Kevin Smith’s Rise, Fall, Implosion and Renaissance — and Other Things an Indie Artist Might Wanna Consider

Kevin Smith’s career as a filmmaker – to separate that from his career as a showhost, author, standup comic and podcaster – began in ’94, when his $28k indie movie Clerks came out at Sundance, and has since had a consistent but rocky run: cultivating an avid fan base, alternately courting and alienating the establishment, and asserting a voice that for some is maybe too juvenile or longwinded or digressive but which, apart from hooking people right away in ’94, has managed to keep the man relevant and his followers interested, perhaps more so now than ever, thanks to podcasting, and a series of Evening with Kevin Smith DVDs, and the fact that a YouTube search of his name will yield hundreds of hours of the dude just talking into a mic somewhere.

One of the ironies of Smith’s career stems from his most famous role, as the self-appointed stoner sage Silent Bob, through whom he never speaks in the movies except to say something wise or clarifying or clever. Usually just once per flick. What’s ironic about it is that, as mentioned above, Smith himself has basically not stopped talking since 1994. He started an online forum for his View Askew production company back in ’95, around the time he released Mallrats, and used it as a platform for keeping people abreast of what the studio was up to, blogging, and engaging with his audience.

So began his career as a talker. For the past decade, Smith has been the central voice of at least five different podcasts, and success within that medium seems to’ve emboldened his public speaking.

yoga hosers flyerHe’s taken his recent flicks on the road, a once-shy and self-effacing filmmaker now confronting his audience directly, delivering lengthy intros on stage before the movie and then fielding questions from the audience for sometimes two or three hours afterward. He tweets regularly. Writes full-page notes on his Instagram pictures. Takes just the slightest provocation to start waxing long and wise and candid about his sex life, about parenting, about his health or ambitions or failures or fears.

Some consider it overkill (we can all share a moment of silence for everything his future biographer will have to sift through) but Smith’s twenty-year monologue works as like a DVD commentary over his entire career, detailing the motivations, subtext, and outcome of each film. So over the next few pages I’ll be looking at the biographical narrative supplied by Smith’s filmography as a whole, the way each film gave birth to the next, and how the arc of his career (up to now) showcases, and prompts some questions about, some of the stuff every indie artist has to reconcile. Particularly when it comes to her relationship with her audience.

Clerks (1994)

clerks stripWith maxed-out credit cards and a loan from his parents, Kevin Smith – whose love for movies turned into ambition when he saw Richard Linklater’s Slacker on his 21st birthday – made a movie about two guys doing what he and his friend Bryan Johnson were doing at the same time: working retail, talking shit, killing time. The movie gets picked up by Miramax and becomes a hit. So does the story of its production: here’s a kid from a lower-income household in New Jersey scraping together a few grand, using his friends for a cast and his workplace for a set, and making a great movie.

It’s almost a fairy tale of indie success.

Mallrats (1995)

A year later, with a budget of $6 million, Smith makes a semi-sequel to Clerks, an expansion of his View Askiewniverse. Like Clerks, Mallrats takes place n a single day; also like Clerks, it takes place at a retail venue where the characters mostly just hang out. They’re still talking about sex, but this time there’s more focus on relationships. The two male leads (not unlike the two from Clerks) are dumped by their girlfriends in the first couple scenes and for the rest of the movie talk circles about why those relationships failed and eventually, with the help of Jay and Silent Bob, they devise a plan that’ll get everybody back together.

mallrats stripMallrats is a disaster at the box office and critics hate it, but the movie ends up doing well in the home video market. Doesn’t land quite as large a following as Clerks, but it’s a devut one.

What’s interesting about Mallrats is how, like much of Smith’s work to follow, it flops with critics but resonates with a small-but-vocal group of followers and, in that respect, kinda prompts this guy, at the start of his career, with a sampling of thse two very different sorts of acceptance, each with its ups and downs.

Also interesting is what looks like Smith’s effort to make a more visually interesting/commercial movie than his last one (he’s got busy-looking sets, a cast of gorgeous young people, color), but he’s trying to achieve that commercial sheen while holding onto the voice of his earlier, smaller movie.

It works well enough, but the product is strange, and what you get is a mainstream-looking movie with indie allure. It’s a confused sophomore effort that showcases the means for professional-grade work, and it proves that this guy can get the job done if given a chance, but it’s probably the first hint of what we’ve deduced from the disparity between Smith’s success as a filmmaker and podcaster: that this is an artist who’s got more voice than vision.

