Mr. Smith Goes to Austin
Silent Bob Speaks at Paramount Theatre
Kevin Smith isn't stoopid. He really isn't. For starters, he knows how to spell; for another thing, he knows how to make funny movies. On August 13, the Austin Film Society will present the regional premiere of Smith's latest funny movie, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, at the Paramount Theatre; Smith will be on hand for a Q&A afterward. A master craftsman of clever, cutthroat dialogue, he first broke out with 1994's Clerks, a black-and-white comedy about a couple of guys manning a convenience store counter. Famously made by maxing out a handful of credit cards, Clerks placed its writer/director on the short list with Robert Rodriguez as an early-Nineties poster boy for Making Movies Cheaply.
It also put him into the line of an especially fierce fire. Smith's films squarely divide their audience: Reaction tends to be either adoring (his fan base is phenomenal, as is its presence on the Web) or abhorring. The Internet has been a particularly painful launching pad for some of his most virulent (and grammar-impaired) critics; Smith reads a lot of rants about "how much they hate me, how stupid my movies are -- and 'stupid' is spelled wrong."
In what many detractors called a particularly stupid move, Smith followed Clerks with the studio-backed Mallrats, a divinely puerile and very, very funny movie about mall-going that critically and commercially tanked (and that's putting it gently). After that, he scaled back down and made Chasing Amy, a distinctly more "adult" effort, which stands not only as an ambitious look at love, acceptance, confused sexuality, and comic book culture, but also as the breakthrough for Smith as a filmmaker and for his lead Ben Affleck as a rising star. Smith then took on a project that earned him boycotts by the religious right and a deluge of hate mail: Dogma, his fallen angels road pic/satire/labor of love about the state of modern Catholicism.
But then, they've all been labors of love for Smith and his production company/extended family, View Askew Productions. With his films, Smith and his collaborators have created an alternate reality -- affectionately known as the View Askewniverse -- in which characters and in-jokes run throughout each of the films. The most notable common thread has been Jay and Silent Bob, a bizarre but endearing duo portrayed by Jason Mewes and Smith. In past films, the pair has mostly served as a funny footnote, popping up for some surreal comic relief -- Jay, a lamely misogynistic, pot-smoking nutjob, is fond of shouting out "snoochie-boochies!" -- or to offer peculiarly Zenlike advice to characters in need -- usually the task of Bob, a mostly mute sidekick who reserves his few choice words to reference Star Wars as a guide to living.
Besides serving as their first starring gig, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back will also be Jay and Bob's last stand; Smith is retiring the two, as well as closing out the Askewniverse with a flood of cameos from the casts of his first four films. During a call from L.A., he talked about the new film, his Austin connection, and how much it hurts to be called stoopid.
Austin Chronicle: Your last two films were fairly ambitious pictures. It seems like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is pretty much the polar opposite.
Kevin Smith: Coming off of Dogma, this was the kind of movie we needed to make. After we fielded hundreds of thousands of pieces of hate mail, including three death threats, it just seemed like it'd be nice to make a movie where no one was going to threaten our lives. [Ironically, on July 31, representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) wrote a letter to Smith decrying what they perceived to be homophobic humor in the new film that held a "potential negative impact" on its target audience of teenage males, who might not understand the distinction between satire and gay-bashing. Smith reprinted the letter and responded in a lengthy post on his Web site, www.viewaskew.com, saying that he was "crestfallen" by the accusations and that, if anything, his films were "overtly gay-friendly."]
AC: It seems the new film is in the same spirit as Mallrats.
KS: Totally. It's very much the same movie. Mallrats was a movie that went just for laughs. This movie does the same thing. That this works now, and that Mallrats didn't work then, will always be a bit bewildering. I mean, we'll see how well it works when it actually goes into theatres.
AC: Is Jay and Silent Bob for the fans?
KS: If you're a fan, you can look at this movie as a valentine to you, to the people who have supported us for the last seven years, because there are nods to everything we've been involved with over the course of that seven years. ... The general sentiment you get from people who see it is that they feel it was made for them. I think that's really sweet.
I think there's always been this weird identity factor with the movies we've made that the audiences who support them really feel like they see themselves in the movie. I think that's great. 'Cause that's kind of why I wanted to do it in the first place. Not so much for the audience, but for me. ... For years I would watch movies and enjoy the hell out of them, real popcorn-type flicks, but never really see myself represented in them. And I could go and enjoy a flick like Die Hard, but I don't identify with John McClane. I would never shoot somebody, I'd never jump off a building, and I'd never take my shirt off in public. So it's nice periodically to see yourself up on the screen. And I think that's what our movies to date have been -- movies where the audience absolutely sees themselves. And that's how we cultivated a fan base, because we make movies that people identify with.
AC: It's funny you should say that actually. We did an interview with David Gordon Green about six months ago ...
KS: Who is that?
AC: He's the director of George Washington.
KS: Oh that dude hates me. ... I just learned about this a week ago from [indie guru] John Pierson. He said, "Do you know this guy who made George Washington who hates your guts?"
