Clerk (SXSW Review)

Clerk (SXSW Review)
7 10

Story: This documentary chronicles the life and career of filmmaker and Lord of All Geeks, Kevin Smith.

Review: To say Kevin Smith has had a career in show business is one of the bigger understatements a person can make. Kevin Smith has had about a dozen careers in showbusiness, ranging from indie filmmaker taking out massive credit card debt to get his first movie made to pop culture personality whose name people may know without knowing whom the f**k it belongs to. In his documentary, Clerk, director Malcolm Ingram sets out – with insight from Smith himself and many of his pals – to cover the sheer breadth of his nigh 30 years in the game, and all the ups, downs, and complete 180s that have come with it. That’s about too much material to cover in under two hours – especially when staying as celebratory as it all is – but if you’re a Kevin Smith fan, or even someone who has fallen mostly (or all the way) off the wagon over the years, is time well spent with a worthwhile, loving glimpse under the backward baseball hat.  

A true start to finish(ish) tale, Clerk starts by taking it back to Smith recording a message to his parents just before heading off from the town of Highlands, New Jersey to film school in Vancouver, letting them know exactly why he’s taking such a big chance. Emotional, and minus the beard he’s hardly been seen without since, Smith is eager to not only achieve a lifelong dream but to set out from his small town in hopes of making something out of the family name. This and the other early moments that paint Smith as a man who was born to both entertain and break the mold of his small town may not break the chains of the typical celebrity documentary, but for anyone interested in the life of Smith, it’s not only illuminating to see how much of a performer he was at a young age but will be candy for any Smith die-hards. They’ll get the ultimate Smith origin story, fit with how he met several of eventual View Askewniverse figures (Jason Mewes, Bryan Johnson, and more) all the way back in his days at the Highlands rec center.

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Starting at humble beginnings, Ingram then launches at breakneck speed as he begins covering virtually every aspect of Smith’s career. He gets plenty from Smith (who has never been shy about speaking about himself) in interviews, as well as from frequent collaborators Scott Mosier, Jason Mewes, Bryan O’Halloran, as well as people who influenced him (Richard Linklater, Penn Gillette) and those he’s inspired (Jason Reitman). Between all the people who either worked on Smith’s films or are just huge fans getting a chance to share their thoughts and experiences, there’s plenty to make the journey from movie-to-movie entertaining and enlightening.

Of course, who is to say how much of what’s covered will be new information. The place of CLERKS in the history of the rise of indie filmmaking of the 90s is well-chronicled – both by Smith and those who have written about the subject – and so where the documentary thrives are in the small moments when you feel like Smith or the rest of his crew get honest about an individual project. This is especially absorbing when the topic is on his 90s films, and how, say, the failure of the more playful Mallrats (particularly in how Smith felt the critics reacted to it), led to Smith having more to say than ever with Chasing Amy. For passionate fans, it may not be anything new to hear, but for anyone else looking to learn more about who Smith is and what shaped him, how Ingram weaves through these early years makes a fascinating portrait of a man honing himself as a director – and in interviews – revealing what about his successes and failures meant to him moving from one project to the next.

But for those perhaps looking for a more critical light shone on Smith as it starts to go through his rockier filmmaking years with movies like Jersey Girl, Cop Out, and (sadly) more, they won’t find it here. Smith’s emotions and honesty sometimes show a man who knows when his movies haven’t been hits, and how that has taken a toll on him, but don’t expect him to apologize profusely for Yoga Hosers – at least on camera. In trying to capture the scope of Smith’s career, Ingram includes his rise via the internet, splicing in a chronicle of the View Askew community that led to him being more than a filmmaker – becoming just as much a patron saint of “geek culture”. With more on Smith’s plate, the doc has a tendency to bounce off one aspect just as you’re getting settled in to learn more about what the failure of Jersey Girl meant for him, falling into Marvel’s Joe Quesada praising him for his work in giving comics new life with his takes on Daredevil and more. Again, this is highly entertaining stuff, and even eye-opening when you take in just how many areas Smith has excelled in, but for those looking for more a deep-dive into a man whose career has meant a series of hits and misses with critics and audiences, there’s a bit left on the cutting room floor as Ingram makes sure to not let a single achievement go unnoticed. 

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But while there are parts of the doc where you wish Ingram probed a bit more, as it gets into the most recent evolution in Smith’s career – his move away from filmmaking and into speaking, podcasting, and just being the overall Ambassador of Geekdom – you will walk away knowing his rationale for the transition. A point comes where Smith admits that the idea of “Kevin Smith The Filmmaker” is indeed gone, and while he still makes movies, he’s made a conscious effort to shift into what he’s doing now, feeling more at home as an entertainer who constantly connects with his fanbase. It’s not lost on him, that if he simply stayed a filmmaker he wouldn’t have much of a career at this point, but in a show of his passion and, admittedly, a spark of genius, the doc showcases just how well he’s been able to make a name for himself by stepping on stage and talking to massive crowds for hours and hours.

Perhaps there’s room for a more critical documentary about Smith’s life and work out there, but this isn’t it, and I’m more than okay with that. Smith has a career now that he almost shouldn't have given where he started, but through pure tenacity, warmth and a desire to never stay within the mold people have put him in, he has willed it into existence – and Clerk is a big ode to that. Love or hate his work, he is an undeniably fascinating figure in pop culture, and it’s hard to hit the credits here and not have an immense amount of respect for him. Does part of me wish “Kevin Smith The Filmmaker” would come back with a movie that proves he still has something to say? Yes. But if you learn anything from this documentary it’s that Smith is happier and more fulfilled now than he’s ever been doing exactly what he's doing now. Fair trade.

Source: JoBlo.com

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