Clerks (10th Anniversary Edition) Review
Whilst in this case it's probably safe to roll out that old cliché and say here's a film 'that needs no introduction', I was a bit surprised to discover that the previous release of Clerks was never actually reviewed on DVD Times. So, fair enough; I'll introduce it anyway.
You'd have to have been vacationing on Mars to have missed the fact that 1994 was something of a banner year for Miramax, what with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway hitting the big screen in quick succession. However, unlike the former, produced on an $8 million budget, replete with recognised actors and solidly promoted, the company had something of a 'stealth hit' on its hands with Kevin Smith's indie-film Clerks… which you'd have been very lucky indeed to catch on its initial US release, as it only played at 50 cinemas nationwide.
Filmed entirely in (often-grainy) black-and-white, Clerks was an incredibly low-budget production (costing just under $28,000 all told) shot over the course of about three weeks in some backwater town in New Jersey. It was the first feature-length collaboration by twenty-something film-college mates Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, employing a cast comprised entirely of friends, family, and local amateur thespians. The vast majority of the 'action' comprises two-shots of people hanging around a pair of run-down shops and, well, talking disconsolately about their lives.
On the face of it, this hardly sounds like a recipe for success… but then that fails to take into account just what the main characters talk about. The deep appeal of Clerks stems from its spot-on dialogue, for which scriptwriter Kevin Smith deserves ample credit. After all, you're not likely to be drawn in by the 'intricate' plot, which can be briefly summarised as: 'Two friends working dead-end jobs as convenience store clerks spend a day grousing about the customers and generally slacking off.' The fact that it cleared $3 million on its theatrical run (once Miramax had cleaned it up a bit in post-production and secured some music rights) can only mean that some combination of the story, characters, and dialogue struck a chord with a substantial film-going demographic.
In slightly more detail, Clerks chronicles a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), two friends in their early 20s who are still stuck in that post-school funk of not really knowing what they want to do with their lives and as such have ended up working brain-dead jobs manning the local Quick Stop and RST Video emporium. Although it's ostensibly Dante's day off, being something of a pushover he gets cajoled by his boss into opening the store anyway on the promise that it will only be for the morning shift… but it's a promise quickly broken and he soon realises he's stuck there until the shop closes late that night. There's also the matter of Dante juggling two girlfriends – the current, dependable Veronica (Marilyn Ghilgliotti) and old high school flame Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer), whom Dante has become recently infatuated with again, despite her past infidelities. Luckily for him, he can always vent to Randal about the state of things… even if (or perhaps because) the latter's personality is decidedly more caustic and misanthropic than his own milquetoast demeanour.
Independent film in its truest sense, Clerks is an example of something that never aspired to be particularly marketable; Kevin Smith wrote it to please himself, and as such there's something that rings very true about even the wackier situations that make up this film. Essentially a collection of odd sketches loosely strung together, the language used is what underpins the whole production. In many ways as distinctive as Josh Whedon's 'Buffyspeak' (which I smiled to hear again in Firefly), the dialogue Kevin Smith wrote for Clerks has that odd quality of verisimilitude, particularly when it comes to the prevailing topics of conversation amongst the main characters. However it certainly isn't for the faint of heart. In fact, the MPAA originally assigned Clerks an 'NC-17' based solely on the vulgar language present (both in the sense that it is rife with many, many profanities and that it is quite sexually explicit)… a harsh rating usually reserved for films containing epic amounts of wanton violence and/or excessive depictions of nudity/sex. (For the curious, Miramax managed to wheel in civil-liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz to appeal the decision, at which point the MPAA – without requesting a single word be struck from the script – lowered the rating to a more-acceptable 'R'.)
That Clerks went on to become a cult classic and secured a future for Kevin Smith in the world of filmmaking is well-known, but I wouldn't personally style it as his absolute best work. (My favourite so far would have to be his excellent Chasing Amy, and even Dogma strikes me as more consistently-funny, though it does lack the visceral impact of seeing Clerks for the first time.) The truth is, Kevin Smith's brand of humour is a very hit-or-miss affair, and I've encountered many people who were put off the View Askewniverse permanently just by having seen the wrong film first (e.g. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). I will say that I was rather surprised to hear that he's backed away from the Green Hornet adaptation in order to direct the upcoming sequel to Clerks (currently referred to as 'The Passion of the Clerks'); after all, Kevin Smith has always been very much into comics, and I was curious to see what would result from his work on that particular project.
OK, to discuss the picture quality of this DVD release requires a few caveats. First off, you'll recall this film was produced on a shoestring budget. So forget frills like, well, colour. (Originally Smith and Mosier wanted to film in colour, but then realised they were going to have a problem stocking film suitable to the various different lighting conditions they wanted to capture, and in the end the easiest solution was to just go with black-and-white.) Nor is this precisely top-quality B&W film, either. Oh, and the rented film equipment and cameras also left a lot to be desired. (Hell, even their microphone boom had to be replaced by a hockey stick early on in the production. No, I'm not kidding.) Anyway, you get the idea: the video for Clerks was always going to be a bit rough.
