Our Cinematic Autobiography: Clerks.
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Our Cinematic Autobiography: Clerks.

By Brian Prisco | Think Pieces | July 17, 2012 | Comments ()


"There's a million fine looking women in this world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work."

In 1996, I left Quakertown for Washington and Lee University, the Harvard of the South, its redbrick and white columns nestled cozily in the Shenandoah Valley. It's famous for being a professional drinking school, with something like 16 fraternities and 8 sororities for a campus with less students than an average high school. What drew me to W&L was their exceptional journalism program, which I would never take part in. The typical W&L student is a conservative wealthy Southerner who will quickly become an alcoholic frat boy or soro gal before going into finance or law. I was a liberal Northerner from a middle class family who would never join a fraternity and never did a drug and would go on to major in English and Theatre a week after I discovered "you can major in that?" I fit in like a glove.

My first few months at school were hellacious. I missed my family and friends with a palpable pain. I cried so much I would actually start to choke. I rarely left my room, except to go to classes. My roommate was a burly drunk, who would go off on benders and come back to our room in the wee hours to vomit with abundance and glory - on himself in bed, in our sink, in our trashcan, on our floor, on my laundry bag. I had a stuffed cat that my long-distance girlfriend had saturated with her perfume that I would sleep with tucked under my face to avoid regurgitated grain alcohol fumes. My mother would send me weekly greeting cards so that when I trudged to my campus mailbox there'd be something waiting because I lamented the fact that I never had mail. I went to one fraternity party. I drank half of my first beer, dropped the rest in a trashcan, and left after an hour and a half. I lost twenty pounds because I wasn't going to meals. I probably would have ended up a messy statistic if not for my RA happening to be a theater major and taking me with him to the auditions. Theater saved my life.

Then I discovered the Film Society. They would screen whatever films they could get their hands on in the Little Theater on campus. The usual fare of indie classics and foreign films in our tiny little whitebread, shitkicking, redneck town. Honest to God, I will never forget the day that Maya Angelou came to speak on our campus in Lee Chapel, where she stood in front of a giant life-sized sarcophagus of Robert E. Lee flanked by confederate flags. In that small little campus theatre is where I would finally get a chance to see my first foreign films, my first Spike Lee film, and eventually Kevin Smith's Clerks.

"That's what life is, a series of down endings. All Jedi has was a bunch of Muppets."

It blew my mind. Upon seeing the film, it was like when my advisor told me about the English and Theater major. I thought, "Wait? You can do this? This counts?" A black and white indie film, shot for pennies, which was pretty much two friends sitting around bullshitting and saying swear words. Throughout my idyllic suburban childhood, people would constantly tell us, "You can do whatever you want!" But this was the first time I ever saw someone actually DO that. And Smith made it look easy. The star of his films is the dialogue - and what dialogue! Filthy, disgusting riffing, cussing, insulting - all coupled in a very basic plot. His camera work is totally static - basically he would frame a shot and just let the actors talk. Since he could only shoot at night, he locked all the shutters and worked it into the plot of the film. Most of the time, it was his friends and family playing the auxiliary characters, oftentimes just throwing on a wig or a pair of glasses and playing multiple roles. These weren't flashy Hollywood actors. This was just a guy with a camera shooting his friends fucking around.

After having both my shoulder blades chicken-winged thanks to illegal wrestling moves during the championships, and suffering bronchospasm to the point where physical exertion made me vomit to clear my airways thanks to catching walking pneumonia in the wrestling practice room, I made the transition from jock to drama geek. I love being someone else, standing up in front of people and getting applause. College became no different. I jumped into theater with both feet. A dean had asked me, "How did someone like you get through life here?" And I said, "Theater. And drinking."

"I'm offering you my body, and you're offering me semantics?"

Clerks spoke to me. It said, "You can tell a love story however the fuck you want." Dante spends the day being taken advantage of, and bemoaning the fact that his ex-girlfriend is getting married and that he has to work on his day off. Everyone keeps telling him to shut the fuck up and just love what you've got. And if you don't like it, say no. I'm constantly quoting this movie, not just for the slapstick smartassery, but because of so many of the universal truths. It was our common love for Kevin Smith that first bonded Dustin and I.

Smith became a spiritual mentor to me as my creative career expanded. After the success of Clerks, which he made on credit cards in between hours at the convenience store, he got a huge budget to make Mallrats. And then he got his cast picked for him, and he got censored, and he created an inferior product. So when it came time to make Chasing Amy, he said, "I want to cast my friends , and I want to make my script." And they cut the fuck out of his budget and gave him a pittance of what he had requested, and Smith turned around and made what is arguably his best film. And to me, that's because he stayed loyal to his friends.

After seeing Clerks, I started writing plays. We didn't really have a film department at W&L. I wrote a one-act called Cammomille Tea (yes, it's spelled wrong on purpose - that was another lesson I would have to learn about being creative with grammar). It was performed in a friend's kitchen for an audience of thirty-five people crowded around their living room and it was a rousing success. For the first time in my life, I heard an audience laughing uproariously at something I had created. Fuck any drug you've ever shotsmokedorsnorted; nothing beats that.

