It’s Not Like I Even Wanna Talk about How I’m the Only Black Person Watching Clerks III – Guernica

It’s Not Like I Even Wanna Talk about How I’m the Only Black Person Watching Clerks III – Guernica

Kevin Smith rolls into town and sells out the local arts theater. The place is packed with remarkably full beards and colorful hair, Iowan stoners wearing Mooby’s and Quick Stop uniforms and graphic tees they got at Spencer’s. I’m certainly no exception: I’m a fat dork obsessed with pop culture and paralyzed by the horrifying prospect of living among all the gross indignities of Western society, the often humiliating process of building a life and then having to keep building it, which is why I bought these tickets two months ago and have been wrapped in a cocoon of hype ever since.

I don’t wanna talk about how I’m the only Black person watching Clerks III the night Kevin Smith comes to Iowa City. The joke is that there are no Black people here, and the ones who are here are really good at hiding, or else they’re really good at being hidden. It’s the kind of joke you learn to make as soon as you spend more than twenty minutes living in Iowa, a joke that lives alongside all the funny ways to complain about the drunk undergrads and the increasingly elaborate metaphors for the cornfields that surround us like, I don’t know, something vast and unfathomable that intends to do us harm.

These jokes are both true and built to distract from the truth. The truth, in this case, is that I’m tired and lonely and no exception to any of this, the earnest alt sensibilities of everyone here who looks like they have a lot of opinions about Boba Fett and Insane Clown Posse. There’s an entire history of Black people meditating on the fact of their being surrounded by people who do not look like them, and I’m also the only Black person at the post office, the only Black person at Uncle Sun’s getting takeout, the only Black person at the Hy-Vee off Dodge as I try to figure out which flavor of ice cream I want to drown that particular evening in. When everything is the Loneliness, I think about it so much that it becomes completely forgotten, and so maybe I just wanna talk about something else.

When Smith jogs onstage, he’s wearing a red satin blazer and jean shorts and orange color-blocked Sperrys and a snapback that’s too big for his sunken, used-to-be-fat face. He talks for twenty minutes about how the Q&A after the screening is going to be longer than the movie because he never shuts the fuck up, and everyone cheers because no one wants him to.

* * *

Clerks III opens with a prolonged montage of what Dante and Randal have been up to since buying the Quick Stop at the end of the last movie. It’s full of inside jokes and shot-for-shot references and the whole thing is set to every single second of “Welcome to the Black Parade.” During his intro, Smith says that this movie is like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years and getting drinks and having an evening turn into an entire universe of nostalgia. I’ll be damned if that isn’t kind of what’s happening. I’m staring in awe at Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson as they set up shop while Gerard Way tells us how his father pled with him to defeat the demons and all the nonbelievers. Being the only Black person watching Clerks III the night Kevin Smith stops in town and blesses a group of losers with the next installment of his holy vision means that it is, indeed, holy to me. Means that I am no exception. Means that I was once a Black kid who was very sad and very goofy and basically kind to everyone but themselves, a Black kid who watched the original Clerks and found something of God in all the dirty jokes, or, rather, found something of God in the respect someone was finally paying to the distance between piety and filth (i.e., no distance at all). I rewound that final monologue over and over again because I’m not that fucking advanced either. There was finally someone telling me, Yes, you were right all along: talking about dumb shit with your friends is legitimate spiritual currency.

There’s a legacy of debt I owe these movies, morphing as I did into a Black earlytwentysomething who was even sadder and even goofier and huddled in the shitstorm that was their home, watching Clerks II for the 837th time, no will to do anything except return to where they were able to see themselves. I can make all the jokes I want about Kevin Smith jacking off for a living, about the fact that his entire career is one long interrogation of the anatomy of self-indulgence, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m tearing up at how glorious this opening is, the fact that this franchise means a lot to me, the fact that even though I am the only Black person watching Clerks III the night Kevin Smith strolls into town, into Iowa City of all places, there is still a brief moment when my love for these stupid movies feels untethered, universal even, a moment where the Loneliness isn’t just alleviated but nonexistent, even though Kevin Smith’s oeuvre is some of the Whitest, Straightest shit on the planet.

