I tread carefully in writing a blog about such an unconventional filmmaker. I am not afraid of the so-called “professional critics” who have lambasted Kevin Smith for being nothing more than an artist in control of his art, but rather that of the “world” we call the Internet. I refer to the Army of Trolls and associated haters, most of whom have never seen his films or if they have, have only seen Clerks, or those like minded basement beings who have elevated to to the mobile world of Twitter and who genuinely can’t stand to see a fat kid such as themselves make them look bad by achieving his dreams.
Unlike most of his peers his age, he never attended a formal film school. Rather, like peers his age he had short formal training at a certification course in Vancouver from which he dropped out (Richard Linklater had attended film classes at Austin Community College, Robert Rodriguez had animation classes at UT). Inspired by Linklater’s Slacker and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs he decided to sell his comic book and laserdisc collection and then run up newly applied credit cards to the tune of 27,000 dollars of personal debt. Controlling the debt meant he controlled the film, it’s future, and in time, his career. It is strange how the blue collar background that he comes from is so vocal about hating him - not just his work but him personally. Smith worked a number of shirt-name jobs before clerking the Quick Stop near his house where he shot his first film. Everyone worked on it for free. The only money spent on the film was for equipment rental and food snatched from the Quick Stop shelves. He had to leave the counter to fly across the country with his best friend and ‘producer’ Scott Mosier whom he met in Vancouver so they could push the film through circuits. They took red eyes back to New Jersey so he could sell donuts and cigarettes after doing late night Q & As across the country. At Sundance, he sold Clerks to Harvey Weinstein for 300,000 dollars. He paid off his parents mortgage, continued living at home, and bought his father, a postal worker, his first new car.
In spite of this, when I post a positive comment about Smith on Reddit, I am bombarded by downvotes. When I ‘like’ something of his on Twitter, I have had to block replies to me by avid haters. This has led to me cautiously bringing up my View Askew fandom with people, bracing for verbal assault only to find his detractors are usually only on the internet. His fans are on the streets, and they are everywhere.
Universal producer Jim Jacks put six million on the line for Smith when he produced Mallrats, a ‘smart porky’s’ some said starring Shannen Doherty and former pro-skateboarder Jason Lee. The comic book posters seemed to be in line with Smith’s image but the commercials seemed to fall flat. It seemed not very enticing. “Go see this movie of someone you don’t like,” Smith chided the Universal marketing group later, “and someone you don’t know.” Mallrats tanked just as I was getting old enough to see R rated comedies - a rarity then and now. Smith had tons of projects on the go. All of them stopped. His bright and shining career seemed over… at least in Hollywood. It would take years, stretching into the next century for Mallrats to generate such huge video tape revenues that not only would it start making huge amounts of money in the Universal Canon, but would demand a special edition. Not many ‘bombs’ get that treatment. It is flawed, more flawed than his next film, but it is hysterically funny and typical of college 90’s males. Trust me. I was one.
Rather than go back to Jersey and sulk he went back with Mosier and pooled 300K to make Chasing Amy. I admit I am not a fan, but the film is fascinating to watch as most of the scenes are actually based on famous films. The long walk in the rain from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The scar story trading scene from Jaws. Not just filmmakers loved Chasing Amy, critics loved it, too. With the power of the shrinking press pushing it, the film hit big on the indie circuit and put Smith back on the Hollywood track. Dogma. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Jersey Girl.
