Kevin Smith was once my hero. A filmmaker that I inspired to be. He embodied everything that I wanted out of a film career. My first encounter with him was on a podcast called Scene Unseen Movie Reviews, promoting his upcoming R-rated comedy Zach and Miri Make a Porno, a film that did not need to be promoted to the likes of me, a burgeoning comedy nerd who would gobble up anything with anyone who even remotely looked like Seth Rogen. In the interview, the hosts of the podcast interviewed Seth Rogen and the director Kevin Smith. While I might’ve expected to hang on Rogen’s every word, it was Smith who I took a shine to while listening. He had a colorful, imaginative way of speaking, that weaved constant cursing and dirty jokes into meaningful and intelligent conversation. It was like he had figured out how to connect my different interests(which at the time consisted of overambitious art films and late night comedy). Someone had finally shown me that it’s possible to bring high-brow intelligence and wit to low-brow humor. I was sold.
From that interview, I watched every single one of Smith’s movies and quickly became a fan of his podcast, Smodcast, a weekly conversation with the producer on all his movies, Scott Mosier. The podcast wasn’t about the films though, exactly. It basically came down to two guys just shooting the shit. As a weekly listener of the podcast, I became intimately acquainted with Smith’s voice and style, and was able to see it reflect in the movies. This is why I think it’s fair for me to analyze why I initially fell in love with his movies, and, how over the last few years, he has completely lost the touch that once attracted me to his entire universe.
When I say universe, I do not hyperbolize. Within his films, Smith built a universe of inter-references and cross movie characters that rewards repeat viewings and allows a culture to form around them. Each movie happens in what Smith likes to call “The View Askewniverse”(referencing the name of his production company, View Askew). A good indicator of whether or not a film is appearing in the “Askewniverse” is by the sight of staple characters Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself. If one sees Jay and Silent Bob in the film, they can be confident that the film is in the Askewniverse. It’s no surprise that the geek culture is so in love with Kevin Smith. Not only do his movies constantly reference comic books and science fiction staples (like Star Wars) but the movies themselves behave similarly to the films and comics they reference. There is a shared world of a fictional New Jersey in which all of the characters and events of each movie record a different aspect of it. But each movie does not occur in a vacuum.
What’s also charming about the films is how personal they are. One of the things that can often make geek culture look unappealing or lame is that it lacks emotion. That nerds have monotone voices and their emotional range is about as wide as their pitch range is. However, Smith seeks to disprove these stereotypes. He’s someone whose favorite scene in Episode IV might be a moment where Luke watches the binary suns set. His essential goal is to show that movie geeks are going to talk about relationships just as much as they talk about movies and comics. The best example of this is Chasing Amy, a story which is about comic book writers on the surface, but is in fact a brutally honest analysis of a relationship that breaks the tropes of both rom-coms and comic book fandom culture.
With movies with special attention personal relationships comes Smiths own personal relationships to his films and his fans. The story behind the films is almost as interesting, if not more so than the films themselves. And knowing the story certainly makes them more interesting. Smith’s induction into the film business is one of the more inspiring ones around. He made his first film, Clerks, while working at the convenience store where it was shot. He would work all day, close down the store, and then film the entire night. Since they filmed at night, Smith needed an excuse as to why there was no natural light in the store. So he simply wrote into the script that “someone had jammed gum in the locks” and made the store clerk unable to open the shutters of the store. Ingenuity like this is what makes the hustle of indie filmmaking appear creative and cool. While it was certainly not an expensive film to make (at $27,575), this was still quite a big number to a filmmaker living on convenience store wages. So he and his friends paid for the film by maxing out several credit cards and not paying as many people as possible. The story is inspiring because, with so many odds against it, the film was an incredible success. “Clerks won the “Award of the Youth” and the “Mercedes-Benz Award” at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, tied with Fresh for the “Filmmakers Trophy” at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards (Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay and Jeff Anderson for Best Debut Performance).” (Wiki). On top of all this, it also eventually grossed $3 million upon its theatrical release. Smith’s personal touch is never far from his films, shown by endearing end credits “thank you’s” at the end of each film, where he gives a personal message to the closest people to him in his life,“ God – Who still seems to be a fan of mine. And vice versa. Jenny – The proof that God’s still a fan. I love you so, so much, my muse. Scott – Love you too. You’re the James Brown of film, dude.”
While Smith’s indie hustle and committed “regular guy-ness” has made him someone that high school versions of myself have long admired, it is his very success at doing this that has forced an unfortunate turn in Smith’s content. This becomes apparent in Zach and Miri Make a Porno, of all cases, because of its stark contrast to his position in life. The film takes its structure from the story of the making of Clerks, as it is about a group of broke filmmakers who want to shoot a movie in their workplace at night. However, Smith seeks to make a raunchy sex comedy out of the situation by replacing filming intellectual indie comedy with “s**t going into other s**t”. A fun premise, but the film fails to deliver. The film attempts to capture the magic of Clerks by borrowing from its origin story, but it fails to capture the magic because the movie is in no-way innovating. The film contains all of the tropes that Smith once sought to break, and without an interesting story behind it to back it up, the movie falls flat on all ends. From there, Smith made Cop Out, and failed in almost the exact same way. It’s a high budget studio movie with some Kevin Smith flare tacked onto it.
After those two large studio bombs, Smith fell into a deep depression and even vowed to “quit filmmaking forever”. However, what he really meant was that he wanted to quit studio filmmaking and go back to his roots of independent filmmaking. A valiant effort, but again an ineffective one. Smith’s spark has seemed to burn out, as his most recent films Red State, Tusk, and Yoga Hosers, have been nothing but sad attempts to recapture the vibrant energy and tone that Smith had as a young filmmaker. Red State, the best of the bunch, is an interesting foray into horror with an outstanding performance by Michael Parks. However, everything outside of Parks’ performance is underwhelming, and the film feels bland and colorless compared to the 80’s cable horror that Smith is all to obviously trying to borrow from. It’s a cool idea with no execution. Tusk and Yoga Hosers are a continuation of the downward journey, each one a further step down, respectively. Tusk again attempts the wacky horror with another impressive performance from Michael Parks and another underwhelming execution. Yoga Hosers is a teen comedy that is gasping for air, this time with Smith’s daughter leading the ship into the iceberg. The film produces nothing more than banter and stringent plot. A.A. Dowd of the A.V. club says, “Yoga Hosers isn’t really a movie. It’s a quarter-to-1:00 a.m. SNL sketch, nightmarishly distended into oblivion. It’s a corny Canuck joke, told for 88 surreally unfunny minutes.” This proves that while his humble beginnings had a key component in bringing Smith success, they are exactly what is preventing him from having success now. Because he can no longer be 23 and broke, Smith can never have the very thing that brought the spark to his movies. While he can still write banter for days, we as the audience can no longer excuse a shoddy plot or poor pacing. Smith has become far too established for that, and being an independent filmmaker as opposed to a studio one almost makes these failures sting harder, as all of the blame rests on Smith himself. As much as it pains me to say it as a former fan, he should consider taking a cue from Silent Bob, keep quiet, and rest on his initial laurels for a little while.