Chasing Amy (1997)

chasing amy

Kevin Smith dates Joey Lauren Adams, becomes jealous of how much more traveled and educated and sexually-experienced she is, and the relationship falls apart. He writes this script and, as he tells it, starts feeding pages to Adams, saying he watns her for the lead role (Alyssa) to be played opposite Ben Affleck. She agrees. Smith takes the script to Harvey Weinstein, asking for a couple million dollars to make it. Mallrats didn’t recoup even half of its budget, so Weinstein says no, and Smith settles for $250k.

chasing amy smithThe movie is tempered by the (box office) failure of Mallrats. Smith knows to favor story this time (a character takes a series of actions, deals with a series of consequences) over plot (a character is in a situation and needs to resolve it). The small budget divests the director of feeling like he’s gotta make something with a wide appeal that’ll earn back millions.

In the immediate aftermath of a breakup, with a creative outlet for guilt and regret and shame, Smith makes a movie where the dirty jokes aren’t the goal (which appears to be the mistake hampering Mallrats) but rather the means to an emotional end. They’re characteristics of people who’ve endeared us by being people, with fears and hangups and dreams, instead of comedians. The power of Clerks doesn’t come from arguing something, or even necessarily tellinga conventional “Point A to Point B” kinda story. What it does is train a microscope on the interesting textures of a setting, an interaction, a moment. Mallrats, on the other hand, is a plot: we lost our girlfriends, we want them back.

Smith is doing here what he does best: capturing moments, moods. Not necessarily moving his characters from one place to the next and getting us caught up in their chase of some McGuffin.

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Chasing Amy’s climax at the hockey match where Ben Affleck is prodding Joey Adams for details about her past sex life, details that he does but doesn’t want to know, and the subsequent shouting match in the parking lot are some of the strongest scenes of his career – and, like the best scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s career (with whom Smith shares a handful of parallels), it can stand on its own outside of the movie.

Smith shows that he can do comedy and drama, and that he’s got a better grasp of character and story arcs. He’s got mature, heavy material here.

Dogma (1998)

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With a budget back in the Mallrats range, and with two outta three titles putting him in favor of being a Serious Filmmaker, Smith assembles a cast of stars (Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Selma Hyack, Chris Rock, Alan Rickman, George Carlin) for a movie that embraces again the aforementioned technique of using dirty jokes and digressive dialogue as the means instead of the end, the voice instead of the statement, and takes a big step int wo different directions: (1) he’s using his Catholic upbringing to make a statement about religion and faith – probably the most political move of his career, and (2)he uses elements of the Bizarre, the paranormal, which are clearly huge elements in Smith’s imagination, as a lifelong fan of sci-fi and horror and comics, but it seems like insecurity, and an eagerness to be taken seriously, have kept him from exploring it in his own work (maybe he’s also concerned at this point in his career about whether he could pull off the visuals, coordinate a big action scene?). We’ll go on to see that Smith only includes supernatural elements at the most contented and confident points of his career.

The plot revolves around wo fallen angels who’ve found a loophole that allows them back into Heaven. Whether we equate those two angels with Jay and Silent Bob (not the characters as they exist in the movie, but rather as the branded alter ego of our artist and his best friend, who must occasionally marvel at having found themselves on-screen in a Hollywood movie), or Kevin Smith and his producing partner Scott Mosier, it’s easy to see a metaphor here for two guys scheming their way toward acceptance in some high holy place. Maybe something like imposter syndrome? Smith has always been dazzled by Hollywood, by filmmaking in general, and while he’s definitely developed a surer hand at his craft, he’s got this motif in his films of two dudes stumbling into an unexpected spotlight (the game show at the end of Mallrats) and fame (the accidental goldmine of Bluntman and Chronic books in Chasing Amy). Now, in Dogma, two dudes are scheming their way into Paradise. Which is maybe how Smith feels about his career.