Later, during the Q&A, Smith tells everyone in this local arts theater that what makes the first Clerks so good is that it is, at its core, a working-class movie, a boots-on-the-ground diatribe on the mid-’90s retail experience, a perfect portrait of his life that he was able to hone and share. The thematic and narrative work of the sequels, then, is finding a way to stay true to the spirit of that first movie while acknowledging that he can never return to that same space, not just because he’s older but because he’s successful enough to never work a straight job again.

That last part is certainly true: the Clerks franchise became a barometer for Smith’s relationship to his career due largely to the fact that the nothing-but-the-names-changed accuracy to his then current life is the one emotional aspect of the first movie that’s not irrevocably tied to its setting. Every Clerks movie is about where Smith is during that particular moment, whether it’s the guerilla-style proving ground of Clerks, the post–Jersey Girl uncertainty of Clerks II, or the existential post–heart attack haze of Clerks III. Never afraid to put too fine a point on it, Smith quotes a memorized proverb from the Tao Te Ching: “To be great is to go on. To go on is to go far. To go far is to return.”

What feels less true is the notion of Clerks’ greatness being derived from its standing as a “working-class movie.” It’s categorically accurate — it was made by working-class people and set within the throes of working-class mundanity — but that’s not what makes it such a revelation. The emotional plight of Clerks isn’t invested in the machinations of working-class oppression so much as it’s invested in the deeply intimate dread that blooms in even the most privileged, low-stakes version of said machinations. Dante and Randal are smart and able-bodied and and have no one but themselves to take care of. They give every indication of having the material means to accomplish all the traditional life stuff that the World is telling them to do. They aren’t super well off, but they could go back to school, they could get better jobs, Dante could “get serious” about his romantic relationship(s), et cetera.

But they don’t want to. That’s the whole point, where all the conflict comes from. They don’t want to because they’re scared, and they’re scared because making any of those decisions requires them to ask, and then at least begin to answer, some unfathomably large questions about themselves and their desires. There would be no movie if either of them were materially dependent on their positions; everything keeping them at the Quick Stop is psychic, of their own making, for better and for worse. And so they um and er and talk in circles. Randal weaponizes his cynicism, and Dante hand-wrings dramatically. Both of them perform a version of longing for change without really knowing who they are or what they want.

* * *

I wrote a whole slew of plays after seeing Clerks for the first time. Smith has said the movie grew from the desire to see a film that honored the way he and his friends spoke, a film in which “they talk about pussy and Star Wars.” Given that I was navigating my complex enthusiasm for both of those things and the realms they were a part of, Clerks cracked open something in me as an artist, showed me a way to take my experiences seriously without becoming self-serious. Watching and rewatching it felt like becoming fluent in an entirely new language of intimate expression, the same language Morrison, Baldwin, and Butler spoke to me, Faulkner and David Foster Wallace.

The plays were all 10 percent concept, 90 percent dialogue, and they were exactly like the movie: incredibly shitty and deeply earnest in a way that allowed me to think I might be able to write better things. One of them was about a video store clerk who maybe (probably) died and came back to pester her coworker as a bedsheet ghost. The people who produced it at the local arts theater in Columbus called it smart and thought-provoking, even though the only question it was asking was: Wouldn’t it be great to be dead but also still dick around with your friends?

The last one I wrote boiled everything down to the derivative distillate of all the existential (sub)text I saw in that first movie. It was a ten-minute joint that was nothing but a dude filming a rambly suicide note and then shooting himself in the head. Everyone in my undergrad theater department thought the play was intelligent and provocative. Even though I was both a freshman and decidedly not a theater major, they put it in the lineup for the fall theater festival

The director for my suicide play was this junior named Emily: glasses, black hair, an emo scholar bending corporate the way the sun bends toward explosion. I remember sitting in her campus apartment feeling like I was playing Operation as she picked my brain and pitched ideas about blocking. She asked me questions: Who is this unnamed main character? What’s their deal? I tried to articulate that all we see as the audience is a slice of a life, so we aren’t really supposed to know. They’re a kind of lonely that’s as angry as it is resigned. It’s a feeling that hinges on no one ever knowing exactly what it’s like; I wasn’t withholding any backstory. Emma nodded sagely and sipped her tea.

