16
Jan
2011
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Kevin Smith
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"It's all about the script. It has so very little to do with anything else. You know, if my career has done anything, it proves you don't need a visual style to work in film"”which is ironic, because it's a visual medium"”as long as you have something worthwhile to say."-Kevin Smith, in an interview with The Onion in 1997.

We have talked several times before here at Whose Film Is It Anyway? about the components that make up the traditional definition of the term auteur. In case you've never read this column before, and in case you're afraid of italics and haven't looked at the introduction that opens each installment, in order to truly qualify as an auteur, a director must utilize similar technical elements, inject each film with a personal style that is unique to them, and must play with similar themes throughout their body of work. Because the purpose of this column is to examine the validity of this theory, I have occasionally looked at non-directors who I think are more central to the final film than the directors they work with (like screenwriters Charlie Kaufman and David Mamet, and like actor Mike Myers, who we talked about last time). However, one of my goals with this column was to look at some directors who I would argue do not fit the requirements to be called an auteur, and in that I have so far been neglectful. In order to rectify this, today we will look at the career of Kevin Smith, a writer-director from the start who relies so much more heavily on his scripts than on any directorial style at all that he is the rare director who may function entirely in opposition to the auteur theory. Smith is an interesting case to examine, I think (of course I do, otherwise why would I have chosen him) because while he has made a string of subpar movies of late, he has also directed some very solid movies over the course of his career. So, for today at least, and for arguments sake, he will stand as our current example of an often good director who cannot and should not be classified as an auteur.

Smith's first film Clerks is notorious as one of the films that launched the indie movement, proving that low budget fare could be artistically appreciated and commercially successful. The movie follows a day in the life of Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a convenience store employee, and his best friend, the crude, rebellious Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson) who works in the video store in the same shopping mall. It was shot for only $27,575 and grossed over $3 million at the box office. Due in part to its low production costs, and do to the fact that Smith (admittedly) did not know what he was doing behind the camera, there's nary a technical flourish in sight. Smith mostly just places the camera at an angle to catch the action and lets the actors go for it. In fact, so inessential was his direction to the success of the film, he actually slept through the shooting of many of the climactic sequences in the film (in his defense, he was working in the convenience store where the film is set by day and shooting all night, sleeping for around an hour a day for the 21 day shoot). The movie is certainly not helped much by the acting in it, which was done almost entirely by friends and family of the director, with anyone on set during the shooting of more crowded sequences being drafted as an extra, and with Smith's friend Walt Flanagan actually playing four different customers throughout the film. Yet Clerks is a successful, often hilarious comedy due entirely to Smith's excellent script (though even that needed some help this early in Smith's career, as an original ending had Dante being killed by a shoplifter because, in Smith's own words, he "didn't know how to end a film). With the strength of Smith's wit and his talent at building pop-culture savvy banter machines to populate his films (this is especially true of Clerks and Mallrats as his later fare arguably has more solidly constructed characters) he didn't really need to do much as a director. He remembered to turn the camera on and that was enough to make Clerks a success.



Smith's second film Mallrats had a larger budget and afforded Smith much more freedom to make the movie the way he wanted (except for a speed bump in which the studio wanted Smith to ditch Jason Mewes and hire Seth Green as Jay), and yet is less successful, both critically and commercially because of it. Personally, I think Mallrats gets a bit of a bad rap (it is funny throughout, mostly due to a crackerjack performance by Jason Lee as Brody, even if it never works as well as Clerks), yet again, the success or failure of the film rests entirely on the script. Mallrats added set pieces which actually required Smith to move his camera (like the scene in which T.S. and Brody flee from La Fours, and the climax in which Jay and Silent Bob attempt to sabotage a TV show filming in the mall), yet the movement of the camera seems to be the only thing that changed in Smith's style between the two films.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfVVjpVZP8I

Easily Smith's best film, Chasing Amy was made with a markedly smaller budget than Mallrats and ditched any larger set pieces to focus instead on Smith's most fully realized characters to date. The film follows Holden McNeil (an excellent Ben Affleck), a comic book artist who falls in love with Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams, Smith's real life girlfriend at the time and the basis for the movie's story), a charming independent writer who just happens to be a lesbian. Featuring another amazing performance by Jason Lee as Holden's best friend and partner Banky (Lee won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role), Chasing Amy succeeds again based off of the strength of the script. Each character in the movie feels more fully realized than anyone else in Smith's oeuvre (which is helped by the solid performances by everyone in the cast) and the jokes land as often as the heartbreak stings. Technically, Chasing Amy is not much to look at, and thematically the film is worlds apart from anything else Smith has ever done or (with the exception of Jersey Girl) even tried to do. Once again, however, a strong script made for the best movie Smith has made yet.





