A Vulgarian For All Seasons: Revisiting Kevin Smith’s Jersey Trilogy at Vulgarthon 2018
You can’t get into Vulgarthon without taking a selfie with Kevin Smith.
The showtime listed on each $74.90 ticket to the event — an all-day, five-film marathon at the Bow Tie Red Bank 2 in Red Bank, NJ — is 9AM. But Vulgarthon doesn’t actually kick off until 10:45. For nearly two hours in the New Jersey sun, Smith welcomed each of the 300 attendees individually.
You can argue about Smith’s merits as a filmmaker, but the way he treats his fans is beyond reproach. He’s terrific with them. Some get handshakes, others hugs. A few ask for autographs. One guy got Smith to make a personalized video for a friend who couldn’t come because he had to work. (He playfully mocked the absent buddy by giving the camera the middle finger.)
But everyone took a selfie. You could theoretically bypass the picture, but I didn’t see anyone do it. That could partly be because Smith was planted right in front of the entrance to the tiny Red Bank 2; at Vulgarthon, Smith was literally unavoidable. More likely though, it's because he was the man everyone was there to see. As he joked in his introductory remarks, quoting from the movie that made him an indie film legend, he wasn’t even supposed to be there today — because he probably should be dead.
August 2, 2018 was the 20th anniversary of the original Vulgarthon, held on the same day in the same location in 1998. Tickets were cheaper back then ($40) and the guest list was slightly glitzier (Jason Lee made the trip), but the lineup was exactly the same: Smith’s first three films — Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy — along with two others he produced around the same time, Drawing Flies and A Better Place. The date wasn’t chosen at random; it’s Smith’s birthday. After nearly dying of a massive heart attack earlier this year, it seemed like the right time to look back.
That’s also why I’m here. I grew up 20 minutes west of Red Bank in Marlboro, New Jersey. As an awkward, comic-book-loving teenager, finding Chasing Amy the summer before my senior year of high school was like discovering the Batcave beneath my parents’ house — a hidden, magical world that I’d been sitting on top of all those years without ever realizing it. I quickly became obsessed. I even attended the third Vulgarthon in 2002, but it’s been years since I watched any of these movies. So I’m ready to look back, too. And I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to find.
At Vulgarthon 2018, Kevin Smith gave one man credit for his directing career — not necessarily for his success, but for making him believe there was even a chance that he could make a movie. His name is Vincent Pereira. If you owned one of the DVDs of Smith’s so-called “Jersey Trilogy,” you might recognize Pereira’s voice from their commentary tracks, where he was billed as the “historian” of Smith’s work. Pereira also directed a movie of his own, a drama about violent teenagers called A Better Place. Most of the “teens” appear to be in their mid-20s, but it has an appealingly grungy suburban atmosphere; it’s easily a better-looking movie than Clerks.
During Vulgarthon’s A Better Place Q&A, Smith explained the crucial role Pereira played in his life. Working at the convenience store later immortalized in Clerks, Smith and Pereira would swap J. Hoberman reviews in the Village Voice, watch old Twin Peaks reruns on a VCR behind the counter, and plan their futures. It was Pereira, Smith said, who was the first person he ever met who vowed to become a filmmaker when he grew up. “I didn’t think I could be a director,” Smith explained, “until I met Vincent.”
Pereira, in other words, turned directing from a pipe dream into an accessible goal — something that Kevin Smith did for his audience, whether intentionally or not. Smith naysayers always insulted his movies’ flat visuals; I always thought those complaints completely missed the point. It never mattered if Smith’s films looked rough; in a way, that enhanced their appeal, because it proved you didn’t need to be touched by the hand of Buddy Christ to make movies for a living. You could just be a dude who worked a crappy retail job and liked to talk about Star Wars. Kevin Smith was to his fans what Vincent Pereira was to him.
He had a similar impact on my life. I never wanted to be a director, but seeing a guy with similar interests and insecurities, who grew up two towns over from me, made Smith an inspiring figure. A few years later, as Smith’s empire was expanding, he launched his own pop culture website, Movie Poop Shoot, named for a fictional site featured in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. He hired a guy I knew to run it, and so I wound up contributing columns for several years.
Later, when I applied for a grad school seminar in film criticism taught by J. Hoberman — the same guy whose reviews Smith was obsessed with in the years he spent developing Clerks — my application was filled with Movie Poop Shoot pieces. I got a spot in the seminar, then an internship at the Village Voice, started freelancing, and then wound up working steadily in a dying field for a dozen years and counting. I wouldn’t be here without the help of many people. Even though he doesn’t know it (I had zero contact with him while I worked for Movie Poop Shoot), Kevin Smith is one of them.
