Clerk (SXSW Review): Funny and Surprisingly Touching Doc
Clerk makes for a smart, touching retrospective on the career of a filmmaker who has deeply influenced film comedy and independent cinema.
Let me start this review with a disclaimer. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I’ve recently moved back to the state in adulthood. I’m in my mid-30s. I recognize that I’m betraying my kin by saying this, but here it is: I’m not a huge fan of the filmmaker, Kevin Smith. I like Clerks and Chasing Amy well enough. I think he’s directed some very fun episodes of The CW’s The Flash. But most of the View Askewniverse, not to mention his studio material, is simply not for me.
Yet, I’ve come to really like the person, Kevin Smith. In interviews, podcasts and stage shows, he always seems like a great guy. He seems genuinely, personally dedicated to his fans. And as a nerd who loves comic book movies and all sorts of genre material, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge his role in helping make “my” stuff mainstream.
So, I approached Malcolm Ingram’s (Small Town Gay Bar) documentary with cautious optimism and genuine curiosity. Early in the film, I was struck by Smith’s open and brutally honest self-critiques. From barbs at the aesthetics of Clerks to the reception of Mallrats, I appreciated the man’s great self-awareness. That talking heads show up to also poke fun Smith – including Richard Linklater selling a troll bit wonderfully – shows a film, and a subject, that feels no need to take itself too seriously. Other talking heads speak warmly about Smith and their history including Stan Lee, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. Critical figures from each phase of Smith’s career appear, frequently sharing very funny asides about how the filmmaker shaped their careers.
I appreciated the film’s honesty as well. Smith makes no real secret of his complicated relationship with critics, and the failures of some of his films. Surprisingly, the film address Harvey Weinstein’s role in Smith’s ascension directly. Smith comes off earnest and credible, not just in his accounting of what he knew (essentially nothing), but in his efforts to be personally accountable for not trying to do more. He now donates all the earnings from his Miramax/Weinstein films to a non-profit dedicating to supporting women in film.
Clerk is perhaps most effective when it delves into more serious and personal territory. One of the film’s strongest elements is the story of fathers and sons and cinema that undergirds the proceedings. Smith speaks warmly of Wednesday matinees his father would sneak him into on a weekly basis, and of George Carlin stand-up sets shared under his mother’s nose. It all comes beautifully full circle when Smith later talks about seeing viewers far too young at his stage shows or traveling films… and the dads sitting next to them encouraging it. I didn’t expect to feel moved by a documentary about the guy who gleefully strove to set a record for profanity usage in a movie, but it’s a credit to director Malcolm Ingram’s craft, and Smith’s humanity, that it resonates so effectively.
The film also effectively delves into Smith’s recent heart attack, and how it impacted his relationship with his daughter. Again, Smith is open and earnest. It’s touching to hear him speak on not only his own mortality, but how he views his legacy. I truly appreciate how content Smith seems to be with the success he has had, and his openness about how proud he has been to build a career by essentially choosing to work with his buddies. Not every document needs to be a searing indictment of some atrocity. I really enjoyed how effectively Ingram manages to echo the hang-out feel of one of Smith’s films in this documentary. This is, of course, absolutely essential viewing for Smith fans. But as one of the outsiders, I found it charming and touching anyway. It’s also forced me to reconsider my own relationship with Smith’s films, so perhaps I’ll crack out that old Chasing Amy DVD soon…