Full disclosure: I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan. None of you reading this are probably ignorant to that fact, but still, I’m putting it out on Front Street. Now, that being said, I’m also here to say that Clerk is a fantastic documentary about him. Playing at SXSW, it presents Smith as not just a jack of all trades type figure in entertainment, but as a true auteur as well. That’s what makes the doc far more than just something you’d find on one of his Blu-rays or DVDs (those Making Of documentaries are terrific in their own right, just as an FYI). Clerk works both as an introduction to Kevin Smith as well as a gentle reminder that he deserves more kudos than he gets.
Clerk champions Smith, not just as a filmmaker, but as a person, too. Now, the latter is an easy sell, since no one ever has a bad thing to say about him, as a man. However, considering how many discount Smith talents, including sometimes Smith himself, the flick pulls heavier duty there. It does it well, though, presenting the works in a context that highlights why they work, even if they may not have been thought to at the time. Is he a storyteller who’s not for everyone? Sure, but then again, aside from a handful of auteurs, who is?
The film traces the life and work of Kevin Smith, from his early days in New Jersey, all the way to where he is now. Of course, Clerks gets plenty of attention, including the famous story of how he dropped out of film school, financed the movie on credit cards, and shot in the convenience store he also worked at. From there, we see the commercial failure of Mallrats, the critical success of Chasing Amy, and how things skyrocketed from there. Of course, his move towards the world of podcasting, as well as his overall flair for being a raconteur gets covered. Plus, there’s moments of Smith back home intercut throughout, as he considers it all, taking stock of his career and life, up until this point.
Not only do we see the films he made, we also meet many of the people he’s shared bonds with over the years. Talking heads include some of his friends who later became successful podcasters and television stars, but also his family. In particular, daughter Harley Quinn Smith, an up and coming actress, and wife Jennifer Schwalbach Smith, paint another, more intimate portrait of the man, especially when his notorious heart attack enters the narrative.
Kevin Smith is a full on brand at this point in his career. However, one of the things that Clerk does so well is remind you of his roots. This is a working class filmmaker, someone who cinematically pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Much credit is given to his family, especially his parents, though his longtime producer Scott Mosier is obviously also shown as an ace in the hole. We see how Smith grew to have his hands in so many pies, while still retaining his enthusiasm for the film world. The movie shines when showing just how well-liked he is, too. At a point where so many figures in cinema are just a headline away from shame, Smith comes off as perhaps the nicest guy in Hollywood. These days, that counts for something.
Malcolm Ingram has known Smith for years, but beyond that connection, is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. Documentaries like Small Town Gay Bar and narratives like Drawing Flies have more than proven that. So, this isn’t a friend making hero worship. It’s a director with a personal stake seeking to showcase what he’s seen in Smith for so long. It’s very effective in that way, with a simple style that keeps the subject front and center. Sure, there’s talking heads, including some really interesting takes from filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman, but Smith himself rightly remains the star.
Clerk was made for me, but regardless of that, it’s an emotional, intelligent, and successful documentary. Likely to be my favorite title at SXSW this year, you don’t need to be a Kevin Smith fan in order to enjoy it. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but like any biographical doc, it makes the case for a person in a manner that proves their worthiness of the treatment. Don’t miss it when it hits screens, likely later on this year!