Blu-ray Review: The Kevin Smith Collection (Clerks; Chasing Amy; Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back)

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Aside from hilarity, one of the side effects not addressed on the box of The Kevin Smith Collection amidst the phone book sized listing of bonus features is that viewing the trio of films in quick succession will temporarily send your vocabulary into the gutter. In other words, it unleashed this polite native Midwesterner’s inner “Jersey Girl.”

However, additionally I couldn’t help but admit that this Blu-ray box set would’ve been a far more coveted anthology for the filmmaker’s dedicated fan base if it weren’t missing the three other titles in what is now collectively known as the “View Askewniverse” of overlapping characters and incidents woven throughout six of his movies.

It was a surprising yearning for this reviewer to acknowledge since I could hardly be mistaken for a Smith purist as I’ve never owned any of the titles and furthermore--having seen them all-- I possess the very unpopular opinion that the real Jersey Girl was one of his best works. That's right, in Muppet terms, when it comes to Kevin Smith I'm ready to be Fozzie Bear and say, Jersey Girl was completely underrated so let the tomatoes fired at me fall where they may.

As a viewer,
once you commit to going back, you’d rather have the full Smith attack, regardless of the fact that-- much like the included Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back-- the missing ingredients of the critically loathed Mallrats, the Catholic Church’s 1999 enemy Dogma and the less than cohesive sequel Clerks II were somewhat uneven by comparison to the original Clerks and arguably his masterpiece Chasing Amy.

Yet no doubt this wish for a Smith cinematic mixtape would’ve failed to occur anyway since it would've involved far more than mixing movies by trying to mix together corporations that don’t belong to the former Smith home-base of Miramax and/or Dimension back when they were operated under the Walt Disney Studios banner by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Despite this, the Collection is a great journey fifteen years into the past when Smith as well as his cinematic alter-ego Silent Bob first entered Gen X pop culture via his Sundance breakthrough smash Clerks.

And this time around, I recognized a certain irony that the filmmaker who made his debut work shooting overnight at the New Jersey Quick Stop where he worked with his ode to “overeducated and underemployed”* characters that wasted their time apathetically engaged in customer service has refreshingly never abandoned the offer of “may I help you?”

One of the most accessible directors of his generation who engages with fans regularly online and in person in his famous Evening Q&A sessions which have been released on DVD and recently resulted in a sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall, Kevin Smith is not above ridiculing himself and the studio system in an admirable attempt to break down the walls of the filmmaking process to the level of transparency so that reality replaces glamour and honesty is the driving force.

In other words, Kevin Smith is Brian O’Halloran’s character Dante Hicks in Clerks, who frustrates his girlfriend by not journeying out of his comfort zone to go to college in the movie or selling out for Smith in real life. As such, while back in the ‘90s, Smith became a cult phenomenon for his characterization of Silent Bob in his View Askewniverse series portrayal of a slacker anomaly best described as the bastard son of Harpo Marx and Tommy Chong, it’s safe to say that now in the ‘00s Kevin Smith himself has become the bigger icon.

This was especially evident when, in an extraordinary coincidence, I spent not just one Evening but rather two weeks with Kevin Smith, critiquing both this set along with the film festival circuit and indie insider documentary Official Rejection, which Smith took part in as an interview subject, offering so much information that his comments were included in a longer, uncut segment as a bonus feature on the second disc.

Honestly, part of me has always wondered if perhaps and even subconsciously, Smith was puzzled by and/or envious of the mainstream acceptance and over-the-moon praise of gutter humor typically on display in the movies of Judd Apatow, television series like Sex and the City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and even Two and a Half Men, all of which have managed to spin sexually explicit dialogue into viewer and/or commercial gold. Yet humble as ever, in Rejection he goes as far as to speculate that Clerks wouldn’t get into Sundance if it were submitted today since the film itself just lucked into “saying the right thing at the right time,” when everyone and their brother weren’t running around making movies.

And admittedly, watching Clerks again today fifteen years later, I realize that I’m not entirely sure it would be accepted as well since by his own admission the movie “looks shitty."
* While you can just switch the color settings on your TV to standard at best to exert less power from your electronics and the film was restored nonetheless, Smith even jokes on the Blu-ray that he feels that it’s pointless to ask fans to buy the low quality work in the highest quality format (as it feels like a videotape or DVD feature all the way). Yet despite his disbelief and self-deprecating remarks, the Blu-ray makes sense to me from a purely film buff standpoint since it’s a necessary title to preserve.

