With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
Casual movie fans may not be aware that former wise-ass hero Kevin Smith is currently in the middle of a cinematic trilogy. Even if they know his recent work, they might be more familiar with Yoga Hosers as a movie that got bad reviews at Sundance and may or may not have ever been theatrically released (it was!) than as the second installment of Smith’s planned Canadian-themed “True North” trilogy. Smith, undeterred, has claimed his next two films will be Moose Jaws, the conclusion of the True North trilogy, and Clerks III, a second sequel to his 1994 debut as a writer, director, and part-time actor.
This could earn Smith an unexpected but presumably welcome-to-him comparison with George Lucas. For all of his activity as a filmmaker and innovator over the years, Lucas has directed six feature-length movies, four of which are entries in his wildly successful Star Wars series. Smith can claim directorial productivity over Lucas; if Moose Jaws and Clerks III materialize, that will make a total of 14 feature films. But the ratio is similar: 10 of Smith’s 14 will be entries in one of two series.
Smith’s better-known series wasn’t really designed as such at the outset. That’s the case with any number of franchises, but the movies in Smith’s “View Askewniverse” (named for his original production company) weren’t codified as an ongoing concern until the third or fourth entry, and only the fifth film (of an eventual six) takes full advantage of that status. Mallrats, for example, wasn’t particularly marketed as a spiritual sequel to Clerks back in 1995, just a follow-up from the same director. Today, a movie with that much in common with its predecessor would likely be labeled a triumphant return and clear companion piece. At the time, Smith’s initial triptych of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy were a “Jersey trilogy” more akin to Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy or Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy than, say, the original Star Wars trilogy. There are Easter egg connections among the three: A funeral attended by the clerks in Clerks turns out to be for a character whose death kick-starts the plot of Mallrats; Rick Derris, glimpsed in Clerks, claims numerous offscreen sexual conquests among the social circles of the characters in all three movies; and, most directly, drug-dealing buddies Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself, respectively) have supporting roles in all of them.
By the time Jay and Silent Bob become co-leads in Dogma and assume the point of view of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, the View Askew movies are more than a series of interconnected short stories; Clerks II makes it even more official by going back to Smith’s roots (with Jay and Silent Bob still in tow, naturally). Throughout this unusual journey, the zaniness levels vary, especially regarding the drug dealers who have become Smith’s signature characters. It’s vaguely implied that the goofy Mallrats versions of Jay and Silent Bob are basically the comic-book characters from the more grounded Chasing Amy—and, as such, perhaps not entirely “true” in the world of the latter movie.
Taken together, the reality of the View Askew movies looks slippery, ranging from the rough-hewn semi-realism of Chasing Amy and Clerks to the moments of Looney Tunes antics of Mallrats to the apocalyptic/Catholic fantasy of Dogma to, finally, the extensive fourth-wall-breaking of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. This is especially unusual for a film series that started where Clerks did—as a black-and-white shoestring feature made for a little more than $27,000 and charged to various credit cards—but does point to one of Smith’s underrated qualities as a filmmaker: his willingness to go serious or silly within his, granted, limited personal framework.
Clerks is at its core both silly and serious. It’s full of cheerful vulgarity, goofy running gags, and enthusiastically amateurish performances by its bit players. Arguably the main ensemble has plenty of enthusiastic amateurishness, too, but that also gives the movie its grit. As borderline absurdist as some of Smith’s ideas are, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) look and sound like real people, even if they sometimes sound like real people reading overwritten dialogue, which becomes funny partly because of its strains for eloquence.
In fact, if you want to appreciate how well O’Halloran and Anderson acquit themselves with Smith’s torrents of verbosity, just check out poor Jeremy London and Shannen Doherty, two of the leads in Mallrats. Both had plenty of TV experience coming into Smith’s Clerks follow-up, and both turn mush-mouthed when they have to banter with Jason Lee, whose Brodie is best friends with T.S. (London) and a shitty boyfriend to Rene (Doherty). Former skateboarder Lee may tend to shout out his lines, but he has an understanding of Smith’s rhythms that don’t come naturally to any number of more traditionally experienced performers.
The performances of O’Halloran, Anderson, Lee, and Mewes go a long way in making believable not just Smith’s mannered, distinctive dialogue but also the whole world of Clerks, Mallrats, and later Chasing Amy. To succeed in a Smith movie, particularly a View Askew universe movie, an actor must convincingly tell anecdotes about weird cousins or dudes from high school with great precision. In Clerks, this tendency is tragicomic, a shared language between Dante and Randall (they have a weary mutual familiarity with everyone in their stupid town) that produces both a bond and, for Dante, ongoing humiliation. In the cartoonier Mallrats, the shared history is more gleeful; Brodie and T.S. have to do some nominal growing up, but there’s no real embarrassment in their encyclopedic memories of high-school bullshit, because just about anyone from outside that circle, like the “asshole from Fashionable Male” (Ben Affleck, hilarious by mere glowering presence), is worth knowing.
