Before the Fengshen Cinematic Universe, the modern Monster Universe, the DCEU, or the MCU, there was the View Askewinverse. Before there was Kevin Feige (Marvel Studios) or Jon Favreau (The Mandalorian) as the pinnacles of geekdom, there was writer/director Kevin Smith. Smith started as an indie director whose success with his debut feature Clerks. (1994) sent him straight into the mainstream only to begin a rollercoaster of failures and successes that created more than one moment of doubt for the auteur. But each time he hit resistance (Mallrats (1995), Dogma (1999), Jersey Girl (2004)), he came back with something else that grabbed audiences and continues to resonant today (Chasing Amy (1997), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), Clerks II (2006)). It would be easy to look at where Smith began and see where he is now and pass judgement, but director Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar)’s documentary Clerk. does nothing of the sort. Beginning roughly when Smith left New Jersey for film school in Vancouver, Ingram’s Clerk. explores the man through a series of interviews with those closest to him (friends, family, and creative partners) which create a loving mosaic of The Man Who Would Be King Geek.
First, an admission:
I’ve been a Kevin Smith fan since high school when I watched Clerks. while attending a sleepover. Mallrats is very much my jam. Chasing Amy, while not perfect, was revolutionary at the time of release, and I think Dogma is possibly his best work. One of my best friends, whom I met in undergrad, explained the View Askewinverse (the characters, references, and overlapping portions of Smith’s work up to Dogma, at that point) and my mind was blown at the idea of a writer/director crafting such a varying collection of tales bereft of limitations while still managing to establish connections to a different work. As I type this, I can see my Funko Pop of Iron Bob, the black-and-white Jay & Silent Bob minimates I was gifted, and the homemade motivational poster from EoM editor Crystal Davidson that features Buddy Christ. So when I tell you that I enjoyed Ingrams’s documentary, you should know that much of what is presented tells a story exploring the life of a creator whose work I admire a great deal.
Smith is by no means perfect and, it’s important to note, that no fan should ever gloss over the imperfections of someone they admire to the point of zealotry. For his faults creatively, there’s no denying that Smith is an individual whose projects are entirely passion-based and this admission in the documentary will surprise no one whose been following his work. Yoga Hosers (2016) came from a desire to work with his daughter, actor Harley Quinn, in a more serious capacity from her various cameos throughout her life. Strike Back was a reaction to the public’s strange anger at Dogma, while Clerks II came from a notion of returning home. In the documentary, Smith points out a moment in the argument between characters Randall (Jeff Anderson) and Dante (Brian O’Halloran) — one where the usually standoffish Randall extolls the virtues of living live by your own terms — as Smith’s own perspective as a creator at that time. Rather than creating someone else’s work or going by their barometer of good/bad, the guiding star by which he makes every decision was in creating something of his own vision powered by his own drive. Say what you will about his projects, they are undeniably Kevin Smith.
So let’s talk accessibility. Any documentary about a subject should be as accessible to an unfamiliar audience as to one which is already neck-deep. Ingram approaches Smith with an impressive reverence and familiarity. No mention is made within the documentary, but Smith had executive produced Ingram’s Small Town Gay Bar, so that apparent comfort comes from a pre-existing relationship. This comfort enables Ingram to get moments of true intimacy from Smith outside of the dick and cum jokes he’s known for. Keep in mind that Clerk. isn’t an exposé, uncovering some hidden truth about Smith via his friends, family, etc. Smith is very much an open book, known for promoting Fleshlight and even announcing his heart attack on his social media. What it does allow for is the audience to explore the ins and outs of Smith’s journey from kid cinephile to now. Ingram uses the stories of longtime friends Walter Flannagan, Bryan Johnson, and Scott Mosier to fill in the blanks between Smith’s public persona. His wife and sometime screen partner Jennifer Schwalbach Smith (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back/Clerks II) and daughter Harley Quinn provide insight into Smith as a husband and father within the prism of his work. Maybe you didn’t know how Smith and Jason Mewes first became friends, get ready for childhood pictures and an exploration of two hetero-lifemates coming together. What’s particularly moving, surprisingly so, are the few portions in which Stan Lee, Marvel Comic’s esteemed writer and MCU cameo extraordinaire, talks about his time working on Mallrats, explaining how the experience was more like playing with friends than going to work. Of all the things you learn about Smith, that portion rings the truest and is to be admired, if not to be a bit jealous of; he spends his days working with the things and people he loves on the projects he cares the most about. Through a series of candid interviews, this is what makes Clerk. so lovely, the realization that Smith has moved past the desire for critical acclaim or studio love so that he can just do what moves him.
However, and this is a small quibble against the larger strengths, there’s a great deal that Ingram skips over or speeds through in Smith’s career to get from his moviemaking-focused days to his current position as public speaker, podcaster, and heart attack survivor. Ingram skips over making Daredevil (2003) with Ben Affleck, the period where Affleck and Smith were estranged, the comics Smith made outside of Marvel (where’s part 2 of Batman: Cacophony!?!?!), and all of the wonderful television work Smith has directed for the DC Comics television programs. He does makes a point to address Harvey Weinstein in light of Smith’s extensive relationship with film distributor Miramax, which Weinstein ran, and he barely mentions the difficulty of filming Cop Out (2010) with Bruce Willis, a project that was notoriously difficult on Smith. There is a great deal to cover in Smith’s nearly 30-year career, so a certain amount of “can’t do everything” make sense, but there are significant things here missing to the point that someone less versed in Smith’s history may believe that he hasn’t directed anything since Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019). This will, of course, only be noticeable to those with a deeper knowledge or awareness of Smith’s life and will in no way disturb or detract from Ingram’s film. Hence, small quibble.
By and large, Malcolm Ingram’s Clerk. is a testament to the life of a man who absolutely was supposed to be here this and any other day. Without Clerks, would movies of the independent film subgenre Mumblecore (examples: Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Frances Ha (2012), Drinking Buddies (2013)) have come to be? Marvel editor Joe Quesada describes Smith’s Daredevil run as saving the company. Would we have the MCU without it? Where would Matt Damon and Ben Affleck be without Smith’s support in the making of Good Will Hunting (1997)? The butterfly effect of Smith’s life may be truly incalculable and this documentary makes it quite clear, from personal and professional standpoints, just how connected Smith is to those he touches and those he has been touched by. Ingram’s approach is so delicate, that while the usual dirty jokes are being slung about, you’ll get blind-sided by something truly sweet, uplifting, and, dare I say, even life-affirming. Long live the Man Who Would Be King Geek. Snoochie Boochies!
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.