Monday, September 10, 2007

Why I like Kevin Smith's movies, what they mean to me (1)

I don't recall when I first heard of Kevin Smith. I do, however, remember when Clerks. came out. (The title has a period at the end, that isn't a typo.) I remember the tagline "Just because they serve you doesn't mean they like you" intriguing me, but I never rented it, to my loss. When I got high-speed Internet, the first movie I downloaded was Mallrats. Again, to my loss, I never found the time to watch it, but I downloaded it because someone said it was good. Then that hard drive crashed. I didn't know what Mallrats was or that it was connected to Clerks.. I just knew it was about a couple guys who spend most of the movie in the mall. Then, a few years later, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back came out. I saw a trailer and it looked funny, but I've never been a big fan of comedy, so I passed it up. Then I met the lady who would one day be my wife, and found out she's one of Kevin Smith's biggest fans. So I went back and watched the movies. I can't even remember what order I watched them in, though I think "Strike Back" was first because it was new.

Clerks. was Smith's first movie, came out in 1994. Shot in black-and-white, made on a $28,000 budget that Smith and a friend or two came up with out of their own pockets, at night at a convenience store Smith worked at during the day - the very same Quick Stop. Two ordinary guys, Dante, the passive one who works for the Quick Stop; Randal, his more sarcastic, arrogant friend who works at RST Video, next door. If you've never worked retail, you will probably miss the entire point of this film. If I were Emperor of the Universe, I would decree that to shop in a retail store, you would have to work for at least 2 years in retail - else you'd be limited to shopping online. Too many people make too many assumptions about the people who work in stores, whether it's an over- or underestimation. Clerks. is nothing more and nothing less than a day in the lives of two such individuals and their love lives, their Star Wars fandom, and their witty banter.

Mallrats came out the following year, and updated Smith's buddy comedy formula with color picture and a larger setting - the local mall. As I understand it, Mallrats actually takes place before Clerks. (this being important to a select few only) but uses none of the same characters. T.S. and Brody are two guys in their early 20s who never quite grew up. Brody still collects comic books and plays Sega, and while T.S. does neither, his reactions to his girlfriend shows he still has a way to go before being a man, and I think it's an important point that guys aren't fully grown at 18, despite what some of us may think. (I'm not even sure I'm fully grown at 27. I think the line between dude and man will be drawn when our first kid is born. If that doesn't do it, holding her in my arms, feeding her, and getting up in the middle of the night to change diapers, nothing will.) I would suggest girls aren't so mature then, either, but Mallrats takes it the other way, showing a 15-year-old girl who is more mature than any of the main male characters (as are the other women - especially Joey Adams). Mallrats was also the first of Smith's movies with any star power, though not at the time. Jason Lee (Brody) and Ben Affleck (Fashionable Male manager) would both go on to do a whole lot bigger movies. And Marvel (Spiderman, X-Men, et al) creator Stan Lee's cameo, as well. This is Smith's film with the least amount of scope, the least accomplished at the end, but that's not entirely bad - it's also one of the most approachable, and watching it doesn't really necessitate (or require) watching the others.

Chasing Amy was next, and in 1997 Kevin Smith got serious. This is one of two movies he's done that is more serious than funny, but in this case, only just barely. This is a buddy comedy as well - Mallrats alumni Ben Affleck and Jason Lee - with Mallrats costar Joey Adams as a lesbian the former falls in love with, despite warnings followed by grief from the latter. The Star Wars references are back in full "force" as well, as in a scene near the beginning, a black guy tells an all-white audience why Star Wars is how "the white man keeps the brother man down, even in a galaxy far, far away", with Affleck and Lee giving him a hard time throughout. If you thought that was great, the rest of the movie only gets better, with colorful and witty dialogue, mostly between Affleck and Adams. In addition to being serious, this is probably the most adult-oriented of all the movies, with extremely frank dialog about sex, most of it of the kinky variety (and I'm not just being hard on the lesbian stuff, that's just the tip of the iceberg). It's refreshing for mature adults, but I'd be worried about younger teenagers watching it. But then, I guess it's no worse than some of the newer teen comedies like American Pie and Scary Movie, but it's just done a lot better. I've always been a big advocate of civil rights, which usually means standing up for demographic groups targeted by the Christians for their members to harass - women, blacks, Muslims, homosexuals - and while Chasing Amy isn't really about lesbianism per se, it does challenge some conservative/popular viewpoints that need to be challenged, even in this day and age as so many people are still in the dark about these things. If you watch this and keep an open mind, you might learn something if you haven't already.

Dogma came out in 1999, last one of the last century. This one really put Smith in some hot water, though it didn't turn out to be as big a deal as DaVinci Code, Passion of the Christ, or anything like that, although it is basically based on the same conspiracy theory in DVC - that Jesus, in fact, fathered a child. But enough spoilers; Dogma follows a woman who must stop Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (as fallen angels) from entering a church in New Jersey and reversing God's will and thus unmaking the universe. Damon is not the only newcomer to Smithworld, as recurring stars George Carlin and Chris Rock start here, as well. This is also the first one to feature Jay and Silent Bob as more regular characters. Where I said before that Mallrats had the most narrow scope, Dogma has the widest - the fate of all existence hangs in the balance, and Smith almost makes you believe it as much as, if not more so, than the countless disaster movies that come out. Even as an Agnostic/Atheist/Undecided person who doesn't follow the Christian path, Dogma presents some interesting philisophical issues, for a comedy that follows a couple stoners. Nothing new, but interesting nonetheless. For the religious stuff, Dogma may be my least favorite of Kevin Smith's movies, but nonetheless it's still fun to watch once in a while.

I could review all seven of Smith's movies, but I'll stop after 4. Coming soon, my reviews of his next three movies and maybe some other miscellaneous stuff he's done. If Kevin himself should happen to read this, beyond what I've said already, I'd just like to say THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK; for the rest of you, if you haven't seen these movies, what are you waiting for?

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