Wednesday, August 29, 2012

1994 - The Wonder Year: The Ones That Got Away - Pt.1 - Divorce and Clerks

Getting older brings many things, and most of them, let me assure you, aren't good.  One of the few exceptions is perspective.

It was only on my recent viewing of Kevin Smith's Clerks in Central Park that I got to thinking of what a pivotal year 1994 was for me on so many levels, but especially for my career. Over the next few posts, I will try to put that year into my new-found perspective.

Much as the era most people refer to as "the Sixties" actually started late in the Fifties, and probably ended somewhere around 1971 or so, if you are speaking about a mood and a time rather than a series of dates, the films and events I'm going to discuss started before and ended after that year.  Still, 1994 was the axis around which most of the events spun.

On a personal level, it was the year of my final separation from my wife, Maureen, though our amicable and non-contested divorce came years later. We separated once earlier, and gave it an earnest second try.

I've spoken before of the difficulties of this business on relationships , and it would be easy for me to blame the long hours, the time away, the uncertainty of the next gig and the set temptations for the failure of our marriage. However, the success of some relationships I know in the business suggests that a split was not set in the Heavens, that, as Shakespeare's Cassius suggests, "The fault (Dear Brutus) lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

We underlings in this business, and in the Arts in general, tend to have certain personality traits, so many of the things we can blame on the business is actually more a symptom of the business attracting a certain type of person.  I hesitate to generalize us all, but some of the priorities of our friends - stability, a comfort in the status quo, the desire for certainty in our future - are surely not our priorities.

All adults are, in one way or another, just big children; we just seem to indulge the big kid more.  That often means a willingness to eschew the comforts of a "normal" life for the occasion thrills and constant new adventures our profession brings.  It's okay if we get a little less sleep tonite, Mommy, if we can hear the end of that story (or in our case, provide the ending to it). Fine, Daddy, we'll clean out the car (or the back of the grip truck) if it means we get to go on that road trip (or play with that new piece of equipment).

As for me, the time spent dealing with difficulty with my legs before my operation left me feeling like a kid who had been grounded and then given a reprieve. After years of worrying, I was free again, and probably had a sense of invincibility that should have faded with my Youth.  This led to me "celebrating" my good fortune in many ways, some of which were less than healthy, and more than a few of which were unfair to a wife who had suffered with me.

A simplistic way of looking at marriages that succeed is that they are either between mature adults who understand the sacrifices needed to make a relationship work, or between two people who never leave their adolescence and are completely ignorant of what a great relationship, and not one based on need, can be.

Unfortunately, Maureen was a responsible, mature adult.

I usually say of other failed marriages that they can't possibly be one person's fault, that they both share the blame to some extent; not true in my case, where I was the one who was missing the boat.

As this blog covers my life, it's impossible not to mention the break-up here.  In the interest of those who would rather only deal in film history, I won't go into more detail.

Immaturity, however, is not always bad in our business; hence, my re-think of Clerks (which was released in 1994)  after watching it the other day.

I have often thought every great "first work" has a portion of naivete thrown into the mix, and Clerks is a great example.  By all rights, Clerks should never have seen the light of day, no less garnered the level of success it enjoyed.

Cinematically, it isn't.  Truly, there is hardly a shot that wouldn't have caused most cinematographers to be dismissed.  I know that Smith was very much influenced by another B&W film that seemed to be as series of stills, Stranger than Paradise, but, for me, the comparisons in terms of quality stop there.

The story is pretty simple, and the dialogue breaks every convention of screenwriting wisdom; namely, show don't tell.  Smith tells and tells and tells.

From a business stand-point, hoping that a B&W film with no names and a director with no Hollywood connections would get a distributor, no less become the darling of Sundance, seems beyond idealistic to whimsical.

For all of that, Clerks is a very special movie and a great achievement, and we are better off today because it did "make-it."

