By Jerry Chandler
Kevin Smith has been making films “professionally” since 1994’s Clerks. A series of films following Clerks made him a huge, buzzworthy name in cinema in the 1990s. Odds were good that there was at least one huge fan of Kevin Smith in almost every group of friends, and more than a few people around you were quoting Jay’s lines from any number of Jay & Silent Bob scenes. A lot of people were getting behind Kevin Smith’s success as a filmmaker. It was a great story of the little guy making good in the profession he loved. After all, this was a guy who somehow made it big with a film that he made on only (originally) $27,000 that was almost entirely 92 minutes of people just talking to each other.
Then the 2000s came along and some of the shine started coming off of Kevin Smith’s reputation as a filmmaker. For me personally, 1999’s Dogma was probably his last truly solid (or even great) film. You could see his maturation as a writer and a director, and the film’s surprisingly (despite its reputation) pro-faith message wasn’t delivered like a clumsy hammer over the heads of audiences despite it being such an integral part of the story. His first film of the 2000s however, 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, felt like a step backwards in more ways than one. After the reception of 2004’s Jersey Girl, he really did take a few steps backwards by revisiting Clerks with 2006’s Clerks II. It continued the trend of his declining popularity at the box office.
After a small string of projects that all still felt like what one would expect from Kevin Smith, he made what was his first real attempt to break out of the filmmaking box that many felt he had built for himself. This was 2011’s Red State.
The early promotional materials for Red State made it come across as nothing like any Kevin Smith project before it. This was going to be the story of regular people becoming the prisoners of a fundamentalist religious cult with some crazy views of the scripture, and it was set smack in the middle of small town America. Some early word even indicated the possibility of apocalyptic aspects to the story. Red State was easily Kevin Smith’s most ambitious attempt at filmmaking to that point. He left behind almost all of his standard comfort zones in storytelling and ventured into a much darker, much more serious fictional world.
Red State was interesting viewing. While the entire film didn’t quite gel for reasons that anyone can speculate on, there was still a really good film there that just needed a little more polish. You could see where he was more confident with some parts of the film than with others, and you could see where even he likely saw some stylistic shortcomings with this type of material that could easily be worked on and improved with time. While I think most people had no issue with Smith returning to the well that made him famous for some future works, the feeling that maybe there was going to be some new, interesting, and unexpected films coming from Smith in the future seemed to be welcomed by many.
That may have gone away with Tusk.
2014’s Tusk was a joke of a concept. No, literally, it was a joke. It started its journey to film with Smith and friends joking around about out there horror concepts on a podcast, and joking about the idea of a human being turned into walrus. Except, after the podcast ended, Smith couldn’t stop thinking about just how horrific this concept could be.
He was right. It could be a horrific experience. Sadly, it wasn’t.
One problem it had was likely caused by the fifteen day shoot the majority of the film was shot in. Everything you see on screen was shot in fifteen days except for the Johnny Depp scenes. His scenes were shot sometime later over a two day shoot. The rushed shoot seems to have impacted the quality of the film’s overall look. The practical special effects used to make the transformation from man to not exactly walrus were actually not that bad, but they absolutely needed to be shot in less well lit scenes. A not too insignificant part of effective horror can in fact be in the mood created by the filmmaker, and letting us see everything of the final effect in bright light did not help create that mood. The rushed shoot may have also not been helpful to the film’s pacing; another thing needed for effective horror.
But what likely hurt the film the most was seemingly Smith’s inability to venture into new filmmaking territory without falling back on the crutch of his tried and true absurdist humor. Much of the first part of the film just felt like a bad attempt at doing a Kevin Smith film by someone who wasn’t actually Kevin Smith. Then there were the two days of filming done later with Johnny Depp…
Depp’s Guy Lapointe was a bumbling investigator with a bad accent that would have come across as too campy and foolish if he appeared in a Pink Panther film alongside Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Being what it was, the character and the character’s appearance was a jarring moment in the film that may have worked well in other Smith films, but merely served to badly tonally clash with the rest of this film. It seemed like it was downhill from there even as the film tried to get its horror legs back under it.
Then he did the second film in that proposed loose trilogy, 2016’s Yoga Hosers. The less said about that film the better. Well, no. I will say that somehow, amazingly, Smith and Depp made Guy Lapointe a watchable character in Yoga Hosers. As a matter of fact, in stark contrast to Tusk, Guy Lapointe may have been the best part of the film. Granted, that’s a bit of a low bar with this Yoga Hosers.