Similar to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise which likewise doesn’t necessarily need a Blu-ray treatment along with Steven Soderbergh’s debut Cannes winner Sex, Lies and Videotape which just turned twenty on Blu-ray, the staples of our country’s independent cinema, like our very own British or French New Wave should be upgraded as part of our cinematic history. Made with the same passion and lack of resources that were the backbone of John Cassavetes' grainy titles like Shadows and Faces and the early films of Martin Scorsese like Who’s That Knocking on My Door? and Mean Streets, Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Smith and others including Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are the staples of our generation.

Additionally, if a studio is releasing a set and using Smith’s name as the glue that holds the collection together, Clerks is the rightful place to start to introduce a newcomer to his movies. Likewise as I simply did in just revisiting the View Askewniverse, you need to return to the humble beginnings as the first installment of a series via the Quick Stop inception is so close to his heart that Smith’s pop culture focused website is in fact titled Quick Stop Entertainment.

And as far as Clerks itself is concerned, the humor is still all there and the movie’s “work sucks” subtext is timelier than ever a la Office Space and despite the fact that so many of us are now out of work as it turns fifteen. However, I will grant that in my eyes, most likely if it were premiering today, the saga of Dante who goes into work on his day off to ridiculous result (think After Hours in a 7-Eleven) would probably fall into the same D.I.Y. camp of the South by Southwest or Slamdance as a snarky sibling of the outdated term/trend Mumblecore.

While it’s hindered by its budget, Clerks has yet to pass its freshness date because rather than use a ridiculous amount of money to obtain wall-to-wall indie rock music or show-off editing to try to set it apart on a shallow level, the saving grace of Clerks is in Smith’s incredibly unique, unmistakably authentic voice which one can attribute solely to his writing.

However, the audacious subject matter and incessantly foul language found the film slapped with an NC-17 rating in ‘94 before it was repealed to an R. And while I'm sure this wouldn't happen today when Knocked Up opens all around the globe, Clerks still packs a punch yet not quite the shocked sucker one we experienced back then as we’ve become desensitized by the mainstream acceptance of explicit conversations onscreen.

Furthermore, Smith’s rapid-fire screwball inspired approach is enviable to comics, screenwriters, actors, and filmmakers alike and of course, it's especially entertaining when it's brought to life by amateur co-star Jeff Anderson as the scene-stealing apathetic video store clerk Randal.

However, structurally Clerks feels a bit weak as I always felt like Smith waited a bit too long for certain plot-points like the former girlfriend to arrive and other gags to pay off. These amateur decisions made the distribution of comedic events threaten to topple the structure like a house of cards with Smith's killer material all being stacked on top (or near the end). Yet Clerks is immensely satisfying to witness as a snapshot of the full picture he would later create when his potential and strengths came together in Chasing Amy.

In a very telling featurette included on the Blu-ray for his most acclaimed, Golden Globe nominated and Independent Spirit Award winning Amy, Smith and his former girlfriend, Joey Lauren Adams (who additionally served as the film’s star and muse) share an initially awkward but fascinating confessional conversation about both the evolution of their relationship and their inability to “divorce” their personal involvement with each other with Chasing Amy as a film.

Anyone who’s seen enough interviews with Smith that are less "posed" than some of the Blu-ray introductions contained in this Collection (which find him self-deprecating, cursing, and hilarious but very in the mindset of his View Askewniverse character), recognizes that deep down he’s less sarcastic and more sincere than he lets on. And sure enough, you get the chance to see that side of him creep in here and there in the Joey Lauren Adams conversation.

Whether it’s in the small details of being able to recall precisely what she ate at Denny’s before they even began dating when he offered to drive her to the airport out of the blue after Mallrats wrapped or being thrilled by her teasing offer that they should wed in Vegas without having so much as kissed when he sought her out again, Smith's romantic side emerges completely.

When Adams shares how startled she was to realize just how vulgar Chasing Amy was after watching it for the first time in several years, Smith presses her for more information about whether she thought so back in 1997 or if it just echoed his own way of speaking. Considering this and put on the spot, Adams confirms what we’ve long suspected by telling him directly and sideways to the camera that in real life, he really isn’t as crass as the dialogue of a Smith film when in a one-on-one, off-camera, offline relationship.

Hurriedly shushing her with the correction that he swears all the time and that vulgarity is his “bread and butter,” we realize that their relationship and his love for Adams is no doubt what inspired the movie. And watching it again today, I was thrilled to find that Chasing Amy still holds up well as a trashy yet terrifically tender examination of what it’s like when you blindly fall for someone to such a degree that you’re willing to defy the most extreme obstacles out of pure heartfelt necessity to test whether or not they share even the slightest level of—if not longing—than interest.

Likewise, the passion for filmmaking at its purist form was there for the first time since before Clerks as he shares in yet another Blu-ray Q&A that “he had nowhere to go but up,” after the disaster of Mallrats. However, Amy allowed him to build off of what he felt was the same screwball, rapid fire Preston Sturges like delivery he was striving for in Mallrats.