During one of our rehearsals, Connor asked us if our unnamed main character should look longingly at a family photo before turning it around. ’Cuz, like, they’re sad and they’re about to kill themselves. Emily was slouched attentively in her chair like she was sitting on a throne. She told Connor, in ultra-polite feedback-speak, that it was a bad idea but that she’d defer to me. I echoed her even more politely. It was wack, hokey. I wanted the show to be as raw and realistic and unpretentious as an eighteen-year-old’s liberal arts play about killing yourself could be. Connor was a good actor, but he also always looked like he was about to break into song, so my lines sounded that much stranger coming out of his mouth. He and Emily were both different genres of the well-meaning white theater kid, whatever genuine goodness they had obfuscated by inevitably twee baby millennial energy.

In the end, everyone agreed my play was the highlight of the festival. The three of us stood next to each other and stressed collaboration when people came up and told us this. Emma would be lost without the nuance of Connor’s performance, Connor would be lost without the brilliance of my script, my story would be lost without Emma’s masterful directing.

After it was all over, Connor shook my hand and thanked me for my brave story. Emily hugged me and then kept hugging me. During every stage of production, no one asked me how I was doing. Not a single person. Not Emily or Connor or my friends or my classmates or my professors or anyone in the audience or anyone in charge of the festival itself.

* * *

The last time I cried in a movie theater was when the homie and I went to a screening of Inside. I spent actual money to watch a thirty-foot-tall Bo Burnham get paid millions of dollars to put a sock on his hand and spout all the talking points from baby’s first capitalist critique under a dozen layers of irony and self-awareness. I sobbed while surrounded by losers of a different kind, of which I am no exception, the kind who look like sentient New Yorker totes as they nod in stoic reverence. I am so tired of this, of my constant measuring of the space around me, bored to death by my attempts to divine meaning out of the dimensions I find myself in even when I have built a home within them, have had to keep building that home.

There’s a group of eight or nine high school kids sitting in a long line in front of me. I know everything about them through their posture and their haircuts. I know who started which inside jokes and who wants to make out with whom and who already has and who’s cried in whose arms. They’re the coolest people here. They laugh the loudest when Smith says that there are kids who weren’t even born when Clerks dropped who call him a visionary and/or a hack, kids who weren’t there for the creation of the universe but still wanna bitch about its design and — you know the drill by now. No exception, et cetera.

Still, the thing about the audience packed into this local arts theater tonight is that they’re always reacting late. It takes them a beat or two to cheer when a character walks on-screen, as if they can’t quite believe what they’re looking at. When the ghost of Rosario Dawson appears looking like the last movie was shot two weeks ago instead of the sixteen years that you can see hanging on the faces of the rest of the cast, those beats become a definitive silence. Of course these cretins don’t cheer for Becky, the one character anybody not emotionally indebted to the heroic slacker mythology of these movies knows is the best part. So I do it: I cheer for Rosario Dawson as she consoles Dante and talks excitedly about fucking Malcolm X in heaven. There’s almost no follow-up from the rest of the crowd.

I do actually see one other Black person the night Kevin Smith arrives in Iowa City. He’s a coordinator for the theater: he comes out first and tells everyone how thrilled he is to see so many people supporting the city’s premier arts venue. A single person throws out a cheer, and the coordinator points in the direction of the sound, goes, Thank you, thank you. He’s a little older, with glasses and stark white hair. I don’t know if he stayed to watch the movie, but I do know the thing about Iowa City is that just because there are no Black people anywhere doesn’t mean there aren’t Black people everywhere. I’m not the only Black person at Target when I’m running errands, not the only Black person in my grad seminar as we talk about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and the idea of audience, and there are a few of us dotting the dance floor at Gabe’s during Emo Nite, even some who aren’t part of my crew. We all dance and jump and scream. I know it’s easy to forget that being forgotten and being hidden are not the same thing.

