The View Askewniverse In 2019 - How Does It Hold Up?
What do you think of when you hear the term 'cinematic universe'? Presumably, those of the MCU, DCEU, and Wizarding World come to mind, with their enormous budgets, even bigger box office numbers, and overwhelming influence on popular culture today. So to talk about Kevin Smith's grand creation, the 'View Askewniverse', shouldn't be too far from the current popular film conversations, featuring a consistent cast and narrative logic. But the silliness, bizarreness, and downright crudeness of this particular world is far from the exploits of The Avengers, instead focussing on the humour and charm that can be found in clashing the mundane with the extraordinary. With another fragment of this universe currently in post-production, I'd like to revisit the set of films that made Smith the icon of independent comedy he is today - in particular, how these extremely 90s films hold up in the cinematic climate of 2019.
Humour and Tone
This is, by far, the most divisive element of the View Askewniverse. From Dante ranting to a customer in Clerks that his girlfriend has 'sucked 37 dicks!', to the Golgothan Shit Demon in Dogma, some of the more memorable moments from this universe revel in Smith's juvenile comedy. While I, like many others, can get some joy out of these scenes, its understandable that others may not, particularly as we seem to have collectively shifted out of the gross-out trend popular twenty years ago. It also makes sense that some of the films with the lowest review scores are the ones that contain the most nauseating gags - the donkey show from Clerks II, anyone?
But it is exactly this low brow tone that makes the more challenging messages more palatable for the young audience presumably putting Smith's films on for entertainment value rather than societal criticism. Much like blending extra broccoli into your child's bowl of tomato soup, Smith slips in moral messages so effectively that many viewers might not notice, or at least will be entertained enough that when Silent Bob finally weighs in at the end, they want to hear what he has to say. In Clerks it was to be more proactive and grateful for what you have, in Chasing Amy it was to move on from other people's past behaviour, and even for a less critically lauded film like Clerks II, the message that you need to cast nostalgia aside and create your own happiness in the present was surprisingly mature.
With two notable exceptions, the core of every View Askewniverse film involves a young everyman (or woman) on an emotional journey of self-improvement, whether they necessarily realize it or not. This tends to regard relationships, as stated earlier, but it is possible for a romance to emerge in a film without any kind of character growth for either of the breeding pair - take any modern Adam Sandler movie, for example. In a View Askewniverse film, however, relationships (romantic or otherwise) exist not just to drive the plot or for the sake of a happy ending, but to expose the protagonist's weak points and help them realize their strengths independent of their partner.
Though Bethany's growth in Dogma does eventually help save the universe, I would argue that Holden, Alyssa, and Banky's respective arcs in Chasing Amy represent the best of the View Askewniverse's focus on brilliant characterization. Caught in a love triangle that eventually implodes, Smith isn't trying to create a fulfilling scenario here, but is rather trying to highlight how the personal problems of an individual can destroy any chance of happiness with others. The tragedy isn't that they don't end up together, but that none of them can seemingly achieve happiness; this is wrapped up with a wonderful epilogue in which each character quietly greets the other and is genuinely happy for their success having each become better people.
Famously, Clerks features a scene in which Dante and Randal, who can both be safely categorized as nerds, discuss the ethics of working as a contractor on the Death Star in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. This scene goes on for around four minutes, and is of no real importance to the already slight plot of the film, but is given enough screentime to feel like a significant part of their lives. And for Kevin Smith, talking about traditionally nerdy material like Star Wars and Marvel comics has indeed proven to be an important aspect of his career, as well as his entire artistic legacy. Let's not forget that the man has claim to the original Stan Lee film cameo back in 1995.
Though it's easier to take for granted now, the ubiquity of superhero media and the mainstream celebration of geek culture is owed in some part to Kevin Smith managing to make it seem at least somewhat cool. By putting materials like comic books that are traditionally thought of as childish and shallow alongside characters with problems that occur in the realm of genuine social realism, he created an association between nerdiness and angsty 90s rebellion. Suddenly, you didn't need to be Steve Erkel or Milhouse Van Houten to enjoy the nerdier corners of culture - you could be Ben Affleck and still enjoy these things.
