Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Descent of Kevin Smith

Last Sunday I saw director Kevin Smith on The Talking Dead and it got me to thinking about his career.

I believe Smith is an incredibly talented writer and has great skill as a director.  My wife and I got the chance to see him in a travelling stage show where he was personable, affable, funny, and quite vulgar.

The vulgarity is something that has always been a hallmark of his work.  Smith came to fame by writing and directing the independent hit Clerks.  Watching this movie as a young man, I thought it was witty, edgy, and incredibly cool.  I especially like the deep conversation the characters had about Star Wars, and this was way before it was cool to talk about Star Wars in movies and TV.

As I've gotten older, my admiration for Clerks has waned.  While it captures the voice of a young man who is drifting through life, it lacks the maturity to make it applicable to people as they get older.  The characters don't seem edgy anymore.  They seem wasteful.

I think his best movie is his sophomore effort: Mallrats.  Not as vulgar as Clerks, the movie doesn't try to be anything other than a silly comedy.  It doesn't aim high, but it hits the mark well.  And unlike Clerks, there was some actual character development in the leads.

Chasing Amy is one of his most mature works.  And in it you can see Smith's potential to write about things deep and universal, like being in love with someone who can't love you back.  But we see here his inherent flaw as a filmmaker begin to creep in.  Chasing Amy is too vulgar.

Honestly, one of the reason that Clerks got so much attention was that it was filthy in terms of language and subject.  It was a story that involved incredibly graphic descriptions of sex, including necrophilia.  This type of shock-cinema helped Smith's movie stand out from the rest of the independent movies of the day.  But when Smith gets into artistic trouble, he leans on that crutch.

As I wrote, Chasing Amy has some great moments, particularly Ben Affleck's confession of love in the car during the rain storm.  But the movie is soaked in Smith's Clerks-language, that a lot of the more mature work is lost.

His next movie was Smith's most ambitious: Dogma.  It was a movie that mocked Catholicism mercilessly and vulgarly, so naturally it was lauded by higher ups in the pop culture.  Smith has often said that he is Catholic who is "down with the faith," and this movie was just a humorous take on his personal theology.

But like Clerks, this movie feels like the arguments of a high-schooler who thinks he can shock us by his unorthodoxy.   It is like all most of his other films, but with many empty religious platitudes throughout.  I always find it interesting that those that seem to have a thing against preachers tend to be the most preachy.  The long lecture by Salma Hayak's character is cloying and empty.

And yet, there are moments in Dogma that show off Smith's potential as a filmmaker.  There is actually one beautiful moment in this full-tilt smut-fest.

Alan Rickman plays an angel who tells the main character the story of how he had to tell the Child Jesus about His destiny to suffer and die.  The monologue is tense and sad.  The staging and cinematography is poignant and beautiful.  And in that moment, I saw that deep down underneath all of the f-bombs and sex jokes, there was some real artistry in Kevin Smith.

This one scene does not redeem the movie, but it shows that Smith has the ability to be better.

His fifth film was one giant inside joke for his fans.  Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a 10 minute skit spread out over 100 minutes.  Like Mallrats, this film doesn't try to be anything ambitious, but it also lacks a lot of originality.

But the real turning point of his career was Jersey Girl.  Smith had an opportunity to finally mature.  This was his chance to put aside childish things.  Jersey Girl is a heart-felt drama about a young widower who loses his rich life to descend to a blue-collar existence to raise his daughter.  This is a story with heart and depth.

The problem with Jersey Girl is that Smith was unable to break free of his habit of vulgarity.  The movie is still filled with a hot streak of nastiness.  And yet it also tried to be heartfelt and these two things don't mix well.  Instead of something wholesome or something shocking, you got both in an awkward combination.  It was like a glass of fresh milk with a shot of Tabasco.

As a result, Smith got the worst reviews of his career thus far from both critics and fans.  The general audience thought the movie was too vulgar and his fans thought it was too sappy.  But I believe that if Kevin Smith had been able to completely commit to the heartfelt drama, he would have been embraced but the larger public.  That end scene in Jersey Girl as Ben Affleck's character dances with his daughter still pulls at my heartstrings.

But I am convinced that this experience stung him deeply.  As a result, he retreated into what he knew: vulgarity.

Clerks 2 was Smith trying to relive his original glory while at the same time trying to add a level of maturity to this world.  But the two things aren't compatible.  Smith wants to have his Mooby Meal cake and eat it too.  In order for his characters to grow, they have to move beyond their adolescent attitudes.  But the movie has his characters end up in a weird limbo of returning to their younger days perpetually.

And from this point on, Smith has continued to descend into movie hell.

Zach and Miri Make a Porno is Smith losing all pretensions.  Judd Apatow once said that you have to be very careful about doing comedy about pornography or it will itself become pornography.  And that is what Smith became with this movie: a pornographer.  He tried to ratchet up as much disgusting vulgarity as he could from his subject.  The movie is a train-wreck from start to finish.

He then moved on from sexual pornography to torture porn.  Now, from this point out I have to give full disclosure and admit that I have not seen any more of his films.  Having said that, there is a reason I did not want to spend any money on these.  Red State is a horror movie about teens captured by a crazy preacher.  Once again going to the Dogma well by attacking traditional Christians, Smith could not find a wide audience.

But his latest movie was a whole new level of debasement: Tusk.  It is the story about a man who is captured, his legs are cut off, and he is slowly mutilated into a walrus.

Is there anything about that above description that sounds appealing?

But Smith seems to have nowhere to go but down.  He keeps digging to newer, darker lows.

And this doesn't make sense financially.  Tusk was such a terrible bomb that I'm not sure people even remember it was made.

And it is a shame that Smith has fallen so far.  As I said, he has wonderful potential.  He could make great movies, I know it.

Maybe he doesn't want to.  Maybe he's afraid to try.  Maybe he already thinks his movies are great.

But it makes me sad.

Despite all of the crap he has put on the screen, both figuratively and literally, I'm still rooting for Kevin Smith.

Because I see in Kevin Smith the struggle that all of us have.  Do we stay with our familiar sins or do we reach out to a new and sometimes scary grace?  Can I break free of the world or will I let the world consume me?

And I want to see all the great movies that could be made by Kevin Smith.

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