Dogma followed and gave Smith his biggest budget and most freedom to date. Despite tackling some incredibly controversial subjects (if the whole "God" thing is your bag, and if you have problems with Jesus having descendents or their being a black apostle who was cut out because of race) and returning to a more set piece based story than he had dealt with in Chasing Amy, the movie still fails to distinguish itself technically. Look, for example, at the scene where the Golgothan attacks the group in a bar which involves the death of several gang members, the making of a Molotov cocktail, and much of the movie's cast leaping over a bar. Yet the way the scene is shot involves a few pans, the occasional cut, and a functionally static camera. To be clear, I don't think this is necessarily an ineffective directorial technique in all cases, I am just maintaining that here the lack of flourish comes from Smith's inability to do much more (or perhaps his desire to let his script shine and not distract from it by distinguishing himself directorially). Again, I think Dogma is a very funny movie, and I would call it an absolute success, but that is due to Smith's sharp, insightful script, not to anything he was doing behind the camera.



Smith continued to work in his "Askewniverse" (what he calls the interconnected films all featuring Jay and Silent Bob) with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks II, films that succeed to varying degrees again off of the strength of their screenplays much more than off of the way they were directed. However, to avoid redundancy and to better make my point that Smith fails the auteur test, I want to examine two films that Smith has made outside of the Jay and Silent Bob world (leaving, for the moment, Cop Out from our discussions, both because Smith didn't write it and because, with its reputation for being the most fucking terrible thing to ever be released with his name attached, I decided it wasn't worth my time). Jersey Girl, Smith's first film outside of his box, actually gave him the chance to work with Oscar Winning Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond who was intended to bring a touch of style to the film, though Smith has subsequently referred to him as "an ornery old cuss who made the crew miserable" and decided he would rather work with less talented people who he feels more comfortable with. The conflict between Zsigmond and Smith may have affected the production of the film somewhat, but the real problem with Jersey Girl is the subpar script, easily the blandest, least interesting script Smith has ever produced (ostensibly because this was his effort to make a more adult film). Fairly wooden performances from both Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler as the romantic leads definitely hurt the film, but again the weakness lies in the script more than in any other aspect of production.



Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith's second non Askewniverse film, follows the titular characters (Seth Rogen and the vile spectre of death for comedy that is Elizabeth Banks) as they attempt to make an adult movie in order to pay their rent. The best thing that can be said about the film is that it is Kevin Smith's take on Judd Apatow material (Apatow had nothing to do with the film at all, yet the entire enterprise, from the casting of Rogen and Banks to the plot feels more like something one of his cohorts would produce than an original Smith work), and as a result it doesn't even have the feel of a Kevin Smith script. The film certainly suffers from this, yet it also illustrates that Smith does not even have the thematic or stylistic consistency in his writing to be considered an auteur.



Kevin Smith is perhaps an inconsistent director, but he has certainly made several worthwhile films in his career. He has done this, however without the use of any technical style, very few personal additions (with the exception of Chasing Amy which is both his best film and the only one to appear to come at all from a personal place) and little to no thematic consistency (unless setting every one of his movies outside of Zack and Miri and Cop Out in New Jersey counts as consistency). This column may have come off as insulting Smith, and if that's the case, I ensure you that was not my intent. While his behavior over the past year (including his vitriolic response to the critical derision of Cop Out) has made me lose a little respect for the man to be sure, I still think he has made great movies before and will hopefully do so again. Yet regardless of the quality of his work, one thing can be said for certain: Kevin Smith is not an auteur.


Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

1/30: Akira Kurosawa

2/13: George Lucas

2/27: Quentin Tarantino

3/13: Hal Ashby
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