Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Clerks (1994)

Dir. Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer

"What kind of convenience store do you run here?”

Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is not having a good day. Woken up before dawn to fill in for a sick colleague at the Quick Stop Convenience store he has to face a whole host of indignities. Someone has blocked the locks of the roller shutters with gum meaning that they cannot be opened. He has to improvise a sign (‘I assure you, we’re open’) out of a sheet and shoe polish. He then smells of shoe polish all day. Smokers riot and pelt him with cigarettes. He discovers that while his girlfriend only slept with two men before him she had given blowjobs to 36. His friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) from the neighbouring video rental store seems determined to lose him all his customers. He only manages to make twelve minutes of roller-hockey practice before the ball is lost. An ex-girlfriend dies; Dante and Randal go to the viewing but Randal upsets the coffin. He gets hit with a $500 fine for selling cigarettes to a 4-year old. And the ex with whom he dreamed of getting back together accidentally shags a corpse in the staff bathroom. This leads to his current girlfriend dumping him. And as Dante bemoans “Do you know what the real tragedy about all this is? I’m not even supposed to be here today!” 

So, as Randal asks, why is he? Dante complains about the purposelessness of his dead-end job, but he refuses to do anything to change his situation. He didn’t have to go in. He didn’t have to keep the store open once his promised relief doesn’t turn up at noon. But he does. Randal points out that his litany of woes makes him sound “like an asshole. Jesus, nobody twisted your arm to be here today. You’re here of your own volition. You like to think the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. Like this place would fall apart if Dante wasn’t here. Jesus, you overcompensate for having what’s basically a monkey’s job.” In other words, he has a martyrdom complex that would put Joan of Arc’s to shame. He takes no action to change his life. Girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) tries to convince him to return to college. Randal tries to convince him to not give a shit. The contrast between conscientious Dante who tries to be as professional and pleasant as possible and Randal who does not care about his job could not be greater. Randal swans in late, ignores his customers, shuts the store to go next door to talk to Dante, abuses Dante’s customers, sells cigarettes to the four-year-old (yes, it was Randal, not Dante), and then drives off to rent a hermaphroditic porn movie (which he then watches in the Quick Stop) from a rival video store. This prompts a discourse between the pair on the ethics of their profession, about whether they have to compromise their own free will and personality because of the profession they are in. 

But it is not just with regards to his job that Dante is unable to make a change. He is dating Veronica, but his heart still belongs to his high-school girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer) - who cheated on him “8½ times” during their relationship). And when she returns unexpectedly he is more than willing to go out with her. But he won’t tell Veronica what he wants. It is only once Caitlin has been traumatised by her inadvertent necrophilia and Silent Bob (writer and director Kevin Smith) finally speaks that he finally realises that he loves Veronica. 

When looking for New Jersey movies, I had to start off with the film-maker who has become synonymous with that state: Kevin Smith. I had already seen Chasing Amy (mostly good) and Dogma (a fine idea stretched too far), but I wanted to see where he started from. Clerks was Smith’s first movie. This has good points and bad points. Bad points: it was produced on a minimal budget - $27,000. The black-and-white footage is grainy. More than that, quite a lot of the acting is pretty ropey. There are a lot of jerking hands and monotone voices to be seen. The good points are that he drew from his own experiences. The convenience store featured is the one in which Smith himself at that time worked. He would finish his shift at 11PM, film until 4AM, grab a couple of hours’ sleep and then clock back on at 6. And so his depictions of the minutiae of life in a shop is well targeted. When he talks about the ‘Milk Maids’ searching for milk with a longer shelf-life, the guidance counsellor searching for the perfect egg or the elderly man needing the toilet (and a better class of toilet paper) I felt that he was writing from experience. Quite often it is the little customer set pieces that entertain the most, such as the smoker riot, the old man or the woman wanting to rent a children’s video. Added to that is Smith’s delight in language. I think this must have been the start of the ‘contractors on the Death Star’ argument. And the roofing contractor himself throws further light upon Dante’s dilemma, saying that everyone has a choice about what they do with their life. He personally turned down a high-paying job when he knew that he would be working at the house of a mob boss. Those Death Star contractors had a choice about whether they were willing to take the Emperor’s shekel. And Dante has a choice about whether he comes in to work on his day off. 

"I find your lack of chunky knitwear disturbing"

One can see why Kevin Smith was nurtured as a choice talent (until he got sucked into the Ben Affleck / Jennifer Lopez nexus with Jersey Girl). What is great about Clerks would be great whatever the budget – the dialogue, the characterisation, the vogue for slackers. What is poor – the quality of film and acting – would presumably be rectified by a bigger budget. 

What have I learnt about New Jersey?
We do not see much of New Jersey in the film. Essentially we see the two bunker-like stores (is crime a problem?) and their carpark and not much more. But – despite the fact that Dante is fined for selling cigarettes to a child – it seems quite deregulated. The ambulance that takes the dead man and Caitlin away is run by volunteers, video stores stock all kinds of hard-core porn, and packets of cigarettes retail for less than $3 each. I know the film was made back in 1994, but that still seems ridiculously cheap. 

While we do not see the waterfront Caitlin makes reference to going for a walk down on the boardwalk. 

From the roofing contractor’s comments it is at least a belief that mob bosses live in New Jersey. 

Can we go there?
Clerks was filmed in Leonardo, a town to the south of New York Bay. The Quick Stop Groceries can still be found at 58 Leonard Avenue; it seems they are used to Kevin Smith fans visiting to take photos. RST Video is located next door at number 60, although it is now closed down and only used for storage. Both can be found just north of Route 36. Posten’s Funeral Home likewise really exists and can be found at 59 East Lincoln Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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