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

jay and silent bob

Pitched, at the time of its release, as the final chapter in Smith’s View Askiewniverse, presumably before he heads off to more serious projects, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back has more in common with Mallrats than it does with any of his other movies: Smith and his friends, with a big budget and an air of farewell, train a spotlight on the once-shy (and, at the time, drug-dependent) Jason Mewes for one of Smith’s most raunchy and indulgent movies to date. It also stars Smith’s new wife, Jen Schwalbach, as one of the jewel thieves, Affleck and Jason Lee reprise earlier roles, Will Ferrell turns up with his newly-crafted brand of straightfaced histrionics. What’s distinctive about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is that it has no point. But it’s also a celebration of that pointlessness. A playground. An homage, maybe, to Smith’s career up to that point: just focus on your goal, ride the waves, and so long as your brace yourself for a few interesting detours you’ll eventually reach your goal.

Though the production of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is stories for the obstacles of Jason Mewes’s drug addiction, and the train it put on their friendship, the movie also sports the self-assured pointlessness that we’ll see again in Yoga Hosers, and that appears to be the trademark of a happy guy behind the camera.

jay and silent bob strike back

Jay and Silent Bob, on a road trip to Hollywood (where they plan to halt production on a movie about their alter egos Bluntman and Chronic), are pursued by two law enforcement agencies, each with a different understanding of the situation, while Jay falls in love with the most tenderhearted among a band of jewel thieves; there’s a monkey involved, Mark Hamill shows up, Scooby-Doo gets a boner – it’s a messy movie, as silly and indulgent as Mallrats, but unlike Mallrats it’s more about the chaotic journey toward resolving the problem than it is about actually resolving it.

It’s very much a stoner comedy of its time. But in a new way for Smith: while Clerks and Mallrats and Chasing Amy became movies of their time by being personal statements that happened to reflect part of his generation’s sensibility, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is the first Smith movie that seems so much in tune with comedies of its time. Road Trip, American Pie – college sex comedies with big casts and one or two gross-out scenes. Not that there was a revolution going on, but there was a definite look and vibe and sensibility to these comedies that Smith hadn’t showcased before. This one seems cleaner than his earlier movies, more professional, less colorful. Smith wasn’t so much imitating as joining in on the trend.

It works out this time, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back probably enjoys the same or greater fan-loyalty as Mallrats, but the choice to conform, if only on a surface level, is one that Smith will repeat – to disastrous and baptismal personal effect – eight years later.

Jersey Girl (2004)

jersey girl.jpgWith the quick-flowing opening that carries us in just a few minutes through our beautiful heroes’ courtship, and the type-A white collar romance that ensues, the joyous pregnancy and then, with birth, the sudden death of the wife/mother, Smith glides onto the world stage of mainstream Hollywood rom-coms with what feels like a long-studied efficiency. There’s something about the no-bullshit haste, the smooth ebb and flow and switch-up of emotions, that feels like the incredibly focused performance of somebody who, after years of training, spends three hours meditating in the locker room before coming out and showing his muscle. Everything in Jersey Girl looks so professional and polished (much credit to DP Vilmos Zsigmond), we’re getting shots on busy New York streets, we’ve got Ben Affleck and George Carlin and Jennifer Lopez and Liv Tyler and they’re zipping through their scenes, hitting the cute comedic and dramatic beats like sharpshooters, and Smith is hustling us along with an eye on the clock and no time wasted. It’s almost jarringly professional.

But it’s very average, too. Smith’s got a five-year-old kid at the time and there’s a personal touch about the tenderness with which he depicts fatherhood. But the movie’s too by-the-numbers, and as a result Smith experiences a new kind of double-sided rejection. Critics hate the predictability and sentimentality, and Smith’s own fans hate the conformity. At least the underperformance of Mallrats, now almost ten years behind him, gave audiences a clearer idea fo the guy’s voice, and helped him to cultivate a following.

But sometimes the optics are all that matter. His name was on a poster with celebrity faces. A big Hollywood movie. As Smith would later say about getting money for Red State, one of the financiers only gave over the cash because they’d seen Smith’s name on the poster for a Bruce Willis movie (Cop Out). That was all the validation he needed.

jersey girl stillAs for what the movie might be saying about the particular point in Smith’s career – it’s hard to tell. Because while the story’s about a big-shot PR guy (Affleck) eating some humble pie after a public outburst (weirdly similar to what Smith would do a few years later at the Sundance premiere of Red State) and being forced to move from NYC, the den of success, back home to New Jersey – virtually the opposite of what was happening in Smith’s career. So maybe it’s the story of a person adapting to (and in some ways resisting) the demands of parenthood. Like just a really transparent fictionalization of what he was going through, with some cliché Hollywood sweetener. The cigar’s just a cigar.

