When it comes to pop culture, there seems to be a consistent nostalgia for whatever was happening 20 years prior. In high school my peers seemed convinced that the ’80s were an unparalleled period of great film and music. It goes without saying that none of these bozos were actually old enough to remember anything substantial about the decade, and they had the luxury of ignoring the synthesizer-driven hair bands and focusing on how cool the Brat Pack was (or seemed to be, if you were 15.)
As the capstone of a malaise-filled weekend I chose to watch 1994’s Clerks, a Historically Important Independent Film that I’ve somehow managed to never see. It held up much better than I expected, and I kept marveling at how distinct and, well, fresh it seemed for an 18-year-old movie that was influential enough that its tone and style have surely been copied many times over (not least by Kevin Smith himself—it probably helps that I haven’t seen any of his other films). I thought most of the jokes were funny, the performances were charming, and if ever there was a story that could be told well on a $28,000 budget, it was this. But none of these factors were really enough to explain how much I was drawn in to the film. I finally put it together about halfway through, as the bullshit academic in me went “My word! This is the very essence of the early-to-mid ’90s!” and I was overcome with a wave of nostaglia.
I had officially become a Bozo.
I was ashamed, sure, but what was I going to do? As someone born in the twilight years of the Reagan administration, this was by definition the formative decade of my life. More specifically, the decade in which I developed my taste in all things pop culture, a decade that birthed (not coincidentally) a disproportionate number of my favorite video games and music (R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People is still my favorite album). And here were these two slacker clerks and their slacker friends, just taking it all for granted. The nerve! Then again, their only access to classic films (and, in Randall’s case, hermaphroditic porn) was through the dreaded VHS tape, so even through rose-tinted glass I could recognize that it wasn’t entirely perfect.
In all seriousness, the film felt like it was from an entirely different era. Perhaps this is because our titular convenience store jockeys live in an isolated pocket of the universe; their exists no larger force in the universe, no war, no economy, no health care debate (which was just wrapping up its first round when this film came out). The only things that exist outside of the Quick Stop are the eternal forces of Parents, College, and Star Wars.
While it would be missing the point to try to write an essay about a Larger Thematic Element in Clerks, the central connective tissue seems to be just the sort of malaise I was feeling before viewing it, and how this is a great springboard for humor. This is perhaps best personified with Salsa Shark, which opens a late scene where Dante talks about how much his life sucks.
Because if you’ve got nothing to lose and no investment in your surroundings, there’s no reason not to goof off. When Randall spits water in a blathering customer’s face, he’s taking the most reasonable course of action. What are they going to do? Fire him?
The likes of Salsa Shark only feeds the ennui. A good joke is something of such potency that the moments afterwards pale in comparison. Going back to work after having a chuckle is the downer that keeps on giving. The realization of this personal truth was sudden enough that I could only half-engage with the remaining minutes of the film.
I don’t have a good reason for waiting till now to watch Clerks. I just never got around to it, never had any impetus to. But my timing couldn’t have been better. The time period is a reminder of my childhood, but in all other circumstances it strikes disturbingly close to home. My job is, thankfully, much better than staffing a convenience store, but it’s not necessarily any more fun, and everything outside of it is poorly defined. I’m an aimless 20-something whose idea of an accomplished evening is completing this blog entry and flossing my teeth for the first time in weeks.
Shortly after Salsa Shark, Randall makes an impassioned (and clearly rehearsed) speech to Dante about the need to go out and, if not pursue his dreams, at least do something to change the status quo. This is the film’s clear message moment, and it’s weakened by the fact that it’s not something that anyone can really argue with. But the film’s implicit message—the message implicit to the comedy genre itself—is that, regardless of how depressing or banal your circumstances, you can still laugh at yourself, and—for a brief moment—live as fully as anyone else. Probably not a truth that will inspire you to great things, but hey, it’s a start, right?