Moreover, when you couple this with his own added maturity and wisdom as a cinematic storyteller, and greater experience now with the filmmaking process complete with a more solid foundation in a perfectly structured screenplay, you understand that by the time Amy rolled around, he had the confidence to finally use silence "breaths between jokes," and nonverbal action to make the film feel far more emotionally authentic than the previous works.

Having joked that Mallrats was a “six million dollar audition for Chasing Amy,” Smith wrote the role of his "ideal male version of himself" for Mallrats star Ben Affleck and the part of his best friend and co-creator of their comic book based on Jay and Silent Bob for another Mall survivor in the form of Jason Lee. In doing so, Smith created an impossible love triangle wherein Affleck’s Holden McNeil falls for a beguilingly beautiful comic book colleague named Alyssa Jones (Adams), knowing full well that she’s a lesbian.

Despite the repeated warnings via Alyssa’s very open and frank discussion of her lifestyle, Holden tries to delude himself into believing he can just be her friend, thereby alienating his own best friend and business partner Banky (Lee) who retaliates with jealousy and homophobic jokes.

In a scene that’s fittingly filmed in the rain when no doubt most viewers will be likewise fighting back tears as well (foreshadowing Smith’s sentimental side, for which some Jersey Girl audiences weren’t prepared), Affleck gives one of the best monologues in his entire career when he finally tells Alyssa that he just can't be her friend. Yet, after successfully begging her to open her heart and mind up enough to accept him as a lover in the most powerful sequence Smith has created so far, Holden realizes that he isn’t able to do the same when it comes to her after he uncovers some salacious details about Alyssa’s checkered sexual past.

Filled with conflicting levels of Irish Catholic guilt and gender double standards in an atypical version of the virgin/whore complex, Holden is challenged all the more when he finally ascertains that the root of Banky’s resentment of Alyssa is because his best friend is actually in denial of his own sexuality, meaning that Holden has unknowingly been the “Alyssa” of Banky’s life as well.

While Chasing Amy goes even further than Clerks in terms of sexually explicit dialogue and in fact, much more than Clerks, I agree with Joey Lauren Adams that it is still just as vulgar from a dialogue standpoint as it was back then, because the language is so fully in tune with the situations and characterizations-- just like Smith manages to do with his characters-- we don’t judge it or dismiss it on that level.

And it's still one of his most emotionally potent and relatable works to this day regardless of the viewer’s sexuality as, from the standpoint of a straight single female, I could understand (even if I was shocked by the dialogue and odd confessions) where every single character was coming from in terms of their background and emotional state. Fittingly, Chasing Amy is also easily the standout of the Kevin Smith Collection in a superlative Blu-ray transfer which cleans up the limitations of the low-budget shoot in high caliber definition and new bonus features.

Despite the parade of former characters from the View Askewniverse and especially a great dual role by Ben Affleck as both Holden and Affleck post-Good Will Hunting super-stardom (since Smith helped get Damon and Affleck’s film made), the overwhelmingly homophobic Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a return to lowbrow Mallrats terrain and Dogma’s all-over-the-map style structure.

Despite fun turns by actors like Will Ferrell and Shannon Elizabeth, Jay and Silent Bob rightfully angered GLAAD and was justifiably slammed by critics in its initial release. Much like Zack and Miri, the humor seems to go directly for the gutter for less reason than in any of his previous work with a disappointing new fixation on scatological gags that are beneath him as a writer, since they require absolutely no creativity or intellect for the artist as well as the audience. However, the film is salvaged by enough must-see moments like the Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season spoof that it’s a mindlessly messy yet slightly enjoyable diversion.

As Jay and Silent Bob had been previously released on Blu-ray before, it’s the only title in the Collection missing any new bonus features yet understanding the economy and potential for consumer disappointment of having to buy the same movie twice and likewise asking people to buy Clerks in a pointless Blu-ray upgrade, Smith includes an in-depth documentary on the making-of-the-film, which is contained on the Clerks disc.

Throughout just three discs, The Kevin Smith Collection is filled with enough extras that you could go to experiential film school and essentially relive Smith’s hands-on learning experiences along with the filmmaker, the actors, and his dedicated producer Scott Mosier. And while you’re only presented with half of the View Askewniverse, it’s a hilariously original galaxy far out of the mainstream. Likewise, it's one that makes a welcome addition to your high-definition collection...even though it should come with a warning that you may
involuntarily suffer from sounding like a character from the Asewniverse upon watching the movies one after another.

* As quoted by Kevin Smith in Official Rejection.

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