So anyway: Jersey Girl comes out, suffering not just critics’ arrows but alsot eh fallout from the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez flip Gigli, which had come out just a few months prior, and it’s the biggest failure of his career to-date. If he’s gonna bounce back, his next project needs to be a sure bet.

Clerks II (2006)

clerks 2 cast

Wounded from the flop, maybe needing a reminder of why he got into such a cutthroat business to begin with, Smith returns to his first and most-beloved creation. He’s back in the View Askiewniverse – which, remember, he put the kabosh on just a few years earlier. Done with that shit. Greener pastures, etc.

Fitting, then, that Clerks II open with our protagonists realizing they mistakenly burned down the Quick Stop (the iconic setting of Clerks). Maybe a hat-in-hand reference to how Smith felt, after Jersey Girl, when he looked back on the ruins of his old universe.

Now, in need of a new job, Dante and Randal are forced to work at the fast food joint Mooby’s. Meanwhile, Dante’s engaged to a woman played by Schwalbach, Smith’s wife, whose family can offer Dante a lucrative, dignified job away from the Quick Stop and his friends.

The subtext isn’t hard to parse. Smith, in the wake of Jersey Girl’s failure, realizes that the world of lucrative mainstream opportunities – through tempting – might note be for him. That the View Askiewniverse, though a bit cheap and schlubby, is home. Everybody knows his name.

There’s a tenuous resolve here about his return to that universe. While simultaneously making a statement about being back home, with familiar and comfortable material, the last scene – in which Randal and Dante buy the Quick Stop for themselves – feels like the end of the road.

So it’s hard to tell where he stands. Smith crafts an ending that suggests finality but leaves the door open for a return (looks like they’ll be clerks forever). He still wants to ascend, to be a Serious Filmmaker, but there’s a tenderness about Clerks II suggesting that he realizes, despite his ambitions, he has a home here int his vulgar little niche, where budgets and brows are low as can be, and where, time after time, the same loyal few are turning out to see his work, and they’re loving it.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

Director Judd Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin comes out in 2005 and blows people away as like this unprecedentedly heartfelt comedy that was super chatty, super vulgar, but somehow also charming and tender, with Steve Carell in the leading role and then Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd tossed in for support, and the movie hits stratospheric success before Apatow catches lightening again in 2007 with Knocked Up, this time casting Seth Rogen as a lead opposite Katherine Heigl: vulgar, chatty, relatable and strangely romantic. Movies so weirdly in tune with the times.

Meanwhile Kevin Smith’s over here like what the fuck because, as he argues, this is the exact kinda movie he was making ten years ago with Clerks and Mallrats and, most of all, Chasing Amy. So he tells himself, “OK: this thing I used to do, this thing that came naturally to me, is suddenly popular and lucrative. Lemme see if I can do one more.

Problem’s this: he’s grown in a different direction. For better or worse, he doesn’t have another Chasing Amy in his pen. But he tries. Not only does he churn out an inherently raunchy story (with a title boasting its sexual content as loudly as Apatow’s) of two straight friends, a man and a woman, who wanna shoot a porno to make some quick cash. In the process, they have to confront their feelings for one another. Smith poaches one of Apatow’s great talents for a leading role: Seth Rogen. Elizabeth Banks stars as Rogen’s best friend and Roommate, Miri. Craig Robinson is there, Jason Mewes, the guy who played Randal in Clerks.

Seems like a sure bet.

zack and miri stickBut the movie doesn’t land. Box office is $31 million domestically off of a $24 million budget. There’s a buncha reasons for that. Halloween was a bad release date for a sex-focused romantic comedy. The word “porno” apparently couldn’t be said on certain TV stations before a certain hour at night. As a result, daytime and early-evening commercials had to refer to the movie as just Zack and Miri (same was about to happen with his next movie, A Couple of Dicks, and the title was changed to Cop Out). The posters featured stick figures instead of the stars’ faces. Smith would later get livid about Miramax’s marketing strategy when his mother saw a commercial for one of his R-rated comedies on the Lifetime channel in the middle of the day (not exactly his choice demographic). The studio was buying TV marketing packages that didn’t focus on the people who’d actually wanna see the movie. Just kinda shot their load wherever.