Even as fans bemoaned Smith’s recent film work, they praised his directorial efforts when in other people’s sandboxes. His work on TV’s The Goldbergs, The Flash, and Supergirl were met with high marks by fans as well as the casts and crews of the shows. Fans looking forward to more of Smith’s TV work rather than his film works in the future were thus less than thrilled with the announcements coming out of SModcast Pictures.
Announcements were made for a slate of upcoming films with names like Helena Handbag, Mallbrats, Killroy Was Here, Jay and Silent Bob Rebooted, and the final film in the trilogy started by Tusk and Yoga Hosers, Moose Jaws. The reaction by many in fandom was fairly unanimous in its disinterest in seeing such projects. Some have asked that Smith just stop making films already.
And that is where, as bad as I personally have felt some of his recent films have been, I disagree with some in fandom.
The one unified declaration I hear from many of the same fans who want guys like Kevin Smith to just hang it up already is often made after the latest big budget blockbuster hits theaters. They decry the fact that there isn’t enough out there being made that’s “different” thanks to the big studio systems. They complain that the only films getting made are the cookie cutter, paint by number, same old thing studio efforts.
But that’s not true even if you take Kevin Smith out of the mix. Kevin Smith is certainly one of the people getting out there into ideas so strange that they may not seem appealing to most, but that might be a good thing. Sometimes you have to have people who are going that far into that type of filmmaking for unexpected concepts in their films to come around that actually hit on all cylinders or even to inspire others with their craziness.
It may not seem as out there as some of the concepts Smith has recently played with and floated in filmmaking, but I want to go back to 1994’s Clerks for a moment. Twenty-four years ago, I was a bit of an odd man out when it came to people in my general age range as well as slightly older and certainly younger where film and television viewing was concerned; and I don’t mean just how deep I was into the geek stuff and British programming. There were any number of times I’d be talking to someone in those age groups about a movie or TV show I saw and thought was fantastic but was met with someone getting an odd look on their face and saying, “But… It’s in black and white.”
Black and white was a viewing deal breaker for a lot of people I knew. Another huge deal breaker was a film with pretty much no action scenes and a lot of talking. Another big deal breaker was any film with zero recognizable stars. After all, if a film was any good, there would be name value stars in it. The absence of any names they knew therefore meant the film was obviously just not any good.
Now, obviously, there were exceptions to these rules even with the people that said these types of things when talking about films. However, these typically fell into the realm of sentimental favorites they grew up on or other such “exceptions” they would make. But, then, twenty-three years ago, Clerks happened.
If you checked off the boxes on the checklists of reasons that many people I knew would pass on a film and certainly pass on owning the VHS in their own home video collections, Clerks checked off pretty much every box on the checklists. Yet a lot of those same people watched Clerks, talked about liking Clerks, and even, in quite a few cases, bought the Clerks VHS tape for their collections. When you looked at all of the various checklists in the hands of critics, film fans, and movie executives of what was needed in a film to make it a success (or even a cult success) and strongly launch someone as a major filmmaking name, you wouldn’t find a lot of boxes that got checked with Clerks. But that’s what happened.
Even now, even as Smith is seemingly flailing and floundering in his most recent efforts, there are films being made that on paper look completely ridiculous, make zero sense, and in no way look like they should acquire a following or launch new names as favorites in fandom. But, that’s what some of them are doing. In some cases though, they’re not first films and the other films made before them were so odd that they just fell flat with audiences.
Smith is an interesting filmmaker. He has some amazingly smart observations on how and why some things should work in film and why some things that should work haven’t. He also has an interesting take on the day to day mundane that can make such things far more entertaining than they should be. But then, he also has a really odd view of things as well as some unusual ideas that either really makes his films fire on all cylinders or absolutely makes them fall flat on their box office faces. The odds are good that he will eventually go so far out there that he will deliberately or accidently hit something that will fire on all cylinders even for many who dislike his most recent efforts. It will be, like all his recent efforts and those of others, something that is not the same as the big studio blockbusters.
With Smith and others, just take a pass on their films if they don’t seem like your type of thing unless or until you start hearing otherwise. I know the one-two punch of Tusk and Yoga Hosers likely put me off giving his films an immediate benefit of the doubt when plunking money down for a while, but I want him to keep following his muse even if I may not find it to my liking right now because that muse is making him play with genres he wasn’t known for twenty years ago. All someone like a Kevin Smith has to do is hit that right balance between their signature style, the expectations found in some genres, and the absurd ideas they may want to play with in those films in order to make a new favorite for both his existing fans and fans of that genre in general. Let Smith and others do it, don’t sweat it, and maybe you get an unexpected new favorite a few years from now.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the ESO Pro: The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.