The Year Indie Broke ● by Craig J. Clark
Much like punk rock had been around in some form for years before it came to a head – as documented in 1991: The Year Punk Broke, filmed while Nirvana was on tour in support of Sonic Youth just before the release of Nevermind – the independent film scene had been percolating for a few decades when it experienced a similar breakthrough in 1994. From the pioneering work of John Cassavetes, who burst onto the scene with 1959’s Shadows and continued forging his own path throughout the ’60s and ’70s, to ’80s success stories like John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Hal Hartley, independent film was a haven for those interested in telling the kinds of personal, idiosyncratic stories that studios had largely given up on. It took Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989, though, to bring about a sea change that would come to fruition just five years later.
With Sex, Lies, and Videotape, fledgling distributor Miramax Films had its first bona-fide hit, and it was soon followed by such award-winning auteur-driven fare as Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. The two writer/directors that Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein forged the closest ties with, though, were Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Before he hooked up with the Weinsteins, Tarantino notched one art-house hit with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, but Smith only had an undistributed student short to his name when he arrived at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 with his raunchy debut feature Clerks tucked under his arm.
Kevin Smith & Jason Mewes In “Clerks”
It’s a familiar story, but one that bears repeating. On black-and-white stock bought with a few maxed-out credit cards, Smith spent his nights filming with a crew made up of his friends and a cast of unknowns in the same convenience store where he toiled during the day. When the end result got accepted to Sundance, it was in competition with the likes of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven, Rose Troche’s Go Fish, David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey, and Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…, the eventual winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award that year. Smith didn’t go home empty-handed, though, since Clerks shared the Filmmakers Trophy with Boaz Yakin’s Fresh and got some much-needed momentum that took it all the way to Cannes, where it played in the International Critics Week section and received the Award of the Youth and the Mercedes-Benz Award.
Of course, the big success story at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 was Quentin Tarantino’s Miramax-backed Pulp Fiction, which won the Palme d’Or, beating out strong competition from the likes of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (later to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, and Yimou Zhang’s To Live. That paved the way for it to become a crossover hit when it went into general release, which also benefited Clerks since Miramax sent out its trailer with Pulp Fiction that fall. I suppose that makes Smith the Nirvana to Tarantino’s Sonic Youth, but there’s no question about which one went on to made a bigger impact on the culture at large.
The kind of left-field success story that could make just about anybody say, “Hey, if he could do that, I can do that,” Clerks depicts a disastrous day in the life of perpetually put-upon 22-year-old convenience store counter jockey Dante (Brian O’Halloran), who frequently laments that he isn’t even supposed to be there. Between his relationship woes – caught between his thoughtful girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) and Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer), the cheating ex he’s still holding a torch for – and his interactions with surly video store clerk Randal (Jeff Anderson, who has the most facility with Smith’s wordy dialogue), Dante has plenty on his mind even before he decides to close the store to play hockey on the roof or attend the wake of a former classmate.
And then there are Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself. Strange that they wound up being the film’s breakout characters, but that’s largely because Smith continued to write them into his scripts, giving them more to do each time out (save for Chasing Amy, when they’re relegated to a brief but memorable cameo). When Dante and Randal lament that there are a “bunch of savages in this town,” they could very easily be referring to the miscreants dealing drugs right in front of the stores, regardless of how wise one of them turns out to be. The main takeaway from Clerks, though, is the way it perfectly captures the dead-end feeling of working a menial job with absolutely no prospects.
[Featured image: Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Harvey Keitel & Quentin Tarantino On The Set Of “Pulp Fiction”]
Just a few years earlier, Quentin Tarantino was in a similar position, logging time behind the counter of a video store and dreaming of hitting it big. His dreams were more genre-inflected, though, as the criminal-minded Reservoir Dogs showed, and he was ambitious and focused enough to parlay its success into a far more accomplished film (something Smith failed to do with his Clerks follow-up Mallrats, which he made for Gramercy Pictures). Pulp Fiction was also highly influential, inspiring a horde of pop culture-referencing crooks and a mini-boom of films with achronological structures. What Tarantino’s imitators failed to take into account, though, was that there was more to his scripts than the snappy dialogue and callbacks to ’70s cop shows.
With its multiple, overlapping storylines, Pulp Fiction gave Tarantino the freedom to be more creative than he had with Reservoir Dogs, which had a more typical flashback structure. Bookended by scenes showing the preamble to and follow-through of an impromptu diner robbery, the main body of the film drops in on characters operating at different levels of Los Angeles’s criminal underworld. There’s hit men Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (John Travolta making his big comeback and Samuel L. Jackson in his breakthrough role), who retrieve something belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), after which Vincent pays a visit to his friendly neighborhood heroin dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) and takes Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on a not-date. Then there’s the story of past-his-prime palooka Butch (Bruce Willis), whose attempt to make a killing in the ring and get out of town clean hits a snag when he has to retrieve a watch left behind by his French girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). Finally, Tarantino jumps back in time to show what happened to Vincent and Jules between when they picked up Marsellus’s briefcase and when we saw them deliver it.
There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. I’ve barely even hinted at the flavor of the film’s crackling dialogue or the multiplicity of indelible supporting characters Tarantino created with Roger Avary, who shared the Best Original Screenplay award with him come Oscar time. Who could possibly forget Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), the monologue delivered by Christopher Walken’s Captain Koons, or Butch and Marsellus’s run-in with Zed, Maynard and the Gimp? And then there’s Harvey Keitel’s memorable turn as The Wolf, who comes to Vincent and Jules’s aid in their hour of need. If he had wanted to, Tarantino could have followed up Pulp Fiction with a series of spin-offs recounting the solo adventures of Butch or Jules or The Wolf (or just about anybody in the film, really). Instead, he’s spent the two decades since diversifying his interests, shifting gears with each new film he writes and directs while remaining true to his independent roots. And he’s even picked up a few more Academy Award nominations along the way (for writing and directing 2010’s Inglourious Basterds) and won his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2013’s Django Unchained. That says a lot about his ability to stay relevant in an ever-changing industry.