Buncha problems.

So the movie doesn’t earn as much as he hoped, critics are lukewarm about it, and Smith goes into a kind of depression. Retreats from the internet for two months and starts smoking a ton of weed. Zack and Miri Make a Porno becomes the highest-grossing title on his resume (just barely passing Dogma), but the conservative goal had been $60 million. He’d cast one of the quickest-rising comedy stars in Hollywood, he’d made a type of movie that was then in high demands (within a genre he’d helped create), and audiences didn’t respond.

Made no sense.

zack and miri banner.jpgWith Jersey Girl he tried to get some major recognition by following a formula, and he did a fine job, but it didn’t work. He rebounded with Clerks II and now, again, he’s following a formula (technically his own formula, though he’s a bit rusty on it), he pulls off a good comedy, but once again he just misses the mark for some reason.

The marketing was fucked, the release was poorly calibrated – there are circumstantial factors that might prompt him to say, “Well, it’s not the movies, it’s all this other shit.” Bad luck, poor planning.

But still. Seems like he gets to thinking at around this point that he doesn’t have what it takes. Or maybe he just can’t bear to have his writing speared again.

Cop Out (2010)

cop outFor the first time, Smith shoots a feature based off somebody else’s screenplay, a story that catches is attention for being the sort of buddy-cop action comedy that he and his dad used to bond over when he was a kid. He describes it as Lethal Weapon with 40% less action.

The Powers That Be are worried about his inexperience with action scenes, so Smith is forced to storyboard those sequences several months in advance. He’s getting out of his comfort zone, trying something new. Bruce Willis, starring opposite Tracy Morgan, is probably the biggest celebrity Smith has ever directed, and one of Smith’s personal heroes, but proves a huge frustration: berating Smith’s directing style, quibbling about how to deliver lines, complaining about fans, looking bored – being a diva.

But the movie comes together. The action scenes are a bit flat, a little too staged and not as kinetic as they oughta be, but they work. Story’s all in line, Tracy Morgan’s giving 150%, the whole thing’s safely predictable and charming enough upon finally hitting its stride.

Critics hate it. The reviews are scathing.

Smith rants on Twitter about their response.

So many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on #CopOut…Watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. You REALLLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs….It was just ridiculous to watch. That was it for me. Realized the whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critic screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week…People are free to talk shit about ANY of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it.

Following the heartbreak of Zack and Miri Make a Porno’s middling reception, it seemed like a protective maneuver to shoot a movie that somebody else had written, infuse it with new star power (Morgan) and old (Willis), and set it within a timeless sub-genre. But critics were no less scathing for the fact that he’d done the job for-hire. And whereas the fallout from Zack and Miri was depression and defeat, the fallout from Cop Out is anger..

cop out premiere
Smith tells one of his most scathing Willis stories here

His anger prompts him to burn a lot of bridges, but it’s also Smith’s road to a kind of self-discovery. With the (critical) failure of Cop Out – this third effort outside of the View Askiewniverse – Smith makes peace with being a heel, with the fact that he’ll never be a critical darling. The vibe is, fuck it, they’re gonna hate your movie anyway.

Might as well do something you like.

Red State (2011)

For $4 million, accrued mostly from private investors, Kevin Smith finally shoots the horror movie he’d written years earlier, when nobody was willing to finance it. He takes the film to Sundance, and therein displays his “implosion.”

"Red State" Premiere - 2011 Sundance Film Festival
Smith with one of his own placards, protesting Red State along with the Westboro Baptist Church

After screening the film for prospective distributors, all in attendance were led to believe he’d be auctioning off the rights after the movie. And, Smith maintains, that’s exactly what he did.

But he sold it to himself for $20. He then gave a heated half-hour lectures about how he planned to release the movie (taking it on a road tour before a limited theatrical run), and explaining to all in attendance how they, as purveyors of the industry, had let him down, and defaced the field, and how they oughta be ashamed.

One of the prospective distributors to attend Red State’s faux auction described Smith’s own sermon (about filmmakers being strangled by their industry) as an example of life imitating art. That Smith sounded as self-righteous and unhinged as the film’s psychopathic preacher.

