MOTW: Legends of the Mall: Kevin Smith's "Clerks"
"Clerks" was one of the great sleeper hits of the efflorescence of independent movies in the 1990s. The film, as was customary for many groundbreaking movies of the period, seems to have confused the studio's marketing department, which may explain the limited initial release and general lack of publicity the movie got when it came out.
Like many other films that rely on wit and sharp writing instead of cheap tricks, "Clerks" gradually found its fans and built a large, devoted following through home video release and word of mouth. Eventually, the film commanded a fan base large enough to justify a sequel. The success of this sequel led to Kevin Smith's 2013 announcement to his deliriously happy fans—including those who happily contributed to the project's initial funding on Kickstarter—that the script for "Clerks III" had been finished.
Of course, none of this would have been possible if not for the original film released in 1994. The movie follows a day—a very bad day, actually—in the lives of two hapless clerks who, like so many others, are stuck in menial retail jobs they don't take seriously but can't quit. It's Saturday, Dante Hicks' (Brian O'Halloran) day off, which makes it even more galling that his boss has called him to fill in. He passes the day talking and goofing off with his friend, Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), a clerk from the video store next door to Dante's convenience store. Customers of varying degrees of awful pass through the store, various personal crises are discussed, and the day wears on as Dante waits for relief from his boss, who's expected any minute but somehow doesn't show up to relieve Dante.
"Clerks" was so unusual, so unlike the run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare, that few critics really knew how to frame their reviews of it. The words "quirky" and "offbeat" were used, to the detriment of the film, which certainly was not a lighthearted or zany madcap farce, as those words imply. Viewers raved about the film's groundbreaking nature, but the professional critics were slow to acknowledge what a groundbreaking hit they had on their hands.
It's possible that the movie just suffered from being a little too far ahead of its time. Perhaps, if "Clerks" had been released just a few years later, it would have enjoyed the comfortable context of other great '90s films such as "Pulp Fiction," "The Big Lebowski," and "Fargo." Like "Clerks," each of these swept the independent film festivals. Each did its part to broaden what the Hollywood establishment considered the acceptable range of discourse. Each film also laid critical—in both senses—groundwork for new movies that would come close on their heels. It was the misfortune of "Clerks" to be one of the first and essentially go from theaters to cult status.
Since its release, "Clerks" has steadily accreted followers. Passing through the theater system, followed by the home rental market, and finally becoming available for download, "Clerks" has built up a loyal fan base simply by being able to reach those fans on a personal level. This can likely explain why the viewer ratings have always been so much higher than those of the professional film reviewers.
So great has been the dedication of the movie's fans—original, as well as the more recently converted—that "Clerks" has spawned not just a sequel, but a spinoff in "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." Such is the market for Kevin Smith's characters that, even after a lapse of twenty years, the "Clerks III" Kickstarter managed to raise enough money to get the script finished with the promise of shooting to follow.
It's a rare movie that can inspire large numbers of people and continue to raise money decades after its release. That kind of honor is generally held only for truly great films and those that manage to shift the minds of audiences. Kevin Smith's "Clerks" was no special effects extravaganza like "Jurassic Park," nor was is a sweeping epic like "Gone with the Wind," but it has survived beyond the original run, spawned a franchise, and elevated its stars and makers to legendary status. As film legends go, there are worse legacies to have.