Kevin Smith’s Adventures Across the View Askewniverse: An Irate Reflection on the Director’s Earliest Works
By Anthony Cancasci
He wasn’t even supposed to be there that day. But, that, he was. Ripped from the couches of America’s 90’s grunge youth culture, what with all of their acid wash jean jackets, backwards baseball caps, and video store shenanigans, Kevin Smith was here with his witty commentary on everything, whether you liked it or not. The year was 1994, and the self-proclaimed FatMan was blowing the fuck up. As was his directorial debut, Clerks, which originally premiered at the Sundance film festival. Smith didn’t know it at the time, but that single feature film, jizz jokes and all, was about to spawn one of the most intricately connected non-sequel film series of all time, connected by recurring characters, events, and places, not to mention the most influential dynamic duo since Cheech and Chong, the infamous Jay and Silent Bob.
Or maybe he did. After all, Smith slyly quips “Jay and Silent Bob will return in ‘Dogma’” during the end credits of Clerks, almost as a freeze-framed “we did it” high five to his future self, who would bring Dogma to screens in 1999, after two more films featuring the characters. Kevin Smith has aptly named the universe in which the series (composed of six feature length films, a short lived cartoon series, multiple comic book series, one groovy cartoon movie, and countless cameos and tie-ins) exists the View Askewniverse, based off of the title of his original production company, View Askew Productions. In the time it takes you to finish this article, we will examine the sheer dopeness of each of the universe’s film entries. Let’s begin.
The first of Smith’s films, Clerks, was made on a shoestring budget of less than two and a half million dollars, financed by Smith personally by maxing out credit cards, borrowing money from friends and family, and selling the vast majority of his comic collection. The hour and a half chronicle followed a day in the life of two wildly different, well, clerks, as they dealt with everything from annoying customers to ex-girlfriends to salsa sharks to masturbating old men dying in the faculty bathroom. Dante, played by Brian O’Halloran, was a twentysomething everyman who was called into work on his day off, finding sort-of-solace only in his best friend, Randal, played masterfully and hilariously by Jeff Anderson.
It was a risky bet for a film school dropout who was filming in the convenience store in which he worked with a group of friends and no real prior experience, but it more than payed off. Smith’s mouthy, filthy, slacker story found a home at Miramax, the big-breasted mama bear of indie films in the 90’s, also bringing us such classics as Pulp Fiction, Swingers, The Crying Game, and Good Will Hunting. Clerks practically reinvented comedy, paving the way for a new generation of funny movies that focus on shlubby guys who talk a lot. Kiss the ring, Judd Apatow.
Smith’s next feature, Mallrats, was an underperformer. In dollars acquired, that is. As for the film itself, I personally consider it one of the funniest films to ever turn me off to a chocolate-covered treat. The Clerks follow-up stuck to the winning formula, focusing on two average guys who are dumped by their girlfriends and find solace at their local mall, discussing everything from Superman’s libido to three-nippled fortune tellers. You read right. What Smith lacked in box office was made up for triplefold with bunny-bashing, irreverent conversations about putting gerbils into anuses, and the magic that is Jason Lee.
This film introduced us to Lee, who would become an Askew regular with the ranks of Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Ethan Suplee, and George Carlin. Lee’s character Brodie steals the film with monologues that only a mind like Smith could think up, painting pictures of an airplane full of citizens masturbating during turbulence, and teasing us with the ferocity he would bring to Smith’s next feature. I proudly refer to this as Smith’s most underrated flick, with sophomoric humor that sounds like it was written by a senior and a great cast of characters that make you wish your life was a little more like a movie. Oh, and don’t forget: the cookie stand isn’t part of the food court.
Here it is. Smith’s personal middle finger to the critics who bashed Mallrats. After the trip to the mall, Smith went back to the indie drawing board he originally came from and painted on it a picture so vivid, romantic, and intense, that it not only won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, but garnered lead actress Joey Lauren Adams a Golden Globe nomination. Chasing Amy, one of my Top 5 of all time, follows comic book artist Holden, played by a goateed Ben Affleck, who falls for Alyssa, played with intensity by Adams, a lesbian woman, and attempts to suppress his feelings in hopes of not losing her.
Their rocky relationship, sexual and not, is plagued by Alyssa’s experienced past, Holden’s own insecurities, and Banky, Holden’s homophobic best friend and inker (not tracer!), played by Lee in the role that inspired me to buy a Dickies jacket. The movie is a beautiful, modern portrayal of love and the hardships of making it work. Add in just enough Star Wars references, a few stories about oral sex gone wrong, and a bittersweet ending that still cuts deep and you’ve got yourself not only one of Smith’s best works, but one of the best love stories of our time. Quentin Tarantino loved it. You will, too.
…And return they did! Easily the most controversial entry on the list, this epic of biblical proportions follows Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker who learns she is the only one capable of stopping two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from re-entering Heaven, thus proving God wrong and negating the universe as we know it. Backed by an all-star cast including Chris Rock, George Carlin, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, and Salma Hayek, not to mention Jay and Silent Bob as the prophets who help Bethany on her way, the film garnered religious protest and stirred up controversy from announcement through release, but it proved to be one of Smith’s most thought-provoking pieces. And who knew Matt Damon could be funny? Kevin Smith, apparently.
Finally, after years of cameoing in the many entries of this series, the pot-smoking Rosenthal and Guildenstern get their own film. When Jay and Silent Bob find out a big-budget Hollywood film is being based off their personas, they set off on a road trip to shut down production and protect their names. Along the way, they give oral to a nun played by Carrie Fisher, hitchhike with the Mystery, Inc. gang, fall in love, are mistaken for international terrorists, steal a chimp, ruin the filming of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season, engage in a lightsaber-bong fight, and deliver one of the best closing dance numbers with Morris Day and the muthafuckin’ Time. It’s nuts.
It was critically panned, but it ultimately wasn’t a film for the critics. It was a film for the fans who loved to see the characters in action, and for them, it was more than enough. You don’t have to think, you can just laugh. With absolutely too many cameos to name, the film is a hilarious good time with your favorite stoner duo. If you can’t appreciate it for what it is, you are the one who is the ball-licker.
The only official sequel in the series, Clerks II is the most recent addition to the universe. To be honest, I was hesitant to watch this film. How do you craft a worthy sequel to the pitch-perfect hump-and-dump racket that is Clerks? I thought it couldn’t be done. Too many films have been squandered by unnecessary sequels that feel far off-base from the original. But, if anyone could do it, it was Kevin Smith. The movie is a riot. And more than that, it is just a really good movie. All jokes and horse-fucking aside, it is a really good film with tender moments that make you forget you’re watching a comedy from the guy in the hockey jersey.
The secret to Smith’s success was his renovation. Rather than clinging to the past and attempting to simply copy the film he made over ten years prior, Smith breathes a new life into his work and revitalizes Dante and Randal, who are now working in a burger joint after a fire engulfs their precious convenience store. They are older, but not wiser, with a new set of conflicts and themes, matching the tone of where Smith was in his career. It’s a marvelous film that’s left open-ended for the third sequel that Smith has planned for years, and may be bringing to us soon.
Smith may be well past his original Askewniverse days, but his films continue to surprise and please, including 2014’s Tusk, which was a walrus of a good time and proved Smith to have found a new chapter in his life, apparently one that includes turning Justin Long into a walrus. But, hey, I’m not complaining. Smith’s voice can first be heard again through this year’s Yoga Hosers, starring Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp. He will next be returning to the Askewniverse with MallBrats, his grand sequel to Mallrats, and Clerks III will be coming to screens sometime after. And trust me, I am excited. Thank God he was there that day.