The experience that was Dogma was followed by Smith earning his stripes for a few years script doctoring, much like his childhood Hollywood heroine Carrie Fisher - who cameo’d in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. This led him to work on the famous Superman Reborn script that only became legend after his hysterical retelling on his View Askew only DVD An Evening With Kevin Smith. That and an anecdote about working for Prince for a week in Paisley Park kept Smith not only in the Hollywood crowd despite still living in Jersey but also fed his fan base with more recent editions of his unique humor and talking style so prevalent among his age group. He is our Dennis Miller. This is one reason why Smith has endured. His films, largely, talk like we do. And in an extended sense, they reason outside of his target audience. My Uncle was in his late 60’s when he took his wife to see Dogma. He shook his head when he asked me what purpose the big shit monster had in the film. “Don’t you understand,” I reasoned, “he’s a believer. Yes, the Golgotha is myth. It’s absurd. Separate that from the message.” It took a while to digest this, but it eventually happened. I grew up Catholic, like Smith, so I got it immediately. Protestants not so much. Perhaps that’s why the Catholic League was so violently against it (Smith received death threats and was the strange target of Anti-Semitism) and the Protestants didn’t really give a shit. No Pun Intended.
Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back is a fun romp but in the end just a ride to settle the score on a joke at the end of Mallrats. Rarely can someone do this with someone else’s money... but he did. His career rode the same lineup as his consistent star, Ben Affleck, whom he met for Mallrats and who subsequently starred in his next three films. Affleck shot so high up so fast it was hard to contemplate. Looking at his career now as he is directing his own films worth more than all of Smith’s put together, working with haute couture artists like David Fincher and Zack Tyler, is hard to square with the young Affleck that would pull his cock out at the drop of a hat to settle childish bets, drop anal jokes on the set, and who battled addictions with Jason Mewes ranging from prescriptions to pussy.
The blow-up was idiotic. In fact, it was a relationship. Caught in a world that is 100% fabrication, Affleck’s relationship with Jennifer Lopez generated a buzz that was at first healthy. Smith had no problems getting the money for Jersey Girl and signing Liv Tyler and legendary camera man Vilmos Zsigmond who won Oscars for The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Deliverance. Shooting was in the can when the ‘mood’ in the media over ‘Benifer’ turned on it’s heel. They were engaged to start his first marriage and her third when their other co starring film Gigli (‘Rhymes with ‘really’’) bombed amazingly at the box office. The film is a very weird and final outing by Martin Brest, whose successful run through Hollywood started with Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman. His slide after those hits came to a screeching halt with Affleck hysterically pumping his iron in a mirror and Lopez sensually describing her vagina and what it means to her. These scenes in themselves were the what-the-fuck weird moments critics didn’t get, as if they never saw Charles Grodin pontificating fucking barnyard chickens with Robert DeNiro. But in the context of the film which tried to sell a leather jacket clad Italian mafia type in LA without Elmore Leonard and a Latina in low rise tight jeans as a lesbian assassin it fell flat. It was as if Brest were trying to tackle a serious drama using Smith’s dialogue. It doesn’t deserve the bottom-of-the-barrel 6% that it has on Rotten Tomatoes, clearly a result of the national ‘mood’ created and sold by the media cultural machine (“Jerkin’” to you Josie and the Pussycat fans), and thus the burnout of the powerhouse Hollywood couple (or some would say flameout) brought down not just one film, but two.
At first, Smith cut Lopez completely out of her cameo in Jersey Girl. Then, having plot and length issues, put her back in. He actually filmed a Benifer wedding that has never seen the light of day. Miramax spent 35 million on the film. It opened at 8 million. Before it went to video, it closed at 25 million. Although it would eventually break even and make money, the film put Smith permanently into the Hollywood doghouse. This result boggles the mind. The film is very endearing, on a parenting topic most do not want to face, with a humor which elevates the argument, with a visual style not seen in a Smith film before or since. George Carlin is rare in film, and is a joy here. But the end result was final. Some shake their heads at Gigli and comment on how Ben Affleck destroyed his own career. This is completely unfair. Affleck didn’t destroy his own career. He destroyed Smith’s.
Following this was a hundred percent struggle, but Smith worked harder. Retreating to what he knew, he financed Clerks II independently, made more money than the first film, told a meaningful story in color: but all for not. Zack and Miri Make a Porno might be the funniest film he has ever made, and far surpases the stupid slapstick of the 90s everyone thought was so funny then but can’t remember now. It grossed two million opening weekend...a film about Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks making a sex tape somehow made less than Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz. Try to get that through your head. Smith watched hockey documentaries, smoked weed, and retreated into his fast-growing business of podcasting. He said he was retired. He never wanted to make another movie again. If you actually sat down and watched Jersey Girl, Clerks II, and Zack and Miri back to back, you wouldn’t understand why. What’s not to like? Or rather, what is there to hate?