Well, for the first time since its original airing at the IFFM (Independent Feature Film Market), everyone can see just how rough it really was… because disc 2 of this 10th Anniversary Edition is graced with the original, unmodified 'First Cut' of the film, direct from the VHS master. Clocking in at a running time of about 10 minutes longer than the theatrical release, it's also completely unmatted, so expect a non-anamorphic 1.33:1 aspect ratio presentation full of dust, nicks, scratches, and general murkiness. This was prior to post-production by Miramax, which cleaned up a lot of the print damage and added some proper contrast enhancement (as well as some edits, naturally). It also features the 'alternate ending' that most of us are by now familiar with from previous laserdisc and DVD releases.
Of course, with all the hoopla surrounding the 'enhanced sound and video' on this latest version, most of you will be wondering how the main feature (located, naturally, on disc 1) looks. Well, I'm afraid this may be another case of 'It's the best it's ever looked… but that's not necessarily saying much.' To be honest it has been cleaned up quite a bit; this is an anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation remastered from the original 16mm Kodak Plus-X film onto Hi-Def stock. But just don't expect miracles, OK? For the curious, I've taken several scenes that appear in both cuts of the film provided on this release and presented the 'new' and 'old' screencaps together.
There's something similar going on with the audio here. Recalling that this film originally boasted a very basic soundtrack, it would be foolish to get your hopes up that the new 5.1 Skywalker Sound remix is going to make listening to Clerks a whole new experience. That said, it is a modest step up from what was provided on the Clerks: Collector's Edition a few years back, but in this case the standouts aren't (the anticipated) stereo separation, left/right directionality, bass response, and good use of the rear soundstage… no, the main improvement is that the dialogue all seems to come across a lot clearer than before. Whereas – because of the limitations of the original sound equipment Smith and Mosier had to work with – the dialogue on the old soundtrack often came across as more than a bit muffled and sometimes had to compete for earspace with sound effects and 'background' music, here almost every line is crisp and comprehensible. Beyond that, the bells and whistles fade out pretty abruptly… whilst, yes, all of the speakers in your surround setup get some use, this remains a very centre-channel and front-soundstage presentation.
The menus for this 10th Anniversary set are all pretty standard stuff, which felt like a (very minor) let-down after the considerably more funky ones included on the Dogma: Special Edition. Still, there's nothing actually wrong with any of the ones included here; the main menu of each disc is animated with a looping music clip and the remaining sub-menus are all static and silent, but with easy-to-navigate layouts and fast access times.
Fair play to the producers of this 10th Anniversary Edition; one thing they definitely cannot be faulted for is 'skimping on the extras'. For the vast majority of Clerks fans, this new release will be the version to own. Spread across no fewer than three DVDs, the list of special features is, frankly, enormous. As is usual for re-releases of a cult classic, there is a mix here of bonus material both old and new… some of this will be stuff die-hard aficionados of the View Askewniverse have already seen/heard, but overall it's a great collection of things the average viewer (or even casual fans) will never have encountered before. To make it easier to parse, I've broken down the special features disc-by-disc below.
Also, just for the record, whilst both versions of Clerks present on this 3-disc set include optional subtitles (both English and English for the Hearing Impaired), absolutely none of the bonus material does. (This continues to be a major oversight amongst DVD distributors; it would be nice one day for subtitled commentary tracks to be the rule rather than the exception.)
This DVD containing the final 'theatrical cut' of Clerks (albeit one with remastered video and audio, as mentioned above), it should come as no surprise that it's accompanied by the 'classic' commentary (recorded by Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, Jason Mewes, Brian O'Halloran, Vincent Pereira, Walter Flanagan, and guest press Malcolm Ingram whilst on the set of Mallrats back in 1995). This is the feature-length track most of us are familiar with from the laserdisc… and wheeled out again for the subsequent DVD release. For those of you who haven't heard it – and for those who don't remember it all that distinctly – it's quite a serviceable commentary dominated strongly throughout by Kevin Smith. (Despite the number of names listed above, the vast bulk of air time is occupied by Smith's voice, with only the occasional input from the others.) Compared to the film itself – and certainly in stark contrast with the new 2004 commentary (below) – this is a very measured piece of work. Informative, interesting, and reserved in both language and tone, this 1995 commentary provides a number of solid insights into the production. Very much a 'standard commentary', the only drawback here is that Smith's calm monotone narrative is slightly soporific and if you listen to it too late at night, you may find yourself nodding off.
