"I'm not even supposed to be here today!": Slackerdom and Clerks.
Kevin Smith’s 1994 debut feature film Clerks tells the story about two clerks that work in a convenience store, referred to as the “Quick Stop”. Called in on his day off, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) is forced to deal with annoying customers, his two love interests, and his best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson). He is also forced to take a look at his life and where it is going, or if it has any direction at all. Roger Ebert describes the movie and its characters as: “The movie has the attitude of a gas station attendant who tells you to check your own oil…and Dante and Randal look like they have been nourished from birth on beef jerky and Cheetos. They are tired and bored, underpaid and unlucky in love, and their encounters with customers feel like a series of psychological tests” (Ebert par.2).
Smith’s focuses on the main two losers throughout the film, of whom are perfect examples of the slacker culture of the early nineties. Desson Howe of the Washington Post said, “much of ‘Clerks’ is extremely funny and dead-on—in terms of its intentionally satirical, Gen-X-istential gloom” (Howe par.3). Dante and Randal are both adults in their early twenties, while still working at the Quick Stop and showing no signs of improving or changing their situations. Dante complains repeatedly about his life, mostly saying: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” throughout the film, without doing much about it. But on the other hand, Randal is content with his situation, and simply deals with every day brings. By focusing on their personalities and overall attitudes, Smith presents a message of getting on with life, despite the life situation.
Clerks’ structure doesn’t possess a plot, but rather shows events throughout the course of the day. It plays more like a series of occurrences that ultimately tie together the day depicted and the film itself. Some scenes are merely conversations about Star Wars, stupid customers, and porn, while most of them progress the relationships of the characters. But they all add perspective to the characters’ personalities and the setting.
In terms of technical innovations, the film does not break any new ground. It was filmed in black and white, while many films at the time were not. The film’s budget was made for approximately $28,000, and was shot mostly in and around the real Quick Stop convenience store. Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle described the look of the film as “resolutely low-budget, full of shaky camera work, the occasional less-than-perfect edit, and a few sound glitches. Conveniently, though, all this shoestring filmmaking technique only adds to the film's desperate charm” (Savlov). As most of the movie is indoors, you get a feel for what they have to do all day, which is either dealing with customers or doing nothing. The cinematography is pretty straight forward, with the main use of objective point-of-view. But at the same time, Smith uses a director’s interpretive point of view. For example, there are many conversations between the two leads that take place behind the counter of the store. Smith frames the shot in a way so it is centered on the two standing behind the counter. This creates a feeling of them being trapped, because they are enclosed in that area by the counter, the wall behind them, and the consumer products that surround them. The camera movements are also pretty straight forward, as no pans, tilts, dolly shots, etc. are notably used. However, Smith does use a lot of handheld camerawork, except on the occasions on the mentioned counter shots.
Smith communicates two problems of the slacker culture: those who are satisfied with their life, and those complain but don’t do anything (or as Randal says to Dante towards the end of the film, those who “need to shit or get off the pot.”). Smith doesn’t only show this through the personalities of Dante and Randal, but through relationships. Dante is torn between two women: one is his current girlfriend named Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who truly loves him but pressures him to continue his education in college, and the other is a promiscuous woman he went out with in high school named Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer). Veronica is the driving force that could move Dante’s life into a new, successful direction, while Caitlin represents his high school days, before he entered the real world. This presents the conflict of whether Dante should stay where he is at in life with an old high school sweetheart (who has cheated on him in the past), or move on in life with the woman who wants him to succeed and loves him. By the end of the film, Dante’s relationships with both of them are ended, and Smith does not give much of an answer for whether Dante learned anything from them. But the film as a whole works in a weird way because of it, in that Dante himself doesn’t really know what he wants from life throughout the film, so by not giving him an epiphany or resolution compliments his persona very well.
What Smith seems to illuminate about our culture is the alarming rate of youth adults fit into the slacker category. Over the course of the film Dante and Randal are not the only characters without higher education. Outside the Quick Stop are two stoner drug dealers, named Jay and Silent Bob (two characters that show up frequently in Kevin Smith’s other films), who just simply stand in front of the store all day, waiting for their next drug deal. Not only does Clerks shine light on said slackers, but it also shows what it is like for those in the service industry. The clerks have to deal with stupid customers that ask them questions like: “How much does this cost?” (When there is a sign that reads “$.99”) and “What do you mean no ice, you mean I gotta drink this coffee hot?” At one point in the film, while Dante, Randal, and a customer are talking about a man that puts eggs through ‘endurance tests’ in the back aisle, she turns to them and says: “You see, it’s important to have a job that makes a difference boys. That’s why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination.” Several customers like this take an arrogant verbal stab at the clerks throughout the film, and you feel bad for them, despite their inaction to change their position.
This movie reminded my own experiences and me a lot of the people I know. Very few people in my own have gone to college, and have ended up in either construction-type jobs or service jobs of some kind. Also, many people I knew in high school who are not in college now are working as waiters or store clerks. I have worked several public service jobs, from hauling kegs and serving beer to bringing old people their food in a nursing home. And since I know what it is like to work in the service industry, there is a reason I am in college right now. Clerks changes the way you look at people stuck in those type of jobs, and the way you treat them. As Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Free Press puts it, “there's something about seeing life from the distinct angle of the convenience-store clerk that's just new enough to hold you” (LaSalle par.7).
What makes the film work is that it chronicles a day in the life of Dante and Randal, rather than giving you bits and pieces of different days and time periods. By doing this, it gives the audience more of perspective of what these people go through, even if it be dealing with personal problems or fighting boredom. With all this said, I love this film. The dialogue is very realistic and funny, and like I said, I can relate to it even though I have never worked in a corner convenience store. There is a charm to the amateurism and simplicity of the story, and the intelligence behind the dialogue. However, I don’t think this film is for everyone. Despite the rave reviews it received at its theatrical release, Clerks is highly profane. Not only does it have many bad four-letter words, but there is also a lot of sexually explicit dialogue. Clerks initially received an NC-17 rating, and had to be edited down to get an R-rating. When a major plot point involves Dante finding out about Veronica and a large amount of fellatio on her part, you know that it’s profane. Only those who can handle almost constant profanity, but no violence or actual sex can dig this film. To really get the true idea of everything I mentioned, one has to see it for him/herself.
LaSalle, Mick. Clerks. 8 Nov 1994 San Francisco Free Press 4 May 2008.
Savlov, Marc. Clerks. 11 Nov 1994 The Austin Chronicle 5 May 2008.