Back when I was just a hardcore fan, I would have ranked both Clerks and Chasing Amy among my favorite films. 15 years later, I couldn’t tell you the last time I watched either of them, and I’ve struggled to finish Smith’s recent efforts like Yoga Hosers. So watching his early movies in a theater again was a surreal experience. In some ways, Smith’s breakthroughs were eerily prescient. In others, they feel like they were made 200 years ago instead of 20, in some bygone prehistoric era that future historians may someday look back on and call “The Snootchie Bootchie Age.”
Like the superheroes he adores, Kevin Smith has a famous origin story that his acolytes love to tell and retell. He was raised in Highlands, New Jersey and attended Henry Hudson Regional High School. He went to Vancouver Film School but never graduated; instead, he returned home to work at the local Quick Stop convenience store and raise money for his debut feature, Clerks. The exact budget of the film — $27,575 — has become almost as famous as Smith’s rat-a-tat dialogue. He got the money by running up massive credit card bills and selling his comic-book collection.
After Clerks became a surprise indie hit, Smith got to write the script for Tim Burton’s failed Superman Lives. But to this day, Smith has never directed his own comic-book movie. He has made his own movies into comic books, though. That includes turning Clerks into a miniseries from Oni Press and giving his two most famous characters, Jay and Silent Bob, their own graphic novel, Chasing Dogma.
More importantly, he structured his films like comics from the Marvel Universe; each ran parallel stories with different casts, but existed within the same physical space and occasionally referenced events from one another. Just as Spider-Man would swing by the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building and wonder what his old pal Johnny Storm was up to, Alyssa Jones, the heroine of Chasing Amy, would allude to a best friend who had sex with a dead man — an incident that took place in Clerks. Fans called the fictional New Jersey of the films the “View Askewniverse,” after Smith’s company, View Askew Productions. This was in 1995, more than a decade before Marvel brought the idea of a shared cinematic universe into the mainstream (minus the jokes about corpse sex).
With Mallrats, Smith also popularized the idea of giving Stan Lee a winking, self-referential cameo. Universal, the studio releasing the film, was baffled by the concept. As Smith recounted at Vulgarthon, the executives in charge of Mallrats insisted Stan Lee’s role was a bad idea because “no one knew who he was” and “no one cared” that he co-created Spider-Man and the X-Men.
Stan Lee plays himself in Mallrats as a folksy sage. He warns Brodie that there is more to life than comic books and encourages him to reunite with his girlfriend (played by Beverly Hills 90210’s Shannen Doherty, who has at least three costume changes in the film even though the movie takes place over the span of about eight hours).
Today it seems as though Lee served as something of a life coach to Smith as well. In the years after he made the movies featured at Vulgarthon, Smith has transformed himself into Stan Lee: A man who made several era-defining works and occasionally generates new material but now mostly makes a living marketing himself and his well-established brand to fans through the internet.
The internet was also the cause of the occasional discomfort I felt rewatching Smith’s movies, particularly Mallrats and its easily irritated comic-book nerd hero Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee). Brodie was meant as an affectionate tribute to a certain kind of geek: Awkward, aggressive, and deeply passionate. Now that some online readers have weaponized Brodie’s elitist attitude, the character reads a lot darker and meaner than was intended (so does the casual and frequent use of homophobic language throughout these movies, which I never batted an eye at in 1998 but found a little shocking in 2018).
The most interesting question Smith answered at one of the five Vulgarthon Q&As was about his worst day directing Chasing Amy. He told a story about a fight with actress (and Smith’s then-girlfriend) Joey Lauren Adams. In a scene set at a hockey rink, Smith was trying to direct Adams and co-star Ben Affleck by shouting from a monitor located on the other side of the building. Adams couldn’t hear what Smith was yelling, got frustrated, and eventually left for the day without saying goodbye. When Smith returned home after shooting wrapped, an argument ensued. It escalated and Adams finally told him flat-out: “You are not a good director, Kevin.”
Smith claimed he was so devastated by the criticism that he nearly quit the film until he was talked down by his producer, Scott Mosier. Rewatching the first View Askew films, I don’t think Smith is a bad director, but he also now strikes me as a somewhat miscast one. His greatest strength is writing, and particularly his distinctive, pop-culture-focused dialogue.