Clerks has been reviewed so often that offering another review here and  now would be silly.  Let me just say that Clerks, upon second look*, is nothing short of a modern Samuel Beckett film.  Smith hears a voice rising from the mundane chatter of these Jerseyites much the way Sam Shephard and David Mamet heard that voice rise from cowboys and petty thieves, respectively.  It's almost as if Smith had one of those devices they have at the UN, where words foreign become ideas familiar.  While we originally hear "Blah, Blah, Blah" we eventually hear truth, comedy and, yes, beauty.

I did not, um, always feel this way.

There is irony that, when it came out, I rejected Clerks altogether. As a production person who fashioned himself in the model of a previous generation of cinematic revolutionaries, and also a lover of classic Hollywood films, this seemingly amateur work, well, insulted me.

Yes, that is the right word, insulted.  How dare Kevin Smith make a movie this way, and why were all the industry intelligentsia buying into it, nay, celebrating it?  Didn't they realize that this signaled a death knell for the industry and cinema we loved?  How many more "kids" would go out and shoot their own version of home movies and pass it off as "art"?

If this argument sounds a tad familiar, it is because many, like myself, now use similar phrases when describing the "digital revolution."  At least a part of the comparison, and the resentment, comes from the fact that both Clerks and some of the current digital wonders have driven budgets downward, and that has had a negative impact on our living today much as it did in the wake of Clerks.

Those who were not around when Clerks was released, and feel that the current digital trend will necessarily ruin our industry, need to know that the spate of calls I got in the wake of Clerks to do a "no-budget" movie were similar to the calls I get today.

Clerks was brilliant, but an aberration.  There are not a ton of "Clerk-like" movies that came in its wake, though there were many pretenders, much as Mamet and Shephard, and, on a more pretentious level, Beckett have had their pretenders.  There is only one Kevin Smith; thank God we have him, and thank God he broke the mold when done.

I certainly don't think the digital revolution is an aberration, but I think that, as people tire of the more simplistic elements of current digital fare, the money that was spent processing film will go into other areas.  Of course, I dearly hope there is always a place for movies shot on film, and the hunger among aficionados for vinyl and the love of celluloid suggests there will be a place for both.

In any case, it makes no sense for us to extol the virtues of an indie cinema that makes room for new voices, only to decry as blasphemes those whose voices we don't quite get at first listen.

It was, then, a mix of irony and hypocrisy when I later regretted not taking an opportunity to work on Smith's  Mall Rats.  I get a call one day, and the voice at the other end of the phone says "Hi. My name is Kevin Smith. I am directing a movie called Mall Rats (it may have had a different working title)"

I had gotten many calls from directors making their second movies, and many of those first movies were artistic and commercial failures. Still, the voice at the other end would usually rattle the title off with pride, and then be filled with indignation that I had not heard of their "epic."

Now, there was no one in the film world, indie or otherwise, that didn't know Kevin Smith, and his success with Clerks. Still, when he continued with "I made a movie called Clerks," it was with the sincere humility of someone who had not let the instant recognition go to his head.  From what I hear from friends, and from interviews I've seen, Smith still has that humility.  He certainly has not lost his self-depreciating sense of humor, which is part of what makes him so wonderful. Success had not gone to his head or his budget, as he was offering $400 a week, modest for a production manager even at that time.

I regretted it at the time, and I regret it even more now, but I never made that meeting. I was working on another project at the time, and the time overlap just would not work. Something in Smith's voice was apologetic for the low rate, and I assured him that was not the problem, and it wasn't.  While I was making more on the other project, and that rate would have been very low for me even then, I respected Smith's tenacity enough that I would have gladly worked for him.

If nothing else, I knew his next film would get released, and I was getting a little tired of being the "King of Unreleased Movies."  What would it be like to work on a movie that the Indie Big Boys were willing to get behind?

Alas, I would never find out.  I never walked away from a project to do a bigger project - and I had that sort of offer before - and I would not this time.

All these years later, I am still guiding movies with a hope and prayer toward the Promised Land, and Kevin Smith is still fighting the good fight, even using self-distributing in it's current form.

The more things change......

* A very talented friend, Wayne Wilentz, writes a blog called On Second Look, where he does just that, take a second look at movies he saw some time ago.  It's a good practice, and a very good blog.

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