Just when it seemed that teen-age nihilism had run its course, Clerks managed to get an NC-17 for adolescent trash talk alone. Awarded an R rating on appeal, writer/director Kevin Smith’s $28,000, black-and-white, semiautobiographical comedy is hardly as obscene as The Specialist, Exit to Eden, or Milk Money. Some of its gags may be distasteful, but at least they’re not smarmily contrived or excruciatingly heartwarming.
The source of this engagingly seedy flick’s verisimilitude is no mystery. It was filmed at night at the same north Jersey shore Quick Stop Grocery where Smith worked by day, a schedule that guaranteed him an hour of sleep each day of the shoot. Though Clerks protagonist Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is not an aspiring filmmaker inspired by Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Hal Hartley, presumably he and Smith have some other things in common, notably their bemusement at the parade of oddballs, autocrats, and users who cross the store’s threshold. You have to figure that some of the more memorable customers Dante encounters—the gum salesman who attempts to terrorize smokers, the guy who gets his arm caught in a Pringles can, the old man who asks first to use the bathroom, then for higher-quality toilet paper, and finally to borrow a skin mag—are based on Smith’s close encounters with actual convenience-store fauna.
Though Dante is not so hostile to the huddled suburban masses as is his dryly misanthropic pal Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works in the video store next door, serving customers is less important than his central interests: sex and hockey. Clerks‘ day-in-the-life scenario begins with Dante’s summons to the Quick Stop on his day off, and he spends much of his time trying to determine how he can still play the hockey game he had scheduled for that afternoon. As for sex, it arrives in the form of girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and ex-girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), with whom he has recently renewed a rapport via long-distance telephone conversations. The former disrupts Dante’s serial-monogamist cool by casually admitting that, while she’s only “had sex” with three other men, she has performed fellatio on 36; the latter arrives solicitously from her Midwestern college to tell Dante that the newspaper announcement of her engagement, submitted hastily by her mother, is not accurate.
Dante’s choice between Veronica and Caitlin, inevitably exacerbated by Randal’s meddling, is the least baroque of the film’s erotic developments. There’s also necrophilia, pornography, and autofellatio—all the subject of bored-clerk banter, not actual depiction. Clerks is dedicated to Hartley, Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee, but its talkiness suggests another clerk made good, video-store auteur Quentin Tarantino. Randal even delivers a Tarantino-style cinematic exegesis, deploring the destruction of the second Deathstar in The Return of the Jedi because many innocent construction workers would have been blown up with it. Tellingly, though, Randal’s thesis is allowed to be upstaged by a walk-on character, something control-freak Tarantino would never let happen.
Like Reservoir Dogs before it, the breezily black-hearted Clerks triumphed at Sundance, where audiences had presumably tired of the regular diet of low-budget worthiness. Since then, the film’s acquired a new, less apocalyptic ending and a semi-indie-rock soundtrack, which mixes genuine suburban faves like Alice in Chains, Soul Asylum, and Bad Religion with in-group ringers like Girls Against Boys, the Jesus Lizard, and Seaweed. The effect of the music, like that of the film’s arty chapter headings (“Vilification,” “Malaise”), is negligible. The new coda, however, was a good idea: It would undermine the modest appeal of this Jersey-boy burlesque of No Exit to suggest that anything was ever really going to change.
Condensed to three hours from the 250 shot by Steve James, Fred Marx, and Peter Gilbert over five years, Hoop Dreams details the frustrations of two inner-city Chicago teen-agers recruited to play at St. Joseph High School, a basketball power located in an upscale suburb. The school and its basketball coach, GenePingatore, have recently given the documentary a backhanded endorsement, suing the filmmakers for painting a misleading portrait of the school’s basketball program. After all this effort and all this controversy, however, Dreams stops well short of revelation: It informs us that most promising high-school basketball players will not become NBA stars, which is roughly as startling as disclosing that most third-billed acts at the Black Cat will never sign with Geffen.
I admit a personal failing here: I just don’t care about basketball. Those who find poetry in a ball swishing through a net will certainly get more out of Dreams than I did. Still, spending five years to determine what a statistician could demonstrate in a few minutes does seem like overkill. Indeed, following any two teen-agers with a camera for five years would probably provide about as much drama as Dreams does.
The film does have appeal as an antidote to Hollywood sports fantasies. Following William Gates and Arthur Agee from junior high to college, the filmmakers show that the golden boy doesn’t always triumph, that reversals can be merely mundane, and that the proverbial shot at the buzzer doesn’t always go in. More mature both physically and emotionally, William is soon accepted as the hot prospect, the successor to St. Joseph’s alumnus Isiah Thomas. After Arthur’s parents split and his mother can’t keep up the tuition, St. Joseph essentially throws him back to west Chicago, where he attends an underdog (in basketball as well as other areas) public high school. When Arthur applies to college, his parents have to ransom his St. Joseph transcript, one of the sequences that surely made the private school’s administrators wince.
James, Marx, and Gilbert got the Agees’ remarkable meeting with St. Joseph’s finance officer on film, but they weren’t there for lots of other developments. Voice-over narration has to fill in, unsatisfyingly, many of the changes in the life of Arthur’s volatile father, and when William himself unexpectedly becomes a father (while in 11th grade) the filmmakers are definitely playing catch-up. Much has been made of Arthur’s mother’s comment, at her son’s 18th-birthday party, that she’s glad he even made it to that age, but that sentiment is so commonplace it might as well have been scripted. That’s one of the problems with the documentarians’ strategy of showing up mostly for scheduled events, whether playoff games or birthday parties. Some of this is revealing, but from such cinematic clichés as the rap theme song and the slo-mo basketball sequences to the actual comments of the subjects, Dreams finds life imitating Hollywood.