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Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Applying the Auteur Theory to Kevin Smith

In the early '90s American Indie boom, auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh emerged into the zeitgeist with personal, low-budget projects that ultimately  came to inform a larger body of work that made them the important film personalities they are today. In this same Sundance-fueled era, a 24-year-old Kevin Smith premiered his first film, Clerks. With the industry support of Harvey Weinstein and the critical support of the New York Times and Janet Maslin, Kevin Smith bullied his way into the rising star director conversation. His follow up films, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma led to the creation of a connected Kevin Smith universe, or, the "View-Askewniverse" as it came to be called. However, none of this future projects has the stylistic inventiveness or the pitch perfect rendering of the worldview Smith inhabits that made Clerks so exciting.

Auteurism in film has been discussed in the column before, but to refresh it can be defined as a visual theme in a filmmaker's body of work that makes the work distinctly of the filmmaker's oeuvre. It can certainly be said that a Kevin Smith film is immediately recognizable as such, even without a glimpse of his signature Jay and Silent Bob characters, but is there a difference between a filmmaker who creates a universe in which his films inhabit, full of inside jokes and thematic recurrences, and a filmmaker who can be considered an auteur? I would argue that Kevin Smith fulfills the latter, but there are clear indications that what worked so well in Clerks from a directing standpoint did not carry over to his larger-budget, more commercial work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in comparing Smith's debut film with its long delayed sequel, Clerks II.

Upon its released in 1994, Clerks’ aggressively personal lo-fi aesthetic made the film a notable entry. The world presented feels so lived in and detailed, it practically becomes an extension of the characters themselves. Consider the famous "I Assure You We Are Open" and "If You Plan to Shoplift, Just Ask" signs and how their language and presence make the space feel specific to Dante’s character. The grainy, black and white film only serve to make the incredibly drab convenience store appear even more drab, which adds to the mood of working-class malaise present throughout the entire film and even throughout all of the early installments in the View-Askewniverse.

In this scene from Clerks, Smith shows why he was at the time considered an extremely promising filmmaker. The cluttered production design and very basic camera work (he shoots the entire scene in static wides and 2-shots) makes the viewer feel like an onlooker just drifting through a conversation that would be happening whether or not they were there. The camera even shakes like a handheld camera and adjusts framing mid-scene, not in a way that feels staged like a found footage film but in a way that shows that Smith doesn’t take himself too seriously. This stylistic choice makes the performances look effortless and establishes a mood and ownership of the space. The famous Star Wars dialogue takes place around the viewer as if this is just another iteration of the same conversation these two have to distract from the monotony of their work.

In this scene from Clerks II, Smith attempts to recreate and modernize a similar scene, but what once felt lived in and true feels corny and stilted in over-saturated color, designed costumes, an elaborate set, and many camera angle options. The feeling of “just hanging out” is lost. The characters in Kevin Smith’s world are engaging and relatable when we see them as everyday characters, but the second that veil is pulled and we begin to see them as movie characters, their appeal and relatability is lost. That is one of the biggest failure of Clerks II, it no longer feels like it exists in a world Kevin Smith inhabits and understands. In that way, consider me Team Randall in my appreciation of the original trilogy (argument scene).

Most of all, it is abundantly clear that Kevin Smith was served by the limitations presented by Clerks’ scant $27,000 budget. Much of what works about the film — shooting in real, personal locations, using non-professional actors, single-camera set ups, apparent mistakes in framing and cuts — can be credited to Smith successfully making the most out of limited resources. People connected to his style because he made it look like anyone could make a movie about their boring lives. And to his credit, Kevin Smith is extremely adept at writing dialogue that serves this feeling; it is perhaps his greatest skill.

However, allotment of available resources is ultimately what lead to some of Smith’s lesser works, most of all Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. A carefree appearance and style works in super-low budget, but is significantly harder to pull off in a higher production value because it feels to the viewer like you are wasting their time. The appearance of famous actor friends hanging out and having fun on the audience's time feels lazy and builds a resentment that is hard to overcome (see Oceans Twelve). What was once so exciting about Kevin Smith — his ability to make his filmmaking style appear so effortless and relaxed — betrayed him when his budgets and actor profiles were raised beyond his small New Jersey home.

There are still many things I find very funny in my favorite non-Clerks Kevin Smith entries, Mallrats (a movie 15-year-old me was particularly fond of) and Dogma, but they are funny in a broad Hollywood comedy way, not in a Sundance-approved indie auteur way. Ultimately, Kevin Smith succeeded in creating a universe in which his films exist, but world-building is cohesion on a story level not on a directing level. As a director, Smith used Clerks to earn himself more money and access but something about the unique production elements of that film created a filmmaking success that Smith has yet to match.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.

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