Whereas in the past he may’ve used writing and filmmaking as his only creative outlets, he’s achieved such success now as a podcaster – hosting sold-out shows, appearing solo, hosting these Q&A/standup hybrids that’ve generated a series of popular DVDs. Smith’s got a new creative outlet in 2010, something he’s confident about, and that outlet is being a stage performer. A showman. And by immolating his reputation among distributors – just a year after alienating critics via Twitter – he’s forcing himself to take as big and dangerous a leap as he took sixteen or seventeen years earlier, when he blew out a ccredit card and prompted his parents to liquidate their savings in the service of clerks. It’s different now, of course, cuz he’s got money and a fan base and some degree of clout. Connections. But it’s also different in that he’s got stuff to lose now. A kid to feed.

His lecture is also a blueprint for looking at the movie.

The premise has three teenage boys who find themselves in an internet chat with an older woman who’s down to have sex with them. So she lures them out to her trailer, in the middle of nowhere, and there the boys are kidnapped by a group of religious extremists (modeled on the Westboro Baptist Church) who wanna purge them of sin. Smith casts Michael parks as the charismatic and murderous pastor who leads the church, and he delivers some horrific sermon at a kind of midnight mass where, under the guise of holy soldiers, these worshippers plan to kill everybody they’ve snatched up.

red state posterSo, to clarify: three vulgar young boys just trying to get their rocks off – characters typifying Smith’s most notable creations – are kidnapped, berated, tortured and murdered by a clan of wholesome-looking degenerates who mask their butchery with lots of verbiage. Seems like a metaphor for Smith’s impression of what the studios and critics do with his movies: these innocent if crude creations of his get abducted, mangled and berated, and then killed at the box office.

Red State is well-received by colleagues and fans and, to an extent, critics. When Smith is prompted bya n interviewer to come up with a Kevin Smith Double Feature he chooses Clerks and Red State, saying that Clerks was a promissory note on this Jersey kid’s talent, and that Red State is the fulfillment of that potential. That’s debatable. But Clerks and Red State are definitely his two most disruptive movies to date – the first one disrupting the idea of a hangout indie movie, the latter disrupting our idea of what Kevin Smith can do.

Smith, in his public speaking vents and podcast, is starting to talk about retirement from film. Sorta ending his career on a high note. Says he’ll make his dramatic comedy Hit Somebody (“Forest Gump, but less ambitious”), and then he’s done.

Tusk (2014)

Red State gets some of the best reviews he’s had in years and, having successfully shirked the shackles of his corporate masters, there’s something new and breezy and confident about Smith’s work ethic. He’s talking about retirement from the film business after he eventually shoots his white whale hockey movie. But then he decides maybe he’ll do Clerks III as well. So he writes the script for Clerks III, submits it for approval. But other than that, he’s all-in on podcasting and public speaking. Experiencing a kind of professional renaissance. But this resolution to bail from film made more sense when he was angry and miserable. Suddenly he sounds like a happy artist beholden to the fire-and-brimstone vows he made as an unhappy artist.

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Couldn’t find another place to mention it in the essay but this scene shown above, where Justin Long wakes up to find that one of his legs has been amputated, is — along with Joey Adams in Chasing Amy and Michael Parks both here and in Red State, one of the best performances Smith’s ever captured.

One day on his show Smodcast he’s talking with his co-host Scott Mosier about a classified ad from the UK (one that later proves fake) wherein a dude says he’s got a house to himself and a double bedroom for rent. He’s looking for a tenant who can stay there with him, rent-free, under the condition that he or she agree to wear a walrus costume for two hours a day, to eat raw fish and crabs, and just generally behave like a walrus.

Smith and Mosier go back and forth about it and eventually Smith turns it into the premise for a horror movie about a maniacal millionaire, Howard Howe (played by Michael Parks), who kidnaps a pretentious podcaster and turns him – through a series of grisly surgeries – into a walrus. Howe names his mangled creation “Mr. Tusk” after the walrus he befriended as a yong man, while stranded on an island during World War II.

There are two ways I could see of reading into this premise: (1) Kevin Smith is sorry about how he behaved toward critics, and (2) Kevin Smith is suddenly a confident happy filmmaker.