Jay and Silent Bob
Undoubtedly the most enduring and iconic symbols from the View Askewniverse are the weed dealing, foul-mouthed, libidinous Jay, and the cig smoking, observant, unexpectedly wise Silent Bob. While the duo did get their own solo outing with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, they appear to some extent in every in-universe Smith film as a unifying factor, both for comic relief and to provide an outsider's perspective on the protagonist's issues, whoever that may be. For most people, their shining moment was their debut in Clerks, where they each received character-defining lines:
Silent Bob: 'There's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagne at work'
Jay: 'I'll fuck anything that mooooves!'
In my mind, they make up the two halves of what makes these movies tick: 1990s, down to Earth silliness, and a quietly curious outlook on the mysteries of life. While the latter - unsurprisingly - has a choice amount of poetic lines in most of the films he appears in, the former rarely stops spouting complete bullshit, to the point where he has become mostly known for the nonsense phrase 'snoochie boochies'. This intersection between eloquence and illiteracy truly summarises what the whole franchise is about, in terms of making absurdist, seemingly pointless films with a surprising amount of hidden depth.
Future Plans And Smith's Other Work
I'll admit, one planned release in particular was what precipitated me writing this article: Jay and Silent Bob The Reboot. Another meta-work within a franchise that has long nurtured this kind of perspective, the film apparently aims to be a skewering of the current nostalgic reboot trend, while also serving as one in of itself. After all, it has been over a decade since the last major View Askewniverse film was released, and in the eyes of many it stands as one of the worst.
Rather worryingly, Smith himself has stated in his recent Avengers: Endgame review that he aims to provide 'fan service' with this most recent iteration as 'this ain't about art anymore', reflecting some criticisms of the director as having a 'lack of resonance'. If this is true, I'll be disappointed that he continues to create films in the View Askewniverse that have none of the emotional impact or sincere interest in humanity that his earlier movies possess. In short, non-universe movies like Tusk and Yoga Hosers contain all the silliness and self-awareness of his older work, but without as much of an attempt to explore the famous generation X angst and how it evolved into the new millennium. To speak in more modern terms, we need more Guardians of the Galaxy in the View Askewniverse, and less Ant-Man and the Wasp.
So How Well Has It Aged?
So, there remains the unfortunate topic of how well some elements of this universe have aged, and something that hasn't made it out too easily are the more distasteful jokes. While I highly doubt that Smith meant any harm, and strongly believe that these conversations were mostly just intended to be accurate to that of 1990s New Jersey twentysomethings, some of the gags do seem inappropriate today. A running joke through several films regarding Jay's closeted homosexuality comes off a little cruel now, and the many, many racial slurs used in one infamous Clerks II scene would likely cause some upset today for good reason. It's understandable for audiences to not want to overlook these glaring flaws in otherwise solid movies, but if you are able to acknowledge these issues without either defending or completely vilifying Smith, I think you'll still get a good amount out of his work.
Ultimately, I think the View Askew films have likely done well out of the 1990s revival, as their aesthetic is distinctively and unavoidably from the decade - the focus tends to be trendy American twentysomethings, after all. So while the question of whether Smith's cult popularity will endure after the nostalgic love for VHS stores and backward caps eventually dies down remains to be seen, I do think that the legacy of the universe will live on. The details of precisely how many dicks were sucked in Clerks may be lost to time, but the concept of stoner comedy that's smarter than meets the eye will hopefully continue to grow and blossom before our eyes. The concept of a cinematic universe may be familiar to us all now, but the ambition and scope of these low budget indie projects laid much of the groundwork for far more popular franchises since. So, if nothing else, this unassuming world of fighting fallen angels and owing your dealer $15 dollars is truly one of the greatest examples of how upcoming filmmakers with raw, messy ideas can influence the future landscape of cinema in completely unprecedented ways.