Ever since the mid-1990s, with the debut of his film Clerks, Smith has been a formidable and very vocal presence in the world of indie film. His rise coincided with a very important boom in the indie movement, and he came to represent the pop-culture film nerd face of alternative movies. He was a guy who made joyously vulgar films about shiftless twentysomethings who would banter openly about their sex lives, their romantic angst, and their open interest in movies like Star Wars. Many compared him to Richard Linklater, although I would say he has a voice all his own.
In honor of the man, we have come up with a few notable Kevin Smith projects that illustrate his strengths as a filmmaker, and, in one case, his outsize personality.
An Evening with Kevin Smith (2002)
Smith is known for his films, his crass-slash-witty dialogue, and his savvy about placing pop culture references in a context used by actual human beings. But just as much, he is known for how public and vocal he is about his own opinions. As much as he is a director, he’s also a laidback critic of popular movies, and a gentle raconteur whose interaction with his fans is probably more hands-on than any filmmaker in history. He was one of the first directors to have an open online conversation with his fans, react openly to online hate-mail, and try to keep a free dialogue with any and all earnest obsessives who wanted to have a word or two with him. Indeed, when his independently-distributed film Red State played in theaters (on a very limited basis), Smith toured with the print, speaking after almost every single screening, answering questions, and often staying for hours to tell stories about the movie, and about other recent film experiences he had. He was as much a part of the show as his film was.
In a series of videos, starting in 2002 (called An Evening with Kevin Smith, Evening Harder, and Kevin Smith: Sold Out), Kevin Smith reveals this strength of his, as he filmed and released a string of college lecture tours he went on. On the tours, he gave practical lessons to college kids interested in filmmaking, but also addressed the controversy from his own movies, rambled wittily about how much he liked whatever was playing in theaters that week, and told long and detailed and often funny stories about working in the Hollywood trenches; his infamous tale of his involvement in the production of the ill-fated Superman reboot from the late ‘90s is now part of Hollywood folklore.
Indeed, Smith is such a present entity in the filmmaking world, he has, kind of by default, become an actor in many geek-friendly projects over the years, not so much due to his acting skills, and more what he represents to the geek community. It’s not for nothing that he was given a supporting role in Daredevil. Or Fanboys. Or that he is frequently seen interviewed in documentary films like Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope. Or that he hosts TV specials about Star Wars fan films. Smith is a longtime comic book nerd, and is not shy about openly living the geek lifestyle. Anything that lets him talk about his hobbies, he’ll do. Good on him.
Smith was raised Catholic, and, in 1999, did something that few filmmakers do: He made a movie about faith in a pop culture context. That movie, Dogma, was a comic book look at the way Catholic dogma operates, but was still not missing any of Smith’s trademark dirty talk, sexuality, and absurd conceits (there is a demon in the film made entirely of human waste). When Ingmar Bergman pondered the nature of faith, it was a painful and teary affair of broken hearts, disappointment, resentment, and, eventually, a quiet blissful meditation in the face of encroaching death. When Smith pondered the nature of faith, it was a bit silly, laidback, and conversational, not to mention very respectful to the notion of holiness in a superhero superpowers context. Dogma is certainly not a perfect film, nor is it the final word on Catholic dogma, but it’s one of the most relaxed and one of the funniest looks at such serious subject matter that I have encountered.
The first film that Smith made was, as some still consider it to be, his strongest. It most certainly announced Smith to the world in a dramatic fashion, making his low-low-budget 1994 feature about slackers in a convenience store a tentpole for indies. For many years, Clerks was one of the most successful indie films of all time, and it became a cult byword for college students everywhere. In addition to giving Smith his voice (a frothy and clipped stoner pathos marked by sex and Star Wars), Clerks also introduced a generation of young filmmakers to the notion that their interests and passions, even for petty adolescent things like porn, weed and antisocial behavior, could let them succeed. Smith’s direction is, at best, utilitarian, but his dialogue is unmistakably his. No one writes like Smith, and Clerks introduced a new voice to the choir.
Chasing Amy (1997)
His 1997 romance is still often considered one of Smith’s best films. A young man named Holden (Ben Affleck, on the cusp of fame) finds himself falling in love with a spunky and spirited young lesbian named Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who, in turn, finds she might be returning his affections. And while the queer-friendly sitcom setup was kind of typical for many indie films of the time, Chasing Amy is actually more about the foolish things we say and do with our significant others in order to placate our wounded pride, and come to terms with each other’s sexual interests. More than a dirty joke, it was a genuinely sweet romance about sexuality, the male ego, and the clash between the two. It was a film that bothered to be frank, but under a warming blanket of levity. It was a mature-minded film about immaturity. Crass? Oh, a bit. But with a bit of thought to back it up.
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