Three things irritated me about the mid '90s flood of overrated low-budget American movies overtaking Australian arthouse cinemas.
The first was the fix on American cinema to the exclusion of similar quirky little films made in just about any other country you could name. I'm sure there are homages to Quentin Tarantino and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) being made right now in Moscow, Vienna, Taiwan and Amsterdam. But its mostly only the ones made in Texas that we get to see locally.
The second thing was that, even restricting ourselves to American film, the trend offered an incredibly distorted representation of what independent filmmaking in that country really is. Since the international success of directors like John Sayles, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch in the '80s, American Independent Film has become synonymous with a quite mainstream, only slightly kinky form of narrative filmmaking. There are remarkable artists in America who make really unusual, challenging and adventurous films, people who started in the '70s: Jon Jost, Yvonne Rainer, Mark Rappaport, James Benning ... but you're not about to see their films anywhere in Australia except at the National Cinematheque.
But the third thing, the thing that really bugged me in this glorification of independent American cinema was the irrational fixation on ultra-low budgets. You might remember the marketing campaign for El Mariachi (Roberto Rodriguez, 1992), which went on and on about the minuscule amount of money that went into its making. They should have told us as well how much more money went into the marketing campaign. El Mariachi set off a buzz in the Australian film scene about so-called no-budget filmmaking – see, for example, the apparently no-budget Sydney film, Mad Bomber in Love (James Bogle, 1992).
All this no-budget talk amounts to a kind of deranged economic rationalism of the arts. This is the kind of hype that favours cowboy entrepreneurs, and helps imperil government funding for the arts. The looney assumption behind the no-budget buzz seems to be that scarce material resources absolutely guarantee the filmmakers' heart, commitment, inventiveness and savage brilliance. If only this was true!
However, my whinge stops here, because I did see one black-and white, ultra low budget American film, shot in New Jersey with a bunch of only slightly professional actors – and I thought it was great.
Clerks, written and directed by Kevin Smith, is an absolute delight. There's not much to the plot. A twentysomething guy with the colourful name of Dante (Brian O'Halloran) works dutifully in a grocery store. He has some vague sense of work responsibility, but in most other areas of his life he's a shambling, vacillating no-future type. His mate Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works in the video shop next door, is a more honest slacker. He has no qualms about goofing off at all hours, bothering Dante behind the counter, insulting and fobbing off customers, and generally cruising for a dry laugh or two amid the general bleakness of his suburban, working class existence.
We see a day's passing parade in the grocery store. There's insane and eccentric customers, including a marvellous anti-smoking zealot who stands by the counter trying to scare customers off buying cigarettes. There's also a guy who likes to personally check out all the eggs, and he crouches by the egg stand performing all sorts of queer tests on them. Out in the street, there are various dazed and confused drug dealers, hip-hoppers, and even a head-banging young visitor from Russia. We are also introduced to the two women in Dante's confused life, his current girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and his old flame Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer), plus the moronic drug dealers who work the street out front. (The boys, but not the girls, return for the 2006 sequel.)
The tone is deliberately kept rather flat and monotonal. There are occasionally more riotous incidents involving an impromptu hockey game on the shop's roof, a disastrous excursion to a friend's funeral, and several appearances by harried law enforcers. But mostly this is a film of blackout skits and gags, milking hilarity from the smallest details of an ordinary situation. The director of Clerks probably does not know that the film his most resembles is a French comedy called The Comedy of Work (1987) made by Luc Moullet. That film is a droll masterpiece concerning a group of out-of-work people; their very rigorous career consists of traveling from one region of Europe to the next, collecting multiple unemployment benefits. Moullet compares their rituals with those of other characters who work in offices and behind counters. Slowly but surely, everybody in the film goes crazy.
Clerks ends with a warm thank-you to those mainstream trailblazers in American independent filmmaking like Jarmusch and Hartley. Yet where their films are droll and mannered, Clerks is lively and immediate. Opting for a simple, frontal, wide-shot camera strategy, Smith puts all his energy into the actors and their screwy, rapid-fire exchanges. Not since Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) has a movie showcased such lovably raw characters. All their daily, murky obsessions are laid bare. They banter about sport and tabloid newspapers, about the school chums they like and detest, about oral sex and anal sex. I didn't know what a snowball was, sex-wise, until I saw this film.
Certainly, there's a strong male buddy-buddy element in Clerks, and some hair-raisingly misogynistic and homophobic humour. But one of the terrific things about the film is how full and real the female characters are. They're just as murky and ribald and confused as the central guys. And in this, Clerks reminds me of some of the best and rarest American teen movies of the past fifteen years, films such as the very different River's Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986).
Another teen movie-related aspect of Clerks is the way it shows an authentic sense of contemporary working class life. It's a life which is shown to be rootless and unglamorous, but still somehow vital – there's a kick to it. Again, this is what make Smith's film different to those of Hartley or Whit Stillman. Even when you see working-class or downwardly mobile characters in their movies, there's a kind of smug, ironic middle-class eye being trained on them. But this film's only slightly romanticised feeling for ordinary, working people should strike a chord with those Australian viewers fond of local films such as John Ruane's Death in Brunswick (1991) or Brian McKenzie's Stan and George's New Life (1991).
For all their colourful verbal obscenities and proletarian aggro, the people in Clerks have a surprisingly sensitive side. Of course, they are the certified slackers of Generation X – a bit alienated and solipsistic, generally rather lost on life's path. But, like the teens in River's Edge, these characters are genuinely searching for a moment of clarity and grace. There's even a certain kind of interpersonal therapy being played out here, amid the blue jokes and grotty detritus of everyday life. Between the lines, in a quiet but earnest way, this "grunge movie par excellence" (as it has been called) is really a twentysomething testament for the '90s.
© Adrian Martin April 1995