Parting Glances, by Kyle Anderson
In last week’s LA Weekly, Karina Longworth did a lengthy and in-depth interview/article about Kevin Smith. The piece spoke about Smith’s newfound disdain for the film industry, and making films in general, and details his plan to make back his $4 Million budget on his new film, Red State, months before it opens wide using nothing more than grass-roots touring and word of mouth via his Twitter. One of Smith’s aims is to show that independent filmmakers don’t need to sell their film to big studios to sell it and, eventually, he wants to expand his new mode of distribution to other filmmaker’s projects.
At the very letter of it, Smith is setting himself up as the new messiah of independent film, showing that one truly can be autonomous and not have to bow to the people with money. If you just look at it this way, he really is a hero. But if you look at the circumstances surrounding the decision, coupled with the filmmaker’s own assertions and apparent motivations, it turns into nothing more than a selfish publicity.
This makes me sad. Ten years ago, when my love of film and my desire to become a filmmaker myself began in earnest, Kevin Smith was my idol. Using nothing more than the ability to write funny dialogue and the desire to tell stories, Smith made five heavily self-referential yet completely relatable films that spoke to suburban geeks in a way that few had to that point. Indeed, his influence is cited by a number of young filmmakers and writers today. Smith was always self-deprecating, almost to a fault, and he’d take critical lambasting in stride, more or less. He used to represent for me how an overweight nerd could succeed, create a huge fanbase, and not care about what his detractors said. Then came the slide.
Starting in 2004, Smith’s career started to take a turn when his PG-13 rated family comedy, Jersey Girl, tanked at the box office, due in no small part to critical and public annoyance at the “Bennifer” situation. In 2006, he released Clerks II, which was very well-received and made a fair amount at the box office, but was neither a monster hit nor a groundbreaking surprise. It essentially was a return to the characters people knew, but not the spark of his earlier work. During these two films, the director started experimenting with the podcast format when he and his producer, Scott Mosier, debuted “SModcast,” a weekly, hilarious rambling through misremembered facts and insanely elaborate hypothetical situations. “SModcast” would prove to be Smith’s personal darling, but more on that in a bit.
In 2008, Kevin Smith released his 8th film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno. While I personally was underwhelmed, the movie did receive a good amount of positive critical acclaim, but failed to make much of a splash at the box office, despite insider prediction. The film did well, it was his best take at the B.O. yet, but it was not as high as most people believed it would be. This caused Smith to go into a fairly public depression wherein he railed against The Weinstein Company for not going to bat for him with the film’s marketing, due to the its perceived raunchiness (the film is raunchy, but not as bad as most Judd Apatow films) and family-unfriendly tone. It was also around this time that Smith started heavily smoking marijuana, which he talks about ad nauseum at his various public appearances. “SModcast” from this point forward was even fuller of giggling and spacey musings.
It became clear after this that Kevin Smith no longer cared about filmmaking the way he once did. He was much more content to do talk on Twitter and “SModcast,” which at this time now had multiple shows under the banner. Still so enamored was I with the man that I thought, “Good for him! He’s done with Hollywood and he can do whatever he wants.” He was still a charismatic and funny guy and gave memorable performances in things like Live Free or Die Hard. My filmmaking tastes had also changed and I was caught up with the works of older directors like Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah and so I had resigned myself to the fact that, while Kevin Smith, the person, was still impactful to my life, Kevin Smith, the filmmaker, was not.
Last year, while trying to get funding for his controversial horror film Red State, Smith took a director-for-hire gig on a buddy cop comedy script called A Couple of Dicks, which would later become Cop Out. I understand it was not a fun atmosphere onset, as star Bruce Willis was not interested in being directed by Smith, or even being on the film at all. Only recently has Smith spoken about the experience in those terms and it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t have warm feelings about it. When the movie came out, it made more money than any of Smith’s other films by a large margin, something he’d lamented Zack and Miri’s inability to do. However, the critical press for the film was nothing short of brutal, many taking Smith himself to task for not living up to his earlier potential and being involved in such a schlocky, unfunny film.