It took months of Smodcast, his podcast with Mosier, to just get him out of the house. Stoned, and articulate, he pontificated on his rise and fall, the purpose of having a film career, and why he didn’t understand the focused hatred of the underclass for underclass films. Smith doesn’t make movies about film gods and rock stars. He makes films about servants and drug dealers, single parents who watch porn, use fleshlights, go to church and yoga classes. It’s not glorious. Perhaps the haters see too much of themselves in his films. As the years ticked by, his perspective grew more nuanced. Having never attended any college, Smith lacks the formal training most people in Hollywood get as Harvard or Yale trained actors or homeschooled daughters of moguls and casting directors. Instead, his head is filled with the finer points of pop culture. One episode of Smodcast hysterically recorded everything Smith and Mosier didn’t know about Helen Keller, only to be followed by an episode that chronicled the lives of BJ and the Bear, the real meaning of hockey to the spirit of working class Canadians...and, later on… the film career of Grizzly Adams. Smodcast grew so large, Smith started other podcasts just because he could. The ABCs of SNL, Smoviemakers, and his podcast company S.I.R. even earned public service awards for local history for Highlands, A Peephole History. Most of the podcasts he launched are defunct, but some of them boggle the mind in popularity. When Smith launched a podcast exclusively to talk to Jason Mewes about his struggles with addiction as a method of therapy to keep him sober, it debuted as number one in iTunes for a month.
Slowly, Smith started to recover. Of course the writing came first. Then short jobs here and there in TV and on lots. Then came the strange one-off when the director of A Couple of Dicks was fired with just weeks to go to principal photography. Smith stepped in almost last minute to make the best Tracy Morgan movie out of a bad situation starring Bruce Willis. Though he was forgiven by the community for not turning a buck in a bad project, he shook off what was Cop Out to do Red State the following year with his own money, and toured it to theatres around the country in a bus: the film print neatly tucked away next to his fleshlight and rolling papers. Red State did more than shock his fans, it shocked critics as well. Where were the dick and fart jokes? Where were the Burt Reynolds comments and orangutans? Red State instead was a rare bird even in Indie Cinema: a contemplation on fascism it all it’s forms: power, religion, the purpose of family and the interpretation of sin. The cast of John Goodman, Michael Park, and Melissa Leo was so powerful, Affleck picked them all up when he shot The Town the following year. That movie made money. Red State runs endlessly on Amazon Prime.
The power of Red State is glaringly obvious to anyone who watches it. Smith’s dialogue can be wordy and repetitious, a result of watching Carrie Fisher spout out “Governor Tarken. Only you could be so bold. I thought I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.” Red State cuts this down, shocks us with Peckinpaw-like brutality, and warns us of the danger of intolerance in an age of gay marriage. Michael Parks, the veteran actor of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Grindhouse, From Dusk Til Dawn, and who had steadily worked in TV since 1960, played the best crazy preacher since Powers Boothe’s certified insane portrayal of the Reverend Jim Jones. Red State was still a working class film, but was more akin to the Saw films than to what seemed by the credits the passing fad of Clerks. When he was done, he wasn’t done. Smith was more energized by what he did than the critics who failed to understand what he was doing, or dismissed it if they did. It reminded me of what Orson Welles said after F for Fake. ‘I thought I was on something,’ Orson had told the BBC. Peter Bogdanovich agreed, wondering what Welles could have done had he simply had the support to develop what he had discovered.
