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“On the Demonic Conscience of Clerks and its Unorthodoxly Rendered Nucleus of Reason”

2020, for all its pitfalls, woes, tribulations and precipitation of self-chainsawing sessions, does have one undeniable feather in its cap: there hasn’t been a single whisper about Star Wars issued by the film industry, at least that I’ve heard. Actually I don’t really know because without sports my TV only gets turned on for Saturday Night Live (which tends to range from painful to commendably watchable, Michael Che’s Weekend Update installments wedged firmly in the latter category). From just googling “top movies 2020,” anyway, I get the sense that women’s breasts are still a general draw [1], as are guys dressed up like The Gimp from Pulp Fiction and talking in British accents, and… hey, some “mean girls” looking high school chicks. Wow, that was more flair than I’d been expecting and should be fully lauded.

Well in this post I’m focusing on the 1994 comedy film Clerks, which was shot on a budget of $12,000 (that’s not a lot of money to spend filming a movie, for any unawares), and went on to spawn a sequel, a cartoon series, a spinoff faux-sequel in Jay and Silent Bob Strike back (a pretty mediocre movie commendable for its copious portrayal of female human breasts), but most importantly, headway in forging the path of the low-budget, wry-humored film zeitgeist of the ’90s which began with Richard Linklater’s ’90s expedition Slacker based in Austin (Clerks and the general sum of Smith projects being housed in Jersey) and corresponded culturally with the direct emotion and garage sound of grunge. Later Kevin Smith projects like Mall Rats and Chasing Amy would develop a comparable technique of taking a punctilious look at contemporary adult dialogue, iconoclastically eschewing gratuity of special effects and “hero” personae in the process.

What most people know about Clerks is that it’s shot in black and white (which as far as I’ve gathered was actually done out of financial squalor and not rustic effect, or whatever), it features recurrent characters Jay and Silent Bob, it all takes place in a gas station and the people in it are a**holes. Actually, I think I saw something on one of the cover pressings along the lines of “Just because they serve you, doesn’t mean they have to like you.” With this simplistic synopsis of the film’s basis, you’d think the entire thing were tailored as like a slapstick comedy of rudeness, which in a sidelong sense, it sort of is. Ironically, though, Smith also depicts the clerks themselves as being the victims of the world’s intrinsically antipathetic noxiousness. In this way, to me, the actual characters entrenched in customer service are essentially cast as everyday people with median, average dispositions, rather than the way the cover made it seem of a sort of extolling of entertaining, conspicuously spiny antihero slackers, if you will. To be sure, the lo-fi movement in film, just as was the case in music, probably had every bit as much to do with a disillusionment before grandeur and a proclivity to the everyday and functional, on the part of the general public, as it did with people’s lives actually taking a documentable turn toward “loserdom” or whatever, in the early ’90s, that would have spawned such deliberately ornery spotlighted semantics as that cover seemed to indicate.. It was a pretty good economic time, after all, albeit one stained by relative rises in AIDS infection and gun violence, in many places.

Movies hit it huge in the ’80s, no one would deny, the pluralistic result of, among other strides, Tim Burton’s eerie approach to horror and visuals, Stephen King’s taste for horror and destruction given meticulous wheels, the immovable object that is Ghost Busters and Stanley Kubrick’s twisted take on Vietnam combat and snowbound vacations [2]. Missing, though, was the “everyday dude,” the low-wage worker underestimated and abused by the system and ergo proviso of one wicked penchant for sarcasm and biting commentary. Clerks takes it one step further, constructing this theme within the main character retail workers Randall and Dante, then giving it authentic power with the proliferation of the masses given to this very ebb of congeniality.

One of the scenes in the movie features a hockey game played on the roof of the building (a building which contains both Dante’s convenience store and Randall’s video store), the locale of the game having been altered from its former spot as neither dude could get the day off work, as had been planned. With this event allotted, all these random fu**-offs show up at the store, in their hockey jerseys and roller blades, ready to play. One of them, the dude in the Devils jersey (significant for spiritual reasons as well as that that’s the New Jersey pro hockey team), takes a particularly adamant role in the comedic outplay, partaking in the hostile seizure of “free Gatorade” from the store and also harvesting the pertinent line “You’re livin’ in denial and suppress and rape, motherfu**er!”, to Dante, regarding his obsession with his ex-girlfriend who’s on the verge of marrying another guy. Basically, this dialogic tidbit is meant as a sort of discursive crux of the movie: in essence, the entire film is about how self-pity is really self-defeat and the world we’re living in requires you to take active control over your life and your pursuit of happiness (in other parts the moping, melancholy Dante is reprimanded by his cohorts for flaccidly going along with what his boss of immediate superiors seem to want from him, in life, instead of blazing his own trail, i.e. quitting the job). It’s not at all believable that such a guileless Jersey thug would be using such language and depending on who you are, you might find this a shortcoming of the particular screenwriting swatch at hand: the apparent simplicity of the individual juxtaposed with the erudite, scientifically thorough word choice. In a strange way, though, I find it funny for that very bizarre human combination, sort of like a character being possessed by an outer demon which simultaneously acts as the film’s phantom narrator (there is no actual narrator in the film), a film with a demonic conscience, funny for its very adhesion to the possibility that celestial truths could be administered by Gatorade-hoarding street hockey players. Actually, it almost plays like a perfect unfurling of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” declaration on the part of mischievous, puerile knave known as Puck: “If you pardon, we will amend”.

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[1] Along these lines, I have to admit during quarantine I’ve been developing a taste for films where the conversation only lasts one minute, but that’s a different story.

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[2] And… er… how ’bout a hand for Dead Poets Society? Why are you biting that beagle’s flesh?

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