Is Kevin Smith right?

On Tuesday, March 8, I traveled to Chicago’s prestigious Harris Theater and spent $83.16 to see a film its own creator has dismissed as nothing more than a fun little horror movie. But I wasn’t paying nearly $100 for a movie so much as I was paying to see the latest and most dramatic development in the ongoing Kevin Smith Vs. The World Show. Beginning with the infamous Sundance screening this January, where Smith ended a mock “auction” for his new film Red State by paying $20 to distribute it himself—beginning with a cross-country excursion he’s dubbed the “Red State U.S.A. Tour”—the View Askew capo has succeeded in transforming what could have been dismissed as a failed low-budget attempt to branch out into a major spectacle. The sideshow has riveted and enraged the press, with which Smith has long enjoyed a love/hate relationship—skewed heavily toward the “hate” side of the equation on both sides. 

Smith is playing the press like a virtuoso. By his own admission, he has no budget to promote the film, but it’s getting plenty of free publicity from bloggers and critics who exploded with rage when Smith turned the Sundance screening of Red State into a silly publicity stunt. I am not one of those people. If anything, Smith probably elevated the level of discourse at Sundance by turning a ho-hum screening into a silly publicity stunt. It was the apogee of Smith’s everyman persona and populist appeal. By taking the film on the road and treating it more like a concert or speaking engagement than a conventional theatrical run, Smith is dividing the world into slobs (the people who love and support him) and snobs (everyone else). 

In person at the Harris Theater, however, Smith came off not as a bomb-throwing cinematic revolutionary so much as a pragmatic businessman cashing in his chits and using all the leverage and goodwill he’s accrued over his 17 years in the business on one last pipe dream. Smith’s persona at this point is a fascinating, maddening combination of shtick and brutal honesty, unwise candor and canny calculation, media manipulation and ruthless self-reflection. Smith has made wry self-deprecation his trademark, yet he grew so apoplectic when critics eviscerated Cop Out that he took to Twitter to compare critical reviews of the film to “bullying a retarded kid” and bitched about the masochism involved in letting critics see his films for free just so they could destroy them with their words. 

At the Red State screening, however, Smith struck a conciliatory note. He noted his friendship with former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, and claimed, puzzlingly, that at various points in his career, he’s made movies specifically for critics. In the Q&A following the film, Smith said he expects even critics who revile his films and roll their eyes impatiently at his antics would unite with him against a common enemy: bloated, risk-averse studios and a marketing and distribution model that favors monoliths like Transformers and makes things prohibitively difficult for the little guy. Critics have been complaining for years that Smith has luxuriated in the hermetic world of View Askew and refused to take risks or veer from his comfort zone, so why wouldn’t they salute him for trying something different? Oh yeah, because he’s spent much of the past decade depicting them as professional parasites motivated by jealousy, rage, and bitterness.

Yet that didn’t keep him from trying to please them. The more Smith talked about his relationship with critics and the press, the more that curious bond came to seem like an abusive relationship: When Smith doesn’t get the approval and validation he seeks from critics, he lashes out at them, then demurs that he didn’t really mean anything by it, and hey, he just had an awesome conversation with Peter Travers! 

Smith is a hard guy to get a handle on. Call him a professional nemesis of critics, and he’ll tell you he’s pals with them. Depict him as a revolutionary waging war against the established way of doing things, and he’ll tell you Hollywood loves him and admires his DIY philosophy. Call Red State a potent volley in our never-ending culture war, and he’ll tell you it’s just a fun, dumb little horror movie with no greater message or meaning. The entirely predictable response to Cop Out sent Smith into a rage, yet he’ll be the first to tell you that he isn’t a very good director. Rip Smith apart on a blog as a charlatan, fraud, and talentless tool, and you’re providing plenty of free publicity for Red State. The more vitriolic the piece, the more likely it is to attract attention to Smith’s film. 

For a fellow who professes to be nothing more than a fat, masturbating stoner, Smith is incredibly canny in how he’s conducted his career. Now he’s using all of his hard life lessons to sidestep the conventional model of distribution and promotion in favor of one rooted in his cult of personality. To that I say, huzzah, Kevin Smith! I admire and respect your audacity and commitment to shaking up a corrupt, inefficient system. I just wish Smith was able to operate outside the system—a dream of filmmakers from the silent era on—without charging his fans $60 or more or more to see a film. The audience wasn’t paying a fortune to see a movie so much as it was paying a fortune to hang out with Kevin Smith and hear him do what he does best: talk. That ticket price doesn’t seem as exorbitant in light of the enormous popularity of Smith’s speaking engagements; fans may or may not have been disappointed by the film, but I can’t imagine them being disappointed by the characteristically frank talk. 

Red State isn’t just a film. Not anymore. Smith has made it something more. He’s transformed a $4 million B-movie into a cause célèbre, a controversy magnet, and inevitably, a trending topic. He’s made the release of Red State into a referendum on studios, critics, blogs, film distribution, the Internet, his career, and his apparently limited future as a filmmaker.

So now might be a good time to actually talk about Red State as a film. As promised, it’s a radical departure for Smith that focuses on a trio of hormone-crazed teenagers who head deep into God country for a threesome with Melissa Leo. They soon wind up at the mercy of Michael Parks, a deranged fundamentalist modeled on “God Hates Fags” charmer Fred Phelps, and his homosexual-loathing acolytes. 

