Clerks: the Charming Cult Classic
I’m a sucker for a good movie monologue. I love the opportunity for a single character to have their moment to talk us through their thoughts. It’s a device that helps enlighten the viewer of the true nature of a character. They have the floor, and they’re flooding it with deep-rooted views that are sourced from a single thought that they’ve let blossom and transform into a way to go about their fictional life.
One of my personal favorite movie monologues comes from Bill of the semi-eponymous Kill Bill. He has several enlightening moments that span both the first and second volumes. Perhaps one of the best is when he shoots B****** with a tranquilizer just so he can really make sure he’s uninterrupted. He tells her, in a cleverly anecdotal story about Superman and what sets him apart from lesser superheroes, that we are born what we are to become. He believes this to his core, about both Superman, himself, and her. Not long after this speech, we see that he is also right to believe it about the one who got away, the blood-splattered bride, who leads him down the path to his final moments.
Kill Bill is one of my top 5 favorite movies, and though I’ve seen it countless times and continually unearth alluring motifs throughout the scrambled narrative, I decided to undertake a new project: indulging in other cult classic films in search of a good speech.
Though there are several Miramax films that fall into the category of “cult classic with momentous monologues,” several titles wearing Tarantino tags, I opted for an underdog. Cue: Clerks, written and directed by Kevin Smith, who also, as directors from Hitchcock to Shyamalan and Tarantino have done, puts himself in front of the camera.
This is Kevin Smith’s first movie and the first in which we meet these characters who will go on to live in several other projects that have become part of his “View Askewniverse.” Though his work begins in the recognizable and, some might even say, bona fide backdrop of New Jersey, his characters are larger than life, encapsulated in a film that has a jury-rigged lid just slightly ajar.
Clerks, as the first film in a franchise and a fan favorite boasting of anniversary-edition DVDs, turns real deal low-lifes into beloved seers and sages. This group of boys, who at every turn flaunt their laziness while performing amazing feats of emotional juggling, existential contemplation, and cool aloofness, (at one point in the movie, Randall heedlessly sells a pack of cigarettes to a 4-year-old girl), do little in terms of a real job, but do wonders in terms of working their way through a humdrum Saturday.
The characters in the movie are strong in a sense that though they commit themselves to doing the bare minimum, they still want to keep their stunted growth steady. Dante, the focal point, hates his job at the convenience store, but has his street hockey team and his girlfriend to keep him just engaged enough in what his life as a whole to settle for it. Randal, who works across the street at the video store, uses movies, a disdain for the general public, and his commitment to staying close to his best friend Dante as motivation.
Though the movie is heavy with dialogue to maintain the flow, everyone provides lengthy, vocabulary-laden prose to prove their points. At one point (of many during the day/movie) Randal locks up the video store and saunters over to Dante to discuss his views on those who opted to reconstruct the Death Star from Star Wars. He isn’t referring to the resistance army as a whole, but rather the individual blue-collar spacemen who signed on to the project that leads to their demise.
This conversation draws in a customer’s attention – a blue-collar roofer himself who can provide more of a frame for the cosmic conundrum. What’s really nice about this scene is it pulls these boys out of their haze for a minute, giving them something tangible and accessible to understand and perhaps be inspired by.
It’s short-lived. Once this man leaves the store, they are faced with all the things that simultaneously make them tick and ticked-off. Dante is unsure what to do between his ex-girlfriend, whose engagement was written in the paper amidst his stint of late-night calls with her, and his current girlfriend who’s equally part sassy and part doting.
With these relatable abnormalities happening inside the store, which brandishes a last-ditch effort of a sign made from a sheet and shoe polish that reads “I assure you we’re open,” outside you have Jay and Silent Bob. These pair of loitering drug-dealers with a boom box and taste for Twinkies somehow solidify themselves as slightly less of troublemakers than the other two.
As the audience, watching this movie creates a calming yet excitingly laughable experience. It brings you back to a time when if you had a little bit of money, you could actually do things. People paid $3 for a pack of cigarettes… and everyone smoked cigarettes. A bagel with cream cheese and a cup of coffee were advertised as $1.25. The climate lends itself to the lack of motivation from the main characters. Ignorance is bliss, even if they did have a full scene of a man who incites a mob to throw cigarettes back across the counter as part of a self-serving sales motive.
All of this creates what Randal at one point calls a “pathetic microcosm [Dante] fashioned,” where you’re simultaneously cringing and rooting for the main characters. Their ideas are well thought out – having a very little real drive to guide them to do much else but sit at their posts in peace.
Somehow, this esoteric tale sparks. It’s done all in black and white, allowing you to stay focused on what they’re saying without being distracted by the colorfully saturated scenes of convenience and video stores. It even works outside, in one scene, in particular, is especially well juxtaposed. Jay and Silent Bob, who use much less of their time chatting and much more chilling, stand outside after dark. The boom box blares as Jay dances wildly in the store’s spotlight, while Bob looms, coolly and discreetly, in the shadow on his left hand. It’s a trick of light that works well in black and white, especially in a movie that is somehow enlivened by a lack of color.
The overall vibrancy of the movie comes from Dante and Randal chattering about sci-fi and sex in a way that (probably) puts their college-educated counterparts to shame. (We don’t meet many college counterparts save for a self-absorbed meathead who admits to having sex with Dante’s high school girlfriend at the time.) They reflect on themselves with nigh on no ambition for or particular care but dissect the world through a very curious lens.
They like to observe from arm’s length, without being necessarily engrossed. When they hear tell of an old acquaintance from high school that died, Randall suggests locking up to attend the funeral.
“You hate people,” Dante notes to which Randal quickly replies, “but I love gatherings, isn’t it ironic?”
The movie, which garnered 4/5 stars from Roger Ebert (a review I haven’t yet read for fear of too much influence), is worth the sit for movie buffs and stoners, teenagers who can relate and adults who want to. Their childish antics are neutralized by their conversation; harmonious ramblings that are, though seemingly sheltered, eloquent.
The pace of the movie is just right, as it’s broken into chapters not far off from what you get from Tarantino. When you reach the end, you have somewhat of a feeling that the characters have gotten nowhere, maybe even more lost along the way. Even this, given their one last true expression of how they’d been molded, makes itself into a coda that is perfectly fitting. They successfully lock up and take down the sign, a gesture that expresses their best accomplishment yet: making it through the day.