Friday, January 22, 2010

Abandon All Hope...

Film: Clerks
Format: VHS from Maple Park Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television

Everyone hates his or her job at some point. Even when a job is good, most of us would much rather be doing something other than working most days. Heck, I got paid to play video games for 12 years, and there were plenty of days I’d have rather spent in bed or watching television instead of sitting in front of the computer trying to get past one more level of whatever Command & Conquer game I was working on at the time.

Clerks, as the name of the film suggests, takes this concept and puts it in the heart of that really crappy job you really hated, the one you had that summer in high school where you watched the clock, hated the customers, and only wanted to make it to quitting time before killing someone. This is the first film by Kevin Smith, and according to legend, he created the film on a nothing budget funding in part by an insurance settlement, credit cards, and loans from his family. Additionally, for the first time in film history, more was spent on the soundtrack (about $27,000) than on the film itself ($26,800).

Clerks tells the story of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran), a guy who works in a convenience store selling cigarettes to virtually all of his customers. His store is connected to a video store run by his friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson). Dante is called into work on his day off by his boss, and, through a series of miscommunications and outright lies, ends up working the entire day.

Dante is conflicted for a number of reasons. He has a girlfriend named Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who has been much more active sexually than he is comfortable with. He also carries a torch for his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), who is evidently getting married to someone else despite the fact that she and Dante have been communicating with each other again.

Outside, the constant guardians of the Quick Stop are the twin drug dealers, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith). These two deal drugs to Dante’s customers and sometimes sneak in and shoplift when Randal and Dante are otherwise engaged in conversation.

The selling point of Clerks is the dialogue throughout the film. In addition to being filthy (91 f-bombs or equivalent in a movie that runs 92 minutes), the dialogue is funny and often incredibly clever. The characters, in addition to discussing jobs worse than their own (jizz mopper at the local porno palace is Randal’s choice for bad job), talk about Star Wars films, the death of a girl they went to high school with, Dante’s inability to choose which woman to be with, and Randal’s hatred of all things customer.

Part of the charm of Clerks is that regardless of where the action takes place, it all has the same grainy look to it. While likely done to save a couple of dollars from the nothing budget, it all has the look of being filmed on video surveillance cameras, the kind found in a typical convenience store. There are no special effects due to the tiny filming budget, but there aren’t really any that are needed for this film.

The thing to watch here isn’t necessarily the plot, or the variety of things that happen to Dante or that Randal does to Dante throughout the day. What’s most interesting is the difference between the two characters. Dante, despite the fact that he hates his job and despite the fact that nothing good ever happens to him in this film, tries to be responsible, courteous, and a good employee. His reward for this is more work, more abuse, and at one point, a $500 fine caused by Randal. Randal, on the other hand, is rude, openly mocks and yells at his customers, leaves the video store closed for hours at a time, steals food from the Quick Stop, and is never punished. Essentially, Dante pays all of Randal’s penance.

Clerks, whether by virtue of the tremendously funny dialogue, the setting, the tone, or the overall thrust of the movie, is a certified cult classic and has a large enough fan base that Smith made a much larger-budget sequel. I loved this film the first time I saw it, mostly for the character of Randal, who tends to have the best lines, or at least the lines that anyone who has ever worked a crappy job would really like to say.

Now, watching this film again, it’s sad to say that it’s really poorly acted. I didn’t expect technical wizardry, multiple camera angles, or any of the finery expected in a big budget (or even an actually budgeted) film, but I would have liked the characters to speak far more naturally. Most frequently sound like they are acting in a stage play rather than acting in a movie. Quite a bit of the action, particularly the longer dialogue scenes, is disturbingly wooden. Caitlin, for instance, sounds exactly like she’s reading lines of dialogue instead of having a conversation, and that’s disappointing. Randal, interestingly enough, rarely has this problem, which may be another reason he’s my favorite part of the movie.

Regardless of this, Clerks is worth watching. If you currently have a job you wish you didn’t have, watch for all of the things you wish you could do at your job. Catharsis isn’t the same as doing it yourself, but there’s a joy in watching Randal spit water all over a customer, sell smokes to a child, and order pornography in front of a paying customer with a child.

Incidentally, I watched this today in part because I was still reeling from El Norte. It worked. I feel better.

Why to watch Clerks: Great dialogue.
Why not to watch: It’s not very well acted, sad to say.


  1. Only one movie has ever wedged a numerical quote in my head:


    Interestingly, I read this post today at work only to discover when I got home that a 1001 Club member chose this for their selection! Synchronicity!

  2. I've just watched the first half hour of Clerks and I'm finding it to be a bit of a chore.

    1. The acting is pretty bad except for a couple of characters. It's really about the jokes more than anything.

    2. There were a couple of thing that made me laugh. Like the hockey game, and the part where the little vignettes showed how stupid the customers are. ("Oooooo. NAVY SEALS.")

      But an awful lot of it was really hard for me to sit through. The scenes with the old girlfriend were pretty much straight-through cringe-inducing. The whole set-up with the dead guy in the bathroom with the lights off and the old girlfriend was just awful. (It's funny because she's so dumb she thought the dead guy was her boyfriend waiting for her and pretending to be dead on the floor of the bathroom and she had sex with him and it was the best sex she ever had so that means a dead guy was a better lover than her old boyfriend. Ha ha.)

      I believe this is my candidate for Most Overrated Movie on The List.

    3. I get it, though. I think it's an important film in a lot of respects. I had to remind myself over and over that it's not the 1001 best movies ever made, but movies that are important for some reason, and Clerks qualifies on a few fronts.