Chasing Amy skews sadder, as this time the friendship between Holden (formerly Fashionable Male Affleck) and Banky (Lee) strains and eventually breaks. Moreover, it’s the sexual past of Holden’s quasi-lesbian love Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), filtered through Holden’s version of a virgin-whore complex, that winds up torpedoing their relationship. It’s a canny use of Smith’s interconnected referentiality—what was a gag in Mallrats and parts of Clerks becomes integral to the saddest part of his most affecting View Askew movie. Even back in 1997, Chasing Amy earned some disdain for its dude-in-love-with-a-lesbian story hook, and in any time period it’s unmistakably a movie looking at the gay community through the sex life of a heteronormative white dude. But the movie is nonetheless perceptive about male insecurity, especially in the context of Smith’s other two movies through that point. The references to Clerks and Mallrats feel more deliberate—it’s easy to sense Smith’s dawning realization that he has a real following—but they also help clarify the strengths of the story he’s telling.
The original Jersey trilogy is probably the purest expression of Smith’s sensibilities; the various pairs of dudes throughout his first three films do indeed seem like they could have gone to high school together. The other half of his View Askew sextet is less essential, even as it expands its universe. Pre-expansion, there were early hints of a broader world in Smith’s head; the end credits of Smith’s first movie promise, Bond-style, that Jay and Silent Bob will return in Dogma, a longtime passion project of Smith’s. His next movie would instead be Mallrats, which not only includes an end-credits promise of Chasing Amy (especially interesting given that Chasing Amy is often presumed a back-to-basics reaction to the big-studio flop of Mallrats, rather than a movie that was already set to go) but also ends with Jay and Silent Bob walking into the sunset holding hands with a chimp, their what-happened-to-everyone entry ending with an ellipsis.
While it was teased in the end credits of both Clerks and Chasing Amy and promotes Jay and Silent Bob to co-starring roles, Dogma is arguably the least universe-centric of Smith’s six interconnected films, perhaps owing to the original script’s genesis prior to most of the other films or to the vast amount of Catholic mythology it needs to fit in alongside the Jersey stuff. Although Mewes and Smith are there to keep things plenty View Askew-y, it’s more interesting as a sort of parallel to the earlier films. Just like in the Jersey trilogy, the biblical and celestial characters in Dogma have a shared, tangled, sometimes insular history that the movie has fun unpacking and chatting about.
The story’s complexities and ambitions sometimes exceed Smith’s abilities as a filmmaker, though he’s generally more simple than outright incompetent, at least when his movies stick to localized hanging out. Clerks was made with a basic, workable grasp of film grammar; it just shows very little interest in expanding beyond long static takes, some cutaway gags and reaction shots, and the occasional dialogue scenes where the camera whips back and forth between characters rather than keeping them in the same unmoving frame. Throughout the View Askew series, he does show an odd weakness for having characters yanked or bum-rushed out of frame, a cartoony touch that appears even in his less farcical films. But the ramshackle bits of slapstick in Clerks and Chasing Amy have a homemade charm. Dogma, while thoughtful and funny and unlike just about any other comedy of its era in its willingness to actually address religion, stands out among the View Askew movies as the one that would benefit most from another director’s guiding hand. It takes place in Smith’s universe, but it doesn’t really need to.
Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma’s victory-lap follow-up and a temporary farewell to these characters, goes very much in the opposite direction. Rather than using Smith’s (limited but not ineffective) techniques to explore a larger world, it goes insular and self-referential. As a feature-length tribute to Smith, his characters, and the fans who get the references, it’s perhaps the only movie that will ever be made requiring Affleck and Lee to play multiple characters (Affleck, repeatedly and hilariously extolled by the film as “da bomb in Phantoms,” plays both himself and Chasing Amy’s Holden; if he’d reprised Shannon Hamilton, the asshole from Fashionable Male, this might qualify as his Klumps).
