Plot: What’s it about?
Anyone considering themselves a part of Generation X has seen or at least heard about “Clerks”, the outrageous film debut of Kevin Smith. I say anyone who “considers” because Generation X isn’t so much a group as it is a state of mind. Kevin Smith understood that fact better than possibly anyone else on the independent scene in the mid-nineties, and “Clerks” hit home with the average blue-collar retail worker in a way that was almost visceral. My first exposure to the subculture that became Smith flicks was the film “Mallrats”. It was only until much later that I discovered that the movie I had fallen in love with was actually a prequel to the more widely praised “Clerks”. The latter is a film that relishes in its vulgarity and exploits its offensiveness with callous flamboyance. While that quality may herald the death knell for some films, it somehow serves a movie like Smith’s debut that, at its core, actually does have a heart of sorts. It’s its quiet, subtle insight into the apathetic, disillusioned youth caught between a dead-end existence and a mountain of responsibility that solidified its place in independent film culture. And it’s that insight that sets it apart from the likes of Smith’s most recent films that seem to relish in pandering to the lowest common denominator.
“Clerks” is a film based around intelligent humor disguised as a trite, vulgar farce. It may say tactless, offensive things, but it does it with such flare and style that the means are overshadowed by the result. Here’s a film that talks about (and celebrates) juvenile behavior and rebelliousness, but drapes a veil of well-versed vocabulary over the proceedings to take our guard down. It’s a winning combination of twisted humor and the writing talent required to mask it with language that keeps “Clerks” from succumbing to the usual stereotypes of the angst sub-genre. And it’s also what speaks to so many people and keeps us coming back for more. There’s a feeling while watching the film that it’s okay to indulge in the low brow so long as you aren’t being talked down to in the process. And while it the movie was filmed in black and white for budgetary reasons back in 1993, the end result only serves to emphasize the picture’s unlikely artistic undercurrents. Now, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this is a tasteful film, because, as all Smith minions know, such a statement would be a stretch at best and a flat out lie at worst. Still, there’s much to admire in the film beyond the dick and fart jokes that are lavished so excessively upon Smith’s more recent work.
The story, such as it is, revolves around two, well, clerks on one day in New Jersey. The two friends are Dante and Randall and run Quick Stop Grocery and RST Video respectively. Throughout the day, the two engage in numerous verbal jousts, spanning such irreverent subjects as “Star Wars”, hockey, relationships, sex, and annoying customers (without whom their jobs would be infinitely more bearable). A pair of dysfunctional hoodlums named Jay and Silent Bob deal drugs in front of their store, much to the malign of the far more responsible Dante. Naturally, the film goes a little beyond out of control, and so many chaotic things happen throughout the workday that eventually you forget that the film has any basis in reality. But what makes “Clerks” work so well is that, as anyone who’s ever worked retail jobs in their life unfortunately knows, such things do happen. And they happen frequently, even as you lose your sanity and tolerance for the conforming masses that grace your establishment. This film works because it’s just too crazy to be fiction, too raunchy to be Hollywood, and too damned fed up to care either way. It’s a time capsule for distant futures where convenience stores are but an eccentricity of the past – a curiosity of a generation who never thought to label themselves with a suffix. We should all be so lucky.
Video: How does it look?
“Clerks” is presented on this 10th Anniversary Edition in a brand spanking new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. While anyone familiar with the film knows that it has never looked good and would never expect this disc to be shocking in its detail, I must concede to being impressed overall. While the film was shot on 16mm stock and is, as such, extremely grainy and soft, this disc does what I would presume to be everything that is technologically possible considering the source. The grain, while still prevalent, has been dramatically toned down when directly compared to the original disc. Also, black levels are much truer than before. While the previous disc presented a dark gray tone at best, this reissue deepens the contrast level and takes the clarity up a notch or two. The softness is still an issue, but this is a truly admirable effort by Miramax to present the film as flawlessly as the format permits. Edge enhancement is not a problem, and I noticed no compression errors to distract. Again, a substantial improvement and reason enough for an upgrade from the previous edition.
Audio: How does it sound?
Even more impressive than the video is the newly remixed Dolby 5.1 Surround track. I was not expecting much out of this mix considering the limited dynamic range of the production. And as a dialogue-driven picture, I didn’t see much room for improvement over the initial 2.0 offering. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. Dialogue comes in crystal clear and much more intelligible than before, with the entire aural palette cleaned up and smoothed out. Shockingly, there were even a few moments here and there of surround use in the score, and the mid-range is pitch perfect on all counts. I can’t say this is demo disc material, but considering the nature of the film and the shoestring budget attached to the production, this is a very impressive and welcome upgrade from the original audio – and yet another big incentive for picking this disc up.
Supplements: What are the extras?
For once, it’s difficult to say what the main draw will be in this area. If the absolutely shining presentation of the theatrical version isn’t enough for you, then feel free to thrill to the “First Cut” version of “Clerks” housed on disc two. Both versions come complete with their own audio commentary (the one attached to the theatrical version is the same one currently available on the single disc variety and the extended version contains an all-new video commentary with members of the cast – accessible by toggling between angles on your player). Both commentaries are funny and engaging, although I have to give the edge to the original, as it has more information on the technical aspects of filming and less banter between the participants (which tends to wear thin after a while). The “Final Cut” version of “Clerks” is presented in full-frame from am SVHS source, so don’t expect the presentation to be up to par with the theatrical version (or anywhere close for that matter). There’s also an animated “Lost Scene” extra that some of you more zealous fans out there may recognize as a direct lift from the Clerks comic of same name back a few years ago. “The Flying Car” is a short featuring Randall and Dante in a traffic jamb engaged in their usual, hysterical antics. Rounding out disc one are a music video, MTV TV spots, restoration intros, the original theatrical trailers, audition footage, and a trivia subtitle option (ala the Star Trek Collector’s Editions). Disc three houses the bulk of the extras, the crown jewel of which being “The Snowball Effect”, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the making of the film. The documentary is one of the best out there, detailing the production from impetus right up through post-production. It’s a terrific piece worth the price of this set alone. Also included on disc three is “Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary”, Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier’s first eccentric foray into student filmmaking. As if all this wasn’t enough, the disc also includes a Q&A session with Kevin Smith, still photo galleries, original journals from the director, and a plethora of critical reviews of the film upon its initial release. This is an absolutely incredible set spanning the entire process and a must for any Smith fan’s collection.