* * *

Though superlatives become basically irrelevant in the face of Smith’s work, Clerks II is probably the worst Clerks movie, though the reason I like Clerks II the least is also, paradoxically, what makes it the most interesting installment. It’s the one that most explores the potential of Dante and Randal as characters, the one that makes the most effort to develop them beyond their origins as autobiographical ciphers. Outside one reclamatory career-thesis-statement-cum-climatic-argument at the end, the movie is more concerned with continuing the ideas of the actual text of Clerks instead of just indulging its metatext, forcing Dante and Randal to engage with the looming threat of legitimate change and seeing how they react.

Unfortunately, what this ends up meaning is that the movie has to rely on itself more as a comedy. All the same structures are in place, and Jeff Anderson’s commitment as Randel is still something to behold, but it’s just not as funny or smart as the first movie. There’s still a lot of fun to be had in a watch-clips-of-it-on-YouTube sort of way, but what suffers the most from this newfound focus on characters is, paradoxically again, the depth of the characters themselves. Yes, this is a mid-aughts raunchy comedy where a bunch of people stand around in the purple cow–themed husk of a Burger King talking about the nuances of going ass to mouth and where one of the leads spends a not insignificant amount of the runtime with PORCH MONKEY 4 LIFE taped on the back of his uniform, but Smith’s entire body of work hinges on fusing solipsistic slapstick with actual heart, so it’s disappointing to see the movie chicken out on its own premise.

Rosario Dawson’s Becky, Dante and Randal’s manager at Mooby’s, gets the worst of it. She’s a queer Black woman who’s also not successful or well off by the World’s (very different) standards for her, but she seems to be content with her station in a way that stems more from genuine fulfillment and a deeper understanding of how fucked up those standards really are, compared to Randal’s general misanthropy. A lot is made of the fact that she doesn’t believe in romantic love, even though she ends up marrying Dante when she becomes pregnant after a one-night stand.

I know, I know. It’s Kevin Smith. This is the guy who made a movie about his daughter fighting magical foot-tall Nazi clones made of bratwursts. He’s the archetypal nerdy white dude; he can’t write anything about women or race or sexuality beyond his trademark middle schoolisms, and I’m an idiot for imagining that level of depth was even possible, et cetera. But somewhere within Becky’s dynamic with Dante and Randal is a real way forward for these characters, system bucking steeped in genuine growth rather than arrested development.

Kevin Smith isn’t a muckraker — he’s a moviemaker. The lasting appeal of these movies isn’t in what insights they offer about labor but in how they use the tactile realities of listless, inconsequential labor as a kind of metaphysical dialect for the characters to hash out their gripes about life. Hell, it’s not even about work: it’s very pointedly about not working, about that special kind of freedom a shitty dead-end job allows, the power that comes with no power at all. Clerks II is a feature-length battle between fiction and autofiction. What’s more important: Smith’s creations or the reason he created them?

During the Q&A, Kevin Smith outlines the racket he’s got going with the studios — that because home video sales made Jay and Silent Bob Reboot essentially free, Lionsgate is willing to foot the bill for any dicking around he and his friends want to do that costs less than $8 million. He makes jokes about everyone overpaying for the movie ’cuz they love to hear him talk, and how that ultimately makes his career possible. I suppose there are only so many times you can crawl out the other side of a so-called career-ending movie with your career still intact before that’s just what you’re known for. Autofiction has clearly won, and while it’s easy to write Smith off entirely, if I had to spend most of my adult life listening to people decry everything I did as a masturbatory betrayal of whatever promise they thought I had thirty years ago, why would I do anything else?