Although it’s full of hit-and-miss comedy-sketch digressions (and an extremely tedious late-movie running gag about Jay’s homophobia—probably realistic but certainly not interesting, ingratiating, or insightful), Strike Back is pretty funny, at least for fans of the Smith series and/or fan fic about the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon relationship. In this way, it foretells more current, high-profile franchise films by creating a whole movie designed to please its target audience first, foremost, and possibly only. At the time, these movies seemed like non-sequels with common elements. Viewed today, they’re pretty clearly low-budget versions of that shared universe business every big studio is after—while also happening to make reference to a lot of stuff that’s become the basis for those bigger-budget cinematic universes: Star Wars, Batman, X-Men, and so on.
Smith’s visual style is even more limited than the average franchise operation, and his writing style is unmistakably his own, seeming to shift slightly only to accommodate the ebbs and flows of his own vocal tics (like addressing people as “sir,” which happens much more in his mid-period films than his early ones). But compared with a modern shared universe series, his View Askew movies have more leeway in how they approach their world, with the aforementioned oscillations between wild fantasy, cartoony slapstick, and grit augmented with monologues. Long-running series are now closely associated with escapist fare, but they make just as much sense for the chronicling of smaller lives, which makes Smith’s final (for now) View Askew film, Clerks II, ahead of its time even as it was also notably belated. Its release in 2006 came well after peak interest in a follow-up to the 1994 original, but well before the spate of decade-plus-later sequels to smaller-scale movies like Bad Santa or Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Clerks II is one of Smith’s nicer-looking films—the colors have an early-autumnal brightness that make Jersey look prettier than he previously managed—which in retrospect functions as a cue that this movie will be more affecting than really funny. At first, it seems like it has a basic misunderstanding of its disaffected wage-slave characters, recasting Dante as a Jersey loyalist and Randall as more bully and letch than slacking mischief-maker. But this is Dante and Randall 12 years later, and maybe the personality shifts that render them recognizable but different make sense for a pair of de facto best friends in their mid-30s.
It’s that contrast that powers Clerks II more so than the jokes, which are as scattershot as those in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back without the knockabout pacing. When he’s not sweetening his movie with a standard-issue rom-com love triangle powered by the inarguable charms of Rosario Dawson (as one of the “cool girls” Smith tends to write with less depth in his mid-period movies), Smith seems fixated on topping the raunchiness of his previous films. In general, his first three movies describe gross or explicit acts, while his later stuff (including the enjoyable non-series entry Zak And Miri Make A Porno) are intent on depicting it, albeit often partially off screen. For that matter, this applies to Smith’s emotional side, too. In Clerks, Dante and Randall are buddies by default; in Clerks II, Randall flat-out declares that Dante is his best friend and he loves him. Whether this happens because Smith retconned them into best friends, decided they became best friends over the course of a dozen years in between movies, or just made explicit the implicit is hard to say. But for better or for worse, it makes the series feel like a progression, even if it doesn’t progress into better movies.
It’s appropriate that the distinction between aging and growing up isn’t always clear in Smith’s films. He clearly has an adolescent sensibility; that hasn’t gotten worse with his recent movies (including his in-progress trilogy) so much as it’s been exacerbated by a seeming assumption that his first draft, impulse, or idea is always his best. Granted, the likes of Clerks and Mallrats don’t play like the products of endless, patient workshopping. But a cheerfully goofy movie like Yoga Hosers that reimagines a pair of clerks as teenage, female, and Canadian (and to sometimes enjoyable effect!) ultimately uses first-draft sloppiness as a defensive pose against its critics, real and imagined. Although it’s the second part of an absurd trilogy, its plastic Canadian world feels lazy and arbitrary.
Smith’s attempts to try other things and leave View Askew behind are admirable. But it’s the connections between these six movies—the thorough chronicling of what is essentially a pretty narrow social circle—that make them more worthwhile and satisfying than most of his other films. Their loose interconnections are hardly unprecedented; Smith has repeatedly said that seeing Richard Linklater’s Slacker inspired him to make a movie. He hasn’t grown nearly as much as Linklater, who still makes movies that rank among his best, but both of their filmographies have sections that feel like intermovie conversations. Only Linklater’s Before trilogy (and those characters’ cameos in Waking Life) makes formal connections, but there’s an unofficial kinship between those films, the wandering of Slacker, the single-movie time travel of Boyhood, and the teenage exploits of both Dazed And Confused and Everybody Wants Some. At his best, Smith makes his own half-teenage, half-adult, chat-heavy, plot-light world just as clear. A cynical description might characterize Smith’s View Askew series as a franchised version of indie film, which may be true. But it’s also an independent-minded version of a franchise.
1. Clerks (1994)
2. Chasing Amy (1997)
3. Mallrats (1995)
4. Dogma (1999)
5. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
6. Clerks II (2006)