Moving on to 'new stuff', the other feature-length bonus on disc 1 is an enhanced playback track – a text-only trivia feature. Occupying the disc's third subtitles track, this extra cannot be viewed in conjunction with either of the other subs. However, there's a more serious problem with it: unlike other recent 'trivia-text' DVD features, these subtitled notes are placed on an opaque dark-grey background which blots out some of the picture. I honestly can't understand how this made it onto the final version of this DVD… did the authoring team really think fans wouldn't care that they couldn't view the bottom third of the screen whenever one of these 'notes' popped up? But enough about the format – what of the content? Well, it's a bit hit-or-miss, to be honest. Overall I only discovered a couple things I had not already known about Clerks during the time I spent viewing the 'enhanced playback track'. Further – and somewhat embarrassingly for the DVD production team – it seems there was no attempt to keep track of which notes had already been used. (For instance, I distinctly remember a longish quote from Roger Ebert's film review appearing twice verbatim.)
The remaining extras on this disc are shorter in individual running time but probably more exciting for the average fan. First off is the 'lost scene' from the film (done in precisely the same style as Clerks: The Animated Series, and covering what happened in the 'five minutes' Dante and Randal were inside the funeral home). Bits of this are funnier than others, but it was great to see the distinctive animation style from the TV series in full swing again, and look out for a Chasing Amy cameo. Next we have a brief (15-minute) throwaway short called The Flying Car, reprising the camaraderie between Dante and Randal during yet another of their bizarre conversations on a gridlocked motorway. To be honest, this isn't so hot, but we can't have everything, can we? By contrast, much more entertaining are the MTV Spots with Jay and Silent Bob, which total 8 in number (though from what Smith and Mosier intimate in their intro segment, more may have been produced and subsequently lost). If you never managed to catch these when they originally aired, be prepared for a treat. (Yes, so they're in turns silly, vulgar, and stupid. What's your point?)
From here, it's all a bit downhill. There's the obligatory theatrical trailer (again with an intro by Kevin Smith where he mentions it's probably the best trailer he's ever seen). Even if it was put together by the same guy who made the Pulp Fiction trailer, I don't know if seeing this one would have made me run out to see Clerks, honestly. Another special feature many will have seen before is the Soul Asylum 'Can't Even Tell' music video, where the band members invade the Clerks universe for a spot of rooftop hockey. Then there are a pair of Clerks restoration 'featurettes' (and I use this term generously, considering that one is only 30 seconds long and the other clocks in at 5 minutes but somehow still manages to feel like it drags on forever), hosted by David Klein (Clerks' cameraman) and Scott Mosier, talking a bit about the refurbishment of the picture and sound, respectively. These are accompanied by one of the many, many introductions to the special features Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier make on these 3 discs, and you really would do better to avoid these if at all possible. (In particular, I don't recall Kevin Smith being so amazingly unfunny before seeing him in these intro segments. Even the intros on Clerks: The Animated Series and Dogma: Special Edition were more amusing/interesting than the ones found here.
Ah, one last light at the end of the tunnel is the set of original auditions for Clerks. I'm both quite glad and frankly amazed that these video clips weren't lost at some point in the past decade. It's great to see Brian O'Halloran (Dante), Jeff Anderson (Randal), and Marilyn Ghigliotti (Veronica) on the very first day of casting. It's also rather embarrassing to see Ernest O'Donnell (a mate of Kevin Smith's who was originally slated to play Dante) and his reading partner both repeatedly flub relatively simple lines from the script. (As such, it's not at all surprising that in the end he was given the far less prominent role of the 'jock' who comes in and lectures Dante about being physically unfit.)
The extras of disc 1 end on something of a sour note, however, as the last selection is for DVD-ROM content. A note says to pop the DVD into a DVD-ROM drive for additional bonus material… but it seems someone at the authoring house was asleep at the switch that day, because in actuality there is no DVD-ROM content whatsoever.
The second disc features the more recent 2004 feature-length commentary by Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, and Brian O'Halloran. This comes in two flavours: by pressing the ANGLE button on the DVD remote control, it's possible to switch between watching the IFFM cut of Clerks (with the commentary audio overlaid on top of the muted original soundtrack) and the video recording of the actual studio session where this commentary was filmed.
I'd love to report that, 10 years on, Smith & Co. had spent enough time reflecting on their experience with Clerks to produce a truly gripping commentary, superior in every way to the previous 'rough-and-ready' version. Sadly, I cannot. Listening to this new commentary, you'd never once suspect that these guys were now in their thirties; the calibre of the conversation never rises above the extremely juvenile and styling their comedy here as 'sophomoric' would only serve to aggrandise it. Which is vastly frustrating, as from other Kevin Smith interviews and commentaries, we know that he's an engaging person with genuinely interesting things to say. Just don't expect him (or his mates) to say any of them here; it's almost as by putting the lot of them in one room together again, the net effect was to lower the IQs of everyone present to 'bathroom humour' level.