Later that same year, I saw two of my friends perform Zoo Story for our student theater group, Mindbending Productions. It would change me. A sparse stage, just two actors, battling each other. Again, there was that whole thought of, "You can do this?!" Throughout the rest of my tenure at W&L, I saw Mindbending do phenomenal shit - Alex Christensen put on a stage production of Reservoir Dogs where he parked two cars inside the theatre, our tech director Tom Anderson did a production of Lone Star on the loading dock of the theater. We would do theater anywhere. If there were actors and a script and you were willing to bust your fucking ass, you could do it. I wrote sixteen one-act plays during my time at W&L. I'd put them on between the mainstage productions, using first-time actors or the actors who weren't getting attention from the professors. I remember when the playwriting professor came up to me after seeing a set of my one acts and he asked me why I never wrote stuff like this for his class. And I looked him in the eye and said, "Because you didn't deserve them." He told me I needed to go to Hollywood.

"This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers."

But I wouldn't. I graduated in 2000 from Washington and Lee. And then I went back home and tried to get a master's in education and a teaching degree. I quit after a month, and started the cycle of working retail, living with my parents, and doing community theater. I was still acting, I was still putting on plays, but would it be enough? I went to graduate school for screenwriting, to learn all I could about film and filmmaking, and then I went back home and I worked retail and lived with my parents and did community theater. And then I finally got the nerve to pack everything up and drive out to California to pursue my dream. Where I promptly crashed with my friend, got a retail job, and started doing community theater.

Smith himself has undergone madness and been crushed by his art, turned into a hockey-jerseyed Colonel Kurtz on his own island of misfit fantoys. I blame weed. I've never done drugs, and one of my three reasons is because of what it did to Kevin Smith. He wrote stoner comedies without ever partaking. Then he started smoking up, and he went fucking PARANOID. I'm crazy enough without the drugs - ask anyone who've I defriended on Facebook and in real life. I take the smallest slight and chemically combine it into a firebomb with which I burn bridges.

"I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

In LA, I doubt myself every day. I stagnate, squatting behind a desk or counter, not producing anything, bitching about other people's work and about what could have been. I mire myself in failure and regret. I miss my friends. Out here, I don't have that comfort circle, that ready-made gang of likeminded fools who'll throw together and perform my words. Buncha savages in this town. I have a drawer filled with scripts and a brain filled with ideas, and I'm not writing because I keep thinking, "Does anyone care? Will anyone like this? Will anyone watch this?" I doubt myself every day. I convince myself that everyone hates me and is just rubbing their hands together to see me fail. One hundred people can tell me, "Dude, you're awesome! " and I'll believe that one asshole who says, "You suck!" from the cheap seats. I worry that I lack the talent or the wherewithal to actually fucking do what I came out here to do.

Then I watch a movie like Clerks or Swingers or other quality indie films and I think, "I can still fucking do this." And I realize I've got plenty of Randals who'll tell me to shut the fuck up and realize what I have. A girl who brings me lasagna at work and changes the tires on my car, and friends who hang out with me even when I lament about my "shitty" job. And I don't smell like shoe polish.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • i love this write up

  • kirbyjay

    When I think about all the drek that comes out of Tinsel Town, and I say to myself " Who the fuck greenlit this piece of shit, and who the hell wrote this piece of shit and who the hell directed this piece of shit" and I see the untalented boobs ( Adam Sandler, Andy Dick, David Spade) and boobsters ( any dumb bitch that leads with their tits) that permeate the screen.....and I think about all of the incredibly talented people out there who's work will not see the light of day because they don't know the right person or didn't fuck the right person...well all I can say is keep truckin Prisco, you got the goods.

  • frank_247

    Excellent piece, Brian.

    I wish I had been as brave as you, to have escaped a college course that wasn't for me. Sadly I stayed, and lost my way afterwards, sticking with the same shopwork for years, before escaping to a desk job in an industry I don't give a damn about.

    I always love watching for you in the programmes that you mention working on on fb, and I hope to see a Brian Prisco play on the stage someday.

  • AmbroseKalifornia

    God damn. Y'know, (and this is interesting, given what I just read on FB) I have always seen you as one of the best things about Pajiba, and representative of what makes Pajiba one of the best sites on the internet. Depth. Talent. Honesty. You guys are all amazing, from Drew's thoughtful critiques, to Wojtek's fantastic insights into history, to Dustin's incandescent, blazing fury. But I've always really liked everything you've written. I've seen more movies based on your recommendations than anyone else, (movies I would have had otherwise had no interest in seeing) and made friends read your accompanying reviews!

    To me, Pajiba has always set itself apart by not including a ratings scale, and forcing the reader to READ the review. This puts quite a bit of responsibility on the writer's shoulders, and Dustin has done a fine job in picking writers who are engaging, informative and witty, while having a diverse enough group to give us a feel for each critic's personal tastes. Take superheroes.(Or not, Dustin) I've never confused a Rob Payne article for one of TK's. All of the voices are eloquent, and I write just enough myself to know how good all you are.

