Our Cinematic Autobiography: Clerks.
“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.