Smith didn’t wait for support. Within a year he was on fire. Smodcast was always full-bore, but up came Hollywood Babble-On to add yet another direction to Smith’s focused beam of regurgitation of cultural milestones. Obstensably a show about industry news by Los Angeles radio host Ralph Garman, Hollywood Babble-On now regularly sells out performance theaters on tour, stays in the top ten most downloaded podcasts every week, and generates interest among a generation of fans that now, 25 years later, have grown up after Clerks and therefore don’t have the same hangups as earlier critics and fanboys. Smith’s website, his books (My Boring Ass Life) and his monthly columns about living with anal fissures add to the Smodcast experience where he rants about getting kicked off SouthWest Airlines because he is ‘too fat,’ the trials and tribulations of raising a girl in today’s media minefield, and the mostly misunderstood but wonderful worldly people of the Great White North.
Smith had always been familiar with Canada. Mosier is from Vancouver, and the View Askewniverse constantly pays attention to it. In short order, Smith had written a soul searching script about hockey based on Levon Helm’s eternal song Hit Somebody, which was then optioned as a mini-series before being caught in development hell. Then he penned and directed a horror film based on a fake but hysterical UK advert about a man searching for a roommate who would perform in a walrus suit as part of his rent. From the Smodcast episode “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” Tusk mixed humor with horror, confusing critics already put off with Red State. Along the same timeline he performed several successful tours in Canada which included stops onto such revered shows as the CBC’s George Stromboulopolous where in a rare switch for the much loved Maple Leaf Host he could not get a word in edgewise with the excited social butterfly. Tusk had a hard landing at 1.8 million, but it’s budget of 3 million made sure it wasn’t long before after screen sales went into the black. Having then tackled political commentary with Red State and horror with Tusk, Smith switched gears again even more dramatically. Released just last year, Yoga Hosers, another film inspired by marrying elements of Smodcast with Hollywood Babble-On, is a decidedly tween movie, for tween girls, and not for critics or fan boys. Rotten Tomatoes indelible score recreates this split between the critics of Kevin Smith who scored a 20% and the audience who rated it a 39%.
This divide is so far below what we know as the bar from High School that we are quick to judge. It is, to many, the difference between shit and whipped cream on shit. Variety was especially harsh on Smith himself. After trashing the film as nonsense, Variety attacked Kevin Smith for ‘shackling’ his daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Lily Rose Depp to material so dreadful that it “could be reasonably construed as an awfully expensive form of child abuse.” As if on queue, Yoga Hosers hit the internet with a thud sounding more like a turd dropping into water. Trolls and haters kicked into high gear, criticized Smith for slutting out his daughter, abusing his long time relationship with actor Johnny Depp, and for suspending his talent as a director to push forward the career of his Hollywood Babble-On partner Ralph Garman. When i turned on Yoga Hosers on netflix I was shocked to see a four star rating. I was even more shocked, bracing for a cringe binge film, to find the film not just unworthy of both low tomatoes, but actually funny and endearing. My daughter and I watched it twice and laughed at the bratzis, played by Smith himself, enjoying the Batman ‘66 like ending which seemed to try to redeem the ideas of Tusk’s finale. The critics were especially harsh on Ralph Garmin’s constant string of impressions while by my kids asked me to replay them over and over and over. The 19 point divide on Rotten Tomatoes would be more appreciated if we saw it in terms of 61 to an 80. A divide that great would give us pause. But because it is a Smith film, we shrug and watch Glee instead.
Twitter is still awash over the crimes of Kevin Smith, but I seem to be seeing a more distant view of his films for two reasons. First, he seems to have made his films critic-proof because of his branding, and secondly he seems to have found a niche more important than his blue collar stoner movies: keeping his audience guessing. Just in the past year, Smith has directed episodes of the Flash and Supergirl. He wrote a screenplay for Mallrats II which turned into a ten part miniseries starring Shannen Doherty which was later put on hold because of her struggle with cancer. While penning Moose Jaws to be shot this summer and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, Smith also came to terms with the fact that Clerks III will never see the light of day due to rumors Jeff Anderson does not want to return as Randall. During this same time period his show Hollyweed has been shot and is in post-production as a cable series about clerks in a marijuana dispensary. He is nearing the end of the first season of Geeking Out with co-host and JJ Abrams sidekick Greg Grunberg and the start of the 7th season of AMC’s ratings cleaner Comic Book Men. Just last month he flew to Florida for a week to shoot the first installment of a monster series based on his shelved Krampus story, Kilroy was Here.