    And among them Brian, you stand mighty. Never forget this. Pajiba might not be what you have always wanted to do with your life but you are a paragon of what this site, this amazing shared experience, can be.

  • TC

    Supposedly when Eddie Van Halen first saw "This is Spinal Tap" he didn't laugh, because he didn't see any humor in it - it was a pretty accurate depiction of his rock and roll existence.
    That was me when I first saw "Clerks". I worked summers in a gas station convenience store in high school and college, and my friends told me that because of that I just had to watch "Clerks". Whilst my friends were cracking up at the stupid kids trying to buy cigarettes and the people inspecting eggs and milk, I just stared blankly at the screen, because that was my life every summer for years.
    Now, a long time away from summers spent selling Slurpees, I find "Clerks" not just hilarious, but almost home-movie-like in their nostalgia factor for me.
    I find it fascinating how we can all get such different experiences out of a movie.

  • Melody Be

    No problems with your lovely write up, Prisco, but I do take offense at one part. Ole Miss is the Harvard of the south.

  • Mr_Zito

    Clerks is an awesome movie, I had seen Mallrats, and it was really special for me, and I know it's kind of lame, but it was unlike anything I'd ever seen by that time. The I even saw Chasing Amy before I finally found a Clerks VHS and then I felt everything you describe there. But now, so many years later, seeing what happened to Kevin Smith, I really think it lost that value of making you think you could do whatever you want, believing you could find people who would recognize themselves with your form of expression, whatever it was... I mean, Kevin Smith is not a happy person. He didn't really accomplish making a living out of that. He had a few good years and then he faced the reality that his niche was a very small niche, and if he stepped out of it he would face criticism from everyone, and he just couldn't have the life he wanted. I don't really know what to think about Kevin Smith now. You say like his mistake was the drugs, but I'm not sure it's that simple.

  • Rob

    Great write up! That really takes me back. Senior year of college, I was working in a video store, no real plans for the future. My passive aggressive mother sent me a newspaper review of Clerks, with a sentence highlighted referring to the characters as being at the bottom of the employment food chain. So, I became a dentist...she was disappointed that I didn't become a 'real' doctor...

  • thaneofmemphis

    I thought Vanderbilt was the Harvard of the South.

  • Oh, I've been to Prague

    I've heard people say this about Tulane, Vandy, W&L, and Duke. There are probably even more schools claiming a stake in this too.

  • Oh, I've been to Prague

    This might be my favorite piece I've ever read on Pajiba.

    I'm really enjoying these cinematic autobiographies. Although a lot of Pajiba seems to be dominated by fun and harmless (but ultimately empty) collections of GIF posts these days, it's the personal articles like these that keep me coming back. Great job, Brian.

  • Great piece, Brian. Spot on about weed fucking Smith up. The older I've gotten the more I've found that unless you are that rare individual that can produce art in a vacuum, having a creative and supportive circle of friends is far more important than where you live.

  • KatSings

    This. This is fantastic. Those last two paragraphs, as a struggling (read: failing) actress on the NYC scene just resonate. This piece is wonderful. Thank you.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Aw, Prisco. Nice writeup. I remember being shocked by Clerks in college a few years earlier than you.

    Btw, my sister, whom you met at W&L (she was a chemistry major) also felt the same way. "This is a good school for what I want, even if it's filled with people who are nothing like me."

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I'm really enjoying this new series. It's good fun to revisit a lot of these films and I like reading everyone's personal associations with them. It's the good kind of nostalgia.

  • twig

    Awesome. Thanks for this.

  • reanalyst

    Great piece, but I can't help wondering if anyone who went to W&L (not the Harvard of the South, everyone knows it's Duke) and majored in English would really use the wrong pronoun to end this sentence: "It was our common love for Kevin Smith that first bonded Dustin and I."

  • Jezzer

    And where did you matriculate when you went for your pedantry major? Do you display your degree on the wall, or did you just wrap it around the stick in your ass?

  • shardik

    Fuckin' A

  • mswas


  • Fredo

    I saw Clerks after seeing Chasing Amy. I honestly thought that Kevin Smith could do no wrong.

    I think, unfortunately, that Smith got the opposite end of the coin that you got, Prisco. He lost that doubt that what he was doing could be shitty and responds like a petulant child when anyone dares call him out on his works' flaws (see: Cop Out, Red State). So don't fear the gnawing doubt in the pit of your stomach. Make it your friend. Buy it a beer or two. Get it laid. Then proceed to do what you want.

    The doubt will keep you sane and normal while you go on to have great success.

  • MachineGunJeanMaurice

    I absolutely agree. Smith indeed went "Full-Kurtz", and it's probably far more because of lack of doubt than anything else.

    Great, great article.

  • Luke

    "I thought, “Wait? You can do this? This counts?”"
    That's Kev's model actually...after he saw Slackers he figured, dude...if that counts I can do that. It is a great way to live.

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