  • Kevin Smith is Sorry About How he Behaved: Having become a hugely successful podcaster, and having decided to take a leap back into indie filmmaking (though not without his bridge-burning sermon atop Red State’s auction block), Smith was on fire, ambitious and excited and vengeful, and now he…feels he may’ve gone too far. Tusk is the portrait of a podcaster who, after years of floundering in hard-working obscurity as a stand-up comic, finally makes a name for himself, and enjoys a little success, whereupon he loses his humility, compassion, and better judgment. It turns him into a figurative monster (cheating on his girlfriend, exploiting the pain of others) and a literal one (becomes a walrus). In the last scene, as a man-walrus confined to some kind of zoo, he comes scampering out of his cave when a person he never fully appreciated throws him a fish. And he looks on with a tear in hiss eye as other, happier, more compassionate people go on with their lives. An acknowledgment, I think, is how Smith’s own long-bubbling anger at not being appreciated as a filmmaker finally exploded once people began to appreciate him as a podcaster. Now he looks back and sees that he burned a lot of people.
  • Kevin Smith is a Happy Contented Filmmaker: The other interpretation puts Smith in the shoes of the maniacal millionaire surgeon. Gleeful, solitary, verbose. Stitching together a hideous and monstrous creation that only he could love. A metaphor for how Smith is coming to terms with, and gleefully executing, the sillier, uglier, more personal parts of his imagination. Howe is finally killed by his own monstrous creation, but he dies with a smile on his face. It fits with Smith’s new attitude about filmmaking: if I’m going out on anyone’s sword, it’ll be my own.

tusk monster

The Bukowski thing: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” These movies are Smith’s precious monsters, beautiful to him if nobody else, and he’s perfectly happy to die by their hand. Or tusk.

Yoga Hosers (2016)

Written before he started production on Tusk, and starring his daughter (Harley Quinn) alongside Johnny Depp’s daughter (Lily Rose) and complemented by Johnny Depp’s own makeup-obscured performance as one of Smith’s best characters ever, Guy De LaPointe, Yoga Hosers is about two teenage girls, each named Colleen, who discover that the convenience store where they work stands on a plot of Canadian Nazi property.

yoga hosers posterIt’s a comedy for teens (ostensibly) wherein the filmmaker – who also stars in the movie alongside his wife and daughter and friends – is fine to have more fun than his audience. Critical reception to Yoga Hosers is poor, and it seems Smith isn’t bothered, telling Joe Rogen what he tells everybody, in one form or another: this movie is made to be liked by probably ten people – ten people who are gonna fall in love with it. Which isn’t hard to imagine when we look back on some of the weird ridiculous movies we loved as kids. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Three Ninjas. There’ll probably be a couple breakout directors in 2030 who talk about discovering this on Netflix when they were 11 and loving it.

(Smith seems equivocal about the critical reception but I do believe that he cares about it. I think that downplaying his films by saying that they’re only meant to be liked by ten people, or that it’s “Forest Gump with less ambition,” or “Lethal Weapon with 40% less action,” or that they’re goofy or silly or unimaginative is a bit of a shield. He often refers to being an overweight kid and joking about his body before others could do the same. But his sensitivity to criticism isn’t what matters. It’s that, despite his vulnerability to it, he continues to make what he wants to make, knowing he’ll be hurt by a portion of the reception.)

Yoga Hosers, Smith has said, is an apology to critics. Part of the story focuses on an evil artist, cryogenically frozen in a chamber underneath the convenience store, who’s created a living sculpture out of human remains that he plans to send out on a mission to kill every art critic in the world. The creation, a vehicle for his army of foot-tall bratwurst henchmen to pilot, proves pretty aloof. Kinda moves where the wind takes it. Winds up killing its own creator. Two movies in a row, we get a scene with an angry, isolated, chatty creator getting killed by his monstrous creation.

kevin smith cam clerksYou could also say that Yoga Hosers is the product of an artist pushing his 50th year and looking back nostalgically on his 23-year-old self: constantly beckoned to a tedious retail job, just like the two Colleens, and eventually using that space to create art. The girls use the back of the store to record their music, Smith and his friends used the front of the store to record their film. Just as the Colleens’ music causes a power outage that awakens a sleeping beast of a creator, so did that young Kevin Smith’s creation, Clerks, set in motion a chain of events that’d lead to the awakening – and, finally, destruction – of a hermetic spite-fueled artist.

Smith’s intent is so naked here, as a guy trying to have fun making a movie, that it almost defies anyone to study it. To try peeling back layers from Yoga Hosers is like throwing a suspicious glare at the elderly stranger holding the door for you. What’s he after?