With everything going on just in the past two years, the question isn’t why do people watch Kevin Smith. The question is why do people still hate him...because he is everywhere. Whether he is in Vancouver shooting for the WB or in New York hosting a comic con seminar or in London doing a live show of Hollywood Babble-On or on his toilet in Ben Affleck’s old house writing the next screenplay that he wants to write… Smith is on fire. Whether you like his films are not, they cover their budget. Whether you find him funny or not, people download his podcasts. Whether you find him distasteful or not, millions tuned in online to watch his one on one interviews for IMDB aboard their San Diego Comic Con yacht. If Smith is so hated, why is he everywhere? It reminds me of all the trash talking of Hootie and Blowfish back in the 90s only to find out that everyone you knew had Cracked Rear View in their collection. How many Smith haters have something from View Askew? I’m not a fan of Brian De Palma, but even I have one of his films stuffed somewhere in a CD wallet.
In 2016, Smith announced on Hollywood Babble-On, perhaps when he shouldn’t have, that MGM has pulled him into exploratory discussions about a Buckaroo Banzai sequel. Right off the cuff, Smith convinced them to give the gift that keeps on giving in syndication rights: A ten part miniseries. “In each episode the villain would be a cast member from the original,” Smith repeated for the crowd who started fantasizing about Peter Weller from Robocop, Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, Christopher Lloyd from Back to the Future; an endless list of bankable villains. The first season would be a re-telling of the film but would explore Buckaroo’s neurosurgeon experience, pop band world tours, and discovering the 8th dimension. Clancy Brown repeated the story on Variety’s podcast. “I don’t know a single one of us who wouldn’t be interested,” Brown told Kristopher Tapley, who switched the subject as fast as he could.
The image that Smith is some kind of conversation killer among journalists is now so renowned it has become a joke. Smith held an entire podcast with Ralph Garman just to read the Yoga Hosers reviews. Garman took umbrage with so many personal jibes unrelated to the film, while Smith shrugged them off after years of umbrage taking himself. “That’s their experience,” he defend, “how can you argue with that?”
This brings to mind a post Smith put on his View Askew Blog over a decade ago about getting such reviews. He posted a video of two people on a catapult type thrill ride at some nameless amusement park. One participant was having the time of their life. The other one was begging the good lord Jesus to please let it stop. Both riders were undergoing the same experience and yet received two drastically different reactions. That’s what it is to be a Smith fan. It’s the ability to enjoy his films despite the strange sensation that others around you relate them as worse than the Holocaust. I’ve learned to shrug off this annoying notion because there is no way to fight it. When researching an article about Killroy is Here for this blog, the writer ended by asking his audience “What do you think about Smith taking on the Killroy is Here Anthology? Would you rather he stick to his View Askewniverse style?” I find this strange since the View Askewniverse is only six of his films, the last one released in 2006. Since then he has released another six film unrelated to Jay and Silent Bob. Though Killroy is Here is not a VA film, he has written a script for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Underlying this statement, though, is the implicit meaning that the writer and the audience care, that they wish to exert influence over what Smith does and does not create. This is even stranger. He has never let such influence affect what he does and does not do, he has only let the opinion of his work get under his skin...and that in itself seems over.
It is a strange question, though. To go among his peers one might ask ‘would you rather Robert Rodriguez stick to his kid friendly films? Or should he stick to his immigrant bitching mode?’ Should we ask Tarantino fans if they want him to finally kick his pretentiousness and just make another four or five Pulp Fictions? Does Darren Aronofsky give a shit what his fans want him to do? I’m willing to bet none of them do, including Smith. Because really, if you care to tell a director what you want them to direct… then you’re not really a fan.