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Clerks: The Cult Classic that Redefined Indie Cinema

Kevin Smith's "Clerks" turns thirty in January 2024. This low-budget cult classic hilariously follows two clerks' daily lives, highlighting a lost era of off-Hollywood independence.
Clerks (1994)

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In January 2024, Clerks, the ultra-low-budget debut film of then 23-year-old Kevin Smith, will turn thirty. Three decades later, it remains a hilarious film that intelligently manages its limited spaces and production constraints, highlighting the now almost vanished vitality of off-Hollywood independence.

Dante Hicks and Randal Graves have been friends since high school and now both work as clerks in adjacent stores: Dante in a grocery store and Randal in a video rental shop. “Clerks” portrays a typical day for them, filled with conversations, encounters, and a few attempts at escape.

The 1994 Cannes Film Festival marked the edition in which, following a trend visible for years, the Hollywood majors were officially overshadowed—in cinephile discussions, at least—by the so-called “indie scene.” Quentin Tarantino triumphed in the competition with Pulp Fiction, produced by the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax (which had been acquired by Disney a few months before the film’s appearance at Cannes), along with A Band Apart, Tarantino’s own company, and Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films. Also in competition were Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, co-produced by Miramax and Fine Line Features thanks to the persistent efforts of Robert Altman, and Joel Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy, completed thanks to Joel Silver and his production company.

In the “Un Certain Regard” section, highlights included Clean, Shaven by Lodge Kerrigan (self-produced by the director for just sixty thousand dollars), Sleep with Me by Rory Kelly, and Suture co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Outside of competition, John Waters’ Serial Mom screened at the Palais, with the great heretic from overseas still processing the loss of Divine. Autonomous and parallel sections also made significant contributions, with the Directors’ Fortnight featuring Hal Hartley’s Amateur. Those who ventured to the Miramar to follow the Semaine de la Critique program encountered a tiny, black-and-white, dialogue-heavy, and foul-mouthed film that depicted the “normal” daily lives of two friends, one a clerk in a drugstore and the other in a video rental shop: the cult of Clerks was born.

In reality, those who ventured to the French Riviera in the spring of 1994 were already somewhat prepared for the impact of Kevin Smith’s debut film, as it had been talked about in the United States for several months following its late January screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Back then, even top-tier festivals did not insist on having the world premiere at all costs: after all, a few years earlier, Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which had already been seen at Sundance, won the Palme d’Or.

Today, in an increasingly standardized cinema landscape where the concept of independence has progressively disappeared—at least in terms of production—Clerks stands out as a true UFO, an object that cannot be clearly identified. Filmed with extremely limited resources during the drugstore’s off-hours (the primary location), with a crew of friends and acquaintances, and based on a robust script, particularly in terms of dialogue (some excerpts of which you can read earlier in this analysis), the film is a barrage of breathless quips and retorts. Clerks testifies to a filmmaking approach that has become increasingly rare and difficult to perceive.

Although it operates within the realms of crude comedy and even slapstick, Smith’s debut film is a product of the New York no-wave movement, even though it was shot just across the Hudson. This pre- and post-punk ethos involved reclaiming the tools of art, whether in music or cinema. Dressed in a black-and-white aesthetic not unlike that of contemporary Richard Kern, Clerks is a successful attempt to merge the “do it yourself” ethic with the rapid-fire rhythms of sitcom or stand-up dialogue. From the ground up, it appropriates the standards of major productions, yet claims an extreme character rarely found in mainstream codes.

Thus, the typical day of Randal and Dante, friends since high school and now coworkers, dares to venture into territories where the industry would struggle to find its bearings. Kevin Smith mocks everything, from necrophilia to desecration of corpses, from drug dealing to ridiculing the American petty bourgeoisie. He employs a necessarily minimal style—sometimes the lighting is poor, simply because some daytime scenes had to be shot at night due to the aforementioned production constraints. Smith would later turn this experience into a narrative in Zack and Miri Make a Porno—that serves as a vivid contrast to the film’s imagery.

Costing less than thirty thousand dollars and earning over three million worldwide, Clerks is, for better or worse, a snapshot of a generation. This is not only due to the generational claims inherent in the text (“You enjoy thinking you have a burden on your shoulders, as if everything here would fall apart without you! Ah, damn, you overestimate yourself to compensate for the fact that you do a monkey’s job! You just type, that’s it! Even a fool could do your job without any problem! You-you’re obsessed with making it seem epic, much more important than it is! Damn! You work in a grocery store, with a shitty salary! I rent lousy videos for an equally shitty salary! Do you want to know? Jay, now he’s a smart guy, at least he’s under no illusions! But us?! We think we’re someone important! As if we’re better than everyone who comes to buy newspapers and cigarettes! We look down on them as if we’re a superior race! Well, if we are, why are we working here?!”, says Randal in a key passage of the film) or due to the use of indie hits of the time in its soundtrack, with songs by Alice in Chains, Girls Against Boys, The Jesus Lizard, Bad Religion, Soul Asylum, and others.

Smith succeeds in portraying the futility of the daily lives of twenty-five-year-olds without expectations or utopias. At the same time, he claims an “independent” cinematic space for those who want to entertain the audience without excessive auteur pretensions or dreamlike flights of fancy. The profanity that fills every single dialogue—remarkably, in Italian, the film becomes much more expressive, given the art of vernacular is obscure to a U.S. audience accustomed to so-called “four-letter words”—serves as an offensive weapon, not against the empty concept of good manners, but against a worn-out, outdated cinematic habit. By perfectly living in its own time, Smith with Clerks evokes an immediate and strong connection from the audience to its characters, making it natural to transform this cult object into a trilogy. The final installment is appropriately nostalgic, reflecting on lost time in life, cinema, and its independence.

Raffaele Meale

Quinlan, December 31, 2023

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