* * *

You can tell that Smith’s heart attack shook him to his core, rewrote and reaffirmed fundamental truths about himself as an artist. Clerks III is about Randal suffering the same brush with death that Smith did and deciding to make a movie about his life working at the Quick Stop — all the dumbest shit he and Dante have ever gone through packed into ninety minutes with nothing but the names changed. In the end, though, it’s Dante who dies. He has his own heart attack that Smith says is based on the one that killed his dad. In one scene, Randal visits Dante in the hospital. He holds Dante’s hand as he shows him his movie, recut to make Dante the focus. We’ve come full circle: watched Smith go from showing us recreations of shots from the first movie to showing us recreations of entire scenes from the first movie to just showing us the first movie. Becky is with Dante in his final moments, the two of them in his soul’s movie theater, laughing and leaning into each other.

I guess some people were surprised that Kevin Smith would actually kill off his main character. I wasn’t. Ending up as one of the only Black people watching Clerks III the night Kevin Smith shows up in Iowa City means I’ve known that all the Clerks movies have been about death this whole time, have been about the power of stupid bullshit to stave off the most inevitable facts. I’ve known since before that first movie that there are the things you survive and the things you don’t. There’s that one Morgan Parker poem about how everything she does is fucking perfect because she didn’t think she’d live this long. How there is so much death here, and how it’s all so casual.

Someone asks Smith why he didn’t kill Randal instead. He eats up forty-five minutes of the Q&A giving his own explanation, but in this moment, the reasoning feels obvious: you don’t kill Randal because you wouldn’t get to see Jeff Anderson’s commitment come full circle in the movie’s final moment. He’s behind the counter, fucking with a rubber band as he looks out across the store. We see the weight of everything subtly crash against his face. He tells Dante he wishes he were there, and Dante’s ghost appears behind the register, though Randal doesn’t see it. He just keeps staring and playing with the rubber band as the camera pulls back and back and back. Randal is not sad or cynical or angry or joking. Randal is everything, everything and more. It’s a perfect moment in a very imperfect movie. The song that plays over this scene is John Gorka’s “I’m from New Jersey.” The song’s main refrain is: “I’m from New Jersey, I don’t expect too much / If the world ended today, I would adjust.” When I first heard it, I thought Gorka was saying “I woulda just,” as in: I am so close to something great. I know there is more than this. I’ve done so much and still have so much left to do.

* * *

Clerks III is a movie about the making of the movie Clerks made as a Clerks movie. It’s not so much a film as an expression of ultimate self-possession in the form of a Gen X palindrome as intricate as it is dumb.

Yet it goes without saying that Kevin Smith is so far up his own ass that his asshole is the cradle of entire civilizations, civilizations that have developed their own advanced technologies and languages and ways of moving across the earth, civilizations that have survived the geologic sweep of time and history long enough to begin making indie movies about the finer points of his asshole’s cultures. But that’s kind of what makes these movies beautiful?

Because the thing about the Clerks movies is that they’re all pretty bad. There’s a slew of nuts-and-bolts filmmaking stuff that everyone involved never quite learned how to do and then eventually never needed to learn how to do — things like acting well, or shooting dialogue exchanges in a way that doesn’t make the movie look like a Peanuts strip, or allowing any given line even an inch of subtly to explore. Ultimately, though, none of that matters because these aren’t movies, not really. They’re Kevin Smith’s own morality plays: dirty and didactic and fucking brilliant if you, like me, are someone who needs to hear what it is he’s saying, needs your ennui edified, needs to see the mundane conditions of your survival conveyed with the superheroic proportions they deserve. All the people trying to suss out filmmaking techniques and character arcs, trying to judge this civilization by anthropological standards other than its own, are missing the point. I’m here for all of it: the dopey endlessness of Smith turning his life into multiple franchises, the things I see in that transformation, the ways in which his work has taught me to combat the Loneliness. Despite the podunk vulgarity, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Talking about stupid shit with the homies is the holiest, most necessary form of communion.

It’s just after midnight when I and the rest of the devastated losers flow out of the theater. Some of them quote their favorite jokes, others rub their faces with weepy exasperation. The moon, fat and yellow, hangs above our heads. I am, for now, alive.

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