One obvious problem is that it takes a long while for these five to even remember that the film is playing in the background, with most of the early remarks being so far off-topic as to border on the completely irrelevant. In addition, Kevin Smith and the rest of the cast seem to be striving desperately to live up to a certain established reputation for raunchiness, with many, many blue comments peppering the track. (For example, a random sampling of the content would have to include an extended discussion as to who was/wasn't getting laid during the filming, references to 'circle jerks', and a rather worrying several minutes where the lads seem fixated on the topic of Kevin Smith's mother's pubic hair. Yes, really.)
Even once the boys start paying attention to the film, for a while it's as if they don't really know what to say about it, with quite a few patches of decidedly 'dead air' creeping in. Thankfully, about one-third of the way into the film the commentary starts to focus slightly and becomes moderately bearable to listen to. From this point on there are the occasional technical details, filming anecdotes, identifications of those playing bit parts, pop culture references, and random trivia (usually New Jersey-specific)… albeit mostly buried under a veneer of unnecessary crassness and vulgarity. Whilst I guess there are people out there that will find this just their cup of tea, to my mind this commentary is at best disappointing and, at worst, genuinely depressing.
And yes, that's it for the bonus material on disc 2. Onwards…
And so we come to it at last… the 'all-extras' disc. Kevin Smith's really pulled out all the stops with Clerks X and if next year's release of Mallrats X even remotely approaches the magnitude of bonus content seen on this set, even those who hold the latter film as a lowpoint in Smith's career may want to consider a purchase. That aside, what does disc 3 have to offer?
Well, first and foremost is the insanely comprehensive Snowball Effect: The Story of Clerks. A documentary with a running time almost as long as the film itself (and in fact 50% longer once the 13 included 'outtakes' on this DVD are factored into the equation), 'Snowball Effect' does everything right from start to finish. Entertaining, funny, interesting, and really, really informative, it should appeal to pretty much everyone who liked Clerks. The interviews alone are worth their weight in gold, and those fans not already familiar with just how close Clerks came to dropping off the face of the planet without ever having been viewed by more than a dozen people owe it to themselves to discover just who Bob Hawk is. I know that people are often leery about long documentaries, but believe me when I say that Snowball Effect never gets dull. Sure, you may never watch it a second time, but you'll enjoy that first viewing and it's probably the single best special feature on this 10th Anniversary Edition.
But let's move on to the other extras. For purely historical interest, included is Smith & Mosier's very first attempt at filmmaking. Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary, clocking in at about 12 minutes in length, is a purportedly amusing short about the non-making of a student docu about a transsexual entertainer. (Don't get too excited; it sounds about 100% more interesting than it actually is.) Since the boys never actually made said documentary, to salvage their film-school project they made a 'meta-documentary' where they basically take the piss out of themselves and interview the other people involved in the production (none of whom, naturally, have much good to say about Smith and Mosier). It comes across as striving to be clever and not quite succeeding.
Equally disappointing is the 10th Anniversary Q & A, which sees the entire core team (Kevin Smith, Scott Mosier, David Klein, Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghighliotti, and Jason Mewes) reunited on stage and subjected to 42 minutes of unsympathetic questioning by an audience of so-called fans. Apparently the people hosting the event didn't bother to vet any of the questions in advance to see if they were worthwhile enough to burn limited Q & A time on, because most are incredibly lame and several are downright derogatory. However, if the questions are bad, so are the answers. About a million miles removed from the easy, free-flowing wit that their characters spouted in the film, the Clerks team here seems at a loss for words at almost every turn. Responses to questions are clumsy and fail to impart any particular insights, and one is left with the impression that our heroes aren't that intellectually fast-on-their-feet. Oh, well.
There's also a still photo gallery containing about 50 pictures (mostly in black and white, but some in colour) from the production of Clerks, two original Kevin Smith journals from before and after Clerks was made (text-only and actually very interesting to read, albeit long slogging too), and a collection of articles and reviews concerning the film around the time it came out.
As if there were any doubt, this 10th Anniversary Edition of Clerks is unquestionably the best version available and easily supersedes all previous DVD releases. (Yes, you can finally eBay your copy of the Clerks: Collector's Edition now.) In fact, the only real complaint that can honestly be levelled at this 3-disc release is perhaps that it provides too many special features for the casual viewer to digest. As such, 'Clerks X' is primarily a love-letter to die-hard fans of the film; if you're someone who merely enjoyed Clerks and doesn't expect to be pulling the disc down off the shelf to play for friends, then you don't actually need to upgrade. Whilst the video and sound have both been 'enhanced' for this release, there's only so much you can do with the low-budget original source material, and in this case the improvements are relatively marginal. Don't fool yourself… this release is all about the extras, and they are impressive.