In 2001, Smith did an interview with The New York Times about the movie he had watched more than any other. It wasn’t Star Wars or Batman; Smith’s most-viewed film was Fred Zinnemann’s A Man For All Seasons. As a teenager, he was obsessed with it; Smith guessed he had seen A Man For All Seasons at least 50 times. “This is one of the first movies that introduced me to the notion of dialogue and character and nothing else really needing to happen," he told the Times.
Smith’s conversations are obviously more profane than the ones in a film about the life of Sir Thomas More. They’re also more screwball than I remembered, particularly in Mallrats, which is, I now realize, a ’90s twist on the classic comedy of remarriage. It's a little strange in hindsight that Smith went on to direct a movie he didn’t write (the disappointing buddy action comedy Cop Out) but Hollywood never produced a Kevin Smith script that he didn’t also direct. He has landed a few high-profile writing gigs that never made it to the screen, but how did he not become a busy for-hire screenwriter? Where is the great Kevin Smith-written rom-com?
Born 20 years earlier, it would have been almost impossible for Smith to scrounge the tools to make a feature in Leonardo, New Jersey. Born 20 years later, he probably would have gone straight to being a YouTube star while cutting out the part where he toiled away for decades in independent film. Now no one would make Clerks as a movie (much less one shot on black-and-white celluloid film); it’d be a YouTube series by a bunch of sarcastic register jockeys in their spare time. And $27,575 wouldn’t be an astronomically low budget for a full-length film — it would be an astronomically high budget for something you’d probably shoot on a couple of cell phones and edit on a MacBook. Kevin Smith came along at the only point in history he could become “Kevin Smith.”
He is a man of his moment, and today his films are most valuable as documents of that moment; the last couple years before everyone made little home movies of their crappy day-to-day existence. Smith’s work features lots of over-the-top sexuality, but his best scenes are the most mundane ones; where the characters talk about Archie or losing their virginities, or pining for the girl who got away. By his own admission, he doesn’t have the best eye for action, but he did have a keen ear for speech patterns.
The main thing I found myself wondering watching the Jersey Trilogy again is where the Kevin Smith who made them went. What happened to the guy who wrote deeply personal stories rooted in his own life and obsessions? Most of the B-plot in Chasing Amy is about a comic-book artist reckoning with sudden commercial success. The artist, Ben Affleck’s Holden, previously made indie books. When a deliberate attempt at mainstream success — a “dick-and-fart” series called Bluntman and Chronic — catches fire, he fields lucrative offers to turn his work into an animated series. It’s a dream come true, but Holden resists, concerned he’ll get pigeonholed and won’t be able to make more personal comics.
Holden is an obvious Smith analog, as he works through his own feelings about moving from the tiny, immediate Clerks to the bigger, broader Mallrats. At the end of Chasing Amy, Holden’s attempt to reconcile his romantic relationship and his work life blows up in his face —it’s one of the few romantic movies with a satisfying “unhappy” ending — and the Bluntman and Chronic comic and animated series come to an end. Instead, Holden creates a comic about his life called Chasing Amy. “I finally had something personal to say,” he says to Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa when he hands her a copy.
Chasing Amy isn’t perfect, but it does feel like the work of someone with a message to impart. (In the scene above, Smith essentially plays the role of his own fictional life coach.) After Chasing Amy, Smith made movies about religious zealots, amateur pornographers, music publicists, dudes who turn human beings into walruses, and Canadians. He’s directed superhero TV shows, written comic books, toured the world, and recorded hundreds of hours of podcasts. These projects have sometimes spoken to his life, but with the possible exception of Jersey Girl, Smith’s 2004 misfire about fatherhood, he hasn’t come close to touching the raw nerves he struck with Clerks and Chasing Amy. He’s still Holden cranking out Bluntman and Chronics decades later.
To be sure, Kevin Smith has gotten very good at cranking out Bluntman and Chronics. And according to a New York Magazine profile from 2017, he is a happy man for the first time in his life. (“Happy people don’t really make great art,” he mused at that time.) As evidenced by the big smiles on the sold-out crowd at the Red Bank 2, he knows exactly how to make his fans happy too: By performing, podcasting, taking pictures, and telling stories.
There's no shame in any of that. But rewatching these films convinced me of their value — and of Smith’s as an artist. Selfishly, I hope he finds something personal to make before Vulgarthon’s 30th anniversary. I would love to take my picture with that Kevin Smith.
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