debut feature, Smith, who turns 36 in August, has gotten married, become a father, entered his 30s and moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles. It’s not difficult to look at his filmography as chapters in an ongoing autobiography. After the rather crushing fate met by “Jersey Girl,” Smith had to really take stock of himself, and he found revisiting the characters of Randal and Dante to be just the way to do it.
“Each flick I’ve done is kind of a snapshot of where I was in my life when I wrote it; ‘Clerks II’ really speaks to where I am in life at the moment. You don’t have to be an analyst to look at the movie and go, ‘The Quick Stop means a little more than the Quick Stop, and Florida represents something more than just going to Florida.’ That’s kind of where I am. There’s definitely something bittersweet about arriving at ‘Clerks II.’ ”
Critic Amy Taubin first heard of “Clerks” after its first screening at New York’s Independent Feature Film Market, attended by barely a dozen people. She called Smith directly for a tape, and her subsequent articles on the film in the Village Voice were instrumental in bringing it to the attention of festivals and distributors.
Speaking recently about “Clerks II,” Taubin suggested, “Dante’s desire to get out of the Quick Stop mirrors Kevin’s desire not to be making these raunchy comedies, but how not to do that is not clear to him, just as the next step is not clear to Dante.”
More than just a filmmaker
ASIDE from his role as writer-director of feature films, Smith has also created a number of sideline endeavors for himself. He makes appearances on the college lecture circuit, has done a series of spots for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” has written comic books, done various guest spots, co-owns comic book and memorabilia stores in New Jersey and Los Angeles and, perhaps most important, has an extremely active and direct role online in a circle of Internet sites. The websites allow him to interact with a broad swath of fans, sell merchandise and, as with the case of “Clerks II,” heavily promote his upcoming releases.
Smith recently co-published the first in a series of graphic novel prequels to Richard Kelly’s feature film “Southland Tales,” a futuristic fable of the apocalypse starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and The Rock. At a recent signing event, Smith showed just how deep his commitment to and connection with his fans goes. He patiently listened as fans told him about themselves, he posed for pictures, he talked to people’s friends on their cellphones, and never hurried a single one. If things are moving toward a niche-oriented, long-tail model of cultural consumption, Smith already has self-created and corralled his piece of the niche.
“Kevin is incredibly savvy when it comes to marketing,” Kelly says. “Part of preserving your auteur status, preserving your vision and continuing to make films the way you want to is developing an identity, a fan base and an audience that will always be there for you. I think Kevin has done that, and he’s able to make exactly the films he wants to make.”
Of course, this can lead to the dispiriting sense of a filmmaker “playing to the base,” in the lexicon of contemporary politics, most obviously in Smith’s in-joke heavy “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” For those who “want more” from Smith, feel that he is given to coasting and could easily develop into a more well-rounded and conventionally mature filmmaker and storyteller, his sidebar endeavors on the Web and as an all-round entertainer-entrepreneur could be seen as distractions standing in the way of him developing his true gifts.
“I don’t buy that,” interjected author John Pierson, a longtime fixture in the independent film community who was involved in the early careers of such diverse filmmakers as Smith, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee and Michael Moore. “He’s made seven features in 12 years. Which, if you look at everybody else’s track record, their production frequency, he’s ahead of David O. Russell or Quentin Tarantino or plenty of other people.”
Full of scatological humor, riffs on pop culture and inside jokes, “Clerks II” can be seen on the surface as the bawdy comedy Smith was trying to get away from when he made “Jersey Girl.” He insists, however, that if examined more closely, it is just the kind of film many critics wanted from him, one that aims to synthesize the dueling sides of his personality, what he calls “the profane and the profound.” Toward the end of the film, Randal makes a confession to Dante of his own fears and insecurities that is as heartbreaking as it is unexpected.
“I think the way it catches you off guard is that this actually is very moving,” suggests Taubin. “It is a very big part of Kevin’s talent. There’s a thing about humor -- it can be extremely defensive, it’s a way of keeping your cool. And I think he uses humor in this way, and sometimes the veil, the comedy, falls away and you see there’s something going on underneath.
“When he doesn’t do that, that’s when he gets maudlin like in ‘Jersey Girl.’ He so desperately wanted to do something that wasn’t what he thinks of as broad comedy that it’s like he forgot how to write. I think in Kevin himself, he realized that what most of his films depend on is a kind of desperately held-onto adolescent humor, that refusal to grow up and be mature. That’s what’s best about him.”
He is, in a strange way, grateful for the failure of “Jersey Girl,” even thanking it in the end credits to “Clerks II,” as it puts him in the same position he was in after “Mallrats,” a period that led to two of his best-regarded films, “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma.” To say that Smith seems trapped by his own successes might not be entirely accurate, but it doesn’t seem far off, either.
“There’s something to be said for failing,” he noted dryly. “It’s not the failure you feel, it’s the failure that people project when something disappoints. You’re back to ground zero, where there’s no expectations, and that’s where I like to be. People like to set the bar high. I like to put the bar on the ground and barely step over it. I like to keep the expectations really low.
“After something like ‘Mallrats’ or ‘Jersey Girl,’ the expectations are in the toilet. People are like, ‘He’s over, he’s done.’ So it’s easier to be, like, ‘Ta-da, I’m not.’ It’s a much more comfortable place to work from. When you have an escalating career, and every time you have to outdo yourself, I couldn’t handle that kind of pressure. But having to outdo ‘Jersey Girl’? Not very difficult.”