The early 1990s were absolutely essential years for independent cinema, where young filmmakers with low budgets and unconventional ideas could actually make a mark in American popular culture. Kevin Smith, director of 1994’s breakthrough classic Clerks, is at the very epicenter of that conversation. The documentary Clerk details his life and career development, from humble beginnings in New Jersey to his View Askew production company’s massive impact. Although it could probably stand to lose 20 minutes from its runtime and doesn’t delve deep enough into the oral history of his early works, it draws a tremendous amount of energy from the cult personality of Smith himself, whose passion and charm are infectious.
The story of Clerks is legendary within the movie industry, a film that proves you don’t need a huge budget or A-list stars to have a hit. Smith famously made Clerks for $27,575 with a group of his close friends in the convenience store that he was working in at the time — they could only film at night after the store was closed. This was not only the movie that would establish a foothold in the early 90s for alternative, vaguely subversive comedy but one that would launch Smith’s career as a young indie director to watch. And that’s what Clerk focuses on primarily: the emergence of Smith as an auteur and the almost mythic status of his View Askew brand amongst certain crowds.
Smith, for his part, is an utterly engaging interview subject. He has a tremendous amount of self-awareness that gives his analysis of his own career surprising depth. He comes across as a man who knows who he is and is more or less at peace with his legacy, for better or worse. It’s fascinating to explore his career development as a frenetic artist eager to try new things and can’t stop moving from medium to medium. Smith got his start in film, to be sure, but that hasn’t stopped him from experimenting with comic books, podcasts, inspirational speaking, stand-up comedy, and pretty much anything else that catches his fancy.
If there’s a problem with Clerk, it’s that (like Smith himself) it bounces around from topic to topic, never stopping to really explore many of his films in great depth. It’s attempting to establish a chronology, which makes sense, but there’s something lost in that approach. It often feels as though it will mention a film, provide a few cursory comments or insights into the production process, and then move on at a breakneck speed. It’s a testament to Smith’s work that people became so emotionally attached to each individual film, and it’s hard not to feel short-changed with the sheer amount of ground Clerk is attempting to cover.
It might have been more satisfying if director Malcolm Ingram was a bit more judicious about which of Smith’s films to highlight, building a tighter narrative that revolved around a smaller number of key pieces that define his legacy. But he makes a choice instead to approach the documentary as an oral history of his entire career, and its insistence on including every single beat makes Clerk feel simultaneously way too long and as though it’s barely scratching the surface.
However, these are minor qualms in what is really a fascinating exploration of one of the most iconic directors of the past thirty years. (Yes, Gen Xers and elder millennials, 1994 was almost thirty years ago.) If nothing else, Kevin Smith makes it worth watching, through sheer force of personality. If you’re already a fan of View Askew or were a teenage filmgoer in the 90s who saw Clerks and discovered a whole new way that movies could be, Clerk should feel like sinking into a warm bath. And if you’re just getting to know his work, Clerk serves as a useful primer of all things Kevin Smith. No matter which way you slice it, nothing but good vibes here.