Friday, February 24, 2006

I'm not even supposed to be here! - "Clerks" as comfort

Being straight-edge in college doomed me to a lot of lonely nights. I spent many of them parked in front of my television set watching “comfort movies,” which carry a much different definition for males than for females. I couldn’t take solace in maudlin romantic comedies or hopeful rags-to-riches stories. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” doused me in sap and “Love, Actually” made me choke on it. Instead, light-hearted films that contained conspiring fun-loving friends trading incisive barbs - “buddy comedies,” basically - were where I hung my psyche’s hat. “The Big Lebowski” and “Bottle Rocket” were among my most gratifying films to watch.

So I spent my first night in college watching “Clerks,” notoriously potty-mouthed writer/director Kevin Smith’s 1993 film debut. I had seen it once before, but I wasn’t looking for any bold new viewing experiences. With the usual burdens of entering college pinning down my thoughts with the strength of industrial staples, I couldn’t afford to think. In fact, I needed something to help me pluck out those staples - something to alleviate my qualms over choosing the right major, trying out for the lacrosse team, and forging new friendships. “Clerks” - and its depiction of two convenience store clerks waging a mean-spirited war against their customers - was just the right tool.

Of course I was not the only “Clerks” fan on any college campus. A tour through any ten dorm rooms in America will likely produce at least one “Clerks” DVD or poster (or its more popular but cruder younger brother, “Mallrats”). The film’s resonance with college students is indeed massive, but not without reason.

Quick Stop cashier Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and RST Video clerk Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) appeal so mightily to college students precisely because they didn’t go to college. They are the road not taken. They have, willfully or not, bypassed the lengthy commitment of a “proper” education. Instead, they slum it in the service sector, where they are subjected to the fury of America’s middle class. Every day for Dante and Randal is another brow-beating, another encounter with someone who tries to remind them of their inferiority.

Randal defensively burrows into the “I didn’t go to college because I already know everything I need to know” persona. He’s perfectly content lambasting customers who unwittingly amble into RST Video to rent a movie for their children. Randal’s store is like a war zone where he plays enough mind games to confuse a seasoned criminal psychologist. He’s rude as hell, but like any great athlete, you’d love to have him playing on your team.

Meanwhile, Dante grapples with the prospect of finishing school in order to please his girlfriend. His happiness is a bit more elusive. Unlike Randal, Dante has connections - people who lament his wasted potential and urge him to leave his minimum wage gulag. Dante, as the name implies, is journeying through Hell - but not one to which he is forever banished. He’d like to escape, but he can’t decide whether he should indulge the hollow perks of his job at the Quick Stop or flee the store for higher ground. The ambivalence causes Dante to alternate between bouts of misery and bursts of joy. Yet, to the viewer, his life doesn’t seem so terrible with a friend like Randal constantly around to amuse him.

Despite veering off the course to happiness and propriety prescribed by their elders, Dante and Randal are ostensibly happy - or at least well-adjusted enough to make light of their plights by filling their days with surliness and scorn toward their customers. They treat the stores that employ them like their homes - they come and go when they please, swipe drinks from the cooler like it was their personal refrigerator, and annex the roof like it was their backyard to host a roller-hockey game with their friends. They encounter eccentrics like gum representatives who incite small-scale riots within the store's smoking patronage and foul-mouthed drug dealers who are dying to be slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit. All the while, Dante and Randal make convenience stores look like temples of serenity and mirth - relative to most other places of employment. Corporations be damned!

The rebellion of “Clerks” thus lies in its evisceration of “established” people as a witless and bored social stratum. It not only subverts their doctrine of “go to college, get a job, be happy” but also pokes fun at them for being inept and utterly dependent on social servants to meet their menial, everyday needs. Because I had just entered college - when I felt pressured by its “necessity” more than ever - “Clerks’” message hit me like a hammer in my spine. Suddenly college didn’t seem so “do or die.” After all, I could just work at a convenience store for the rest of my life, meet some wacky dude like Randal, and savor the happiness that comes with our hijinks.

The triviality of Dante and Randal’s discussions about popular culture is another hook in the gut of the college audience. These two were clearly reared on a steady diet of Spielberg and Lucas. Yet they don’t have traditionally “nerdy” discussions. They aren’t fan boys who argue that Batman would kick Superman’s ass because he’s that much cooler. Their argument about the explosion of the second Death Star as an injustice against independent contractors mirrors the type of mindless chatter that my suitemates and I would ease into after classes. It’s foolish and moot, but fun to ponder nonetheless.

Not long after seeing “Clerks” for the second time, my suitemates and I would watch it ad infinitum, to the point where endless quotations and even a Halloween masquerade as the cast would define the first few months of our freshman year. We didn’t tire of it. Some of my friends unsuccessfully tried to argue away the movie’s appeal. They just didn’t understand why I loved watching “Clerks” repeatedly. If they did, maybe they would have been able to predict that my obsession would subside once my confidence in “the college life” strengthened. Even I didn’t realize until years later that for those first few months of college, “Clerks” wasn’t just fun, it was comfort.

(photo courtesy of

Great post bud - well articulated and of course the memories are roaring back to me. How do you think my DVD collection started? For the same rationale as this post was intended for.


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