Red State gets off to a promisingly naturalistic start. In part through canny sound design, Smith cultivates a mood of dread and ominous foreboding until the movie stops dead so Parks can deliver a fire-and-brimstone monologue. Parks talks. And talks. And talks. By the time he finishes what feels like a 15-minute-long monologue that could have been cribbed entirely from an actual Phelps sermon, whatever tension the film had developed is lost. Once again, Smith has ignored the old dictate to show rather than tell. Smith alters it to “Tell, then tell again, then tell some more, then summarize what you’ve just said for anyone who might have missed it.” The sequence fails in spite of a magnetic performance from Parks, who makes his messianic lunatic simultaneously utterly loathsome and strangely seductive. He’s an exemplar of smiling evil, a man corrupted by absolute belief in the rightness of his actions and the wrongness of everyone else’s.

As a horror movie, Red State is terminally non-scary. As social commentary, it’s ham-fisted and preaching to the converted every bit as much as Parks’ fire-breathing minister. Then, about halfway in, Red State stops even trying to be a horror movie and morphs into something else altogether. From the moment he first appears, about halfway in, John Goodman dominates the movie as a pragmatic but fundamentally decent FBI agent trying to keep the crisis from turning into another Waco. With a terrific and engaged Goodman front and center, the film becomes a strange drama about a politically loaded standoff between the FBI and fundamentalists, before veering off in another direction entirely at the end.

I don’t want to give too much away, since much of my enjoyment of Red State came from the way it subverts expectations and plays with the rules and conventions of genre filmmaking. To the film’s credit, I had no idea where it was headed at any given moment, and the ending is so strange, inspired, and unexpected that it almost redeemed the rest of the movie. Almost. Red State boasts ambition, audacity, and two fine performances from Goodman and Parks, but that doesn’t excuse an alternately dull and histrionic middle, or the complete dearth of sympathetic characters apart from Goodman. As a film, Red State is another of Smith’s honorable failures, a noble but unsuccessful experiment. 

The 800 or so folks at the theater were voting with their pocketbooks in the war between Kevin Smith and the usual way of doing things. They were supporting Smith in his riskiest, most ambitious gamble to date, not just paying for a movie and an engaging Q&A. They were supporting him because they like his movies, but even more than that, they like what he stands for. When they look at Smith, they see themselves. They see an everyday guy who made it, who penetrated the rarified world of the beautiful and wellborn, and is beating the slick Hollywood players at their own game. 

In the post-film Q&A, Smith depicted himself as a frustrated filmmaker who ran out of ideas and was reduced to making films for the sake of making films in lieu of genuine inspiration (a practice otherwise known as “Woody Allen’s post-1993 career”). Once upon a time, Smith was in love with film and being a filmmaker, but he confessed to the audience that by the time Zack And Miri Make A Porno rolled around, he felt somehow inauthentic. He got into film to tell stories, but had run out of stories to tell, and didn’t want to subject audiences to diminishing returns. (Though Smith, being extraordinarily savvy about how he’s portrayed in the press, conceded that plenty of folks felt that way about every film he’s made since Clerks.) Smith conceded that he wasn’t a particularly adept visual stylist, and was never particularly suited to directing. 

In other words, Smith conceded that the critics were right about him, though if a critic were to co-sign everything Smith had just said about himself, I suspect he’d be enraged. Smith seemed genuinely exhausted when he told audiences that after his next film, Hit Somebody—a hockey comedy written by Tuesdays With Morrie author Mitch Albom—he’ll retire from directing theatrical films (a pretty major caveat) to concentrate on what he does best: talking. Shooting the shit is his real art form, so that’s what he’s going to concentrate on, via a radio station (the details of which he did not share), once his directorial career is over. 

A lot of folks have scoffed that Smith’s promise to retire after Hit Somebody is nothing more than a cheap attempt to increase anticipation for his “last” two films, just as cynics/realists suspected that Smith’s mock “auction” for the rights to Red State was nothing more than a stunt to increase anticipation for his “last” two films. If Hit Somebody isn’t Smith’s last film, does that make him a liar? I don’t think so. I genuinely believe him when he says he no longer wants to make films, just as I’ll believe him if he decides otherwise 10 or 15 or even five years from now. We’re all entitled to change our minds. 

At this point, Smith’s entire life seems designed to increase anticipation for his “last” two films. I don’t have a problem with that. I admire the P.T. Barnum in Smith’s soul, and his genius for self-promotion. Smith is operating on a ferociously un-level playing field, so he’s doing what he can to even the odds: playing to his base via podcasts and social-networking sites, and cannily manipulating the media. 

Is Smith right that the conventional way of distributing and promoting films is hopelessly broken and non-conducive to creativity and risk-taking? Of course he is. But the path Smith is taking—touring with his film like a rock band would, then giving the film a proper theatrical release in October—only really makes sense for a filmmaker like Smith, who has a big built-in following that will see anything he does, even if they have to pay a lot more than the price of a movie ticket to do so. 

Smith says he’s getting into the distribution business big-time via his SModcast Pictures arm, though as part of his orgy of back-pedaling and hedging, he jokes that SModcast Pictures should be an independent filmmaker’s absolute final option. Cinema history is littered with the corpses of distribution companies set up by filmmakers intent on taking control of their destiny by edging majors out of the equation. Smith’s SModcast is different in that it uses social media as its primary promotional tool. 

Could Twitter, Facebook, and Smith’s online empire even the playing field for other filmmakers? Will SModcast Pictures be to the present era what Miramax was to the ’90s? Probably not, but you can’t fault a man for dreaming big or taking chances, though you certainly can fault him for charging so much for a movie ticket. Smith’s big plans may be little more than a sideshow, but he’s raising important questions about the way films are sold and marketed, and he’s making the cinema world a livelier, more interesting place. So even if Red State never makes back its budget and SModcast Pictures never releases anything beyond Smith’s messy little orphan of a movie, Smith will have succeeded in shaking up the system the only way he knows how: on his own terms, with a whole lot of salesmanship, showmanship, and big talk.

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