Sundance, 1993: Miramax are acquired by Disney and Harvey Weinstein needs to prove they are still the daring studio that takes big bets on lascivious adult fare. Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990) has forged a path where disillusioned small town folks scratch out a living with menial work despite broader cultural educations than previous generations. Regional cinema with a distinctive low-budget flavor and sassy mouth was in high demand. Miramax VP of Acquisitions Mark Tusk had just seen Clerks (1994) in New York and knew Weinstein had to see the picture. Kevin Smith never thought his film would leave his hometown. It might play some regional festival circuits and that would be it, the joy would be in making the thing. Then he heard the recursive bursts of repugnant chortling laughter in the back of the film’s Sundance showing.
“Great fuckin’ movie, I want to put a fuckin’ soundtrack on it, and put it in the fuckin’ multiplexes,” Weinstein said, realizing Clerks was the foul-mouthed statement of intent the studio needed. This would prove that they could operate with Disney assets but above the call of the Mouse. This is all laid out in Peter Biskind’s wonderful book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (2004), in which Biskind astutely argues that Clerks is a pioneering work of the independent cinema enabling the success of a scuzzier indie cinema to sell at festival markets.
Is the reputation of Clerks a victim of its own out-sized success? We have seen so many permutations of Clerks. While Kevin Smith had one kind of movie to make, his career continued undaunted, with exceptional outside works like theological standoff of Church-bred hatred in Red State (2011) and the grotesquely fascinating Tusk (2014), born out of an inside joke among friends on Smith’s podcast, as close to living the laissez-faire directing dream as anyone can get. But there is the other bulk of films: the class of Slacker-strewn hangout films about dudes from New Jersey reflecting the circumstances of where they’ve come from. After diverting from this material, it’s reasonable that it’s the only place for Smith to come back to. You can’t go home again but you can keep making that same movie to the same effect and the same people who liked it might keep seeing it.
The misery of 2006’s Clerks II was in thinking that the political incorrectness of the series is why we were there. It was taking what Weinstein responded to and making that the whole movie. Smith said he understood Weinstein on the level that he was a fellow “vulgarist,” and so they made convenient bedfellows for a time until that relationship was outgrown. Smith would have to keep making movies and evolving as an artist. Clerks II was a kind of spiritual devolution. It was taking the lewd sass of Clerks and misinterpreting why the film worked. It was an extraction of the situational comedy that charmed audiences because of its laid back presentation and the context of the situations. Simply replicating the sense of place, stripping it of its black-and-white aesthetics (which do hide several of the director’s early clumsy tendencies around a camera), and laying into the gross-out humor was an obvious recipe for diminishing returns.
With rosy nostalgia and the correct meta-minded approach suitable for Clerks, Smith now returns for the right reasons. The right reasons are to bring everyone back who made the film an astonishing indie cult success. It’s about the spaces and off-color humor still, sure, but moreover, it’s about the people Smith so clearly still appreciates for their foundational support. It’s the comeback film where the cast of players reunite and thrive in their past glories. We enjoy them for the right reasons because they are performing in the right directions, capturing the actual sense of joy and humor that Clerks still authentically embodies for those of us still living in a certain period of the ’90s.
The other difference in the sequel treatment is modernizing the story and choosing the right targets. The music released between the last film and this one — significantly, My Chemical Romance (“Welcome to the Black Parade” set to a game of hockey on a rooftop fits in the Askewniverse, sure!) & Pearl Jam (Cameron Crowe ought to get honorary royalties for the tenor of the “Just Breathe” scene) — helps ground the film in a new time and place. It is shot in color this time but is about some guys hanging out in a convenience store shooting a black-and-white film: a good compromise. It also shoots for the right targets for Smith: another mocking work against Christian fundamentalists, this time those who really love cryptocurrencies.
A new generation is finding out what Slacker and Clerks were always telling them. You are not your menial job. You are smart. You can make art out of nothing. Or better, you can make art out of something you already are. You can go make art right now within your circumstances and especially about the limitations of the place you are coming from. Art is for everyone. Art belongs to the workers of normal jobs who stand behind the counter analyzing the things they love the most. Art is for you and it can come from you. There is no further revolution here. There is a new brand of independent film and it’s going in the opposite direction and this will not change its course. Not for nothing: this is Clerks for Clerks‘ sake and that is a good thing for Clerks to be.
At the end of the film, Kevin Smith breaks his in-series silence. Not as Silent Bob, but finally as the director: he shares some of his joy about making the film and the alternate ending that could have happened like an in-movie commentary track. This is a grace note and a sense of closure. Smith has brought back the cult film that you liked for the right reasons and as he’s prone to do, has made it for better reasons than most films have for getting made. Sometimes you have to make art because you came from somewhere and it has imprinted on you. Sometimes you have to make art to lovingly give back to all the people who made your art possible. Clerks III is the latter kind of film and is a different kind of independence: one free of Weinstein and finally “matured” into a place of understanding its own immaturity.