AC: He's been ripping on you. [Specifically, in an interview with the Chronicle in February, Green said that Smith had "lowered the standard" and "kind of created a Special Olympics" for independent filmmaking. See austinchronicle/issues/ dispatch/20001-02-23/screens_ feature.html.]
KS: I don't even know who the dude is -- I never saw his movie.
AC: Well, his point was that he just doesn't identify with anything in your films --
KS: Which is fine. Then don't go. I mean, all you have do is pretty much see one to know that, like, "I'm not going to like any of the rest of this guy's stuff." I'm happy to take David Gordon Green's money every time he wants to go see our movie, and he earns the bitching rights for having paid to sit through what he perceives to be garbage. But, if you didn't like somebody's body of work, would you keep going? I wouldn't.
AC: I asked him if he thought you at least opened up the independent filmmaking world to a lot of people. But he didn't seem impressed with that.
KS: [laughs] No, not at all. But you know what? He's so entitled to it. I remember when I got my foot in the door, one of the first interviews I did was with Film Threat, and I blasted Chris Columbus [director of Home Alone]. And in retrospect, would I have done that again, today? I don't know. I just don't feel passionately enough about the dude's subject matter to rip him. Why give somebody a boost simply by knocking them? But [as far as criticism goes,] you take the good with the bad. Believe me, [David Gordon Green] is nothing compared to the legions of people on Ain't It Cool News who'll take varied shots at me for anything.
AC: I just read Harry Knowles' review of Jay and Silent Bob. He theorized that the point of the new film is as a sort of "screw you" to the people who write on "Talk Back" [a forum on Harry Knowles' Web site, www.aint-it-cool-news.com, in which anyone can say anything about a film], the guys who trash you and your films. Was that your goal?
KS: No. I mean, if you read Harry's review, the review's like "this movie is about taking down the 'Talk Back'/Internet assholes ... " That's kind of pigeonholing the movie in a way even I'm not that comfortable with. ... There's definitely that element to it. But there's no message to the movie, really -- it's just laughs for the sake of laughs.
The wonderful thing about movies is that, when you're making them, you get to use them as therapy -- you get to vent and get shit off your chest. Deal with stuff that some people would normally deal with in therapy. ... If there was any therapeutic value in this movie, it was being able to kind of flip the bird to those who will jump on the Internet and rip you to shreds for doing what you do. And I don't mind a well-thought-out criticism. Or even some guy who's like, "hey man, he lowered the bar and turned it into a Special Olympics." At least there's some wit to that comment. What I can't stand are the people who get up there and say "Kevin Smith sucks cock" and they spell cock wrong. ... And you sit there thinking, "Come on, dude, give me a grain of intelligence here that I can lend any credence to this."
AC: But it still hurts?
KS: Oh, absolutely. ... It's always easier to believe the nastier things, the negative things, than it is to believe the positive things. We have at our Web site on any given day thousands of people posting very nice things, and I will of course zero in on the one negative post. And that's the thing you carry with you home, and you carry with you to bed. And then you wake up feeling pretty good until you remember, oh yeah, but that random person I'll never meet said this shit about me ... I tend to take that stuff to heart. And some people will tell you that you can't take that stuff to heart, because that's just the criticism of your work. But when your work is such a natural extension of yourself, it becomes a criticism about who you are really. So it's tough to just ignore it.
AC: A common complaint about you is that you're an expert dialoguist, but you can't direct for shit.
KS: I've always been copacetic with that, cause, you know, call a spade a spade. I'm a better writer than I am a director. Would that make me ever want to stop directing? Heavens no. I direct the things I write because I don't want to see the things I write get screwed up in somebody else's hands. Like I said, it's such a natural extension of who I am, why would I hand that over to somebody else to translate? I've always taken that in stride, and I've always been the first person to say, "yeah, it looks like hell," and take a shot at myself for what a poor visual stylist I am. That being said, this movie takes a quantum leap above anything else we've done to date. It looks like somebody else directed it to some degree because I put a lot more work on this one. 'Cause to some degree we were satirizing big stupid Hollywood summer movies, and you have to kind of look like them if you're going to make fun of them.
AC: Are you excited about coming to show the film in Austin?
KS: I'm ecstatic to go, because Austin to a large degree is kind of the cradle of my career. If it wasn't for Slacker, I doubt I'd be doing what I'm doing today. [Slacker director] Richard [Linklater]'s style and my style are two completely different things, but it was seeing Slacker that kind of opened me up to the possibilities. I've always said that, watching Slacker, I watched it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. I was awed by the fact that like, omigod, this is a totally engrossing ... it has no plot, we don't stay with any character for more than five minutes, and yet here I am, so rapt with attention, this is an incredibly new kind of film for me. But arrogance, 'cause at the same time, I'm like, "If this counts as a movie, I think I could make a movie too."
The Austin Film Society presents Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on Monday, Aug. 13, at the Paramount Theatre (713 N. Congress). Writer/director/star Kevin Smith will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A post-screening. Call the Paramount box office at 472-5470 for ticket information.