Because finally, after so many years of low-key success and big fiascos and failures, Smith has made a movie where he can honestly answer, “Nothing.”

The story of Smith’s filmmaking career to-date is one of rising and falling and rising again – if you take a certain perspective. He was an independent filmmaker, and then he wasn’t, and after trying to hard to climb that conventional ladder toward mainstream repute, he surrendered, and went back to being indie. His movies are entirely personal now and devised with an eye toward self-expression and fun – same as when he started. He’s clearly still vulnerable to how his work is received, but that’s not stopping him from telling the stories he wants to tell.

I’ve been thinking so much about Smith and about the arc of his career because recently, having written three books and received a three-figure slew of rejections from agents, I’ve been thinking of publishing the third one, Horny Nuns. But distributing your own work prompts difficult questions.

  • What if the reason distributors aren’t picking it up is because it’s actually really bad?
  • What if nobody shows up or wants it?
  • What if the shitty or lukewarm reception to your indie release somehow hampers your chances at making it into the mainstream?

Smith said recently that, at this point, he’s in the business of being Kevin Smith for a living. Every stand-alone project, whether it’s a podcast or a TV show or a comic or a film, becomes a chapter in the larger, meta, more-interesting narrative called Kevin Smith’s Career.

Smith took a risky path with his career, and while there’s no question it’s turned out well, it would have been easy for him to fall into a kind of bitter has-been obscurity after Mallrats or Jersey Girl. But he cultivated an audience, engaged with them, showed appreciation and was rewarded with loyalty. The community appreciates his humor, his candor, but I think also, at this point, they appreciate him as a symbol for doing what you love, as hard and often as possible, with little regard for detractors.

And that’s the dream, if you can live with the consequences.

smith indie spirit
Smith with the Indie Spirit Award

Independently distributing your art raises the questions of what you’re looking for, and the feasibility of that outcome. Are you looking for financial reward, for recognition and notoriety, or are you practicing your craft because you’ve just got this insatiable hunger to do it and now you wanna share it? (Not to suggest that any one of those incentives is more or less noble than the others, so long as it motivates you to do your best work.)

It also begs the question of how large a role the audience plays in your art.

If you create a piece and decide not to share it with anybody until it gets picked up by a mainstream distributor, can you really say you’re scratching your artistic itch? Does it need to be seen, heard, read? Can you rightly make that demand on somebody’s time?

How far removed are the acts of creating art and seeking an audience for it? Are they two sides of the same coin?

If I put Horny Nuns out there simply because I made it, and I want to share it with people, why do I want to share it? Do I just want a quick buck? What would I prefer: for 1,000 people to buy it, and not feel too strongly about it either way, or 5 people to buy it and absolutely love it to death?

What about the likely outcome: nobody reads it at all? Or they start reading it out of kindness but never reach the end.

Is there a difference between keeping your art in a drawer where nobody can appreciate it, versus putting it on the internet where nobody wants to appreciate it?

What self-distribution forces an artist to confront is the extent to which the passion for their craft is contingent on the audience’s reception. How much do you care about what other people think of your work? If the answer is, “Not at all,” then why release it to begin with?

Maybe for money. And that’s OK. Maybe just cuz you want your voice out there, heard. You’re more interested in declaration than communication. That’s fine too.

Without ever putting your work out there, by waiting for the Powers That Be to stumble on your work or rake it up from the slush pile, is to invite delusion: you tell yourself this story about being either an underappreciated genius or a worthless hack.

You’re probably actually neither.

kevin smith clerks set smoke.jpgBut to have all of this work come thundering out of you, and to spend weeks or months or years chiseling it to the most presentable shape possible, only to drop that creation – electric blue and pulsing with life – into the ocean of so much internet content means facing the fact that your baby, this thing that so consumes and sinspires you, can be pale and lifeless to everybody else.

I guess that’s the risk inherent to doing anything artistic or demanding, is that you can fuck it up, and everybody will see, or you’ll do a great job and nobody will care. Or any variation thereof.

One of the things I’ve been trying to overhear more often is the conversation an artist is having with herself, within the piece of art, about how the thing might be received. Reconciling herself to the inherent arrogance of putting a thing out in the world and telling people it’s worth of their time.

Because it’s an important conversation to have. Is this interesting, is this worthwhile, is this stupid.

But maybe, finally, a conversation only worth having with yourself.


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