Among the many Cinderella stories to emerge from the 1990s indie film scene, none was more unlikely or foul-mouthed than Clerks. This grainy black-and-white, 16mm film was written and directed by Kevin Smith in his spare time while working a dead-end job at a New Jersey grocery store. and a willingness to max out $28,000 in credit cards) wrote what he knew.
Smith’s Clerks became the most unlikely touchstone of generations: a passion project that spoke to a certain moment of Gen-X apathy as well as the timeless boredom that comes with being in your twenties and not knowing what to do with your life. This tiny indie off the mainstream erupted at the Sundance Film Festival, and the rest is ’90s alternative cultural history. This was the start of Smith’s View Askewinverse and a string of comedies that defined the decade – as well as an unlikely trilogy with Clerks that spawned both Clerks II (2006) and, finally, Clerks III, which comes out this fall.
While promoting the latter, Smith showed up at the Den of Geek studio during San Diego Comic-Con. Always a cheeky showman, Smith was dressed as his popular alter ego “Silent Bob” and seemed to be in a really good mood as he talked about how Clerks III became a love letter to the characters that have given him so much in his life. We’ll have more of that conversation closer to the film’s release, including why it was so important for Smith to finally let the characters from his 1994 film become filmmakers themselves.
But as he talks to us about the prospect of actually trying to make a Clerks-like film in 2022, Smith is surprisingly candid about why he doesn’t think such a film could break through the way his first film did in 1994 – or, indeed, if he could ever imagine making such a picture if he were a younger man today.
“I don’t think so,” Smith says when asked if he could copy the zeitgeist appeal of Clerks now. “I think now in the age of TikTok, it’s a lot easier to get across the idea that ‘this job sucks!” with a 30-second video.”
Smith notes that his wife recently showed him a bitingly funny TikTok channel about how frustrating it is to deal with IKEA furniture, the whole point of an online personality, and admits that if he were still a disaffected twenty-something, he’d want to create similar online content .
“It never occurred to me to do a whole damn narrative,” Smith says. “Like, 90 minutes in a supermarket where you could just do a series of fucking funny videos on camera? So yeah, I think if TikTok had existed, if Instagram had existed, if the Internet had existed right before I made Clerks, I wouldn’t have tried to make Clerks because I wouldn’t have felt talented. When you turn on the internet, yes, it’s a hate machine, and yes, it’s divisive, and there’s a lot of shit that comes with it, but it’s a window into how many creative, inventive, talented people are out there, man. In big ways and in small ways.”
Smith also acknowledges that the film industry as it was in 1994 – or even 2006, when he made Clerks II – has changed to such an extent that distributors, and by extension audiences, are taking a chance on a raw black-and-white for the first time Film is Hard to Comprehend.
Smith says, “If I were doing mental arithmetic and trying to make Clerks today, I’d check the odds against me. Number one, film distribution does not exist as it has predominantly existed for most of my life. Since I’m not doing a Marvel movie or a fucking Tom Cruise movie, I don’t know if I’d get a spot in theaters anywhere. And I’m certainly not going to get picked up by Netflix because they pump money into filmmakers
around the world to produce high-quality looking products. They’re not necessarily in the acquisition business. So for a small guerrilla film, my options would be incredibly limited at this point.”
Smith even suggests that young, hungry filmmakers like his early ’90s self might try to make things in the NFT market, which he also tried his hand at with the release of Killroy Was Here earlier this year. At least in this world, Smith argues, you’d know there’s a passionate and dedicated marketplace for unconventional art.
“I would be so intimidated by how much funnier, how much smarter, how much more talented people are that I would probably just put the idea aside,” Smith says. “Thank God those voices weren’t around when I started.”
He may think there’s funnier talent out there, but for several generations of viewers, there are few clearer voices in comedy than Smith. And they’ll hear his wry take again when Clerks III opens Sept. 13.