Clerks. was written, directed, and acted in by Kevin Smith. It was released in 1994 after performing very well at Sundance. It’s one of those movies which has a substantial cult following, a less substantial body of normal people who like it, and a large pool of people who just don’t get it. It was followed in 2006 by a sequel, Clerks II.
Clerks. follows a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and his best friend Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), who are, respectively, clerks at the Quik Stop convenience store and RST Video store in the (as the protagonists see it) nowhere town of Leonardo, New Jersey. The movie slowly spirals in towards its ending, gyring past a number of recurring themes and pop-culture musings.
Also introduced with the movie were Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), drug dealers who deal outside the Quik Stop, much to Dante’s annoyance. Kevin Smith went on to make a series of movies with Jay and Silent Bob (and the death of Julie Dwyer) as the links between them. These were Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, together comprising the misnomered “New Jersey Trilogy.”
One of the central themes of the movie is the for some painfully existential depiction of Dante’s inability to change his own life. He is forever at the mercy of everybody else in his life: the entire day is the result of his being unable to refuse his boss, who demands that Dante come in on his day off so that (as it turns out) he can leave the state without having to worry about the store. Dante wants to go back to school, to make something of himself, but cannot bring himself to do it, and will thus be trapped at the Quik Stop forever. His high school girlfriend cheated on him so frequently that their relationship became an appalling joke to everybody around them — but Dante still wants her back, believing that she’ll change of her own volition. There is a never-ending stream of customers coming in and taking advantage of Dante’s weakness. He tells a story towards the end of the movie about soiling himself as a child because his mother did not lift the toilet seat for him.
Randal, however, represents exactly the opposite. He comes in late to work, closes the store repeated times so that he can enjoy his day and hang out with Dante, and at one point goes so far as to spit in a customer’s face to show Dante that he can get away with it. Randal always gets the better of his customers, and in the end, is far more realistic about his situation — he stays where he is because he likes his life and doesn’t have any reason to change it.
The movie was shot in black and white on a shoestring budget of about $27,000 (£15,000). Licensing the soundtrack cost more than the combined cost of making everything else associated with the movie. Several of the characters in the movie were friends and relatives of Kevin Smith; some of them had never acted before. Interior shots were entirely done at night in the convenience store where Kevin Smith was working at the time that he made the movie.
The movie is divided into seventeen parts — Dante, Vilification, Jay and Silent Bob, Randal, Syntax, Vagary, Purgation, Malaise, Harbinger, Perspicacity, Paradigm, Whimsy, Quandary, Lamentation, Juxtaposition, Catharsis, and Denouement. Internet rumor mills will tell you that this is meant to parallel Dante Alighieri’s journey through the spheres, but this is most definitely a rumor, the result of a comment by Kevin Smith very early in his development of the script.
The movie was originally shot with a very different ending than the final one. Rather than leaving us with the idea that Dante has a new sense of purpose in life and a commitment to bettering himself, we are treated to the following. Randal leaves the store with the comment “You’re closed!” as he does in the “real” ending, tossing Dante the sign reading “I ASSURE YOU WE’RE OPEN.” As Dante prepares some paperwork so that he can leave, a customer enters, shoots Dante to death, and leaves with the contents of the register. Another customer then comes in, takes a look at Dante’s body, and steals a pack of cigarettes. (A running theme in the movie is the customers’ categorical denial of the link between their cigarette habit and the damage it does to their bodies.)
In my opinion, Clerks. is just about a masterpiece of a movie. Most of the people who complain about the movie do so because it’s in black and white, or they think the existentialism is too heavyhanded, or because the humor is not enough like slapstick. To these people, I say, you did not understand Clerks. Go back and see it again. Try to understand the message, to appreciate the humor, to consider the meaning of the movie with the different ending. Don’t let yourself miss out.