Words like that can put anyone in a foul mood, and who can blame the guy for being angry? But I immediately took umbrage to the way he decided to deal with this, which was to let loose a barrage of bile-filled Tweets admonishing the entire institution of film criticism. He basically said it was unfair for a group of pseudo-intellectuals to get to reign over whether a film does well or not, citing that bad reviews often hurt a film’s business, and that critics shouldn’t get to talk about movies for which they are not the target audience. Smith would rather, he said, take the word of fans of his who already support him than the word of a critic who is likely not who the film is aimed at.
This just smacked of whiny childishness to me. Does nothing make this guy happy? He was troubled to the point of depression when ZaMMaP failed to perform AS well as he’d hoped at the box office, despite very favorable reviews in the press, and now when another movie makes more money than any of his other films, meaning more of his “target audience” went out and saw it, he’s angry and incensed that the critics hated it. I am of the opinion that hard work pays off and if he was so desperate to be loved both by critics and audiences, he’d have to do more than his usual, “phone-it-in-for-his-homies” approach.
One of the main thrusts of his Twitter rampage is that he’d spent a decade building an extremely loyal fanbase and that he should spend his time catering only to them, as they are the ones who appreciate him. To me, that sounded like he was done trying to be a good filmmaker and instead of being challenged creatively, he was going to work only for the yes-men (and women) who follow him on Twitter and subscribe to “SModcast,” as they’re the ones who’ve made him rich, not to mention given him such a high opinion of himself.
His new film, Red State, is a departure for the director. It’s a socially-relevant horror film about murderous religious fundamentalists in America’s heartland. Early buzz is that it’s refreshing to see Smith do something outside of his norm and many outlets have even said it’s his best work to date. This gave me hope that the filmmaker who initially inspired me would get back to making movies I can respect. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and the word was that Smith would auction off the movie after the screening. In attendance were dozens of distributors eager to see the indie darling’s newest film, with the aim of getting to distribute it. When the auction commenced, it was immediately “sold” to Kevin Smith himself for a $20 bill whereupon he launched into a well-rehearsed diatribe about how he was done with the Hollywood movie machine taking someone’s modestly-priced independent film and being forced to sink many times the budget on marketing just to try to break even. He planned to take the movie on the road to select cities and have screenings/Q&As along the way with the audience who were willing to pay the $60+ price tag. The tour is now over and from what I can tell, it was a success. He also said that once he makes his next film, the hockey story Hit Somebody, he’s going to retire from movie-making and focus predominantly on his “SModcast” XM radio network and being a distributor of other low-budget indies.
In theory, this sounds like a great idea, and I’m sure if I ever get a feature film made, I’d be happy to have Kevin Smith’s company distribute it, but the entire charade of the “auction” was nothing more than a shameless publicity stunt used to promote his new venture. He has all but insulted the very people who helped make him the success he is today, the critics, distributors, and production companies without whom he’d still be a counter-jockey in suburban New Jersey, wishing someone had given him a chance. For all of Kevin Smith’s blustering about how Hollywood has turned its back on him, it really seems like he owes everything to it. The reason they aren’t as warm to him anymore is that he hasn’t made films that people are excited about. It’s a shame that he’s planning to retire right when he changes as a filmmaker.
I didn’t feel like paying $63 to see the film when it reached Los Angeles this past week, but I will surely go see it when it is released in October, less because I’m a fervent fan of Kevin Smith like I once was, but out of almost perverse curiosity about what the film might be. The film itself sounds interesting, and for that I’ll be in the theater. I still stand by the fact that Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma are excellent films and Mallrats is a damn fun way to spend 90 minutes, but I’m not the hardcore Smith-fanatic that I once was, as evidenced by the fact that I stopped subscribing to “SModcast” almost nine months ago. As far as Kevin Smith and I are concerned, I think he has nothing new to tell me, or at least, nothing I want to hear.